The cruciverbal

A 26-year-old who hails from the East Coast, Ben Tausig makes crossword puzzles that appear in alt-weeklies across the country—the Village Voice, Chicago Reader and San Francisco Bay Guardian, among others. “If you publish a puzzle in the New York Times, it can only be so edgy,” Tausig explained last week via telephone from outside a café in Brooklyn. “But I’ll put ‘shiznit’ in the puzzle, or something like that.”

Now in his third year of crossword-making, Tausig’s done well sculpting language into longitudes and latitudes. He’s also carved a niche for himself in the world of puzzles, and even made a brief appearance in the hit documentary Wordplay. In his spare time, he’s working on a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at New York University. “Yup, ethnomusicology,” he curtly jibed in a later e-mail when asked to explain his course of study.

That said, it’s a bit of a surprise that his first published book is a crossword adventure novel for kids.

“A friend of mine, LJ, and his girlfriend, Erin, started a kids publishing company,” Tausig began. “And we would take these really long walks around the city. Like, really long—25 miles, the entire length of Broadway, from the Bronx to downtown.” While shooting the shit on these caravans, they came up with Mad Tausig, playing on the “mad genius” typecast cruciverbalist’s shoulder with much the same droll modesty as the term “cruciverbalist” itself. “Cruciverbalist is actually the word that gets used, slightly tongue-in-cheek, by crossword constructors,” he clarified, the expression a clever bit of wordplay that taps into both the frustration and delight of decoding puzzles.

After solving crosswords “pretty obsessively” for about a year, Tausig began creating puzzles instead of cracking them. “Actually, I was on a plane trying to solve one of those airplane crossword puzzles,” he recounted. “I couldn’t get a section, so I started trying to just fill in my own stuff.” Later, he brought some of his puzzles to cruciverbalist guru Nancy Salomon, a mentor who has helped a majority of the crossword-makers working today. “She was like, ‘This sucks.’ And I was like, ‘All right.’ And she gave me lots of specific advice on how it could be better.”

Now, Tausig has two crossword books coming out in 2007: Mad Tausig vs. the Interplanetary Puzzling Peace Patrol, and a compendium of puzzles, Gonzo Crosswords, with “a paragraph about the context where each puzzle was written, like ‘I was drunk …’ or whatever.”

Perhaps gonzo is fitting to describe Tausig’s work. In Mad Tausig, the readers must stop arch-nemesis Tausig from hatching his evil plan, replete with brain scramblers, Martians addicted to bingo, cloned dogs and a cameo by Tausig’s mom. And while the book is for kids, the puzzles still fulfill the same need as those he publishes in the New York Times or L.A. Times. “They sort of cry out to be completed,” he mused, “and then you feel smart when you finish.”

Sometimes, however, finishing can push you to the limit.

Consider Annie Ha, a San Francisco dweller stumped by a particular intermingling of consonants and vowels. She called the hotline number listed by the crossword and, to her surprise, Tausig himself answered with a tip to steer her in the right direction.

“The Guardian is the only place where I publish my number, and I basically did that because of [rapper] Mike Jones, because he’s like, ‘Hook me up!’ then gives his phone number: two-eight-one-three-three-oh-eight zero-zero-fo. I was like, ‘Hey, I should do that!’ So I started putting my number in the puzzle and was like, ‘Hit me up!’

“But, of course, I’m realer than him because he just had a voicemail. I actually answer my phone.” Tausig gets a handful of calls a week, and people often are taken aback to hear a living-breathing human on the other end. “Usually people don’t even ask who I am. They just assume it’s a service or something. And I like it that way, you know?”