Behind the Mask

We're amazed by what we see during three days wearing a blindfold

The instruments of darkness tell us truths.

-- William Shakespeare

What I give form to in daylight is only one per cent of what I have seen in darkness.

-- M.C. Escher

Resplendent in dark wood with crimson walls, hand-painted backdrops, and a pipe organ worthy of a cathedral, the Lodge might have inspired "The Masque of the Red Death" if Mr. Poe had ever ventured this far west. It resides on the third floor of the Regency Building; somber and impenitently Gothic, it is the room in which local Freemasons were initiated during the early 1900s, and where the fraternity held its most private meetings. Public assemblies and banquets were held in the Grand Ballroom below, under the 35-foot-high ceilings and elegant white balcony that sweeps the hall's breadth. Movies were shown in the Regency Building when I was a child, but even then its uppermost floors held more fascination than its films. (The top story is still closed to the public.) This building, designed with mystery in mind and executed with secrets in hand, is thought to be one of the finest examples of Scottish Rite temple architecture in the country. A marble rotunda at the Van Ness entrance offers eight choices: three grand lavatories, a staging room, a staircase, a parlor, the ballroom, and a wrought-iron elevator that sails skyward like a vehicle from early Victorian fiction. Upstairs, there are porticos, studies, fireplaces, and lounges.

I love this building. But not tonight. It's New Year's Eve, and it's difficult to love anything amidst 2,000 people. Gone are the majesty and the history; in their place, a writhing sea of forced frivolity and drunken idiocy, augmented by abundant touchy-feely drugs and quite a lot of ill-advised nudity. I try to focus on the décor, the hired talent, the beautiful costumes; I try to remind myself that people, in their search for New Year's fun, sometimes slip into desperation, belligerence, and banality, that it's not their fault. I try to remember this while Night Crawler photographer Jillian Northrup and her husband, architect/adventurer Secret Agent Toast, wait in the prepaid ticket line outside for 45 minutes. By the time they make their way to the Lodge, I'm more than ready.

"Take my eyes! Please!" I shout over the din. And they do.

Northrup steps behind me and gently holds my wrists as Toast fits a blindfold snugly over my eyes. It is wide and black, with a thick black fun fur lining that pushes my eyelids closed.

Darkness descends. I will not see again for 65 hours.

"Freemason initiates were led into this very room, blindfolded just like you are," says Toast with enthusiasm. "How ya doin'?"

I am sweating. Already. This, I discover, is my most immediate reaction to a new environment I can't see. Accelerated heart rate, cold sweat, hot face. Northrup takes my arm and pulls me forward, weaving us through the crowd, trying to avoid the whirling patches of patchouli. Something brushes my hand, my hair, my foot. The room is a wall of voices, a sea of babble, music, laughter, yelling, all spinning. I want to sit down and be very still. I am led to a friend. The hand is familiar, the beard, the sequins, the lace, but there's too much going on around us for me to take comfort. I hold my breath and wonder what I should be doing. Strangers stop to ask questions, but I don't know whom they are talking to. A habitual observer, I am suddenly unable to read the faces in front of me. I am consumed by the floor, the texture and terrain of it, the unexpected difficulty of navigation.

Toast and Northrup take me down in the elevator. I am hit with a wall of dance music and the heat of bodies. I press myself against the side of the elevator. We go up again. I am set in front of the fireplace, given things to touch -- belts, fabric, beads. Time collapses. Half an hour, two, five: I don't know how long it's been before my guides lead me down a seemingly endless flight of stairs into the pounding rain. The downpour is vast and thrilling, falling on my face like points of bright, cold light. The swoosh of cars gives form to the road, and the voices that come and go in the bus stop sound muffled and warm in the cars' wake.

"After 36 hours, things start to get a little trippy," warns Toast.

In complete darkness, with nothing to grab onto, the mind begins to invent things, to fold in on itself, searching for something to do. The games begin with patterns of light and can proceed into full-blown hallucinations not unlike lucid daydreaming, which can be followed by disassociation, discomfort, and paranoia. The key is to keep moving.

Toast and Northrup rouse me the next morning, still blindfolded, and make breakfast burritos. (They determine that cylindrical foods are best, so as to avoid the necessity of cutlery. They say I eat like a turtle.) I navigate the shower; it's easier than I expect. My house is familiar, comforting. Still, I walk into doors.

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