Gotham Diary:
27 August 2014

In the middle of the afternoon, yesterday — more glorious weather — I found that I could not read another word. Not another word by anyone. Between David Cannadine and Anthony Powell, I was exhausted by the intake of highly literate English. If I didn’t want to read, though, I didn’t want to do anything else, either. I was at risk for being — shame of shames — bored.

The cure turned out to be homeopathic in nature. I remembered Friday’s crossword puzzle.

For a long time, I used to do the Times crossword puzzle every morning. I would do it on the Lex. Taking a seat in the first car of the subway, I would open and fold the newspaper and uncap a pen. I would finish the puzzle before the train reached my stop, at Bowling Green. It was a very standard sort of showing off; there were probably ten other people on the same train doing the same thing and meeting with the same success. The Times crossword puzzle was not very difficult, once you got the hang of the clues. Filling out the squares with a pen, and making no mistakes along the way, was the trick that never failed to excite the wonder of who didn’t exercise the knack. Even I was, now and then, weak-minded enough to be impressed.

Then there came a day when I could no longer be bothered to fill in “Ina” in response to the clue, “Actress Claire.” I had heard Risë Stevens sing, on the radio — her first name came up all the time, too, and she was a New Yorker, was she not? — but I had never seen a movie with Ina Claire, and, to the best of my knowledge, I still haven’t. The hang of the clues had finally asphyxiated my interest. I continued to work on the Sunday puzzle for a few years, but then along came Will Shortz.


It was Ray who started the puzzle, not long after he got out here, on Friday afternoon. He tried two clues before giving up. “I never do the crossword puzzle,” he said. “I can never get it.” I never did the crossword puzzle, either — anymore. But my appetite was whetted. I gave the puzzle a look. I couldn’t make head nor tail of most of the clues. For example, “Member of a ‘great’ quintet.” This gave me, I thought mistakenly, absolutely nothing to go on. A similar clue asked for the “Member of a Latin trio.” All I could think of was Tito Puente, which wouldn’t fit into four squares. After ten minutes or so, I folded the paper back up and set it aside in disgust.

I really do not want to write about Will Shortz and his leading role in the decline and fall of Western Civilization. The subject is too depressing. Suffice it to say that I remember the days when the crossword puzzle rewarded smart people for remembering things that they were supposed to have learned in school. Or at least to have bumped up against. Alas, poor Yorick, and all that. References to The Brady Bunch would have been infra dig. “Pop culture” was understood to be a seditious innovation spearheaded by Andy Warhol — if it was not an oxymoron, plain and simple. Wordplay for its own sake — especially of a punning nature — was felt to be grating and cheap.

But wordplay was already the motor of the infamously difficult Times of London puzzle, which was carried, as I recall, by New York Magazine. New York Magazine also played a leading role in the decline and fall. It started out as the Sunday supplement of the Herald Tribune, and was designed to compete not so much with the Times Magazine as with The New Yorker, which in the early Sixties was perceived as going through a patch of the fuddy-duddies. (New York’s tag line was “Consider the Alternative,” pointing a finger at Eustace Tilley.) Astringent new journalists such as Tom Wolfe said things that couldn’t be said, and New York made everyone sit up. When the Herald Tribune folded, the new magazine was established on its own footing. The critics were great. Alan Rich wrote about music; I read every word. When he announced that, like the Roman Catholic Mass, there ought to be, at any moment of the day, a performance of The Marriage of Figaro going on somewhere in the world, I felt that my cultural values had been pasted on a billboard. For a long time, New York Magazine was superb.

Then it became the magazine, as the joke had it, “for people desperately trying to survive in a thirty thousand dollar living room.” This would have been in the Eighties, when thirty thousand dollars was a lot of money to spend on the fittings of lounge. I wouldn’t have New York in the house. I had never liked that stupid old puzzle, anyway.


Yesterday, however, I was desperately trying to survive something, too, and the crossword puzzle seemed the only answer. I would rack my brains until they woke up. I would finish the damned thing if it killed me. Why, I would even cheat.

I hadn’t done a crossword puzzle since the advent of the Internet. I was shocked, really jolted, to discover that, if you type in the crossword puzzle clues verbatim, there are at least two sites that will provide you with answers.

Quite often, the attempted cheating was unavailing. I believed that Regulus A and Bellatrix were stars, but I couldn’t be sure that they weren’t racehorses, so I cheated. I did not find the answer, B Stars. I don’t know (or much care) what B stars might be, but the “b” was nailed by the answer to the lateral clue, which asked for “Something that goes from a pit to your stomach?”: BBQ sandwich. Cheating was helpful for refreshing “pop culture” references that I used to know before I stopped watching television (“Esther of ‘Good Times'” — Rolle) or for filling me in on developments since then (“‘Burn Notice’ grp.” — CIA). I avoided the Web sites that mainlined the answers, except for one of the last clues: “Masseur gratifier.” I should never have figured this one out in a million years, because I just don’t think in a way that would lead me to “Aah.” It’s embarrassing even to write down. But the “h” did help me out with another clue, “Parts of kingdoms.” I already had the first letter, “p,” and was worn out from trying to thing of geopolitical terms  that might fit, but the “h” steered me in the right direction immediately: phyla. As I say: wordplay.

I began to get the hang of the clues. The member of the Latin trio was Amat, while the member of the “great” quintet was Lake Ontario.

Long before I had filled in every square, I was feeling great. I had no idea that cheating could be such a shameless pleasure! Just the thing for vacation.

There was another clue even more maddening than the one about the masseur, and I went to for that one, too. “T.S. of literature,” in four letters, beginning with “g.” The answer was startling. John Irving — literature? I can remember when we thought so, but I was probably still watching television.