Things Get Ugly at a New York Trivia Night
I come from a family that takes trivia very seriously. When my sister and I were younger and still lived at home, the post-dinner, pre-homework hour was almost always spent watching “Jeopardy!” On Sunday mornings we bickered over clues to the Sunday Times crossword. Even now, our holiday clan gatherings culminate with marathon games of Trivial Pursuit, during which my relatives morph into ferocious, cackling creatures hell-bent on one another’s annihilation.
So I suppose it’s not surprising that I found myself, on a recent evening, venturing into another den of barbarians—the weekly Trivia Night held at a downtown bar in my home city of New York. Friends had told me about the cutthroat fun of these game-show-style events, where teams of drinking-age quiz-kids battle it out for cash prizes. None of my cohort was free to accompany me, so I decided to go alone.
When I arrived at the bar almost an hour before game time, I found the place already filled. The scene reminded me of the late-night study groups I used to see at my college’s student union café: clusters of scruffy, slightly nerdy-looking twentysomethings were hunched around every table, conferring over pads and pencils and piles of books. When I sidled up and tried to see what one group was reading—the dictionary?—a fierce-looking, bespectacled girl slapped her palm over the cover of her book and glared at me. She and her posse had brought in a pizza and were apparently carbo-loading in preparation for the event.
Ordering a beer, I decided to settle back and observe; I’d been told that only teams of four or more could compete, and everyone but me seemed to be part of a contingent. I figured I’d consider the evening a sort of anthropological investigation: the behavior of fact geeks in their natural habitat.
I suddenly felt someone yanking at my sleeve. It was another solo flyer—a brunette girl in an NYU hoodie. “Do you know when this thing starts?” she asked me. “I’ve never been here before.”
Before I could reply, I felt another sleeve yank. This time it was a couple—both in their mid-twenties, frizzy-headed, and wearing earth shoes. “Hey,” the female said, “we need two more for a team. How about it?”
NYU girl and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Okay,” she said. I nodded. Why observe when I could participate? I was an old hand at this stuff.
Or so I thought. Suddenly a man in a spangled jacket appeared at one end of the bar with a microphone—the Trivia Night host—and the room burst into shouts and applause. The trivia hounds were practically bouncing in their seats, raring with enthusiasm (or maybe it was Pepsi; I’d noticed that I was the only one in the bar dulling my perception with alcohol).
The host, a sardonic fellow resembling Guy Smiley from Sesame Street informed us that for each round of the competition, we’d be asked ten questions. Each team had to decide on a single answer to each one, and write it down; at the end of the round all teams would hand in their answer sheets to be tallied.
“I can be the answer-writer,” I volunteered to my teammates. “My handwriting’s good.”
“No, I’ve got it,” snapped Ms. Birkenstock, producing a pad and pen and assuming the position of a secretary about to take dictation. This clearly wasn’t her first Trivia Night.
“Question number one!” Guy Smiley bellowed. “From what historic text does the following phrase come? ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’?”
All around the room, people murmured heatedly to one another. The Birkenstocks thrust their heads together and muttered for a moment, then Ms. Birkenstock scribbled something on her pad.
“Hey, aren’t we supposed to collaborate?” I whispered.
“It’s obviously Homer’s Iliad,” Ms. Birkenstock hissed, and turned to wait for the next question.
“Number two!” barked Guy. “What contemporary comedic actor is known by the nickname ‘Jables’?”
“Maybe one of the Wayans brothers?” guessed NYU girl. “Doesn’t one of them have a name like Jay-something?”
The Birkenstocks regarded her sadly.
“Um, no, hon,” Ms. Birkenstock said, as if she were addressing a toddler. “That would be Jack Black.”
The questions were hard like that. They mixed pop-culture references with historical minutiae and scientific ephemera; a challenge about the Warren Commission was followed by another about Liv Tyler, and still another about the flag of Cyprus. And Guy Smiley gave us only about thirty seconds to answer each question before he called out the next. At question six, NYU girl looked at me and raised her palms in defeat. She tilted her head toward the Birkenstocks, who had been scrawling away without any further input from either of us.
“They don’t need us anyway,” she said.
Question seven, though, was something I knew I had the answer to. Guy had asked us to name “a thick, spicy stew, often made with crayfish and traditional to New Orleans.”
“It’s gumbo!” I hissed to the Birkenstocks, barely able to keep my voice down. “I’ve been to New Orleans! I’m sure of it!”
For the first time all evening, the Birkenstocks turned and studied me. I realized, with minor amazement, that they weren’t sure of the answer themselves.
“You’re positive?” Mr. Birkenstock whispered through his wispy mustache. “Not étouffée or jambalaya?”
“I’m positive,” I affirmed, suddenly feeling less certain. Ms. Birkenstock nodded and wrote it down on her sheet. I signaled the bartender for another beer.
Once the answer sheets were collected, we waited ten nervous minutes while Guy Smiley and an assistant reviewed them. Guy had reminded us that the winning team would get $200 in cash—an announcement that made the Birkenstocks wiggle with glee. The second-place prize—a bag of Pepperidge Farm cookies—didn’t elicit much excitement.
Finally, Guy approached the microphone.
“Okay, boys and girls—we have a winning team!” he shouted. “But first, we’ll go through the correct answers to all ten questions.
“Question number one,” he continued, “was: From what historic text does the following phrase come? ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’?” The answer is: The Iliad.”
Cheers and moans erupted around the room. The girl who’d hidden the cover of her book from me pumped her fist in the air. The Birkenstocks pogoed in their hefty shoes. They got more and more worked up as Guy continued reading answers; they’d nailed numbers two, three, four, five, and six.
“Number seven!” Guy called out. “The thick, spicy stew, often made with crayfish and traditional to New Orleans, is…étouffée!”
More hoots and wails ensued. The Birkenstocks stiffened next to me. I couldn’t even look at them, but I could feel their hate radiating at me.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, and drained my beer. Then I turned to put on my coat.
“Hey, don’t go!” NYU girl pleaded, grabbing my elbow. “We’re still doing good! We might have won the cookies!”
But I couldn’t bear to stay. I, a seasoned triviaphile, had lost the game for my illustrious team. My family would be horrified.
“Um, see you next week?” NYU girl called, as I hustled for the door of the bar.
Not next week, I thought to myself, as I walked to the subway. But I already knew I’d be back. First, though, some serious prep work was in order. What had that girl with glasses been reading?
Photo courtesy of Shonna Clark