I had the best birthday party ever, and I thought you should know. We went to the Drinkin’ Spelling Bee.

A bar in town, the 331 Club, hosts it every Saturday. Ten bucks gets you a number to wear and a beer to drink, and for every word you spell right you get another beer. I’ve gone five times now. I could think of no more perfect way to celebrate my birthday and say farewell to all my friends than to invite them to spell with me.

I arrived with an undefeated record, 1–3–0. (If the spellers are too good the game’s often called on account of time.) This time about six of my friends were spelling too, some housemates and former housemates and some Grinnell friends too. All of them extremely promising contestants. Until the bee started I just enjoyed being right there in the middle of all my Minneapolis friends, and all of us happy. Then at 7:00 we started spelling.

The bee was at capacity that night and the room was crowded with sixty spellers and their friends. None of us was lower than #21 so we hung out and talked while people spelled their easy first-round words. Then as we started getting called up we would push our way to the line behind the microphone in a knot and just keep hanging out.

Several of us did better than they expected. Erica got like four rounds in before falling on impasto (some kind of make-up), after nearly deciding not to enter because she thought she was bad at spelling. Eric got a couple rounds in but then his tongue betrayed him with an f in sophisticate that he knew didn’t belong. Best of all was Gabe—meditation leader, linguistics major, and recently a punk as well, as evidenced by the Miyazaki soot sprite tattoo I just gave him—who kept going and going into the final lightning round.

I got the Reversal of Fortune hammer brought down on me on glazier (a glass fitter). You earn the rights to the hammer by volunteering to spell your word backwards, and speller #11, a fifty-something woman, had done that, then used it on me to force me to spell mine backward. Well, glazier backwards is reizalg, which sounds awesome. Next round I gave the hammer right back to her and she got hopelessly lost in cacuminous (suonimucac, having a pyramid-shaped point on top), but we hugged after that.

Finally at the end it was just me and… Gabe! And let me tell you, the crowd was into it. They knew I’d won before, and I was dressed in a flamboyant plaid, so even though they knew it was my birthday and they’d liked my dance moves earlier when the DJ played a 50 Cent birthday song (?), they started chanting, “Carlos! Carlos! Carlos!” (Gabe’s spellin’ pseudonym). We matched each other right for right and wrong for wrong. Selcouth for me. Soteriology for him. I don’t remember all the words, but we went back and forth three times, and then the emcee told us they were short on time, and if I got the next word right, I’d win. This wasn’t fair to Gabe, who’d be deprived of a chance to match my correct spelling (his number was after mine). But I didn’t press the point. They gave me megrim. After I asked the pronunciation over and over, someone behind me slipped and said /ˈmiːgrɨm/ instead of /ˈmiːgrəm/, and that gave me the hint I needed. I was declared winner. But I knew, and I think they knew—since they gave him a prize too–that we were rightly co-champions. It was glorious; people all over the bar congratulated me and/or told me I owed them money on the bet they’d made.

Then, with surprising speed, everything turned into a dance party: fog machine and all. And I was already about five beers into the night, and I guess because of that, I finally, for the first time, figured out how to let go and just dance my ass off. If you couldn’t tell immediately, dance parties aren’t usually my thing. When it gets too loud to hear people talking, I get scared and retreat into a corner, and when I dance I’m always thinking about how I suck at dancing. Tonight the bass beats of the house music somehow no longer felt threatening—they were an invitation, and I shared dances with everyone in the house. I got down. I went up on stage with my friends and found myself dancing with some fifty-something ladies—unrelated to speller #11—who called me the smartest person in the room and were having loads of fun while their kids were on New York on a choir trip. It was loud but when I wanted to talk I got louder. I finally understood dance parties. Erica drove me home and I collapsed in a heap and I think I was still dizzy while I was sleeping.

Having done that, I don’t think dance parties are now going to become my thing. But it felt like a culmination of living in the city. I’ve finally understood city energy and the strange but compelling ways it brings people together in a dark room where they can’t hear each other and somehow enhance their friendships or build new ones anyhow. My city education was complete. I can leave with a clean conscience now.

Year twenty-eight is going to be a good one.

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