Shots in the Dark

A Soulard bar aims for the Guinness book with 200 shots of tequila

The Great Tequila Slam was inspired, as are many great notions, while its inventor was sitting on the throne. "My neighbor had given me the Guinness book," Paul Smith explains, "and one day I was on the crapper reading it and I saw that there was a record for most shots done by a single group. A pub in London held it at 143. I thought, 'Well, we can do better than that here in Soulard, much better.'"

Smith, a 33-year-old house painter, is no stranger to the Shanti, a beer-washed, tobacco-stained watering hole at Ninth and Allen streets in Soulard. He approached owner Teresa Parker with his idea. She liked it and got a local tequila distributor to pony up the libation. They set the date.

Standing outside the Shanti on the appointed day, Friday, Oct. 26, James Lehleitner, with his long black hair beneath a black Stetson, works the bullhorn like a cheerleader at a pep rally: "Free tequila! There's no better sound than that! C'mon, y'all, sign up for the world's biggest tequila slam. Do it for the glory! Be a part of history!"

Over near the curb stands St. Louis Excise Commissioner Robert Kraiberg and his agent Joe Wiese. A neighborhood resident, Kraiberg has vowed that the event will be safe and legal.

Pulling this off might have been a daunting task for a bar in Lemay, Charlack or Affton. But this is Soulard, the only city neighborhood with more bars than churches. Many here tonight had been on the Soulard Hayride & Pub Crawl the night before and are primed for more tippling. Smith sits at a folding table just inside the courtyard. Wearing a thick, gray pullover and a peaked stocking cap, he issues numbers to registrants as they stroll in. At 7 o'clock, when the Slam is set to begin, he hands out No. 115. "We're still looking for a few good drinkers," he says in his native English accent. Even though the record has been exceeded since the last Guinnessprinting -- a California bar now holds the honors with 190 participants -- Smith isn't deterred: "Don't worry, mate. We'll get 'em."

Several contingents fan out to recruit patrons from other bars. Molly's and 1860's Hard Shell Café & Bar, each a stone's throw away, are all but emptied. Mike and Min's, Obie's and the Great Grizzly Bear soon follow suit. Clementine's, the gay bar up the street, does not escape solicitation. In the Shanti, three women grab a guy by his coat sleeves: "We're going to Clementine's to roust some drinkers, and you're the bait, baby." They whisk him out the door.

Meanwhile, the camaraderie is building in the bar and courtyard. People stand around an open fire, drinks in hand, registration numbers attached to their collars.

"You know there's a few people here who are gonna fuck it up," says No. 43.

"Yeah, that's gonna be hard, giving everybody a shot and telling them not to drink it just yet," adds No. 92.

"No, the hardest thing about this will be getting everybody to line up in numerical order," replies No. 56.

When the organizers feel they have 200 registrants, the call is made for the drinkers to line up on the sidewalk. The idea of numerical order is indeed out the window. No. 56 stands beside number 101. Lehleitner barks instructions: "Form two lines, facing each other. The slammer in the beginning of the line will slam as a signal to start. The next slammer in line cannot slam until the slammer to his left has slammed. We're looking for a domino effect, like a ballpark wave ... only with a shot of tequila." In a clairvoyant flash, he adds, "Any attempt to get extra shots by slamming early will result in your removal."

Paul Smith goes down the line and does a head count. Agent Wiese goes down the line, checking IDs. A videocamera operator stands ready to record the feat. And Excise Commissioner Kraiberg keeps an eye on the action.

The shots are dispensed, standard 15-milliliter pours in lidded plastic cups. They look like urine samples. Then, the signal: The first drinker throws back, starting the chain reaction. There is much commotion as the event lurches along. Some participants begin to howl at the moon, which is nearly full. Lehleitner, now perched atop a wooden fence, offers encouragement: "We're working it now. Pick up the pace. Faster! When the light from the videocamera hits you, do the shot."

The Slam takes about 10 minutes and uses up eight bottles of Sauza Gold and a crate of limes. Smith walks around grinning like a possum. "It looks like we did it," he says. Of course, it's unofficial until the Guinness people look at the videotape and the notarized affidavits from "two upstanding individuals" stating that the Guinnessbook guidelines have been followed and that all participants' signatures are bona fide. The 2002 edition of Guinness World Records is already in print, but the Great Tequila Slam may well make the 2003 edition.

Four days later, Smith is optimistic: "It appears there were a few slip-ups. People went before their turn or pretended to drink the shot and didn't. We have to go over the tape again, but it looks like we've got at least 197, and that's a winner."

Reaction from the participants is varied. "Much-needed frivolity," says Tom Burnham, a social worker. "I thought the shot was a little short, though. You do much better when you order in the bar."

"They need to practice," says Jim Sardo, bon vivant and mail carrier. "I saw seven kick-outs. Some people missed their mouths. What is it about 'Keep the lid on and don't drink until the camera is on you' don't they understand?"

Kraiberg reports no unseemly incidents. The Slam concludes with no more heat than a momentary fire in the belly -- the Sauza announcing its arrival. "Hey, it's a little squirrelly," concedes the commish, "but, then, Soulard's a little squirrelly, too."

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