Sometimes you think you’re ready to hear the story, but you’re really not.
Fluffer Nips is the exuberantly good-natured person behind the wheel when the van with the water and the ice shows up. (Of course, you can’t miss the van because it’s decorated with Photo Mike’s stunning portraits on the outside.)
She’s the leader of the fluffer team, the people who make sure the work crews have what they need to keep going. Ice. Water. Sport drinks. Soda. Jerky. Sunscreen. Chips. Some sweets. Handi-Wipes. Maybe some smokes, if she has any.
She’d give you anything she has, and get you anything she didn’t.
Which makes what happened to her all the more painful. It shouldn’t happen to anyone, of course, but especially not to her.
Nips always seems to have a big hello for you. Always wants to know how you’re doing, what you need, before you even ask for anything. Maybe people don’t know you too well and are kind of suspicious, be she’s not like that. She’s one of the most genuine people you ever met. Not phony nice, real nice. You know the difference.
Three crews in separate vans make the rounds, visiting the 45 or so teams of workers pounding and sawing and lifting in the 100-degree temperatures. Things are in really good shape in Black Rock City, and you have to think that the fluffers are playing a role in that. They bring the drinks and some snacks and some friendly talk.
The whole fluffer gang is at the Depot after the DPW morning meeting, loading the vans with ice and water. Nips and Audrey and Rugburn and Shotgun and Ash and Little Girl and Purple Fluffer and TMI. It’s an an all-female team. “Guys could do it,” Nips says, “but they’re just not as cute.”
She and the others load giant Igloo coolers with six-packs of crushed and block ice. You know how it’s awkward and kind of a pain to get that bag or two of ice from the 7-11 to your cooler? Well, this crew carries six bags at a time, getting the ice from an insulated trailer to the big coolers in the back of the vans.
Then it’s time to see who needs what. Make sure the electrical crews’ big water jugs are filled. Slather on the sunscreen for the Shade crew. Give out some candy at the Heavy Machinery yard. The workers crowd around the van like it’s a taco truck in a warehouse district. They shoot the breeze a little, talk about last night or what’s happening tonight.
Sometimes the workers need to talk about other things, too. Because the longer you are out here, and the more you work and the more you sweat, the more likely it becomes that your nerves will fray. You don’t roll with the punches as easily. Maybe somebody on the crew just bugs the crap out of you. Nips knows that listening is a part of the job, too. You have to remember: All this is happening out in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes it’s easy to feel like you don’t have a friend in the world. Nips and her crew make that feeling go away.
And Nips has been making that feeling go away for people for most of her life.
She started the whole fluffer thing on her own, when she used her own vehicle to go back and forth to town to get ice. She didn’t get it from Bruno’s, though, because it would cost too much. She’d go to the Black Rock Saloon and bag it up herself, then take it the 40 minutes or so back out to the playa where it was needed.
Nips is from a tight-knit Philly family, and the big reason it is so tight-knit is Nips. She’s the glue that kept them together. Which makes what happened all the more unfair.
Nine years ago her life as she knew it fell apart. She had been staying at her sister’s house in Philadelphia. Her sister was a single mom with three kids, and sis had just bought a house, her first. Nips was there to help with the kids. And even though sis already had her hands full, she, like Nips, couldn’t help herself when it came to helping people. She had also opened her home to a runaway who had no other place to live.
The runaway had a boyfriend, and there was a bad night. A very bad night. There was a fight, and he got really mad. So mad that he set a chair on fire. The three children and Nips’ sister were in the house at the time.
The fire department dispatcher who summoned the trucks was Nips’ aunt. Nips herself pulled over on her way home from work to let the fire trucks pass.
When she got to the house, her parents were already there. They could see her sister in a window, trying to wrap the children in blankets.
Later, when the youngest child, a 3-year-old boy, was recuperating in the hospital, he said that when the flames were around them, Mommy had told him to go to sleep. She had told his brother and his sister to go to sleep, too, and they did. And then Mommy went to sleep.
And then a big monster came and took him out of the fire.
The big monster was the firefighter who came and lifted him out of the flames. But it was too late for his mother and his brother and sister. They died in the fire.
So here it is nine years later, and Nips is out running the fluffers, so that everything can be ready for the giant fire that takes place a week from Saturday. “I’ve come to grips with the fire here,” she said.
Her mother was devastated by the tragedy, and Nips says she’s had a tough time pulling through. She’s living in New Jersey now with the grandson who survived. Things are better now, but her marriage didn’t make it.
Nips’ dad went into a shell for a long, long time. And then this year, when Nips needed some help herself, she went to him.
“Look,” she said. “I’ve been the one taking care of you. Now you need to step up. You need to take care of me.”
He did the best he could. He reached out to the burner community, which responded with a ferocity of affection. But Nips was embarrassed by it, frankly.
“I wanted to keep it in the family,” she said. “I don’t like asking for things. I don’t like NEEDING things!” But she did, and her extended family from the playa came through.
So now here she is again, out and about taking care of people, asking what they need, being her upbeat sassy self. She’s a good manager, knows how to take care of her staff, and she fights for every nickel in her budget, which is tiny.
You might not know it, but 90 percent of the treats that are distributed to the work crews come from you. When people at the gate ask you to leave your unused food and drink behind, this is where it goes. It feeds the cleanup teams after the event, it feeds the work weekend people who come up during the year, and it’s feeding and watering the crews out there in the sun right now.
So on your way out of the city this year, be sure to drop off the food and drink you never used. It is needed. It’ll all be put to very good use.
And if you see Nips around, ask her if she needs anything. She won’t admit it, but she might.