"I bought a jigsaw puzzle that said '4-6 years'," I say. "I don't want to brag, but I finished it in only a week." It's my favorite jigsaw puzzle joke.
The Puzzle Man politely does not roll his eyes. "I have heard it before, many times before," he says, a patient smile playing behind his goatee.
Not surprising, as the Oxford Circle native has been doing jigsaw puzzles for 64 of his 68 years. In his spacious Warminster home, he has commandeered the basement floor to lay out his sprawling, colorful puzzles, a total of 250,000 pieces. He calls it his "puzzle museum."
The Puzzle Man is Larry Blanck, a retired Philadelphia School District accountant with several hobbies — country line dancing, golf, online poker — but the big one is jigsaw puzzles. Fifteen of them cover his basement floor, which is the size of half a basketball court. His wife, Arlene, a retired graphic designer, knows she's lost the fight. "We used to line dance downstairs," she says with a sigh. I wonder what mysterious power he has over her.
The Puzzle Man bought a new water heater and installed alarms to protect his precious puzzles from a possible water leak. The 15 on display have a minimum of 5,000 pieces each and together cost about $5,000. He can't estimate the cost of the other 1,100 puzzles in his collection, because he bought them over many decades, often at thrift shops or flea markets for a buck or two (hoping all the pieces were in the box). After he completes a puzzle, it goes back inside the box. In the boxes, he estimates, are 835,000 pieces.
He says he does it because it relaxes him. Me? I would just take a nap. Takes less time.
Always competitive, the Puzzle Man has never failed to complete a puzzle. The one he's working now, called "Around the World," cost $400 and has 42,000 pieces.
It all started, he recalls, when he was 4 and his mother "took me across the street to the doctor, and they had little wooden puzzles on the floor." He was instantly hooked. From then on, whether it was a birthday or Hanukkah, whenever a gift was heading his way, he asked that it be a jigsaw puzzle.
In the '80s he competed in jigsaw puzzle tournaments, often finishing second or third, but never in first place. "I would have loved to come in first, but I was happy to come in second, to be the bridesmaid," he says with a smile. I know the feeling. I'm still waiting for a Pulitzer.
During his competitive days, he hit a high point: organizing a Philadelphia-area jigsaw competition and getting coverage on Evening Magazine, the once-upon-a-time CBS3 show then hosted by Ray Murray and Susie Pevaroff.
On his mind right now is Puzzle, a movie to be released next month about a female jigsaw puzzle solver who winds up in a competition in Atlantic City. "I hope that doesn't go straight to Netflix," says the Puzzle Man. If it doesn't, he'll go see it with Arlene and daughter Lisa, a photographer who shares some of his enthusiasm for jigsaw puzzles.
Lisa doesn't have the appetite for the 42,000-piece monster he's working now, however. It will be 20 feet by 5 feet, and will take six months to complete. That's longer than one of my marriages.
The only problem will be fitting it into the basement.