Often Played by Ice Cream Trucks – The New York Times

THURSDAY PUZZLE — This kind of theme, as fun as it is, has a tendency to bamboozle online solvers, mainly because it’s hard to tell whether it’s a rebus.

We’ve all still got the holiday glow and I presume we’d like to maintain it, so I’m just going to spill a few beans right here: It’s not a rebus in the sense that you need to squeeze more than one letter in a square. Well, that’s not 100 percent true; the first square at 21A does accept a rebus entry if that’s how you would like to enter it. It’s not necessary, though. There is more than one way to enter that answer.

I know, that’s not much help. But trust me: Once you get this theme by Trenton Charlson, you’ll find it fun. More on this in the theme section.

4A. “It’s not much work” is clever wordplay for the ERG, a unit of work energy.

10A. How do you take the average on a name? You don’t, that’s silly. And average in this sense doesn’t refer to commonplace. It refers to the market average, and the answer is the DOW.

27A. No, the Oreos aren’t out to get you. “Black and white predators” in this puzzle are ORCAS.

43A. TIL that an ECOTONE is “a region of transition between two biological communities.” Hand up if you tried ECOZONE and felt disappointed because it didn’t work. Me too.

55A. The “Places where people may have the knives out for you, in brief” are operating rooms, or ORS. I like to think that the “knives out” phrasing in this clue is a nod to the director Rian Johnson, who is also a New York Times Crossword solver.

72A./57D. I got NEO as a prefix to -phyte easily, but boy, XERO took me a long time.

2D. For “Residents’ org.,” I immediately thought of homeowners, not doctors, and had HOA in this slot. AM RADIO at 13A disabused me of that notion, and I realized we were talking about medical residents. The answer is AMA.

16D. “Vets’ charges” are not FEES, they are PETS, because our pets are in their care.

28D. “Picked locks?” is not actually about door locks. It is about hair, and the answer is AFRO.

31D. Not the explorer. The “Magellan, e.g.” in this clue is the SPACE PROBE.

34D. SKEG. It’s what stabilizes your surfboard.

We’re going bowling, and thank goodness Mr. Charlson is scoring, because I can never figure out how to assign people the correct number of points. I’m too busy trying not to roll gutter balls.

The three theme entries are fairly well known, but the issue is how to enter them in the grid. For that, we turn to the revealer clue at 62A: “Sport that is the key to interpreting the answers to 21-, 40- and 56-Across.” So, we now know that these theme entries have to be looked at through a sporting lens. Mr. Charlson has switched out the first word of each theme entry for a BOWLING score symbol. (Quick historical side note: The entry BOWLING has not appeared in the New York Times Crossword since 1964.)

The theme entries all begin with a word used in scoring: SPARE, STRIKE and TURKEY. For those of you who are not regular bowlers, those scores are written on the scorecard as the symbols /, X and XXX.

This was one of those themes where I got the theme answer and the schtick at the same time, causing a minor brain melt. I knew that 14D was AC/DC, but wasn’t sure that the slash should be written in. The answer to the crossing at 21A was clearly SPARE ME THE DETAILS, and so I used my rebus button and entered “SPARE.” Good on me for recognizing a rebus right away!

Hang on a second. That’s messes up 14D. Now what do I do?

I pretend that entry isn’t there and move right on, that’s what I do. I looked for a revealer and received an “Aha!” moment from the universe that was like a smack to the back of the head. That first square at 21A is a slash, and that slash stands for “SPARE.”

Similarly, the symbol “X,” which stands for STRIKE, starts the entry STRIKE THE RIGHT BALANCE (or X THE RIGHT BALANCE). And TURKEY IN THE STRAW becomes XXX IN THE STRAW.

The theme of this puzzle bears more than a passing resemblance to that of my battleship puzzle from approximately two years ago, although the relative elegance of this bowling one does make me wonder a bit why I didn’t come up with it first.

I liked that SPARE, STRIKE and TURKEY are each the first word of their respective theme answers, and that I was able to put them in what feels like the most logical order. I do think it’s interesting that both puzzles even involve X’s standing in for parts of theme entries, although this one also includes a slash mark to mix things up.

In constructing the grid, I focused first on the region around the three X’s, and when I noticed the possibility of threading ORTHODOX JEW through two theme entries, I pretty much vowed to make it work. I had to REJIGGER (and re-rejigger) the arrangement of black squares, but ultimately I think that section turned out quite nicely and the rest of the puzzle looks pretty good as well.

I tried to work in some nice bonus fill, including RIVER SEINE, ROLE-PLAY and the BATCAVE / SPELUNK pairing, without making too many compromises — hopefully, I managed to STRIKE THE RIGHT BALANCE.

The majority of my clues made it into the final version of the puzzle, and some of my favorites are those for 4-Across, 32-Across, 5-Down, 31-Down and 59-Down. I am also glad to see that the clue “Prefix with -phyte” for both NEO and XERO survived the edit, and I think that “Letter in the NATO alphabet” for X-RAY is a nice callback to yet another one of my previous puzzles for The Times.

I hope you found this to be an enjoyable solve, and that the theme was … up your alley. (I’ll show myself out.)

Almost finished solving but need a bit more help? We’ve got you covered.

Warning: There be spoilers ahead, but subscribers can take a peek at the answer key.

Trying to get back to the puzzle page? Right here.

Your thoughts?