It's a little awkward wandering through the broad light of summer in a full-length evening dress and combat boots, carrying a portable minibar and flashlight while attempting to finish your workaday chores. It's more awkward still arriving late at your evening rendezvous at Trad'r Sam's and asking the befuddled barstaff if a group of people in evening attire and headlamps left a map of Land's End with anyone on staff. Thankfully, people in San Francisco take these things in stride. The head bartender, having just begun his shift, blinks at me for a moment then smiles as if maps of Land's End are left behind the bar all the time.
“Sorry,” he says with regretful cordiality, “not tonight. I think you'll have to wing it.”
Land's End is not a huge expanse of terrain, but it's feral and insidious, covered with trails winding back on themselves or coming to a dead end in cubbyholes of gnarled trees. It's possible to get lost here even in broad daylight, caught in a maze of thicket that is within shouting distance from the local bus line. It's possible, at night, to be seduced by the vaporous light of waves breaking in the darkness, to wander the cliffs looking for the perfect vantage point until, out of wine, you collapse in a heap feeling too cold to move on again. As any child who has grown up in these parts will tell you, all sorts of things are possible at Land's End.
It's an unpredictably mild night, the fog having rolled in early, cupping the day's heat against the cliffs. The full moon, hiding somewhere behind the cloud cover, offers a soft, delicate light that seems to emanate from the ground rather than the sky. Fortified by my peculiar attire and my minibar, I approach one of the less steamy cars arranged along the lip of the parking lot overlooking the ruins of the once-majestic Sutro Baths. I knock on a window tentatively, catching the eye of the person getting head rather than the person giving it.
“Please don't stop on my account,” I reassure. “I was just wondering if you happened to notice a large group of people in formal dinner wear wandering through here?”
“Just got here,” the eye chuckles. “Haven't really had time to take in the scenery, if you know what I mean.” Head remains face-down.
A couple of more attempts prove the turnover in the parking lot is too rapid and too focused to offer any helpful information. Noticing the faint glow of a camping lantern in the ruins below, intrepid photographer Paul Trapani and I weave our way down the cliff, narrowly evading two well-equipped skunks questioning our audacity. From a good distance, we offer friendly, timid salutations to the campers and approach to find a young couple curled up in the ice plant, one of them wearing a promising Santa hat. Yes, they've heard about Mini-Bars Under the Stars, but they haven't noticed any action beyond the obvious. Trapani and I climb over the oddly luminous ruins, up the north side of the cliff, feeling our way over the crumbling staircases. The night is windless, and the ocean is unusually calm, coating the rocks below with ribbons of shimmering foam. It smells good. We decide to move into the trees, more out of delight than the hope of finding our assignment. About a hundred feet in, we hear voices oceanside. I scurry down the embankment into a circle of young thugs chugging booze against the side of a cliff. They frown and straighten their shoulders, then, getting a good look at me, chuckle and shake their heads, offering a warm malt liquor. They haven't seen shit all night. Another 200 feet, and the tree cover has thickened. Trapani, with his cumbersome camera bag over one shoulder, is madly wielding our single flashlight in one hand and a tiny penknife in the other. Neither stands a chance. Better to let our eyes adjust. We're thinking Blair Witch Project when we notice a worm of fluorescent glow-sticks slowly winding its way down the embankment to our right. As pretty as it is from a distance, up close it's just ravers struggling to carry a massive generator down the side of the hill. Another hundred feet, and the path narrows dramatically; the thick, warm smell of animal slaps us in the face. Tendrils of fog wind through the trees ahead, creating a charcoal-hued children's nightmare. Something midsized crashes in the underbrush to our left. There is a faint reddish glow coming from a nearby tree. We pause and wait. It doesn't move. As I examine what I discover to be a lovely little Japanese lantern, two figures in black step out from the trees behind us.
“We're witches,” they say.
No problem. Night Crawler and witches go way back. But it's not the witches' lantern, and it's not the ravers' lantern. Despite certain misgivings, we push ahead into still thicker foliage. Soon, we feel very alone. We walk. We listen. We consider turning back. But we find another lantern, this one lying at the mouth of a smaller trail, glowing periwinkle blue. We follow the washed-out trail to the head of a very steep flight of stairs covered by a dark canopy of branches. Lanterns dangle from every post along the stairs, glowing mutely, casting multicolored halos in the warm mist. The tinkling sound of violins and laughter rises through the trees.
In a small beach alcove, the party is in full swing. Martinis, red wine, and classical music around a blazing fire; everyone in their finest — tuxedos, fur coats, sequins, and feathers — against a ghostly backdrop of mist and a nearly silent sea. An array of minibars sparkles in the crevice of a giant dead log. Small, skeletal forts made of driftwood rise out of the sand beyond the reach of the firelight. It's surreal, and lovely. The witches quietly wind their way through the crowd of queerly misplaced sophisticates and make their way to the water line. The elegant party hosts, Toast and Jam, suggest I meet them again the following Sunday.
The setting couldn't be more different.
At high noon, under the cable car turnaround at Fisherman's Wharf, a group of 25 men and women in business attire and dark sunglasses arrive carrying cell phones and walkie-talkies. They look stern, tight-lipped, ready for action. There are five briefcases and one set of jewels. The object of the game, Smuggler, is for the FBI to capture the jewels before the jewel thieves can get them to home base. Historically — in games played in Chinatown and on the Embarcadero — the FBI has always had the advantage, but there are pitfalls at Fisherman's Wharf: very heavy car traffic, security guards who don't like interlopers, and, of course, tourists.
We make our way to the finish line, the Fisherman's Wharf ship wheel on Jefferson and Taylor. We line up, while mobs of tourists stop and snap pictures. We pick teams, and the thieves head off with their loot. Two agents guard the wheel while the rest spread out across two square blocks to guard the perimeter. It's a nerve-wracking wait. Looking for suits among the throng of colorfully clad sightseers, I nearly tag a real businessman with an innocent briefcase. Radio contact tells us that the thieves are closing in. FBI agents are chasing thieves through nearby souvenir shops. Frantic searches are taking place in alleyways. The jewels are nowhere to be found. One thief is nearly captured by a casual bystander, but, using an old football maneuver, she escapes both the citizen and the agent in hot pursuit. The jewels are still nowhere to be found. The thieves are on their way. I'm agitated. I can't get a clear view of our perimeter. There are too many people. The Nicaraguan band behind us has drawn a crowd. They're in our finish line. Some of them are wearing suits. I'm sweating. I can see two thieves in the parking lot behind us, hiding behind the valet booth. There are two more on the southwest corner, moving fast through the crowd. I want to back up, but the other agents have their hands full with decoy briefcases. There's no way to tell. Suddenly, it's a rush. Thieves coming in from all directions. We capture two suspects but it's hard to expect the unexpected. While searching faux cases, a car pulls up to the stoplight, and a thief jumps out, depositing the briefcase containing the jewels in the safe zone.
The FBI is pissed.
We switch sides and make our way to the starting point at the cable car turnaround. Radio contact informs us that the fuzz has arrived at our finish line. An observant little girl who has been watching the game with her father innocently points out that we're “just playing Cops and Robbers.” But there's nothing to be done. The finish line and the starting line must be switched, leaving the cops searching ineffectually for rowdy daytrippers in suits. We're too fast, bolting in and out of Ghirardelli Square, through the service entrances of hotels, around parked cars. Twenty-nine-year-old FBI agent Trixie Dare camouflages herself by looking through a garbage can before an onlooker tips her off to a nearby villain, 38-year-old Christopher Valentine. She chases Valentine through a construction site, tagging him just as he is pulling the basement door closed. No jewels. Forty-six-year-old Porky Pig dashes through stopped traffic, carrying a decoy, with an agent in hot pursuit. Acting as a thief, 24-year-old Agent Smith jumps out of the bushes and rushes the finish line with a blocker and three decoys running interference. Smith is tagged but a sloppy FBI search leaves the jewels, taped to the inner rim of the lid of the briefcase, undiscovered. It is the thieves' day.
“We are a nation, not of men, but of laws. The law must be enforced at all cost,” says Smith through his impassive sunglasses. “But being a thief filled me with fear and unknown exhilaration.”
During the third and final game, secret agent Speedbump apprehends a thief and wrestles the briefcase out of his uncooperative grip in the middle of an intersection. A cable-car load of tourists erupts in violent applause. Something to write home about. Street vendors begin to offer secret-agent discounts. Briefcases are tossed over the heads of people waiting in lines from thief to thief, with agents in hot pursuit. Witnesses ask to join in the game. And eventually that is how the day is won, with the jewels nestled inside a ham sandwich, wrapped in a paper bag, inside a brief case, shoved in a backpack, on the shoulder of a 16-year-old kid who walks up to the finish line and casually sits down on the bench next to the ever-vigilant FBI. The kid gets a $5 payoff, but no doubt he'd have done it for free. The FBI is completely undone.
From opposite teams, Toast and Jam grin. Ingenuity is the name of the game. And location.
And the next game? You wouldn't believe me if I told you.