Crouching tiger, hidden pillow

The origins of Sacramento’s Pillow Fight Club (PFC), though shrouded in Internet anonymity, no doubt were inspired by recent flash-mob pillow fights in San Francisco and Portland. News of PFC circulated heavily via word of mouth, e-mail, MySpace, Craigslist and local blogs. “Meet 6 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th,” the ubiquitous message read. “Bring a soft, fluffy pillow, preferably filled with feathers. Keep pillow hidden until fight time. … At exactly 6 p.m., remove pillow and start fighting.”

About 10 days before the fight, new messages announced a change of location from Old Sacramento to Cesar Chavez Plaza, ostensibly to avoid St. Patrick’s Day bar traffic. The switch caused some concern about the unsavory characters known to inhabit the plaza, prompting satirical MySpace bulletins advertising “Wine Bottle Fight Club.”

When The Sacramento Bee printed the old location in its St. Patrick’s Day entertainment guide on the day of the fight, would-be pillow warriors faced a conundrum. Though generally agreed that Cesar Chavez Plaza was the correct location, they had to wonder if more people would follow the Bee and show up in Old Sac. Would there, in fact, be two pillow fights? Were there enough playful Sacramentans to support both?

There seemed to be more at stake than an opportunity to smack strangers with pillows. San Francisco’s fight drew more than 1,000 participants. What would it say about Sacramento if we threw a pillow party, and nobody came?

After careful deliberation, I headed to Cesar Chavez Plaza. It took some planning to figure out how to keep my pillow hidden for the 10-block walk from my office. A large tote bag proved a better option than stuffing a pillow down my T-shirt and pretending to be pregnant, though the bag’s limited size forced me to carry my smallest pillow and left me feeling vulnerable.

As I approached the plaza, with 15 minutes to spare, I saw a few people sitting at tables with large shopping bags and others with conspicuous tote bags hovering around the park’s perimeter. I ducked into Uptown Studios, which overlooks the park, for a better view.

The Uptown staff, plus friends and significant others, had pillows at the ready. Studio owner Tina Reynolds even had a video camera set up in her front window to record the event. We gathered around it, analyzing the people in the park. Those two women in pajamas were definitely pillow fighters, but how about that man with the white plastic bag? We watched as he ambled over to a trash can and began digging for cans. Guess not.

At 5:55 p.m., we gathered our pillows and marched bravely across J Street to join the small crowd around the fountain. With minutes left until we’d start hitting each other, no one knew what to say. “So,” people with pillows under their arms asked people with pillows under their shirts, “you here for the pillow fight?” Others just smiled shyly or kicked the ground.

Then someone yelled, “Hey! It’s 6 o’clock!” and all feathered hell broke loose. Suddenly everyone was swinging pillows, dodging blows and laughing uncontrollably. In an instant, social mores disappeared, and it became acceptable to hit total strangers with pads of fluff. Lurkers ran up the pathways and threw themselves into the melee.

It was impossible to catch my breath as pillows pelted me from every direction. I gave as good as I got, but after five minutes my pigtails were undone, my knee was throbbing inexplicably, and I was gasping for air. (It turns out that pillow fighting is great aerobic exercise. I predict that pillow cardio will be the next fitness trend.) As the original fighters left the fray, we were replaced by new arrivals—maintaining a continuous battle royal of about 50 people.

I exited the park and said goodbye to my equally disheveled friends (one of whom found blood on her pillow). As I limped up J Street, with the laughter of pillow opponents ringing in my ears, I felt proud to have fought alongside the city’s most spirited residents in the ongoing war against boredom.