There comes a time in every crossworder's life when she picks up a Sunday New York Times Magazine, pen in hand, and rips through that sucka in an hour. My time came a few weeks ago. Huzzah! I've done enough of these things now to know, though, that your finish time really depends on the puzzle's author; some are way easier than others. Sure enough, the following Sunday I was dumb again. Still, it was fun being smart for a week.
I recently had my big-ass book of crosswords out at the Gold Dust Lounge on Powell. The guy to the left of me looked at my tome and said, "Wow, you're doing that in pen!" He looked like Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster, all ruddy and mischievous. I explained that I use pen not because of my brilliance but because I don't own a pencil sharpener.
He was a merchant mariner with a few days off. If ever there was a man I could see in a cable sweater on the open seas for months at a stretch, an albatross hanging around his neck, it was this guy. I asked the obvious question, which was: Do shiploads of prostitutes ever show up when you are out in the middle of nowhere? No, he answered, but they are there waiting for you when you reach port.
The seaman was just one of many different kinds of people in the bar that night. Of all the gin joints in all the neighborhoods of San Francisco, the Gold Dust has to have the most diverse clientele I've seen. Tourists, residents of the many fleabag hotels in the area, college kids, hipsters, and white-collar types all hang out there, shoulder to shoulder, on any given day. The place does big business. When I arrived, a new bartender came on, and in a space of 10 minutes he was already sweating from running to and fro taking orders. The interior is pretty, er, worn-in, with red velvet booths, raggedy carpeting, and the faint hint of vomit greeting you as you walk in. This has always fascinated me about some bars. I suppose that scent is like cat pee in that it is impossible to fully remove. But the fact that most of us notice it and then stick around anyway is one of those strange cognitive dissonance things that go along with barhopping; some of the best places in the city smell like puke, and people don't seem to care, myself included. That familiar waft always evokes image of Imogene Coca in Vacation, specifically the scene when they realize the dog has peed on the picnic basket and Coca gamely eats her sandwich anyway.
I went back to my puzzle. I cheat only when it dawns on me that I have written down a wrong answer, at which time I flip to the back of the book to find the right answer and then rewrite it over my wrong one. It's a big ol' mess when you're using pen. I was just peeking into a correction when a hand to my right slapped the book down onto the bar.
"Don't cheat!" commanded the slapper, wrestling the crosswords away from me. Lordy, was this guy drunk. He was wearing camouflage cargo shorts, flip-flops, and a Hooters Santa Monica T-shirt. I detected a British accent and asked him where he was from. "Newcastle," he said proudly, still gripping my book.
"Not much of a city for coal," I rejoined. He seemed impressed that a Yank would be familiar with the idiom "... like coals to Newcastle." I told him that I was an Anglophile, which, if I'm not mistaken, he took for "I like to bang Brits." He scooted his stool closer. His eyes were bloodshot.
"I'm over here in detective school," he explained.
"Oh," I replied, "like Inspector Morse!" (My favorite British detective.)
"Nah," he sluffed, "More like his sidekick ... what's-his-name."
"Lewis," I said. He seemed once again impressed that I knew English trivia, and, to his mind, that of course meant that I would probably bang him.
"I'm studying terrorists," he continued, in all seriousness. I looked down at his Hooters ensemble. "I see," I said. "So are you going undercover as an American asshole?"
He chuckled gamely, but his eyes looked confused. I tried again to look up my crossword answer, but for a drunk guy he was quick on the grab. I had no other option but to continue talking to him. I asked what he was learning about terrorists, but I never quite got a good answer. When I pointed this out, he said that he had to be cagey because of the nature of the work. I asked him how many al-Qaeda operatives are stationed in Hooters restaurants. He looked quizzical.
"Er," he said with a genuine curiosity, "what is it about a Hooters shirt that is so naff?" I could tell he wanted an honest answer. I tried to put it in terms he could understand.
"Okay, so, it would be the same as you parading around London wearing a 'Cliff Richard Rocks' sweatshirt," I said, referencing the British soft-rock icon.
A little light seemed to go on in his head. "Ooohhhh," he said, at first happy that he got it, and then slowly letting it sink in that he looked like a total plonker. I felt a wee bit sorry for him, so I assured him that no one would ever mistake him for a detective hunting terrorists, and he must really be good at his work. This seemed to buck him up a bit. The most important thing is that he let go of my book and I could finally look up my puzzle.
He kept saying that he had three days off and he wanted to buy me a beer. He was metaphorically gripping me like a book and he wouldn't let go, so I knew the only answer was to leave, despite the fact that I really liked this bar and didn't want to go. I packed up my puzzles and left a tip on the bar.
"Good luck with Osama, Inspector Morse," I said to him as I left.
"Lewis!" he corrected me. My bad.