The instructions were to meet some “distributors of magic” at the corner of Hayes and Shrader. Saturday night was chilly, so we stopped by a liquor store for a little Jameson to warm our bones.
By the time we got to the location , a crowd had begun to form. We quickly found our magic distributor and made the secret signal, a pantomime of looking through binoculars. We were then handed a blank piece of paper with a little baggy of trinkets and were told something like “Sometimes it takes a different kind of light to see properly.”
Opening it, I took out a little LED black light and connected it to the watch battery that was also in the baggie. Suddenly the blank piece of paper was
illuminated with a map.
The Night Owl Ceremony had begun.
These are the kinds of unexpected adventures that made me first fall in love with San Francisco. In 2004 I moved into a Victorian house on 1907 Golden Gate Avenue. At the time I didn’t know
much about it other than it was a sprawling, funky old house and the rent was cheap. I quickly learned that my new home was legendary. For over 20 years it had been a den of artists, weirdos, and creativity. When the decision was made to move Burning Man from Baker Beach to the Black Rock Desert, it was done in the living room of 1907, and in the years before I lived there, it functioned as a de facto club house for a group of free spirits called the Cacophony Society.
I’d never heard of the Cacophony Society before I moved in, but Miss P Segal, head mischief maker of the house, regaled me with stories of their wondrous pranks, hijinks, and happenings. They included the creation of Burning Man, Fight Club, Survival Research Laboratories, The Billboard Liberation Front, and Santa Con, among other things. I had somehow Craigs-listed myself into an alchemic arcadia and had managed to tap directly into the vein of what made San Francisco weird and wonderful.
Then we got Ellis-Acted and 1907 Golden Gate’s 20-plus year run came to an end. Even though I only resided there for six months, it I created Broke-Ass Stuart while living there. BAS was the last bit of magic to germinate in that house before it became just another high-priced single family home.
Luckily, what began there never really went away. The offbeat things that started at 1907 have spread around the world like a blown dandelion, and not even the crushing cultural slaughter caused by the tech boom and the affordable housing crisis can take that away. That’s part of what Saturday night was all about.
Following our secret map, the Night Owl Ceremony led us through a series of one night, unsanctioned, installations and performances throughout Golden Gate Park, each one teasing our senses in different ways. At the first stop on the journey they asked us to eat the miracle fruit berry that was also in the baggie. After doing so they gave us lemons and limes to taste and we marveled at how the miracle berry had suddenly made them sweet.
In spirit, the event was a direct descendent of the Cacophony Society shenanigans. There are other strange, immersive events that happen in The City. There’s the Lost Horizon Night Market (a random meet up of giant moving trucks where inside each truck a different interactive activity is happening, like a birthday party or bowling) and another event that I am not even allowed to name (odd, enchanting, underground parties in places we really shouldn’t be at). But these are by special invitation only, and most people rarely hear about them because they carry a strict no social media policy.
The Night Owl Ceremony was different. It was open to everyone, including children and dogs, and was even featured on SF FunCheap. It was part of
Immersive Design Week, a weeklong decentralized festival featuring everything from escape rooms to augmented reality walking tours to immersive theater experiences.
What makes events like the Night Owl Ceremony special is that they allow us to venture into something that is so desperately missing from life in the 21st century: mystery and a sense of wonder. When you have a machine in your pocket that can answer any question , enigma quickly disappears. The Night Owl Ceremony gave people the chance to say “yes” to something without being certain of what lay ahead. And in 2019, that might be one of the rarest treats there is.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him atBrokeAssStuart.com and join his mailing list to stay up on the work he’s doing:http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. His guest column, Broke-Ass City, runs Thursdays in the Examiner.