I cannot count the times I've sat in a bar on a Friday night and, after a certain hour, just after that sea change in the evening between the fourth and fifth drink when the room takes on the warm, amber glow of whiskey, lending the occasion a certain historical quality, I have found myself nodding sagely to a bombed and failed rock musician or a video-store rental clerk on the next barstool, convinced I was drinking in the presence of genius. It was not until recently, however, that I really was surrounded by men and women ordering beers and margaritas — all of whom have scored in the 98th percentile of standard intelligence tests.
On the first Friday of every month in San Diego, local members of MENSA meet for cocktails and happy-hour hors d’oeuvres. Often, they meet at Shooters in the Radisson Hotel off La Jolla Village Drive from 5 until 7 p.m. or later. I have been invited by activities director Debbie Wilson and find the group near the piano bar just after five. I seat myself next to Bill Carroll, who publishes books about San Diego County. He also produces videos for his company Coda Publications and likes fast cars and motorcycles. Also present are Bob Tutelman, Kristine Calitri, Bill Plachy, and Ruth Disraeli. Bob Tutelman is, among other things, “A rocket scientist,” he says. Plachy is a computer programmer on sabbatical to write a book on events leading to the American Civil War. Disraeli is also a computer programmer with a degree in music. Caltri is a stockbroker who was in grad school until her 4Os. “I love MENSA,”
Calitri says. “People can finish your sentences for you. It’s a blast.” The group has been meeting on first Fridays for 22 years in Del Mar, Solana Beach, and now La Jolla.
“We’ve been coming here [the Radisson] for eight years,” says Plachy. “Not just to talk, either,” Disraeli informs me. “Last weekend we met at Dorothy’s house. Dorothy is an older member of the group who was moving.” “Some of us helped her move,” Tutelman adds. “Some of us helped her with her garage sale. We think of each other as family.”
Indeed, this is not the cold meeting of the cerebellums one might envision: eggheaded, slide-rule wielding, and humorless boffins dissecting the latest academic publications in the field of quantum mechanics with crystalline, geometric logic while sipping dry sherry and quoting Heisenberg. Tutelman, for example, starts telling me how much he enjoys playing Keith Richards riffs and Van Morrison tunes on guitar. Disraeli mentions she is learning to play bass when she’s not racing bicycles.
“We talk about absolutely anything,” Tutelman continues, “and probably you’ll find somebody at the table who knows something about the subject.” “Well, yeah,” I say, “you’re all geniuses.”
“Genius is not the word. We’re just in the top 2 percent tested. That means one in 50. Everybody knows one person [who would qualify. Genius is a much more rarified level.”
“How many geniuses do you know?” asks Plachy.
I decide against mentioning Jose Sinatra. “None, I guess.”
“Exactly!” The computer programmer/writer rests his case. “If this were a society of geniuses, it might be a little lightly attended. There are societies like that; Three Sigma, Intertel, the top 1 percent, there are some with so few members they can only meet by e-mail.”
I am thinking to myself that this might explain my first exposure to MENSA on a college campus in Chicago. I saw a young girl studying a bulletin board outside of the student union building at Circle Campus. She was reading a schedule of MENSA meetings and moving her lips. I decide against mentioning this as well. These people are too nice and they might think I’m being a wise-ass. Me, who can’t even complete a TV Guide crossword puzzle.
“When you think about it,” Disraeli tells me, “we’re people who do well on certain kinds of tests, in general.”
“We tend to be verbal,” Tutelman adds. “We like to play with words. There seems to be a relation between joy in the language and high IQ.”
As if underscoring the point of the rocket scientist (Tutelman designed the closed-circuit television camera that gave millions a view of Saddam Hussein’s ventilation shafts from the point of view of a missile nose cone during the Gulf War) and rock guitarist (also sax player), MENSA member Richard Lederer arrives and takes a seat.
Lederer co-hosts KPBS-FM’s A Way with Words and is the author of Anguished English and Sleeping Dogs Don t Lay. He met his wife, Simone, in MENSA and married in 1991 after taking the membership test. “It took five or six weeks to get the results.” Lederer described the period as a case of “pre-MENSA syndrome.” Lederer moved from New Hampshire to San Diego three years ago. “We found this lovely, social group of Mensans. It’s just one of the nice anchorings we have in our lives. A lot of these people are very close friends. Social workers, artists, but what tends to unite all Mensans is wordplay.”
“Irregardless,” I tell him, “I could care less.”
Lederer laughs. “Irregardless. Notice there, it is subjective. If I say you are indefatigable in your quest you would not have any objections even though the in and the de are both reversatives as would be the ir and the less. It is really what society decides is a no-no. Are you sure that no one in your life has told you that ‘irregardless’ is the single word that will get you in the deepest of shit? You hear that that is a problem. The T could care less’ is an understandable sarcasm. But again, because a number of people would recoil at T could care less’ you’re best not to do it. One hundred years from now we might say ‘Me and John had this conversation.’ For now it is written, though on sand which is eroding, that we say ‘John and I,’ and if you have any ear, it’s kind of like clothing, you get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “You gots to.”
“I’m not offended [by incorrect usage], but I do feel sad about it,” Lederer muses.