Scavenge of the Nerds

One girl's brush with a Manhattan puzzle cult


At 9 p.m. we arrive at the final checkpoint, Doyer's Vietnamese Restaurant, on the eponymous, curvy Chinatown street. Many of the teams are already here. Some people are collapsed in chairs gulping beer and water. Others—the hardest of the diehards—hunch over tables, trying to solve puzzles even though the game is officially over. I take a seat next to Brian and Jeff, who are tallying scores and fielding questions. Some players persist in asking for hints. "I can't eat nuts," one says. "Everything here has nuts. What should I order?"

The grand prize—the Golden Needle—is awarded to the winning team (Tui, Adam, Margaret, Andy, and Rachel came in second out of 12 teams), and my job as a reporter concludes. I excuse myself and check my phone. There is a message from my roommate. My friends are going to a party at a bar uptown. "Come" she says, "there will be tons of hot guys." I return to my seat, take a sip of Tsingtao beer. Players rehash the day, laughing and passing plates of spring rolls back and forth. One man proudly shows off his T-shirt. On the back the word "haystack" repeats over and over, forming a heap that resembles an actual haystack. "There's a needle in there somewhere," he says "if you can find it." I notice Doyer's is decorated with holiday decorations. On the wall across from me, red and green neon lights spell out "Merry Christmas" and "Season's Greetings". Somehow this is fitting, even in August, even in Chinatown.

I begin to realize that the Haystack isn't just about crosswords and brainteasers. I may not have solved—or even fully understood—a single puzzle today, but in a way I feel like I played the game. The Haystack is about exploring places in New York that would otherwise go unnoticed. It's about shaking up your everyday routine, making new friends, and feeling invigorated and alive.

Jeff catches my eye and smiles. "Hey Lucy, want to be on a team next year?" he asks. I tell him "maybe." Then I call my roommate back and explain that I'm not going to make it to the party. I'm having too much fun where I am.

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