Chapter 2: City of Permission

Coyote Nose: Stories of the wild ’90s and the formation of DPW from Burning Man’s first storytelling fellowship recipient, Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet, Superintendent of Black Rock City.



“What the hell am I looking at?” It was the rotting head of a cow hanging on a tall stake that was sticking in the ground in front of a camp on the right. As we got a bit closer I could see the cloudy remains of its eyeballs still in its sockets. It was covered with flies and looked like something you might see hanging on the wall of a castle. Which lord did he piss off? Lord of the flies, I guess.

“Holy shit.” I said. “It really is a cow head!”

Will chuckled.

“That’s the Aesthetic Meat Foundation. Just showed up this year. Not sure what they’re about.”

As we passed by, we could see a visceral dais of sorts where many hunks of animal parts were arranged in ‘artistic’ display while suffering various stages of decomposition. Will and I were in his blue open 4×4 truck making a loop around what was now the boomtown of Black Rock City. Headlights had been like slow motion meteors on the horizon through the night as people made their way across the playa and into the city. We were trolling on a circular ‘Main St.’ of sorts that we had marked out just the day before. It was the only one and had no name.

“So, I take it ‘anything goes’ in this town,” I said as we passed a trapeze being set up.

“Pretty much,” said Will. “People are really getting into it, and every year they up the game. Looks like this year more than ever. Seems like it’s already three times as many people here, and shit’s more outrageous that ever. Like that rotting meat camp.”

As we rolled along, it seemed like we were at a tent version of a 1930’s carnival midway. Each camp had some sort of splash to it, or something to play with.

This new road that we were cruising on was a wheel of vibration.  It had the soul of something new as people milled about. Everyone had made a leap into the unknown and all had a story to tell. Black Rock City was self-activating. Neighborhoods and burgs were forming on their own without the struggle of zoning laws. Camps that had been on the outskirts yesterday were now in the thick of things with the clamor of a sea port, except people weren’t just brushing by with the downward frowns, they’re faces were up and welcoming.  Everyone in town wanted to meet. The only thing that we had provided was the most basic of enablers — a road. The event had gone from single cell clusters to multicellular organisms that now needed arteries to pump the oxygen around. This road was a stream where the blood cells of imagination simmered into the plasma of a community.

And all the time it had the steady drone of a caravansary with the jangle of beads and twitter of music riding on incessant drumbeats as the smells of cooking foods and burning sage breezed around us.

Cruising this strip was like taking a trip through a Peter Max Yellow Submarine illustration. Automobiles had been replaced with anything that you could put on wheels that would carry people in some outlandish way. Some had mini mower engines on them, and bicycle pedals powered others. There were things like a magic carpet floating by with people sitting on it around a pony keg, wearing genie costumes, or ‘art’ cars made to look like anything from sharks, to rocket ships, to boats, or dragons. One car even had a lighthouse on top of it. At one point an entire living room floated by with a family of four sitting on a sofa watching a strobe light television.

“Is this some kind of performance art,” I asked

Will responded with a shrug. “Sure, why not?”

People were finding anyway to get around — be it steam punk tall bikes, flame throwing dune buggies, or even drunk clowns on stilts. We even saw someone riding on an actual camel!

“Well, would you look at that,” exclaimed Will in amazement, “someone brought a fucking camel.”

Then the road abruptly ended and the 4×4 pulled into a vast clearing. We had come full circle to the top of the city. Beyond that point was wide-open playa again with only distant mountains to tease the eye. I get it, now, I thought. The Man is the center point of a giant circular city.

Ever since the first year out on the playa in ’90, the Man had always been a center point to which the natural amphitheater city would form. But the design was never a full circle. The city planners had made sure of that. At the top, behind the Man, they left an open gap that stretched out in an expansive ‘V’ shape acting like a keyhole allowing the energy of the event to trumpet out into the desert. It was as if the city were one big giant bugle of inspiration.

Will saw the astonishment on my face.

“You didn’t have a clue as to what you were really building, did you,” was all he said.

It seemed he was taking me under his wing already. After finishing pounding in the promenade the day before, I had rambled back to camp in a glow of achievement. I saw Will standing there with his hands on his hips while grinning.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. Then he turned to Jason. “Guess we can let him stay.”

That night we had stayed out till dawn and crawled into our tents with a morning blush on the horizon. We had gone into deep playa with Marlow, who had shown up in a beat up Suburban wagon. I had met her just weeks before in S.F. — another instant friend. She was black eyed and beautiful, with a power that overflowed the room. Her love for life was pure and she could soar as high as Jason. What a trio we made.

We were on patrol in Marlow’s rig, going from camp to camp, and sassing everyone we met. It was a snarky scene that was open and looking. We would find fires, or other headlights, and come along side, jumping out to meet like swirling gnats around a porch light. Marlow would prod us if we lingered too long.

“Come on, you shit heads!” she would growl at us. “We got to go find Simone’s camp.”

According to Marlow, this camp was somewhere out in that direction. Every time she would say this, she would point vaguely northward. I would follow her finger and peer into the darkness of nothing.

“We’re having a pretty good time right here,” Jason would say.

But Marlow was a force that would whip us back to her Surburban. There was no fence back then, so there was nothing to hold back the vibrancy of the city as it hurled into the darkness like gamma rays. Marlo sparked up her rig, and into this darkness we plunged. It was black as a vampire’s cloak and finding anything seemed impossible. As we sped along, we had to be careful to avoid the lone camps and tents that were randomly strewn for miles and would suddenly pop into your headlights. Most had lanterns or a campfire, but some were dark and invisible, and we’d have to swerve pretty hard to miss them. But, Marlow had a rapport with vibrations — an extra antenna that picked up on things beyond the physical. She drove into the blackness like a bat flitting through the night and straight to the far-flung camp without any coarse correction whatsoever. Two hundred years ago, she would have burned at the stake.

We rolled up on a darling camp. It had a rich glow — accustomed to travel.

“This is Simone’s camp,” shouted Marlow.

She let out a whoop and pounded on the steering wheel as we all hopped out of the rig. Simone had seen us coming and jumped out of her bus and into Marlow’s arms. She was small and agile, like a falcon, and was wearing beads and leather that hugged her body close and adorned her auburn braids — yet another goddess of the desert.

The camp was warm and welcome with several people there. The feeling was close nit and loving, quilted from where hippie meets gypsy. And now, out on open playa, they may as well been a band of Bedouins in the night. We crouched into their woven desert tent and settled in on carpets and pillows with comfort all around. It was lit with lanterns and had animal skins, hand made art, and oddities strewn about. Rich incense was burning everywhere. There were several drums and always someone gently thumbing on one. We settled cross-legged around a majestic hookah. There was never any ice to break. As we embraced the fellowship, I sat quiet and looked into the faces around me. All eyes were bright and keen, without the shroud of popular opinion. These denizens had their own ideas and retrieved their strengths from them. They were comfortable and confident with nothing to prove, and there was no power struggle between the sexes. This balanced the wheel beautifully, enabling it to spin true and into any dimension. If anything, the goddess energy was taking its natural lead. Then Marlowe posed the question that we still ask today.

“Why can’t we live like this all the time?”

Well, why can’t we? It seems that we are still trapped in the contraption of commerce. One must still employ a bank and pay for things. We still live in a populace that is obsessed with borders, and we’re still surrounded by people that have been told that anything less that first place is a shameful failure. It’s a sprawling narcissistic selfie generation that measures success in how much the world will serve them, instead of how much they brought to the world. Maybe we can’t live like that all the time — but we did that night as we were sitting around and sharing a hookah in a desert tent with our beautiful Burning Man Bedouin friends.

***
I got a few hours of dead sleep until my little sweat lodge cooked me awake again. Before I rode around the ‘strip’ with Will in his 4×4, Jason and I had woken up hungry and went in search of food.

“Flash is cooking burgers over at McSatan’s. Maybe we can talk him out of one,” said J.

I put on my crinkled cowboy hat and stepped into the day. We walked to the front of the camp to where Will and Crimson were sitting comfortably and brewing coffee. The event had started and they were done working. Will was no longer in work pants and was now wearing nothing more than a G-string and a shiny silver hard hat. Beautiful Crimson was topless and in a sarong. She was relaxed into a steady strength while braiding her hair. It’s where she kept her power. They were talking with a sturdy blonde woman in a cowboy hat wearing a blue Danskin leotard, straddling a bike. I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, but I liked her hearty laugh right away. I think she was talking about how the heat was catching up to her and that she had just thrown up behind her tent. She was so nonchalant about it — like it was all part of a normal day.

“That’s Harley,” said J. “She’s one of the main organizers of the event — a mover and shaker.”

Again I was seeing strong women in forward positions. She was another gem that would become a life long friend for years to come.

“Tony and I are going over to McSatans and see if Flash will give us a burger,” said Jason.

“Good luck with that,” Will replied. Crimson and Harley exchanged glances and just smiled at us. There are many lessons that only experience will teach.

Walking out of the camp was like stepping off a pier and dropping into a rip current. When we finally found McSatans, Flash was working some poor sucker over who had his money out. The guy thought that he had actually found a fast food place. We had been following Flash’s laugh for the last several blocks and it finally led us to his demonic courtyard, and God help anyone who should happen to approach the plywood ‘Golden Arches’ and ask if they could buy a burger. This newbie wearing a clean Budweiser tee shirt and cargo pants had stepped up to the counter and into Flash’s web.

“Um, can I buy a hamburger,” he asked. “How much are they?”

“Speak up, son. I can’t hear you.”

“Um, I want to buy a hamburger.”

“What did you just say? You want to buy a hamburger? Don’t you realize where the fuck you are? There’s nothing for sale here. Do you see a cash register back here? You know, there are still a few places in this world where money don’t mean shit, buddy, and this is one of them. Where are you from, son? Wait – don’t answer that. Ok, what cha’ got for me? Maybe you can tell a joke, or a good story or something? How bout you sing us a song. We’ll get one of these thousands of drummers to help you out. Hey, who wants to help this guy sing a song?”

The newbie stood paralyzed. Flash had reached in and snatched his words away. The power of money had been knocked from his hand like a fallen sword, and he had nothing.

“All right, all right,” said Flash, letting him off the hook. “I’ll give you one. But only because you just got here and you don’t know any fucking better. Next time bring more than your money, kid — know what I’m sayin’?”

He turned, took a patty off the grill and put it on a small white bun and put it on a paper plate. Then he took out a pack of Marlboro’s and flipped a cigarette onto the plate, sliding it towards him. There were no condiments.

“Um, I don’t smoke,” said the kid.

“Dude, dude, dude! Oh my fucking god! Dude, come over here!”

Flash stepped out from behind the counter with his hand on his hip. He beckoned the kid with his fingers like a cop would, while shaking his head and looking down. Under the tractor beam of Flash’s powers, the kid crept over to him like a dog in trouble. Then Flash did to him what he did to me two days before when I was in the rigors of acid; he put his hands down hard on both of his shoulders and locked eyes. The kid was trapped.

“Do you have any idea how fucking valuable a cigarette is out here,” asked Flash. “You don’t have to smoke it yourself. You can put it into one of the many cargo pockets you got here and use it to meet a girl, for Christ sakes! You look like a guy that came out here to meet some girls, right? I gotta teach you everything? Now take the burger AND the goddamn cigarette and go enjoy Black Rock City! OK?”

He released the kid who grabbed the meager burger, stuck the smoke into a pocket as instructed, and scooted out of there like a mouse on a kitchen floor. Flash leaned his head back and rang out a laugh louder than a cathedral bell.

“Ha ha ha — look at him go! I hope you get laid, son!”

I turned to Jason and said,

“And we’re going to get a hamburger out of this guy?”

Jason did his street hustle magic, and my hamburger vanished in two bites. The cigarette tasted like a rib eye steak as we walked back to camp.

***
A bicycle is still the best way to get around BRC. When I came back from my cruise with Will, Jason had gotten us a couple of bikes to roll around town in. I still don’t know how he does that shit.

“Remember those two girls that were building that amazing metal hawk in front of their camp when we rolled in,” Jason asked. “I ran into them and they had heard that I was a body painter. They want me to paint them, so let’s roll out there and see if we can find their camp.”

Jason’s body painting was the slippery little key that had led us to Burning Man in the first place. Will and Crimson had befriended him a few years back when he painted them for their nude fire dances that they performed around Oakland and San Francisco. I loved watching him work. Subjects would surrender themselves to him, as he would peer into their persona. His style was bold in black strokes with a strong tribal influence. He would regard his models one person at a time, and summon their ‘totem song’, as he would call it. You could see their body language square up with pride, as he would guide his brush over their skin and carve into their souls.

“Ok,” I said, “let’s go see if we can find the hawk girls. I remember that they were camped way out on the left side of town. I bet you can see that hawk for miles.”

We got on to our clackity bikes and peddled off in that direction getting caught in the quagmire of camps. People were still showing up in droves and setting up wherever they could squeeze in. We pinballed our way through the mash of tent stakes and car bumpers, astonished at how fast the city had grown.

“The place is fucking huge,” Jason declared. “This is three times as many people as last year.”

We finally came to where camps started thinning out and only then could we see open playa again. There was no camp with a hawk in front.

“Guess it got swallowed in the city,” I said.

It was like swimming back into the kelp forest when we turned our bikes around and re entered the snarl of tents. It was sheer luck that we finally spied the gleaming metal hawk off a ways as their camp had been engulfed. The hawk was more beautiful than I remembered — its stainless steel wings outstretched in flight. We rolled up to find the two beauties lounging in front of their cute camp. They were in a relaxed buzz as they lay under their well-built shade in their lawn chairs, sipping on frozen drinks. One was fair skinned and curvy, the other dark haired and sporty as they stretched out in the comfort of nudity. It was difficult to imagining them in the back of a metal shop warehouse, wearing leather aprons and safety goggles while using torches and grinders. The only thing giving them away, now, was their rugged hands.

We were meet with a warm welcome and after a few moments were sitting with frozen drinks of our own. Jason did most of the talking as I sat, quietly falling in love. Much of the chatter was about the size of the city.

“We had our camp this far out last year, and had comfortable space around us, so we camped here again,” said the dark haired girl. “Then we got up to this.”

“Everyone’s pretty cool, though,” said the other. “There’s one guy a few camps over that keeps finding reasons to visit, but he’s nice enough.”

One would think that a clothing optional city would be more predatory, but it was quite the opposite. It’s as if the power of female nakedness creates its own force field that can only be entered on terms of mutual respect.

Jason pulled out his brushes and paint.

“So, who would like to go first?”

“I’ll go,” said the fair-haired girl.

She seemed the more powerful of the two. I was a crumbling schoolboy in her presence. She got up from her lawn chair and stood before him like a Greek statue. Jason squinted an eye and regarded the canvas in front of him. He dipped his brush and stepped in close. With one steady stroke, he drew a line down her chest between her breasts. The tickle of the brush brought a wash of goose bumps over her entire body, including her nipples. Then he drew the eye if Isis where the jewel of a necklace would be. He then added wings to it like the ones of her hawk that followed her bust line. The tail of Jason’s comet had touched her.

***
Pepe Ozan’s opera stage was made out of sculpted wire mesh and covered with mud. The mud was cracked and dry like the playa making it look like it had sprung right from the surface itself. It looked like the witch’s castle from Oz with three towers that speared the sky. Long black pennant flags attached to spikes piercing up from the towers were snapping in the wind. Leering from many points on the towers were hellish faces of twisted forms, some with mouths gaping and some with tongues snaking toward you. There were several disciples climbing over the structure with buckets of this mud, smearing it over every pit and pitch. They, too, were covered in the dried cracked clay, making them look like gargoyles brought to life for the toil of the task. Jason had finished body painting the Hawk girls and we had bicycled over to the other side of the city to see what Pepe’s camp was up to. We stopped for a moment under the ominous spell of the towers before us. They had a dark power that beckoned and did not need explanation. I knew right away that I would be part of this world.

“This is Pepe’s opera castle.” Jason said as he saw me floating. “It’s the center piece of the performance that’s supposed to take place in something called ‘The City of Dis’. I think it has to do with the first chapter of The Divine Comedy called Dante’s Inferno. It’s saying that the soul must journey through Hell in order to get to Heaven.”

“I was thinking about Dante’s Inferno the morning after my bum acid trip,” I said. “I had gone through my own personal Hell and into an awakening of sorts. And, now here’s an opera being performed in the middle of nowhere that’s centered on that same story. Now, there’s a coincidence.”

“There’s no such thing as a coincidence,” replied J. “There are many languages in this world that don’t even have a word for it.”

Jason may not have been the best camper, but he had the mind of a thousand poets and looked at the world through a peerless lens. He and I had forged our friendship on a labyrinth of conjecture, searching into the deeper meaning of things. The first glimpse I got of his comet’s tail was from my apartment window in the Lower Haight of San Francisco. It was a splash of color coming from a ground floor window across the street. I hadn’t noticed it before, but on a later glance, I saw that it was a painting that depicted the Aztec god of the sun, Tonatiuh, who is found in the center of their ancient calendar. His face is round and ornate in the tribal style of the culture. His eyes bug at you and his tongue sticks out in thirst for human blood. Tonatiuh is my namesake — I have been acquainted with that image my entire life. My mother had trained all of her children to keep a watchful eye for things extra ordinary. She told us that they were usually right in front of us but not readily seen, like under a leaf, or just beyond the fence — or in a small corner of a dirty city window. You had to keep a constant watch and learn to see them. A painting of my namesake was hiding in plain site across the street like a ‘help wanted’ sign. There are no coincidences. How could I have known that that splash of color in the window was going to lead to a twenty-year saga in the desert? It’s funny how the biggest life changing events can be traced to the smallest of seemingly random acts. I had just moved into that apartment a week before. A few days later a guy in a bar invited me over to his flat to smoke a bowl. I was tired from the day and was going to politely refuse when he told me the address.

“Is that the flat with the Aztec painting in the window,” I asked.

“Yeah, my roommate painted that.”

“Ok,” I said, “lets head over there.” I was curious to meet the artist.

Moments later I was meeting Jason. That summer I was heading to Burning Man.

As we drew near Pepe’s opera castle, one of the gargoyles broke free and ran to us with arms outspread as he recognized Jason.

“Oh my god! It’s Paradox,” J. yelled.

This beautiful gazelle of a man bounded toward us in a half sprint, half skip. He was covered head to toe with cracked mud and was wearing nothing but a loincloth. A huge grinning mouth took up most of his face that was chiseled with the features of theatre. He was a man that was born to perform. Again, there were giant hugs as the two friends united. This was the huggiest place I have ever been to, I was thinking. Musicians from North Beach didn’t do a lot of hugging.

“This is my friend Tony. It’s his first time out here, but he’s one of us.”

Paradox gave me his eyes.

“Welcome to our world,” he said.

He clasped his hands around our necks and pulled all three of our foreheads together.

“Come see what we’re building!”

He led us to the castle. Everyone was hard at work mudding the structure like wasps. There were men and women alike; many nude — some with just loincloths or sarongs, and all covered with mud. It was a thick wet clay and very dark grey, turning white as it dried. It had a strong sulfur smell that you got used to right away. Jason grabbed some out of a bucket and smeared it down my arm. It had a sapient power to it — like it was made from deep minerals of wisdom. I started to feel a gratifying tingle on my skin as the mud started to dry and tighten.

Then a bold voice announced itself from behind.

“It looks like you are feeling better! Now I get a chance to meet you.”

It was Pepe Ozan. He, too, was covered with mud that matched his grey mustache and eyebrows. He stood, grinning, his face in the shadow of a tattered Panama hat with his arms folded. He had the eyes of a Shaman.

“You’re castle is beautiful,” I said.

“This is not a castle,” he replied. “These three towers are the lingams of Satan.”

I didn’t know what a lingam was, but it would later be explained to me that it has to do with the Hindu deity, Shiva, which represents masculinity and is often represented along side of the yoni, which represents female fertility. Basically, a lingam and yoni is a penis and vagina. So, what I thought was the witches castle, was actually the Demon’s dongs.

“Well, it’s beautiful anyway.”

“Thank you. It is to be the center of the Opera called, The Arrival of Empress Zoe. It is going to take us all on a journey through the nine levels of Hell as depicted in Dante’s Inferno”

“I can’t wait to see the performance.” I said.

“Would you like to be in it,” He asked.

“Of course I would!”

I had been a theatre major in college but hadn’t been in a production for many years. Why the hell not.
“Wonderful! Come see Paradox tomorrow afternoon. We have a rehearsal then. He is one of the lead actors and will cast you in a roll.”

Pepe snapped away and starting shouting to someone on the top of the lingam castle.

“Wow!” said Jason. “Just like that and you’re in.”

BRC was getting more exciting by the moment.

***
The time had come to raise the Man. There was no general announcement —people just knew. This was Playa time. You could feel the pull of the tide as people strode toward the center of the city. Jason and I had peddled back to camp in time to catch up with our campmates as they prepared to walk down the Promenade to where the Man lay. Just a few days prior, it had been only me on this walkway, purging my sins in a tantrum of accomplishment. I had little notion of its significance. The spires I had sweated for were delineating the main boulevard for which the pomp of the city would flow to honor our icon of wood. Will had entrusted me with the keys to the city. He watched my reaction when we stepped to the mouth of the avenue and smiled at his new protégé. I did not have words. I just followed the tide as we made our way to the center of the city.

The Man lay on his back with his feet resting up on the pyramid of hay bales and he had a very large rope attached to his mid-section. The rope was rigged over a tipping bar that would lever him up and into footings on the top of the hay. A pretty large crowd had gathered so I couldn’t quite see him from where I was. A man wearing a pith helmet got up with a bullhorn and started organizing the crowd into a line on either side of the rope. He gave the order and we picked up the rope, which was as big around as log. We started pulling the heavy load backwards as the Man slowly rose into view. He was stiff like a corpse as he came up and I was reminded of Dracula rising out of his coffin, but he looked nothing like a vampire. He was more like a wooden skeleton that seemed clacked together with splintered slats and bailing wire. His chest was no more than a rib cage — his arms and legs like bundled sticks that were filled with burlap soaked in wax. His faceless triangular head resembled a Japanese shoji lamp and carried no expression. One could inject any emotion into his blank stare — an open canvas that was his gift. Even with the amount of people we had, it was still a strain to lift him — he was forty feet of heavy lumber after all. He tipped up higher and higher until his feet finally dropped into the metal brackets that were to hold him. People caught their breath for a moment as he wiggled for a bit, then he settled in and stood steady. Guy wires that were attached were pulled taught and anchored down. A roaring cheer went up. The final energy crystal had been put into place, activating the reactor and igniting the city — our City of Permission. There he stood — deaf, blind, mute, and without judgment. We would follow him into the unknown as he bound our community. He would stand at the center as a cyclone of imagination whirled around him. He would show us that play was as important as work, and if done right, they would be one in the same.

I turned to Jason with these thoughts in my head.

“Seems a shame that we just burn him after all of this.”

“Well, that’s the whole point,” said J. “This is a lesson of living in the moment. You get a clean slate that you can build anything on because at the end of the week, the whole thing burns anyway.”

I was reminded of a girl who I had seen when cruising with Will. She was riding around on her bicycle with a wooded box attached to her handlebars. It was skillfully handcrafted with painted carved flames rising off it. The lid of the box was locked shut with a padlock and there was a slot cut into the top. The key to the padlock had been put into it and broken off, locking the box permanently. She made it her mission to peddle up to anyone and everyone, hand them a pad of paper and a pen, and say with a sunny smile,

“Write whatever you want on this piece of paper and put it into the box. No one will ever read it, and the box will be tossed into the fire on burn night.”

I had thought about this young lady many times, because this simple gesture gave a small glimpse of what might bring people to our fires. Maybe burning the Man is just simply a good way to clean out the crud in your closet — to defrag one’s hard drive, or to turn it off and turn it on again.

Years later I would be running the clean up crew of BRC, and one afternoon while shoveling the Man’s ashes into trash cans, we made a curious discovery. It seems that a phenomenon can occur when fires this large happen. The flames become so intense that they can deplete all the oxygen, in an area, leaving small pockets of completely unburned material. Such was the case when one of the shovels uncovered a sealed envelope amongst the ashes without so much as a singe mark on it.

“Look at this shit!” said the girl who uncovered it. “It didn’t even burn.”

We gathered around and after handling it, felt the unmistakable shape of a Polaroid snap shot inside. It had been weeks since the Man burned and BRC was long gone. We exchanged glances and did what anyone would do — we opened it. It was a photo of some frat-boy looking dude, holding up a bottle of Budweiser and partying with his buddies. His head had been circled with a ballpoint pen and his face was scribbled out with such anger that it had ripped through the paper of the photograph. There were several arrows pointing toward him with words in all caps like, ‘ASSHOLE!’ and ‘CHEATER!’ and a general title overhead flatly stating, ‘I HOPE YOU DIE!!’ We all stood there with images of some little lady creping as close to the fire as she could with tears streaming down her face and throwing in the envelope with all the bile that she could muster. And now we were witnessing a cosmic injustice — a devil’s pardon for the deepest of betrayal. The dick head in the photo had somehow skirted his deserved retribution. We stood for a moment while we pieced the story together in our minds. I felt a tap on my shoulder. The girl who had uncovered the artifact was handing me a Bic lighter. We did the right thing. I sometimes wonder if the dick head felt it that day. Maybe he burned his hand on the stove, or scalded his tongue on a cheap cup of coffee. Whatever the case, we all felt a bit better as we watched he and his buddies char into curls of ash.

Jason was right. Having a temporary city that was wiped away like a chalkboard after class gave it an experimental potential that was staggering. And like most things thrilling, it had the dark underpinnings of danger.

Darkness fell over Black Rock City once again. The crowd dispersed on tendrils of laughter, heading to familiar places. There was still building going on with lights and fires in all directions. Jason and I split from our campmates who were turning in for the night and we walked toward no place in particular. There was no moon, so the dark was deep. Jason suddenly came to a halt.

“Um, there’s this girl I want to meet up with,” he said. “I’m going to peel off. I’ll see you back at the camp.”

“Is it the girl with the hawk that you painted today?”

“Yeah.”

He was wearing that sheepish grin again. Then without a word, he turned on his heel and was swallowed into the night.

His abrupt departure stunned me. I stood for a moment in the sudden silence. The comet’s tail had slipped from my grip leaving me adrift. I could see distant camps everywhere, all warmly lit and rich with friendship, but I knew none of them. Knowing BRC as I do now, I could have walked into any one of the camps with smiles and good cheer and would have made instant friends. But, back then; I was still caught in the quagmire of city inhibitions. The camps seemed unapproachable to me and I was tumbling into a deep and lonely place. BRC had been stretching my emotions like a balloon. The euphoria of the other day had cleaved deep into my soul and the newly formed chasm was filling with just that much self-pity. I was a forlorn sailor on the high seas as there’s no greater fun than the fun you imagine people are having without you. I started strolling toward anything and nothing. I noticed someone still welding in the distance. He was oblivious of any commotion around him as he zeroed in on his arc. I envied him. After wandering for a spell, I came upon a maze that was made out of old doors.

“This is pretty cool,” I said to myself. “I wonder who built this.”

I wandered in and found a comfortable nook. I sat and watched figures fumble about in the darkness as I let my mind wander. My heart sank lower as there was no distraction to catch it. I looked up and noticed a cute couple nuzzling in a dark corner making out. I wanted a girl to make out with too. Self-pity started to spin into jealousy. Well, shit, I thought. Jason and his god damn paintbrush.

***
I spent the rest of the evening moping my way back to our camp, only to find Jason sitting there when I got there. He seemed downhearted as well.

“What are you doing here?” I had asked.

“The hawk girl wasn’t there, and I couldn’t find her anywhere, so I came back to camp.”

“Well, that sucks,” I lied.

Misery loves company and I was pleased to see him. There was also a part of me that was a little bit glad that he got stood up. Isn’t envy one of Hell’s levels?

“John Hell just set up camp next to us with his radio station,” said J. “It’s called ‘Radio Free Burning Man’ and he’s going to start spinning soon.”

“BRC has a radio station? And the DJ’s name is John Hell?”

“Yup! It’s fucking awesome! We sit here in our camp and shout out requests. He’s right there in that little shack. Then all we have to do is tune to the station.”

Our downhearted moods floated away on the notes of soul as we smoked cigarettes and talked ourselves to sleep.

***
The next day was spent buzzing from camp to camp like bees. Most all of them had something to float you in. All you needed was good cheer. Everyone seemed so generous with plenty to share. The notion that we could just ‘hustle the things we needed when we got there’ didn’t seem in the spirit of things, after all.

“This really isn’t a barter town,” I said to J. “It’s more like a giant pot luck picnic.”

We came upon a camp that was a parachute dome thick with marijuana smoke. It was a sprawl of beanbag chairs and bongs, and was a first rate camp — like someone’s living room. Warm welcomes and gestures guided us in and Jason and I sat down.

“Would you like to smoke some weed?” said a warm lady in a deep alto voice. Her whole person spoke of comfort as she wore brightly colored sheer fabrics and jangly jewelry. Her skin was the color of caramel and she looked like a Siamese cat.

“Sure,” we said.

We were quickly buzzing on bong hits and reaching that laffy state of silly business when Jason said,

“I’m pretty baked!”

“So am I,” I said. “I’m ripped, and getting the munchies already.”

Little did we know that this was all part of a set up. With perfect timing, the same warm lady breezed back in with a tray of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven, and set them down. This easily shattered our minds. We hadn’t even brought a canteen, and this camp was baking cookies.

“I can’t believe I’m in the middle of the desert and there’s a fresh baked cookie in my hand,” exclaimed J. “Did you seriously bring a working oven out here to the playa,” he asked the lady.

“No,” she replied, “We built one. Its a clay wood oven made out of mud from a nearby hot spring.”

Daaaaamn! Who were these people? In today’s BRC, a fresh baked cookie may be a bit more common with RV’s and working ovens in every other camp, but back then, not only were generators and RV’s scarce, they were actually frowned upon by many. It was considered ‘cheating’.

I bit into the hot cookie and it struck all receptors at once. Never before had a cookie come so exactly at the right time. I chewed on the gooey wad of goodness as I smeared it around, and time dangled for a moment. But the moment was short lived, for though the desert gods may givith, they will also taketh away. The gooey wad was sponging up all the remaining moisture in my cottonmouth and was becoming a thick paste of sawdust that was gluing my throat shut. I could no longer swallow. I looked around the room and saw that all eyes were on Jason and I, and everyone was smiling. This is a prank, I thought! I’ll bet they’ve been doing this shit to people all day. Get em stoned, shove a hot cookie into their mouth, and watch em try to swallow. Didn’t I see this being done to a dog once? Yes, It was a prank, but this one had a grand ending.  Just when I was going to start begging for water, again, a hand gently clasped my shoulder from behind to deliver the knock out. It was the warm lady smiling at us. She handed us two ice-cold classes of milk. MILK, I tell you! Ice cold in the desert!

“Did this just fall from the breast of an angel,” asked J.

We exchanged glances of disbelief — no only that there was milk in the desert, but that it was ice cold. My eyes glazed as I chugged. I wanted to drink out the bottom out of the glass. I polished it off it in one pass and looked back at the camp. They were no longer just smiling, they were pointing and laughing.

“I’ll bet that was the best fucking glass of milk you’ve ever had,” one of them said.

It really was. It still is.

“That was awesome,” I said to J. as we drifted out of the camp.

“I know,” he exclaimed. “And is was just cookies and milk!”

“Not just any cookies and milk. These were powered by circumstance — just like the whole damn city!”

***
Pepe’s Lingam Castle was throwing an afternoon shadow over an opera cast of about thirty people. I was to be in the fifth level of the nine levels of Hell — the level of wrath and anger. It was late afternoon and I had shown up to rehearsal to find Paradox who quickly put me into this roll. He came over and welcomed me as I rode up on my bike and again put his hand around the back of my neck and pulled our foreheads together. I was getting used to this kind of intimacy.

“This is Dream Circus,” he said. “We’re the theatre troupe that’s going to perform in the opera.”

Pepe and Paradox were splitting everyone into groups as I was looking around at the caldron of personalities. It was good to be back amongst theatre folk that were used to being larger than the room. Going to take a lot of ego to fill this room, I thought as I looked across the open playa. But Pepe’s fortitude was bigger than them all. He was mid size and stocky, spoke the language of world adventure, and had sojourned trickier places than this. He was a man who thought large. If you were thinking of a boulder, he was thinking of the mountain. It was going to be a powerful opera.

Pepe was a full-blooded Argentinian man and made broken English sound like poetry, and had a magnetism that attracted the most beautiful of devotees. He was the most interesting man in the world. He climbed to the performing stage of his lingam castle and readied his bullhorn. Just his presence quieted the cast down to full attention.

“Attention, please, everybody,” he said. “We are about to enter into the ravages of Hell.”

I was later to find out that Pepe had written the script based on an ancient Greek myth about the Empress Zoe of Constantinople. He went on to relay the story, and I was thinking that it all sounded like a pretty elaborate plot, but what opera isn’t?

It started with an evil Catholic Cardinal that discovers that the Empress is hermaphroditic, and an abomination to the church, so is drowned in the Bosporus Straight and condemned to Hell. The Empress takes the magic ‘Casiksi Diamond’ with her to distract the demons, light the way, and attract the attention of Stephanos, the High Priest of Hell who is a homosexual. When the Empress enters the nine levels of Hell, the High Priest is drawn to the shining light of the diamond and becomes smitten with the empress and his hermaphroditic ways. This drives the demons insane with jealousy. They plot against the Empress and enlist the help of a hideous beast to enter Hell and destroy her. This act disrupts the balance of the Universe, which pleases Satan, who has taken on the form of a goat. The only thing that will save the Universe would be the chanting of a thousand voices.

Well, that seemed like a lot to swallow to me, but at least it explained why there was a goat in the camp.

The Empress Zoe was to be brought into Hell on a chariot pulled by a Minotaur, the half man, half bull from Greek mythology, and pulled through the nine levels to the burning lingam castle where the high priest would be waiting. They were to climb to the stage between the flaming towers and pantomime sexual acts while more flames burned underneath. The nine levels of sinners were to swirl around the lingam castle in perpetual agony, mine being the fifth level of wrath and anger. I suppose I would have rather been cast into the ‘horrors’ of lust, but that level was reserved for the more elite of the camp.

Then I glanced over at the actress that was playing the Empress Zoe, and I instantly recognized her. Before Marlo showed up in her Suburban on that second day, Jason and I had been out for a walk at sunset. We passed a camp where Jason lit up, yelling and waving, while several dudes came running out to greet.

“Fucking Jason Norelli! So awesome! You finally made it. Took you long enough. Come in to the camp for a cold one!”

We crouched into their shabby shade that was barely staked down and was rattling apart. But the camp had the basic needs — shade, comfy place to sprawl, beer. This was bachelor party camp. The conversation was high and lively about the week to come and the brotherhood was strong. After a bit, a van pulled up coming to a quick stop on a dust plume of welcome. The doors flung open and out jumped several excited women.

“We made it! We made it! Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe what we just went through to get here!”

There were hugs all around and everyone was excited to see one another in this remote outpost.

One girl stood out as the ringleader and carried herself as such. Her name was Justin. She was capable and sturdy, with no repentance in her eyes. All of them were strong and beautifully cosmetic free, like they were ready to survive anything that the desert had to throw at them. Then amongst all the talking, Justin stood up and said,

“I’ve been waiting to do this for weeks now!”

She pulled her shirt up over her head, unsnapped her bra, and tossed them both out of the camp. Then she sat back down like a mermaid flipping into the ocean.

“Guys are so lucky,” she sighed. “They get to go shirtless anytime. This is the only place where I get to do this, and it feels awesome to be out of that god damn bra!”

I looked at her and could see the harsh red marks that the restraint had left. Then the other girls followed suit with whoops and high fives, tossing their shirts and bras about, and we all settled back into our seats with the comfort of close friends and fading light.

After about a beer’s worth, Justin got up and hurried the other girls back to the van to set up camp while there was still some light, and they were gone as quick as they came. Just like that, the camp was quiet. The wheels of the male machine had come to a halt without the push of female steam. Then one of the guys broke the silence with a thought.

“Isn’t it just a little weird that a bunch of topless girls were in the camp and it was no big deal?”

He was right. It was just good friends having good beer in the warm and comfort of the sunset. Any sexual tension had wafted out of the camp as quick as the dust off the van.

I’ve often mused on what it would be like if six or seven girls breezed into a bar in the San Francisco Marina district, popped off their tops and bras, then scooched into a corner booth, ordering up a pitcher of Margaritas. I’m not imagining the same comfort of conversation that we enjoyed on that late afternoon.

I had never before been in a situation where women felt comfortable enough to break the clothing barrier. When Justin broke that barrier that day, it was simply out of need for comfort. It had no sexual overtones, whatsoever. Her demeanor simply relaxed us all into the evening, and her bare breasts quickly became incidental. It would seem that nudity at Black Rock City started as a function of comfort, not sex. People were taking off their cloths because it was fucking hot.

And now here was Justin again cast in the starring role of the Empress Zoe.

“Let’s take our places, everyone!” commanded Pepe over the bullhorn.

Paradox caught my eye and waved me over.

“I want you to take the lead with this group,” he said.

I was a bit taken aback. Why would he do this? I was the new guy.

“Ok,” I said. “So, what do I do?”

“Just lead them around in fits of rage.”

“Um, Ok.”

Paradox’s brother, Jackrabbit, was standing next to him. We had met when I got there, but I couldn’t quite get a read on the guy. He grimaced at this news and shot a look at his brother.

“I thought you wanted me to lead this group,” he said.

“I want you with me. I’ll be needing your assistance.”

Jackrabbit looked back at me like a dog growling over a bone.

Pepe was going to each group and bringing them into his vision, as his disciples were busy passing out props and costumes. Our costumes of wrath were torn and filthy swaddling, with green latex insect masks. They fit over your head like a helmet and had alien compound eyes with spiky pinchers for a mouth. I couldn’t tell if it was a praying mantis, or a grasshopper. It might have been both. Our role was to flail about in fits of rage as we circled the lingams. The whole thing reminded me of a grade B horror movie with cheap props and bad effects, but that reference would change when put into the backdrop of a substance fueled desert night with three thirty-foot flaming towers of a witches castle actually torching behind. Add to that the demonic faces protruding from all sides of the towers blowing fire at you from their eyes and mouths, and a full cast of ghouls and lustful nymphs gyrating to the shrieks of agonized voices and the beat of drums, all mixing the blood of Hell with the lure of sex, and the violence of fire, and the night becomes as real as a woken nightmare. We rehearsed around and around that lingam castle until well after dusk.

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About the author: Tony "Coyote" Perez-Banuet

Tony

Tony “Coyote” Perez-Banuet has been coming to the desert to build and strike Black Rock City since 1996. A professional musician for over twenty years, Burning Man culture was an easy shift for him. He co-founded the Department of Public Works of BRC in 1998 and has been the City Superintendent ever since. Known as the "Bard of the Desert", telling stories around the campfire is among the things he does best. He has been blogging under the moniker of “Coyote Nose” for many years, and he is Burning Man's first Storytelling Fellow.

One comment on “Chapter 2: City of Permission

  • roissy says:

    There are some video excerpts from this event on the Burning Man YouTube channel…
    The 700 Club version has some fun commentary…

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