Notes From The Temple of Dominoes #39
"The next best thing to knowing someone talented"
"The incredibly private secret public diary of Martin Azevedo"
(A cheerful romp through the abyss of ultimate mortality)
the incredibly private
Sometime in the last 18 months
Hi folks - you know who you are. Suddenly I can't stand the thought of writing...felt great until I sat down...suddenly sleepy, sinus infected, spine curving, body crying "sleep, sleep..." and worrying if some part of the house is on fire, secretly hoping it is so I can get out now before I admit in writing to anything humiliating, in the name of "being creative". People like to think of the creative spirit as the sweetly unaffected child that interrupts Mom's tea party wearing a funny hat...in truth, the creative spirit is that same child carving "Mom eats dicks" in the nice neighbor's new car seat with a knife it just used to open the cat. Creativity is a smelly little demon with your last name and some infectious skin problem, sent from hell to leech the dignity out of every friendship or public appearance you try to maintain throughout adulthood. I am deeply ashamed of all that is inside me, all that is vulnerable and truly naked. I've barely written anything in over a year. Been busy moving to New York, living with girlfriend Aidan and discovering that romance is to insecurity what nuclear war is to cockroaches.
Last summer it was hot in New York. Humid hot, ninety degrees and raining, hot all night, blowtorch hot, blah blah blah. At ten o'clock at night the spoons were hot in the kitchen drawer, the clothes were hot lying folded on the bed. It was homocide hot, dementia hot, I'm never having sex again hot. After two weeks of East Coast Summer Heat Wave we piled into housemate Marina's Falcon to purchase an air conditioner and followed the same fifteen sad droopy people to three different stores to be told at each place that they'd sold out earlier that afternoon. We drove to a cold restaurant to plot our survival over the coming weeks and two days later Aidan's mother mailed us an air conditioner from Missouri. I spent the Fourth of July in Boston, my sweltering tour of the childhood home of American Democracy led by a scholarly British friend of a friend who knew American history better than any American I knew and he still couldn't believe we'd put our country in such an awful place.
I moved here because Aidan lives here. Aidan is 22...not 22 as in "22 and a bikini model", but 22 as in "22 and on the phone could pass for your mother." She's smart and lovely and cantankerous and quiet and funny and literary and my life is not completely great now that I live with her, which has been a big lesson for me. Her intelligent, educated friends listen to the Beatles' Seargent Pepper album and repeatedly exclaim "Oh, they do this song?" The feelings of smug wisdom evoked by the hearing of such comments awkwardly balance out the sense of mortal panic. Together, we are each slowly growing up. It's no easier than it was when I was single.
My life is good, I assure you. I own a blender and I make my own smoothies. I buy condoms two boxes at a time. I have heard the words "Dear, I think you gave me athlete's foot" and recognized true intimacy. If not for the gnawing sense that through my own naïve misuse of a necktie I've squeezed my brain's oxygen supply down to a cold blue trickle, I might have achieved perfect inner peace by now.
My head is spinning and it's a struggle to admit that even to myself. I spend far too much time at work and I get no pleasure from being there. In all things I am motivated by guilt and fear of inadequacy. It's a warm joy to find Aidan at home at the end of the day, see what clothes she'd worn into the world, hear what she'd done, make her dinner and hold her hand as we fall asleep. It's a shock to remember the life I'd lived until only a year ago. Yet I whisper to myself. What am I doing? What am I doing? If this is not my home, where is it? If the person sharing a life with her is not me, then who am I? Is there a whole world glowing right in front of me that I can't see?
I can't write about my private thoughts and feelings because they're about her, for better or worse, and she'd find out. I can't write about impersonal political issues because I'm self-obsessed and apathetic. Fortunately, I've got a job that I can blame for all my creative frustrations, managing the help desk at a web ad agency. For the first time I have accepted true responsibility, made myself accountable, committed myself to others and paid the price.
And yet I worry. With commitment of time and responsibility comes, eventually, a face-slapping recollection that all this was supposed to add up to something; and yet the path forward has taken me farther and farther away from my supposed destination. Maybe this means I must quietly study the dim patch of overgrowth where I now find myself, accepting the unexpected as the essential truth of the journey. Maybe it means Im supposed to wander through my entire life looking like the guy who came all the way downstairs and then couldnt remember what for. Was I supposed to get something? Is there a meaningful destiny to reward my efforts? Should I go back upstairs? Whats on cable?
Ive come to believe that its the normal condition of humanity in our era to wield indescribable brilliance in talent and potential, and to be totally unable to accomplish anything greater than a list of favorite movies and substantial credit-card debt. Creative paralysis isnt just the norm of society, its the goal; Costco hires extra workers to wheel it directly to your waiting minivan, costumes and comforts by the 24-pack designed to erase the differences between us and suggest some ultimate faceless uniformity. To escape into true fulfillment - or just a state of being more or less awake - must require an acceptance of a certain amount of loneliness, a certain amount of hunger, a certain amount of confusion and doubt. Escape demands a walk through the dark solitary place that civilization has tried its damnedest to erase from the world.
6/24/99 Conan and Daria live on a hilariously desolate-looking warehouse district street about two blocks from Bed-Stuy, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. They share the block with an auto-parts yard, a crumbling Salvation Army warehouse, a barred-in day care center, a few live-in warehouses and apartment buildings, and at the end of the street...a castle. Or, the shell of an old brick tenement, long since gutted and burnt out, slowly taking form over the last twenty years or more as the monstrous creation of a couple of mad artists, an eccentric ships tower roaring and rising above the calm, decaying Brooklyn neighborhood.
I've always hoped that I might bump into one of the aging eccentrics living there and request a tour. Today, living with Aidan in Bronxville and dropping by for possibly the last time to feed Conan and Daria's cat, I saw a young, pale couple knocking on the front portal of the strange building; a bearded fellow about my age who leaned out a window to greet them over the ten-foot-high bright red castle wall that spanned the length of the building along the sidewalk. Angry dogs barked from behind the gate. He said he'd be down in a minute. The visitors were an English couple, come to visit the man's brother, who's been working for the artists, helping with the construction; they'd been promised a tour. The gate rattled and opened and one of those living inside - a grimy grey woman with straggly hair, oddly shaped teeth and some amount of moustache - leaned out, saying the young man would be out in another ten minutes. He soon appeared, and I politely asked if I might follow them in; the couple referred me to the brother, who referred me to the old woman. She said "If you can get past the dogs." She stepped aside and the four of us entered the building, stepping into an entrance chamber like the tunnel that leads into San Franciscos Civil-War era Fort Point; this antechamber was a closed stone and wood room built around the front stoop of the original apartment building, with snarling-yet- friendly dogs chained on either side of the path, positioned on platforms like barking gunmounts to prevent unwanted visitors.
With a few steps, we were inside the house - it was hard to tell where the outside ended and the inside began. The floor was filthy, decaying wood covered with thick layers of dirt, spare boards put down to cover the more dangerous holes, and bags or piles of trash, stacks of spare lumber or tools, and assorted gates, doors, sinks, junk covering much of the floor and leaning against the walls, even on the narrow stairway, which was all dark but for streams of daylight radiating down from the spaces above - was there a roof? We climbed up several flights of the original tenement stairway - tight rows of wooden steps and the original banisters, now spiralling up into a daylit cavern, a brick shell; on each level were makeshift rooms crammed with old clothing, old couches, dusty signs of life arranged over the several floors we passed on our way higher into the building that used to occupy this space. We were now led up the stairs and through the building by the artist Id seen once or twice on the street outside, a gruff, short man in his fifties with orangish hair, wearing a tattered t-shirt and old jeans. He looked like an elf who worked as a plumber.
About three floors up we stepped out onto a scaffolding floor of thick grey planks, each recovered from some previous life and laid out sparely over the decaying girders that marked where the original floors had been. This partial floor reached across the empty space inside this enormous brick box, revealing beside the few bare planks a channel of empty space thirty feet wide and stretching sixty feet down, through a crosshatch of spare boards and girders the traces of old floors and brick walls buried in dirt, the plunge ending in a basement pile of garbage far below us - dozens of bicycle wheels, an antique motorcycle fallen whole into the chasm, the refuse of dozens of lives dropped through a maze of disappeared floorboards and now waiting behind an endless line of tasks to be rescued or hauled away into an infinitely less interesting pile of shit somewhere else.
Having stepped around the stairwell that formed the spine of the building, the whole of the six-story skeleton opened up before us, with high brick window arches lining the walls and filling the chamber with air and light - from in front of us, from the next floor up, and the next, and the next. A mosaic angel was mounted on the far wall. Dusty glass jugs and small bottles lined the edge of one of the scaffolding floors we stepped past. And above me, where the brick and the original roof of the structure ended, stood a visible maze of small floors and steps twisted in every direction - crows' nest upon crows' nest, higher floors balanced upon higher floors, all in a spiral of boards climbing to angelic heights over my head.
We climbed a thick metal ladder, bounced across a few more boards...a few pigeons were now sharing the floorboards with us, pigeonshit dotting white the edges of the railings and the floor. There was an original floor plan - two bedrooms here, opening to a narrow air shaft there, the original window revealing a brick wall from the original bedrooms. With the flutter of wings in the open space next to us, the idea of a closed bedroom seemed impossibly dark and claustrophobic. "Most regular floor plans just put you at the bottom of a cube. I like to be in the middle of the space," the artist said. He must have felt perfectly at home in the middle of this cave, floating high over a hell of rubble visible below, looking up at his own creation, a home that towered over the local streets, with a view that stretched on for miles in every direction.
Up another ladder of thin, solid metal rods; Arthur, the artist, explained how his cat would scale the ladder in a scramble, in the time it takes a human to make two steps. He also told us about the two 78-year-old architects who had been up all these ladders on a previous visit; "they're used to climbing ladders," he explained. Blue and green bottles trapped in concrete formed rough stained glass bricks along the wall now beside us..."What time is it?" asked the artist, pointing to a small PVC pipe imbedded in the wall. One by one we looked through it; the pipe revealed a direct line-of-sight - through the pipe, the space, through another pipe of the same size across a small room, through the massive open window on the opposite wall - to the distant clock tower stretching over the center of downtown Brooklyn, the size of a tiny wristwatch hidden in the hole in the wall. "They light it up at night", laughed the artist.
Now we walked slowly around the edge of the wide crevice, to the bouncing boards on the other side - were they about to slip? - through the wall that divided the building in two...past a walk-in cage, where the old woman artist was stepping in to feed the cats...piles of garbage and building materials of every sort narrowed the path: gates, mattresses, a homemade fiberglass hot tub...a portable cement mixer ran underneath the mounted angel, where the artist joked with his son, a smiling, handsome guy, 25 or 30, who wouldn't have looked out of place at a gay disco or a downtown office.
By this time I'd left my backpack and rollerblades behind and we were climbing past the original height of the building, into the wooden ship's cabins that formed the angled structure above; it looked very much like the Swiss Family's tree house, small rooms and offices built arbitrarily around a continually rising footpath, a desk or a couch and television making use of the space, bathed in shady daylight and yet each still filled with all manner of clutter. "We won't always be sharing the space with the pigeons," the artist explained, describing in greater and greater detail the construction plans he and his wife had been working toward, alone, for so many years. Standing on a wide landing looking out over the neighborhood, he said the two of them had bought the building twenty years before and moved from their Washington Avenue home a few blocks away...Arthur is an artist, a painter, he and his wife working half a day every day on this enormous project and Arthur spending the other half day at his studio; "She knows more than most contractors," he chuckled as his wife stepped by, unimpressed. Recently, he's been having much more success with his painting, and can finally afford to hire part-time crew. His son, now sweeping inches of dirt off the floorboards, had been raised in the castle; now there are grandchildren who come to visit.
The rooms were no longer square, the walls not straight up; every room was part dome, part diamond, part small apartment treehouse...and all growing organically upon every other room, forming an almost-symmetrical ship rising out of the ruins of a crumbled warehouse neighborhood. "He wants me to show you the camera obscura," said the artist to the younger couple, leading us away down another narrow path into a tight, dark room built of stray boards and a refrigerator door. We all gathered around a white disk, tilted sideways in the center; a catch was released and the disk flattened out to reveal a living, moving picture of the neighborhood, projected in real daylight into the circle between us. The artist had scrambled up a small ladder and hovered above us, holding a metal wheel in his hands. "This's gonna be controlled electrically", he said, rotating the wheel and, with it, the image of the city and the blocks surrounding us. "My cat likes to sit on there and try to catch the cars...this is great on Fourth of July", he said. "You can see the fireworks in every direction." He explained that this was only one of three camera obscuras on the premises.
After a glance behind the refrigerator door - it opened into a small windowed chamber overlooking Quincy Street; "I like to use refrigerator doors," the artist said, "they're sturdy and you can store things in them" - we stepped back out into the main structure and continued our climb. Another ladder led upward, and another, into a small, roughly hexagonal room; one side of this room was connected to another, smaller, similar room, raised up about three feet, also mostly windows and empty space. "I don't like stairs," the artist explained, "so I like to make every space useful. This is a little drafting room." The space was perfect for a drafting table and chair, easily stepped around; an inspiring and airy space, not claustrophobic like a tiny square office, nor wasteful or frivolous like the floor space occupied by staircases and the flat spaces between them.
How long would it take to complete this impossible building? It had been under construction for twenty years; would any drafting happen in this small space? Who would actually come here? How long would this set of dreams live?
Some of these stair-rooms were large, some small. The young woman had asked the artist a question as I entered one of the larger rooms and he told the story of putting the floor into this room. "I had hired this big black guy, an ex-boxer...and I didn't know if I could trust him. But - " he gestured to the space in the floor, now covered by the board - "I couldn't just jump across it; agraphobia. And the guy put out his hand" - holding his hand straight out, bracing his bent knees - "and said he'd help me. And I realized I had to trust him...if he didn't like me, that's it - a 70-foot drop. And the second my foot hit that floorboard...no more agraphobia."
Through a spiral of these stair-rooms, we climbed and climbed, kept going up and up, and up another ladder, into a tiny room shaped like a cockpit, with the roof of a volkswagen van as part of the floor and more windows forming the domed front of the space. "It's not finished up higher", the artist said - "It's not safe."
"I had a dream...I was floating; I could see Brooklyn, and Manhattan...and I could see below me a kind of mist...like a fountain. But not like a fountain..." I forget his exact words; it was a confusing story - "like a whale spout. So I went around the neighborhood, looking for the exact spot. And it was right here - over there, thirty-five feet higher than this structure. Started to build the place. And I've spoken to the engineers about setting up a climbing crane, right there - " He pointed to the roof of the gutted building next door, covered with a tarp - "and figured out where I can get a helicopter body, without the rotor or engine; that'll be from the yard in Arizona, in the desert...that'll be about twenty-five thousand dollars, and about fifty thousand for the crane, and I haven't got the money yet. I'll cut off the rear half of the helicopter body, attach a fish tail...and let it turn on its own, like a weather vane."
"But we dug deep into the ground over there, found a big boulder...at least four feet thick; haven't come to the end of it. Could be bedrock. And the engineers say we can set the crane in that. So all I had to do was find the place." He laughed. Somehow building this insane chocolate factory in the middle of a decaying Brooklyn neighborhood was not just his idea. He was merely the set of hands making it happen.
There were other rooms - the room with triangular windows that he explained were somehow to be half windows and half mirrors, revealing both what is behind and in front of the viewer; the enormous pile of trash in the yard beside the structure, the top of a parked VW van poking out of the mass of rubble. "We've moved a hundred ton of rubble out of here already."
After an hour the tour had ended and I thanked them for allowing me inside...he seemed pretty suspicious of me, but he said he might be willing to let me return and take pictures, in exchange for a set of prints for them. "A lot of famous photographers have already taken pictures of this place," he said.
As I left - returing to Conan and Daria's apartment to wash thoroughly - my mood was clearly ecstatic, as it had been inside. More than any other place I'd ever been, this looney building had a natural decayed, industrial, accidental flow from tiny rooms to enormous spaces stretching high above and far below, and to walls across empty distances in front of me. All spaces and structures have a subtle effect on my state of mind, luring me into a mood which in some way parallels the place I am taking in the physical world - high and removed, buried deep inside, hesitantly poised near the entrance, etc. This structure was a voyage into fantastic, dangerous caverns and exciting mysterious moods I'd always sought but had never found in the real world. It was a model for the incessantly chaotic, endlessly complex, sublimely active subconscious, projected into the material world - deliberate yet accidental; brilliant yet very sloppy.
As I rode the train home I watched the passing buildings and cars and I recognized that all of these things were futher projections of the needs and desires and mysteries inside...it was all an organic conspiracy, something pressing itself into the physical world without the knowledge or clear permission of the individuals who labored to assemble each individual part of the puzzle. And it all was oddly beautiful...the rusting bike frames littering the railroad track grounds, the decaying buildings facing one another in what had always seemed to be an ugly standoff; all of these pollutants and mistakes seemed to be somehow necessary, and expression of something ultimately natural. Certainly what I was perceiving was in some way similar to the oddly skillful beauty of a natural forest, a natural beach or a mountainside...and yet, it was completely different as well; this was a portrait of itself that humanity has pasted upon the land, beautiful and ugly for many of the same reasons. Despite my having grown up with a fierce (and somewhat naive) belief in living in immediate harmony with nature, I find myself recognizing the true beauty that humanity can acheive...by struggling to affect the world, by working to create something just barely glorious.
and the flood
99/ 9/24 We arrived at Black Rock City, Ben and Ruth and myself, on Wednesday morning, Sept. 1st at 2 am...smaller and smaller roads through the desert country, a distant string of car lights ahead and behind us, finally creeping through the town of Gerlach and turning off the road at the handpainted "Burning Man" sign. Dusty car lanes were defined by lengths of thin pipe hammered into the playa floor every ten feet; we drove for miles, past measured spaces Ben assured me would be filled with tents and cars over the coming days. The city was arranged in a sprawling semi-circle with a distant figure in the center, a wooden man glowing neon red and yellow fifty feet tall and who knows how far in the distance. Ben drove until we hit a sign forbidding cars onto the empty playa beyond; crept along the city's boundary and stepped out into the dust - it was very very cold; nobody had expected that - to find the camp for Cataclysmic Megashear Ranch, the friends Ruth and Ben had met at Burning Man the year before.
I met Ruth years ago at a geek party where I knew nobody else she's too cynical to be called a hippie, too centered (or not centered enough) to be called a geek and too smart to be briefly described as anything else. She hates television, loves Shakespeare, reads constantly, makes stained glass windows and has been telling me about Burning Man since she got back from it the year before. Ben spent several years in a monestary, builds electric cars and works the principles of Zen invisibly into his curriculum as a teacher of college auto shop. They call each other "babe" and their rapport together suggests that they've found a practical peace with each other that neither of them could have found anywhere else.
I'm not sure what I expected to find at Burning Man naked women with body piercings, homemade art projects, a makeshift community of idealists and lunatics. I hadn't considered whether I'd truly feel I could be part of it. I was there to see a part of the world I'd never seen before, to witness a life lived for alien reasons and by alien rules. I was there because the world I lived in was too small and I wanted to not know what would happen next.
Cataclysmic Megashear Ranch looked like a gang of street kids who'd disappeared with a circus years ago and were now discovered in the netherworld where they'd been living, gathered around oil drum campfires to stay warm while a few freaky musicians coughed out lumpy noise from a band setup beneath a stage set of scaffolding and black cloth. They were not friendly. I was freezing. I tried to dance to keep warm, stepping up to an unused drum set, jumping and pounding with the other leaderless musicians, overjoyed. One of the other drummers wearing motorcycle leathers and a cowboy hat interrupted - "Do you know the guy whose drums those are? 'Cause if you don't you shouldn't be playing them."
Eager to find community, standing there in the cold at two in the morning, I was already making enemies or discovering them, but I wasn't about to decide that community meant that I get to do whatever I want with anybody else's property, even if it was an unused drum set in the middle of a cacophonous jam session producing music that sucked no less without my contribution than with it. The rules were going to be different everywhere I went for the next few days; if I was to avoid pissing anybody off, I would have to take responsibility for observing what each new moment's rules allowed and did not allow.
So what was the lesson? That any true community consists partially of chaos? That the guy in the motorcycle leathers was a dick? Yes.
We pulled the truck out to an empty spot and I set up my tent. Went to sleep wearing earplugs, still listening to the drums and guitars screeching in the distance - strangely comforting at low volume - and thinking "Community equals chaos. Community equals chaos..."
Didn't see my first naked person until the very late morning. Woke up at 7 am, just as the band was shutting down. It was still damn cold some time after sunrise. Ben drove the truck out onto the empty playa (there was a sign prohibiting driving there, but it was allowed to unload material for art installations) and we pulled out the PVC poles to set up the first of the geodesic domes. Ate quick breakfast of deviled eggs, chocolate soy milk and cashew nuts. I'd been told the heat would cause me to eat very little during the week; we'd brought more beer and bloody mary mix than food. It was't hot.
The event speed limit on the playa is five miles per hour; any faster and you'll kick up a cloud of dust. The desert playa is an ancient lake bed...a basin surrounded by mountains in every direction, the water long ago silted into a level floor of powdery mud and the mud dried into cracked dusty rock stretching on for miles and miles and miles. Perspective is lost as the crowd of human landmarks is left behind the distant horizon; a quick walk toward a nearby tent might take five minutes, or ten, or much more across the flat surface.
Ben and I took our cameras and walked toward The Man, the great structure in the center of the developing city. A small school of red streaming windsocks in the middle of the playa flapped and swam calmly through the air, growing steadily as we approached and passed.
Finally we were standing underneath the man an eerie skeleton figure fifty feet tall, raised higher on a platform of wood and hay bales maybe fifteen feet in the air. Ben described our visit as a "pilgrimage" one or two visitors sat meditating, several others casually talking; a Black Rock Ranger in a kakhi shirt and rumpled white hat asked people not to smoke near the very flammable structure. When the word "cop" was spoken, he spat out "I'm not a cop I'm a ranger, it's not a uniform it's a costume". Hed practiced the line many times.
The helpful markings Ben had made on the PVC pipes back at camp only confused us; soon we separated the pipes into different lengths and bolted together a twenty-foot dome of plastic triangles. Pulled the fifty-foot tarp back and let the wind carry it over the top in one breath. Strapped it down, rolled out the carpets and made it our kitchen and living room.
By then several had pedaled by I had expected naturists, eccentrics, athletes, adventurers; I'd never expected naked men on bicycles. It seemed logical yet still wrong, a ludicrous collision of circumstances: there is little need to wear clothing on the playa, everything is too far apart to walk, and so exposed art lovers pedaled between homemade installations scattered across the Nevada desert. (And you thought it was just about geeks with mohawks taking drugs.)
We were to put up a second dome over the "meditation labyrinth" that Ruth had painted onto another tarp, but that would wait. I dug my bike out and rode off to investigate the city.
I rode a giant teeter-totter that carried the riders on each side twelve feet off the ground, passed wind chimes on the playa twenty feet high, saw cars rebuilt as butterflies, silverfish, pyramids, and spaceships; I saw the costumes and vehicles of "The Road Warrior" re-created beside a steel geodesic "Thunderdome" that housed dance music every night. By day, two volunteers were suspended from the structure on elastic bands to thwack each other with foam swords in midair.
The world was thrilling and hilarious and I felt like I was barely there at all, frustrated and hidden behind a wall I couldn't see or touch, taking pictures and speaking to no one in a city of cartoon vehicles and people painted orange and green. For the second time I passed a working wet bar, complete with a bartender and crowded benches on three sides, the whole thing on wheels and driving around the camp.
Several cocktail lounges rolled across the playa and through the city streets, each one looking like Dr. Seuss' New Year's Eve party. I'd expected to bump into many people I knew, but I hadn't seen anybody and I felt like I was missing some part of the point by looking.
This rolling lounge the "Barzilla" - had parked near the glitter-booth and I leapt into a seat. The first rule of Burning Man, printed on the tickets months before, was "Participants Only, No Spectators"; every two minutes a passerby was caught taking a picture or shooting video of the laughing crowd gathered in the seats and the bartender would denounce the act: "You have been found guilty of being a spectator and must now choose your punishment. You must do one of the following:" the raucous crowd would shout: "SING...DANCE...OR DROP YOUR PANTS!!" You'd think the timid spectators would respond with a variety of songs and dances, but everybody dropped their pants. In this act was a lesson about human nature that no lecture in any classroom could have offered.
One fey gentleman at the bar handed out sets of printed bubblegum cards featuring himself and his friends to those whod earned them. (There is no exchange of money at burning man; barter was the rule, and willful participation in humiliating rituals was the currency.) I was told that too many guys had dropped their pants already. I sang "The Greatest Love Of All" until he tossed me a set.
I was getting drunk and finally relaxing. I was having a great time. I was wearing too many clothes. I climbed over the bench and rode back to camp, put on sunscreen and my bike shorts (I'm just not gonna ride my bike naked, period), my new black hat and green dust goggles (the sun was BRIGHT) and I sped back toward the Barzilla.
Most of the nude bicyclists I'd seen were men, but many women had also removed clothing, painted their bodies or breasts, enjoyed the great freedom and the seductive spell of frolicking naked in the open air. It was overwhelming, glorious bodies of every description deliciously and proudly carried throughout camp without a care by smiling women clearly excited by the novelty of it. The following week I'd get into an argument with my sister who suggested that I was supposed to ignore such things - not for politeness's sake, but because a proper understanding of nudity and sexuality would render the phenomenon natural and therefore less than noteworthy; I think she's crazy, and that anybody who could be in this environment without in some way appreciating the available scenery would be dead inside. I struggle not to be rude and boorish in the glances I take, but God didn't rain gorgeosity upon the Earth so we could pronounce ourselves dignified and avert our gazes to the familiar ground beneath our feet.
The rule was to ask permission before taking pictures...many people obeyed, some didn't. Most anonymous models didn't care. Not wanting to simply photograph anything with tits or at least, not wanting to pick up a reputation for it - I set out to capture images that embodied the Burning Man experience. Thus, a trio of young women wearing bikini bottoms, body paint, punkish pony tails and riding bicycles struck me as photogenic...I asked if I could take their picture; the middle one said "Yeah" without posing or stepping out of her way. I snapped a casual shot, glad I wasn't offending her, as she climbed off her bike. She said "You wanna take a picture of me peeing?", pulling down her panties and squatting to urinate in the middle of center camp. I'm still not sure if it was a statement about how unwelcome my photography was or something she would have done anyway. It functioned as both. By the end of the week I would see many women casually peeing on the playa, but only this one seemed to mean anything rude by the gesture.
Peeing on the playa (although not necessarily in camp) was one of the makeshift rules of Burning Man...it was by no means mandatory, but there was simply no reason not to do it. The camps had porta-potties located nearby, but in the playa the space was open and expansive, the ground would dry very quickly, no animals' territory would be affected (nothing lives there), and the rain over the coming weeks would turn the whole basin into mud again. At first it just seemed somewhere between convenient and playfully rude, the way spoiled rich people might act on a private golf course. I'd come to see it differently over the next few days.
Color camp was the only place in the city where an anonymous crowd could comfortably gather just to look at each other...individuals stood naked in kiddie pools to be sprayed with green, turquoise or red dye made from food coloring and water.
I wasn't concerned about being perceived as a spectator so much as I was worried about actually being one. I piled my clothes and camera on my bike, stepped into the pool and was sprayed a lovely blue...the smiling lady with bright red skin told me to close my eyes and open my mouth as she soaked my face and teeth with the dye; it was non-toxic.
The crowd shuffled. I heard a few cameras. I opened my eyes and a reporter from several L.A. newspapers asked for my name, saying he wouldn't use any pictures showing below the waist. I danced around, drying and feeling like I'd become One of the Body, part of something greater than myself and gloriously naked in the mild sunny weather, finally unprotected in some holy and manly and gleefully childish way.
Soon I climbed back into my shorts and onto my bike to continue exploring.
Every night at dusk began a series of pyrotechnic demonstrations; fire-spinners and dancers spread across the city to perform, flame-throwers and fireworks were shot into the sky in unending celebration, gas jets and weird metal fire-cages were lit before enthusiastic crowds, towers were burned down. A group called the Black Rock Community College gave regular classes in assembling molotov cocktails out of common ingredients, volunteers from the audience throwing the burning bottles at cutouts of Bill Gates, a riot cop, and other symbols of oppression. The instructor drove each volunteer on - "Your friend is being beaten by the cops! Throw that cocktail to end this injustice!" When the bottle was fumbled and bounced harmlessly to the side, he chastised: "And the wheels of oppression roll on uninterrupted!"
Schools of large neon fish swam through the darkness above the crowd, carried by bicycles that disappeared beneath them as the riders passed into the dark playa; two other bicycles were mounted with mesh screens strung with neon cartoon outlines of a mother and baby kangaroo that hopped up and down in natural rhythm - and apparently alone - as the bikes rolled invisibly across the horizon. The inventiveness was glorious and endless, each person there a living part of it. If he chose to be.
Yet the cacophony was too familiar. Block after block of homemade dance clubs reproduced the monotonous pulsing sound of every hip night spot in America, each horrendously familiar, as if the desert world had opened up to accept us and all anybody could think to do was pave it over and build a scale model of the city they'd just left.
Some kinda homespun fashion stripper show that nobody could describe was planned that night at the Cataclysmic Megashear ranch. Feeling esoteric and evolved in my knowledge that a skillfully performed striptease can be great theater, I lunged into the front row and was surprised to see so many participants stepping up from a line beside the stage that stretched far into the enthusiastic crowd. The audience members were expected to perform one after another, sexy weirdos in fabulous thrift-store outfits chosen from the bins of costumes in the "changing room" would proudly glide onstage and seductively moon the audience. Only those in normal street dress were booed.
My skin was green. I knew nobody.
I hadn't showered, so I found a funny beanie in the costume room to cover my unruly hair, and some other kinda dress-thing I don't remember; I got in line and slinked onstage, calculating that my green skin added to my anonimity or stage presence or something - and somehow danced my pants down and dashed off so fast the MC told me to come back and dance some more. All the participants received a rubber stamp of approval on their posteriors; I don't even remember if I got mine. I guess I did. I just remember that a patient confidence is the only crucial element of a striptease, and for all my arrogance I was the only person to step onstage without it.
By Thursday my blue skin had faded even further into an alien green and the glitter in which I'd rolled myself the day before had coated the inside of my sleeping bag.
Ben and Ruth's friend Dan had brought his son Pat - a just-turned-eighteen club kid whose girlfriend is now illegal for Pat to sleep with. Dan's a gruff, smiling guy in his fifties, missing four fingers on his right hand above the first knuckle from a construction accident. (He's been a contractor.) He goes snowboarding on a regular basis...the last time, he played hookey from work, arranged for key faxes to be sent in his absence and made a few calls from his cel phone to suggest that he was still in the office working hard. He had built a motorized couch that did maybe twenty-five MPH around the playa, a working lamp bolted to the end table on one side of the speedy craft and a few magazines bolted to the other. I like Dan.
Pat was supposed to drive the couch in the furniture races on Thursday night, but he opted out; for some reason he thought it would be uncool in front of his friends. (What a baffling disease, to be a hip teenager...) Dan was looking for a driver and I quickly volunteered; later that day I got a quick lesson and a bit of practice in. The only challenge was to find the racetrack...the city was set up on orbits and clock times; the semi-circular streets were titled Mars, Earth, etc, growing closer to Center Camp; the avenues linking them together were the hours of the day...so a camp might be at "11:00 Saturn". Made perfect sense to some; I was lost from the first minute, camping out in the distance where there were few neighbors to meet.
Dan and I had set up a new camp out at the Black Rock Airport - a distant row of tents and mock offices beside an orange fence that divided the counties from one another. Twenty small planes and a few ultralights had landed over the past few days. At night the remote airport was as quiet as Burning Man got. We used Dan's truck as a windbreak and set up three individual tents on a carpet underneath a tarp, mine on the edge away from the truck.
Ruth, Ben, their friend Kevin and I had spent that afternoon setting up the 30-foot dome over Ruth's meditation labyrinth; they'd had a party two weeks before to paint the traditional labyrinth design on a massive tarp. Atop the dome we stretched another tarp as a ceiling, with thinner, "breathable" cloth on the sides shade the sides of the dome from the harsh sun. Now, eating dinner beside the dome, we watched explosions of fire erupt from the industrial camps near the city. Dan and I rode out and joined the crowds watching fire-breathing machines spinning and glowing, flamethrowing robots shaped like monstrous dogs or tanks with forked claws attacking one another in slow-motion, as if two car owners had clumsily bumped together without incident and their furious vehicles had risen up to fight out the meaningless dispute all by themselves.
The furniture races were supposed to happen at 7:30 Lunar, in the empty playa. I pedaled to where I thought that should be - it's impossible to navigate out there, no landmarks - and there was no race to be seen. Dan and I had lost each other bicycling to the location. I finally just disappeared into the city...I knew I could never see everything and I'd long since decided that wandering around was likely to be every bit as rewarding as searching for any place in particular.
A large tree built of bones and skulls and mounted on full-size wheels had waited in center camp for days; now it was glowing purple, pushed across the playa and toward the Man, eerie sad sublime music rising from a few drummers and a transfixing, wailing woman singer, her amplified voice transformed with reverberating electronic effects. A wizard with a long white beard swayed, his eyes staring above the crowd, standing high at the base of the tree that rolled through the crowd. I followed with dozens of others, turning away away to the stage where a German dance group was just beginning their performance. The audience sat behind taped lines as fires were lit across spiralling trenches in front of the stage, sometimes becoming the center of the show, sometimes holding the audience far from it.
The crowd disbursed again when the dance company finished and through the dark crowded waves I found myself underneath the Man, surrounded by drummers and dancing people...huge barrel tom drums strapped to the waists of a gang of furious expressionless men facing each other, an ominous noise that sounded at that moment like all the spinning joy in the world right there underneath the glowing center of our momentary flash of a city. Creatures on stilts waded and danced through the crowd; another old wizard with a beautiful purple cape and an ecstatic natural smile on his bearded face blessed people as they carefully walked between his eight-foot legs.
The drummers moved on toward another party and I walked back through the city again, looking for anything I hadn't seen yet. The night was cold, but I was warm from dancing and my shirt was around my waist. The wind blew harder and harder as the evening wore on. Deep inside the city, I paced up one of the emptier streets, camp lights leaking in from behind cars and tarps, a torrent of dust lifted off the road forming a stream that swallowed my legs and pushed me forward, again toward the figure of the Man that continued to beckon ahead of me at the center of a city created to be torn down and glowing brightly every moment until it was.
When I returned from my adventures - molotov class, visiting other domes, dancing in the Thunderdome and swinging myself onto the bars above the ground, seeing more and more of the city - at two in the morning, the larger dome over Ruth's labyrinth had been lifted by the wind, slid to the end of the pipes that were pinned down with thick rebar hooks driven three feet into the ground; at first the wind had only bent the back poles upward, until the arc of the dome was pushed down and inverted like a squashed soccer ball, the tarp that had hovered twenty feet over the ground now flapping loudly in the wind at eye level. I took an extra pole and pushed the structure upward; it strained, rose slowly above me and snapped back into place...only to bend back into its inverted shape a minute later. The noise of the flapping tarps in the wind was awful; the force would not let up before it had torn the structure apart or carried it whole into the city. I cut the tarp loose, rolled it and pinned it underneath the trailer and started tightening up the tarp over the smaller dome. Ruth awoke and we argued over whether it was better to lash the tarp tight or let it flap, bound loose with elastic. I left to find my own distant tent by the airport.
It had all become a struggle. The city was full of dance clubs, an empty reproduction of city life made only less practical and hospitable by bringing it to the desert, a vital survival challenge drowned in beer, noise and (for some) other drugs. I was witnessing an unbridled gold rush, an experience of freedom and community commodified, the gold turned to dust and blown back into the horizon...and crossing the empty playa in the dark, like walking across the cold white rock of the moon, I heard only the sounds of an ugly Pleasure Island behind me, the wind roaring at anything that could be moved or torn.
I pushed back to my camp, discouraged, and found one set of my tent poles snapped in the wind, the nylon itself soon to tear over the broken ends. Finally I removed the poles altogether, stuck a lawn chair in the tent to raise the cloth over my face, and crept into my quarters. My tent was a flat space under a tarp that only became a tent each time I lifted the wall to get at my clothes or backpack...not so much a private space as one where I felt more private than I actually was. I was exhausted.
In the darkness beside the truck, I'd spied an odd shape - a giant cup. Dan had found the race track, driven the couch and won first place.
Friday morning I discovered Camp Sunscreen, where visitors lie on massage tables to have the stuff spread over (most of) their bodies by those still in line for the priviledge. Some were discrete and timid; most got naked and chuckled with pleasure at the massage. Women received careful, sensual attention from all. Men stuck at tables only with other men were processed quickly, as if their naked bodies had been shoved through an automatic car wash.
I was surprised to realize that I'd never felt so heterosexual as I did at Burning Man, where societal restrictions meant less than they would anywhere else on the continent. The women were glorious, each in a different way, so many inviting shapes tiny breasts, large round breasts, flowing hips or toned hips...
What was this I was feeling? I wasn't sure. It wasn't innocent. I didn't know if I had come here to see what life might have had to offer me if I wasn't with Aidan. I didn't want to threaten what I had with her; but to blind myself to any of this, to pretend I didn't see it, seemed a terrible mistake, as if I would be asking myself to go through all of life without seeing anything for what it really was. In a way, I'd come here to see more clearly the world I'd come from, and to find out what I had left behind, in New York.
This has all been the stuff that's easy to write about. I wrote all this stuff to write about what happened next.
There were more fire shows and at least two makeshift circuses that night...the Cataclysmic Megashear Ranch, already looking like a circus of runaways, put on a crazy street-theater show of fire dancing, unicycle tricks and chaos music. The drum circle that had formed the center of the universe the night before roamed noisily nearby, then marched directly into the circus' camp as the unicyclist performed on the scaffolding above our heads. What might have passed for part of the scattered show ended when the MC demanded "Can we please have our circus back?" and the gang of musicians wandered away, still pounding fiercely together.
I wandered out and around. For all the lunacy of the city streets, the emptiness of the playa offered odd meditation rooms with candlelit pools of water and pillows to relax on, labyrinths to walk, eerie circles formed of shadowy sillohuettes mounted in the clay.
I wanted to lose myself in dancing, like any young peson would want to shake off the loneliness of whatever city is home. Inside a canvas shelter in one camp had been placed a wide, cool carpet of live green grass sod and I welcomed the smell of it as I pressed my fingers through the grass and lay down.
People gathered anywhere in the city that fire spinners performed and I walked from crowd to crowd...a tall, thin woman wearing only a skirt of hanging threads and flashing lights on her breasts stood atop a square platform as emcee for another sloppy circus. She read - shouted - into the microphone a brief essay about the many uses of the word "Fuck" before introducing the next acts...a trapeze artist, a magician sticking swords through a box containing a lovely woman, all kinds of energetic circusy goodness that loses all appeal whenever the audience has seen it before or there's a nude woman dancing on a platform next to the stage. What could I make out through the hanging threads of her shallow skirt? As the swords were poked through the box at the center of the stage, the emcee slipped off her platform and squatted beside it, removing her shirt of lights and changing into another skirt like the first one before donning a smooth, expressionless white mask and climbing back to her perch to dance...and she was oddly transformed, her simple movements and poses now assuming a sublime dimension, as if her familiar naked body had suddenly become the incarnation of something much greater.
The liberal conscience interrupts at times like these. Was I responding to the removal of her individuality through the hiding of her face, or the revelation through the mask of a whole new identity onstage?
Sometimes the liberal conscience needs to just shut the fuck up.
It was baffling. Burning Man was an excuse to make art and an excuse to get naked and I was all for it. It was joyous, inspiring, but not quite necessary. Not quite. It had been called a Pagan festival, but it was clearly not that; if anything, it had become a celebration of all things manmade, unstable and incendiary. Even while I'd never attended before, it seemed to me that Burning Man had become something even it could not recognize.
Nobody knew when the Opera was supposed to start or where it was to take place. At 1:15 in the morning I made my way toward another crowd on the playa and found the show about to begin...I took a seat with the hundreds of others around a giant cleared circle; at the center loomed an eerie stage made of some kind of plaster-rock, stairs leading up to platforms, two phallic dragon-head pillars rising up on the sides and a ring in the center maybe sixteen feet high. Fires on each side of the structure provided the light and volunteers paced before the seated audience, keeping people in place and telling us to go home - the show would be immoral and damaging to our souls, they weakly assured us. A dimmer stage was set up next to a large trailer on one edge of the circle.
Music began some kind of somber religious latin funk. Robed figures paraded out to face the audience on each side of the circle, crosses hanging from their necks, hands held together. I don't remember what they were doing other than just standing, facing the audience in somber judgement.
It wasnt meant to make narrative sense, and it didnt. The field was still and slow-moving, reverent and white...until the flood came: a rush of people, naked bodies painted deep green with black stripes and designs, curves across their bellies spreading down to genitals and echoing the valleys' shapes, every design different and crazily beautiful in the dim light. The green flood rushed out across the empty space and surrounded each of the robed performers, who stood shocked and frightened. The green creatures tore the thin robes off the white-clad figures, leaving them covered only with tactful shreds of cloth, shamed, hiding and crouching. Wild Latin-classical music played, and the green creature's every move was a rushing dance.
Being a letch and a voyeur, I had left my seat to move closer. The spectacle was so huge and bombastic and ambitious that the audience was placed far away; the dim light from the fire in my corner revealed only sillohuettes. I was excited, nervous, wanted to drink it all in, this river of images, spilling past me and already into the distance. There was no choice but to let this experience rush over me, love it and know I could take none of it home but as part of myself, the self I left with.
Red creatures had run onto the playa, clothed only in paint and dark designs, the green and the red flooded together; two silver-painted demigod figures ascended the stairs, embraced and danced in costumes of sheep's wool and bare silver skin; the stage was set on fire...it was chaos, glorious, ecstatic dancing, women and men in bare naked skin, their robes and symbols now completely torn off, joining the celebration...the music swelled and I strained to see all I could; I was at once a desperately horny adolescent eyeing a banquet of candy and grateful for the smell of it, an excited artist witnessing the incredibly silly, divine work done by a choreographer clearly delirious to have as many volunteers as he could want all willing to dance naked covered with paint while his finally-unleashed trivially-obscene opera played out; I was an overwhelmed spectator wishing desperately I could have been part of it; a shaken man in his thirties, American and never truly knowing what implicit limitations that term carried with it, finally seeing a visceral representation of what it was I'd always sensed was missing from life. This was not simply a matter of sex, of intercourse between individuals, of some run of statistics that had grown too slowly in my life. What I sensed was a quality of self, the invisible thing inside, struggling through the whole of life to get out, recognizable only by its shadow, unleashed and brought into being only through certain focused, insane, frightening rituals...
The stage roared into an inferno as the rock burned away; piles of fire logs had been fitted inside the wire frame and the whole structure of towers and the ring that formed between them exploded into flame. The dancers had formed a single group, crowding together and dancing, forming rows; then, in groups of three or four or five, they held hands, ran - and jumped, in a slow excited line, through the ring of fire. The audience had become part of the orgy of dancers; the massive crowd swelled around one side of the ring, uniformed firemen directing the line, and we flowed like a river over the flames that leapt up and through the ring, into a series of circles, dancing around the fires that had lit the whole spectacle.
The performers were ecstatic. The firemen had finally halted the crowd from proceeding after a point; the stage was growing weaker and the fire more fierce. Those who'd performed in the show continued to dance inside the circle, to take each other's hands and leap through the fire gleefully...a kind of nude elite, really, but not ungratefully so. One of the dragon-head towers collapsed, a crushed plaster skull burning flat on the ground, stretching out by a long, limp neck of embers and chicken wire.
Only an opera could have pulled off something so incredibly pretentious, so silly, so bombastic and outrageous...and so extreme in its victory. It would be impossible to explain or justify, but my life would be forever changed.
Christ, I was horny.
Filled with overwhelming lust and unfocused hunger...yet somehow also feeling nourished as never before; I pulled off my shirt and joined the dancing around one of the fires, the drum circle again playing; it had all become a dream, overwhelming, musical, sexual, beautiful, all heat and cold and warmth and loneliness, all hope and hopelessness, all in one ecstatic dance.
I'd have kept dancing all night - knees kicked high, endless living energy - but for the fumes. The fires had been built of dozens of duraflame logs; after twenty minutes of dancing in the rising air, my throat and lungs ached...
I stumbled back...into the city. My head would be filled with thoughts and visions for days afterward. I took pictures, watched the city happen for a few more minutes. We would be leaving immediately after the burn the next night. Finally I walked back to camp and wrote in my journal until four-thirty in the morning.
I hadn't known exactly what to expect. I'd been quietly wondering whether this week is simply a saturated farewell to the idea of sleeping with anyone but Aidan...not exactly a bachelor party in the traditional sense; just a reminder that of course I can live without it, since I'll never have it all anyway...
At first the Pagan mystique of Burning Man was very silly; all available energy for focused reverence of the natural and spiritual world had apparently been diverted by the demands of maintaining gas-powered generators to run disco sound systems, while drunk.
Now I saw it all differently, every corner of this weird gathering of hilarious cars and ecstatic drummers and nude men on bicycles and women peeing on the dry ground in the middle of the village circle.
Joseph Campbell suggested that our culture was moving and changing too fast to allow for any meaningful mythology to arise out of the world we currently live in. But a look around at what we'd so suddenly created here - a world hatched from the separate ideas of thousands of people - suggested something else altogether. The most prominent of the cultures colliding here was called Industrial - a style of music, of dress, of entertainment and of behavior; it made this place a shrine to engines and robots, lampshades and automobiles, newly recognized faces of God and every illusion that could be cleverly created out of manmade materials. A giant steel-grey submarine sank or, surfaced - outside one corner of the city, its nose, dozens of feet long, rising out of the cracked desert rock, as if in its last moments of life above the water...while thirty feet behind it, the bridge of the ship leaned backwards and stood ready to plunge under the surface, unattached to its bow but for the imagined ship's hull deep under the hard ground on which we walked. The craft's name was printed in block letters on the bow: "H.M.S. LOVE".
What could be the meaning of a shrine that celebrated industry and an ultimate humanity, human achievement and failure taken as one gesture, lampooned with a devotion due to few activities in life? What god would be worshipped at such a shrine? Or was a god necessary? The industrial revolutionaries set out to accomplish physical tasks, nothing more. Henry Ford was the figure of worship in "Brave New World"; perhaps Aldous Huxley's vision of a world religion based on industry was slowly coming true, in an awkward schizoid dance. So what does it mean to build a mythology around these new tools we've developed?
It means, I saw that night, that we're continuing to move on, as a species. And we can't go back. Industry has long since won its apocalyptic victory and the lives of every last person in the country, if not the world, are caught in orbit around it, our new colder sun, nurturing us all with snacks and cars and playthings and a billion other vital rewards. Yet industry is only the actions of people, doing what nature ultimately allows them to do. Through our actions, human industry is nature but without the timeless efficiency, its emptiness and waste piling up into a lesson we can't yet learn or even fully predict.
And yet, in this festival of mocking worship, something deeply, ultimately human was discovered.
The task of religion is to recognize the invisible truth of what we are, hidden within the opaque fury of what we are becoming. We are animals, still killing to survive. We are children of children of children. We are holy and beautiful. We are disappointments to our loving parents. We are not the rescuers, blessing all living creatures with a ride to salvation aboard the ark of our cleverness. We are the flood.
And the forty days have only begun.
Perhaps this is all adolescence. At first we recognized our mother as our creator, loving through the very act of living, ourselves somehow a part of her; then we recognized a father, standing at a distance and humbling us with his anger and his greatness. And now, as cocky children, we recognize ourselves and what we're finally capable of doing. And so begin our lonely grumblings about living on our own aggravated by a quiet fear that, someday, we may have no other choice.
Burning Man uses hilarious parody of present and past cultures the same way it uses Pagan imagery and direct sexuality: to unseat the foundations of a repressive, anemic, misguided culture; to cast off all possible rules of behavior and rediscover what had been concealed behind them. Nudity, profanity, insane dress, lewd sculpture, endless drumming, circus acts, peeing in public, carefully outrageous destruction, ecstatic celebration, unexplained play; it was all a casting off of chains, allowing the imagination to be set free. I'm tempted to say drugs don't really belong to the process, but that would be too exclusive; I'll only say that they would be redundant.
The chaos of Burning Man expresses every diverse element of a shifting culture that is in search of a mythology that can still mean something to people living in a wholly changed and changing world...and it ties that developing mythology to many things meaningful: community is created, true sexuality is unleashed, pleasure is discovered, the illusion of control is abandoned. That's why it takes place in the desert...and that's why Burning Man's symbol and basis is fire: it represents the vital moment of transformation from inert material to inert memory; it represents the destruction that will be the fate of all things; it represents the balance between the chaos of absolute freedom and the suffocation of absolute control that is necessary for the development of life. It represents the very moment of life that defines, heralds and summons everything that comes before and after.
Saturday morning a New York photographer named Spencer Tunick had planned a mass nude photo shoot on the playa, and Ben, Dan and I arrived at the Man at eight thirty that morning to join the large crowd. We signed photo releases and were led out to the airport - an eerie mass exodus across the flat empty desert, hundreds of us - to gather by the fence. Some reporters and photographers had come to witness the event; Spencer announced that there would be "plenty to see" if everyone cooperated and only people without clothing passed through the gate and onto the empty playa.
We dropped our clothes, stepped through the gate and sat naked in orderly rows on the desert floor, as if undergoing some elaborate customs procedure. Spencer - fully dressed - stood on a ladder with a bullhorn, reminding people to remove watches, glasses, hide the small cameras they'd brought; he thanked the crowd repeatedly. Arranging the photo took time; we sat waiting in the chilly morning air. Calls went out for Spencer to take his clothes off.
"OK, now, everybody lie back, and turn your heads away from me" Tunick shouted. "This is supposed to be a conceptual photograph, and we can't have conceptual with a bunch of smiling faces looking at the camera." He snapped a few pictures and we migrated to new positions, standing and "falling dead" on the ground in two distinct groups. Again we all waited for the second shot, lying still, peacefully staring at each other, as if I'd planned it exactly this way.
After that, the last day was routine: breakfast, Camp Sunscreen, free ice cream next door, glitter camp. We broke down the inverted dome and packed up our things; we'd leave the small dome there for Kevin and his girlfriend Diamond to take down a week later.
The Man was to burn about half an hour after dusk; Ruth and Ben were eager to leave immediately afterwards, avoiding the nightmare mass exodus they'd heard about in years past. Ruth would drive the truck to the Airport, where we'd meet at eleven o'clock.
I walked out (bike was packed in the trailer) and took a seat just behind the ring of lights that marked out the fire safety circle. To my left sat two middle-aged women who remained calmly silent, enjoying the show; to my right was a young woman who pointed out her ex-girlfriend spinning fire some distance away; behind me was a woman in her thirties telling her friend about having performed with the opera the night before. I had my tripod, my camera, my jacket. I hadn't showered since the day before, standing on a wooden palate in the middle of the playa, soaking myself with Ben's mist-sprayer; hadn't changed my clothes all week. I removed my shirt, as if to press my body against the air and feel every last twitch there was to be felt. The Man had been lowered to the ground, and technicians were wrapping the body with explosives. Fire spinners and dancers performed all around the giant circle...they were to be performing for maybe twenty minutes; technical problems with the man stretched the wait to an hour and a half.
The neon bulbs on the Man were failing; something had gone wrong with the pulley mechanism intended to raise the Man's arms. Finally they raised the figure, only some of the lights glowing, the arms lowered, a kind of surrender. The dancers moved off and the fire was lit.
It had become a fireworks show...the crowd cheered, sparks and flares shot out from the Man's burning frame, the wood roared and glowed. Drums pounded at one side of the massive circle; lasers drew patterns across the sky from each direction; four giant spheres burned on each side of the figure. It was a strange Fourth of July, celebrating some novel independence nobody could clearly define.
Finally the Man collapsed forward, and the crowd began to rush in.
Some people headed forward, some back. The older woman to my left turned to me and said "Thank you for being here." All I could think to say was "You're welcome." The woman next to her added "You smell good!" I thanked her, shook her hand. She kissed me on the cheek.
I drifted toward the fire, hoping for more ecstatic dancing, more hypnotic drums, more of everything I'd found the night before. The crowd pushed itself together tightly, forming a sudden circular storm moving tightly around the fire. Very hot, chaotic. In the spinning center of the circle I tripped over Theresa, who lived in my house in San Francisco three years before.
Whatever it was I'd come there to do, I only had time to do it. I'd worn a crumbling coat with a broken zipper; I threw it into the fire - only to have it catch the rising air and fall only a few feet from me. I dashed closer, threw it in...and made my way out of the circling crowd.
The playa had become crowded with cars, a sea of strange people dressed for life outside Black Rock City, all arrived within the past few hours. Beer bottles were everywhere, in piles beside every post or structure. (There had been very little of that during the week.) Bands had set up and begun playing in the darkness, tight funk-rock music that sounded so wrong at that moment, like a car stereo blasting in a forest.
It was a different kind of chaos - a high-school event crowd, beer and cars. Suddenly the idea of public nudity seemed vulgar, any sense of mutual understanding or trust chased out by these...strangers. Whatever had been carefully developed during the week had already burned away; nothing left but a crowded amusement park.
Without the glowing figure in the center of the city, navigating suddenly became impossible. The city was everywhere...lights stretched in all directions around me, then stopped; the distance to my right was dark, but for a few scattered camps and two tiny blinking orange lights...Ruth in the truck, perhaps, waiting at the airport. I walked toward them, slowly out of the crowd of spectators facing in every direction. I watched the ground, stepped out of the way of cars; looked up to see I'd lost my landmark again; searched the horizon and again headed off toward the flashing lights.
It was deeply disheartening. A beautiful, meaningful gathering had suddenly become a tourist attraction and the tourist attraction had become a high school nightmare, noisy and joyless and impossible to stop. Again I walked through the whole idiotic carnival, into the dark and quiet, wondering what had gone wrong. Had it been changed through being observed by such a crowd?
It was the life of a city...a small gathering finds reason and purpose and safety together; their warmth calls others out of the cold. And warmth becomes gravity, as the crowd gathers simply to see why the crowd is gathering. And trust becomes aloof distance, and safety becomes silence and anonymity. We were in search of a new ritual, a new set of meanings. We'd left so much behind, covered the Earth with tarps and concrete and covered the concrete with tar paper and floorboards and covered our tracks with carpets and stories and incessant noise. The Bible had told the story many centuries ago of a people leaving the garden that produced them, and we'd re-enacted the journey over the course of these few days, a pristine valley transformed into a noisy, overcrowded arcade. We could clean away the bottles and sweep up our ashes, erase the mess from this one briefly inhabited desert. But we can't go back.
Today, at least, it all seemed like a terrible mistake.
Walking on toward the airport, I looked above me and saw an endless, bottomless garden of stars...no moon, no city; only a sky filled with lights, so open and whole it could swallow anything invisibly within it. My bitterness dropped away.
I don't know what exactly I recognized in that sky. It all sounds silly now, back in the world, back behind the everyday mask that gives me form and helps me walk. But in that night sky I saw a garden, still there...lifted off the ground. Perhaps we'll look so far and long in the coming centuries that we'll find it, the Garden of Eden, some perfect harmony with the Earth that we left behind before we discovered the simplicity of joy, peace, abstract reverence...and all of the ugliness that makes those things possible. Perhaps we'll lose ourselves in the search and re-create our memory of it in our own image...the birth of a people and a world, brought to life by a generation no longer able to inhabit it. And maybe it doesn't matter. The garden is still up there, under our feet, surrounding us and changing constantly with every footstep we take and every breath we borrow from it. It winks at us, tiny creatures celebrating our little accomplishments and cheering our little victories and knowing our little facts.
The lights were still flashing, now clearly showing the way to the truck. Glancing for moments back toward the sky, I walked through the desert into the distance.
For days after arriving back in New York, I continued dreaming about Burning Man. Always different dreams, always about tame family campouts taking place just outside the gathering, wishing I could join the sensual, exciting play...and then finding I was part of it, now joined with the group, naked, unleashed, at last. Once it was on a hillside, once in a city, always somewhere different. Always I saw that the child who had grown up tame, protected, taking shallow breaths, afraid to make a move...can eventually grow up, become a man, live another life that's just as rightly his own, and take his place among the group.
5/27/2000 Moving out of Bronxville on Monday, killing three normal weeks in NYC and then back to California, maybe employed and maybe not. All unnecessary possessions now stuffed into boxes, soon to become stuff I don't really need somewhere else. Can't sleep past 5:30 a.m. last few days. Wake up with late Spring mosquitos buzzing in my ear, heard in semi-consciousness as blurred voices repeating lines from dreams. Shoulders covered with mosquito bites that together look like measles. Can't sleep for fear of flying bugs crawling on me. Considering African mosquito netting over bed, or closing window.
I'll be moving out on Wednesday so I'm trying to eat all the food in the kitchen, mostly bread and cheese and frozen vegetables, a kind of Parisian trailer-park menu. Leaving cabinets full of dishes for future tenants.
I broke up with Aidan last month, for a short list of clichéd reasons. In the push to be who I thought I should be for her I'd lost track of who I am. It sounds like idiocy and it is, as if I were pushing my car and suddenly stood up, wondering where my car was wasn't I just pushing it? Perhaps a rolling crash would be heard after I turned to walk away, perhaps not. Either way I knew what had happened, what the consequences were. And still I could see no car.
Now it's all weird dreams. For a brief lifetime I've been living in New York, eating my lunch on rollerblades while sliding through midtown (usually spaghetti), still wondering when I'd fully understand I'm here Lou Reed's New York,, Woody Allen's New York, all the silly myths. I roll past the Empire State Building every day and it's just a building now.
When I travel I always long to see the world as the locals do now, as an ignorant local, I somehow long to see the world through the wide-open eyes of a tourist. The tabloid headlines remind me that I'm in another culture; the world has changed around me. The pace and pressure of my working life are amplified by the echo chamber of massive buildings forming rows of canyons stretching the length of the island. Yet I expect a response from inside, a voice reminding me that "You're in New York and now things are different". The voice is not there.
Aidan moved out two weeks ago, back to Missouri for the summer. My parents were on a long-planned visit; Aidan's father arrived with the truck and we all helped haul stuff to the sidewalk to be packed. It had been a long month of dividing possessions, sharing lamentations that weren't quite regrets. She stepped out the door, sadly waved and walked down the stairs.
Two days later my parents and I took the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. Approaching the figure in the boat was overwhelming, all the measured promises of the welcoming nation still resonant in the neutral expression of the great lady, all the desperate hope ferried past her still tangible. Arriving on the island, however, placed us in just another park. Only the accidental glance upwards reminded me of what figure was towering over us, bringing us across this river to this calm place.
I entered the statue and followed the stagnant line up one stair at a time. Several classrooms full of children choked the narrow crisscrossing stairways above me, cherubic voices slamming back and forth off the stone walls of the base of the statue as they continuously punished each other with screams of "WHAZZUP!" We took perhaps six steps a minute. It was purgatory as designed by M.C. Escher, all blessings and agonies of family life in one tight space, perhaps intended from the beginning as a psychological form of population control for the arriving masses.
Now I'm alone in the house. Aidan took the lamps from the living room so at night the space is lit only dimly from the street. I entered the room two nights ago, looked up and saw a scattered pile of details, stacks of books and blankets not yet sent away, moments from the quiet life shared in that space over the past year. Every wall had shadows against it Aidan nervous and exhausted on the couch after her first day at work; Marina making a collage of magazine pictures to place behind the fishtank; Aidan and I falling together on the couch in the evening, calmly spilling a few of that day's thoughts, each of us baffled by the future and distracted by the taste of the present. All these images were alive before me, surrounding me, somehow more than memories but never to leave this space as anything else.
© 2000 Martin Azevedo