October 24, 2005

Midday mildness

I'm feeling a bit low-key after a busy, busy weekend -- a friend from high school came to town to join me in playing Midnight Madness, a late-night running-around-the-city puzzle event. Scheduled for the same day was another friend's daughter's bat mitzvah, which was being held at the Bronx Zoo. The plan was to meet up in Manhattan and go to the zoo early, so as to have some time to check out the animals before the party started. The trains, however -- oh, yes, it always comes down to the trains -- fucked us over. I caught up with Tarl at the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 2:00, and Rose, coming from Yarnivore, was going to take the 2 to Times Square, meeting us on the platform (or, rather, we would join her in her train car). Instead, she called from a pay phone to say, "Trains all fucked! Taking the 5! It's in the station now gotta go!" Gah. So Tarl and I went to Grand Central and waited for the 5. We didn't see so many 5s. We saw a lot of 2s, though, and so I (so naive) assumed that the 2 track was hosed/under construction and everything was coming over the Lexington line. But then Rose continued to not appear at all, and we started to wonder. It turned out that yes, the 2 was running on the 5 line -- but the 5 was running on the 2 line!!!! Exactly what possible benefit could this have conferred? So Rose turned up at Times Square, and took the shuttle to Grand Central, where we took a 4 uptown to a point where we could transfer to a train that would actually get us to the zoo, where we finally arrived at about 4:00.

I hadn't been to the zoo since I was in grade school, and honestly I remember next to nothing about what it was like back then, but I feel pretty confident it looked nothing like it does now; there was no twinge of recognition anywhere in my head. Rose commented that theories about what zoos should be like have changed a lot in 25 years; I guess they have at that. Although they still have the National Collection of Heads and Horns.

As for the bat mitzvah party, it was very cool indeed to be in the zoo after closing time, having finger food while checking out adorable little slow lorises and a big honking tapir. (And I mean "honking" literally, although "amplified peeping" might be more descriptive; the thing sounded like a giant bird.) It was like "The Bronx Zoo: After Hours!" We received party favors either adorable (knitted animal finger puppets) or delectable (zoo-themed candy bars) or both (one of the candy bars has a panda on it). Oh god I was so full when we left. Excellent little tiny desserts (small enough to eat too many of), and the cake, for which the newly mitzvahtized girl had designed her own decorations; they were terrific. Colorful and loud, just my sort of thing. Oh, and it turned out a friend of hers had attended "We're All Dead" at Chashama and was inspired to create "Metahamipus", another musical adaptation of Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, and Kafka's Metamorphosis, except this one presented all three stories simultaneously (and to the music of Belle & Sebastian). I'm hoping to see a video.

Moment of inappropriateness: a room full of 13-year-old girls singing along at full volume to "Stacy's Mom", having been egged on by the preternaturally peppy party ringers -- a profession I had until this weekend been entirely unaware of. Apparently it is these folks' job to get all the teens at the party up and dancing by cajoling the wallflowers, inciting the less self-conscious kids, that sort of thing. Rose had just read an article about people with that job, and said there is a very small pool of people who are appropriate for it: they have to be cool enough for teenagers to want to do what they're doing, but nonthreatening enough for parents to not be freaked out by them, and they have to think that spending entire evenings on a regular basis with packs of 13-year-olds they have never met would not make them insane, as it would you or me.

Midnight Madness was scheduled to start at 9:00, so we left the party at about 9:45 (it apparently never starts on time). We did miss the first puzzle, but were heading down the West Side Highway in time to learn that this year's location would be the Brooklyn Heights and Metrotech area -- incredibly convenient, since it meant we could use Yarnivore as an ad hoc HQ for brainstorming and bathrooming.

In brief, Midnight Madness was about what I expected it would be: a less well-run version of the Haystack with less interesting puzzles, poor organization, mistakes, bad communication, and endless annoyances. And yet it was fun! I'll certainly be up for trying it again next time. One of the frustrations was not the fault of the organizers at all -- it was the fault of the scoldy society we live in. One puzzle required us to keep trekking up and down the Fulton Mall looking for stickers on the pulled-down metal gates of storefronts. We couldn't find one of the stickers, and as I was dashing back over to have a second look at one store, a policeman (or maybe he was just a security guard; I'm not sure) asked me what we were doing. This being hard to explain, I said it was sort of a scavenger hunt. He asked if we had "cleared it" with anyone. I'm sure I had my "impatience with unimaginative authority figures" face on when I said, "Uh, no" (and replied with a "No idea, sorry" when he wanted to know who had organized it) and went off on my merry way. He then stopped more people from our group and basically told us to clear off. Rumor had it that after we left, he busied himself by trying to find the stickers and remove them.

One highlight was when Tarl and I found a clue in a previously searched and abandoned location. In front of the NYC College of Technology, there's a big open courtyard surrounded by slightly raised trees, and then there are two big sunken areas flanking the walkway to the front door; as you look over the low wall, you can see office windows and a tree for the benefit of the mole people who work down there and whatnot. I was looking over the edge for our next puzzle (checking just on the other side of the wall to see if anything was taped there) and Tarl and I simultaneously spotted a packet of paper that looked like it was hanging from an office window. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be attached to a long, long string that was tied to one of the courtyard trees (the string was well hidden by the tall grass).

And then solving that puzzle took us to a location where we were expected to root around in a tub filled with raw chicken livers. So we did get some use out of the spare rain slicker they gave us at the Bronx Zoo after all.

I had only gotten four hours of sleep the night before and bailed on Midnight Madness at 7:00 a.m., as did most of my teammates. One doughty soul stuck it out, and it turned out we were much closer to finishing than we thought we were, or we probably would have toughed out the last 90 minutes. But our solo solver said finishing by himself was highly satisfying, so I guess it all worked out!

In any case, after a night of that, it was good to get back to the much-more-solidly constructed extravaganza that I started solving on Thursday: the Puzzle Boat (or the Floating Time Sink).

Posted by Francis at 01:48 PM

Raw Chicken Livers???? I think that's the point at which I would have bailed, and I have a high gross-out point.

Also, I have to say your description of SUBWAY MADNESS!!!1!!! is much funnier than, say, actually living through it would have been. I salute the MTA for enabling your art.

Posted by: Erin at October 24, 2005 02:50 PM

I've done one Haystack (this year) and one MM (in 2001, for the purpose of being interviewed for the New Yorker article that came out in 2002). If I have to get physically exhausted walking around, I'd rather do it while solving good puzzles, so the Haystack wins hands-down.

From the limited sample of what you asked me to Google, it sounds like MM puzzles weren't especially satisfying. Like "look for a name you never heard of on a plaque in a park you never heard of." Is there a summary online?

I'll talk about my bat mitzvah subway experience on my blog.

Posted by: Ellen at October 24, 2005 03:40 PM

You say that the Bronx zoo stil has the National Collection of Heads and Horns, but the web site your link pointed to claims that "The National Collection of Heads and Horns is currently display at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming." Maybe only some small piece of it remains in the Bronx?

The link also contained the fascinating piece of information that

"In 1940, the Collection held 2,371 specimens. When the Club assumed ownership of the National Collection in 1978 only 238 specimens remained."

with no clue as to the cause. Is head and horn theft rampant? Did they forget to preserve the specimens properly, causing them to rot? Or were some of the heads and horns on live animals, which simply wandered away?

The profession of "party ringer" sounds fascinating. They keep a low profile, though; I could only find one site offering party ringers on Google.

I wonder if there are party ringers for adult parties, or only for 13-year olds?

Posted by: Andy at October 25, 2005 03:28 PM

Oh, huh -- perhaps it's just the building that used to house the collection that's still at the zoo. We didn't actually go inside, as the zoo was officially closed by the time we got there, so the doors were locked, but we did admire the "Collection of Heads and Horns" inscribed in stone above the door.

Posted by: Francis at October 25, 2005 03:58 PM

Those peppy dancing people are called "motivators" or just "dancers." I think it would be a fun job, but unfortunately I'm 30 years too old for it.

Posted by: Ellen at October 25, 2005 05:58 PM

I performed "Stacey's Mom" at a karaoke event at my community college last week.

Posted by: Hooligan at November 6, 2005 05:40 PM
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