Trivial Pursuits

by Maya Rock
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Illustration by Mark Steele

“What were the only two animals specifically named as being on Noah’s ark?” A thick Jersey accent booms from a loudspeaker, rising above the murmur of small talk at 1020, a dive bar at the corner of Amsterdam and 110th. Mike Straniere, host of the bar’s Tuesday trivia night, takes pity on the puzzled crowd. “I’ll give you a hint: they’re both birds.”

On this spring evening, the bar’s best seats — booths with sticky forest-green tables strewn with crumpled takeout bags and cardboard coasters — are filled. In one booth, a team of three puts its heads together. Two Catholic missionaries, Michael Preszler and Justin Petrisek of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), fresh out of college and assigned to the Columbia campus, confer with mechanical-engineering student Ben Malec ’12SEAS.

“Definitely a dove.”
“A dove and a pigeon.”
“Chickens ...”

There’s not much time to debate. Questions come fast here — in Straniere’s words, “boom, boom, boom.”

A fourth player, math major James Diotte ’12CC, arrives late and can’t remember the second bird. Neither can another latecomer, FOCUS missionary Laura Scharmer, who says that she has a Bible. But thumbing through Genesis would be cheating, as would the more modern technique of secretly Googling on one’s iPhone. Ultimately, the question inspires the team’s name, How Many Missionaries Does It Take to Find Out What Two Animals Noah Took on the Ark? — We Have Three.

The questions in the first round of general trivia address such topics as geography, science, and pop culture. Petrisek easily recalls the name of the girls’ gang from Grease (the Pink Ladies) and later, in a eureka moment, gets the guys’ (the T-Birds). The team also comes up with the cities at either end of the Orient Express (Paris and Istanbul) and the Middle Eastern spread made from sesame seeds (tahini).

“I’m very choosy about my questions,” says cohost Paul Ellerin, who started the game at 1020 in 2007. Ellerin says he is constantly in “trivia mode,” finding potential questions at museums, on posters, on television. “I don’t like multiple choice, and I don’t use true or false. I have a philosophy about what makes a good question: when a person hears the question, he should think, ‘This is something I used to know, something that I learned at one point in my life.’”

Before the second round, the theme round, Straniere gives the customary warning: “Remember the first rule of trivia night — don’t shout out the answers.” Tonight’s theme is TV-sitcom settings. Players are asked to name the cities of ten shows, including Full House (San Francisco), The Drew Carey Show (Cleveland), and Happy Days (Pittsburgh is our team’s hopeful guess).

Hummed theme songs fill the air as Preszler, who’s been dutifully recording teammates’ answers on the score sheet, laments, “I haven’t seen any of these.”

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