After a timeless period, we came to what seemed like the center of the maze; it was situated near a very old tree, growing at the bottom of an unexpected slope. In the clearing, which was much larger, cooler, and damper than any we had seen, we found a bedroll, some crude shelving, a small table, a couple of plates, and some dirty magazines.
Troll, I thought.
"Someone's house," said my dad, gently shuffling me back out the way we had come. "Probably wouldn't like us poking around in his maze."
Suddenly, I remembered the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, which my cousin told in lieu of ghost stories whenever I slept at her house. It never occurred to me that, once inside the maze, my father and I might not be able to find our way out, but his footing was certain and his humor undiminished. And when we emerged into the light of day our Frisbee and our bottles of juice were still sitting at the mouth of the tunnel, and I forgot about the damp dwelling in the center of the maze, mostly.
Parks have, since that day, always held a certain fascination for me.
A bit of wilderness in the midst of civilization, they give the impression of refinement and refreshment, but there's always something unpredictable just around the bend. Sure, Golden Gate Park offers tennis courts, bocce ball, horse trails, carousel rides, bison, baseball, fly casting, and paddleboats, but you can also witness pagan rites performed at sunrise near Chain of Lakes Drive, catch glimpses of men having anonymous sex near the sea, watch drug deals near McLaren Lodge, have tea parties with the characters from Alice in Wonderland in fields of tulips under the Dutch Windmill, learn to roller disco on John F. Kennedy Drive (still), and rediscover the ruins of the much-maligned Sweeny Observatory on top of Strawberry Hill.
In a season such as this, when weather conspires with weekends to lure the city's denizens to the "public parks and pleasuring grounds," even a more modest patch of green, such as Dolores Park, becomes something of a torpid carnival.
"Can you butter us up?" says a woman who, accompanied by several friends, tentatively approaches a bikini-clad beauty on top of the Dolores Park slope known in Castro parlance as "Homolulu" or "Queen's Beach."
"You want me to butter you up?" clarifies the bikini girl. "Or you want to butter me up?"
"No, no, no, we want to butter you up," confirms the newcomer.
"In that case, the code word is H-A-W-T," says the bikini girl with some satisfaction. "Please go to the bottom of the hill where you will find an artillery box under the trees. Remove three pieces of artillery and return here for your target."
The woman and her friends run down the hill, winding their way through the bronzed flesh currently on display in the grass. Bikini girl rises quickly, revealing a giant target painted on her back, and dons a pair of fuzzy strawberry-shaped slippers. She waves her arms and begins running from the ensuing barrage of water balloons. On the other side of the park, a ring of thirtysomethings try to drink from the water fountain while other thirtysomethings cling to their backs. Down the street, Laura Glatstein pretends to take a newfangled drug that turns her into a dog and begins to simulate the act of pissing on trees and humping strange men's legs.
Paul Metcalf, a regular on Queen's Beach, yawns and turns over on his well-defined abs.
"It's something called the Go Game," he utters languorously. "I remember when this used to be a nice neighborhood."
The Go Game is but one of the organized urban treasure hunts occurring in Dolores Park this day, but mine, delving into slightly darker, more personal territory, does not start until nightfall.
I watch a Go Team, one of many signed up for today's urban treasure hunt, enter the ring of palm trees near Dolores and 21st Street to enact their faux drug experience amidst empty nitrous canisters and used condoms, and am reminded again of the shadow nature of the park. Down below, dogs and kids run through the sunlight while balloons and the smells of barbecue surf the breeze and gangsters watch over their palm trees just as they did when I was a teen; a choir from the neighboring church prepares to sing as clients and confederates guard their shopping carts on the grass along the sidewalk; under a tree, a young couple stares into each other's eyes, letting their fingers trace the outline of each other's lips, while just down the way, a young man in a baseball cap digs in the roots of a tree with insensible determination.
"On a treasure hunt?" I ask the boy.
"Yeah, you could say that," he says, carefully sifting through the pile of dirt in his hand. "I got scared and buried something here a few hours ago."
"Who saw you?"
"Just a good friend, but good friends aren't supposed to go back and dig up your stash, right?"
"I guess it's not the kind of thing you write in Miss Manners, is it?"
I smile my sympathy and leave the park as I have been instructed.
An hour after sundown, I return. To the shadow park, where only silhouettes and forgotten things linger.
I have a map in hand, designating seven trees. I approach the first, noticing the flicker of a small votive candle at its base. Here is a blue flower in a white dish engraved with a moon, and two butter knives crossed over a tarot card: The Two of Swords, signifying "Peace." That which is coming to an end.
I giggle and move through the shadows to the next tree, the next card: "Virtue," accompanied by a flame, three yellow flowers, and three wooden chopsticks, signifying delicate bonds. The present.
"The Tower" awaits me at the next tree accompanied by a sketch of the snake-lion Abraxas and bits of crumbled brick, signifying upheaval, destruction, termination. The future.
I move from tree to tree, surprised and unsurprised that no one has disturbed the dioramas. A group of teenagers watches me from the jungle gym, 40-ouncers in hand. Tree four: "Art," the unification of opposites. Five: "Lust," the intrepid outside force. Six: "Interference," the fear. And, finally, seven: The "Death" card, accompanied by white flowers, a pile of bones, and a key, representing an ending and a beginning.
I snicker and add the card and the key to my growing pile.
"Whatcha got?" asks one of the teenagers.
"A perfect night in a perfect park," I say running down the hill.