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Nerd Nite Boston offers a relaxed, quirky alternative to the typical bar scene

Posted by Alex Pearlman  May 2, 2012 05:57 PM

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nerd nite boston.jpgBy Alex Masurovsky

If you ever find yourself sitting in class thinking, “This would be a lot better if I had a beer to sip on,” or wishing you could knock a few back to ease your stage fright before a big presentation, you’ll want to swing over to Cambridge -- the Hub’s “nerd hub,” if you will -- for Nerd Nite. If the creative spelling doesn’t draw you in, perhaps you’ll find yourself intrigued by the sheer tenacity of an event that seeks attendance from a crowd notorious for staying in -- or you might “secretly” be a nerd yourself.

At Nerd Nite, “nerds and non-nerds alike gather to meet, drink, and learn something new,” according to the event’s website -- and gather they do. Nerd Nite got its start in 2003 at Jamaica Plain’s Midway Café and is now a regular event in over 36 cities, including spots in Germany, the Netherlands, and Australia. The Boston group currently holds its meetups at Middlesex Lounge.

“It’s actually a self-perpetuating event,” said Mary Lewey, who's dubbed herself Nerd Nite’s “silent partner” because of her behind-the-scenes work scheduling and promoting the events. “Every time is a new possibility to bring new people in, and chances are, people like it and want to come back.”

On any given weekend night, a raucous party crowd packs Middlesex, one of the few places to get your grind on in Central Square. But on one Monday night each month, the crowd sits in chairs or stands by the bar, engaged in quiet conversation or listening to speakers over cocktails and beers. The change is drastic, but it works.

“It’s a great venue,” said Jeremy Kay, a neuroscientist by day and MC and organizer for Nerd Nite since 2007. “[There’s] something about the shape of the room [that makes] people stay quiet, and they don’t talk over the speakers…[but] everyone’s close enough to the stage that they feel like if they want to interact, they can.”

DJ Claude Money, whose main gig is Soulelujah at Zuzu, spins a quirky blend of soulful tracks in between speakers.

“I try to bring like a collector type of mentality to Nerd Nite, knowing that there’s… nerds of all types,” he said. “I try to bring more rare types of records that people might not have heard [somewhere else].”

As for the attendees, they’re not your typical high school nerds. In the years since graduation, they’ve grown up a little bit, learned how to dress better, and are really going the places in their lives -- although they’re still not the most social of creatures. Most of the crowd at this past Monday night’s event didn’t seem to mingle much outside of the group they came in with until the end of the night.

Naturally, I wondered about the crowd’s nerd cred. The first person I approached, a young gentleman whose t-shirt displayed a cartoon rat holding a sign that said “Will Push Lever for Food,” turned out to be a neuroscience graduate student -- a genuine nerd! -- who had found his way to Nerd Nite through a friend who’d spoken at a previous event.

The gender distribution at the event seemed fairly even. College grad Alex and her friend Katie, a graduate fellow at Boston College -- both of whom identified themselves only by their first names -- heard about Nerd Nite through their bike gang’s email chain.

“Are we talking motorcycles or bicycles?” I asked Alex.

“It’s a bicycle gang,” she said, adding that many of the gang’s activities center on alcohol and literature.

Once the crowd had a chance to mingle, Kay used a complex Venn diagram to explain what a nerd is -- the intersection between intelligence, obsession, and social ineptitude -- and gave the crowd some background on the event before welcoming the night’s speakers.

“I enjoy the spontaneity and the passion that other speakers have towards the topics they are sharing with the audience,” said Aaron Chio, a clean-cut 20-something with sharp glasses, who has been attending Nerd Nite events for the last year or so and was a speaker himself at a recent event.

That’s an interesting perk of Nerd Nite events: Anyone can be a speaker, as long as they have something to say.

“If they can make it sound interesting in an email, and it seems like there’s promise for a 20-25 minute talk, we give them the go ahead,” Kay said.

On Monday, the first speakers were Jessie Banhazl, founder of Green City Growers, and Brendan Shea, founder of Recover Green Roofs. The pair gave a condensed version of their TEDxSomerville talk about their experience starting Boston’s first commercial rooftop farm.

“I was psyched that this was a little more informal [than the TEDxSomerville event],” Shea said. “I could have a beer or two before speaking.”

The evening’s second talk was radically different. As far as I can tell, Vadim Akimenko meant to speak on the difference between GLAM-rock and glam-RAWK, though I still have no idea what, exactly, the difference is. Akimenko’s slides featured the likes of David Bowie in a whirlwind of trippy graphics that seemed to be iconic of glam rock, though the message was ultimately unclear.

“I did not see any of the slides [beforehand], because that was part of our point… making a train wreck, because that’s far more entertaining,” Akimenko said. His group of friends laughed throughout the presentation and seemed to have a great time, as did about half of the audience; the other half seemed thoroughly confused.

It’s not a party night, but for a $5 cover, Nerd Nite is a nice change to the typical bar scene. The drinks are decently priced, the speakers are at a minimum entertaining and at times very interesting, and with one event per month, Nerd Nite is just frequent enough for me to make a “nite” of it.

Have you attended a Nerd Nite event?

About Alex -- Alex Masurovsky is an aspiring writer, musician, filmmaker, psychologist, socialite, father, philosopher, and guy who has walked on the moon.

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