Inside Burning Man

Building a city for 50,000  partiers in the Nevada Salt Flats

I threw up my fatigued arms in an “X,” signaling my partner to stop the next bus so we could start searching the line again. The headlights of creeping vehicles pulling into the city of 50,000 people snaked out the miles of driveway to Burning Man toward Nevada Highway 447 as their wheels kicked up a steady haze of choking dust. Along 447 they ran back to Gerlach with a population of 500, the closest town to Black Rock City.
We searched each car for fireworks, feathers, flowers and anything that could fall apart in Black Rock City or leave trash blowing about in the dust storms. We also looked for dogs and people without tickets trying to sneak in.
“Good evening! Have you got any tulips?” I asked. The bleary eyes of a rich French man looked back at me.
He shook his head awake, then smiled, “I don’t, but can I use yours?
I rarely got through a car without slurring my words out of exhaustion. I had been up since 6 a.m. helping set up my camp, a paid gig that helped pay for my fall semester of college.
I climbed on top of RVs and poked around their closets and trailers. For the smaller cars, I just shoved my arm into their packed trucks between duffle bags and coolers searching for body heat. “We’re going to f*** with this bus,” said Chopper, my mentor into the operations of Gate.
“Alright hippies! Get out with your tickets and line up next to the bus!” he yelled into the driver’s window of a school bus converted into a transient home full of stinky belongings.
I got back to camp at 8 a.m., slept, then woke up for work at 10 a.m.
My friend owns a health-food catering company out of Oakland and offered me a job working out there –as a “dirty little whore for a billionaire and his friends,” as he put it. We built the billionaire’s camp, a shade canopy with a fully stocked bar, plush couches and lighting. We built an art car and fed him three meals of the best food I’d eaten all year. We called our crew lounge GYA (Grab Your Ankles). “Anything you would like sir!” was the motto. We rented them 10 RVs for almost $150,000. We drew the line at parking cars and shuttling their baggage into the RVs. I also built some 30 plus bikes, moved around carpets and helped with the shade structures so everything would be  perfect for our clients.
I washed dishes. Max, one of our cooks, exclaimed, “I’ve never worked with a white boy that can wash dishes like Ashtray!” (I got hammered in Gerlach at the Saloon in 2007. I met people I don’t remember with a shirt for the Sonoma County punk band Ashtray. In the morning everyone knew me as Ashtray).
That camp was typical for Burning Man, except it didn’t offer anything to the city. It takes millions of dollars to build a city of more than 50,000 people on a dry lake bed in Nevada that generally sees less than 20 people a month. A month before, The Burning Man Organization (BMorg) starts laying out the city and builds a 7-mile trash fence surrounding the 1.5-mile diameter city. DPW (Department of Public Works) is the crew that builds the city, mostly volunteers. They are for the most part a bunch of crust punks who get drunk every night and yell at Burning Man participants during the event.

Welcome back to the Playa, get acclimated with a hangover

When I arrived at Burning Man, two days early on Aug. 27, my boss told me to get acclimated. I headed straight to the Ghetto, DPW’s housing and bar space on the Playa, my stomping grounds from volunteering in 2008 and a good place for raucous fun.
The bar looked nice this year. It had an old-time saloon front wall with a door on the front and shade cloth stretched tight for a ceiling. The actual bar is still as chipped, spray-painted and battered as before. Some graffiti in sharpie on the poles read “It’s not gay if you yell SLAYER!” It was much more mellow this year. An old friend, Sissy Bitch, and I sat on a dust-covered couch and swapped stories of our desire for meaningful relationships while his dog licked his hands.
A block away was Black Hole, Gate and Perimeter’s bar. A couple of couches sat grouped in the corner and the walls were covered in a mix of pornography and stencils of a slim girl in a French evening gown with a sling shot titled, “No war but class war.”
Mixing alcohols I wound up at the bar with my arm around Hotmess, a skinny blonde girl in a little black dress and big black boots. I reminded her I met her last year and she cocked her head to the side, “You’re cute, how do I not remember you?” A second later she remembered she was hooking up with someone else and left. She ran off last year too.
A guy named Spider kept sticking his nose in my unwashed armpits until he found out I wasn’t gay. He’s a brick of muscle with a gold tooth and a twinkle in his eye when he smiles. Between his piercings, tattoos, gruff voice and bad-ass demeanor, I wouldn’t have guessed he liked men. Those two are pretty typical Gate, Perimeter and DPW characters.
People drunkenly crooned, tossed each other over couches and slapped each others faces with a four-foot long black rubber sex toy. I stumbled back around 4 a.m., fully acclimated.

I like whiskey too much to be a coke head

On Tuesday the city sprawled in neon glory at 3 a.m., like a vast futuristic ocean illuminated by a plethora of submarines. The art cars looked like a barrage of grounded spaceships, driving aimlessly and lost as if they had been dosed for the first time. The art cars, lit up like psychedelic Christmas trees, blasted music echoing across the desert that mixed into an unintelligible cacophony of raving bass. These are the playthings of those who have months and tens of thousands of dollars to devote to a week in the desert.
I hadn’t slept in 15 hours and that was only a two-hour nap. I took the first bump of cocaine in my life with Surly, a punk rock cyclist from Reno and a volunteer at Burning Man. He is a friend of mine from 2008 and was waiting for his boyfriend to get into the city. He dipped a key into a little baggie he pulled out of his pocket to stay awake and offered it to me. I was at Burning Man, and if there was anywhere I could get away with a cocaine-fueled night, it would be here. That was one of only two nights I indulged in more than alcohol.
Soon after I was riding across the Playa –the pet name for the fine acidic salt flats of northern Nevada– on the roof of a car straight out of Mad Max with Bastard, Tawdry and a couple other DPW kids. “Running won’t cure cancer!” we screamed at the lonely people walking from one ecstasy-overdose to the next. We all popped open another PBR and took a swig of Jameson. “You’re still going to die alone!”
I drank out of habit. The cocaine killed the drunkenness and made everything taste like getting dry starchy potatoes shoved down my throat. I gasped for breath and pounded my chest with my fist. Never again.
We drove out past the city, to a collection of couches and painted plywood palm trees. We attacked the couches, each other and the sleeping burners with dusty pillows fueled by a sense superiority: we are DPW!

This is not the hippie-fest you expected

Burning Man has a reputation as a radical community, but it’s really just a slight distortion of American Capitalism. A ticket costs $360. Then you have to buy and haul  your food, water and drugs to the Nevada desert. The whole event is supposed to be a gift economy, so an attendee generally brings along trinkets to give away. Little necklaces with their camp symbol engraved on them, worthless doohickeys to be thrown away in a week. Diehard attendees call themselves “burners.”
The only things a person can buy at Burning Man are ice, tea and coffee. Other than that, everything to do at Burning Man is created by burners. Every one of the art cars designed to look like a rocket ship, couch, chomping teeth or a boat are privately funded. The same goes for the bars (and all their alcohol), music venues, art installations that dot the Playa outside the city and everything else.
For the most part anyone can walk into a bar and get a drink, though the Undercity Bar will send you on a quest as if you were in World of Warcraft. Some make you sing, dance, show off your genitalia or dress up as a furry kitten. However, the people who can afford to create bars and cars at Burning Man are the same people who can finance any other big party. They just pay for BM before going.
There really isn’t anything at Burning Man that couldn’t occur anywhere else in the world; provided a bunch of people buy a ton of alcohol and drugs to give away. It is the same old story and despite the leave-no-trace ethic, there is nothing green about Burning Man. I watched thousands of enormous $100,000 RVs loaded with liquor and expensive costumes roll through the gate on opening night. It takes more energy than most people spend driving to work for two months to bring an entire theme camp to the Playa, and there are more than a thousand of them. The ethic is really there for DPW, who spend two months picking up every scrap of plastic and charcoal from all the fires.

The Man hasn’t learned; helplessness

The Grab Your Ankles (GYA) crew climbed onto a big RV to watch The Man burn. The few of our clients still left in camp for the first of the two-night Burning Man finale were out on the art car getting as close as they could.
TC, a coworker specializing in mixing drinks and interacting with the clients, and I swapped sarcastic comments about people who spend too much money on Burning Man. “I got this costume off ebay for $10,000. It’s something called ‘steampunk,’ which is getting really big!” she said, mimicking our clients. They needed help putting AA batteries in EL wire, the thin ropes of bright neon light burners cover themselves and their bicycles with. The clients were happy with the brand new bicycles we brought and assembled for them, but didn’t want to have to decorate them themselves. TC giggled and shook her head, “learned helplessness.”
Fireworks lit The Man. A chaotic array of neon bursts exploded around his legs as he stood some 60 feet above the 50,000 spectators who came to watch him burn. GYA sat half a mile away, laughing at his inability to climax as he just kept sparkling.
Finally the diesel barrels, or whatever explosives they used this year, exploded engulfing The Man in a fiery mushroom inferno. The crowd roared in the center of the city. Soon after GYA began to crawl off to bed with each other.  “Lets go rage, Max!” I pleaded, but he was curled up on the Lovesac, an overgrown beanbag chair, with a woman. I was antsy and had to move.
Thumping rave cars pulled in tight for a circle jerk of two-bar house beats near the smoldering ashes of The Man. A grotesque 40-year-old with an open shirt played Nirvana covers like a strangled housecat while one guy moshed by himself at 4 a.m. in a random dimly light bar on a side street.

Dancing to dubstep while ‘this hasn’t killed me yet’

On Thursday I went dancing to dubstep and drank grog, a hydrating playa drink made of rum, water and soaked in lemon or lime juice. V, a new friend with a fantastic love of dancing, and I started the party at Space Cowboys, a monstrous four-wheel-drive Mercedes truck, before heading to camp for more grog.
At 5 a.m. we woke up my DPW friend Crazy Talk, a Canadian-born Native American living in Oakland, at the Ghetto. A big sarcastic but cheery fellow, he takes great pleasure in people’s absurdity. He went so far as to introduce me to an alleged satanic lesbian, who a few nights later seduced me. Crazy Talk, V and I sat around talking and drinking grog until the sun rose. I passed out on the couch and woke up to DPW standing over me with a sharpie, “Do we need to call the rangers? You fell asleep on our couch, Boy.”
I hurriedly jumped up, “No, no need.” I grabbed my bottle of grog and stumbled drunkenly back to camp, drinking for hydration along the way. The grog was full but should have been almost empty. Whatever somebody put in there, it hasn’t killed me yet.

The final fire as BRC melts and Anne Hathaway’s bed beckons

On Sunday morning the crew sprawled across the pillows and couches of camp. My boss came back in nothing but a short blue cape with his name printed across the back, frilly red underwear and a stuffed owl over his crotch. He grinned like only an amazed child can sober, as he pointed from a Curious George book to himself, “That’s me!” No one worked.
That night the temple burned. I watched from the deck of the Nautilus, a riveted sheet metal and wheeled version of the submarine with an orange squid magnetically attacking its tail. What was left of the city, some 40,000 people, gathered around the temple. For once the Playa was quiet. The art cars were silent, their endlessly thumping speakers finally still. Everyone spoke in whispers.
It had six towers, white pinnacles withstanding the buffeting winds and dust storms. The fire started in the main tower until it hit the burn accelerators, then consumed it spreading out to the five smaller towers. Roaring flame engulfed the entire structure, lighting up the desert like daylight. To the left, one of the bridges connecting the spires was covered in liquid orange dancing fire. The sound of someone opening a beer drifted through the crowd.
The thousands of dollars worth of wood; the hundreds of gallons of diesel used to truck it to the Playa and run the generators for the lights; the human-hours spent building the biggest flames on the Playa; all floated up to the heavens in black papery trails of dust.
People had been leaving since the night before when The Man burned; camps were in various states of breakdown, or gone. Streets appeared where just a day ago a bustling bar full of lingerie and Takka screwdrivers had raged 20 hours a day. Towering neon lights  used as landmarks were dark or gone.
Late Sunday night I squinted my eyes against the dust kicked up by four miles of idling traffic trying to get out of the city. Those who had been inhabitants of Black Rock City mere hours ago were now sleep-deprived and cranky, waiting in their idling cars with the heater running, waiting up to six hours to leave. When the sun rose they turned on the AC.
I stumbled back to camp hoping tomorrow I wouldn’t be too wrecked to drive. I crashed out in the RV bed Anne Hathaway had stayed in, some famous woman I’d been too busy to look at. Max saw her once. “She’s not that pretty,” he observed, “that famous one or whatever.” Her bed didn’t wind up being all that comfortable. I nodded off a couple of times on the way to Reno and jerked awake high on adrenaline when my tires hit the gravel or the drunk bumps. Maybe she was just tired from her bed, and that’s why she left her tacky plastic wings for us to ship back to her.
My hands were off my ankles as I pulled back into Santa Rosa where Physics 40 and Mathematics 1B waited for me to catch up.