Leader of the hunt

Jayson Wechter writes riddles to lead treasure hunters through San Francisco's backstreet
By Rick Polito, Marin Independent Journal (Feb. 2002)
Note: Date- and time-specific is no longer correct

Jayson Wechter loves a mystery.

But he loves giving other people a night mystery even more.

Wechter, 49 is the writer of riddles behind the San Francisco Chinese New York Treasure Hunt, an annual event that pits teams of frantic clue-seekers running through the parade clogged streets of San Francisco on an evening of puzzles, historic nooks and narrow alleyways. This year's hunt will be held Feb. 23.

Wechter, a San Francisco private investigator, calls his hunt "a great introduction to the city."

Participants like J. Tony Smith, a 34-year-old San Francisco musician, call it one of the high points of the year. "It feels like you're in the middle of this big secret thing," Smith says, comparing the sensation to the James Bond carnival chase scene in "Live and Let Die."
Smith's wife, Diane Hidy, likes the intellectual challenge" and the chance to channel her inner Nancy Drew. It's the biggest rush of my year," says the 42-year-old pianist.

For Wechter, it's a passion.

"It's just a wonderful form of discovery for me to get to show people the city through my eyes", he says.

Wechter is hooked on cities. He remembers growing up in a Brooklyn immigrant neighborhood awash in colors, sights, sounds and people, peering into back windows as he'd rush by on the elevated train. That urban pageant sparked a streak of curiosity that never waned. Every detail in the urban landscape is a story to him. "There's this whole sense of an inner life that you'll never understand," he says.

That's why I became an investigator," he adds.

San Francisco became his city when he was dropped off in North Beach 26 years ago by a driver who'd picked him up hitchhiking. "My first taste of San Francisco was walking up Columbus (Avenue)," he recalls.

He learned the streets as a taxi driver. He learned the people as a free-lance writer, later parlaying his self-proclaimed "nosy" nature into a job as a private investigator.

"I got to ask even more nosy questions," he says.

The hunt started as a game with friends. He liked role-playing games. He liked mystery games. He helped found a San Francisco mystery readers club. He put on some hunts for small groups, and 12 years ago decided to publicize it as a benefit (this year's hunt helps the Hamilton Family Center in San Francisco provide temporary shelter to homeless families).

Two hundred people showed up the first year. This year, he'll cut it off at 1,500 people.

"Every year I double the price and every year twice as many people showed up," Wechter notes. And every year it consumes his life.

A bona fide city buff, Wechter complains that most city visitors are trudging over the details, walking past a rich urban canvas of history and culture. "They don't look up, they don't look down. They don't notice anything," he says.

The hunt makes them look, and closely.

The clues require a dexterous mind and an eye for detail as the teams race around the city following Wechter's creatively written clues to find small lettered codes taped or scrawled in unexpected places. Knowing the lettered codes proves the team found the object of the clue and puts them in the running for the grand prize: a cake and a bottle of champagne.

The clues that guide the teams to the lettered codes are as arcane as they are challenging. There are three divisions: beginner, regular and masters. Past clues give some indication.

Beginners start simple- "In the place where those who mass critically meet, find a shiny gent with big feet and get his name."

The regular division requires a bit more brain power- "If you know what cost $265 an once, you'll follow Horce Greeley's advice, till you hit the bricks, Then find reminder of an army that never fired a shout."

The master's division exists in another dimension of non-linear thinking. "That's when I get to play around and have fun," Wechter says.

Wechter will also be contributing clues to the May 18 Marin Treasure Hunt in San Rafael.

The San Francisco hunts lasts four hours, from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. During this whole time, the streets are jammed with crowds, cars, the sound of fireworks and troupes of lions dancers making their way through Chinatown for the Chinese New Year's Celebration.
Chinatown, Wechter says is "visually and culturally the richest part of the city. "

The backdrop, the clues, the trill of what Wechter calls "the joy of ah-ha!" keep participants coming back year after year. They bring cellular phones. They bring laptop computers and Palm Pilots. They have pre-hunt meetings to map out strategies.

It's addictive, they say.

"It creates an altered state of awareness all on its own," says Gail Williams, 48. The San Francisco director of communities for Salon.com describes the hunt as "a living creative landmark."

Wechter spends the months before the hunt searching alleyways and side streets for secret places and hidden discoveries. He lives to peel away the layers of history and find the past rendered in the artifacts and details of the urban environment.

"I love the stories the city has to tell," he says.

The hunt has become a way to help more people know those stories, to help them see the city that he sees walking through narrow alleys strung with laundry lines, graffiti and history.

"Every year," Wechter says, I find something I haven't seen before."