A San Francisco fixture I’ve long considered a kindred spirit passed away this week. Sixty year-old Gregory Jacobs plied his trade with a couple Eucalyptus branches, a low growl, and clever hiding spots in plain sight. Mostly he preyed (in a good way) on unsuspecting tourists who roam the streets of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf by the millions each year. Jacobs would conceal himself behind the branches, squatting by a railing or trash bin, then scare the bejesus out of someone who happened to walk next to him. Tips ensued, the frightened-then-relieved tipper happy to be alive, if still shaking from the quick adrenaline buzz.
I say “kindred spirit” because for as long as I can remember, I too have always relished (maybe not in a good way) giving someone a good scare. In grade school, I took great pride in how many trick or treaters I could terrorize by launching out from under a pile of orange and red leaves optimally positioned near our Strathmore home’s Halloween candy distribution point. Don’t get them on the way in, get them on the way out, when they’re relaxed, distracted, and convinced that no one is going to jump out at them at this house. That is the time to achieve maximum effect.
Before you get too judgy, remember that I was a kid at the time, not a full grown man scaring kids. Sheesh.
And it wasn’t just limited to Halloween. My old house had tons of dark corners and alleyways, perfect for frightening my friends, on occasion even triggering a loosed bladder. My friends would try to return the favor; try to catch me off guard as I had done to them. My friend David once lay in wait around a corner of my first floor stairs. My unsuspecting father padded up said stairs. My unsuspecting friend was about to jump out at my unsuspecting father (thinking he was me). I heard a “raaaaahhh!” then a “SMAACK” of skin-on-skin punctured the air a millisecond later. David stumbled back down the stairs, defeated, holding his hand to his cheek. When he pulled his hand away, the red mark left by another hand (my father’s) was clearly visible.
Loyal readers may recognize this instance as yet another example of my modern interpretation of Slapped Cheek Syndrome, by the way.
My preoccupation with delivering a good scare has, on occasion, crossed the line. I once terrified my considerably-younger cousin, Shane, with a midnight “zombie with arms outstretched” performance in his bedroom during a sleepover. My Uncle Nate (Shane’s dad), rather than scold me, took his revenge the next night. I awoke with a start at the sight of a zombie that was not me, with glow-in-the-dark, blood shoot eyeballs, no less. Lesson learned: Don’t scare kids who are considerably younger than you. At least not the ones whose dads possess glow-in-the-dark, bloodshot eyeball pieces.
Another time, I delivered a terrifying performance one evening while attending law school in Cleveland. I crouched down at the innermost brick wall of our darkened garage, awaiting my guest’s car to pull into the garage any second. Car pulls in, garage remains dark, I conceal myself away from throw of the driver’s headlights. Driver steps out of car, unsuspecting. I don’t just jump out and yell “raaaaah!” I consider myself pretty good at this. Instead, I crinkle some leaves. Just loudly enough for the driver to wonder whether they actually heard something or just imagined it. Then crinkling a little louder, and louder still, calibrating the volume of the crinkling to the increasing pace with which the driver is first strolling, then walking briskly, now running towards the front door of my rented house in a full panic. I give chase, my identity concealed by the fortuitous lack of a streetlight on our particular corner. We are both at nearly a full sprint before the jig is up. At which point I double over in high-pitched giggles, overcome with laughter. The driver? Not so much. Lesson learned: Don’t scare the young woman who would one day become your fiancee, then wife, then mother of your children. She will have sixty some-odd years in which to plot her revenge.
So enamored am I of the art of fright that I once “tried out” for a job as a Haunted House actor. Sitting in a circle of other applicants, I hit my low point when my turn came to give my prospective employer my “best growl.” Needless to say, I did not get the job. Embarrassing still, some 20 years later. Lesson learned: Keep it spontaneous. In the moment. You can’t manufacture a good scare where there is no genuine, good scare to be had.
Which brings me back to the San Francisco Bushman. His scare was genuine. No matter how many times he rolled it out, I reckon each scare felt to him like his first scare. His victims’ jumps, yelps, raised eyebrows, shouted curse-words — he probably lived for that stuff.
He certainly caught me on more than one occasion; an amateur scarer shown the real deal by a Master Scarer. And for a second or two every time he got me, I chuckled, reminded of what it feels like to be alive. To feel something real, fight-or-flight style. All the nonsense of the day-to-day stripped away in a moment. Something that provokes hearty, childlike laughter. From both parties. I will miss that man.
The Bushman is Gone, Long Live the Bushman!
Thanks for reading.