IMAGE: CHAD CROWE
Mensa's only requirements for admission: scoring in the top 2 percent of the general population in a Mensa-approved exam, plus ponying up $52 a year. Locals hoping to make the one-in-50 cut gathered on Mensa's annual testing day in a windowless auditorium at Lewis & Clark College, where 30-year Mensa member Brewster Gillett handles pre-test paperwork, collects $30 per applicant and answers questions.
"Did you do today's New York Times crossword puzzle?" yells one Mensa wannabe.
"Of course," retorts Gillett, who looks like Santa's brother. "Yesterday's, too. Yesterday's was a bitch."
Then, the twenty hopefuls, mostly men ranging in age from about 25 to 50, lean over desktops with No. 2 pencils while the empty building hums white noise.
Seven short, timed tests in 40 minutes follow: concept relationships portrayed by pictures of things like a cheese grater, a human heart, a sweater, a hammer, a zebra; then word relationships and a math test. Then come questions about a story Gillett read aloud. After a break, a shorter exam: math and word problems, and questions like this:
Assuming the first two sentences are true, is the third true, false, or not clear? Bruce greeted Sally. Sally greeted John. Bruce did not greet John.
After the test (the results of which will come in about a month), only a few will talk about why they're there. They prefer anonymity, perhaps not so odd given that many Mensa members and hopefuls feel they don't fit in with the "normals," a.k.a. the bottom 98 percent of the population.
Two say they were curious after doing well in online IQ tests. The crossword-question guy says he came for "self-affirmation" after "40 years of people telling me I'm stupid." Another says, "Too many failures in my life."
Here's a little background on Mensa: Roland Berrill and Lancelot Lionel Ware founded the organization in Oxford, England, in 1946.
American Mensa, which now boasts 50,000-plus members, started in the 1950s but didn't grow significantly until the 1960s. Almost 60 percent of 2004's new members were between 23 and 43.
The name Mensa has its roots in Latin words for table, mind and month, which add up to a brainiac pun many normals might not get—a "monthly meeting of great minds around a table." Get it?
Portland's Mensa members do. They gather regularly, in the spirit of one purpose outlined in Mensa's constitution: "To provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members."
The night before the test, a dozen current Mensa members meet for their weekly dinner at a back table in the Mandarin House Restaurant by the Skidmore Fountain. Among the mostly 50-plus crowd: a wood-turner, a pathologist's assistant, and the 70-something designer of the world's largest solar energy plant.
"We're a very diverse group," says a psychologist who joined six years ago to meet smart men.
"Oh, we're geeks—are you kidding?" says the only one there without gray hair, palm-piloting on her cell phone when pork in Peking sauce arrives. Rejoicing in their common interests, many also tell stories that echo the test-takers' sentiments of being misunderstood and outcast, treated like they were stupid.
"Our culture has a deep mistrust of intelligence," says 15-year-member Scott Kauffman, an inventor.
Bonded by their test scores, Mensans seem to make sense of painful memories with the help of the belief that they're smarter than the "normals." Gillett says their club has all the characteristics of family.
Kauffman, 50, agrees. He says when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease several years ago, "these people were my lifeline," and adds words sure to encourage test-takers aching to fit in: "It's like finding out about a family you didn't know you had."