Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.
by Charlie Malarkey
It was Tuesday night, and I had been suffering nose bleeds since Saturday.
We came in early, finally getting to the Greeters’ Gate around 9 at night on Saturday, and I was so stoked. It was my first burn, and my aunt had been trying to get me to go since I’d turned 18. Since it took me 5 years to graduate from college, I had quite a while to get psyched up for the event.
Right away, my mind was blown. The costumes, the lights, the smells, the glaring bi-colored environment beyond the man-made decor — it was exactly where I wanted to be. I was astounded and amazed and gleeful and excited and in love… and unhappy.
I have always been self-conscious. I’ve been self-conscious about looks, about weight, about being picked on, about looking stupid, about getting teased and ridiculed and worse yet, talked about behind my back. All of this combined to make me a prince among wallflowers; I was shy around strangers, paranoid that if I exposed a bit of chub, then everyone would wrinkle their noses distastefully. It was terribly confining to be at Burning Man, with only two shirts packed for the whole week (a clever plan, I thought, to wear only chest accessories and therefore come to terms with being awkwardly chubby and so pale as to be semi-translucent) and this constant, lingering feeling that if I threw my inhibitions aside and really participated, I would get mocked by the people I was coming to love the most.
On Tuesday night, after three days of lurking in the fringe, I rode my bike out to the Temple. I was already moping and glum that I wasn’t brave enough to go into any of the dozens of camps and parties and classes that caught my eye, and then being in a place surrounded by so many happy and sad memories just made me break down and cry. Feeling awash in helplessness, self disgust, and drama, I rode straight out from 12 o’clock to the deep playa. ‘Just one in,’ I asked the universe, weepy and snotty and kind of cold by now. ‘Just one in, and I can see if this place is really for me, or if I’m just a wallflower at an expensive party. Just ONE. Please. Help.’
As constantly happens when beseeching the Universe, nothing happened immediately. I turned around, resigned to the fact that I was too square to be a Burner, and rode back to my camp. It was 10 at night, and I was going to bed.
And then I saw a light just slightly out of my way, surrounded by bikes and people. You know the scene; a crowd forms around an art piece in the deep playa at night, and we are drawn to it like a tiny snack morsel to an anglerfish’s glowing face trap. Yep, just like that. As I got closer, I saw a neon sign rising above the rest of it — Dust City Diner. An slice of a real and true diner perched on a flat bed trailer, straight out of Huey’s. (I hadn’t been to Huey’s in years and years, since they closed it down a decade ago, but the strains of ‘Yakkity Yak’ immediately came to mind.)
I paused, wondering if it was worth it to get off and see what was going on. Such was the tension of my self-consciousness that even just standing around waiting my turn to climb onto a tall, red, spinning stool was a challenge. Why mope around and look hopeful when all the cool people were already participating?
Well, screw it. Screw it, and screw this, and damned if I wasn’t going to stand there like a fool and wait my turn. I waited, and slowly started to realize that if I was a hopeful dope, then… others were too. Or maybe I wasn’t as dopey as I thought, because everyone else was waiting their turn to ascend to the counter as well. It was my turn. I climbed up, and immediately a waitress in a beehive hairdo plopped an elbow down and said in a nasal drawl, “Yew want some cawfee, hon?” Hell yes, I did.
I also enjoyed a grilled cheese sandwich and a pickle, and shared some conversation about the unique consistency of American cheese with a pair of fellows from the UK who claimed the seats to either side of me. I had to keep leaning back so that they could pass the gherkin back and forth to share. It was great. It was fun. It was so cool and calm and exciting all at once, because I discovered that the only thing holding me back from participating was stupid, useless, pointless, and utterly beatable fear. Some of you already know the answer to ‘What if they laugh at you?’, but the answer that I discovered that night as I sat between a man in a pink silk slip with a gherkin and a man in a leather jacket with a cheese toasty was ‘…Yeah, and?’
Yeah, and… That’s it. That’s all. And that has completely changed my life. I can honestly think of no greater moment of catharsis in my life than that moment. Yeah, and… it’s not as big as you think. I can do things now that I never could before, because of that one moment that taught me not to fear fear.
We went looking for the Diner every night for the rest of the week, but never found it. I even talked to vets who have been coming for six years, ten years, who have never seen the Diner. I don’t know if they just had rubbish luck or what, but it felt like that moment had been the almost-immediate answer I was looking for, a gift that I didn’t have to share and could hold close to myself like a spark. I want to give the crew of the Diner that Tuesday in August ’11 my utmost thanks, a heartfelt ‘I couldn’t have done it without you’. And you, dear burners, you took it from there, and did the rest.