Burning Noir (3) – The oldest strip in the book

Augustus St. George didn’t keep our appointment last night, and I would have missed him entirely if my friend CrunchyMama hadn’t seen him crossing through Gigsville.  When I did catch up with him, he wasn’t happy to see me – but he filled me in on what had happened next. Read the series here  – Caveat


Burning Man's French Quarter, before the Mardi Gras celebration
Burning Man’s French Quarter, before the Mardi Gras celebration

It’s nothing personal.  If you can find me, Larry’s boy scouts can find me, that’s the trouble.

Do you hate people with merit badges?  I hate people with merit badges.  The whole thing screams “validate my daddy issues.”

I like being hard to find.  Look … half the fun of being here is getting lost in somebody else’s dream, right?

Last night a woman with pink nylon butterfly wings attached to her back stood underneath a turn of the century streetlight, asking passing strangers to help tie the laces of her stiletto boots.   This might have been a once-in-a-lifetime offer.  A crowd gathered, but only a small one, because she wasn’t the most interesting once-in-a-lifetime offer on this particular corner.

Burners like to tell themselves that they’re big on costumes.  It’s not true, but it’s a helpful lie:  the kind of self-deception that opens doors.  That’s how I tracked him down.

Sure,*some* burners are really into costumes – but most of us really aren’t.  We’re into color.  We’re into spectacle.  We’re into skin:  lots of skin.  If we were really into costumes, we wouldn’t be so enthusiastic about people who take their shirt off and call it a day.

As long as it’s colorful, as long as it’s a spectacle, we give them a thumbs up and a blowjob.  Be neat to look at.  That’s all we want.

That means people in real costumes might not stand out if you’re not looking, but they’re easy to track down if you are.  And in this city-for-a-week, being dressed for a New Orleans funeral means you can bet a year’s salary that someone lives in the French Quarter.

After the Man burns every year the French Quarter holds a New Orleans street funeral for it.  A discreet inquiry told me where the parade leaders camp, and so I took a long walk around the neighborhood.  It was just after dusk when a tall, thin man – out of costume but with a handlebar mustache that would need to be registered as a weapon in New York – rode in on a Hatori Hondo bike covered in clown noses and balloon animals.

Even adulterated like that, I’d recognize it anywhere.  A perfect blend of form and function, color and line – I don’t know what it is about burners that keeps us from seeing that some things aren’t made more beautiful by adding glitter and graffiti.  For people who Leave No Trace, we sure like to put our fingerprints on stuff.

Maybe I should have run right up to him as he was parking it, shoved him out of the way and taken off on the Hondo.  They never would have caught me.  But a voice in the back of my head was telling me that something wasn’t right, so I watched him park it against a streetlight, lock it up, and walk into the Prophete Paresseux Gumbo Cookery, put on an apron, and start a shift.IMG_20130827_210501

He was a worker bee.  That was good.  He’d be slinging gumbo most of the night, bringing delight to hungry travelers and giving me a clear shot at the bike.

Except as I walked past it and took the situation in … I saw that it had been locked up by a man who knew what he’d stolen, and was looking to keep it.

It was a u-shaped lock, like the one Skippy had seen, but if that lock was a pup-tent this one was an Airstream.  Multiple-pin locking mechanism, cross-bar steel reinforcement … this was going to take more than a minute to get through, and he’d parked it in a well lit area that would be full of people all night.

My hat always goes off to a thief who knows what he’s doing.  Competence is so much more interesting than honesty.

If I was going to grab it tonight I needed an opening, or a trick.  The good news is that Black Rock City is all tricks.

So I took a stroll around the neighborhood, passing by the 19th century Louisiana bordello, the Golden Café, and the Fin du Monde coffee house, waiting for naked opportunity to pedal by.

IMG_20130827_213820By 9:30 the place was jumping.  It was Tuesday – and that meant Mardi Gras.  Fresh shrimp gumbo was served – the kind where the shrimp aren’t peeled and the spices slowly rise to a real burn.  Across the street in a geodesic dome a massive crawdad spread was laid out on a table.  A brass band lead a parade through the 3 o’clock keyhole … it was a party that wouldn’t quit for all that it seemed impossible.  And yet, the bike was still watched – parked behind the kitchen in such a way that all he had to do was steal a glance to catch me in the act.  I needed more.IMG_20130827_220438

I saw Dr. Rachel cross the street wearing red footie pajamas and a tutu, but I didn’t know she’d seen me.  That’s why she’s the doctor.

“I’ve seen you walk around the keyhole four times now,” she whispered in my ear from behind.  “You’re keeping an eye on something.”

“Maybe I’m MOOPing the place.”

She laughed.  “You couldn’t possibly be that helpful.”

“Burning Man’s obviously changed my life.”

“I’ll believe that when I see you wearing hair extensions.”

I grinned at her.  “I didn’t think you were coming this year.”

“I wasn’t.”  She sighed.  “But I grabbed a ticket after my start-up stopped.”

“Sorry to hear it. Innovation comes for us all.”

“So what are you doing?”

I considered.  “I can’t tell you that.  But you can make yourself helpful.”

She nodded.  “How?”

“I need a distraction.  I need everybody in the keyhole to be looking that way for at least a minute-and-a-half.  Even the camp volunteers.”

She whistled.  “That’s a tough one.  Short of a parade …”

“No, that already happened.  It wasn’t enough.”

“You could tell everybody Daft Punk is playing at Center Camp.”

I snorted.

“Some people never stop believing.”

“Those aren’t the people I’m worried about.  It’s too little.”

“Okay … okay …” she grinned.  “You could light the Man on fire.”

I shook my head.  “Too big.”

“I dunno …” she said.  “What else would shock burners?”  She snapped her fingers.  “I’ve got it!”


“Yeah, it’s an old act from the Circus Ridiculous.  But nobody here will have ever seen it.  As long as you don’t mind that it’s derivative?”

“This isn’t a goddamn art project, it’s a distraction!  Drive in on a monster truck for all I care.”

She hit me in the shoulder.  “It’s ALL an art project!  But it’s gonna work.  I’ll need a barker, a microphone, and a different costume.  I’ll be back in 10 minutes.”

I scowled.  “That’ll take you at least 20.”

She nodded.  “But I’ll be back.”

“What do I watch for?”

“Oh you’ll know it,” she said.  “You’ll know it.”

I nodded, and she ran off into the esplanade, behind a giant metal octopus spouting fire, and out of sight.

I waited there, while the café gave away free coffee and moustache boy served bowl after bowl of free bisque, and musicians and dancers performed on the second floor of the bordello.  There are worse ways to spend a stakeout.

Half-an-hour later, in between musician sets, three men grabbed some of the street benches and pushed them together and Dr. Rachel, naked, stepped on top of this makeshift stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” one of the men barked into a portable PA system.  “I am proud to present to you tonight:  the world’s only REVERSE STRIPPER!   She will put her clothes on, before your very eyes, for your amusement and titillation!”

Cries of “What!”  and “No!” roared out from the coffee shop.  The whole block turned to look as Dr. Rachel beamed.

This just might work.

“Can I get a little encouragement?” the barker called, while Rachel turned and posed on the rickety tables.  People gathered.

Slowly … with the barker’s encouragement … a chant emerged:  “PUT IT ON!  PUT IT ON!”  Until, with a sudden flourish and an absolutely filthy gesture, Dr. Rachel put on … a fingerless glove.

The crowd roared.

“WHAT WILL SHE DO NEXT?”  The barker asked.  “WILL IT BE THE OTHER GLOVE?  COULD IT BE A SOCK … OR A GARTER?  Let’s find out!”

I let the shadows and walked over to the bike.

“PUT IT ON!  PUT IT ON!” The crowd screamed as I knelt down and got out my tools.

This was six “goddamit” job, but Dr. Rachel had them under her spell.  I hopped on the bike and rode it out before she got to the bra.  Assuming she got to a bra.

I couldn’t hide the bike at The Pierre Lafitte Ice Company … it’s actually in the French Quarter, and that’s playing it too close … so I stashed it with somebody who owes me a favor in Gigsville, and sent word that Crispy Clown should meet me there.

He arrived, panting from a run, at 2 the next day.

“Oh yes!” he said, making a ka-ching gesture.  “YES!  You are the best!”

I held up my hand.  “You could learn a thing or two from the guy who stole it.”

“Oh yeah … yeah … I’ll take much better care of it this time,” he said, stroking the pedals. “I promise.”

“What bothers me,” I said, “is who took it in the first place.  If he was part of a ring, it would have been hidden more carefully – but if he was on his own, then why was he part of a prominent working camp?”

Crispy Clown nodded.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I hope you’ll find out.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yeah.”

“You sure I can’t give you anything for this?”

“Get out of here.”

He hopped on the bike and rode away, where I hope he’ll stay.  I walked back to The Pierre Lafitte Ice Company, stroking my chin the whole time.  Wondering what I’d missed.  I sat down at my usual stool and put my cup on the counter, let The Mayor work his skills, and wondered.

It was around 5 when it happened.  Krista walked over and whispered in my ear.  “Augustus, boy scouts are asking about you.  Main entrance.”

I got up without looking and walked out the rear entrance to the bar.  Behind me, I heard a shout.  So I ran.  Two rangers bolted over the stage and through the bar after me.

I took off my trench coat, thrust it in a passing guy’s arms.  “It’s a gift!” I shouted, and ran around the corner.

“What?  Nice,” he said, putting it on, just as the rangers came out.

I was in luck.  A truck on big wheels with a piano bar in the back was rolling down the street just the way I’d come.  I ran alongside, and then rolled underneath it, grabbed the undercarriage, and pulled myself up so that I was hitching a free ride.  Make those 5 mph speed limits work for you, I always say.

As the truck lumbered along I heard the Rangers arguing with the sap who was wearing my coat.  He was probably pointing them in the direction I’d just gone as I rumbled past.  Eight blocks later I rolled out from under and walked between camps to the out rim, where it’s easier to get lost.

I intend to stay that way until I figure out what’s gone wrong.  Because if the Rangers want me, something’s not right.


I’ll catch up with Augustus tomorrow – if I can – to see what’s happened.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

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