1 The Park The cops arrive, as they always do, their Aegean blue NYPD cruiser bumping onto the sidewalk and into the northwest corner of Washington Square Park. There are no sirens or flashing lights, but the late- model Buick does emit a staccato bwip-bwip to signal to the public that business is at hand. The drug dealers usually shuffle away, perpetuating the cat-and-mouse game that occurs hourly in this six- acre plot of concrete, grass, dirt, and action in Greenwich Village. The druggies whisper, “Sense, smoke, sense, smoke,” as they have for twenty or thirty years, seemingly in tacit agreement with the cops to ply their trade as long as they do it quietly. But now, instead of allowing the dealers to scatter as they normally do, officers in short-sleeved summer uniforms, chests bulging from flak jackets, actually step out of the cruiser, grab a man, and slap on cuffs.
“What’s going on?” someone asks.
“They’re arresting a drug dealer.” I don’t look up.
It is a hot, humid, windless Sunday afternoon in August 1997 in New York City, an asphalt-and-concrete circle of hell. The blacktop is thick with urban detritus -- broken glass, bits of yellowed newspaper pages, stained paper coffee cups, dozens upon dozens of cigarette butts. In the southwest corner of the park, hustlers occupying the dozen or so stone tables attempt to lure the unsuspecting. “You need to play chess,” one of them announces. Tens and twenties are exchanged and surreptitiously pocketed with a glance over the shoulder. Not that the hustlers need worry; on the scale of petty crimes, board-game gambling ranks even below selling $10 bags of marijuana to New York University students. Around the fountain in the center of the park, hundreds gather to watch the street performer of the moment -- the juggler, the magician, the guy with the trained monkey that jumps on the arm of a rube. On the south side, the dog people take refuge in their fenced-in, gravel-covered enclosure, where humans and animals eye one another cautiously before succumbing to the bond of their shared interests, dogs and other dogs, respectively. There is hair of all colors and styles, piercings and tattoos that would make Dennis Rodman blush, bikers and skaters and readers and sleepers and sunbathers, homeless and Hare Krishna, the constant murmur of crowd noise floating in the thick air.
None of it matters.
I’ve already squandered points with consecutive low-scoring plays intended to ditch a few tiles in hopes of picking up better companions for the Q that fortunately, I think, has appeared on my rack. And I got them: a U, two E’s, an R, and an S. But the chess clock to my right taunts me like a grade school bully as it winds down from twenty-five minutes toward zero. I have these great letters, but no place to score a lot of points with them. It’s only the second time that I’ve played in Washington Square Park and, frankly, I’m intimidated.
My opponent is Diane Firstman, a fact I know only because she has handwritten and taped her name to the back of each of the standard-issue wooden racks that hold the game’s tiles. She is a tall, physically awkward woman with short hair, glasses, and a mouth of crooked teeth: Janet Reno with an anagram jones. She carries a clipboard with her personal scorecard -- “Diane’s Score,” it is titled -- which contains boxed areas to record her point totals and those of her opponent, each of the words they create, and all one hundred tiles. She marks off the letters as they are laid out in word combinations so she can keep track of what’s left in the plaid sack sitting next to the board.
Diane is an up-and-coming player at the Manhattan Scrabble Club, which meets Thursday nights at an old residence hotel in midtown. On her right wrist she wears a watch featuring the trademarked Scrabble logo. On her head is a crumpled San Diego Padres baseball cap, circa 1985. Without knowing, I figure that excelling at Scrabble is a way for this ungainly thirty-something woman to shed whatever insecurities she might have. During a game, shed them she does. I have watched her play another novice, Chris, who chats during play. Among the Scrabble elite this habit might be a highly scorned mind-game tactic known as “coffeehousing,” but in this case it’s just friendly banter. Worse, Chris thinks out loud, and when her brain momentarily short-circuits and she questions Diane’s play of the word LEAFS, the retort comes quickly: “Duh! As in leafs through a book!” When Diane makes a particularly satisfying or high-scoring play, she struggles to stifle a smile, rocks her head from side to side, proudly (and loudly) announces her score, and smacks the chess clock with too much éllan.
I have made sure that Diane and the others who gather daily at the three picnic tables in this corner of the park know that I’m a newbie. When aaaaasked, I say that I’m just learning to play the game. Which in the strictest sense isn’t true. Everyone knows how to play Scrabble. Along with Monopoly, Candy Land, and a few other chestnuts, Scrabble is among the best-selling and most enduring games in the two- hundred-year history of the American toy industry. Hasbro Inc., which owns the rights to Scrabble in North America, sells well over a million sets a year. Around a hundred million sets have been sold worldwide since the game was first mass-produced in 1948. In some households, Scrabble is extricated from closets around the holidays as a way for families to kill time; in others, it’s a kitchen-table mainstay. Regardless, say the word “Scrabble” and everyone knows what you’re talking about: the game in which you make words.
But it’s much more than that. Before I discovered Washington Square Park, I was aware of the game’s wider cultural significance. Scrabble is one of those one-size-fits-all totems that pops up in movies, books, and the news. I once wrote an article that mentioned the Scrabble tournament that Michael Milken had organized in the white-collar prison where he did time for securities fraud. There’s the scene in the movie Foul Play in which one little old lady plays the word MOTHER and another extends it with FUCKERS. Mad magazine has regularly made fun of the game. (A 1973 feature on “magazines for neglected sports” included Scrabble Happenings: “My Wife Made XEROXED on a Triple . . . So I Shot Her!”) Scrabble has appeared in The Simpsons and Seinfeld, the Robert Altman films 3 Women and Cookie’s Fortune, the Cary Grant snoozer The Grass Is Greener, and the seventies comedy Freebie and the Bean. In Rosemary’s Baby, Mia Farrow uses Scrabble tiles to figure out that the name of her friendly neighbor Roman Castevet anagrams to that of a witch named Steven Marcato.
Rosie O’Donnell regularly talks about her Scrabble addiction. Higher brows love it, too. In a bit about mythical Florida tourist traps, Garrison Keillor lists the International Scrabble Hall of Fame. Charles Bukowski’s poem “pulled down shade” ends with the lines: “this fucking/Scotch is/great./let’s play/Scrabble.” Vladimir Nabokov, in his novel Ada, describes an old Russian game said to be a forerunner of Scrabble. The game is a cultural Zelig: a mockable emblem of Eisenhower-era family values, a stand-in for geekiness, a pastime so decidedly unhip that it’s hip. In places like the park, I’m learning, it also embodies the narcotic allure of strategic games and the beauty of the English language.
I have been dabbling in Scrabble since I was a teenager. There is a summer-v...