Patrick “Mac” McIntyre has been constructing crosswords for Real Change for more than 15 years. He estimates he’s done in excess of 750 unique puzzles for the paper, each one painstakingly constructed from scratch. He discovered the paper while working as the executive director of the Northwest Justice Project, which had offices near Zeitgeist Coffee on South Jackson Street in Pioneer Square.
“We would go there all the time when we went down for coffee. They had a vendor that I came to know. I’d always get the paper, so that’s how it started,” he said. Since then, he’s even served on the board, doing a stint as the treasurer. But before and after that, he’s made the crossword every week, without fail.
He quickly learned two things: that the newspaper’s editorial team craved the crossword — “So I wasn’t just sending somebody a lot of shit,” he said — and that the paper’s readership did, too.
“‘We have a lot of people who really like this. We are glad you do this. Thank you. This is really helpful to have this in the paper,’” Real Change vendors told him.
Helpful might be an understatement: The second edition of the crossword book — a sort of greatest hits album containing a little more than half the puzzles he’d done in the past year — sold better than the paper itself.
While Mac is a veteran crossword constructor now, he can’t really remember how he got into it.
“Somewhere along the line, I became one of the people that does them,” he said. “Then it occurred to me, like it might to a lot of people who do them, ‘Hmm, it might be interesting to try to put one of these together.’”
Like many first-time constructors, his initial efforts were not up to his own standard. Crosswords, he discovered, can be going swimmingly up until the last tiny little section, when a certain combination of letters — forced into the mix by the other brilliant words the constructor has come up with — simply doesn’t work.
“When one thing is wrong in a crossword, that whole damn thing has got to be pulled apart and redone,” Mac said.
Insert the classic Ira Glass quote about creativity and taste here. However, while Mac’s early attempts didn’t meet his standards as an avid crossword completer, he wasn’t about to give up.
Mac’s interest in crossword construction became serious after he retired. It was based on a very clear goal he’d set for himself: He wanted to get a crossword published in the New York Times.
“I said to myself, ‘I’m not just going to sit around and golf and all that. What I should do is I should set goals that, in all likelihood, I can’t possibly achieve.’ But ones that I want to do and really care about. So I said to myself that I would get a crossword published in the New York Times,” he said. “I’m just going to do it, and I know I can do it.”
Spoiler alert: he did, several times over. His new goal is to publish one for each day of the week. In the world of crosswords, different days of the week represent levels of difficulty and complexity. Achieving all seven in the New York Times is something like the seven summits for a crossword maker.
While he hasn’t completed all seven, he did get to speak with the person you probably meet at the top: New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz. One of the things Mac most enjoyed about submitting puzzles to the New York Times, he said, was that they don’t just reject you outright. A lot of time he would get very constructive feedback. In one instance, it was from Shortz himself.
“It came to the point where I actually got a call from him directly,” Mac said. “He called and just said, ‘I like this puzzle and would want to use it.’ But he didn’t like what he would call the southeast quadrant. This is what he actually said: ‘Do you think you could reconstruct that portion and save the rest of it and do that by morning?’ I said, ‘Oh hell yeah!’”
What makes Mac’s crosswords so good? For starters, he cares a lot about language. If you’ve ever done one of his puzzles, you know he loves puns, double entendres, hidden words, backwards words, words within words and pretty much every form of linguistic brain teaser there is.
Like any good crossword constructor, he takes delight in bedeviling his audience. Specifically, the group of longtime friends he mails the paper to each week.
“Literally, it could be the middle of the night, and I get a call, and I’ll pick it up. There’ll be a little quiet, and then they’ll go, ‘You son of a bitch,’” he said. “Like that! And that’s very rewarding.”
However, he always gives you a hint. Most puzzles have themes, which go a long way toward helping you figure them out. There is one that doesn’t in the Real Change 2021 crosswords book. It’s the very last one, and he says he made it to be like a Friday or Saturday New York Times puzzle. Besides that particularly difficult one, no matter how obscure or obfuscated a clue is, there’s always a hint. Sometimes it’s an extra-easy cross clue or maybe an anagram of the answer. For multi-word answers, he tells you how many letters are in each. That’s on purpose, according to Mac.
“When I sit down and do them and think about them, here’s what my brain is trying to do: I’m trying to do this in a way that will get somebody who hasn’t yet fully become a puzzle person to become a puzzle person and get better at it,” he said. “So, there are things in here — you can do shading or have circles, and they’re helpful, or they’re part of the theme. In a hardcore puzzle, they’re not going to do that.”
He also tries to keep the content relevant. He wants it to appeal to a younger audience — geriatric millennials with desk jobs, perhaps — but still have some stuff older folks will like. Most of all, he wants the language to be fresh and interesting.
A clue in the 2021 book prompted puzzlers to guess a “genre of rap,” which turned out to be “gangsta,” so it’s safe to say he’s keeping it fresh for a man of his years.
Besides his enduring love of language, what keeps him doing it every week? Obviously, as one of the organization’s longest running volunteers, he believes in the cause.
“I love the premise that Real Change works on, which is this idea that you [can provide] some way of allowing people to advocate for themselves in part and to make a living from selling a product that advocates on their behalf directly,” Mac said. “It’s pretty much totally focused on dealing with people who society wants to throw away and fighting for them. I know it’s a cliché to say it, but it is cutting-edge stuff. You see a cartoon about Bruce Harrell that’s just honest, big time, from this little paper. That excites me. I feel like being part of that is really good.”
He also wants to help, he stressed, because, “I come from the broken family, foster care, removed from the parents into the system [background]; that is where I came from.” That experience, he said, gave him an understanding of why people need help. Without the right people helping him, he noted, he would never have made it through law school and had the long and successful career he did. For him, helping people less fortunate feels important.
However, he admits, doing that via the crossword is not exactly unpleasant. On the board, he said, “I sat through endless meetings and dealt with all the fundraising and internal problems that had to be dealt with, all that stuff. It took my law background and understanding of finance, and I gave it away and said, ‘OK, I’m doing it.’”
When it comes to the crossword, on the other hand, he said, “I look at this and say, ‘Yeah, it’s great that it contributes.’ But I feel a little guilty because I like doing it!”
Read more of the Sept. 14-20, 2022 issue.