They came from Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas, with visions of semi-famous nightclubs, giant shopping malls, and a complete lack of adult supervision dancing in their heads. They brought us suburban or rural curiosity and fresh-scrubbed naiveté in exchange for a sweet taste of the big time, the Naked City, the Minneapple. But what transpires when the reality of midterms and dollar-tap hangovers sets in? Sometimes the nearest student union makes a downtown disco seem as stimulating as the laundromat.
Nestled between Roseville and St. Paul's Midway neighborhood, Hamline University's generic campus might have eluded our notice entirely had its library not caught fire earlier this fall, momentarily catapulting the small liberal-arts school into the upper echelon of local academic obscurity. But on this Monday night, Hamline's Sundin Music Hall is hosting what just might be the most interesting event taking place in all of St. Paul: As part of Hispanic Heritage Month, Hamline's office of Multicultural Affairs presents "Who Wants to Be a Trivia Conquistador?"
Those who attempt to breach the mauve-and-teal auditorium are met by Multicultural Affairs director Carlos Sneed. "Wait, wait!" he shouts, thrusting a Tupperware container of homemade chocolate-chip cookies. "Door prizes!" Inside, a spirited trio of Latino musicians shares the stage with three tables (complete with "buzzers" and water pitchers) and a large projection screen. Slowly the audience trickles in: a couple of freshman girls, pairs of non-collegiates, a handful of academic types. The band takes a pause for the cause. "Thank you for listening to us, and I hope also we can soon start dancing," the guitarist exhales.
Sneed, the evening's emcee, takes the stage to explain the Jeopardy!-style game and introduce the contestants, who are divided into three teams of three, each of which contains two students and a faculty member. The first Alex Trebek is the dean of students, who carries with him a bunch of papers in a stereotypical jumble. When panelists are stumped, the kindly dean gets the audience involved, and by "Latino Potpourri" we all feel like family. The crowd groans in unison when one team confuses "Puente" with "Fuentes." "You can't ring in twice, Phyllis!" shouts a woman down front when a faculty panelist forgets the rules. The enthusiasm spreads to the participants, whose bell-ringing has become a tad overzealous. "I was so first!" shrieks a member of the leading team when an equally fast-fingered opponent is given first crack at a question.
The complainant later explains her eagerness to the second host, a professor from the Department of Education. "They told me I got food if I won," she whines. The students among us nod in empathy. She leaves fulfilled, holding a gift certificate donated by Mercado Central.
THE STUDENT UNION at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus houses a theater that showcases performers who'd probably never turn up in any other Twin Cities venue. Which brings us to mentalist/psychic stuntman Chris Carter.
A perky member of the student union's activities committee informs visitors that in order to fully enjoy the performance they'll need a three-by-five card and a piece of string. She provides both, uttering reassurances all the while that no subliminal sales or pyramid schemes are involved.
And away we go. Our greeter introduces Carter, making special note of his frequent guest appearances on the Donny and Marie show, then takes a seat alongside two equally rosy-cheeked coeds. From the moment our entertainer begins to speak, joking about his abilities and giving us a little crash course in applied psychology, nervous giggles circulate around the room. Carter, dressed in a tight T-shirt and sport coat, wins us over with his artful use of PG-rated innuendoes, giving his performance an infomercial-meets-church energy. Though the "blindfold" portion of his act amazes some (with his eyes duct-taped shut, he describes precisely an item stowed in my purse!), his misses are far more entertaining--such as when he sightlessly selects a 12-year-old audience member and asks whether she's "involved" in a relationship with a man named Tony.
As the act builds to the finale--Russian roulette with a paintball gun!--the rift between spectators grows. Those who believe rush the stage at the end, while the cynics file out quickly, to mock the "psychic feats" among themselves, to share in their collective intellectual glory, and to form another intersecting circle between the Big Cities and the Little Communities.