Sept. 21, 2002
The sun has shone down hot on us for six days, and for six days we have worked our asses off. When everything gets loaded off the playa and micro-cleanup begins, almost everyone on the ranch (save commissary crew and a couple mechanics) ceases whatever it was they were working on and goes out to the playa to stoop and MOOP for 8 or 9 hours.
We motor down from the ranch after morning meeting in dusty trucks and clattery old school buses, meet at a given block on the wide-open playa (still marked with T-stakes and cones), and fall out. Delineator cones are placed at the block’s corners and we all line up in a huge line, “MOOP buckets” (cut-up plastic water jugs) in hand. When the team leader says go, we all walk forward together, squinting and looking for MOOP. It’s best to zig-zag as you move ahead, turning around every once in a while to scan the ground from the back angle in the blazing sun. When there’s a hot spot (lots of stuff in one place), people call for backup. A couple people with rakes help flatten small dunes for others to sift through, and the bigger dunes are marked to be either busted or bulldozed.
It sounds like mindless and repetitive work, and it is, but of course the conversation and camaraderie make it all worthwhile, even when we’re hungry or cranky or having a spat…and especially when it’s the end of the day and we’re all slap-happily delirious from the sun. Searching for tiny treasures in the dust, it turns out, is one of the simple pleasures in life. After a long day of picking up small things and digging in the alkali on a vast blank palate of Earth, when we see Combustible Russ’s truck kicking up dust towards the line sweeps and we know he’s brought a cooler of beer from the commissary…that’s almost better than finding money on the ground.
Most of the time we pick up the same things over and over. We’re out here to make the desert clean so Burning Man can continue, and the desert will be clean because we are hard workers…but I’ll be honest: the promise of buried treasure gives us extra incentive to look a little more closely. You never know what might be under a dune or buried in the playa. Most common MOOP: strings, nails, wood bits, feathers, glitter, sequins, astro-turf bits, tent stakes, hairballs, pistachio nut shells, burnt embers, and this year, twigs.
Grossest MOOP:used condoms, used tampons, chewed gum, toilet paper and excrement, half-eaten candy, one dead rat.
Best personal MOOP (I collected a lot – gonna make a collage out of it): glow-in-the-dark plastic animals and stars, sparkly jewels, tiny bells, a patch with a cartoon naked lady on it, a couple pins, some barrettes, Burning Man doubloons and smashed pennies, loose change, a bullet casing, dice, several black rocks, interestingly-rusted screws and nails, a real silver ring, a pirate earring, a pink Barbie slipper.
The greatest is going “shopping” for people you like. The gift economy lives on in the DPW after the event, and most MOOP treasures found are more likely to be given to the person they’re most appropriate for. The silver ring I found didn’t fit me so I gave it to Doyle. Doyle then gave me a lighter because I lost my lighter and a Frida Kahlo pendant. Someone gave Mutt an old dog tag and another brass tag that says “Pup Star.” Mariko gave me the Barbie slipper because she knew I was making a collage. After a long day of stooping and MOOPing, I snuck a precious Red Bull in my MOOP bucket past all the other MOOPers and palmed it to Laura, prompting her to give me a real 12-inch disco ball today. (Disco ball wasn’t MOOP, but still.) And on his last day before going home to Minneapolis, Wick even gave Tony his special MOOP bucket: a gallon jug spiked with long screws like Pinhead that says ROT IN HELL on the side in black magic marker.
The only people who got the raw end of the MOOP deal were Shooter’s crew. His is the crew that cleans up the open playa, and this year, one art installation in particular took so many people and worker hours to MOOP that nobody on this crew ever wants to see another small, playa-colored, perfectly-chameleoned-against-the-ground-and-only-visible-from-one-angle twig or leaf – ever, ever, ever ever ever again.
Shooter’s crew was over there for 4 or 5 days doing twigs and going nuts all by themselves before the entire DPW just went over to help them knock it out a couple days ago. Talk about tedious. DPW cursed the artist’s name in myriad and colorful ways as we sifted for more and still more twigs – it turns out that we shouldn’t harsh him too much, the chain of communication and approval broke down, emergencies turned up, stuff like that. Still, a good time to point out: EVEN ORGANIC MATTER DOES NOT DECOMPOSE OUT HERE. I know the Burning Man organization would rather die than actually tell someone straight out not to do something, but after a week of MOOPing, I will: Don’t bring dead trees and leaves to the playa. Don’t spit your candy or gum out on the ground. Don’t toss the pistachio nut shells and the hairballs from your brushes on the ground. Try to avoid bringing anything with feathers and loose glitter on it. And don’t bring Astro Turf to the playa without duct-taping the frayed ends first. Okay? Okay.
Six straight days of MOOPing, and the DPW is going to be here doing the same thing every day until the beginning of October – until the entire site is made of playa and only playa. As for me, sadly, the eviction notice calls me homeward tomorrow. Now it’s time to go build a new bar in the Beach Club and get ready to bartend the Special Party tonight – they’re getting a couple of kegs and Big Daddy’s making chili. I, of course, am bringing my shiny new disco ball…