A long-overdue poolside March Mexican vacation. Dilemma: what to read?
These are valuable reading hours, my friends – especially (for me) between the hours of 11 a.m. – 3 p.m., before the alcohol muddles everything up. So I didn’t want to waste them reading just any old thing.
In the end, after much consideration (books by J.G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood and Patricia Highsmith made the shortlist) I decided on two fiction and one non-fiction selection. One was a book I’d already read by a favourite author, one I hadn’t read by another fave, and one by an author I’d never read.
In the first category: Clockers, by Richard Price. Price is a writer I’ve been reading for over 25 years, and a new novel by the New Yorker is always cause for excitement. I loved his last book, Lush Life (2008 – was it really that long ago?) and 2003′s Samaritan but hadn’t been so fond of Freedomland (1998).
I chose Clockers because though I’d already read it around the time of publication (1992) I’d pretty much forgotten most of it and because I wanted something fat and meaty that I could sink my teeth into. (If the title sounds familiar, it could be because of Spike Lee’s movie adaptation.)
At his best, Price brings a complexity to his crime thrillers that is rare (he spent the first part of his literary career writing compact, coming-of-manhood-type books). The dialogue seems real, as though overheard on the street (Price has also gone on to write for The Wire, that torn-from-the-streets-of-Baltimore series), the relationships and motivations are complicated, and just about every character gets a fair shake. And it’s never about who did it, but why.
However, in Clockers the action seemed to flag, and even become repetitious by about the 400-page mark (the book is over 600 pages). It seemed as though Price was spinning his wheels being literary and detailed when a little more action was called for. At a certain point you grow weary of reading about one of the main characters’ ulcer and Yoo-Hoo craving. I gave up two-thirds of the way through because I wanted to read other books, and time was running out; but I’m not sure if I’ll go back to Clockers.
Next up: The Sisters Brothers. I hadn’t been planning on reading it – I had a George V. Higgins novel, Wonderful Years, Wonderful Years lined up – but since my sister brought it and loved it I decided to give it a go. I’ve been seeing the reviews for the novel, the second by Vancouver Island-born, Portland-dwelling Patrick DeWitt, and even read the first few sample pages offered on Amazon.
But I was unprepared for how much I liked the book. There is some fabulous writing here, just some great lines that burn on the page. DeWitt’s voice here is both naturalistic and mannered, and the characters almost always behave in unpredictable yet (for them) perfectly reasonable ways.
Apparently the movie rights have already been sold; we can only hope that the Coen Brothers get to it. The Sisters Brothers is for fans of Charles Portis (True Grit), Elmore Leonard, Deadwood, Lonesome Dove, and any other modern Western writers or series. (I’m thinking too of Cormac McCarthy, but I’ve only read The Road so I don’t feel comfortable including him here.)
Finally, Double Down. This was an interesting read after The Sisters Brothers because it, too, is about two siblings, Steve and Frederick Barthelme. Their Wild West isn’t the West Coast (as in The Sisters Brothers) but the Mississippi casinos where, in the mid-’90s, they blew a modest fortune. The 200-page volume is also a memoir about their family, especially their mother and father (a pioneering American architect) and a little about their more famous older sibling, post-modern American literature hero Donald Barthelme.
Both Steve and Frederick, who co-wrote this book, are gifted writers (they’re also creative writing profs, or were at the time they wrote this book), and nearly every line of Double Down seems effortless, the poetry of everyday speech. (I’ve found this to be true of the two novels I’ve read from Frederick Barthelme, including Bob the Gambler – which I discovered while going through the discount bin in the now-deceased Vancouver downtown Virgin Records store for 50 cents!).
Like The Sisters Brothers, Double Down has lines that stop you on the page. (I wish I could quote them but hey, I was on vacation and not taking notes!) It’s also got a momentum that makes the book hard to put down. I read it nearly in one sitting, on the plane trip home. I was as unhappy to finish it as I was to land, vacation over.
On Thursday, July 21, the first official day of the 2011 San Diego Comic-Con, one of the highlights of the 4,000-capacity Ballroom 20 was the panel for Game of Thrones. A critical and popular hit on HBO, the series is based on a bunch of fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin, and the ballroom was packed with people wanting to know what is in store for Season Two.
Exec producer David Benioff said if they could get to the point in the third novel, A Storm of Swords, and an event he referred to as the “R.W.” (which I have since discovered stands for the “Red Wedding”, I think) he’d be happy.
Other revelations; actor Peter Dinklage looked like he did not want to be there; Jason Momoa, who plays the barbarian king Khal Drogo, made a joke about getting to (in character) “rape beautiful women”; actress Emilia Clarke effused about her character Danaerys’ arc from meek chattel to dragon queen; and there won’t be any deleted scenes on the DVD (most of what they shot went into the series).
More interesting, perhaps, was what happened later in the evening. Through a fluke far too boring to get into, I found myself on the second floor of the Hard Rock Hotel, in a room where HBO was throwing a small, intimate party with buffet-style food for the Game of Thrones cast and crew.
The first sight I saw was actress Piper Perabo of Covert Affairs (and, more importantly, the 2000 movie Coyote Ugly), posing for a photo with Game of Thrones actress Lena Headey. They were on their way out, though, and when their glitter-dust faded I took stock of the room.
There was Momoa, who also plays Conan in this summer’s Conan the Barbarian; Benioff; author George R.R. Martin; and Emilia Clarke, as well as a bunch of others who must have been HBO execs.
When you’re thrust into a situation like this, or at least when I am, my first instinct is to clam up, which is what I did.
I couldn’t very well do what I wanted to do, i.e. talk to the stars (and Martin), because people would immediately twig onto the fact that I shouldn’t be in there. Besides, there was a host bar and a bartender willing to pour me Grey Goose martinis, so I retreated to a corner with my drink and pretended to be interested in my phone while watching what was going on around me.
Martin, round and white-bearded, was holding court at one table. The lovely Clarke smiled and laughed at another, less populated table. Momoa had removed his jacket to reveal his arms and was showing the bartenders how to pop off beer bottle caps with another beer bottle.
At one point one of his friends, a guy I’ll call Darryl, wondered over. I made up some bullshit story of who I was with and he didn’t seem to question it. We chatted about how he is basically paid to hang out with Momoa and keep an eye on him, and that Momoa was recently filming (I think Darryl said in Mexico) with Chris Evans, star of the current superhero blockbuster Captain America, and whom at least some people on set referred to as “Captain Arrogant”.
I asked about Conan the Barbarian, and Darryl said it was going to be “huge for Jason”, but that it’s only a so-so movie, that the producers kept pushing for more corn because they were scared of losing their investment.
He wandered off and I decided to help myself to a little food from the buffet table. I took my plate and sat down at a table, risking more conversation. Momoa came over to get his jacket from a nearby chair. “Hey,” I said. “Can you show me how to open beer bottles the way you were doing just now?” (Jesus, could I be any more obsequious?)
“No,” he said, grabbing his jacket from the chair behind me. The jacket struck me in the head on its ascension in his big meaty grip. “Only Kahl Drogo can open beers that way!” And with that he left.
I did too, soon after, to crash another party.
I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to come to San Diego for the Comic-Con. After years of attending smaller conventions at Heritage Hall in Vancouver, I’ve finally made the pilgrimage. These are, after all, My People.
So, first impressions, on the morning of Preview Night (the convention centre opens this evening so early bird four-day passholders can get a peak before the hordes arrive, though from what I hear Preview Night is usually packed):
1. There are a lot of weirdos around.
2. People like to wear their lanyards.
3. The WB employs children. We were sitting next to a table of four WB employees at a restaurant in the Gaslamp district, and three of them looked as though they’d just graduated high school.
4. Capcom pays its employees way too much. A guy next to me at the Hyatt’s front desk this morning wore a Capcom lanyard AND T-shirt and was asking for a room upgrade to one with a kitchenette and Murphy bed.
5. Twilight fans are creepy. They were already lining up outside the convention centre yesterday (Tuesday) for a panel that doesn’t happen until tomorrow (Thursday).
6. Once a year, the geeks take over the city of San Diego, and walk (and subathe) without shame. Someone – not Sophie Monk, but a girl, nonetheless – was reading a Batman graphic novel around the Hyatt pool yesterday. (It wasn’t even The Killing Joke, or some cool Batman graphic novel.)
7. The makers of Arkham City are pushing the new (updated?) Batman video game in a big way. One side of a hotel is covered in a huge ad for the game, which means that the required warning that it might not be good for kids stretches a good 40-foot section of the building.
8. Everyone employed in the area knows about the Comic-Con but apparently wouldn’t be caught dead there themselves.
That’s all for now… I’m sure there will be more entries later, including such scintillating updates as:
Standing in line for a press pass
Meeting up with my Cineplex.com contact
Attending preview night
Waking up with a Hulk-size hangover
Mistaking someone for Kevin Smith
A couple of weekends ago, my girlfriend and I drove down to Portland. We stopped the Thursday night (May 26) in Seattle, where we stayed at my favourite cheap-o hotel (The Moore, where they still know a thing or two about how to shape a towel into a bunny rabbit) before driving the rest of the way to PDX Friday. We stayed three nights at the Jupiter Hotel before heading home, make a brief (three hour) detour at Sasquatch, which wasn’t all that brief if you also consider how much driving time – approximately six hours – it added to the trip home.
Anyway, a good part of the trip was spent sampling various bars and restaurants, including some new places, and as always when I’m in the U.S. searching for the perfect Happy Hour. Here’s a brief rundown of all the places we went, which may or may not guide you on your next visit to the land of Powell’s Books, microbreweries, and Stumptown Coffee.
Thursday, May 26, Seattle:
The Tin Table – Dead at Happy Hour, but the light is great. It’s in something called the Oddfellows Building, around the corner from Elliott Bay Books; not a bad place for a cocktail and happy hour apps. A pisco sour was one of our drinks.
Earth and Ocean in The W Hotel – Have never gotten over the place since seeing Quentin Tarantino at the bar during the Seattle Int’l Film Festival thousands of years ago. Great happy hour appetizers, expensive cocktails. The harissa chicken kebabs with almond yogurt sauce were delicious.
Sazerac in the Hotel Monaco – A deal when it comes to happy hour appetizers. We had a Simplicity pizza (tomato Reduction, Mozzarella, Baby Tomato, Basil), artisan lettuces, and 1/2 dozen oysters.
Queen City Grill – Had some great food and drink here during Bumbershoot. Ordered the sauteed wild mushrooms with polenta and pecorino cheese, though there didn’t seem to be much polenta. We weren’t complaining because it was still so buttery-fantastic. Cocktails: one bourbon-based and another rum-based, from what I remember.
Friday, May 27, Portland:
Besaw’s – Arrived in the city at 1 p.m. and drove straight here for brunch. Excellent huevos rancheros, which I am continually on the look-out for in the “best” category.
The Doug Fir at the Jupiter Hotel – We stopped at our hotel’s bar to get our Happy Hour going. I had their version of a boiler-maker – Old Crow whiskey and a PBR. Measured pour. Thumbs down.
The Guild Public House – IPAs and grilled dates with blue cheese and almonds wrapped in proscuitto and drizzled with maple syrup. Yes.
Noble Rot Wine Bar – Excellent fun, sitting at a rounded banquette w/ oldsters. Crafty cocktails like the Spiced Heaven (bourbon and ginger). Happy Hour onion rings.
The Farm Cafe – Nice and dark, a good place to when you’ve had too much to drink and you don’t want anyone to see your pupils swimming in alcohol. Also it was next to our hotel. It’s also very Portland, i.e. there’s probably a skit about it on the satirical show Portlandia. The gnocchi was so good we had to go back on our last night and make sure we hadn’t just dreamt it. We also had the mascarpone cheesecake with pecans (hey, we were on vacation) and for an appetizer the artisanal lettuces.
Saturday, May 28:
Old Wives Tales - Don’t be fooled by its kid-friendly mien and the big, well-lit room that gives it a Denny’s-like atmosphere; the food at Old Wives Tales is seriously good, and with a tone of gluten-free options, which is good news if, like us, you’re health-obsessed in between poisoning your liver. I had Joe’s Tofu Scramble, with fresh spinach and asiago cheese.
Jake’s – With its old-school ambiance, Jake’s is the kind of cool, old-fashioned bar you imagine Elmore Leonard characters hanging out in. However it’s downtown and tourist-y, with a get-’em-in-get-’em-out feel. Still, not a bad place for a Happy Hour drink and appetizers; we had the “world-famous” crawfish.
Clyde Common – Also downtown, and situated next to the uber-hip Ace Hotel, Clyde Common comes with some uber-hipness of its own. We just had beer because we didn’t feel like paying non-happy-hour prices for the cocktails which, admittedly, looked intriguing (sample names: the Andalusian Buck; the Nasturtium; the Tuning Fork). It definitely warrants a return visit, however.
Typhoon – After I complained to the bartender that at Jake’s couldn’t taste the booze in our drinks, she said she makes real drinks. Still couldn’t taste the rum, however. Food was excellent, or seemed so at the time – better than average Thai.
Sunday, May 29
Bread and Ink Cafe – Too big, too many people, so-so brunch food. Good scones though.
Deco Distillery – There’s a section in the industrial part of town near the Willamette River called Distillery Row. We stopped at Deco, because it was easy to find and opened onto the street. And because they have rum!
Ginger-infused rum, coffee-infused rum, and just plain old silver rum. Augustina, who was very helpful in pointing us in the direction of other bars in the area (including the nearby Speakeasy, which oozed personality but smelled like an armpit) poured for us and several others in the mid-afternoon. We walked away with a bottle of the ginger stuff. I still wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have bought the coffee one as well.
Burnside Brewing Co. – More Portland craft brew, plus pastels and paper to draw on and old Talking Heads playing. Very cool place, and pretty much our last stop except for one return visit to Farm for more gnocchi in the dark.
Monday, May 30 2011
Mostly a travel day – no time for breakfast or even lunch, except for what we bought at a grocery store as well as hot dogs at the Sasquatch Music Festival. On the way home we stopped for a burger-and-brew at the Ram Restaurant and Brewery in North Seattle by the University District. It’s pretty collegiate but the grub is decent and just the kind of solid food needed after driving all day, and to get us home.
Still thinking about that gnocchi at Farm, though.
- by Shawn Conner
For those of you who have been following our Burning Man series, “Breakdown in Black Rock”, thanks. It was tough to write and probably tougher to read, but now we can all relax with a couple of fun little items. First up is our Burning Man Index, which is followed by links to some of the best of BM we found while researching the article.
Burning Man 2009 Index
Number of Hello Kitty sippy cups purchased: 2
Number of Clif Bars purchased: 2 dozen
Number of Clif Bars given away as a gift: 1
Number of Clif Bars returned by giftee after one bite: 1
Number of songs in my ‘Burning Man‘ iPod playlist: 168
Number of songs from the Burning Man playlist that I could still listen to by the end of the trip: 12
Number of those songs with the words ‘sand’ in the title: 3
Number of times I heard people having sex: 2
Number of times I thought I heard people having sex: 200
Number of people at this year’s Burning Man as of noon Thursday, Sept. 3, according to camp statistics: 47, 318
Number of those with dreadlocks: 19, 309
Number of fire dancers: 25,746
Number of times I heard how ‘diverse’ Burning Man is: 25
Number of packs of Star Trek (original series) cards I brought to give out: 2
Number of pics I was able to take with the used Polaroid I bought the day before leaving for Burning Man: 5
Number of copies of Farrah Fawcett issue of Vanity Fair brought to the playa: at least one (by me)
Number of times it came in handy: 2 (once because of the article on the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, which became a topic of conversation with the Italian lady parked in an RV near our camp; a second time when I was invited to take a shower at another RV and was asked to bring the Vanity Fair)
Number of times I accidentally ran into someone I knew: 1
Number of times I found someone I set out to find: 1
Number of times I was able to find drugs: 0
Number of times I was told I look like a narc: 1
- by Shawn Conner
Day 5: Waiting for the Oracle
I was standing in line for the oracle when I got involved in a rather serious conversation.
Now, normally, verbal exchanges at Burning Man are pretty basic: “First time/Where you from/How’s your Burn”-kind of thing. Which is fine, as far as it goes, but sometimes you want to have a more substantial give-and-take.
Well, some people might. I didn’t, but I got one anyway.
A bunch of us were in line for a camp offering massages, foot washes, and oracular personality readings. I forget how it came about, but I soon found myself in a debate about whether or not (drug) addiction is a disease. Lulu, a Brooklynite, was standing in line with her friend Katie, who I might have been talking with about drugs (which were very much on my mind, probably because I hadn’t been able to find any). Lulu joined in, saying she was a few years sober, that she’d been an addict and that she does indeed think drug addiction is a disease.
This went on for a bit, with me doing a fair bit of backtracking since I really didn’t have any facts to back up my argument. But then Lulu apologized for being defensive. After entering the tent, me to my foot massage and wash, she to her oracle reading, we went our separate ways, not expecting to see each other again.
That’s the way it is at Burning Man – you can make a plan, but before you know it you’re on an art-car shaped like a pirate ship driving across the playa, not knowing where you’ll be next. Plans are what you make while Burning Man happens.
But, as part of my “Healing Friday”, I did have something like a schedule. I needed a hair-wash and a bath, and the only way of getting the latter, at least that I’d heard about, was the Human Carcass Wash. In another camp near the one offering the HCW, the Astral Headwash sounded even more promising. I needed a hair-wash almost as much as I need Diablo Cody to add me on Twitter.
What the Human Carcass Wash is, basically, is a human car wash, i.e. an assembly line. To earn your wash, you have to help wash others. There are four stations, which are basically tubs with four people each. At the first tub, four people spritz you down with spray bottles of water and soap; at the next, four people use their (bare) hands to wipe off the soapy water; at the next, four people spritz you with just water, and finally four more people wipe off the last of the H2O. And yes, most if not all participants get naked. When it comes to the genitals, the washers ask the washee about their boundaries. Most of the people I helped wash said they’d take care of their own privates, but at least one guy was pretty gung ho about giving the scrubbers carte blanche. (No, it wasn’t me.)
I arrived for the two o’clock start time, and was one of the first to volunteer—I’d left my name for the hair-wash, and didn’t want to miss the appointment.
I must say, I don’t think the Human Carcass Wash is something I would want to make a regular practice of. Not only did I have to touch some human flesh I didn’t want to touch, but I also didn’t feel very clean afterwards. However, the Astral Headwash was, like the totally awesome foot massage/wash earlier in the day, exactly what I needed.
The Last Day
One thing led to another Saturday morning, and I found myself at the Temple.
The rest of the previous evening I’d spent wandering the camp, chilling in the jazz tent and, closer to our camp, the ritzy and glam Ashram Galactica, a sumptuous tent set up, from what I heard, by an L.A. crew. But really, I was just waiting for the Man to do his Burning at that point.
But when I awoke Saturday morning that was still hours away. At the suggestion of a holistic healer I met while riding around on my bike, I headed back onto the playa. “For a lot of people, the burning of the Temple is more intense than the burning of the Man,” she told me.
I’d been to the Temple once already, a couple of days before. I don’t remember if all the writing, posters, collages and notes had been there that first time. But visiting it this second time I was struck by the outpouring of emotion that was all around. It seemed every square inch of wood – and there was a lot of it – had been covered by people in pain, people who regretted things they’d done or the way they’d treated someone, people who didn’t understand why their lover had grown cold or why someone had to be taken from them. The palpable feeling of pain, of grief, was overwhelming.
For me, it was summed up by this collage:
Suddenly I heard, “Hey, Holy Fuck.” (I was wearing a T-shirt with those words on it.)
It was Lulu – or Meredith, she corrected me: “Lulu” was her playa nickname. Before long we were adding the names of our own loved ones to the thousands already scrawled and written around us. I hadn’t wanted to, but I ended up describing my mixed feelings about Burning Man, and how I had come expecting to party and instead found myself facing some uncomfortable truths about who I was, what I wanted, and all that kind of squirmy stuff I used to pay a therapist to dredge up. It was a conversation I hadn’t wanted to have, but, like the foot-massage and hair-wash, was one that I needed.
Meredith had to go then, she had volunteered for a shift at centre camp’s coffee bar; she suggested I come by later, but when I did I couldn’t find her. But that’s Black Rock City for you.
That night I watched the Man burn. After, I went back to camp, slept a solid five hours, woke up at dawn, and drove the hell out of Black Rock City.
- by Shawn Conner
I was spending a lot of time away from Camp Craigslist. I didn’t like the vibe there. Well, specifically, I didn’t like that I was letting Eric get to me.
Maybe it was the feathers he carefully applied to his blue-streaked hair each day, but dude was getting more pussy than a dolphin trainer at Sea World. Which was fine, but it was kind of driving me – five months out of a relationship, feeling rather inept when it comes to the opposite sex, in fact just plain atrocious lately at coming off as anything other a friend-type – kind of crazy. First night, when he came back to the camp with two girls at 4 or 5 in the morning, I thought, Sure, no problem, whatever. But the next night he brought back another chick to his tent, one I wouldn’t have known about except for when he volunteered the information the next morning.
He described the action thusly: “I had the flashlight out and…” he mimed aiming a flashlight down at his johnson and an invisible female backside as he performed doggy-style hip thrusts. “I don’t even know how old she was. She’s here with her dad.” He looked up at the cloudless sky contemplatively. “Maybe I’ll go eight for eight [girls for days].”
I shook off my annoyance and left camp before I could hear what colour toenail polish she wore or if she had her labia pierced. I felt no nearer to being near anyone’s labia than I did to climbing a volcano, and here was Don Juan Casanova with a new dread-locked hippie chick every night. Not only at night, either – one afternoon mid-week we were all hanging, Eric, myself, and Daria and Orel, the two Israeli girls camped near us, when Daria and Don Juan disappeared, ostensibly to find the porta-lets. When he came back the Don had a big shit-eating grin on his face. “Me and Daria just totally made out.”
Anyway, things went from bad to absurd. I tried to be in camp as little as possible, to lessen the chances of hearing about Casanova’s 120 Days of Sodom. But it never failed – even if I poked my head out of my tent for a second, or stop by camp to get some more water, Don Juan would appear and say something like, “Daria and I fucked this afternoon in my tent, it was so hot and sweaty we turned the dust to clay.” Or he’d show up with someone new: “Hey man, how’s it going? Haven’t seen you around camp much. This is, uhm, Allison?”
Exiled on Main Street
So where was I once I’d had enough of our camp, such as it was? Well I always had a good time at the Duck Pond (see part II). One morning, I think it was Wednesday, I met Carol, and we walked out to the middle of the playa to check out the Man and the Temple.
Though the man gets all the attention, the Temple – which is burned the following night – is also a significant sacrifice. I was told by one holistic healer that for many, the Temple burn was more intense than that of the Man; because people covered the structure’s wood with remembrances of loved ones. These took the form of everything from handwritten notes to elaborate posters and collages prepared beforehand. The idea, I suppose, was both to pay tribute to those lost and also to relieve emotional baggage. But all of this I only understood later.
After the temple, we made several stops along the way back to Carol’s camp, including catching a ride on an art-car. We saw many of these people:
An approaching-50 yoga instructor, Carol was another first-timer whose enthusiasm for the event was contagious and took me out of myself. She had come down with a San Francisco-based crew who were attempting to get their peacock art-car back on the road after realizing that the feathers wouldn’t hold in the playa wind. Back at Camp Peacock (for lack of a better term) I soon found myself helping re-assemble the four-foot-long feathers, made out of canvas and with new piping (the PVC used previous didn’t hold).
Suddenly, a totally psycho drugged-up weirdo (even by Burning Man standards) appeared, running up and down the street with his arms outstretched, looking like he might stumble at any second. He was smiling but it was the same kind of smile Charles Manson might have before murdering a family. I was the recipient of an unwanted shoulder-grab before he was chased away from the feathers; later, I saw him pinned down by three guys who were attempting to calm him down.
Which brings us to some of the dangers of Burning Man. In any environment where you mix drugs, geodesic domes and naked hippie chicks, there are going to be casualties. Black Rock City has medical facilities (as well as a group of “Black Rock City Rangers” to keep the peace) and I’m sure the people who work there have some stories. Besides drug-boy, I was also witness to seizure, or maybe a stroke, in the centre camp (a large multi-use facility with a stage, art pieces, and a coffee counter, one of the few places where you could actually purchase something). The 50-something guy was flat on his back, his righthand shaking; some medical workers soon arrived on the scene. I also heard about another incident. The builders of one of the geodesic domes (Burners love their geodesic domes; Freeman Dyson would be proud) had set up a couple of mattresses on the ground in the middle of the space, for people to fall from the dome’s nadir. According to someone who claimed to be there at the time, one guy missed the mattress and bunged up his leg pretty bad.
Survivor: Black Rock Desert
By Thursday, though, four days after my arrival, Burning Man was starting to seem like more of an endurance contest than a party. Sure, I had a gas dancing at a Devo party put on by the Mystikal Misfits on the other side of the camp…
But my feet were cracked and sore from the alkaline dust and breaking in new sandals; it felt like everything, even my internal organs, were covered in a thin layer of playa dust; I was tired of spending half an hour making sure I had everything I might need once I left the camp; no one would sell me Ecstasy; and my bike was broken in places it used to play, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen. Maybe my spirit too, a little.
In fact, I was starting to feel a little like this guy…
So I decided that the next day, Friday, I would take care of myself. Even if that meant getting scrubbed down by strangers.
- by Shawn Conner
In our previous post, we wrote about getting to Burning Man and setting up our camp, affectionately dubbed Camp Craigslist. In Part II, we look at the food we came across as well as some of the more notable bars that became like second homes. Also, we ride around in a birthday cake and learn a lesson in desert survival.
Considering it’s in the middle of a desert, Burning Man offers a surprisingly varied menu, if you’re timing’s right or you pay attention to what’s in the guide. (The guide tells you what’s happening at what camp and when.) It seems nothing is beyond some enterprising campers, from poutine to Vietnamese iced coffee to the ever-popular sno-cones and even sushi. Which was good news, considering all I’d brought was a box of Clif bars, some Kashi cereal and tins of Amy’s organic soup and (ugh!) Campbell Chunky Beef Soup (which I never touched, and is earmarked for the local food bank, though I’m not sure even the homeless deserve such dreadful chemical putrescence).
Chief among the surprise food finds was the aforementioned poutine, made and served by a group of Montrealers every night, starting at midnight and until supplies ran out, and sushi, which I missed but heard about from the chef who’d flown in from Japan and picked up the air-packed fish from San Francisco (he mentioned that it was served on the bodies of nude females, and gone in five minutes).
Some of the foods I was lucky enough to stumble upon included crepes, being served by a camp one afternoon as I was passing by on my bike; something deliciously sweet called “coconut bliss”; and bacon-wrapped Fudgee-Os. Even after all the flogging, dildo jousting, and pole-dancing I witnessed, this delicacy – served at a camp made up mostly of Vancouverites – was the most debauched moment of the whole week. (Burners love their bacon; it seemed every time I turned around I smelled bacon frying. Apparently, it’s good for restoring the much needed salt balance.)
Another camp served pancakes every morning, and most seasoned camps had at least one event during the week where they pulled out the bags of corn chips and nuts and served a specialty cocktail to anyone who made the effort to stop by.
The Shot-Ski and the Mankini
One of my favourite stops was the Golden Cafe, which was a tent with a Moroccan (as if I know Moroccan!) feel and a more particular way with its drinks than other camps, which basically just served cheap vodka by the caseload. The Cafe, which did indeed have a golden calf in the centre, abides by three rules: drink what they serve you, finish your drink, return the glass. Where most camps encourage you to bring your own reusable cup (to tie in with Burning Man’s no-trace-left-behind ethos), the Golden Cafe staff insist you use their glasses. I found this out the hard way – I set my Hello Kitty sippy cup down on the bar, earning a glance from one of the bartenders who then grabbed a megaphone. “Just a reminder,” he blared, “we don’t want your stinking, dusty playa cups. You’ll use our glasses or you won’t get served.” And though your libation is up to whoever your bartender, including Maria who wants you to bring her your sex toys, might be, if you’re a “preferred customer” (i.e. you have contributed mix; the pop and juice always runs out before the booze) you get a medallion and whatever drink you want.
The Golden Cafe was notable also for the “shot-ski,” a ski with five shot-glasses attached and which requires the participants to coordinate the tipping over of the ski, and an appearance by the “mankini.” On the day I had my first (and only) “shot-ski” (of tequila), five guys burst into the tent. All wore mankinis, flourescent green versions of the one-piece suspenders-and-banana-hammock bathing suit a la Borat.
Bloody Marys and Aerobics, Amateur Flogging
I also kept returning to the Duck Pond, the camp/bar I came across my first morning. As near as I can tell how these things work, the more interactive and welcoming and full-service a camp is, the better its location; the Duck Pond was close to the action on the Esplanade, though still a few streets away. The Duck Pond had several things going for it, and several of the visits I made there turned out to be among my most memorable Burning Man experiences.
For instance, there was the amateur flogging I came across one afternoon. An older, stocky dude was attempting to show Mandy, a brunette in her 20s, the ins and outs of using a cat o’ nine tails (attached to the ceiling by a chain). However, Mandy just couldn’t seem to master the knack despite a steady stream of subjects eager to insert their wrists into the wrist clamps on the bar and hike up their skirt or lower their shorts. “I don’t want to hurt people,” said Mandy, aiming another ineffectual lash at an exposed pair of (male) buttocks. “I want to give them hugs.” Then there was the “Bloody Marys and Aerobics” session one morning – if you followed along with the class, even for just a few minutes, the bar would serve you a Bloody Mary.
Dear Penthouse, I’ve Always Wanted to Hear Porn Over a Megaphone. Well, One Day at Burning Man…
Other notable camps included Bob’s Rainforest (thanks for the correction, James!), a corner camp near ours. The only spot of green in the desert, it was furnished in plastic (I think) trees and shrubbery. One of the favourite activities for the campers at Bob’s, located kitty-corner from our camp, was reading Penthouse and Hustler letters over a megaphone. Not leaving out any of the juicy parts. They also used the megaphone to comment on passersby, kind of a “what-not-to-wear” for Burning Man. Although there’s really no such thing as “what-not-to-wear” at Burning Man – except maybe for shirt-cocking. (This is where a guy wears nothing but a T-shirt; “it’s the worst way to see a naked man,” I was told by one enlightened female. Then again, other camps had happy hours devoted to shirt-cocking.)
Speaking of megaphones, I noticed in the Burning Man Guide that at least one camp had a session devoted to the proper use of megaphones. Like glowing hula hoops, megaphones are among those items that have never led to financial ruin for anyone selling them to Burning Man devotees.
Love for the Pole
A couple of bar camps showed love for the pole. The G-Spot, near our camp, had one, and every afternoon the female bartenders and passersby would give it a go. At the microbrew bar where I saw Iron Man (see Breakdown at Black Rock Pt. I) we were treated to an astonishing display by a full naked (and this was only Monday; most people didn’t start walking around fully nude until Tuesday) woman with a stripper’s lean, muscular body, sans implants, show off on her moves. “Eleven years dancing, six years out of the business, you don’t forget,” she said after her performance. Another camp took pole dancing seriously enough to even have judges and official competition times and, for all I know, prizes.
But flogging and pole-dancing were only two/thirds of the naughty fun; another third was the dildo jousting. Right around the corner from our camp was Love Puddle. The Love Puddlers liked nothing more than to strap home-made dildo contraptions (complete with dangling little ping pong balls) onto a couple of girls, then have them try to knock each others’ balls off while balancing on teetering planks. “It’s too much responsibility,” cried one girl after her joust. When I think of whether I’ll return to Burning Man next year, it’s usually this I think of.
Lawrence of Arabia
But I promised a tale of desert survival, so here it is.
You hear a lot about staying hydrated in the desert; at least you do if you’re me and you announce your intention on going to Burning Man to all your friends. Anyway, Tuesday morning, the morning after my first night, I awoke as the sun was coming up and knew I would be unable to sleep. Figuring I’d check out what was happening in the camp, I hopped on my bike and road around the dusty streets before coming out onto the playa. I was following the music; out in the middle of the vast white expanse was a bus, and atop the bus a DJ, spinning everything from the Who to techno as the sun rose.
I joined about half-a-dozen other dancers in the desert, spinning around in the shadow of the bus while some sleepers were curled up in their bags a few yards away. I stuck around probably for half an hour or so before crossing back towards Black Rock City; on the way I spied a young woman in a silver lame one-piece doing the downward dog.
I joined the yoga class, already in session, out there on the dust. While doing my vinyasas or whatever the hell they are called I could hear a steady stream of oldies, like “Beyond the Sea” and some Frank Sinatra songs and some Elvis. The tunes were coming from a giant birthday cake art-car that was driving around the periphery of the playa. Hmmm, I thought, all I need is to stash my bike somewhere…
So after yoga I did just that, and hopped aboard the birthday cake. So now I’m on top of a two-storey birthday cake as it drives slooowly (five mph is the speed limit) around the desert. It’s about 7:30, 8 a.m. I’m dancing with my fellow birthday cakers, about six of us in total including a couple guy passed out on the couches at the back of the platform, and waving and yelling “happy birthday” at people as we pass. I’m a little too wired to be totally relaxed but it’s fun, and I’m thinking well, soon this moving birthday cake is going to go back the way it came. But instead the driver took it out to the very outer edge of the encampment, which was enclosed by a short orange mesh fence, as far from the actual camp as it was possible to get. At 5 mph….
I was getting pretty thirsty by this point and, well, I hadn’t brought any water – I’d left camp with the intention of returning right away. The sun, meanwhile, was in full beatdown mode. I realized it would be faster for me to walk back across the playa to my bike than to stay on the birthday cake. I felt like Lawrence of Arabia as I made the 30-minute trek back across the dry dusty playa under the hot morning sun. Not that I was ever in any real danger, but it was a wake-up call, and reminder that yes, you are in the desert. I didn’t leave camp without water again.
- by Shawn Conner
It was the middle of the desert in late afternoon, and I was sipping a home brew at an outdoor bar when up walked Iron Man.
We’re not talking a mirage, or a London Drugs Halloween costume approximation; we’re talking as close a replica as you’re going to get without the expertise of a team of well-paid Hollywood technical wizards. Sure, the dude inside the armour could barely move – when someone wanted a picture with the outfit with his arm extended, the superhero needed help raising the limb. (My favourite line, perhaps of the whole week; a guy who wanted his picture taken with Iron Man sez to guy in suit: “So, you looking forward to the new movie?”)
I never saw Iron Man again, and no one I talked to mentioned having seen him. Then again, there are a lot of bizarro blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments at Burning Man, as anyone who’s been can tell you. And as those who were there in the early days of the 23-year-old arts, music and spanking festival never get tired of telling you.
As organized as a Republican convention
The old-timers have a point, though. It’s a wild place, and back in the early days it must have seemed like the last outpost of freakiness. But any sense of anarchy is missing now (though it’s still dangerous for drugged-up daredevils. More on that later). The thing is as organized as a Republican convention; it’s just that the party members wear tutus, superhero outfits and bodypaint. When we drove in, for instance, we were directed easily and handily to the box office to pick up our tickets, as though we were lining up for a Bruce Springsteen concert.
I have no previous Burning Man to relate this year’s to, however. This was my first time; after a decade of hearing about it and waiting for someone to invite me along to share their RV, water and drugs, I realized I would have to take matters into my own hands, sans RV and drugs. And so I found myself sharing my Ford Escort, packed to the gills with supplies, with a couple of guys I’d met on Craigslist, Eric and Jim.
You’ve No Idea
After leaving Vancouver before sunrise Sunday (Aug. 30) morning, the three of us arrived at the line of cars and RVs snaking into the Black Rock Desert encampment, aka “Black Rock City”, sometime in the middle of the following night. Dawn was a few hours from breaking when we joined the mile-long convoy, many of the vehicles loaded down with bikes. Eric, a cruise ship pianist, had insisted that bikes were a necessary part of our survival equipment, if only to get from party to party. Thanks to Eric, who’d experienced Burning Man once before, in 2005, the feeling of anticipation in the car was high, owing to his insistent “You’ve no idea, you’ve no idea” hyping of the event, usually followed by a roll of the eyes and a shake of the head.
It was early enough that most campsites were just going up when we finally entered the camp itself, which was already hot and dusty at eight or nine a.m. Nevada time. Eric had been in contact with a group organized around “the Blue Buddha bus” and Jim, a stringbean bike enthusiast with his own IT companuy, was looking for his girlfriend’s camp, but neither had a clue where either might be. So we pitched our Wal-Mart tents in a lot next not far from a row of porta-potties.
DNA and 7:30
We found camped at the corner of DNA and 7:30, which requires some explaining. This year’s theme at Burning Man was Evolution (last year’s was American Dream; next year’s, Metropolis), and so the latitudinal “streets” had names like “Adapt”, “Biology”, “Chaos”, etc. Black Rock City itself, the week-long home to Burning Man, was arranged like a half-clock, from 12 to 12. Center camp, a wide Main Street sort of area, was between five and six, I believe. Beyond the tent and crescent-shaped RV city was the rest of the playa, an expanse of bleached white hard-packed dust erupting with art projects, a temple and the Man himself; suspended atop a two-story foundation, he reached (a rough estimate) 70 feet off the ground.
My first morning, I brought out the Polaroid camera as I wandered the dusty streets.
A big part of Burning Man is “gifting”, and my plan was going to take pictures and give people Polaroids. An impulse buy from a costume/clothing movie set prop clearing house visited the afternoon before in search of BM-ready outfits (Eric was determined to find a furry gorilla vest), the blue 600 model camera was my first Polaroid. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had time to look for more film before leaving the city, and my big gifting idea hit a snag after four pictures when the film ran out.
Fortunately though there was a bar, the Duck Pond, set up just around the corner, and already serving at 10 in the morning. What’s more, the drinks were free. Was I in heaven?
Sleep Patterns Gone Awry
My sleep patterns were, inevitably, fucked from driving all night and sleeping almost not at all the night before. But Monday, the first day, was spent getting to know our camp neighbours, Orel, Daria and Assad. Orel and Daria had made the trek from Israel and hooked up with Assad in San Francisco. All had dreadlocks. Assad offered to apply some bodypaint immediately upon meeting me and, this being Burning Man, I said sure. He applied some colourful applique to my left arm while I drank the girls’ cheap wine.
Eric, Daria, Orel and I spent the rest of the day and evening exploring the Esplanade. The Esplanade is sort of like a boardwalk, if the desert was water instead of sand. If you get my drift. Most of the big action occurs here; you can get spanked, jump on a trampoline, catch a ride on one of the increasingly numerous art cars, dance, visit a bar for stilt-walkers or get into spun around in a giant cube-shaped chamber with strobe effects attached to your eyes.
Maybe I had died and gone to heaven…