I never planned to become a crossword puzzle scavenger. It just happened one fateful night.

I was waiting for a bus at a major Chicago intersection—Clark and Fullerton. I glanced at a nearby public trash-can. The trash was piled to the brim, and lying on top of the trash was a pristine, complete Chicago Tribune from that day.

A couple of weeks earlier, on a whim, I’d bought a book of New York Timescrosswords, and since then I’d spent some time on most days solving crosswords. Before that, it had been years since I’d regularly solved crosswords.

When I saw that mint-condition Chicago Tribune sitting on top of the trash, I immediately knew what had to be done. I would never look at a public trash-can the same way again.

 

A favorite find is a newspaper still in the plastic wrapping. The plastic wrapping offers two benefits: (1) It ensures that the crossword is “clean”—that is, unsolved. And (2) It ensures that the newspaper itself is clean (not dirty). I do not take newspapers in the wrapping from the ground, unless they’re more than a day old—since such a newspaper must belong to a subscriber who has simply not yet picked it up.

Winter is the best time to look through trash-cans and dumpsters for crossword puzzles. This is so for two reasons: (1) During a Chicago winter, there are far fewer people outside. And I am uncomfortable enough with my scavenging that I do not want to be seen doing it. (2) Somehow trash just doesn’t feel as dirty when it’s frozen.

 

In my file cabinet, I have a file for unsolved crosswords that I’ve clipped from newspapers. The file consists of five manila folders, marked as follows: “New York Times,” “Onion,” “Reader,” “Skyline,” and “Other.”

The New York Times crossword is the gold standard of American crosswords. In terms of size, NYT crossword puzzles are 15 squares by 15 (the typical size of most newspaper crosswords) from Monday through Saturday, and 21 by 21 on Sunday. The NYT crosswords increase in difficulty from Monday through Saturday. The Sunday puzzle’s difficulty level is approximately the same as that of the Thursday puzzle, though solving time is more since the Sunday puzzle is larger.

When I secure an unsolved NYT crossword puzzle, I feel as if I’ve won the lottery.

The Onion is a weekly, free, national satirical newspaper that contains the excellent A.V. Club Crossword. And The Chicago Reader is a free local newspaper that contains the excellent syndicated InkWell crossword by Ben Tausig.

The Skyline is a free local weekly newspaper that, during my first two years of crossword puzzle scavenging, carried an excellent, large (21 by 21) crossword puzzle whose origin I could never figure out. There was no credit, no by-line, nothing. This was a high-quality, fun, challenging puzzle. A few months ago, theSkyline terminated this puzzle and began offering a NYT crossword puzzle every week. While I am glad to have a guaranteed source of a free weekly NYTcrossword, the net effect is a loss, because the Skyline crossword was one of my favorites—and because a 21 by 21 puzzle in a newspaper is a rare find.

The “Other” folder typically includes several crosswords from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal. I just checked the file, and it currently contains single crosswords from the Boston Phoenix, the Miami Herald, the Oakland Tribune, and the San Francisco Examiner. All of these except the Boston one were probably scavenged on airplanes or in airport terminals.

Scavenging for crosswords on an airplane requires impeccable timing. The flight crew usually picks up all the abandoned newspapers either right after the passengers leave or while the passengers are leaving. If you are lucky, you can hang back until the end of the line, and comb the airplane from where you sat to the front, grabbing a few newspapers just ahead of the crew.

And in case you were wondering about the Boston Phoenix crossword: It was brought to me by a friend after a trip he took to Boston—a friend who knows my crossword-scavenging ways.

 

One evening as I left a friend’s condo, I noticed that the residents below had probably an entire week’s worth of Wall Street Journals sitting in an open recycling bin. Each WSJ was meticulously put back together as if it had never even been read.

The WSJ publishes a crossword puzzle every Friday. And it’s an interesting puzzle in that it tends to have a lot of business content and is quite difficult. I’ve never solved one without help. I was very tempted to look through the stack ofWSJs and quickly swipe any Friday edition that might be in there. That would be okay, right? I mean, its owners are done with it. It’s just going to recycling. But at the same time, what if they came out of their apartment to find me rummaging through their recycling bin? Recycling or not, the newspapers are still their property. And the whole thing might cause problems for my friend, their upstairs neighbor. In the end, discretion got the better of me. I left empty-handed, and have done so every time I’ve visited this friend since.

 

For a while, I worked at a place near the Wellington stop on the Chicago Transit Authority’s Brown Line train. And for a while, the lock on the newspaper recycling bin at that el-stop was broken. This presented a summer-long bonanza for me. Each day on my way to work, I would swipe several newspapers from this bin. Then, a half-block away from the stop, I would perform crossword-puzzle-ectomies on all of them. Later that day, on my way home, I’d dump the now-crosswordless newspapers back into the recycling binn.

One day there was a brand-new lock on the bin. I’m not sure whether my exploits had been discovered and triggered this sudden attention to detail on the part of the CTA.

 

Once on an airplane, I found a daily newspaper from Texas. With excitement I flipped through it until I found the crossword puzzle. Alas, the puzzle had been worked on already. But the solver had used a pencil. In fact, a soft-lead pencil. So I spent about 15 minutes carefully erasing the grid. I took the puzzle home and filed it under “Other.”

 

I have purchased some crossword puzzle compilations: a few NYT books, aWSJ book, and a Chicago Tribune book. I am not a fan of the cheap crossword-magazines that you can buy at newsstands and at airports. I am unapologetically a crossword-snob.

Yet I am not an excellent crossword solver. I’m better than the average casual solver, but not even in the same universe as the typical avid solver who solves at least one crossword per day. Sometimes I’ll work on crosswords every day for a month, and then go a month or two without doing any.

Using the NYT system as a gauge: I can almost always solve the Monday crossword in one sitting; I can often solve the Tuesday crossword over a few sittings; and I can occasionally solve a Wednesday crossword over a few sittings. I have never solved a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday NYTcrossword without the help of a friend or the internet.

 

Whenever I’m on a plane, I tell the person next to me that if they want to help with my crossword, they’re more than welcome. Alas, so far, in probably 20-plus such instances, not one such stranger has accepted my offer; and on more than one occasion, a woman in that situation has, I think, thought that I was making a very lame pick-up attempt.

Some of my friends—and probably my father—would argue that I should have tried to get the woman’s phone number rather than offering her a chance to help solve my crossword.

Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.

 

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