Cars whir past on both sides, and the drivers jam on their brakes to stare, or sound their horns, or just point and laugh. When I finally get across the road, dozens of people in similar costumes surround me. To my left is a young man, blond and bookish, with flaxen shoulder hair curling up from under the straps of his crimson tank dress. To my right, a woman in a scarlet sequined cocktail number trots along behind her dog. Together we form an absurd, stinking mob in red, howling and scuttling through the marble corridors of the Civic Center. The sound of a giant, galloping centipede in ASICS rises up from the paved mall and echoes through the concrete canyons of downtown.
This roving party began in the shadow of St. Mary's Cathedral and will end there nearly an hour later. It's an excursion of San Francisco's most unusual athletic organization, the Hash House Harriers. To sidewalk gawkers and the otherwise uninitiated, the group is tirelessly described as a "drinking club with a running problem." But tonight, it's much more than that.
For the S.F. chapter of the Hash House Harriers, this is one of the biggest events all year: the annual Red Dress Run. Before the race, balding businessmen hop out of their luxury sedans dressed in red sequins and feathers. A couple help their little boy wiggle into a crimson velvet Kewpie doll outfit. Two college-age girls turn up with a scaffolding of cherry fishnets climbing up from their sneakers. As people arrive in the shadow of St. Mary's winged concrete facade -- eyeing everyone else's costumes, adjusting their own, playfully teasing -- the scene is a far cry from typical post-Mass assemblies. Love is in the air. And hedonism.
Like other chapters of this running club across the country and around the world, our town's Hash House Harriers are dedicated to vulgar traditions, chaotic disorganization, and "hashes," events that are equal parts footrace, frat house kegger, and scavenger hunt. This formula has made the Hash House Harriers one of the oldest athletic societies in the world. And, as unlikely as it might seem, it's also made the S.F. organization the perfect place in the city to find love ... or at least something that might resemble it.
The pack jogs past ogling squatters with cluttered shopping carts, crowds of suits heading to the BART train home, and the glittery doorways of the Market Street nudie bars. We enter a side door of the San Francisco Centre, trotting en masse past dumbstruck mall girls and a dismayed linebacker rent-a-cop.
The parade goes on for miles -- diagonally through Union Square, over the roller coaster knolls of Chinatown, and across the camcorder LCD monitors of trolley car tourists. A pedestrian clutches her grocery bags for dear life. "What are you running for?" she asks the mob. "AIDS?"
A beefy male jogger on her right replies, "Beer."
Another on her left seductively coos, "I'm here to get laid."
Hashing as we know it today began in Malaysia in 1938. An English accountant named Albert Stephen Ignatius Gispert (known simply as "G" in the hash history books) founded a sporting group in Kuala Lumpur with fellow expats. Gispert coupled his childhood love of an English schoolboy game of chase called Hare and Hounds (a cross-country footrace that originated in England during the mid-1830s) with his adult love of a good pint. The hunters in Gispert's game were known as "harriers" -- a word for rabbit-hunting dogs. When the local Registrar of Societies required that the group be legally chartered, Gispert took inspiration from a brew house called the Royal Selangor Club, where a number of his cohorts boarded. Because of the Selangor's lackluster grub, most patrons knew the place simply as the "Hash House."
And the Hash House Harriers were born.
Using the same trustworthy couriers as venereal disease -- military personnel and jet-set business types -- the "drinking club with a running problem" grew into an international underground network for people in search of a good run, a good beer, and, if the cards were right, a good lay. "You know how women get a little easier when they travel?" one hasher goads me. "Well, women hashers who travel, they're all over the place."
Ground zero for the organization was Gispert's "mother hash" in Kuala Lumpur, but after a brief hiatus during World War II (in which Gispert and many original hashers died) the pastime went global in the late '60s. It popped up at a military base in Dhekelia, Cyprus. Chapters were founded in Australia, Japan, and at military institutions throughout Europe.
More than three decades later, the group still subscribes to Gispert's passion for running a few miles and downing a few beers, but the evolution and globalization of the hash includes all sorts of provincial traditions, including the Red Dress Run, the Stained Blue Dress Run (an homage to Monica Lewinsky), and some that ban clothing altogether.
Of this worldwide phenomenon, Mike Caton -- biotechnology clinical research manager, armchair cultural anthropologist, and frequent hasher (under the hash name Oral Roberts) -- has a theory:
"The reason it immediately appeals to so many people is that it strikes a basic chord deep in our primate hunter-gatherer hearts," he offers. "We go out in a pack, calling to each other to find prey. Ultimately we find it and consume it: The hare is what moves, but the beer is what tastes good. At the end there's a big ceremony to recount the deeds and misdeeds of the tribe, and then we eat together. What started out as British expats running laps fit quite quickly back into traditional human channels."