Street Smart Chicago

Spell Hell: Adults do the Bee at Morseland

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In the age of spell-check dependency, he who attempts to spell “senescent” on stage without the help of a computer program should be respected. “Senescent,” number 58 repeats, with no sign of worry. Then, looking toward the judges: “Please define the word.” He brings his beer to his lips; his goatee is bushy and full. “The word means growing old,” a judge calls back.

The First Annual Adult Spelling Bee, which benefits Howard Area Community Center in Rogers Park, is held at the Morseland. Tonight’s winner will receive a trophy, prizes and, the emcee promises, a “modicum of fame.”

The crowd, now partly made up of the first-round losers, is rowdy. They moan at words they think are easier than the words given to them: “diocese,” “heinousness,” “deciduous.” They start to heckle their peers; the judges raise their rulers as a warning. The final contestants now sit in plastic children’s chairs on stage. Their numbers hang from colorful yarn around their necks. The crowd cheers for number 58—the only finalist who actually grew up in Chicago, but he fails at “senescent.”

Two women remain and giggle together at the absurdity of their situation. The drunken crowd groans at what seems like an easy word (sounds like toxin). “This may be crazy, but I’m gonna try it,” says number 53. She looks up to the ceiling: “T-O-C-S-I-N.” It’s not the winning word, but it might as well be. She follows it up with a careful spelling of “juxtapose.” Her hands are shaking. She covers her mouth in disbelief. (Laura Castellano)

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