Burning Noir (4) – The clown always lies twice

The playa provides.  Augustus St. George was obviously avoiding me, and I didn’t think I had a prayer of finding him – until I finally visited the Temple for the first time this year (thank you, Polaris, for the ride), and stumbled into the wedding of a friend of mine from elementary school.  I’ve been missing this guy for years – when his family moved to Japan I “loaned” him my favorite book so that he’d have a reason to see me again and return it.  Never happened.  But here he was, getting married – and he actually knew where Augustus was today.  It’s powerful magic out here.  Read the whole series here – Caveat


IMG_20130828_005730Hiding at Burning Man is a lot like trying to sneak through a circus.   It matters who you’re hiding from.  There’s a lot of things to distract the rubes:, but the clowns are a tight knit group who know where to look.

Burners who barely know anyone outside their camp will never find you, and will probably stop looking after they’re drafted into a light saber battle pitting Darth Maul against Cookie Monster.  The eternal struggle.  But veteran burners have networks, and they’re not so easily distracted by zombie gospel choirs on pirate ships.  Go anywhere near their people, and they’ll run you down.

Even worse, they know who your people are.  The minute they want to know where you’re hiding, they’ll start interviewing everyone you’ve ever slept with.  No matter how drunk you were.

To escape the social mafia that runs Burning Man I make sure I take a different car every year, with different plates.  I change tents every year, and decorate it with just enough blinkies to look like I’m not trying to be anonymous.  And I pitch myself in the middle of walk-in camping, where I’m surrounded by neighbors who might share their morning eggs but don’t actually care who I am … and none of them have ever met Larry Harvey.

It’s the perfect set-up for privacy – or so I thought.  But I knew I’d been made when I got back to my tent in the morning, and it was unzipped.  I thought about bolting, but without an anonymous place to sleep they’ll find me anyway.  The only alternative is to sleep with strangers, and I’m not that guy.  I have a stoic wit where my game ought to be.

So I walked in.  The tent was just big enough to stand in, but Michael Michael – Danger Ranger himself – was sitting in my only chair, twiddling his thumbs.

My only chair.

Who goes into a man’s tent uninvited and sits in his only chair?  You just don’t do that.

“Nobody invited you, old timer.”

Danger Ranger looked up.  “Where the hell have you been?” he said. He pointed at the radio on my belt.  “We’ve been trying to call you for 12 hours!”

I unclipped my radio and tossed it on my air mattress.  “Does it look like it’s turned on?”

He threw up his hands. “Then why do you even take it?”

“It keeps you from constantly asking me to check in.”

“But that’s …”

“I don’t know about anyone else, but I think the 11th Principle should be ‘shut the fuck up.’  It’s just a thought.”

He gave me a disapproving scowl.  “I bet you thought you could stay hidden out here, too.”

“I’ll give you this:  your goons are good.”

He pointed a finger.  “Those ‘goons’ are volunteers who actually show up when we need them.  Show some respect.”

I nodded.  “Let me rephrase:  your goons are punctual.”

He shook his head.  “You know, I have never understood where this attitude of yours comes from.  Is it really so hard to just pitch in once in a while?”

He was in … my fucking … chair.  “Cynicism seems like a perfectly natural response to Burning Man.”

“Cynicism?”  He stood up. “To Burning Man?  You people are unbelievable, you know that?  You come here for experiences that you couldn’t come close to anywhere else in the world, and then half of you do nothing but complain about the fact that we don’t put a mint on your pillow, and the other half accuses us of spending a fortune on mints!   You complain about us more than you do about politicians lying to your face!  You complain about us more than you complain about white collar criminals on Wall Street!  Global poverty?  No, you don’t like it – but what really gets you angry on internet message boards is some trivia about Burning Man!  Has it ever … ever … occurred to you that the only thing worth being cynical about is the fact that you complain the most about one of the rare things that makes you happy?  Because it always shocks the hell out of me.”

There was a long, long silence.

“Are you finished?”  I finally asked.

“I drew a line in the sand 22 years ago and have spent all that time making sure everything is different on the other side.  I haven’t even started yet!”

“Well, if that’s the way you feel …”

“We’ve got a job for you.”

“One worth tracking me down for?”

He nodded.  “I think so.  There’s a missing bicycle.”

I snorted.  “Is that all?”

He held up his hand.  “It’s a Hatori Hondo.”

“Sure I …” and then I stopped, because it began to click into place.  “When was it stolen?”


My face went cold.

“It’s owned by a guy in the French Quarter, one of the shift leaders at the café that makes the gumbo.  You know the one?”

“Yeah,” I mumbled.  “I know the one.”

It was a set-up.  The whole time.  Those bastards couldn’t steal it, so they got me to do it for them.

“They nabbed it while someone was doing the old reverse stripper bit from the Circus Ridiculous.  Cacophony did that 15 years ago!  I don’t know what it is with these criminals:  come up with your own bits!  Be original!  Push some boundaries!”

“Maybe it was an homage,” I said bleakly.

“Ah, that’s no excuse,” he said, waving it away.  “We don’t need recognition for what we did, we need new blood innovating now!  New pranks!  But …” he shrugged.  “What was I talking about?”

“The bike.”

“Yeah, the Hatori Hondo.  The guy was careful with it, too:  never left it lying around, had this amazing lock for it, custom job, even you probably couldn’t pick it.”

“No,” I said.  “Well, criminals, you know, they’re …”

I should have told him.  I know I should have.  But at the time I just wasn’t a big enough man to confess what I’d done.

“Who is Hatori Hondo, anyway?” Danger Ranger asked.  “Some kind of Japanese super bike maker?”

“Nah.”  I shook my head.  “He’s actually a hippie in Wisconsin.  His bikes are great: one of a kind road masters.  He just thinks they need more of a marketing myth, to make them stand out from all the other white hippie custom bike makers in Wisconsin.  He loves to get high watching ninja movies, so he changed his name and sells them under the Hatori Hondo brand.”  I shook my head.  “I’m actually not even sure if ‘Hatori Hondo’ is a real Japanese name, or if it’s just a bunch of syllables thrown together.  But people buy them for 10 times what they used to.  So it works.”

Danger Ranger scowled again.  “Well that seems … wrong.”

I raised my eyebrows.  “Really Michael?  You’ve got a problem with white people taking on the trappings of historically dominated cultures for purposes of art and entertainment now?  Because …” I gestured outside my tent.

He shook his head. “That’s different.”

“Keep telling yourself that.”

“The theme is a chance to explore these issues.”

“Uh huh.  Just like every camp with a Ganesha or a Shiva is ‘exploring’ Hinduism, and every camp with tribal feathers is ‘exploring’ Amerindian culture.  Keep saying that all you want, but tell it to yourself, because I don’t want to hear it.”

There was another long silence.

“We’re worried that Duchamp’s involved,” Danger Ranger said.

I nodded.  “He is.”

Michael raised his eyebrows.  “You’re sure?”

“Oh yeah.”  I’d smelled it from the beginning, so I should have known something was rotten.  This was a message.  This was personal.

“Then like I said:  you’ve got a job to do.”

I nodded.  “I’ve got a job to do.”

“You want to interview the owner?”

I took a deep breath.  “If I need to, I will, but that’s not how I’m going to start.”

“How are you going to start?”

I walked over to the air mattress and picked my radio back up.  I turned it on.  It hummed to life.

“You may hear from me,” I said.


“If you do, I’ll need you to move heaven and earth on my signal.”

“That’s what Burning Man is.”

“No second guessing.”

He nodded.  “Okay.”

I let my mask drop, for just a moment.  “I’m going to hunt this guy down like the hounds of hell.  I will make Duchamp burn.”

“That’s the spirit!”

I looked him over carefully.  “You’re just saying whatever you think will keep me motivated, aren’t you.”


“Well … that makes sense.”

“It feels like I’m on a roll.”

“Yeah, you did good.”  I turned and started to walk out of my tent.  Then I stopped.  “There’s whiskey, good stuff, in the plastic bin.  Help yourself.”

I wasn’t going to be back for a while.  It was time to get this right.


Hopefully I’ll be able to keep on top of the story and catch Augustus tomorrow.

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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