Burning Noir: It’s Raining Art

IMG_6386After the rainstorm cleared it was pretty easy to find anyone who wasn’t huddled in a building: with no cars on the streets and no bikes that could get traction in ground this muddy we were all out walking, but the mud stuck to our shoes so quickly that we didn’t get far. Augustus St. James actually came to me, collapsing next to me on still-dry couch inside BMIR’s shade structure. We were both waiting for the ground to harden, so he had nothing to do but tell me his story.

Read all the entries in the Burning Noir series here.


The art bus picked me up just before sundown and we started touring around the metal insects, glowing skulls, giant flowers and strange geometric shapes that had been stationed out in the desert. A number of pieces weren’t even up yet, which was good for me, but it still looks like Hieronymus Bosch designed a playground out there. There’s something a little threatening about art that isn’t kept in a museum, but I suppose that’s the point.

What I didn’t see was anything that someone who believed he had the secret to happiness would obsess over. What are happy people even obsessed by? Is happiness like money or sex, where you just keep wanting more because enough is never enough? Or is happiness the one thing that can extinguish the desire for itself?

No, I didn’t go to college. But I once watched a YouTube clip about Schopenhauer. Also vacuum cleaner repair. (more…)

Burning Noir: The Happiest Secret Stays That Way

Black Rock City 2013 (by Mark Harmon)Augustus St. George is never easy to track down, but fortunately I know all his favorite bartenders.  Playing a lucky hunch, I was able to find him at the Jazz Cafe in Center Camp late the other night.  I found him saying terrible things about Miles Davis to the patrons and staff in an attempt to get kicked out.  He’d only tell me what happened to him after I agreed with him about Fusion Jazz.  This has made my friends at BMIR very upset with me, but I think it was worth it.

See other entries in the Burning Noir series here.

Everyone who knows anything about First Camp knows that it has two levels.

Two levels.  Sure.  And David Best doesn’t lace the temple with Illuminati Symbols.  Uh huh.  Of course not.

Two levels are for chumps.  The Rangers took me to the third level – an underground bunker beneath the playa built out of 100% recycled materials by a special “black ops” squadron of the DPW.  I don’t know what their call sign is, but I’ve seen them at work:  they can do things with rebar and plywood that prove there is no God.

The bunker goes down beneath the Black Rock Subway system and into what I’ve since learned that Burning Man calls its “War Room” – a collection of conference tables, computer monitors, and translucent naked statues representing the eternal feminine.  Together it looks like a cross between the Pentagon and an art history teacher’s sex dungeon.

Big Bear, who’s responsible for connections with law enforcement, and Board member Harley DuBois were there waiting for me. (more…)

Burning Noir: The Friendliest Kidnapping

IMG_6425After the events of last year, I was stunned to bump into Augustus St. George on the play last night!  It was four in the morning, and he was walking with a couple of rangers out of Decadent Oasis, a camp I’d never known his to associate with.  I asked him what was up.  He didn’t seem happy to give me the answer, but then he never seems happy.  Here’s what he told me:

I’d said I wasn’t coming to Burning Man again, and I always keep my word to criminals, bartenders, and women with low expectations.  Duchamp’s team of layers had been on me like a pack of rats on a cheese plate after last year’s showdown, and I was happy to retire.  I took my savings and bought a little place in Half-Moon Bay, right by the ocean.  The ocean’s expanding and the coast is eroding, and it will be gone in 30 years.  But so will I.

I hate Half-Moon Bay.  It’s a town for people who have very high expectations of their children.  But I love sitting on my balcony with a glass of something strong at sunset, watching the sun change the color of the ocean.  I was planning to live like this.  Unless there was something good on television.  Then I was planning to watch it.

But on Saturday, there was a ring at my door.

I turned on the intercom.  “What?”  It’s what I say instead of “Who.”

“It’s Melinda,” she said.  “Open up.”


Burning Noir – Epilogue

This is the last information I have on Augustus St. George.  By the time you read this, he’ll be in the exodus.  Find links to the rest of this series here.  – Caveat


Photo by Polaris
Photo by Polaris

I’ll be drinking at the jazz bar for a while.  Too many memories in the French Quarter right now:  too much heat.  I don’t know whether some of the people there got played by Duchamp or if they’re members of his orchestra.  I don’t know if Tanya will feel betrayed when she finds out her tip led to Crispy Crown’s arrest.  I don’t want to watch my back in my favorite bar.

So I listen to a quartet on old instruments scratch some classics out of the dust and nurse a gin and tonic because they don’t have the whiskey I like, and wonder what might have been.  That’s a dangerous place to visit.  It’s even worse to live there.

The city’s closing down around me.  The Temple doesn’t burn for another hour or so, but you can see the empty spaces where sculptures used to be and hear drills pull screws out of camp facades.

Maybe it’s all a façade.    In a couple of months, when everything and everybody’s gone and the desert is the way it was when we got here, who’s to say different?  The trouble with a Leave No Trace event is that you can’t count on the things you leave behind to tell your story.

This will be my last Burning Man.  That’s what I tell myself.  That’s what I always tell myself.  The heat gets to me.  So does the noise.  So does the lack of sleep.  The people are always smiling.  Everyone always looks like they’re having more fun than me.  “Screw it,” I tell myself every year.  “They’re just not savvy enough, not sophisticated enough, to see through it all like I do.” (more…)

Burning Noir 7 – A community of one

Don’t ask how I found Augustus St. George again on burn night, or where my pants went.  Read part one of this series herepart two herepart three herepart 4 here;  part 5 here , and part 6 here – Caveat


Photo by Polaris
Photo by Polaris

The Man had burned.  60 thousand people had surged and pulsed and danced with the flames, overflowing with life and spilling it out like a geyser into the desert.  The celebration goes on all night, getting dumber and dumber as everyone gets happier and happier.  Eventually stupidity wins out over happiness, like it always does, and the party caves in on itself, ending with a moan and a blackout.

Some people can’t make it.  That doesn’t mean they don’t celebrate, though.  Or try.

Crispy Clown was shielded from prying eyes by a rectangular fort of RVs.  In the middle was a court yard, and he was sitting in a lawn chair on astroturf, underneath a patio umbrella, surrounded by blinking lights and tunes from a little stereo.  All his friends were out celebrating, but he wasn’t allowed to take any chances.  He thought that precaution made him safe.  I’d watched him for an hour from inside his own RV.  He was trying to have a party alone.

Bad idea.  You can read alone.  You can think alone.  You can create art alone.  You can cry alone.  But there’s no such thing as a party of one. (more…)

Burning Noir 6 – what gifts around comes around

By some miracle I saw Augustus St. George crossing the open playa just as we were dancing around the open flame of the Man’s body.  Here’s what he told me tonight Read part one of this series herepart two herepart three herepart 4 here; and part 5 here – Caveat


IMG_20130826_200611I was back to the French Quarter again.  Everything kept coming back here.  Maybe they’d recreated mythical New Orleans too well:  real criminals were landing on it like flies on wax fruit.

Or maybe that was the point.  Maybe that’s why they built it, and the fruit is all too real.

“Botanica Bodhi Manman nan Bejeezus” offers tarot and palm readings, and provides magical oils and talismans to the needy.  Some say it’s a shtick.  Some say it’s one more example of New Age mumbo jumbo being play-acted for adult children.

But some swear by it.  Some people swear by anything, sure.  But I challenge anyone to walk into a gypsy voodoo magic shop in the middle of the desert, see the hand painted tarot cards, and not be impressed.

It’s a small room:  colorful faces painted on the walls stared at me as I walked in the open door.  Knives hung from the ceiling.  The priestesses of Haiti-in-the-desert can do a brisk trade, but that was the burn night, and it was obvious they were getting ready to close up shop and head out to the big bonfire.

Chakra Kahn wasn’t anywhere to be seen.  But they run a tight knit community here, they know each other’s business.   I was willing to be that all I had to do was find the right member of her crew.

A white woman with dreadlocks wearing a ceremonial robe smiled at me when I walked in.  “Welcome stranger,” she said.  “The spirits will guide you today, if you’ll let them.”

“Mostly they lead me to whiskey.”  I looked over at a table where a deck of tarot cards was spread out.  “But in this case I’m here for a reading.” (more…)

Burning Noir (5) – Love and the VIP room

Augustus was drinking heavily when I found him at Midnight Poutine.  But after I shared my Belgian beer he only spent 10 minutes updating me, and then ran off into the night, still steady on his feet.  Read part one of this series herepart two herepart three here;  and part 4 here.  – Caveat


The French Quarter bordello's second floor.
The French Quarter bordello’s second floor.

She unlocked the door to the RV she time-shares with her ex-husband at 46 minutes past midnight.  She was laughing at something a friend said.  She was just going to grab a coat she could wear over her costume, a silver space-alien get-up that exposed slightly less skin than a reputable bikini.

Instead, I stepped out from the dark and grabbed her shoulder.

She screamed.  I waited.  She turned, reaching for mace she’d have kept in her pockets if she’d been wearing pants, and then realized how defenseless she was.  She raised up her fist, then she saw my face.

She took a deep breath.  “Jesus!  You scared me half-to-death!”  Put her fist down.

I didn’t move.  “Then we’re half way there.”

“What … what are you talking about?”

“Why’d you do it, Krista?  Why’d you set me up?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

I shook my head.  “You’re even more beautiful when you’re lying.  But I’m here for the ugly truth.” (more…)

Burning Noir (4) – The clown always lies twice

The playa provides.  Augustus St. George was obviously avoiding me, and I didn’t think I had a prayer of finding him – until I finally visited the Temple for the first time this year (thank you, Polaris, for the ride), and stumbled into the wedding of a friend of mine from elementary school.  I’ve been missing this guy for years – when his family moved to Japan I “loaned” him my favorite book so that he’d have a reason to see me again and return it.  Never happened.  But here he was, getting married – and he actually knew where Augustus was today.  It’s powerful magic out here.  Read part 1 in this series herepart 2 here; and part 3 here – Caveat


IMG_20130828_005730Hiding at Burning Man is a lot like trying to sneak through a circus.   It matters who you’re hiding from.  There’s a lot of things to distract the rubes:, but the clowns are a tight knit group who know where to look.

Burners who barely know anyone outside their camp will never find you, and will probably stop looking after they’re drafted into a light saber battle pitting Darth Maul against Cookie Monster.  The eternal struggle.  But veteran burners have networks, and they’re not so easily distracted by zombie gospel choirs on pirate ships.  Go anywhere near their people, and they’ll run you down.

Even worse, they know who your people are.  The minute they want to know where you’re hiding, they’ll start interviewing everyone you’ve ever slept with.  No matter how drunk you were.

To escape the social mafia that runs Burning Man I make sure I take a different car every year, with different plates.  I change tents every year, and decorate it with just enough blinkies to look like I’m not trying to be anonymous.  And I pitch myself in the middle of walk-in camping, where I’m surrounded by neighbors who might share their morning eggs but don’t actually care who I am … and none of them have ever met Larry Harvey.

It’s the perfect set-up for privacy – or so I thought.  But I knew I’d been made when I got back to my tent in the morning, and it was unzipped.  I thought about bolting, but without an anonymous place to sleep they’ll find me anyway.  The only alternative is to sleep with strangers, and I’m not that guy.  I have a stoic wit where my game ought to be.

So I walked in.  The tent was just big enough to stand in, but Michael Michael – Danger Ranger himself – was sitting in my only chair, twiddling his thumbs. (more…)