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The City That Was: Enter the Cacophony Zone

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Last week you heard about the North Beach eviction that brought me to 1907 Golden Gate, referred to hereafter as just 1907. It’s just one of those things that will keep coming up, in these tales of the city that used to be. Another thing you’ll be hearing about is the Cacophony Society, and the stuff we could get away with then.

When I still lived in the land of grizzled, hard-drinking Beat poets, I heard about something called the Suicide Club, a secret society of people who went in for high adrenaline fun, like altering billboards or walking up and down the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge in the late night fog. You heard people mention them in cafes, where people talked to each other instead of looking at their phones. You could nab one of those people and demand to know where to find the Suicide Club, but no one would ever say.

By the time of the eviction, I began to see newsletters for the Cacophony Society, which turned out to be the Suicide Club’s more public successor. Before the Internet and social media, people printed things out to communicate. Cacophony’s newsletter, Rough Draft, invited anyone who dared to participate in the oddball adventures dreamed up by a band of inspired misfits and arty types. I always meant to go to one of those events, but when you lived in North Beach, you only went south of Broadway when absolutely necessary, like for Chinese food.

One of my early roommates at 1907, Kevin Evans, shared an art school studio with Carrie Galbraith, who turned out to be a devoted and immensely smart Cacophony member. She naturally tried to convince him to come out and play, and he had no trouble convincing me.

When you have a 4800 square foot apartment with an ever-changing succession of interesting things to look at, and furniture you can put your feet on, you have the natural environment for parties, except for the inevitable bottleneck in the 1907 hallways. We threw half a dozen mega parties every year, and a few dozen smaller things, like birthdays, dinner parties, green card weddings, or other events. The dirty dishes were epic.

A week or so after we decided to join Cacophony, we had one of the raging late-night mob scenes at 1907. I was in the all redwood back parlor, sitting on one of the sofas by the fire. It wasn’t politically incorrect to burn wood then. I was looking in the direction of person I was talking to, with the third floor bay window behind him.

I spilled my drink when I saw a human hand coming in the slightly open window, from the outside of the building, where I knew damned well there was no fire escape. Thirty seconds later, a dapper and engaging fellow leaped in through the window—that knight of Cacophony, John Law. I looked outside. There was no ladder.

John Law said I should come out and play with them, and a week later I was trailing along behind a party, dressed in formal wear and hip waders, on a late-night exploration of the Oakland storm drains. John was in the advance guard, of course, because he knew his way around such places, and he somehow managed to get us out of the exact manhole cover in an Oakland public park where we’d planned to have cocktails and a late-night picnic.

After that, dinner and a movie seemed like a tame, if entertaining, way to spend an evening, and every week there was some new weird Cacophony thing to do. And if we weren’t actually doing it, we were making props and costumes, scouting locations, and exploring places we weren’t supposed to be. Things changed after Cacophony made Burning Man at the Black Rock possible, but that’s another story.

John taught me a doctorate’s worth about how to play hard and the incomparable rush you get from it. As a therapist now, I insist that my clients play: it’s a fabulously crazy way to stay sane, and I really recommend it.

The photo above shows 1907 resident feline Marcel Purroust keeping watch over the bay window of the all redwood back parlor, through which John Law entered my life.

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P Segal - Bohemian Archivist

P Segal - Bohemian Archivist

P Segal is a San Francisco native, writer, therapist, and life coach. Literary agents have called her a clever niche writer, but none of them can figure out what the hell her niche is.