Like most of John Law’s events, it began with cryptic instructions: “We will be leaving from the Vaillancourt Fountain in Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco at 7:01 pm sharp. Look for the man in the Top Hat. Bring legal ID, $2.75 in quarters, and a flashlight.” There was no indication of what we would be doing, other than the event name, ‘COVERT,” and John’s rich history of hosting off-the-grid excursions.
A veteran of the Cacophony Society and its predecessor, the Suicide Club, Law has organized everything from illicit bridge climbs to tours of undergound military facilities to elaborate street games. COVERT seemed to be in the tradition of the Suicide Club’s notorious “Into the Unknown” events, where the participants had no clue where they were going until they arrived.
Mrs. M and I arrived at the fountain at the appointed hour, and along with 48 other adventurers we were relieved of our cell phones, digital cameras, and all other electronic gear for the duration. No photos, no Tweets, no permanent record of the event was to be allowed, other than what we carried out in the folds of our puzzled little brains.
We were herded onto a Muni train and rattled across town to the Forest Hill station, where a big Ryder rental was waiting for us at the curb. We were loaded into the back of the truck like so much hipster cargo, the doors were sealed, and we were plunged into anxious darkness. Flashlights came on, and the nervous adventurers amused themselves with shadow puppets and restless chatter as we were transported to the next stop. The doors were unsealed to reveal a posh residential neighborhood with dramatic ocean views and a set of rustic stone steps leading up into the wooded hills.
Quietly, if not exactly stealthily, we debarked and ascended the stairs, which quickly became a steep and winding trail through the Eucalyptus, lush with blackberries and poison oak, studded with forget-me-nots and wild iris. Twilight was approaching, and the clear skies began to turn to red and gold as we wound our way up through the tall, sweet-smelling gum trees.
Nearing the peak, our location was at last revealed by the looming shape of an enormous white concrete cross, the eminently non-PC capstone of Mt. Davidson, San Francisco’s highest hill. In the clearing at the top, musicians were waiting for us. While I must admit I was a bit disappointed that this COVERT event was in fact an unpermitted concert, I have to say that the quality of the music was quite good, and I quickly swallowed any regrets I might have felt that there would be no abandoned missile silos or sewer spelunking involved on this particular adventure.
The opening act was a duo performing Argentine music, the simple and haunting combination of a woman playing accordion and a man singing soulfully in Spanish, bluesy tango songs of loss and regret.
The second act featured the event’s co-organizer, Mark, a talented singer and multi-instrumentalist, backed by a small combo of trumpet and stand-up bass. Mark played sax, accordion, and the handlebars of a ten-speed bike, blown like a flute. He sang quirky songs that reminded me a bit of the great Rube Waddell, and led us all in a bracing game of “thread-needle,” a call-and-response, circular singing and dancing workout that had us looping around insanely through the grove in a sort of demented conga line.
It was full dark by now, and with our blood up from the needle-threading we barely noticed the gathering cold and rising wind. The skies were clear and the moon was full, and the view of the City and the Bay was nothing short of epic, a golden panorama that would soften the heart of even the most adamant Friscophobe. But after a final set of songs, everyone was wearing everything they had brought, stamping the cold ground with frozen feet and blowing on frigid hands, so we threaded our way back down the hill like a chain of flashlight-fireflies, and returned to the mundanity of our phone-yakking, picture-snapping, everyday twitterdom.
Every once in a while, a little mystery is a good thing. And it never hurts to be reminded that we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, surrounded by talented people and immersed in a rich cultural gumbo. Thanks to John, Mark, and the COVERT team for a singular evening of fun and games.