Little Red Riding Hood, a panda, and a 16th century Samurai warrior were no match for the doctor. The doctor, wearing a spotless white lab coat and head mirror (made out of foil), held court in the lead square and handily turned competitors away one after another. Nearby, a line of combatants—a clumsy robot, a toilet-paper-wrapped mummy, a pair of whiskered cats, a faux-stubbled pirate, and two bumblebees—waited to enter the doctor’s domain. Each proved to be no match. His reign lasted a solid 15 rounds.
“You need to spend time to be good,” the doctor said catching his breath. “I go home and practice. I have a ball and I bounce it against a wall for hours.”
He’s not talking about a medicine ball or practicing medicine. He’s talking about the venerable, elementary, throwback game of foursquare.
On Thursday night, a cast of about 40 characters gathered under the lights of the Rockridge BART parking lot for the annual pre-Halloween version of FourSquare East Bay, dubbed “Costume Square.” The character’s alter egos, twenty- and thirty-somethings from around the Bay Area, regularly enter the same hand-drawn chalked squares every Thursday from 10pm to midnight, battling for the coveted top spot—A-square.
The premise is simple enough for little kids. One large square is divided into four—A, B, C, D—one person, animal, or mythical creature per square. Players start at D-square and fight their way to A. The players bounce a rubber ball between the squares. It can bounce once in your square, but no more than that. If it hits the ground twice in your square, game over, go to the back of the line. Players shift to fill the empty square and a new player enters D-square. And repeat. For hours.
For the early part of the night, the prized A-square belonged to the doctor—who spends most of his days not as a doctor, but as Eric Sundstrom, 26, of Berkeley. Sundstrom claimed that his lack of a mask set him apart from his costumed competition. “Anyone with a mask is at a big disadvantage,” he said. “If you lose periphery, you’re done. Like in life.”
In foursquare, all stays in A-square are temporary, and the doctor was eventually ousted by a more nimble bumblebee. “I’ve been gravitating toward the B-square,” said the bee, who normally does his foursquaring as Thomas Ardnt, of Oakland. “But I’ve also been getting to the center of the hive again and again, rejoicing in the sweet honey that is A-square.”
The weekly game was started three years ago by a group of friends looking for a fun, laid-back, nighttime activity. One of them, Sam Wong— on Thursday night one of two samurai warriors in attendance, the one more obviously armored in pizza boxes—got the idea for the event when he attended a foursquare/DJ-battle while in college. As a kid, Wong was “more of a wall-ball guy.” But after seeing “foursquare in adult bodies,” he thought, “this is amazing!”
On Thursday night, loud music blared out of a single speaker and spectators ate pizza, Oreos, and beer while waiting their turn in the square. By 11:15 pm, a second set of squares had opened up to accommodate the growing crowd of costumed characters.
Around 11:30 pm, one man dressed as a BART police officer drove by in an exact replica of a BART police car. “Hide your beers. Police!” cardboard samurai Wong said between bites of pizza. The car circled the squares and left the parking lot.
Satisfied the BART officer wasn’t interested in foursquare tonight, samurai Wong finished his slice of pizza, set his half-empty beer can on the ground and made his way to the back of the line—behind a mummy, a rockclimber, and a panda bear—just as a pirate expertly skipped the ball past an outstretched cat, securing his spot in the top square.
The Other Samurai Warrior
Alias: Robert Wong
Age: “Way too old to be doing this” (39)
Costume: Intricate 16th century replica samurai costume, complete with helmet and facemask. Wong spent “hundreds of hours” making it by hand.
Dis/Advantages: “I made it to be flexible,” but “it’s a little hard to bend over in certain ways.”
Alias: Rasim Dzhabbarov
Costume: Full body robot suit made out of ice cream cone boxes. Small pink spoons as “hands,” small rectangular window for vision. “I was at work and there were boxes. And it was free,” said a muffled voice from inside the cardboard helmet.
Dis/Advantages: “It is really hard to move. I have no peripheral vision at all.”
Signature move: “The robot”—dance move that culminates with swinging a limb at the ball, successful about half the time. The robot was relegated to D-square much of the night, despite most competitors “being nice, and not going for too many kill shots.”
Alias: Chris Chun
Costume: White and black fuzzy panda hat with ears flaps. “I wear it normally, even when it’s not a costume.”
Description: “Clumsy, ferocious, and I guess, strong.”
Little Red Riding Hood
Costume: Short red peacoat, with hood (presumably for riding).
Dis/Advantages: “My costume is perfect, because there are no heavy tails or extra body parts getting in the way. I might start wearing it all the time.”
Text by Adam Grossberg, Video by Amna Hassan.