Love Letters in the Mission

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En Español.

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A chill winter breeze didn’t stop the search in the Mission last Saturday. Couples, friends, families and a few single adventurers passed through the doors of Viracocha, a vintage store at 21st and Valencia streets. Maps and clues at hand, they marched excitedly past the red balloon tethered just outside the door.

They were following a trail of clues left by local artist Olga Nunes, 34, creator of the Mission’s first-ever Valentine’s Day Love Letter Scavenger Hunt. The hunt was the first of a three-act performance piece designed by Nunes and executed with a little help from her friends.

From noon to 7 p.m., the searchers had just enough time to find, scan and read 100 love letters that were scattered up and down Valencia Street.

“You told me once you should never go anywhere without confetti.” – Letter #28

Together, the letters make up a 15,000-word novella about a woman named Lux searching for a man called Lamp, whom she once loved. As scavenger hunters found more letters, they were able to piece together the love story while tracking their found letters online through mobile devices.

The quest for love letters was the first act of a three-act play that will continue with the novella and conclude with the release of Nunes’ first full-length album, LAMP. The entire performance piece has been in the works for two and a half years.

Among Saturday’s scavenger hunt participants were two friends, Charissa Faire, 36, and Julian Maestas, 23, who got a late start.  Faire and Maestas weren’t there purely by accident. “One of my best friends is Olga,” Faire said. “I helped her organize part of this.”

Faire, who works with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, proofread all the letters twice, copied them onto a template so they all had the same look, and selected keywords to match the physical letters to the online content.

As she went from balloon to balloon, occasionally saying “Oh, I know this one,” it was clear that Faire knew most of the letters by heart. For her, the scavenger hunt was an opportunity to enjoy the sunshine and light breeze of a San Francisco winter.

She recalled her favorite line: “We’re all lighthouses, here. Beams sweeping the sea, hoping to catch sight of something in the dark.”

A group of Nunes’ friends had earlier slipped on orange vests and gone up and down Valencia Street between 20th and 17th streets, attaching 100 red balloons to bike rails and parking meters. Each balloon was tied to a key, a digital scan code and code word, and a plastic bottle with a letter placed neatly inside.

“I fill envelopes with pages of longhand. On the outside I write “a description of a photograph you’ve never taken.” — Letter #31

Nunes got the idea for the hunt when she discovered the alternate reality game used to promote Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.”

“It blurred the line between fiction and reality,” she says.

That game, called The Beast, lasted 12 weeks and took fans from one clue to the next, uncovering a new world that existed beyond the film. Although she stumbled in too late to actually play, Nunes did contact creator Sean Stewart to ask how he did it.

Stewart was receptive to her letters, Nunes says. He gave her important advice for running and planning an alternate reality game: “Just act like you belong there.” Those words were key to handling the Love Letter Scavenger Hunt.

“You either wait, helpless, for the fog to lift. Or you take control of the one thing you still can. And you walk out the door.” — Letter #3

Nunes launched a campaign on Kickstarter in the hope of raising enough money to fund the album and the scavenger hunt. When that failed to meet its goals, she turned to the Awesome Foundation, a Boston-based group that provides microgrants for what its website calls “crazy brilliant” projects.

“I got a grant from the Awesome Foundation for $1,000 to make more awesome,” Nunes laughs. “Honestly, I don’t even remember how I found it.” The key to a grant is simple, she says: “Just tell them what you’re going to do.”

On the Awesome Foundation’s website are photos of Valencia Street decked out with floating red balloons bearing the romantic clues, and a statement by Nunes: “I hope the scavenger hunt encourages wonder, whimsy, and hopeless romantics all over the Bay Area.”

After receiving the grant, Nunes began logistically mapping out her vision onto the Mission. She approached a few of her favorite stores and a few she thought would be open to the idea, and made them the key clues in the hunt. Then she asked several other stores for permission to post red balloons just outside their doors.

“I collect love letters now every week, bearing post marks from all over the world. Letters that never arrived at their destination — or arrived, and were tossed aside.” — Letter #8

In choosing the spots to post clues, Nunes says, she selected “a place people should discover.” One example was Our Shelves, a lending library inside Viracocha; another was 826 Valencia, which houses a student writing center as well as the only independent pirate supply store in the city.

Each clue contained some information about the project and the love story of Lux and Lamp. The first clue mentioned letters in bottles tied to red balloons falling out of the sky, and the last disclosed the identity of Lux’s love interest.

Convincing store owners to humor her and place clues in seven designated locations wasn’t the biggest obstacle Nunes faced — that was the balloons.

“There’s a worldwide helium shortage,” she explains. The unexpected problem threatened to disrupt her vision of large red balloons tied to every parking meter in the Mission. In the novella, Lux releases the balloons with love letters into the world, hoping they will one day reach Lamp.

Eventually Nunes found a Hayward store willing to sell her some helium for the project.

Another unexpected problem was thievery: she hadn’t counted on the temptation posed by a street full of bright red balloons.

People took balloons, giving them to children or placing them on rooftops. Some of the letters and keys also went missing, forcing Nunes and her friends to police the area. They kept watch throughout the day, replacing the disappearing clues and letters.

“Part of me is sad,” she says, but “I’m also intrigued that people stole love letters and thought, ‘I must take them home.’”

It’s OK that someone “just really needed a love letter,” she says.

During the scavenger hunt, groups of young people giggled while reading letters out loud, and children excitedly poked the missives out of the plastic bottles with their small fingers, some completely ignoring that they were on a hunt for the bigger story.

If a fast reader sat down to read all 100 letters, Nunes says, it would take them about two and a half hours.

“We’re all waiting for our own story.” — Letter #98

Nunes and the store owners say they are happy with the results of the scavenger hunt.

“It was very popular,” says a clerk at the Curiosity Shoppe.

“It was written to inspire exploration of the city,” says Nunes. “For me, the point of this is to bring delight to people, so they feel happy.”

The second and third acts have already been written. Nunes divulges that the second act tells the story through Lamp’s eyes, and the third provides an epilogue to the love story. There’s always a little wiggle room for change, however.

No date has been set yet for the next stages of the performance piece — the novella and album — because, Nunes confesses, she has a “bad relationship” with plans. But she confidently predicts that Mission romantics will learn the next chapters of Lux and Lamp’s love story “soon.”

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