The number FIFTEEN is to the crossword world what TEN is to the Dewey Decimal System. FIFTEEN is the stealth number that's always on high alert -- agile, ninja-like, crouching in the shadows, ready to spring into action at a moment's notice.
I'm always happy to meet experienced solvers who've never noticed or cared that the daily crossword puzzle represents a 15 x 15-box landscape. As long as the solving is fun, who cares about the stats? No need to know.
Or that grid-crucial IDES refers to the 15th day of the month? This comes in handy only if your name is Caesar. (He should have called in sick that day.)
If you spilled your first cup of extra-hot morning coffee on your laptop -- thus rendering you caffeine-deprived (very dangerous) and puzzleless (tragic) -- it's useless to note that the spill originated from your FIFTEEN-oz. "Blogging" mug that says: Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.
And so, you stumble about your day and play a friendly after-work tennis game with your boss. He wins the first point, FIFTEEN . . . and then game, set, match. Afterwards, at the pub, you rack up FIFTEEN billiard balls in a pick-up pool game with the same boss.
He demolishes you in pool (I have to let him win, right?) and wins the friendly 15-dollar bet. As you hand over the cash, your boss drags you onto the Karaoke Night stage and makes you perform FIFTEEN -- the Taylor Swift megahit that, when listened to repeatedly, has medical applications as a pharmaceutical-grade purgative.
It wasn't always this bad. I never noticed FIFTEENs back in the day . . . until "it" happened on a warm summer night in 1995. On my way home from rehearsal, after a 1 a.m. visit to the all-night market . . . I swung by the news stand to pick up the early edition of The New York Times. On the corner of 110th and Broadway, I paused to peek at the crossword page, hoping to see "it."
I'd been looking for it for months. Finally! There it was, my first puzzle in The Times. It was July 31, 1995 . . . fifteen years ago.
Ask any constructor about their first byline, and watch his/her face assume a post-coital glow. Be prepared for a detailed account. You never forget your first newspaper byline. That's graduation day. It marks your transition from the murky "anything goes" self-published arena to an established literary space where people (other than your biological parents and the person who received one of your donated kidneys) like your work, and are willing to pay for it.
Suddenly, you're legit. Manny Nosowsky writes nice things about you on the NYT Forum. You feel a goofy thrill just knowing that the 15 x 15 idea started in your nerdy brain. It doesn't matter that a only a handful of folks noticed your FIFTEEN minutes of low-impact fame on that day . . . that was your first byline. You earned the right to make a scene. That was you, jumping up and down at the news stand, on a summer's night in 1995, holding the newspaper high above your head . . . as you tossed your virtual mortarboard into the skies above B'way and 110th Street. Cool.
If one is to write and construct puzzles for any length of time, it helps to be a little bit "off" . . . slightly nutty and out there. My soul brother and favorite songwriter, Rob Thomas, says it best:
I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell . . .