The City That Was: Literary Walks in Golden Gate Park After Dark
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
In the years when you didn’t need a lucrative, full-time job to survive here, the city was a 24/7 playground. There were things to do in the late night hours, for the people who didn’t have to get up in the morning, and there seemed to be a lot of us looking for things to do. Many events started at midnight and kept people entertained until the wee hours, after which you’d go to one of the places that never closed for a late night snack—and they were always full. Or perhaps things would start at dawn, after a long night of planning and a late night snack at an all-night joint before you went.
The Cacophony Society loved to do things late at night because the odds of getting noticed and stopped were a lot slimmer. Among the things we loved were late night literary walks through Golden Gate Park. Theoretically, there was always a curfew in the park, as there is now. The current curfew is kind of ridiculous, because a friend who studies migration patterns of homeless youth tells me that thousands of people live in the park these days and sleep there every night. It would take a much bigger force than the SFPD to arrest all the lawbreakers slumbering under the trees these days, and they surely have more dangerous criminals to pursue.
It’s hard to say if there were thousands in residence in the park when Cacophony played there long after dark, but it seems unlikely, because having a place to live didn’t require making $100K a year back then. And even if there were people camping in the underbrush, we had safety in numbers. Besides, we were armed with flashlights, to club any desperados jumping out of the bushes to rip off our books.
Lots of people turned up for Cacophony’s literary events, because almost all the Cacophony people loved to read. John Law proposed one that was particularly memorable, for which participants were asked to bring ghost stories to read by flashlight as we strolled collectively through the park’s eastern area. John’s events were always well attended.
These events went like this: our monthly Cacophony newsletters, Rough Draft, would come in the mail, in these beautiful, individualized envelopes made by our artist friend, Louise Jarmilowicz, and we’d stick them on the refrigerator door. They would tell us where we needed to meet for events and something about what would happen or what we needed to bring with us. For this particular event, a fairly large crowd met somewhere near the park, with flashlights and books, as noted in the newsletter, and we quietly headed in.
When John led us to some quiet, seemingly remote corner of the park, the first reader flipped on his or her flashlight and gave us a story. I seem to recollect illuminated candles surrounding the reader. When the story finished, we’d walk some more, to some other out-of-the-way glen, and a second reader produced a tale of spine tingling weirdness. We kept walking until everyone who’d brought something to read had been heard and we were all completely creeped out.
Everyone dressed in black, of course, the ninja color. It was also the funereal color so suited to the event. But the advantage of black clothing was that you couldn’t see us that easily in the leafy shadows, just in case a police car was driving through the park on a regular check for people flaunting city laws.
It was utterly dark and really quiet in Golden Gate Park late at night, and after a while, you felt the ghosts hanging in the trees, enveloping us in the nether world that surrounds us, but is kept at bay in the daylight hours. It was genuinely spooky, flesh-crawling fun. Another ghost story event happened later in a very old cemetery in the east bay, which I heard was even better, because it required crawling under a wall to get in, but I missed it. Sometimes I just had to choose work over play, even back then. Now I have to chose work over play whenever possible.
photo from SF Weekly