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Behind the Mask 

We're amazed by what we see during three days wearing a blindfold

Wednesday, Jan 7 2004
The instruments of darkness tell us truths.

-- William Shakespeare

What I give form to in daylight is only one per cent of what I have seen in darkness.

-- M.C. Escher

Resplendent in dark wood with crimson walls, hand-painted backdrops, and a pipe organ worthy of a cathedral, the Lodge might have inspired "The Masque of the Red Death" if Mr. Poe had ever ventured this far west. It resides on the third floor of the Regency Building; somber and impenitently Gothic, it is the room in which local Freemasons were initiated during the early 1900s, and where the fraternity held its most private meetings. Public assemblies and banquets were held in the Grand Ballroom below, under the 35-foot-high ceilings and elegant white balcony that sweeps the hall's breadth. Movies were shown in the Regency Building when I was a child, but even then its uppermost floors held more fascination than its films. (The top story is still closed to the public.) This building, designed with mystery in mind and executed with secrets in hand, is thought to be one of the finest examples of Scottish Rite temple architecture in the country. A marble rotunda at the Van Ness entrance offers eight choices: three grand lavatories, a staging room, a staircase, a parlor, the ballroom, and a wrought-iron elevator that sails skyward like a vehicle from early Victorian fiction. Upstairs, there are porticos, studies, fireplaces, and lounges.

I love this building. But not tonight. It's New Year's Eve, and it's difficult to love anything amidst 2,000 people. Gone are the majesty and the history; in their place, a writhing sea of forced frivolity and drunken idiocy, augmented by abundant touchy-feely drugs and quite a lot of ill-advised nudity. I try to focus on the décor, the hired talent, the beautiful costumes; I try to remind myself that people, in their search for New Year's fun, sometimes slip into desperation, belligerence, and banality, that it's not their fault. I try to remember this while Night Crawler photographer Jillian Northrup and her husband, architect/adventurer Secret Agent Toast, wait in the prepaid ticket line outside for 45 minutes. By the time they make their way to the Lodge, I'm more than ready.

"Take my eyes! Please!" I shout over the din. And they do.

Northrup steps behind me and gently holds my wrists as Toast fits a blindfold snugly over my eyes. It is wide and black, with a thick black fun fur lining that pushes my eyelids closed.

Darkness descends. I will not see again for 65 hours.

"Freemason initiates were led into this very room, blindfolded just like you are," says Toast with enthusiasm. "How ya doin'?"

I am sweating. Already. This, I discover, is my most immediate reaction to a new environment I can't see. Accelerated heart rate, cold sweat, hot face. Northrup takes my arm and pulls me forward, weaving us through the crowd, trying to avoid the whirling patches of patchouli. Something brushes my hand, my hair, my foot. The room is a wall of voices, a sea of babble, music, laughter, yelling, all spinning. I want to sit down and be very still. I am led to a friend. The hand is familiar, the beard, the sequins, the lace, but there's too much going on around us for me to take comfort. I hold my breath and wonder what I should be doing. Strangers stop to ask questions, but I don't know whom they are talking to. A habitual observer, I am suddenly unable to read the faces in front of me. I am consumed by the floor, the texture and terrain of it, the unexpected difficulty of navigation.

Toast and Northrup take me down in the elevator. I am hit with a wall of dance music and the heat of bodies. I press myself against the side of the elevator. We go up again. I am set in front of the fireplace, given things to touch -- belts, fabric, beads. Time collapses. Half an hour, two, five: I don't know how long it's been before my guides lead me down a seemingly endless flight of stairs into the pounding rain. The downpour is vast and thrilling, falling on my face like points of bright, cold light. The swoosh of cars gives form to the road, and the voices that come and go in the bus stop sound muffled and warm in the cars' wake.

"After 36 hours, things start to get a little trippy," warns Toast.

In complete darkness, with nothing to grab onto, the mind begins to invent things, to fold in on itself, searching for something to do. The games begin with patterns of light and can proceed into full-blown hallucinations not unlike lucid daydreaming, which can be followed by disassociation, discomfort, and paranoia. The key is to keep moving.

Toast and Northrup rouse me the next morning, still blindfolded, and make breakfast burritos. (They determine that cylindrical foods are best, so as to avoid the necessity of cutlery. They say I eat like a turtle.) I navigate the shower; it's easier than I expect. My house is familiar, comforting. Still, I walk into doors.

On the street, a barrage of odors: popcorn from the nearby theater, old books, urine, stale beer. We shuffle through drifts of confetti, Northrup's gentle voice at my elbow: "Step down, step up, slope, left turn, rough terrain." There is a chair covered in fur and made of animal horns, a giant toothbrush, a large sculpture that feels like a sea anemone made of springs. I don't know where they've found such items so near my home. As a joke, I guess that the last item is a giant rubber-band ball.

"The second largest in the world," they confirm.

We are joined by my childhood friend and favorite pirate, Andrew Flurry. They place me in a car. Slight nausea and the vague feeling that we are traveling in a spaceship accompany the ride, then a sudden blast of salt air. Foreign languages and the sound of a player piano. Fisherman's Wharf, with a decayed pier and ghost ship of my own imagining. In the Musée Mécanique with mechanical horses, palm-reading machines, electric-shock games, bells, whistles, children, dancing (mine). I am lit up. Wired. Sweating. By the time we get to the grocery store, I am completely overstimulated. They feed me bananas and sushi, and sit me in the middle of the produce section, bringing me outlandish fruits and vegetables to smell and fondle. Overwhelmed, I crush an egg in Northrup's hand and crawl into the ice freezer. The staff is indulgent or oblivious.

On a windy hill, I climb over a pile of emaciated metal bodies reaching out of the ground. I explore their hollow cheeks and screaming mouths.

"Watch out for the barbed wire," says Toast. He lets me feel it.

They lead me over a tree trunk and through the woods to another statue, this one of stone, writhing with snakes, built of muscle. A great Greek god. I climb his body, hang from his neck, and talk to my father trapped in the snow in Portland.

"Happy New Year," he says. "Don't fall off Poseidon."

Michael Vavricek, editor and producer of Sound of Mind audio magazine, calls in and sings an improvised verse of "Is That All There Is?" (my theme song for 2004), then agrees to meet us at home.

I'm exhausted but speedy, like I've been on acid for days. I try to cook corn dogs for my guests, offering them salad dressing and hot sauce as condiments. My eyes are weeping, causing the matted fur on my blindfold to rub my eyelids raw, but there are lovely messages on my answering machine -- songs, salutations, harmonica serenades. Vavricek tears up pieces of paper and tells me detailed stories about the photographs I don't really hold -- the first time he kissed a girl, the last time he saw his father alive. He offers me fresh fruit juices and makes me laugh so much that eyes seem pointless after a while. I sleep hard and long and rise to pizza and chocolate cake in the morning. (Vavricek has chosen to feed me wedges.) We go out into the world, take a ride in Vavricek's spaceship to a castle inside a great tree lined with balls of cotton: the home of Nik and Nancy Phelps of Sprocket Ensemble fame. I feel their house for the first time -- all the instruments, a fascinating roll of saran wrap, and a hanging mobile that curls around me like an octopus. Nancy serves us brownies and rose-flavored tea and swears that she doesn't live in a tree. I am befuddled, but avoid the swinging arms of saw blades.

At home again, having braved a Friday night restaurant and more inclement weather, I realize I no longer know my house as well as I once did. The memory of it is fading faster than my other senses can learn, and it is all I can do to sit on my bed or navigate the bathroom. Vavricek sings songs, threatens me with Vogon poetry, and reads a beautiful story about elephants. Occasionally, I hurl paper cups.

On the final day, Toast and Northrup take me on a bus, push me down a slide, guide me around the world on the face of an enormous globe, give me a carousel ride, and take me bowling. I place second after throwing my first ball into the neighboring lane and getting my foot caught under the gutter guard. Vavricek arrives to whisk us away into the wilds. A long walk, over open land, climbing over, under, up, and down, an endless trek with sun and dirt and plants and strange sculptures that spring from the ground covered in bark and beads and spinning blades. Then into a cave, sitting on a stone bench, sweating. And they say, "It's time."

I remove my blindfold and shut my eyes. It's too much. I try again. The walls bend and sway. I watch them dance, covered in vivid paint, not nearly as vivid as my friends, who are smiling, glowing like electric filament. Vavricek's face is painted as if he's been through a war; Northrup is all in red. We walk up a tiny spiral staircase, and I find myself outside in the midst of a concrete heart on top of the Albany Bulb, with San Francisco laid out before us like a jeweled mirage. The sun is melting behind the Golden Gate, and a single sailboat floats on the mirrored bay. It's unreal. The reality is unreal -- bigger, wider, brighter, more fantastic than anything my mind could imagine. Tears come and the nausea subsides and I smile at the missive carved in the concrete at my feet:

To California

A heart of gold

Live up to it

Let the good time roll

Happy New Year.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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