The Ka-Ching Factor

Harvard University president Lawrence Summers recently got himself into a world of politically correct trouble when he suggested that women are biologically unsuited to succeed in the fields of science and math.

All of this might have been avoided if the man had spent an afternoon walking through Nolita with the average New York female. For while many women will indeed shirk from astrophysics jobs-just as they prefer to trust in the almighty A.T.M. receipt rather than balancing their checkbook-these same sweet-smelling creatures can make cold-blooded, computer-quick calculations when it comes to sizing up their fellow females.

That slender blonde on the F train, with highlights so buttery and natural-looking that they must have been put in by someone really expensive? You quickly calculate: Her Marc Jacobs Stella handbag, that’s $1,050. Sevenjeans:$165.Christian Louboutin open-toe pumps: at least $600. Ka-ching! Cost of outfit: about $1,800. In the same amount of time that it takes to read a Page Six headline over someone’s shoulder, you’ve figured out that your fellow straphanger’s outfit costs more than your monthly rent. And you didn’t even factor in the could-be Chanel coat!

“I cannot walk out of my house without checking out what every other woman is wearing,” said Sarah Beissel, 28, who works in educational publishing. “I can recognize Diesel jeans from a mile away and just as quickly realize that they cost at least $150.”

“I work in Soho, and at lunchtime I walk out and that’s totally what I do,” said Moira Gregonis, director of business development at the über-high-end design store Moss. “I look at these women and think about how they have more money than me.” She cited the $1,150 Balenciaga motorcycle bag (often seen under the arm of New York scene favorites Gwyneth Paltrow and Sienna Miller) as among the more easily spotted. “You see a Birkin bag,” she continued of the famed Hermès classic, which has a standing waiting list and retails for over $4,000, “and I think about how that bag could pay off my student loans.”

“Sometimes I look at a woman on the street and I tend to think, ‘Did you really spend $1,500 on that Vuitton bag?'” said Evie, 33, a freelance writer.

“For me, it’s always about jeans,” said television producer Anne Brown. “I like the way they look, and I wear them all the time, so I don’t even care how much they cost. When I see women on the street wearing Sevens, or Paper Denim and Cloth, I think either ‘I have those’ or ‘Where did you get those?'” The Southern-born Ms. Brown also pointed out that the New York City aesthetic has spread beyond the city’s borders: “I know girls that come up here from Kentucky and Tennessee, and the first thing they want to do when they get to New York City is go to Barneys for ‘fancy jeans.’ It’s because they’ve all seen them in magazines like In Touch and Us Weekly.”

Indeed, the tabloids devote glossy pages to the latest celebrity “must-have” accessory: In the March 15 issue of Us Weekly, three different starlets-Selma Blair, Eva Longoria and Rebecca Romijn-are pictured carrying the new Coach suede satchel, retailing at $498.

“The sad thing is, we only know how much these things cost because they’re cult items,” said a former Condé Nast editor. “But we sort of forget the sadder, lemming-y meaning of ‘cult,’ which is ‘blind following.’ Weren’t those Velcro Nikes a cult object for that actual cult Heaven’s Gate?”

But media aside, it’s the city itself that breeds superior fashion-tabulating skills. “When I lived in the West Village, one of my favorite things to do was to walk down Bleecker Street and look in all the boutiques and see all the stuff I couldn’t afford but still liked,” Ms. Beissel said. “You can entertain yourself for days in New York just by walking around, looking in stores and never buying anything. You become familiar with the fashion, the labels and, of course, the prices.”

“We look at something and we know how much it costs because we want it,” said Ms. Gregonis. “As Manhattan girls, we strive for those things. Isn’t that why we moved here?”

-Sara Vilkomerson

King of the Grid

Give a bunch of raving crossword addicts a pencil, a puzzle and a chance to win $4,000 for being the fastest and most accurate solver during a two-day grid-fest, and even the secretary in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (actress Edie McClurg) will pay the $120 entry fee to try to knock off seven-time champ Jon Delfin. It’s all part of the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and it begins Friday at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Conn.

No one has won more ACPT titles than Mr. Delfin, and no one is faster. Yet he claims that he doesn’t train for-or time himself in-the intellectual blood sport that has earned him a total of about $10,000 for his first-place finishes dating back to 1989.

In fact, he is so nonchalant about winning one-fourth of the event’s coveted trophies that one suspects his remarkable run might rank right up there with his life’s only other victory: best supporting actor in a high-school play competition. He was the king in The Ugly Duckling at Valley Stream South on Long Island.

After almost an hour of prodding near his Upper West Side apartment, however, the 50-year-old professional piano player admitted a few idiosyncrasies in his regimen.

“I’ll probably solve 18 to 20 puzzles in a week, but I do that year-round,” he said. “I also handicap myself: On Mondays and Tuesdays, I just use the ‘down’ clues. I usually start looking at the ‘across’ clues on Thursday. And for the Sunday puzzle, I usually solve it with my other hand. I don’t call it training; I just call it making the game more interesting.”

While competing, Mr. Delfin writes in pencil and uses upper-case letters-even though writing a lower-case “e,” for example, is theoretically faster than making a capital “E” because it uses fewer strokes. “I don’t subscribe to the rounded-e theory,” he said. “But I do have one extreme peculiarity that, when I’ve not done it, I’ve regretted it.” Just before the puzzle begins, he sits on one of his feet.

Once the clock starts, the room becomes a viper pit of valedictorians. Carelessness kills. “If you hand in one puzzle [out of seven] with a mistake, it is almost always enough to knock you out of contention. That’s for one single letter wrong,” Mr. Delfin said.

Not even he is perfect: In 1999, he made an error in the grand final. The clue was “black and white killer.” Instead of writing “Orca” (as in the whale), he wrote “Oreo”-“probably thinking of my waistline at the time,” he said. The other two finalists didn’t finish the puzzle (and a blank square counts as a mistake), so Mr. Delfin won. “It was completely unsatisfying,” he said of his triumph. Six years later, that “Oreo” still eats at him. It is, after all, a four-letter word.

-Aimee Berg The Ka-Ching Factor