I remember Brooklyn. When the minute slices of your memory play out its nightly montage you can't control the plot. Well, you often can't even perceive a plot, but you rerun it for the subtle pleasure associated with the random events of the day and thus provide your brain with the seed for the night’s dreams. Thus, I remember Brooklyn.
I am returning to the Brooklyn Marriott for perhaps the tenth time. I am a consultant for financial institutions and some of my previous clients have offices nearby. In that odd but predictable way that life twists in on itself, I started work for a company located on Court Street, a walk across the Borough Hall plaza and just five minutes from the ACPT site. I am a rookie. I have no competitive experience and yet I am drawn here by a chain of events which is familiar to many of the rookies this year — only the details differ. I could not complete a difficult Friday NYT puzzle. I went to my new friend, Google, Google brought me to Amy Reynaldo, Rex Parker and Jim Horne (now known to me collectively as ACCA, American Crossword Critics Association). After a few postings to get answers to my questions, I posted a few more times in order to answer some questions posed by other solvers. I later commented on my relatively slow speed, which generated separate notes from Rex and Orange who said, “fuggedaboutit”; come for the fun. What fun? I followed a friend's advice and Netflixed the documentary Word Play and watched a tribe, not of survivors, but of thrivers. However, while others may have seen delight in competing, I saw an opportunity to meet and understand the people who serve this community of geniuses. I am a back-office kind of guy, a deacon in my church, an amateur chef, a party planner, an entertainer. Could I meet those non-competitors?
I read everything I could and found Helene H. An elegant and efficient woman, she organizes crossword events and has a host of experienced and self-motivated co-conspirators. After a nice conversation she wrote to Will and I became the newest private in her army. Following some preparatory work and having some things shared with me, I began my own regimen. I made my hotel arrangements, invited my wife and took a more careful review of the crossword world. I tackled puzzles from many sources, felt the frustrations of the lost solver and the joy of the "aha" moments that are part of this life. I joined Cruciverb and began to read every blog and to post some witty and some witless items to gather reactions and get a better feel for the community assembling in Brooklyn. By mid-February, I pronounced myself ready.
I needed to visit my client on Friday, so I took an early train on Amtrak from Philadelphia. I experienced a nice long traffic-snarled cab ride to the hotel to check in and then went off to work. I came back to the hotel about 5:00 and picked up my yellow judge's tag and the packet with participants' names and the details for the tourney. I realized then that no matter how hard I worked over the next two days that the real work had already been done. Organization of an event for 700 participants and 100 staff is like a military campaign, and we had a five-star general in charge. I went to an early dinner with my wife at a favorite neighborhood French bistro.
I came back to the introductory event and wasted some time and opportunity to meet people. I simply stood around and observed. Gee, everyone seems to know someone, but me. Look at all of the happy reunions, the back slapping, the hand shaking, the hugs and the noise level went from a murmur to a buzz to a melody to a roar. Magic was in the air. We all ambled inside when the doors opened and soon I had my first duty, hand out a seven part puzzle. I then saw some ACPT legends. (I had introduced myself to Amy Reynaldo and Michael Sharp earlier). Ah, there’s Al Sanders (tall), Tyler Hinman, (taller?), Trip Payne (tallest?) John Delfin, Kiran Kedlaya and Ellen Ripstein (shortest?). I finished and observed a pleasant couple (who were rookies, but were expert Scrabble players) and joined them late in their team efforts. As time ran out they were still a section away from finishing, but I loved the way they worked. Once they had a few letters in some of the puzzles, they knew every possible word they could have put on a scrabble board and they were very quick at it. I mostly lent moral support having seen, but not solved the puzzle earlier. I am sure there was a lot more fun to be had, but I promised my wife I would give a full report and not stay up too late so I would be fresh for the long day ahead. My earlier email from Will’s HQ requested I be downstairs about 9:00 AM.
Nodding off to sleep, my day playing out in front of me, I made a commitment to myself as I thought through the evening. If you want to remember Brooklyn, it won't be because of the crosswords or the work, so I am going to meet some people. I slept late due the quiet of the 22nd floor in the nice rooms of the new hotel tower which opened just this past year. I ate breakfast in the room and took a quick look at the blogs on my Treo. I could see the world still revolved without the sunshine of the crossword discussions, but I am sure we were missed as much as we were missing the casual repartee on the daily puzzle. I went to my orientation led by the capable floor organizer, who reminded me so much of my neighbor in Philly who grew up in Brooklyn that I wanted to call him Henry rather than Doug. I found it eerie those common gestures, look and voice, but the two would never be confused due to height and age differences. Still, I wondered if they could be related. Our primary tasks were to be polite, friendly and helpful. Our charge was to be accurate, collegiate and thorough. How is that for a daunting task? My fellow judges were young and old, rookies and veterans, male and female, diverse and at the end of the day, inspiring. Later, as we sat around one of six tables we discovered that all seven of us had a connection to Philly. Three lived there now and the other four lived there recently.
I had 45 minutes before the opening remarks and yet the hall was filling up with eager participants. I put my self-devised plan into action and began walking around the room introducing myself to random groups of people. Wow! I met four sisters from four different cities who reunited for this shared experience. I met so many lovely mothers and daughters that my heart ached with the beauty of their growing friendships, no longer just mother and daughter. I spoke to fathers and sons connecting in a way that could solve so much of our social malaise stemming from broken families. I chatted with neighbors who wanted to build on the connection in their daily lives to encompass the wider world. I met teens and young people drinking big gulps of the elixir of life. I met elderly people returning here for the nth time, which often represented more years than I have been solving crosswords. There were pioneers, inventors, supporters from the past and I saw the future. I had the privilege of introducing people from the same town that had arrived without knowing the other person. I met a woman whose young son was content to sit next to her and observe his mother’s sideline passion. I met fellow lurkers and posters and former champions, I laughed with people hoping to finally break into the top 600. Oh my, I had truly wasted the previous evening, but I had to stop talking for now because it was time to hand out Puzzle One and let the games begin.
The first task proved easy enough, hand out a copy face down to each person…oops, two copies for the left handed solvers…oops, large print clues for some…but it was the chance to say “good luck” and nod that made me want to be able to hand out every puzzle myself. The second task was to watch for the raised hand and then quickly and quietly enter the time for those quick solvers. I play soccer, so I was able to cover a large territory later in the day when other officials were busy scoring the stacks of puzzles in the Judge’s Room, but the first round was easy. I did note where certain players were and watched for the expected earliest finishers. Ah, under four minutes into the time and zip, zip zip, hand, hand, hand set a fast pace and the last 10 minutes flew by. Per instructions we entered the time in a way that the contestant could see the entry. My second one was for Ellen. She had her own timer timing the wall clock and I rushed over to her raised hand and wrote down 12 minutes. "Uh, wait," she says, "That isn’t a very clear 2." Yikes, I re-wrote it and then took my time and carefully wrote it for each additional puzzle. She nodded her approval the rest of the puzzles, but once hesitated and then said, "okay". Whew. I learned that Al and Trip were going to be either first or second on almost all of the puzzles in my area, but Tyler was in my view as was Amy and they were as quick. On puzzle five Tyler took the lead for good and as he walked past to the vestibule, several heads looked up. How can that be, they said to themselves starring at 19 Across? I think Puzzle Five set the finals.
My routine settled in for the next day and a half. Collect puzzles, hand them to a runner and when all finished head back to the Judges room. Sit down with your special pen (each had their own color of ink). Pick up a puzzle form the center of the table, get your answer sheet and slowly grade the first paper reading the clues so you have a feel for the puzzle. A little faster for the second one and then I used my memory aids and ten years as teacher and professor to circle wrong letters. I tried to decipher some of the best and worst penmanship you can imagine. Although a prize was given for best penmanship, there were about ten (yes, 10 out of 699) that were consistently readable and a joy for sore eyes. We noted each good one and kept a tally of recommendations, but a special judge made the final call. We circled wrong and missing letters and then counted the circles and entered that in the appropriate scoring box. Next we counted how many words were wrong. It seemed so easy for the first puzzle and we were lulled into thinking this would be easy. By number five, we were using calculators, shared counting and recounted each puzzle at least twice. The incomplete and error-ridden ones slowed us down on the most difficult puzzles. We shared funny entries and read from those puzzlers who added a comment. We expressed sadness for a clearly overlooked blank space and a repeated letter that the contestant did not mean to enter and didn’t catch. Those were particular heart wrenching for those who finished with ten minutes or so left in time. We scored with all of the kindness of a fellow solver and we often checked with others to confirm a mis-entry or called the head judge to review a bad entry that might have been just a scribbled correct letter. Finished circling and scoring? Initial the paper then for each one, we copied the contestant number to the front of the page always making that the last step so you did not know whose paper you had. No rest because there are 698 more papers to score. The speed and consistency this team of known constructors, former champions, experienced judges, game organizers and teachers represented our version of the A finals.
I went back to the Puzzle Room five times as the judging went on to gather the next round of papers. Back at the judging room, periodically the puzzles were gathered and taken to another room for review and entry into the computerized scoring system. The staff there had done yeoman's work preparing the program to quickly calculate and sort the scores for posting. Other than a lost paper (1 out of about 5,000) things went pretty smoothly. A few papers came in without a name and contestant number and a few came in written in what must have been Mandarin, but all-in-all the paper flow went smoothly and impressively. We used the lunch break to catch up on all of the scoring and reflect on the morning. Before the afternoon rounds started, I did another tour to catch up with my morning introductions and to meet a few more people. By the end of the tournament I calculated I had visited with about half of the attendees. I am sorry if I missed you, but I will make up for it next year. Earlier some judges discussed the evening plans for a group outing for dinner, but my wife had tickets for Curtains with David Hyde Pierce, which she adored and would recommend to anyone. We also ate a pre-theatre meal at a Manhattan French restaurant that has been serving good food going back to the time we were dating (suffice to say along time ago). We missed the evening entertainment and were rushed by a subway problem out of Brooklyn and then a lengthy delay coming back due to construction. Next year I will stay for every event and do the theatre another time. I returned and viewed the postings and looked for the familiar names and there they were the top ten with few surprises and further proof that the "twitching gene" is either activated or it isn't. These fast and accurate solvers are giants among mortals. I just hope they were having as much fun as I was.
Sunday morning was a much earlier start, so I had to rush a bit and left the packing to my companion, but I obtained a late checkout being a Gold Member (50 nights or more at a Marriott last year) which ought to be worth something. I walked around again and checked on many people and had my picture taken a few times. (Or was that Saturday?) The TV crews were there and I answered some basic questions about the tourney and the participants. Then they asked, "Do you know of any interesting stories here." They wanted to hear from young people. I found a number for them including the mother and pre-teen son. Both parties enjoyed the interview and I wish I could have seen it broadcast. It all went into my memory banks for later recall. The final puzzle seemed tricky to me, but those who saw the theme early breezed through it. Later scoring proved that this one gave everyone their chance to come up with funny entries and some of them must have been deliberate. I won’t spoil the puzzle for anyone, but I hope to remember the funnier entries long enough to tell you when they do appear in the paper. We scored these papers quickly and heads were down for 45 minutes completing our task and the top finishers received careful team appraisals. Perhaps we will look at a bar code system for next year and create a perfect system, or one at least as good as America’s electronic balloting systems. Watching the finals became my favorite segment of the weekend. As an official (although I felt much less official than privileged observer) I joined my fellow workers in the front two rows for a close look at the board and the amazing finalists. Perhaps my horizons are too limited, but I want another experience just like this one in 2009. But at least for now, I remember Brooklyn.
Feel free to leave comments back at the original blog post here. - JH