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Guesses Over Guinness 

The regulars love to subvert the contest. It's yet another twist to the city's toughest pub trivia night.

Wednesday, Jan 1 2003
Question: Which chanteuse traded salty verses with Shane MacGowan on "Fairytale of New York," the Pogues' Christmas paean to the Irish of the Big Apple?

Answer: Kirsty MacColl.

Bonus question: How did she meet her tragic end?

If you know the answer (see bottom), you might do well on any given Wednesday night at Durty Nelly's, a no-nonsense Irish pub in the Sunset that's hosted a weekly trivia contest four years running. Trivia is a fixture at many a local bar, but Nelly's, an Irish anomaly amid the Asian grocers, tapioca-drink counters, and Russian knickknack stores on outer Irving, is a wee bit different.

First, the California smoking ban apparently doesn't apply to Nelly's, where a thick haze seems to reverberate to the Irish jukebox pop (plenty of Pogues, U2, and Van Morrison). Second, contestants can win big cash prizes, often $100 and more. Best of all, every team has a common nemesis: the Horny Toads, a group of six, seven, sometimes as many as 10 people packed into a booth. Too many chefs, perhaps, but their more-minds-the-merrier strategy works wonders. When our crew, Los Lefties Malos (an obscure reference to a Mexican baseball insult), beat them last summer, the absolutely lovely red-tressed bartender Sinead served our complimentary drinks and smiled. "At last someone's finally defeated the Horny Toads," she said, pronouncing the final words something like "Haerney Toeds" in her enthralling brogue. Indeed, if it weren't for Sinead's steady presence, we're not sure Los Lefties could stomach the frequent pain of losing to the Toads.

While other pubs spot the punters an easy time with prizes for best team name and fill-in-the-limerick, Nelly's sticks to trivia the way its patrons stick to hand-poured Guinness: eight rounds of eight questions, with one round reserved to identify head shots (Is that Joseph McCarthy or perhaps Albert Finney playing Winston Churchill?) and another to deduce title and artist from the opening chords of songs that often leave Yanks befuddled. (The Stranglers' "Golden Brown" wasn't exactly a smash stateside.)

The trivia itself ranges from pop-culture stats such as current box-office toppers to true arcana: Which country has the highest per-capita GDP in the world? (No, it's not the U.S.) When a team's know-it-alls all have a different answer, the debate often sways toward who has the most convincing, if half-remembered, rationalization. Brunei has the richest man in the world, or at least it once did, yes? But Sweden's generally prosperous, isn't it? Well, maybe, but a tiny population is probably necessary. How about Qatar? The answer, alas, was Luxembourg, which prompted a few people in the bar to rattle off the Smiths' line about frightening verse and a bucktoothed girl.

This collective fret-and-worry, what one of our teammates calls "impromptu brainstorming," is a bad omen and often results in last-minute changes for the worse. Once the seed of doubt is planted about, say, Joseph McCarthy ("No, that can't be, McCarthy had much less hair"), the collective angst proves too strong, and somehow the group queasily settles for one teammate's insistence on Sir Ralph Richardson ("In high school I saw him on PBS playing King Lear; I swear that looks like him").

Winning teams draw from a pile of identical envelopes. Only one leads to the cash prize, the rest to a round of drinks. Or three. No one seems to mind drawing the wrong envelope. A lucky draw, however, nets the jackpot, which starts at $75 and is bumped $25 each week that no one claims it.

Other than the trivia contestants, whose ranks include many hypereducated microbrew drinkers, there are the Irish regulars, some old, some young, some still in their spattered painter pants and construction boots, who smoke like chimneys and lean over to whisper advice into contestants' ears. One night, desperate to stay even with the Horny Toads, Los Lefties got a great tip on Jack and Bobby Charlton, the stars of England's champion 1966 World Cup team.

Others in their cups take great joy in shouting answers ("Debbie Does Dallas!," "The Lusitania!") across the bar to subvert the contest. Such answers are often wrong, often on purpose. It's yet another twist to the city's toughest pub trivia night. And with the holidays upon us, you're likely to hear "Fairytale of New York," too. "The boys of the NYPD choir were singing, "Galway Bay'/ And the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day ...." -- Alex Lash

(Bonus answer: MacColl was killed by a speedboat while diving off the Mexican coast.)

Consider Yourselves Warned

Most newspapers give us yesterday's news today. Now, for the first time, SF Weekly will give you tomorrow's news today. Borrowing a page from the National Enquirer, we hired a part-time psychic who looked into the future (using astrology and chardonnay) and found that some truly astounding developments will happen in San Francisco in 2003.

In the world of politics, mayoral candidate Gavin Newsom will promise that if he's elected, all proceedings of the Board of Supervisors will stay open to the public until 2 a.m., and that, somewhere in the meeting room, he'll install a cash bar. The surprise of the mayor's campaign, however, will be the sudden emergence of San Francisco's large and vocal dog population, which will organize into a new political force under the slogan "I do it in the street, and I vote." Meanwhile, as some have anticipated, Mayor Willie Brown will retire from public life, saying that he looks forward to spending more time with his families.

The media in San Francisco will supply some surprises, too. After a long and interesting history, the San Francisco Examiner will fold, and the Hearst Corp. will pay the remaining publishing subsidy mandated by the Justice Department to Computer User and Rental Guide. Around that time, the celebrated columnist Warren Hinckle will finally reveal whether it's the basset hound or the eye patch that's supposed to be his "trademark." In the online world, will team up with a revived to supply delicious articles by Camille Paglia and others via home delivery, for only $10 per order. And sometime in mid-November, the San Francisco Bay Guardian will be embalmed and placed on permanent exhibit in a place of honor in Moscow.

As always, the city government will astonish many of its own citizens. During a lengthy and heated meeting one night, a member of the Board of Supervisors will suggest that the best way to clean up the chronic mess in U.N. Plaza is to call in U.N. peace-keeping forces. (The motion will be tabled for future study.) When NASA astronomers spot a huge asteroid approaching Earth in June, the board, meeting in emergency session, will pass a unanimous resolution against it -- noting, in particular, the negative environmental impact and how it would destroy affordable housing. Elsewhere, former psychic Miss Cleo will be hired over at Muni to predict bus and streetcar arrival times, and she'll develop Muni's new slogan: "I see trouble ahead." Meanwhile, Muni will unveil its newest acquisition, a fleet of 60 antique "vintage" buses that it purchased from ... itself.

At the same time, San Francisco will continue to delight, shock, and amuse us. In July, without any warning, the San Andreas fault will win its first Webby Award. Later that same month, Whole Foods in San Francisco will begin offering wholly organic, pesticide-free, 100 percent vegetarian, sun-ripened, extra-virgin medical marijuana for $56,000 a pound, in its produce department. Over at the pure-science wing of UCSF, genetic and biotech researchers will prove, beyond any doubt, that Caroline Kennedy and Princess Caroline of Monaco are actually the same person. And during its October session, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a landmark 5-to-4 decision, will declare San Francisco unconstitutional, adding, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Have a happy new year. You have been warned. -- Len Albin

About The Authors

Len Albin


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