Ellen (ennienyc) wrote,

Needle in a Haystack

One of my favorite Motown songs is "Needle in a Haystack" by the Velvelettes.

Which has nothing to do with the Haystack puzzle event I participated in yesterday. Since I'm not physically fit and don't like the sun, heat, or exercise (or any combination of those), I was worried that this might be too strenuous. I never got around to buying appropriate shoes: my sneakers are from junior high in the '60s and could fall apart at any moment, and I didn't know if my decrepit sandals were up to the task.

But it was fine. During the long day, I was hot, sweaty, frizzy, and uncomfortable. But the puzzles were good, the company was good and I'd do it again - just not tomorrow.

Puzzles are posted at http://www.thehaystack.org

The Details

I arrived at Mount Morris Park by cab (knowing it would be public transportation from then on), and immediately had to climb what seemed like a mountain to get to the meeting place. The rest of my team was already there: Jeffurry (who had posted a note to NPL-folk looking for teammates), Treacle and Badir (who each answered that note), and Dean (of radio, who I'd met at Stamford and is writing a book on puzzles). Most of the people were young and friends of the organizers, with maybe 1/3 NPLers.

The instructions and first set of puzzles were handed out. The game had a card-playing aspect which we pretty much ignored; solved puzzles gave you "cards" which could then be made into hands, with some cards having special powers. Even though I was a statistics major and actuary, I blank out when confronted with poker hands and card strategy. We just wanted to solve the puzzles. This worked to our disadvantage as far as doing well in the competition.

My team was the first to decode the first puzzle, a clever "loyalty oath" that required you to translate Britishisms, the initials of which spelled UNCLE SAM. We puzzled over a cryptogram that had SOMETHING wrong with it (but what?), a word search requiring sci-fi knowledge (I was completely useless), and a puzzle splitting up clues to make word fragments that spelled out a message. We walked to Morningside Park (which during college, we were told to never ever enter), got another clue from inside a designated lamppost, and emerged on Amsterdam Ave. where the rest of the team had a pit stop and snack. I had a brief flashback in view of Plimpton Hall, where I'd lived the summer of 1971 and the following school year. http://www.barnard.edu/facilities/residential.html#plimpton

More puzzles were distributed at Grant's Tomb. We finally got the cryptogram from the previous round (one letter was missing in every word). This led us to the adjacent park, where an official-looking plaque on a bench contained a clue. We solved a fun trivia/wordplay combination, a maze, and some other puzzles sending us around the Columbia neighborhood. This was an unexpected trip to memory lane (I don't live far away, but I'm rarely on the campus itself). We headed down Broadway, through the main gates, up the stairs past Alma Mater, past a curved bench, and to another clue hidden in an urn by the architecture school. We sat by the business school, decoded movie quotes, and attempted a poetry puzzle. The campus was quiet and lovely in the lazy summer day. Fellow alum toonhead_npl was having a similar nostalgia trip. http://www.columbia.edu/about_columbia/tour/02.html

One jarring interruption to our puzzle idyll on campus was a phone call from the organizers. Jeffurry didn't seem too happy while talking, and he informed us that the evil "Team Lee" had used a card switching their score with ours. We attempted to use a similar card to switch it back, but they had played another card giving them immunity. Our hearts sank as we plummeted from second place to the depths, but we solved on.

After finding another clue in a bookstore (hidden in a James Joyce book - what if someone had bought it?) and on a plaque in Strauss Park, we were directed to Times Square. We entered the subway at 103rd St. (practically home for me) and emerged in the more recent memory lane of my former office in the Good Morning America building. We were late, and had to decide if we wanted to do the "ask 5 random strangers to sing a Broadway show tune with the team" event. It might have been a hoot, but our rendition of "Doe, a Deer" was never heard. I solved a fairly straightforward word spiral, while others did an ambiguous acrostic, frustrating Broadway show marquee ID hunt (which we never finished), and complicated logic problem. We were wilting, and fortified ourselves with bagels and Ollie's, sitting in the shadow of the giant needle and button in the Garment District.

On the train to the next stop in Lower Manhattan, Badir finished the logic problem, only to find you needed to physically be at Toys R Us in Times Square. We considered returning, but decided against it. Finally it was down to Battery Park. I had been in the area only once since 9/11 (to see the horrible crossword-related movie "Marathon") and it's still eerie being in that vicinity, with all the shiny new buildings yet all the somber recent history. As daylight waned, I sat on a rock and figured out a four-grid crossword with random clues (luckily the grids were not identical), while teammates attempted other puzzles. By then our brains and bodies were pretty much fried. We stopped at Chambers and West to get a clue, and then our final stop at Foley Square looking for a map which Dean found in a plaque on the ground. It was pitch dark and we needed a flashlight (which Badir brought!) to see.

If there was a meta-game with the cards, we never reached it, and we hungrily made our way to the last stop, dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown. Teams packed the small space, and the hosts had thoughtfully ordered ahead (barring exceptions for allergies or diets). The food was good, though I avoided the salmon advertised as spicy (and inadvertently had some chicken which wasn't supposed to be spicy, but was), and came to an amazingly reasonable $10 per person.

Our team got an award for best new team (Badir's T-shirt with the words "haystack" all over the back with a lone "needle" got special mention), but we finished well in the back, slaughtered by non-NPL teams using secret score doubling cards and "reverse your score" options. Team Lee's finish (not first) was announced to resounding boos from our team. We spoke to some of the people later and felt bad that they were really nice.

An NPL group continued to celebrate at a bar (ick, drinking!). Coach and I walked with them for a bit, but then cabbed it back to the Upper West Side. What a relief to wash up! I was so exhausted I paradoxically couldn't get to sleep, and finished "The Devil Wears Prada." Great day!

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