Night Crawler

It's Saturday afternoon and North Beach locals sit drinking vino inside Caffe Trieste. GianFranco Giotta, a Sinatra-like singer with brown-tinted sunglasses and a side-part, belts out a selection of heartfelt love songs, while younger patrons smoke cigarettes on the sidewalk patio outside. I scan the crowd for any hint of loud plaid, since garish clothing is the equivalent of a secret handshake for members of the Urban Golfing League, a branch of the San Francisco Cacophony Society.

Seeing none, I deposit myself at a sidewalk table. A large man in a sweatshirt that reads, "Will golf for food," momentarily piques my interest until he begins busing tables; meanwhile, a silent guy in a black blazer pulls a chair up next to me and starts studying a textbook on abnormal psychology. Finally, I spy a young, pasty specimen clad in a straw hat, a bright faux-Hawaiian shirt, and a pair of plaid pants that would have done Steve Martin's wild-and-crazy-guy proud. He struts to the cafe door and scans the interior over the rim of his metallic shades. I shamefully indicate my understated plaid skater shorts. With a big smile, "Jonny Bivouak" plops himself down at the table. Mr. Black Blazer suddenly whips out an egg-yolk yellow beret and announces that he is, indeed, one of us.

"You get penalized two strokes for not wearing plaid," "Bivouak" chides.
"Mr. Big" and "Miss Appropriation," who organized today's street tournament in honor of Urban Golfing founder "Bogey T. Par" who "was hit by a bus while attempting a daring shot," flounce onto the scene. Miss Appropriation, looking smashing in a white crochet outfit and floppy summer hat, passes out rules, maps, and whiffle balls. Two motorcyclists roar onto the scene, golf clubs strapped to the back of their machines, and soon a plaid crazy-quilt of more than a dozen players has assembled, including a serious putter named "Billy Ray Virus."

Much to the bemusement of Trieste customers -- who shake their heads and chuckle good-naturedly -- the competitors carefully select clubs, practice strokes, and critique each other's form. A quick photo-op with the man who will apparently "golf for food" -- but not for fun -- and the League is off and running.

First tee off: The pedestrian island on Columbus and Broadway, on which a square of artificial turf is taped. With each green light, a golfer sends his whiffle ball flying through the intersection and down Columbus, then chases it through oncoming traffic. Bivouak, whose ball lodges in a street median, stands eyeing the first hole (a drain in front of Barberini's Italian Cafe). With the concentration of a true professional, he ignores the stares and shouts of passing automobile owners. After a few practice strokes he swings ... and it's good! After a burst of applause, the group starts toward the next hole -- a grassy knoll in the middle of Portsmouth Square that can only be reached by hitting up the slight incline of Washington.

"We have to golf uphill," whines a virgin urban golfer.
"That's just par for the course," comes the seasoned communal response.
"Don't be such a 'putts'!" someone shouts, to general groans of disapproval.

In usually tranquil Portsmouth Square, residents regard the spectacle with ill-concealed suspicion and hostility. A tiny old woman in black slippers mutters unintelligible epithets, while a stern mother drags away a gape-mouthed child. But the golfers are oblivious, faced with larger problems, like car-flattened balls and dog-shit traps.

Only "Weevil Shrimpstien," who has been golfing with a tennis racket (the cover wedged firmly over his head) and those lucky few with crushed balls are able to successfully navigate the steep grade of Clay. Other Leaguers, whose pesky balls keep rolling back down, find their strokes shooting up into the 30s.

On Grant, the crew picks up two Virginian tourists who are eager to embrace the wacky San Francisco sporting event despite a severe handicap. After a tolerant beat cop explains that traffic is being jammed in the already congested streets of Chinatown, the game moves to the even more congested sidewalks of Chinatown. "Drive through!" shouts Mr. Big. "The next hole is in sight."

Outside the Dim Sum House, spectators line up to watch the athletes putt their mangled balls into a grill carefully marked with a white stencil. The bustling foot traffic doesn't miss a beat, shoppers simply flowing around and, in the case of Bivouak (who often uses pool shots), over the game. The driver of a Toyota Land Cruiser shouts, "Five-stroke penalty!" when Bivouak mistakes a Vita Soy carton for his ball.

Confronting a cable car on Stockton, the golfers are faced with -- you guessed it -- a tourist trap, which they deftly avoid by waving their clubs and shouting. An aborted run through the Hotel Triton -- they didn't have any draft beer -- brings the league to the fifth hole at Cafe Claude where the very proper waitrons cheerfully serve frothy pints to the sun-baked crew. After a few nibbles of stolen bread and the addition of two Swiss tourists, the group is off and running. Next stop: Golf and Tennis World, which the gang literally plays through. Like so many Cacophony-inspired events, the fun ends at Union Square.

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