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"Ladies and gentlemen, start your hunt!" commands the warm voice of professional private investigator Jayson Wechter. He, along with Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll, organizes the annual Great San Francisco Treasure Hunt, which this year benefits the San Francisco Mime Troupe. The crowd of nearly 300 gathered at the Presidio Officers' Club Sunday afternoon needs no further coaxing; they erupt into a flurry of activity, tearing open the large white envelopes that hold the day's clues and discussing plans of attack with their teammates in hurried, hushed tones. After a few seconds, half of the crowd rushes out the door, eager to pile into their cars and get out onto the open road. Those remaining illustrate a philosophical split in the hunters.
"Fifteen minutes of calm, well-thought-out research is worth two hours on the road," says a gray-haired gent. This hunt veteran -- having completed Wechter's Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt seven years running -- politely explains that he has no time for idle chitchat and joins his teammates, who are heatedly debating the meaning of clue 5-D: "She was bewitched and he was bewildered (1988-1992). Look to the Northwest, go in and up to the top."
At a nearby table a treasure hunt novice mans his team's reference table, which includes several Sunday papers, a tremendous dictionary, a movie guide, a Turkish-to-English dictionary, a couple of atlases, and a walking-tour guidebook. As he puzzles over the cryptic clues he begins to fret.
"I should give up my seat in the car," he says dejectedly. "I'm not going to help much anyway."
Another vet is quick to reassure him. "Every team has at least one person who thinks they will be no help at all," he says. "It never works out that way." Smiles are exchanged as the remaining teams move out into the hot summer day, happy determination etched on every face.
On the road to San Francisco State we can see treasure hunters scribbling in notebooks in neighboring cars. A row of double-parked autos and a silent man in a fez suggest that the clue site is nearby.
In the cools halls of the campus, a strange man in Moroccan dress approaches.
"Are you here to see Mr. Ferrari?" he asks in a conspiratorial tone.
"Uh, no," I stammer ignorantly. "I don't think so."
"Yeeess, you are!" chorus some nearby hunters.
A particularly nosy investigator begins to put two and two together: "Hey, how did you get here if you didn't know about Mr. Ferrari?"
Not wanting to reveal that I am actually a lazy journalist who has been provided with the clue locations beforehand, I laugh nervously. The friend of Mr. Ferrari escorts us into "Cafe Casablanca," a room decorated like Rick's bar in the movie, complete with Sam pounding away at the ivories. Rick himself sits with his back to the crowd, a bottle of booze, a pack of smokes, and a chessboard in front of him.
"Who are you here to see?" asks a portly man behind the bar.
"Mr. Ferrari," respond the hunters.
After some complex role-playing, Sam gives the crowd some "Letters of Transit," which Ferrari stamps officiously before sending the hunters on their merry way.
A somewhat confusing drive around Lake Merced brings us to the Sewage Treatment Plant, where an intimidating woman guard demands to see our papers and any contraband we might possess. Bribery seems in order here, but we are empty-handed. "Move forward to the Digesters," she orders, apparently referring to some part of the sewage treatment process.
The dark, sunbaked asphalt makes the 90-degree day seem hotter still. We move under the looming industrial canopy of the sewage plant. In a small cement alcove marked "620 Digesters," two gangsters in slick blue suits and fedoras haggle with a group of treasure hunters.
One of the gangsters, Rico, is tied to a chair. "If I was to gives you the recipe," he proposes, "would you untie me sos that I don't get thrown into the Digester?"
"No, no, no," interrupts the other. He's not tied up and is spunkier. "Make 'em hum the theme from The Godfather. Then maybe we gives 'em the recipe, huh?"
Obediently, several members of the team begin humming and dancing. Others try to influence the tied-up one with a bit of physical persuasion.
"Ratatouille! Ratatouille!" Rico finally shouts. Satisfied, the team hops back in its car and speeds away.
"Boy," says Rico shaking his head, "they was tough!"
In front of the Double Play, a sports bar in which "baseball players" with thick Chicago accents coach indoor batting practice, a young woman approaches and proposes a transaction.
"Hey, you," she says with a sly smile. "We'll trade you our clues for your clues. What do you say?"
We shake our heads apologetically.
"Come on, we've got foooood," she con-tinues, moving into the area of blatant payola.
The revelation that we actually have most of the answers leaves her disappointed.
"Well, that's no fun," she says with a pout, jumping into her team's van.
To Wechter, who has been hosting treasure hunts since the mid-'80s, such playful, underhanded tactics are not at all out of the ordinary. But, not to worry. He says that both he and Carroll "have been trained to withstand any and all sorts of bribery." Good thing, too.
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By Silke Tudor