I love words, so by default, or association, or some word or other, I should love crosswords. And I do.
I have friends who also love words, but are not too fond of crosswords. They find them too frustrating.
So it’s not enough to love words, or to have a big vocabulary or even to know a lot of arcane trivia to be good at crosswords, you also have to be good at spotting patterns. I found that out after years of trying to do crosswords somewhat unsuccessfully. I used to like to do the jumble in the Daily News back in the days that I read the Daily News, and I was pretty good at it. The jumble isn’t really too hard, all you have to do is decipher the anagrams. Well, not really anagrams, because an anagram is two words with the same letters in different orders, and the jumble words are jut one word with the letter order mixed up. Still…
I’ve always tired to do the New York Times Crossword, as long as I’ve been reading the Times. The biggest difference between way back then and now is that way back then I wasn’t what you’d call a regular reader. I would read the Times if I found one on the subway or sticking out of a garbage can. It cost a lot more than the Daily News and I am pretty, ah, frugal.
In 1997 I got a job as a night porter in a building on the Upper West Side. I told everybody I was a doorman, but I really was just a janitor that was obligated to open the door to any tenant who wanted me to open the door. I remember one guy when I first started out, he was a big shot surgeon who would come in every morning at 4 AM or so and ring the shit out of the front doorbell while I was trying to put out the garbage or mop the floors in the basement.
One day I asked,
“Weren’t you given a front door key?”
“I don’t carry keys.” Was his curt, matter-of-fact reply. Hmm.
The one thing that I did like to do, and which set me off on my crossword aficionado status was to tie all of the newspapers together.
I was given a supply of nylon twine and a discarded steak knife and instructed to tie up all newspapers, magazines, and boxes by the building super. He saw it as some degrading little chore, but little did he know that I loved tying things up, and I loved paper and words and photographs, and best of all, neat stacks of tied up newspaper. I was in my element.
So I spent 5 years tying up newspapers and magazines on the freight elevator in the basement, sitting on my little stool with a cigarette dangling from my lips and piles of printed material laid out in front of me waiting to be sorted by size and tied into the appropriate stacks. That’s when I found my first crossword.
It was an unfinished one; someone had gotten halfway through it and had given up. They’d done it in pen, as well. I took out my pen and tried to complete it. I got a few words before I put it in the pile and tied it up with the rest of the newspapers. Then I found a blank crossword and folded it open and put it aside to try and do when I had lunch. I felt a little like Ray Bradbury’s Montag when he takes the book.
I think I got one word on that first one, but I was hooked and determined to keep trying. Then I discovered that the next day’s paper had the answers to the previous days puzzle, and started learning how they are constructed.
One day I actually finished it, and fast. I was so proud of my accomplishment I cut it out and pasted into one of my drawing books. Then I found out that it was a Monday crossword, and Monday is the easiest. They get progressively harder as the week goes on, Saturday being the hardest. Sunday is long, that’s all.
The more I did them, the better I got. Then I was promoted to doorman on a dayshift, and I did the crossword standing at the desk.
This attracted the attention of some of the tenants who were also crossword fanatics. I made crossword buddies, and we would discuss the crosswords.
I lost one buddy by giving her a word. She never talked about crosswords to me again. Touchy, touchy.
I once even gave a girl on the subway a word. I was looking over at her crossword and I couldn’t help myself. She filled it in without comment.
When I got on the day shift I started buying the paper, I wanted something to read during the day and didn’t want to wait to rummage through the garbage at the end of the day for a crossword. But I would always wait till Monday for the Sunday magazine someone inevitably threw away, the Sunday paper is 5 bucks, and like I said, I’m frugal.
When I became the handyman it was easy to dig through the garbage and find discarded crosswords, and only bought the paper on occasion. The night porter when I was handyman didn’t even bother tying up the papers; he just threw them in clear plastic bags.
I remember once a tenant saw my big stack of neatly tied up newspapers and sort of shook his head, I believe he thought I have a problem. But it’s just that sense of everything needing to be in order is what makes me good at solving crosswords, or at least needing to solve them.
I’m also good at spotting jump cuts in movies, or bad continuity.
I don’t do the Sunday one too often anymore, since I don’t buy the Sunday paper.
But I scored this past Sunday, I was shopping at Whole Foods on 59th Street and right on the corner of 58th and Columbus Circle there was that day’s Sunday Magazine sticking out of a garbage can. I’ve added it to the pile.