More than fluff

Fluffer Nips

Sometimes you think you’re ready to hear the story, but you’re really not.

Fluffer Nips is the exuberantly good-natured person behind the wheel when the van with the water and the ice shows up. (Of course, you can’t miss the van because it’s decorated with Photo Mike’s stunning portraits on the outside.)

She’s the leader of the fluffer team, the people who make sure the work crews have what they need to keep going. Ice. Water. Sport drinks. Soda. Jerky. Sunscreen. Chips. Some sweets. Handi-Wipes. Maybe some smokes, if she has any.

She’d give you anything she has, and get you anything she didn’t.

Which makes what happened to her all the more painful.  It shouldn’t happen to anyone, of course, but especially not to her.

Nips always seems to have  a big hello for you. Always wants to know how you’re doing, what you need, before you even ask for anything. Maybe people don’t know you too well and are kind of suspicious, be she’s not like that. She’s one of the most genuine people you ever met. Not phony nice, real nice. You know the difference.

Three crews in separate vans make the rounds, visiting the 45 or so teams of workers pounding and sawing and lifting in the 100-degree temperatures. Things are in really good shape in Black Rock City, and you have to think that the fluffers are playing a role in that. They bring the drinks and some snacks and some friendly talk.

The whole fluffer gang is at the Depot after the DPW morning meeting, loading the vans with ice and water. Nips and Audrey and Rugburn and Shotgun and Ash and Little Girl and Purple Fluffer and TMI. It’s an an all-female team. “Guys could do it,” Nips says, “but they’re just not as cute.”

She and the others load giant Igloo coolers with six-packs of crushed and block ice. You know how it’s awkward and kind of a pain to get that bag or two of ice from the 7-11 to your cooler? Well, this crew carries six bags at a time, getting the ice from an insulated trailer to the big coolers in the back of the vans.

Then it’s time to see who needs what. Make sure the electrical crews’ big water jugs are filled. Slather on the sunscreen for the Shade crew. Give out some candy at the Heavy Machinery yard. The workers crowd around the van like it’s a taco truck in a warehouse district. They shoot the breeze a little, talk about last night or what’s happening tonight.

Sometimes the workers need to talk about other things, too. Because the longer you are out here, and the more you work and the more you sweat, the more likely it becomes that your nerves will fray. You don’t roll with the punches as easily. Maybe somebody on the crew just bugs the crap out of you. Nips knows that listening is a part of the job, too. You have to remember: All this is happening out in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes it’s easy to feel like you don’t have a friend in the world. Nips and her crew make that feeling go away.

And Nips has been making that feeling go away for people for most of her life.

She started the whole fluffer thing on her own, when she used her own vehicle to go back and forth to town to get ice. She didn’t get it from Bruno’s, though, because it would cost too much. She’d go to the Black Rock Saloon and bag it up herself, then take it the 40 minutes or so back out to the playa where it was needed.

Nips is from a tight-knit Philly family, and the big reason it is so tight-knit is Nips. She’s the glue that kept them together. Which makes what happened all the more unfair.

Nine years ago her life as she knew it fell apart. She had been staying at her sister’s house in Philadelphia. Her sister was a single mom with three kids,  and sis had just bought a house, her first. Nips was there to help with the kids. And even though sis already had her hands full, she, like Nips, couldn’t help herself when it came to helping people. She had also opened her home to a runaway who had no other place to live.

The runaway had a boyfriend, and there was a bad night. A very bad night. There was a fight, and he got really mad. So mad that he set a chair on fire. The three children and Nips’ sister were in the house at the time.

The fire department dispatcher who summoned the trucks was Nips’ aunt. Nips herself pulled over on her way home from work to let the fire trucks pass.

When she got to the house, her parents were already there. They could see her sister in a window, trying to wrap the children in blankets.

Later, when the youngest child, a 3-year-old boy, was recuperating in the hospital, he said that when the flames were around them, Mommy had told him to go to sleep. She had told his brother and his sister to go to sleep, too, and they did. And then Mommy went to sleep.

And then a big monster came and took him out of the fire.

The big monster was the firefighter who came and lifted him out of the flames. But it was too late for his mother and his brother and sister. They died in the fire.

So here it is nine years later, and Nips is out running the fluffers, so that everything can be ready for the giant fire that takes place a week from Saturday. “I’ve come to grips with the fire here,” she said.

Her mother was devastated by the tragedy, and Nips says she’s had a tough time pulling through. She’s living in New Jersey now with the grandson who survived. Things are better now, but her marriage didn’t make it.

Nips’ dad went into a shell for a long, long time.  And then this year, when Nips needed some help herself, she went to him.

“Look,” she said. “I’ve been the one taking care of you. Now you need to step up. You need to take care of me.”

He did the best he could. He reached out to the burner community, which responded with a ferocity of affection. But Nips was embarrassed by it, frankly.

“I wanted to keep it in the family,” she said. “I don’t like asking for things. I don’t like NEEDING things!” But she did, and her extended family from the playa came through.

So now here she is again, out and about taking care of people, asking what they need, being her upbeat sassy self. She’s a good manager, knows how to take care of her staff, and she fights for every nickel in her budget, which is tiny.

You might not know it, but 90 percent of the treats that are distributed to the work crews come from you. When people at the gate ask you to leave your unused food and drink behind, this is where it goes. It feeds the cleanup teams after the event, it feeds the work weekend people who come up during the year, and it’s feeding and watering the crews out there in the sun right now.

So on your way out of the city this year, be sure to drop off the food and drink you never used. It is needed. It’ll all be put to very good use.

And if you see Nips around, ask her if she needs anything. She won’t admit it, but she might.

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.

19 Comments on “More than fluff

  • The Key Man says:

    Nips, you are amazing and thanks for everything you do. Clearly a labor of love.

    And thank you to John and all the authors here. I really love all these stories and photos about the building of Burning Man and the Black Rock Desert.

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  • Aloha & Soundman says:

    WOW! Nips YOU have been through so much. I’m sorry for your loss. You are a very special BURNER. Maybe we will meet. We are Aloha & Soundman. We will be at Artica Center Camp location Wed, Thurs, Fri before the man burns. I’d like to give you a HUG. I am in ahhhhh of your devotion to the DPW, BRC…Burning Man. THANK YOU for caring. :)

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  • alexis says:


    Thank you for supporting the workers who so tirelessly build the city we flood in to enjoy and decorate. Thank you for being so tireless in spreading food and ice and water and good cheer. Thank you for giving so much of yourself to this event.

    I don’t know you, and probably will never meet you, but I am humbled by your example. I have much to learn, and much to give.

    Bright Blessings to you.

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  • Alan Goodin says:

    Thanks for your unselfish giving. You are the best! You are rich with appreciation.

    Twoee (playa name)

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  • Partymuffins says:


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  • Lemony says:

    Many thanks to everyone here… Nips, for your bottomless heart and the caring you show to those around you… John, for listening and sharing this moving and inspiring story with us… and the Burner community, for coming through yet again with an outpouring of love. This just makes me long for the Playa even more– can’t wait to be there with you all in just a few days!

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  • Nips, you’re so beautiful inside and out. thank you, dusty hugs!

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  • Rugburn says:

    Best manager I ever had. You’ve shown me tolerance and hilarity in times of despair and idiocy. I’ve learned a lot from you lady, and continually do. Thanks!

    I love you Nipps!

    It was a pleasure riding around with you, Curley. Anytime!

    Oh, and yeah, leave your stuff upon Exodus, fellow burners. We really do appreciate the yummy treats!

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  • Mama says:

    Our world is a better place, due to those who help others, in the most simplest way. Thank you for sharing your story.

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  • Face says:

    There is NOBODY like Nips.
    She cares more for the DPW than her skin allows.
    Thank you for bringing public attention to her devotion and selflessness.
    She has taught every fluffer what it takes to care for HARD HEADED workers that don’t know when they need to stop and take care of themselves.
    Few have that skill.
    Try making D.A. stop and eat a salty snack while he’s leading playa restoration!
    You CAN’T.
    Nips can though.
    ….and maybe Shotgun.

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  • My Participation in Burning Man From Portugal .10 Portuguese Commandments since 2002 .in: ,very thanks.good work.

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  • ranger osho says:

    You are a wonderful human being.

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  • Alan says:

    You are one strong and wonderful human. I smile when I read your story.

    Thank you for your generous heart. Peace will be with you always.


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  • Jason Youngdale says:

    You are a stong and beautiful woman. I hope I have the honor of meeting you someday. A true angel. Thank You for all the hard work your team does.

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  • Ali Baba says:

    Gosh, what a story.

    Many thanks & blessings to Nips & the fluffer crew! ;D

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  • Teach says:

    A great piece on a great lady. However… homage should be paid to the first Fluffer on the playa, which, sorry to say was not the aforementioned Nips. She did, however learn from the best. Dig deeper with old school Survey to find the truth…

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  • Izzy V says:

    amazing. this was breath taking. it gave me the chills, its people like nips that the world needs more of. i am only 16 and when i grow up i want to be like nips, someone that loves others and would give anything for them no matter what she has went threw in her past.

    Nips, you have all my respect and love. I hope to see you out playing in the desert one of these years.

    ♥ Izzy*

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  • Johnny says:

    I am absolutely gutted after reading that story. Nips is an amazing example of someone who emerged from tragedy with her selfless attitude intact. I hope she receives everybody’s love in return.

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