Smart enough to get Cliff to buy lunch

Wednesday, May 27, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Smart people are like the rest of us dolts. They can't make up their minds either when ordering lunch.

"I don't know what I want to eat. I need to mull it over," Thea Badger declared. "What about you, Bob?"

Bob Charlton looked up from his menu and said: "I don't know. Let me think."

I guess that's the idea when you're out with a couple of card-carrying geniuses: Give 'em room to think. Thea and Bob are members of Mensa, the high-IQ society. They qualified decades ago for the international smart set by taking an intelligence test and scoring in the top 2 percent.

This noon hour they're sitting across from me at J.D.'s Honky Tonk and Emporium in Brighton for a "Lunch with Cliff," where I treat and people tell me what they're thinking. Through the blue haze of cigarette smoke drifting from the bar and the din of a jukebox confessing, "I Shot the Sheriff," Bob and Thea tell me what's on their minds: The public has the wrong idea about Mensa members. They're smart. But they're regular people, too.

"The layman has the impression we're a bunch of stiff stumble-bums who get together to rub our chins and think," says Bob, an accountant - examiner for the Ohio Department of Taxation.

Saying this, Bob strokes his white-bearded chin, rolls his eyes and turns down his lower lip in a effort to look as dumb as a rock. Thea, a free-lance technical writer, giggles.

Mensa to her is "an extended family, a support group where you'll find people helping members who are sick as well as talking about everything from stamp collecting to changing the differential on a car."

"It's our playpen," Bob interrupts. "We talk and talk and talk. It's fertilizer for the brain cells."

Bob is on a roll. "I cannot resist a punch line."

He's also willing to explain Mensans. "There are two kinds," he says. "Those who are really superior in every way, we avoid. No one likes to see perfection, especially after just looking into a mirror.

"The other kind of Mensans," Bob continues, "are the quicker monkeys. We're the monkeys."

He scratches himself and laughs.

Bob is clearly enjoying this lunch with an audience. He usually eats alone. After reading the paper, he sits in his favorite restaurant, smokes and people-watches. "I see guys walk in weighing 350 pounds with three acres of dirt hanging onto them and wonder if they are nuclear physicists. Usually they are."

Thea leans forward and softly insists that Mensa "should not be seen as ultra-exclusive. Research shows that one out of every 50 people in America qualify for Mensa."

If you can pass the test and join the club, "you find an extremely eclectic mix," she adds. She stays in Mensa because "you get to make friends with people who touch the core of exciting aspects of life."

In addition to the friendship, Bob thrives on the camaraderie. A meeting of Mensa members to him is a gathering of free spirits. "Mensans," he says, "are otters in a world of beavers. While the beavers cut down trees to build dams and houses, we play, we explore. We go after whatever is new. We swim upstream to find a mudslide." Or, start a fire.

Last December, a car struck Bob and broke his left kneecap as he walked across Tri-County Mall's parking lot. He still walks with a cane, a gnarled length of hickory.

Bob was visiting the mall to see his tailor. A sport coat needed mending. An ash from Bob's cigarette had fallen into his pocket after lunch.

"By the time I got back to work, my pocket was on fire. I didn't get burned. But the coat did."

Setting yourself on fire is not very smart. I wonder if it's enough to get your Mensa membership revoked.

"Oh, no," Thea says, "once you pass the test, you're a member as long as you keep paying your dues."

Bob laughs, gently correcting her.

"Oh, they'll retest you," he insists. "But only if you do something really stupid."

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.