I'm in a borrowed 2000 purple Volvo hatchback, and I’m having major visibility issues thanks to a pile of broken-down cardboard boxes stuffed into the back – all of which I found this morning in the dumpsters of two apartment buildings, a Japanese restaurant, and a bird supply store.
I'm swiping through the iTunes app while driving, trying to find that one song from Gladiator . I'm paralyzed by choice (“Barbarian Horde”? “The Battle”?) and am almost to my buddy Jared's place in Lower Pac Heights, so I give up on Maximus Decimus Meridius and Co. and start looking for Jared's address.
Jared is 32. He drives a '62 Ford Ranchero and is the co-founder of one of the most successful PR firms in San Francisco. He's also super stoked for Boxwars – and when I finally spot him on his front steps, he's wearing a Spartan mask made out of a Honey Nut Cheerios box to prove it.
Boxwars is a four-year-old corrugated battle royal where people build armor and weaponry out of cardboard and duct tape and then meet at Dolores Park to beat the crap out of each other a few times annually.
We stop by the Spirit Halloween Store on Van Ness for arsenal inspiration, and then hit up Taqueria El Buen Sabor in the Mission for pre-battle burritos and beer, which we agree is optimal fighting food and drink. From there, we walk to the dollar store on 17th Street for two pairs of scissors and warrior face-paint (i.e., "Bonita" brand eyeliner), then to a liquor store for a 12-pack of Modelo cans, which the liquor store dude says is the coldest case in the store. Awesome.
We unload the cardboard from the purple hatchback, plus three rolls of duct tape, then pop open two beers and frantically start cutting. We've decided we're going to make Thor-style hammers. They won't have the same reach as a sword, but they seem better for close combat and less likely to bend or break. I cut about 25 rectangular pieces (which is considerably harder with dollar store scissors), stack them, and aggressively tape them into a pretty amazing hammer head using an entire roll of duct tape to secure the weapon.
I toss it to Jared and his eyes get crazy-big.
"Dude, you are going to hurt someone with this."
When we first broached the subject of Boxwars, our top priority was to build a massive Trojan horse that we'd wheel in and use to intimidate the shit out of the rest of the box warriors. But there are only 20 minutes left until go time, so we settle for shields. I make Jared's with a box that once held a toilet and make sure the toilet pic is facing outwards. Meanwhile, he builds me a replica Spartan helmet using a box of knockoff Frosted Flakes from Trader Joe's.
We armor up and toss the unused cardboard in the back of the car before, Jesus, an ambulance parks right behind my Volvo. We make the trek across the park, stopping by a palm to stash our 12-pack to return to for victory beers later. There's a thin crowd surrounding the battlefield, and I can see a cardboard axe towering over everyone, establishing that we are in fact in the right place. When we finally break through the veil of onlookers, we realize we've made a slight miscalculation.
We've built scarily superior weapons. Everyone else constructed flimsy, uninspired cardboard cutouts of medieval arms. Crap weapons or not, though, we decide we want the biggest peeps on our side. This edition of Boxwars is apparently the first-ever clan battle, which basically means there will be two teams. We introduce ourselves to Daniel first.
Daniel's from Honolulu, in town to visit some buddies. He's insanely bearded and he's also wielding the first-ever Boxwars chainsaw, a cartoonish cardboard replica that looks like it's actually chainsawing when he shakes his arm vigorously. Daniel also has some intricate (albeit pointless) head-to-torso body armor, and to show his true dedication to corrugated dominance, he’s wearing, um‚ Tevas. He apparently spent "six to seven days" on his costume.
The inventor/organizer of Boxwars – Mat – introduces himself, splits us into teams, and asks everyone for their Boxwarrior name. Chainsaw Dan is, naturally, Juggernaut. I end up going by The Boxwars Italic, you know, to keep the freelance writing assignments coming. Mat, who launched Boxwars, is wearing a pink shirt with a poorly spray-painted Boxwars logo on it. He has now hosted five Boxwars battles in the city and two in LA. He's seen it all.
"I've gotten a few black eyes, seen a few bloody noses. A lot of guys do the whole warrior thing, build their weapon up so it'll last longer, but it's more fun when you do something creative."
Now he tells us.
He remembers a guy who dressed as a box pirate with a lifelike parrot on his shoulder, and another who came as a dinosaur. Mat was a giraffe for the last war, but comes this time as the Transamerica Pyramid.
The pre-Boxwars niceties carry on for another 20 minutes, and I end up meeting two guys from the opposing clan: Richard, a fire dancer who works in the Mission and is wielding two duct-tape poi that are NOT on fire; and one of his buddies, who "got a handle of Jägermeister and a shit-ton of boxes and just went crazy." This guy’s armor kind of sucks, isn't really historically referential or creative, and he's just got a giant tube for a weapon. I've made a mental note to hit this guy first.
I also meet Kate (aka Viking Princess), who watched the last Boxwars throwdown while nursing a bum knee. "You learn a lot about people in the first five minutes," she says.
And she's right.
Mat huddles with each team, tells us not to get too violent, that this is for "fun" (WTF?), then gets the attention of the suddenly six-deep Dolores Park crowd that's boxing us in. He starts to count down from five.
And I black out.
Well, not really; actually, not at all. But with all the screaming, and my heart jackhammering in my chest, I'm half expecting to.
I go right at Mr. Jägermeister, but lose him in the shuffle of bodies and cardboard and end up slamming my hammer into anything that moves. In just the first five minutes, my hands are throbbing (and are suddenly crazy blistered from all the scissoring and weapon-gripping) and my arm is shot. Raising this thing is exhausting – it's like trying to fight with a bowling ball.
I find Jared and we implement a back-to-back maneuver (we're pretty sure we saw this in a movie and it worked); almost everyone is facing Jared, so he does most of the work. I watch Kate and some guy in a lion hat get a little too serious. There are blows to the head, grappling, cheap shots, and the crowd is fixated, roaring with every vicious strike.
My biggest accomplishment of the approximately 15-minute battle is crushing someone's sword with enough force to knock it out of his hand. Other than that, I am mostly just clashing sword to shield.
Mat finally rumbles through in his Transamerica death trap and takes what proves to be the biggest beating of the afternoon. Mob mentality takes over and everyone turns on him, topples the pyramid, and piles on WWF-style.
Everyone is exhausted at this point. So it ends.
One guy raises his hands in the air, screams, and everyone just sort of does the same thing, acknowledging the winner-less end of Boxwars. I open my notebook, write "Fuck," and that's all I can manage.
Cardboard remains are sorted into neat little piles and Mat clears them away with help from a few of the combatants. By the time I look up, the mob of park-goers are back on their blankets, smoking pipes, throwing back beers (probably ours), and it's as if Boxwars never even happened.
Jared and I help with the final massive pile. There are two kids who want our weapons. Jared hands his over, but I make up some excuse about a nonexistent son I have back home who's going to want it, because I decide this hammer is not only too cool to give away to a kid – it's too deadly.
Start building your cardboard armor and weaponry now in anticipation of "Boxwars 6" on March 10th, and follow their Tumblr for the location, details, and tons of corrugated awesomeness.