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 he
Author’s Note vi
1. The Park 1 2. The Best 10 3. Unrated 20 4. 1005 36 5. Edley 58 6. 1191 75 7. Alfred 89 8. G.I. Joel 109 9. 1291 127 10. The Words 141 11. Matt 154 12. The Owners 165 13. 1461 180 14. Lester 201 15. The Club 214 16. The World 230 17. The Worlds 247 18. 1416 264 19. 1501 285 20. 1574 306 21. 1601 322 22. 1697 340
Epilogue 363 Appendix 367 Sources 368 Acknowledgments 371