I Love NYC Scrabble!

October 9, 2003


I did not arrive in Princeton in time for Tuesday night club as I had hoped, so my introduction to the northeast Scrabble scene had to wait until Thursday. After some waffling about whether I wanted to make the drive up to Manhattan in rush-hour traffic, and how long it would take, I finally decided that I just couldn't wait to experience the famous Scrabble Club #56.

The Worst 50 Minutes of My Life

I left at 5:15 and it took 20 minutes to drive the 9 miles from Siemens to the NJ Turnpike, and about 50 minutes to drive 39 miles to the (wrong) exit in East Rutherford, including 5-10 minutes at an awful, awful, Burger King at a service plaza. The burger and fries were just given to me unbagged, and when I complained to the cashier that I couldn't easily grab the money out of my wallet while holding the burger and fries, she didn't care at all. This is the kind of thing that makes me long for the days when low-wage fast food workers cease to exist, replace by robots. At least with a robot you know not to expect friendly service. Anyway, that minor inconvenience was soon forgotten as I proceeded to spend a full 50 minutes driving all of 8 miles across the Lincoln Tunnel. Obviously I did not arrive in time for the 1st 7:00 game. I wasn't so much frustrated as in a state of disbelief that it could take this long to cross into Manhattan. I learned later that part of the delay, besides some construction, was due to a game of some sort, I forget the name, between two teams with strange names. Jackie something and the Red Fox something, I think.

Manhattan Grand Prix and 800-Meter Dash Combined

The tunnel dumped me not too far from a new Starbucks at 42nd and 11th, and since I had missed the first game, I went ahead and visited it, leaving my car in a space that I was unsure of. I'm ununsure of many things in Manhattan, from where I am at any given moment to the best way to get to my destination to whether my car is still going to be there when I return. After asking the staff, I took 12th Avenue, or the West Side Highway (not sure what road I was on) to 57th Street, which they said was a faster was across town. I moved faster than I expected on 57th, following a blue Honda that zipped along like there were no other cars on the street. Far from it, however. I reached (and passed up) Lexington so quickly that I hardly had time for my usual marvelling at how traffic in NYC is about the purest example of organized chaos as I've ever seen. I'm always amazed that I don't witness collisons left and right, the way these cabbies drive. And throw in the occasional SUV or heavy pickup (which should not even be allowed on these crowded streets) barrelling along, just daring anybody to get in its way. It truly surprises me that I have not yet been hit, and that my only mishap so far was tapping a parked through. I thought it was moving. I've never hit a moving vehicled, but I seem to have a problem with parked things.

I had about 15 minutes before 8:00 when I reached 57th and Lexington, and I spent nearly all of that looking for a parking spot. I found one, six blocks away on 55th, and then I sprinted those six blocks to make sure I didn't miss the second game. I think I scared the bejeezers out of some girl and her boyfriend. I think after I passed she exclaimed, "Oh, god!", but I might have misheard because off the Doppler effect. I had to sign in when I entered the building, which cost me some time, and then I lost more time running up the stairs only to discover the door couldn't be opened from the stairwell, so I had to go back down and catch the elevator. By the time I found room 304, I had a healthy glow (that means sweat) going.

The Wild and Wacky Club #56

Joel was surprised to see me and exclaimed "Winter!" when I entered. It seems his brother Larry had not told him I had called for info about the club.

I was disappointed to learn that I had to play all four games to qualify for the prizes, so I would not be able to win back any part of the ridiculously expensive (straight outta Joel's mouth) fee of $12.

I didn't mind, though, because I had a jolly good time, even when Christine Economos chided me for having taken so long to find DAIRIES. Thanksfully, I had all my shame surgilally removed long ago, sparing me any embarassment. But I don't know why it took so long, but my mental block was removed when Joel started singing. I can't remember why he started singing, but I think it might have had to do with some game in progress that a lot of people seemed to care about, based on the mood of the room. Anyway, I thanked Joel for his singing, and Christine announces to the room that it took me THAT long to find the bingo. They don't treat newcomers with kid gloves at this club, apparently.

One interesting thing about this club is that each player only gets 23 minutes. I guess it's to help insure that they finish by 11:00. Another thing is that you need a key to use the bathroom, which I didn't like, because when I touched the key it was wet. I really hoped it was because the previous use washed his hands but didn't dry them.

In sharp contrast to my ordeal of a few hours earlier, it only took me an hour to make it back to Princeton. I decided that, as much as I had enjoyed the club, I couldn't possibly make that drive every Thursday. I was exhausted by the time I found a suitable parking lot, but I was glad I went. Maybe I can go once a month.

October 10

With Tournaments Every Weekend, Who Needs Club?

One of the first things I did when I found out I had gotten the job in Princeton was to look for upcoming tournaments in the area. I was so pleased to discover that I could play for 10 weeks straight if I drove 500 miles to Oshawa, Toronto, Canada. If I skipped that week, I only had to drive as far as Falmouth, MA, only 300 miles. That's nothing for somebody used to driving around Texas.

First up was the one-day Bayside, Queens tournament. I decided to make the crossing into NYC Friday night in order to avoid delays of inderminate length in the morning. This also gave me an excuse to put off moving into the room I had arranged to rent for a few more days and this save some money. As longs as the lows remained in the mid-40s or higher I could handle the car at night.

No Beans, But Plenty of Hookers

Since I had plenty of time, I took US-1 (called Route 1 on many signs around here), which took me through Elizabeth. A web page I had found earlier described the area near Elizabeth Ave and Broad Street as "Little Colombia" because of all the Colombian restaurants in the area. I saw many South and Central American restaurants, but none Colombian. I settled on a Peruvian place, El Iman Restaurant. They didn't have beans, which surprised me, but I was tempted to forgive because of the size of the platter. I was able to eat more than my fill and have plenty left over for the next day.

Continuing north on Route 1, I spot what appear to be some hookers. I was surprised, because I've spotted hookers all over the country, but always a on roads where drivers can stop to pick them up. This particular stretch of US-1 moved pretty fast, and I could envision some guy stopped to pick up a girl in hopes of getting some ass, but instead being rear-ended himself, and not in a good way. Strange, but maybe there's something I don't know.

In sharp contrast to the previous evening, I crossed the Lincoln Tunnel with absolutely no delay. What a joy that was!

Hustle and Bustle

I wanted to visit a new Starbucks at 42nd and 8th before moving onto Queens. I quickly became stuck in the traffic that is typically congested in the general vicinity of Times Square, and probably more so on a Friday night. While at a light, I spotted another hooker, if her skimpy dress on a chilly Friday night was any indication. Or maybe she was just a slut, as I overheard somebody shoult. I tried to get a photo of her, but it came out all blurry. Traffic was too congested for me to make another attempt, and it's just as well--if she noticed, she might come running at the car cursing, and I've be stuck in traffic with nowhere to go. Or even worse, her pimp. Really, the as bad as the traffic was, I could have run across town more quickly. But I guess that's just part of being in Manhattan.

I found parking a good 13 or 14 blocks from the Starbucks, and after I got my coffee and waited in line for the bathroom (this was a busy store), I chilled out for a while. Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was playing at the Loews right next to the Starbucks, but I wanted to be fresh for the tournament. Scrabble first--celebrate with a movie later. But despite the late hour, I had to sit and enjoy simply being in Manhattan. There's just something about being in Manhattan that gives me a warm glow. There's only a few cities, like Seattle and San Francisco, that make me feel that way.

After I had gotten my fill of the hustle and bustle, I took the Queensborough Bridge into Queens and followed Queens Blvd towards another Starbucks, around 67th. But Queens is funny with the numbered streets, having Places, Roads, Streets, and Avenues. So when I encountered 67th Road, it seemed a strange place for a Starbucks, right under I-278. I drove around puzzled looking for the store, and finally gave up and continued along the boulevard. I encountered another set of sequentially numbered roads, and this time I found the store, at 67th Road. I planned to wait until it opened in the morning, so now I needed a place to crash. I've camped out on Queens Boulevard before, never feeling unsafe. I prefer the parking spaces along the inner road, because pedestrians don't walk there. If you are from the western states, or have never seen Queens Boulevard, it is the type of arterial road the is divided into main lanes in the center and service lanes on the outside, with parking spaces on either side of the service lanes. But I had to settle for one on the outside, next to the sidewalk, in a relatively dark area. Conveniently enough for me, there was an empty lot down a hundred feet or so, enclosed in a wooden fence that I could slip through. This was important as there was no restroom nearby.

October 11

I got up in time to visit the Starbucks and ask around for a place to have breakfast. The Tower Diner was just down the street, and not bad.

Despite passing up an exit and driving around looking for parking, I arrived in time. It was a sunny day, with clouds and rain predicted for Sunday. I'd just as soon have had it be the other way around so I could spend some quality time in Manhattan with my camera.

Like Snowflakes, No Two Tournaments Are Alike

After attending a bunch of tournaments in Texas that all handled things like tally slips and posting results the same, I had imagined that these logistical details had been standardized around the country. But once I started playing out of state, I noticed no end to the different ways that tournaments were run. Here in Bayside, instructions were required for newcomers, informing us about how a group captain would hand out the scorecards, how to figure out our pairings, and what to do with those curious little stickers in the envelopes. The stickers were used to post each player's results on the poster on the wall after each game. I guess stickers are just as good as writing directly on the posterboard, except that for those lacking coordination (like me) it was all to easy to stick the sticker on the wrong square and give another player a short-lived improvement in his record.

I was fourth in a group of eight, but there was a big gap between my 1336 and #3's 1516, but after division 1 in Brownsville, I felt like I had a chance.

The Smelly Side of the Scrabble Scene

As I awaited the pairings and the first game, I was treated to some serious funk. Not music, but an all-too-recognizable body odor. Given my traveling circumstances and occasional unavailability of a shower, I always try to be conscious of how I'm smelling. I was able to determine with great relief that the smell was not coming from me.

After lunch, as I sat down to play, there was an odor of a different stort. Once again I couldn't be sure whether it was me or not, but if accused, I'll deny all resposibility. This was certainly the most odorific tournament I'd attended.

Finally I Beat An Expert

After a close game against Jim Fonti, I played my fifth tournament game against an expert (3 games at the early bird in Reno, and 1 in Division 1 in Brownsville). I almost felt sorry for Ann Sanfedele as she got off to an awful start by first, challenging my CORNING (which I was just guessing on), then playing ORBET* by mistake, and finally giving up on her rack and exchanging. But my sympathy disappeared a couple of turns later when she played LITERATI for 9 points and drew a natural RECOILED/E. Then she fishes, and think "Oh, crap!" and look around for the most likely spot to block. I use my S to block the KAB hook for only 16 points, and she bingos elsewhere, making me wonder if I should have just used the S for more points. Still, I had racked up a 129-point lead before she finally got on the board, and she wasn't able to gain ground quickly enough to avoid losing by 40. Finally I had beaten an expert in tournament!!!

I was grateful to Jack Brown for easing the pain of my loss by admitting that he had drawn the good tiles at the right time.

During those two games, there was some serious commotion outside, as cars were laying on the horn like there was no tomorrow. Isn't horn-blowing illegal in NYC? As the honking continued, I was having increasing violent thoughts involving an experiement to see how far up a human ass a horn would fit. For the sake of science, you know.

I gamble repeatedly to win a close game against Dolly Silverstein. Mid-game, I leave BIG in a dangerous spot, hoping that she either doesn't have an S, but really that she doesn't know that BIGS is good. Either way, I get BIGS/SNOOK for 38. At the end, with the Q unseen, she bingos along row 14, seting up a prime TWS play. But if I take it, I probably draw the Q. I feverishly try to find two spots to play the Q, and I only see one. I'm running out of time, so I pass to force the Q on her. She has just taken a 9-point lead with a bingo and doesn't realize that she she can pass as well and force me to play. She has the H and takes the TWS spot for 31, and my heart jumps. Did I let her have too many points? I'm sweating bullets as I play out my tiles to maximize my points and win by 9, with the Q stick.

The tournament entry free included lunch, and for once it was edible. At many of the tournaments I'd attended, the sandwiches were already prepared with yucky stuff like mayonnaise and mustard, and the salads with dressing. Here I was able to assembly my own sandwich. I chatted a bit with Isaias Sarmiento, a nice guy with a cool-sounding name, but also a 1516 that I needed to beat after lunch if I was to place. Cash would only be awarded for first and second. So as I chatted, I could not help but see prey sitting before me.

I counted the sodas on the table and noticed they exceeded the number of participants (24). So when I left, I absconded with an extra one stuffed down my pants leg. I had meant to jam it in my briefs, but I missed, and so I walked out with this bulge against my leg, chilly and sliding down. I felt like a a rap star strutting his stuff as I walked with a limp holding the bulge in place--okay, not really. Once outside, I had to reach down my pants as I walked to my car, hoping no one would notice. But hey, if I didn't win any prize money, at least I saved 50-80 cents.

Ah, First Place Would Have Been Unreasonable

Another relatively close game, against Jimmy Yee this time, and it's time to face #2, Arthur Doreson. This was not my first time playing somebody disabled, or somewhat disabled, but this was the first time I had played under alterered rules. Arthur received 3 extra minutes, and his cousin drew tiles for him. I don't know how much time he actually spent laying down his tiles, but I do know that he burned most of his time on one turn, finally finding GRADINE. I let myself be fooled by the amount of time he took, and I challenged. Mistake. I would realize later that the word was on the RAINED stem that I should have memorized already. He then played DEMONIST off the D, and it was only later that I realized he had ITONES + M on his rack, leaving me to wonder if he would have been able to hook it anywhere if I hadn't challenged. You can see where this is going already--he trounced me by 123 points.

Another problem with the stickers is that they are easily lost by the careless, like me. But Ginger had plenty of extra stickers on hand, and was quite willing to give me a few more, but only after taking me out back to administer a stern paddling. Who knew that paddles were standard equipment for tournament directors?

I beat 1516 Isaias Sarmiento to go 5-2, same as Arthur, but he beat me on spread, leaving me to wonder if I could have cut that spread in our game. Oh, well--I happily took my $50 and felt relieved to have won back my entry fee. Well, I actually took Joel Sherman's money, and he took the check, because I couldn't deposit Ginger's check in my bank account from here in NY, or NJ. It didn't occur to me until later that I could probably have just taken the check to her bank (for a fee, I imagine).

I found the prize distribution unusual, $60 for first and $50 for second. I would have expected a more heavily front-loaded first place, like $75/35. Of course, since I won second place, I was happy to at least win my entry fee back (plus the free soda). Still, I was getting tired of coming in second all the time. I needed another first, and it would be tougher as I moved up a solid Division 2.

In Search of Caffeine, The Wonder Drug

The tournament ended earlier than I had expect, and there was still plenty of light left. But the first Starbucks I visited was not yet open for business. The detour off the L.I.E. was only a few miles, but by the time I reached the very pretty Bohemia store, I could have used a little more light. And by the time I reached Stony Brook, it was dark. The manager at Bohemia alerted me to a new store in Manorville that was not listed on the store locator. That's two recent stores that have not been listed, and if I were the paranoid type, I would think Starbucks was doing it on purpose to frustrate my efforts. But thankfully I don't have a paranoid bone in my body.

The staff at Stony Brook had not idea where the Manorville Starbucks was, but a customer overheard and gave me directions. I rushed over there, stopping at the Chevron to heat up my leftover steak, rice, and plantains from El Iman, getting some funny looks from a lady in the process. I hung out at the store for a while, chatting with the manager who had the coolest New York accent. I love that accent.

I asked about the nearest movie theater, and they directed me back down the L.I.E. to a megaplex, maybe in Holbrook, but I can't keep all these Long Island communities straight. I had my choice of movies, and I preferred an earlier one because I was tired, but I changed my mind and decided to wait for Kill Bill. At this theater they had these auditoriums called director's halls, for which the tickets cost an extra 2.50 over the already pricey 9.50. I was curious and bought a ticket, but when I was seated, I discovered that the seats were reserved, and I had gotten the front section. The hall didn't look all that special, certainly not worth an extra 2.50, so I returned my ticket and got a regular one.

As expected the movie was replete with violence and much bloodshed from beginning to end.

After the movie, I drove across a small street to a warehouse park and took refuge behind a van. Except for a light that would turn on for no apparent reason, I was undisturbed, albeit cold.

October 12

Washington Square Park

In the morning I drove back to take a photo of Manorville, then Stony Brook, and then to Kinko's to check my e-mail, where I had a message from Rebecca Soble who had read about my being at Bayside and invited me to play some games, maybe at the park if the weather improved. I had been looking forward to playing Scrabble in the Washington Square Park since reading about it in Word Freak, but somehow it had slipped my mind.

I drove back to Queens to visit a store I had overlooked, and then down to Brooklyn to visit a couple more stores, the second in Bay Ridge and the first in Bensonhurt.

Rebecca called and we made tentative plans to meet in the park if the weather stayed good. I crossed over into Manhattan and found one of the new downtown stores. It was closed, but my main purpose was just to find it. With Starbucks in Manhattan, an intersection and address doesn't guarantee that I'm going to be able to easily spot the store. In rush hour traffic, this can be more difficult, and if I pass it up I might waste 15 minutes just trying to drive around the block. I did visit a store that was open, yet another store on Broadway, with the interesting address of 2. I guess eventually there will be a Starbucks a 1 Broadway, 3 Broadway, etc. There's another new store on Broadway for me to visit, up at 1675. In fact, there are a whopping twenty-four Starbucks with addresses on Broadway, and probably a dozen more just off Broadway but with an address of one of the cross streets.

I met Rebecca for a few games in Washington Square Park. Playing in the park is a refreshing change from many clubs because kibbitzing is allowed. Others won't tell you what to play, but they will comment on a play after you've made it. An excellent player name Aldo was there--he doesn't play in club or tournament, but he would surely be ranked an expert if he did. He gave me some interesting advice to think about.

Washington Square Park is worth visiting in and of itself. There's plenty of activity going on everywhere. Near the bathrooms, the mini-park for dogs seemed to be an attraction in and of itself, with non-dog owners watching in fascination as dogs large and small romped about. The bathroom wasn't nearly as bad as I was led to believe, though with no partitions separating the toilets, I'd have to be really desperate to use them. On a few trips I noticed some guys that seemed to be hanging out a little too long, for no apparent reason, and I had to wonder. A ways from the Scrabbler's corner were the chess player. I was warned that they were mostly hustlers. Near the Scrabble tables there were youths doing tricks on their bicycles. Though it was irresponsible of one to bounce his bike on one tire on one of the benches, I nonetheless had to be impressed. Of course, he was less impressive as he nearly racked himself trying to jump up a concrete wall. One of these day's he'll crush his nuts and take himself out of the gene pool.

One of the things I have in mind while spending time in Manhattan is to partake of all the local restaurants. Today's offering was Gray's Papaya at Broadway and E. 8th St. (I think). A popular place, apparently, given the long line. Decent hot dog.

The Mandatory Drug Reference

The sun set and Rebecca went off to watch the game, while I went to the Angelia to watch Party Monster, a film about Michael Alig, a kid who created a different, chaotic, club scene in Manhattan in the 80s. He consumed ridiculous quantities of drugs, and is currently in prison for murdering his drug dealer. It was interesting to see the formerly retired McCauley Culkin in an adult role. If I hadn't been tired, I would have taken advantage of being in Manhattan to catch another indepenent flick. I'm a big fan of indie films, and Manhattan has no shortage of them, probably more than any other city I've been in.

But I was tired, and so I headed back to Princeton, and so ended my first east coast Scrabble adventure.

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