One Giant Leap For Mankind

It was a heady moment-that instant I realized I was about to race down the narrow basement corridor of Perfect Tommy's, a bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, spring onto a trampoline and backflip smack into a Velcro-striped wall. There I stood in a Velcro-covered jumpsuit, adrenaline and Amstel Light pumping in my veins. Tipsy twentysomethings lined the runway, chanting my name. I jogged, bounced, flipped, lost all sense of where I was ... and, despite help from two safety spotters, stuck to the wall for barely a second before crumpling to the floor. Groans (and quite a few snickers) filled the beery air. STICK OR DIE says the sign at Perfect Tommy's. I did nearly die-of embarrassment. But once I recovered, my first thought was: hey, lemme do it again.

My second thought was: why didn't I invent this? The 24-year-old owner of Perfect Tommy's, Adam Powers, is making money hand over fist. His establishment used to be a ghost bar on Wednesday nights; since the "Human Bar Fly " era dawned a year ago, it's been packed. Powers has also sold 30 Velcro-jumping sets to others for $5,000 apiece. A beer-company contract is in the works, as is a Hollywood Perfect Tommy's.

He had better hurry to beat the competition. The wall hit Seattle last fall; now Velcro-night crowds at clubs such as 42nd Street Annex average 300 to 400 people. "I was looking for something to fill the void of lip-sync contests, " says Seattle Velcro impresario Kelly Farnsworth, 32. In northern California, Pepsico's Mountain Dew sponsors "Get Vertical " exhibitions at dance clubs and malls. Three Velcro-wall marketers showed up at the National Association of Campus Activities' February convention.

The origins of Velcromania are as improbable as the sport itself. David Letterman's writers thought it up as a stunt for his show in 1984. A New York marketing company bought the idea from NBC and used a replica of the Letterman wall as a promotion for cigarettes at state fairs. Later, a New Zealand club owner named Graeme Smith turned it into a bar game there. Powers read about it, and bought some equipment from Smith. But the game didn't take a great leap forward in the United States until Powers and his wall went on MTV last year.

That doesn't explain why people want to "stick or die " in the first place. I was on assignment. What's everybody else's excuse? The crowd in Perfect Tommy's was your basic button-down-by-day, blow-off-steam-by-night junior business set; on the West Coast, the game attracts teens, too. "It's a real adrenaline high, " says Jason Russell, 18, of Seattle. Stockbroker Marshall Davidson, 25, who jumped 10 feet, 5 inches at Perfect Tommy's the night of my flop, says: "At the end of the day, the stress has gotten to you. You can either jump in front of a taxi, or you can come here and jump into the wall. "

Anything you say, Marsh. Actually, Velcro jumping isn't that dangerous. Litigation-shy operators take precautions. Seattle's Farnsworth outfits his front-first leapers with hockey goalie masks. Mountain Dew provides headgear. No one has been injured at Perfect Tommy's. "We know how out of control people can get when they're drunk, " Powers explains. Liability insurance is no problem-though Powers, like other operators, makes jumpers sign a release.

For frequent Human Fliers, it's serious competition. The rules vary: on the West Coast, right side up, face first; in New York, upside down, back first. At Perfect Tommy's, winners get a bottle of champagne. Seattle's 42nd Street Annex awards $500 to the best male and female jumpers every 10 weeks. Says Carolyn Howarth, 17, the top-scoring female one recent night: "At first I thought I was going to hurl. Then it's a trip hanging on the wall ... I think I sort of blacked out. But I can't wait to do it again. " Exactly how I felt--except for the part about winning.