-- from The Book of the Die
A simple announcement for a Dicewalk tugs at the threads of a long-forgotten notion -- "Nothing will be withheld from them that walk randomly" -- and, with it, comes memories and ruminations on the nature of chance. It was the early '90s and, having taken advantage of the first financial institution foolish enough to issue me a credit card, I had finally arrived in England. The young Brit who was waiting for me had at his disposal a cute little house, great jugs of scrumpy (a meat-fed hard cider made by north-country bootleggers), and two fine books: Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Luke Rhinehart's The Dice Man. Both volumes were difficult to find at the time, the latter nearly impossible since it had been out of print for nearly 13 years, but they were not the reason I had gone to Brighton Beach. At least, I didn't think so at the time.
A lush parable repressed by Stalinist authorities for more than a quarter of a century, The Master and Margarita waltzes through issues of power, corruption, human frailty, mysticism, and love in the guise of a captivating woman, a vodka-drinking tomcat named Behemoth, and a very distraught Pontius Pilate. It is a beautiful, ennobling work and, at the time, it sparked in me a tiny notion I had long thought dead.
The Dice Man provoked a much more immediate and noticeable result.
Presented as the fictional autobiography of Luke Rhinehart, a disillusioned New York psychiatrist who slowly turns over his life to the tumble of a common six-sided die, The Dice Man perfectly captures the desperation, disenchantment, apathy, and excess of the disco era that it ushered in. Rather than inciting the community it echoed, as The Master and Margarita had done, The Dice Man inspired the book's most avid fans to adopt "diceliving" as their modus operandi. The sovereignty of chance proved quite irresistible. Offering satisfaction for both the disabused nihilist and the hopeful mystic, it simultaneously confirmed the belief that everything is exactly as it is meant to be, and that nothing really matters. And it dispensed with the pesky fetters of responsibility. I took to it at once.
I began, as "dicepeople" do, with small decisions -- should I have another pint? should I walk out to Stonehenge or look at it from the road? should I try a pickled egg or beat my head against the countertop? -- but slowly I became more daring.
One of the fundamental rules of diceliving is never to assign a number to anything that you are unwilling to do; this way, the purity of the roll is maintained, and you are not tempted to start making decisions after the die has been cast. So, when faced with three life-altering paths -- return to the States, travel to Thailand with the Brit (whose intentions were becoming highly suspect), or settle down to a small cottage and big family as per the Brit's drunken request -- the last was immediately eliminated as an option, and the other two became particles of chaos, spinning on the edge of fate and caprice. The die landed on four, and I flew home, two tiny dice tucked in the breast pocket of my coat.
In the States, I once again faced the workaday world (sans high school diploma and burdened by four years of catering experience at a deli). I prepared banquet trays, perused the want ads, and consulted the dice, which eventually led me to interview for two nonpaying internships -- one at an affordable-housing advocacy project, the other at a local weekly newspaper. When I was offered both, I rolled again ....
Six little white dots and many years later, I am standing in the dimly lit Lab with The Dice Man prayer trickling through my brain:
Great Godblob Die ...
Awaken me this morn ...
Quicken my dead life ...
With thy plastic breath ....
The Dicewalk, I come to find, is part of a closing ceremony for "War Toys," an exhibit of kinetic sound sculptures created by Larnie Fox. The three large pieces -- constructed from bamboo, chicken bones, feathers, string, motion detectors, contact mikes, and bits of industrial detritus -- are decidedly un-dice-like; instead, they reflect their namesakes, Airliner, Sub, and Crow, and conjure a number of post-apocalyptic science-fiction movies in which the lone survivors must rebuild technology from items at hand. As I peer inside the bamboo skeleton of Airliner, which hangs from the ceiling with a 30-foot wingspan, a light sputters to life and a dark adagio of sound spreads out from the speakers; a beaker of water burbles between a small motor and a heat lamp; a tiny brass bell jerks spasmodically inside a clear plastic bowl; a small electric fan spins along taut lengths of string; a nail dangling from a tether swings in the breeze; and a paper mallet twitches against a piece of metal. As I walk around the sculpture, the music swells from adagio to andante, chimes, gurgles, drumbeats, strings, and sighs joining the sinuous soundscape. The Crow springs into life behind me, its great wings flapping and a pine cone swinging against the spokes of a spinning bicycle tire; the Sub begins to whirl and glow. Andante to allegro. I can't possibly catch sight of all the tiny mechanisms, so I freeze. The lights fade, the music recedes, the motors wind down, until there's nothing to hold me but the pale glow of the bamboo forms. It's stark and beautiful.
"They can be played like an instrument," says Fox, a tall, soft lumberjack of a man with unruly pigtails. "From the board or on the floor. You were making the music by activating the motion sensors."
Realization begins to dawn, but I recover in time to stick to my story.
What about the dice?
"Oh, the Dicewalk, great," says Fox, who has begun to look a little familiar.
"Do I know you?" I ask.
"Oh, yeah, from about 12 years ago," answers Fox quietly, "at the Mad Dog in the Fog." The local bar where I often sat secretly fingering my tiny dice, wondering if I should start to roll again.
For years, Fox has used a die to determine his work and organize his time, but more recently he has started rolling for exercise. This is how he unwinds. A group of 10 -- including Fox's wife, Bodil, their 12-year-old daughter, Liv, and their daughter's best friend, Hanna Benkert -- joins him on 16th Street for the first roll. He gives us the odds, about 33 percent chance in any direction: 1, 2 -- we turn left; 3, 4 -- we travel straight; 5, 6 -- we turn right. The die carries us to Mission Street. It doesn't ask that we take BART; instead, it immediately demands we board a bus. Four stops later, we pile off, only to board the bus sitting right behind it. I ask Fox if he's read Rhinehart's book; startlingly, he shakes his head no.
"But we've e-mailed," says Fox, noticing my surprise. "I keep meaning to read it. I have a friend in Salt Lake that knows him. Tony Weller. He uses dice for any decision he doesn't think is important -- the clothes he wears on any given day, the music he puts on in the morning. It leaves room for more important things."
We pass a wig store; several of us sigh at the missed opportunity. At Cesar Chavez, the die tells us to disembark and walk back the way we've come, right past the wig store. We make a necessary hair-extension pit stop, then follow the die down Osage Alley, with its crumbling gray barn, to a garage sale on Lilac, then onto the No. 12 bus. We visit murals on Balmy and discover giant concrete bird totems on Alabama, all by the power of the die. We're led into the twisting warren of Bernal Heights, past Buddha heads and wind chimes, down roads that end in footpaths, up stairs that end in tea gardens, past a secret society clubhouse and a little pink bungalow called the Sugar Shack. The die leads us up the hill and down the hill and back up the hill again, past Benkert's house, to the giant Easter Island head that overlooks the freeway; and when the 12-year-olds finally decide food is more titillating than possibility, the die (which I am rolling) takes us back within spitting distance of the Benkert home and drops them off. We trudge on, up and down, up and down, in seeming circles that never loop, and just when it seems that we may never get off the hill, or see a public restroom, or eat real food again, the die spits us out on Precita, right in front of the Park Bench Cafe, which offers juice and a bathroom mosaic of a woman with a mirror positioned at crotch level, both hers and ours.
"You just got to trust that it'll all work out," says Fox. It's a variation of the soft mantra he's had to repeat all day, every time one of us has tried to bend the rules to reach a "promising" destination, or avoid another hill. "You can stop the Dicewalk, but you can't manipulate the die to go where you think it should go. You just have to give it up and see where the die takes you."
We head down Cesar Chavez toward Bayshore, past a very disgruntled party clown in a rental van and a pro-peace sign that reads "Poop Them Out," and wind up on 24th Street, where the die tells us to eat at Manivanh Thai.
We order only what the die dictates -- barbecue chicken, pad thai, sweet and sour soup, duck larb, and stir-fried broccoli. With all dietary restrictions amazingly met, we eat with gusto and head for home.
Even without the auspices of chance as our guide, the journey is not typical; our senses, having been heightened, are open and searching for hidden possibility and delight. In three frequently traveled blocks, we spot a Masonic Temple, a strange stone griffin, a hot-rod dune buggy, and a papier-mâché Lazarus. We have the dicesight. And it is nearly irresistible.
As Luke Rhinehart writes, "There are two paths: you use the Die, or you let the Die use you."
Instructions for Dicewalks can be downloaded at www.infoflow.com/larnie/dicewalk.