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The puzzle

Started: 2022-03-20 14:26:10

Submitted: 2022-03-20 16:28:46

Visibility: World-readable

Putting together the puzzle San Francisco by Night, which used to belong to my grandparents

One of the things I remember from visiting my grandparents' house as a kid was the puzzle they kept in the study. It was a massive puzzle of a city lit up at night, and the kept it, assembled, on the desk in the study, surrounded by other trinkets that a grandparent would maintain in their house. When I visited my grandparents, my cousins and I would take apart a corner of the puzzle and try to put it back together again. Sometimes we'd succeed; sometimes we'd take apart too much of the puzzle and we couldn't figure out how to put it all back together. Then on the next visit the puzzle would be assembled again and we'd try again.

When my family started going through my grandfather's things, this puzzle was the first thing I thought of, and the first thing they found and set aside for me to take home. It was a 1000-piece puzzle titled "San Francisco by Night", annotated "An Authentic Springbok Jigsaw Puzzle" and published by Hallmark. There was no date anywhere on the box; there wasn't even a barcode. Small print on the box identifies it as product number PZL5911; and when I search for that I find a handful of sellers offering this very puzzle on Amazon and eBay and Etsy. None of them seem to know when the puzzle was first published either.

San Francisco by Night puzzle box
San Francisco by Night puzzle box

I brought the puzzle home with me after my grandfather's graveside funeral service, in a car trunk packed full of other trinkets and memorabilia from my grandparents' house. I set up a card table in the living room (the box helpfully proclaimed that the puzzle "fits standard card table") and set to work on the puzzle.

San Francisco by Night puzzle in progress
San Francisco by Night puzzle in progress

I started with the edge pieces, which proved more difficult than I hoped because of the puzzle's devotion to irregular pieces. Many of the pieces were broadly rectangular, but the puzzle broke its grid system with pieces that were vaguely triangular or pentagonal. The puzzle really liked pieces that had two studs on either end bridging a narrow straight section in the middle. The vast majority of these pieces were in the interior of the puzzle, but some were on the edges and I didn't take the time to find all of them when I started on the puzzle.

The next thing I did was work on the lights on the Bay Bridge, followed by the bay itself. The lights on the bridge and in the East Bay were easy enough to pick out of the vast pile of pieces; and once I put them together it was easier to work on the rest of the bay; even though it was a barely-differentiated gradient of dark blue it was still easier to separate the bay and sky pieces from the rest of the puzzle and work on them first before targeting the rest of the puzzle.

77 Beale takes shape in the puzzle
77 Beale takes shape in the puzzle

The PG&E building at 77 Beale Street (built 1971) is clearly visible at the right of the puzzle; it was the first building I completed because of the distinctive circular appearance of the windows lit from inside.

San Francisco by Night puzzle takes shape
San Francisco by Night puzzle takes shape

As I worked on the puzzle I tried to figure out when the picture was taken. Clearly visible in the picture are the Transamerica Pyramid (built 1972), the city's tallest building for decades. I think I can clearly identify One Embarcadero Center and Two Embarcadero Center, and I think I see that Three Embarcadero Center (built 1977) is topped out but few if any of the lights are on. I think that Four Embarcadero Center (built 1982) is completely missing. Spear Tower (built 1976) is likewise topped out but dark; if I squint I might be able to make out the shadow of a construction elevator towards the right side of the tower, but I'm honestly not sure if it's real. So I think the picture was taken around 1977. I still don't know when the puzzle itself was published (or when this particular copy was printed or purchased), but it might be older than I am.

One California (built 1969), which I remember as having a large "US Bank" sign on the top, has a different illuminated sign on just below the roof that I can't read. Wikipedia tells me that, until 1995, the building bore the sign "Mutual Benefit Life", and now that I know what it's supposed to say I can confirm that it kind of looks like that.

Weird shapes in the puzzle
Weird shapes in the puzzle

My view of the Embarcadero waterfront and the Ferry Building is blocked by 50 California Street (built 1972). I think I can see, in the space to the left of One Maritime Plaza (built 1964), the ramps at the end of the Embarcadero Freeway, barely visible in the twilight at the edge of the bay. (From the ground, in daylight, One Maritime Plaza features distinctive diagonal cross-bracing visible in the exterior skin, an example of engineering details being promoted to a design aesthetic. I think I can see the shadows of the diagonal bracing in the lights in the puzzle.)

I can see the point where Market Street divides the grid between the Financial District and Soma: north of Market Street the grid is mostly east-west and the buildings align to the grid; south of Market Street the grid runs diagonally towards the bay, running parallel to Market Street itself. In this view of San Francisco, most of the city's tallest buildings are in the Financial District; Soma won't claim the title of the city's tallest building until Salesforce Tower is complete in 2018.

Only a couple of pieces left in the puzzle
Only a couple of pieces left in the puzzle

I worked on the puzzle every night for weeks, slogging away at the buildings, trying to find some distinctive characteristic of the appearance of the pieces that I could use to scan the massive pile of pieces for something I could assemble. Over time the puzzle came together: I focused on the distinctive look of a building's windows and built pieces of buildings, then put the buildings in their place and connected them, then filled in the streets and connections. I worked broadly from top to bottom on the puzzle; the hardest part of the puzzle was the slightly-out-of-focus lights at the bottom, where the buildings blurred together and none of the window patterns lasted long enough to pick the right piece out of the lineup.

San Francisco by Night puzzle complete
San Francisco by Night puzzle complete

And then I was done with the puzzle; with the exception of two pieces in the middle of the puzzle. I wondered if those pieces were lost forever, and I thought this was a metaphor for the hole in our lives left behind by people who are no longer with us. (I thought that I remembered that at least one puzzle piece had been lost back when the puzzle was sitting assembled on my grandparents' study, and I accepted the incomplete state of the puzzle.) Then I looked on the floor and found one of the missing puzzle pieces, blending into the rug, leaving only one piece.

And then — several days later, while we were moving furniture to set up the guest room for my parents' visit next weekend, we moved the Ian sleeper sofa from the living room and found the final puzzle piece hiding under the couch. Kiesa spotted the piece (luckily she found it before I vacuumed) so I let her put in the final piece, and at last the puzzle was complete.

Completed San Francisco by Night puzzle
Completed San Francisco by Night puzzle

I'm not sure what I'll do with the puzzle now that it's complete (I'm tempted to keep up the tradition by leaving it set up somewhere, but I don't really have a spare desk in a study to do that); but I'm happy I had the chance to put the puzzle together, as one more tangible connection to my grandparents.

I sometimes refer to you by your real names to real people.
- Neelix, 10 March 1999