A Guy And A Gecko Walk Into A Bar

Northampton’s World War II Club quenches a different kind of thirst with its monthly Nerd Nite gatherings.

On entering Northampton’s World War II Club after finally finding a parking spot in the overcrowded lot, my immediate thought is, Has the gecko gone on yet?

It’s not often that one gets to see a gecko. It’s even less often that one gets a glimpse of a gecko in a bar. But it’s extremely rare that the excitement of a gecko’s appearance is the direct cause for a packed barroom. That, however, was exactly the case I found myself confronted with in late November at the second monthly gathering known as Nerd Nites in Noho.

Cautiously climbing over outstretched legs, and sneaking past patrons already engrossed in the evening’s opening talk by middle school teacher and artist Aaron Jensen, whose Looping Spectrum Theory combines science, art, and philosophy, I made my way to the bar at the other end of the room, ordered the on tap I.P.A., and surveyed the unusual scene.

People gather in bars for many different reasons. Just what is it that these patrons were thirsting for? I wondered.

Nerd Nite advertises itself as a “TED Talk, but with beer,” and my initial assessment of The Deuce that night was consistent with the expectations aroused by such a descriptor. Most of the crowd, whose ages ranged from 20-something up to senior citizenry, was packed around the pull-down powerpoint screen at the far end of the room. Next to the screen was the small glass case containing Big Mama the gecko. At the other end of the room, jackets and coats were casually strewn about the closed pool tables.

As Jensen enjoyed an enthusiastic round of applause, and UMass-Amherst professors Duncan Irschick and Al Crosby prepared their headlining lecture on “The Wonders of Geckskin” (their gecko-inspired alternative adhesive), I joined the crowd and grabbed another hoppy beverage. The silent televisions above the bar were showing an early season college hoops game featuring former UMass coach Travis Ford’s no. 5-ranked Oklahoma State Cowboys.

“Nerd Nites are a merging of highbrow and lowbrow,” local Nerd Nite organizer Mo Molotman tells me. “Irreverence is encouraged.”

The basic formula, says Molotman, includes college-style lectures by two or three speakers, each followed by Q & A sessions. But they are held in a bar, or other venue serving alcohol.

The third Nerd Nite, which takes place this Monday, January 6, features abstract painter and jazz musician Mary Witt discussing various layers of the creative process, and bestselling local journalist Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us, talking about the earth’s capacity to sustain increasing human populations.

The concept of Nerd Nites began 10 years ago at the Midway Cafe in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston, continues Molotman. It has since gone global, with series now active in over 60 locations, mostly in England, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S.

“Its growth has been very organic,” says Molotman, noting its place in the “alt bar scene.”

November’s Nerd Nite saw twice the attendance of the inaugural October event. This month the gathering moves to The Deuce’s larger back room.

Valley Free Radio will provide music between lectures this Monday, and plans to begin recording and then broadcasting the talks, with the series eventually available as podcasts, Molotman continues.

Looking ahead to next month, local artist Megan LaBonte has already been contacted to discuss her 366 Project, as has UMass-Amherst psychology professor Erik Cheries, who will speak about the morality (or lack thereof) of babies.

“It helps if the subjects are a little odd, or curious,” says Molotman. “But ultimately the passion of each presenter is most important.”

It doesn’t hurt to have a gecko, either.

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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