It was the most compelling illusion I’d ever seen in my life.
The movie wasn’t any good. Boys in letter jackets, girls with ponytails, drive-thrus, giant cars. Not that I had much to say about chronicity, but their vocabularies were dated. “Golly.” “Swell.” All the while, my mouth was bursting with stars. I was in, all right.
Stars were bursting in my mouth as I scanned the warmth of the theater, the dim, throbbing lamps, the flickering projector. People were kicked back in their seats. Most were still wearing dusty fur coats, even though it was pretty warm in there. A red convertible roared around the corner and skidded to a stop in the middle of the screen.
And the stars kept bursting as I chewed on their flavor, crinkling the paper in my hands. I’m eating star bursts… in a late-night movie theater… in the middle of a dried-up, prehistoric lakebed on a freezing cold night… and I began to snap out of it. The genius of it all began to overwhelm me. Before long, it took every fiber of my being not to shout the truth out to everyone in the theater, but I knew they weren’t in the mood for truth.
I turned to my brother, my lover, and my friend. They looked tired of candy. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” They all nodded, and we gathered our gear and moved out.
We squeezed through the door. It was cold, dark and flat, and a weird city sat like a heap of jewels on the horizon. All of it. All of it except The Man, which had burned that night. How many hours ago, who could say? But we were very, very far from where all that happened. The Temple of Transition loomed in the distance like something that grew out of a tree stump.
We turned around and beheld the Black Rock Bijou. Another jewel. It looked so much smaller on the outside, but every detail was perfect. There was a name on the marquee, but it didn’t register. Around the right side, there was a brick wall, only it wasn’t, with an iconic brand written in white script across it, only it wasn’t. She leaned against the picture-perfect garbage can, under the believable streetlamp, and smoked a cigarette.
I walked around to the back. I would do that, deliberately crash the illusion for myself. I saw the plywood. I saw the cable snaking out ten yards away into the desert where a buried generator was growling softly.
I looked back to my friends, and they were talking to two people under the streetlamp, unbearably sexy people with airs of confidence. He had short, blond hair and astronaut pajamas, and she was darker-skinned than he and dressed like she could use someone to keep her warm. I recognized them; they had given us our candy when we got here. They made this!, I realized. These are the artists!.
We stood together talking about the illusion. We tried to thank them. The only thanks they wanted was for us to take home the thousands of stale skittles and starbursts they had left on the last day, but we declined. Our teeth were sticky enough.
Something skittered past our feet. A mouse! A fucking mouse on the playa! We were beside ourselves.
“We should name him!” the astronaut declared.
“Larry,” I said without hesitation.
“Larry the mouse!!” they all shouted in unison.
“Larry Harvey the mouse,” I corrected them.
“I wonder what he’s been eating all week.” the other artist marvelled.
“Starbursts,” my brother said.
Every burn I’ve been to has been bigger than the last. The illusion has been more imposing each time. I have more stories about illusions from that night, but I need to take an intermission. When you’re in the scene, it feels real, but you can only retell it frame by frame.
Burning Man is a big production. It requires logistics and vendors and medics and tickets. It takes a year-round crew to maintain the illusion. But it works. It keeps working every time.
Theater photos from the Black Rock Bijou.
Harveywood photo by my friend Mischa Steiner.