by Jim O’Brien
A couple years ago, some camp mates and I decided to show up a week before the festival began and volunteer to help build the city. We arrived at the barren Black Rock desert with few city installations in place and even fewer landmarks. The man wasn’t even up yet. News quickly reached us of how a bad water barrel had taken out a majority of DPW and the city was desperately short handed. We were asked to help build First camp and gladly abided. After a long, cloudless week of work, along with meeting tons of great people, getting fed in the commissary, and watching the city grow and take shape before our eyes, we had set up First Camp(the camp site/HQ of various department heads that run the city). On our final workday we enjoyed sunset cocktails in the 2-story Media Mecca, giving us a nice view of the endless river of headlights now approaching the city.
I had arrived at the playa with a thyroid gland that was under functioning and I had felt as if was fighting my way through jell-o for the last 4 weeks. My doctor gave me medication to speed up my metabolism but the dosage was too high. Proper procedure, I later learned, was to start with the lowest dosage and work your way up to avoid shocking the system and giving the patient heart palpitations, sleeplessness, shortness of breath and possibly a heart attack. I enjoyed more than my share of the first three the entire week. It was, and continues to be, one of the most physically exhausting weeks of my life.
Upon returning from the Media Mecca cocktail party, I found my camp littered with poor spirits and hanging heads. We were camping with Dustfish this year and there wasn’t a happy punk in the place. It turns out our stage hadn’t arrived from Colorado and wouldn’t be. We were on the esplanade and had performances booked for the week, each day’s beginning with drug induced, sunrise, mega-phone powered heckling, of course.
As I dropped my tool belt and collapsed into a shaded lawn chair with an ice cold, bubbling cherry soda in my hand, the pouting faces began circling. A load of magic playa lumber had appeared in camp but a stage still needed to be built. I hadn’t slept well, if at all the entire week. I had lost visible amounts of weight and was on the verge of a cold-like sickness. Not wanting to disappoint the beautiful, leather clad, tattooed, spiked, and pierced playa goddesses that disappointingly kicked their Doc Marten’s into the dust, I rallied. This was the job and I was the man. With my circular saw on the ground next to me still warm from the day’s use and my energy level lower than the setting sun, a voice deep inside me beckoned-Fuck it, it’s Burning Man, we can rest in the real world.
I pulled my weary form out of my chair, put on my hat, strapped on my still sweaty tool belt, picked up my saw and headed toward the front of camp. Like a lone, town saving gunfighter with my drill holstered on my hip, I approached a group sitting around the back of a cube truck, the lumber lying on the ground next to it. I looked at the group, held up my saw and said “I need power for this!” heads perked up and an extension cord appeared. I started pointing and giving orders, where to lay out boards, marking lengths to be cut, laying plywood and giving nailing schedules. The burners followed my lead like a well-oiled machine and in 20 minutes I stood on our stage.
I started to sing Anarchy in the U.K. by the Sex Pistols. A guy sitting on the back of the truck typed into a keyboard and the real thing blasted from giant speakers. In the last few minutes of the days’ sunlight, the stage was packed with jumping, fist pumping, kicking dancers. Smiling, jumping, dancing, high fiving burners that had just rocked that stage build, were now rocking that stage. In breathless exhaustion and pure exhilaration, I used what little strength I had left to dance, and smile, my ass off. In that moment got back 100 times more than everything I had given to the city that week. In that moment, all I wanted to do was dance to that song on that stage. And I got it. The Playa provides, all you have to do is ask.
Eight months earlier I was in Aspen, Colorado for a friends wildly decadent 40th birthday party sponsored by his insanely wealthy sister. I met a masseuse who was a burner and upon parting told her I would see her on the playa, and I did(of course). I ran into her at an art car dance party. She asked how I was and I told her how trying my week had been and that I had to build Dustfish’s stage. Her face dropped and her head lowered as she admitted sheepishly that she was the one who was supposed to bring Dustfish’s stage from Colorado. Ah the Playa…