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The Latitude Society — a story.

jessica lachenal
Oct 26, 2015 · 18 min read

It’s late. It’s dark. It’s cold, and none of us in the car know where we are, exactly. Somewhere south of San Francisco, in the pitch black darkness, our car glows, a solitary point of light that trundles along a street that becomes a road that becomes a dirt path. Just outside our doors, a chilly crosswind blows in from the bay.

“Is that the police behind us?” I ask, watching the bobbing headlights of two cars behind us grow in the side mirror. Dori, my friend behind the wheel, pulls over. “I don’t know,” she says. She always plays it safe, and often stands as the voice of reason, much like she was doing right now. She has a real knack for finding structure in chaos and pointing important things out to us weirdos who spent way too much time with our heads in the clouds.

Nobody else in the car answers. Her Mazda is packed with people, all of us wearing black. Behind her sits Albert, who was pretty quiet throughout the ride down into the city from Oakland. Behind me sits Andrew, another friend of mine, and Dori’s partner. He stopped fiddling with his phone a few miles back. We’d long given up on trying to play some music, something to get us all in the mood for whatever the hell it was we were supposed to be doing.

The approaching headlights begin to bloom, their radiance engulfing the rear view mirror until they float right past us, diving into the pitch black darkness of the unknown.

“At least we won’t be the first ones in,” Dori says.

We didn’t really know what we were doing. When people asked what The Latitude Society was — and boy did they ever ask — no one ever had a straight answer. Book club, bowling league, sewing circle, terrarium club… these were all excuses, a shell game hiding what was really going on in our lives. If I had to explain what we were doing, it would probably sound something like this: we met. We talked about lofty dreams of sharing magic and wonder in a world we thought could use them. Sometimes we celebrated, we drank, and we cheered, and we dreamt of what the future might bring.

I know what you’re thinking, and no, it wasn’t a cult. As a friend and fellow compeer (initiated member of the Society) of mine would often joke: “Things would be so much easier if we were a cult. We’d get so much more done.”

All told, we never really got a straight answer about what The Latitude Society was. According to some, it was supposed to be a community. It was supposed to be a group of people who would share experiences with each other — experiential tithes, in the parlance — to enrich the lives of their fellow Society members.

After spending so much time dancing around questions with answers that are just barely tethered to legitimacy, I think it makes sense, then, why I still have a hard time explaining what the hell we were doing.

It’s because the Latitude Society was so many different things to so many different people. Even so, one thing was for certain: it was special. It was important. And in a small handful of brief, shining moments, it was a part of all of us.

Dori pulls back onto the road and follows the other cars in. The questions of who set this meeting up, where we’re going, what we’re supposed to do, they all fade into the chilly San Francisco night.

We’re barely into the dark lot when we notice the parking lot packed with police cruisers. My heart catches in my throat, and I swallow hard to force it back down. The cars are empty. Across from them are cones, set up in a winding track, the reflective tape on each of their orange surfaces glinting in the darkness. As we drive silently past the police training course, we begin to slow down.

All the cars pull over and park next to some shipping containers not far from where we were told to assemble. Everyone gets out and begins to put on coats, hoodies, and dark clothing. Some have dark robes — a request, specified in the invitation that mysteriously appeared in our inboxes. I simply tuck my hands in my peacoat and wait while people prepare themselves for the night ahead.

To a lot of people, The Latitude Society was an interactive, in-person experience.

Membership into the Society came by invitation only. Someone would notice you, or a friend who was already in would share it with you, but they would always invite you face-to-face. It was crucial, they told us. It was important that the invitation process (or ritual, as we called it) remain a physical in-person exchange. Of course, that made sense as far as the fact that we were passing along a physical invitation: a white card — much like a credit card — with zeroes emblazoned on the front, wrapped in a black sheath embossed with the words “Absolute Discretion”. But there was something lying deep within the heart of the invitation ritual that set the tone for what was to come: that person-to-person contact. It was from there that one’s journey down the rabbit hole began.

This emphasis on the physical, in-person exchange stuck with me, lodging itself in my mind like a popcorn kernel in my molars that I couldn’t stop tonguing. Your very first experience — before the Books (more on that later), before the online spaces, before praxes or events — was with just one other person. Just you, them, and a question: can you keep a secret?

We silently walk over to the edge of the bay. As we sneak underneath a large loading crane, we run into a few other figures, similarly dressed in black. They stand in silence, the breeze from the bay whipping the hems of their cloaks and coats against their legs. Before them sits a metal bowl containing some paper weighed down by a rock. One figure holds a cigarette in its hand, glowing gently. The spectre raises it to its mouth to take another drag, and the soft orange glow lights up its face.

It’s Admiral, a so-called “child of the box,” referring to the brown box in which some people found their Society invitations. A few months before, Jeff Hull, the creator of the Latitude Society, had a speaking engagement with StoryCode SF. He was going to talk about his new project, the Latitude. But to do so, he wanted to make sure everyone in the audience had context. He needed them all to know what he was talking about when he talked about slides in the Mission and underground libraries.

Rather than trying to invite all the attendees himself (which would’ve been an incredibly long endeavor), he had invites registered to the event organizer, who would find out how to ritualize the mass invite. How did the organizer end up delivering the invites? He left them in a brown Amazon shipping box left on a front stoop of an apartment building in San Francisco.

It became obvious that the “children of the box” didn’t get the same invitation ritual, the same meaning out of what was supposed to be a special moment. In response, the community — the Society — banded together to “adopt” the invitees, sharing with them the kind of magic that they were given when they received their invitations. That magical, special connection shared between ascendant and descendant (inviter and invitee, respectively) was long held as a sacred ritual worth protecting, so of course everyone did what they could to keep this beloved tradition alive.

If you boiled down the Latitude, you would see that it came down to a set of traditions. Traditions were what we had, and they were what marked everything we did as a Latitude event. Our meetings — or “praxes” — would begin and end with traditional rituals. We performed and carried out traditions from all sides of the curtain because they were our structure, our skeleton. They gave the things we did shape and direction.

These otherworldly traditions reinforced the fact that when you were with Society members, you were in another world, playing in a sandbox laid on top a world you once thought you knew. Entering this elsewhere was a confirmation to people that yes, there is something more lurking beneath the surface of a city that is so often pointed to as nothing more than a walking bastion of gentrification. It was a promise that no, you didn’t miss the boat. Quick, jump on. This space is just for you. Your adventure is about to begin.

And quite an adventure it was. Take Book One, for example. It was the first “adventure” through the Latitude. It placed you in situations you never thought you’d run into in real life: miraculous slides built into a chimney, dark tunnels, a book that plays you a story, a private lounge, these were all things that made Book One the defining adventure of our shared time in the Society. The adventure played with the idea of trust, incorporated a fair dose of the occult, and inspired fear and trepidation, but there was always, always a thread of “magical realism” running just under the current, reminding you that this magic you’re feeling is actually quite real.

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Before long, more people show up. Everyone is wearing dark clothing, clutching robes and jackets close to their shivering bodies as the temperature continues to drop. Admiral steps forward into the circle. “Thank you all for coming tonight,” he says. He gestures towards the bowl and continues. “You were all asked to bring something. If you would like, please step forward and share what it is you’ve brought before placing it into the bowl.”

Everyone shifts a little bit, from the wind or the settled-in nervousness, I can’t tell. One figure steps forward, thin moleskine notebook in her hand. It’s Carolee, another friend of mine. As she speaks, I can see bits of writing on the blank pages flipping about in the wind. “This is a notebook, with a new Fable written into its pages.” She kneels down and places the notebook into the bowl, alongside some other artifacts. “I’m burning it because our story’s different. The story’s changed. It’s time to let it go.”

“I wanted to bring a book,” Carolee later explained over Facebook Messenger. “I wanted to bring the Book of the Latitude mockup book I had, but Admiral cautioned me against burning books.” I replied that the Book of the Latitude would’ve burned so very bright. “[Admiral] said, ‘It’s harder than you think,’” she typed back. Before I could comment on the implied emotional impact of that statement, she continued. “I didn’t want to douse the whole thing in kerosene.” Fair enough.

“As much as I love the cognitive dissonance of a library preservation specialist burning a book, a thing I brought into being…” she trailed off. I offered that it was symbolic, that there was something to a preservation specialist destroying something in order to move on. I watched Facebook’s typing animation play out a few times before she responded. “Too bad it didn’t work out that way.”

The Book of the Latitude was, for all intents and purposes, an encyclopedia. It was the book that contained the lore, the mythos, and much of the background narrative for the Society. It was one of the few places we could turn to, as compeers, to find bits of rich detail concerning the world we had found ourselves inhabiting. A staggering amount of hours were poured into the creation and study of this book. The only other thing that was studied more was the Fable.

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Now, the Fable was a story that somehow straddled the line between tangible and intangible. It was a tradition, a ritual, and a centerpiece of the Latitude, rolled into one and introduced to initiates partway into the Book One experience. No two compeers remember it quite the same, and from what I understand, that was the point. Aside from common tentpole themes such as isolationism, subversion, change, and ambition, the Fable is whatever you want it to be. It was carefully crafted in such a way that it planted itself in your memory, much like a catchy tune or memorable poem.

In short, it was a story about a village that found itself resisting change, and in so doing, isolated itself from the world by building a wall around its borders. Bored with the stagnant life that came with this literal isolation, some villagers found their way through the wall. The story and its lessons focused on those villagers and their actions.

The Fable was something we all shared, one of the many narrative threads that ran through the Latitude Society. It was an oral tradition, one that brought compeers together at the beginning of our meetings. What I’ve always found so resonant about the Fable is that no two compeers told the Fable the same way. There really is no correct way to tell it. Hearing people recount the details that they latched on to the most in that first journey through Book One was a rare, privileged look inside someone’s head.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they tell their Fable. You learn what matters to them the most. I often hear people share details that I’ve never heard before, and each time, it adds a new dimension, a new facet to this story that we all share.

Albert, founder of the Empire (New York) House of the Latitude, steps into the circle. Dressed in his black cloak, patched together with spare fabric and safety pins, he pulls out a long piece of paper, inked with a letter written to the Elder’s Council (the “leadership” of the Latitude) from the Empire House. He also pulls out his phone, which contains another letter, one that he recently wrote to his descendants. Whether it’s because of the cold or because of emotion, his voice shakes just a little bit as he reads. “Dear lineage,” he begins. “It is my great burden to tell you that the San Francisco House of the Latitude has gone underground only a year and a half after its Resurgence.”

“It’s good to be back,” Albert said, and smiled. We’re in one of the Society’s secret spaces, a lounge, hanging out with a bunch of other compeers. Albert had just returned from New York, after spending about a year away. This was his first Society event since he’s returned, so it turned into a welcoming back of sorts. “It’s nice to know that no matter how long you’re away, you’ve still got a place,” he continued, still smiling, his gaze drifting just a bit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in a Society space without a smile. He looked back at me. “That no matter what, you’ve still got a home.”

For a lot of people, that secret space, the “Rathskeller Lounge,” was home. It was the one place where we all met to talk, discuss, celebrate, and be ourselves. It was much inspired by the grand tradition of Elks Lodges or Greek organization houses. It felt like our place, the rally point around which the Society revolved and focused. It was a character all on its own, with its shag rug, comfortable broken-in couches, old-style bar, right down to the “Flux photos” of Latitude Houses across the world.

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“It’s good to have you back,” I half-shouted over the crowd assembled there. I was holding a glass of water in my hand, while everyone else had some kind of libation. “It’s good to be back,” he said again. I barely heard him over the din of compeers excitedly chatting all around us. A few sat in the curtain-lined hallway behind us, with even more planted deeper inside the House. We stood in the main part of the lounge, near the bar, because, well, that’s just where you stand during a party.

We were chatting about New York and jet lag when someone shouted over the dull roar. “A toast!” they called. I couldn’t see who it was. We all called back, an echo. “A toast!”

“To Albert,” the toaster called. “Freshly returned to us from Empire House. Welcome back, compeer!” A forest of arms shot up in the lounge. “To Albert!” we all cried. I looked over at him, and he was still standing there. Just smiling. Like he always does.

Figures in the circle start looking towards the water. I turn, and the sky flashes with light. Thick, gauzy clouds have found their way across the bay, stopping over Oakland. As Albert reads, lightning strikes, illuminating the hazy stormclouds that had chosen to stay on that side of the bay.

“Over the course of the past 24 hours I have experienced a mild grief. Entering this Society was an important moment for me, and having it around has been meaningful as fuck. So the prospect of losing it is saddening,” Albert reads, sniffles punctuating his voice. I still couldn’t tell if he was sad or just cold. Carolee walks around the circle to stand next to him, providing support without saying a word. “Perhaps it’s merely shock, but as I learned of the closing, I tried to explore the grief, tried to experience the depression that so many of my friends were feeling,” he reads. “I couldn’t get to that place.

“Every time I thought about what we were losing — the community, the creativity, the magic — I literally could not imagine it ending. I could only see a band of curious, rebellious, cultural dissidents, who have found a place for each other among themselves.”

“Would you go back to the House, if given a chance?” It’s weeks later, and I’m talking to Daniel, another friend and compeer. We’re sitting in a bar in the Mission, and he’s just about done with his drink. “I think so. I don’t know.” I tilt my head. “It’s like… okay. Have you been to Animal Kingdom?” he asks, referring to the park at Disney World. I nod. “Yeah, it’s a lot of fun,” I said.

“Right. Well, there’s this roller coaster there that’s really awesome. I remember riding it for the first time, and it was absolutely amazing. It was so much fun that after I got off, I got right back in line. I wanted to experience it again. But the second time around, it was very much like… ‘oh, that was pretty fun.’ It kind of permanently changed my memory, because now when I think of that ride, all I can think about is that second, latest memory.”

I could see where he’s going. “So going back into the house would taint the memory for you?” He nods. “Yeah, yeah.” A brief pause. “I guess what I realized was that the Lounge, as nice a space as it was, wouldn’t be the reason I would go back.” His voice takes on a bit of an extra serious tilt. “I would be going back to be with all the people I care about. I’d go back to see them all again and everything. They would be the reason I’d return… because they were always the reason I returned at all.”

“What did you bring to the fire, again?” I ask. “Claim tickets,” he says. “I brought a bunch of claim tickets from the ticket room in the House.” I nod. “That’s right. Why the tickets?” He pauses for a moment and looks at his beer. “Well, I brought them because I wanted to give people the chance to reclaim their feelings, their memories about the House and the Society.

“The ticket room is something that sticks out in my mind as this great moment of blind trust built into the Book One experience. People are asked to place all their belongings into this little hole in the wall and they simply trust that it’ll be where it needs to be later. The only thing they have is a claim ticket.” His eyes are drifting off, going from the window to the table to his beer back to me. “When we were working Lighthouse and watching over people going through that experience, it always meant so much to me to see people placing their trust in us like that.”

I nod, thinking about the countless people who did just that. “There was something to having to use the ticket to reclaim your things as well,” I offer. “That you had to keep this with you as a promise that you’ll get your things back.” He nods, and takes a sip of his beer. “Right. Bringing those claim tickets that night of the fire was less about releasing something. It was more about reclaiming it.” He looks right at me. “It was about redeeming those memories from something that tried to take them from us.”

Daniel places his claim tickets into the metal bowl at the center of the circle. They’re weighted down with books, zines, and other artifacts. Somewhere high up in one of the loading cranes, a hawk cries out. Across the bay, the lightning continues to strike. Over the course of the night, everyone has taken the opportunity to say something, to talk about what they brought: papers, ephemera… memories. Eventually all these things we once carried are out of our hands, delicately placed into the bowl.

Admiral steps forward and kneels, lighter and matches in hand. He begins to set alight the things we have laid down. As he does, the sound of a voice echoes through the night. All our heads turn, straining to hear. I step out of the circle and take a few steps towards the large building next to the parked police cars, tilting my head.

“There was an island,” the voice calls. “At its center was a village. And on its shore, there was a port.” All at once, the words strike me, and I feel my heart slowly crack open for what must be the thousandth time that week. It’s the Fable. Someone is reading the Fable.

Behind us, the fire burns, these bits and pieces of pure, distilled memory releasing their finely hewn energy back into a whipping wind that carries it into a world that we still want to believe has magic to discover. The words of the Fable drift down on all of us, like the first rain on a spring morning, carrying with it promises of renewal, rebirth, and regrowth.

A few of us lay down on the moist, rocky blacktop. We look up at the underbelly of the vast metal creature that is the crane, and we listen. We listen as it reads us a story. We close our eyes and hear, for the hundredth time and yet somehow for the first time, the real story that lay at the still-beating heart of our Society, our community, and ourselves.

Across the water, lightning continues to strike. The moon, now out in full, casts its light over the glossy, turbulent bay, leaving behind a bright white lane of pure moonlight.

As the Fable ends, the wind begins to kick up again. The temperature begins to settle back down into its cold, bitter state. All together, we stand. I look at the faces of the people around me, and see something that I didn’t realize I had been looking for these past few months. I see wonder. I see joy. I see people who had just been oh so incredibly reminded that magic still exists, despite how heartrending the closure of the San Francisco House of the Latitude might have been. For the first time in seven days, I see smiles. I see happiness.

I see hope.

Carolee walks over to me, and gives me a hug. The crack in my heart ruptures, and all these pent up emotions that were hidden under shock, confusion, and anger come pouring out. I felt like over that entire week, I had cried in spits and starts, much in the same way a steam engine lets off pressure lest it crack and break. But here I was, experiencing a full and complete utter emotional breakdown, and there was nothing taking me off that track.

It all finally hit me. All of us were gathered here on a cold San Francisco night crying tears of anger, bitterness, and sadness… to say goodbye to The Latitude.

As I sob, I can smell the burning remnants of our offerings. Memories of lighting incense to prepare the Lounge for visits came flooding back into my mind. At that very moment, it was all crystal clear: as we’re saying goodbye to this… thing, this magical, wonderful thing, we’re also preparing to greet something new.

In the ashes of our past memories, which are finally free from the tangible objects onto which they were shackled, we are making room for the amazing, shiny new things to come. We are preparing the Houses inside all of us for the brand new memories that would come and be transformed and go like we all had been. We are holding space for the bright, frightening, yet exciting promises of a future with each other in a brand new home — one that is well and truly ours.

In the time it’s taken me to write this… whatever this is about the Society, there have been a number of articles published trying to define what the Society was. Most (if not all of them) have taken the angle that the Society was a business — a failed one, at that. To a point, they’re right. Nonchalance, the company behind the Society, will soon no longer exist. The Latitude, once an experiment with a promise of pioneering the “experience economy,” no longer exists. The problem? Simply put: a lack of funding. There were many more things happening behind the curtain, but this will be what’s pointed to as where The Latitude failed.

But to say that the Society failed… that would be incorrect by an order of magnitude.

What Jeff Hull created may no longer be around. But The Society — what we created, what we all had a hand in tending, nurturing, and rearing? It still lives. It’s still all around you, waiting in secret for its day in the sun to come — and it will come.

Our Fable ends with an especially poignant line. It goes: “Even now, after hundreds of years, across mountains and deserts and the widest of seas, there is still a group of people who are seeking others of like mind and heart, to take them through the tunnel and beyond the wall, in a tradition that continues to this very day.”

So, friend. I’d like to ask you a question. Can you keep a secret?

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