Making the Cafe all purty

Volunteers are swarming all over the Center Cafe, transforming the massive, utilitarian  tent in the center of the city into a space that both shelters and entertains participants. That it is also the place to get a jolt of caffeine at any time, day or night, also makes it an essential part of the Burning Man experience.

This year’s event is themed Metropolis, and many of the decorative touches in the Cafe have an urban feel to them. Rigging wires are being covered in what looks like pipe, there are flags that look like clothelines, and the space is ringed with wooden burn barrels with fabric flames.

Dangerass, the volunteer coordinator for Cafe Decor,  is in the center of it all, leading the volunteers with energy, enthusiasm and heart.

“Every year I say to myself, ‘Well, maybe this is the last year for me at Burning Man,’’’ she says. “Then I think about it, and I realize these are my peeps!”

She sweeps her arms around the Cafe, where a crew of about 40 people are putting up lights, painting stages, arranging carpet and myriad other things, getting ready for a really big party.

Much of the decor was made back in San Francisco, where recycled clothing and donated items were used as source materials at volunteer Decor parties. Then the effort moves to the desert, where the first item of business is to get all the stuff that is stored in trailers unloaded.

“We need brawn in the beginning and fluff in the end,” Dangerass said.

The Decor crew gets their share of muscle, both male and female, and it’s crucial. There are hundreds of yards of carpet to unload, and most of it has several years of playa dust covering it. And there’s enough other stuff to fill three semis and a shipping container, all of which must be broken down and laid out in the cafe.

And yet even with all the work, “This week is the best week of my life,” Dangerass says. 

Phoenix was cracking the whip (in the nicest way possible) as the crew was installing the Cafe decor.
Fabric hung from the Cafe roof evoke clotheslines across fire escapes in the big city.

There were sewing stations set up all over the Cafe for final projects.

Lighting sets the mood, and workers were setting the lights.

All work, all play, all day.

Rigging wires were covered with industrial-looking boxes and tubes.

Put up tape in the outline of buildings, spray paint surface, remove tape and ... voila! a cityscape.
Thumper, at the Cafe cup spikes

Ahn has been pounding the bike racks into place for years. When you come to the Cafe and there's a place to park your bike, Ahn's one of the reasons why.

All the bike racks are stored in containers, which have to be unloaded, assembled, and pounded into place.

The light does wonderful things when the dust is blowing: It's both diffuse and specular, and it bathes people in a golden goodness.

There are long metal spikes set up in the Cafe for your coffee cup when you are finished using it. You pound your cup into the spike; it's a satisfying action, and it's easier to deal with than mounds of garbage bags. But here's a better idea: Carry a cup with you for your coffee drinks.

Jonesy Jones draws up all the plans for what goes where in the Cafe. Then, when he gets here, he helps put it all together.

Witchy is one of the volunteer coordinators who makes sure all that needs getting done actually gets done in the Cafe.

The command center for Cafe Decor. There are Red Vines inside, plus cool drinks. Work hard, and you'll get to enter.

To make sure it all gets done, you have to have a list. There are many lists in the Decor trailer.

A map for what goes where.

Witchy in her office.

The crew in the Decor trailer. Each day in the Cafe has a theme: This day, it was Vive La France, which explains the bold horizontal stripes and vampy skirts. Ooo la la.
Some of the nerdier members of the Decor team were checking out the WiFi map of Black Rock City. They might have a special treat in store for those who access the internet from the Center Cafe. We are sworn to secrecy, but it should be fun.
Bike racks, and plenty of them, ring the Center Cafe.
Ahn, who's from Hawaii, doing his thing with the racks.
Unload, pound into place, and repeat. ... And repeat. And repeat.
Dangerass, aka Helen Hickman, was living in Baltimore in 2003 when she decided to come to Burning Man, by herself. Once she got here, she found that she had found her people. Six months later, she moved to San Francisco, and she's been a big-time contributor to the event ever since.

About the author: John Curley

John Curley (that's me) has been Burning since the relatively late date of 2004, and in 2008 I spent the better part of a month on the playa, documenting the building and burning of Black Rock City in words and pictures. I loved it, and I've been doing it ever since. I was a newspaper person in a previous life, and I spent many years at the San Francisco Chronicle. At the time I left, in 2007, I was the deputy managing editor in charge of Page One and the news sections of the paper. Since then, I've turned a passion for photography into a second career. I shoot for editorial, commercial and private clients. I've also taught a little bit, including two years at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and a year at San Francisco State University. I live on the San Mateo coast, just south of San Francisco in California.

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