Smoke on the Water
One of the best things about living in a big city like San Francisco is that you don’t have to do anything the normal way. For example, when you go out to dinner you’re not stuck choosing between Applebee’s and the Olive Garden. Instead, you have your pick of everything from Korean BBQ to wood-fired pizza to the best burritos in the world (shut up, L.A.). If you want to see a movie, you have half a dozen art house theaters to choose from and about a million cool little cafés to sit in and talk about the film afterward. If you’re looking for some unconventional exercise, you can even dress up as a buxom centipede and run a footrace while chugging beer from a hose.
So when I was put in charge of organizing a friend’s “golden birthday” I decided to look beyond the standard trinity of birthday celebrations – bar crawl/dinner/house party – and put together something a little more unusual. My friend had no other input beyond the words “Magnum P.I.” and “moustache,” which left me a little puzzled at first. Obviously I wasn’t going to rent a Ferrari or fly everyone out to my beachfront mansion in Hawaii. However, I was intrigued by the thought of a beach party, and I got to thinking about the epic late-night bonfires my high school friends and I used to have out at Ocean Beach. I focused all my brainpower on the foggiest part of San Francisco and slowly a plan began to form.
My first move was to head out to the beach for a little recon. Back in the mid-’90s Ocean Beach was a sort of lawless place, with homeless campers bathing in the frigid tide and gay men lurking in the shadows searching for anonymous public sex. As teenagers drinking beer and listening to music, we were by far the tamest things on the sand. But I had heard that the beach has since been cleaned up and the cops were now cracking down on drinking and amplified music. I’m guessing they also put the kibosh on public sex.
That said, bonfires are still completely legal on Ocean Beach. The parks department, in conjunction with the Surfrider Foundation and a Burning Man splinter group, has even installed about a dozen bizarrely shaped metal fire pits and designated the entire area directly beneath the park as OK for fires. I checked the location off my list and headed back up through the Richmond to search out supplies.
There is no particular cuisine associated with Magnum P.I., so I would have to step outside the party theme in order to come up with a suitable food and beverage selection. I didn’t want to trek all over the city in search of supplies, but I didn’t want to cut corners by going to Safeway either. That would be too normal. Instead, I decided to outfit the bonfire party entirely with goods from ethnic food stores and quirky local merchants out by the water.
At New World Market, I picked up thick pumpernickel bread, some unidentifiable Russian candy, and a couple of very large sausages. Each of the long, rope-like sausages had unpronounceable names followed by English adjectives like “spicy” or “smoked.” I got one of each. My next stop was Seakor Polish Delicatessen and Sausage Factory. The owner and his daughter steered me to their famous garlic sausage – which was even bigger than the New World variety – and a jar of authentic Polish mustard. The owner also convinced me to try a slice of poppy seed cake, which his aunt had baked that morning.
I checked mustard and giant sausages off my list and went in search of booze. I still wasn’t sure if it was OK to drink on the beach, so I decided to keep it discreet. I would get a couple bottles of bourbon and mix up some hot drinks – toddys and Irish coffees served in paper cups so as not to attract attention. Unintentionally, I parked in front of Blackwell's Wines and Spirits, an upscale liquor store that I had never noticed before. The clerk, a talkative Ned Flanders–type, was very helpful and full of corny jokes. He walked me through the store’s ample whiskey selection and then stood back grinning as I picked out two bottles of decent but very cheap liquor.
The car was filled with a pleasant smoked-meat aroma when I climbed back in and headed across the park. I shot up Irving Street to Easy Money, where a sign out front boasted, “If We Don’t Have It You Don’t Need It.” This may be true for some, but I wasn’t in the market for discount cigarettes or imitation fur toilet seat covers (for the part of the toilet you actually sit on). I only wanted paper cups, which I found in the very back for 99 cents a pack.
As the sun slipped into the ocean, I took my party supplies and my 10-day old moustache down to the beach to meet my friends. I expected to be one of the only people building a bonfire, so I was surprised to see that all of the official fire pits were already taken. I suffered a brief moment of panic. Where would I build our fire? I hadn’t even thought to bring a shovel.
However, a dozen other groups had dug their own pits closer to the seawall. I saw one guy waist-deep in a pit the size of a minivan. Building a fire near the wall is a good thing because starting a fire in the wind would have been nearly impossible. A friend of mine traded someone an Irish coffee for the use of his shovel so we could dig in for the evening.
Once the daylight disappeared completely, I noticed fires up and down the beach. This was not at all like my high school days. There were no strange lurkers bugging us for beer or trying to steal our radio. Moreover, we weren’t the only ones out there. Hundreds of people milled about, playing drums, throwing footballs, and generally carrying on as though it wasn’t dark and freezing cold.
Which brings us to the fire. I had recently chopped down a dead tree in my backyard, so I had more than enough wood to fill the trunk of my car. In addition to some kindling from a construction site and last Sunday’s paper, I had everything I needed to keep a fire going for at least a few hours.
I was using a big cardboard box as a makeshift kitchen and bar. I highly recommend this technique, as anything exposed to the wind is instantly covered in fine sand. I had cut the sausages into chunks at home, and now I arranged them on long metal skewers. I stuck the skewers into the sand along the sides of the fire pit, and within minutes the sausages were sizzling. The drinks were flowing freely and in no time we were all basking in a warm, porky alcohol glow.
Perhaps it was because I didn’t know what to expect, but I was surprised to find that this was one of the best parties I had been to in a while. My friends and I toasted marshmallows and laughed at the flavor of the mysterious Russian candy (a combination of hot cocoa mix and bar soap). We drank and quizzed one another on arcane Tom Selleck trivia: Did you know that Steven Spielberg originally cast him to play Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark ? Best of all, we never saw a single cop or park ranger or anybody else who might have bothered us about drinking on the beach.
Until the clock struck 10 p.m., that is. As soon as the official park closing time rolled around, police cruisers entered the parking lot en masse and blocked off all of the exits with flares. A friend who showed up late because she was baking special moustache cupcakes had to plead with the cops for 15 minutes before they let her park her car.
And while they didn’t kick us off the beach per se, it was hard to see their blinding strobe lights as anything other than a buzzkill. The message they were clearly trying to convey was “you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”
We had burned through all of our booze, food, and firewood anyway, so we doused
the fire and headed back up to our cars. The wind seemed colder up in the parking lot, and our Hawaiian shirts were quickly covered in thick hoodies. We pointed our cars east and drove toward warmer climes with sand in our moustaches and smoke in our eyes.
If you’re pulling a burn at Ocean Beach and you don’t want to haul a grill down to the sand, pick up some sausages at New World Market or Seakor Polish Delicatessen and Sausage Factory. They’re precooked and easy to warm up on pretty much any skewer, stick, or sharp thing you can find. Blackwell's on Geary has all the liquor and wine you could ever want. Just be sure to stop at Easy Money for some paper cups because glass is not allowed at the beach.
As for the bonfire itself, get there early if you’re going on a weekend or a full moon to secure a fire pit – at least a couple of hours before sundown. If you haven’t recently chopped down a tree, check craigslist or construction site dumpsters for free firewood. If nothing else, you can always buy it by the box at some large grocery stores.
Fires are allowed between Lincoln Way and Fulton Street, directly west of Golden Gate Park. No fires are allowed on "Spare the Air" days or on days of extreme fire danger. Also, the beach technically closes at 10 p.m., but this rule mostly refers to the parking lot. In reality you can stay much later – just be sure to park at the Beach Chalet across the street.