About two weeks ago I reached into the mailbox and shuffled through the pile of adverts and trash, extracted several bits of actual mail and entered the house. There was a bill for a roommate, a Netflix DVD for another, a bill and New Yorker issue for me, and an unexpected interloper; a small brown envelope addressed to Mr. Alan Samuel. The envelope was not marked with a return address, and was postmarked as having departed from Seattle.
This was an unexpected oddity.
The first strange thing about this envelope is that it was clearly intended for me, but the sender misspelled my first name. My immediate thought was that this was intentional, and a return to an old moniker applied to me by my good friend Tony. Tony is one of my many friends who just absconded away, moving to Seattle and starting a new (and very exciting) life in the Pacific Northwest.
This is totally the kind of thing Tony would do. I hadn’t even opened the envelope yet, but I felt a certainty that the mysterious letter was from him.
I tore open the letter and was greeted with another, far more perplexing mystery: a four line cipher on a piece of unusual paper. Capital letters only, written in Sharpie, without punctuation or spaces.
This is exactly the kind of thing Tony would do.
I laughed aloud and brandished the thin paper before me, showing it to my roommate and bragging about having friends that know exactly the kind of thing I find interesting. My guilty pleasure is reading Dan Brown novels, which I like more for the puzzles than for anything else. This friend clearly knows me exceptionally well.
I sent Tony some messages asking about the cipher, but he didn’t know a thing about it. I thought he was lying, and decided to start attempting to decode the cipher in earnest. My girlfriend sat beside me, both of us working on it in our own ways. She had a pen and paper, and I googled cipher solving techniques.
According to Cipher Solving for Dummies (a thing I’m not joking about,) the following are important rules to follow when solving a cipher:
- Scan for single letter words, which are usually A or I
- Count how many times each symbol appears in the cipher. The most frequent symbol is probably E
- Look for apostrophes
- Look for repeating letter patterns
The list went on like this. It was functionally useless to me, as there was no punctuation in the cipher. My girlfriend started counting out the letters and we noticed that V appeared in the cipher 9 times. I found another site that allowed me to type out the cipher and pair letters together, cutting out a ton of the work of writing the cipher over and over again, replacing letters and throwing away sheets of paper.
I knew this wasn’t anything more than a substitution cipher–one in which the alphabet is transposed a few letters up or down–which seemed to me like a reasonable place to begin. I followed the Dummies guide suggestion that the letter appearing most frequently must be E, which marked the true beginning of my path down of “looking at the cipher the completely wrong way.”
I tried a variety of solutions, and ended up just clicking around the cipher-solving pages, getting no closer to anything resembling a solution. I brought the cipher into work the next day, hoping for the insight a fresh pair of eyes can offer, but my co-workers started talking about ciphers far more complicated than simple substitutions, and I politely turned down any further help from them.
A few days passed and I still hadn’t solved it. I had grown mildly frustrated, so I reached back out to Tony and asked for help–thinking all the while that I was asking for a hint from the gentleman who’d sent me the cipher in the first place.
He insisted he hadn’t sent it, and asked for a photo of the envelope and its contents. When he got them, he responded with genuine excitement and I had to admit the cipher wasn’t from him. He was at work at couldn’t talk for long, but he said he’d get back to me as soon as he could think of something. My girlfriend had suggested that the misspelling of my name on the envelope was a major hint, but after trying to make A equal E I didn’t pursue it further.
I sent my good friend Max Mcdaniel a text asking if he knew anything about the cipher, but his response left me under the impression he had no idea what I was talking about.
Tony called back within 10 minutes and said:
“Dude it’s just plus 4.”
“Yeah, add 4 letters to every letter in the alphabet. I haven’t translated the whole thing, but it already starts with ‘Dear…'”
“Dude tell me what it says when you’re done. I gotta go.”
With fervor I ran into the house and got on my computer, heading back to the site that allowed me to click my way through solving the cipher. I took Tony’s advice and added 4 to the alphabet. Almost immediately, words began to form…
I took a close look at it. There were several Zs where the spaces ought to have been, but the message was legible:
“dearest elan i miss your stupid face love schmaxwell”
Turns out it was Max after all. A true friend who knows me well enough to send me a cipher–that’s an incredible thing, and I’m tremendously grateful to have befriended such a wonderful human.
Miss you too, friend. I’ll come visit soon.