Burning Noir: a chance meeting with Augustus St. George

The Pierre Lafitte Ice Company bar in Burning Man’s French Quarter.

The following was told to me today by Augustus  St. George, who I understand to be the top private security expert at Black Rock City (if you know, you know), and I thought it was interesting enough to repeat here.  This turned out to be the beginning of a whole series of events, which you can follow here – Caveat

It was hot.  But it’s not the heat at Burning Man that kills you.  It’s the heat and the stupidity.

The Pierre Lafitte Ice Company keeps a stool at the end of the bar for me.  They know my cup.  If they see it on the bar, and it’s empty, they know what to pour.  That cup was made out of the ash and remains of the Temple of Transition.  A client made it for me.  Clients do the damndest things.

You know what I like about this bar?  You know what keeps me coming back?  Nobody ever asks if I’m having “good burn.”

A pair of topless aerialists were going at it in the corner like their husband was home from war, and I watched it the way a man does when he’s at the best party in the world and wishes he had someplace to go.

That’s when Krista walked up behind me and whispered in my ear:  “Augustus, there’s a man here says he’s looking for you.”

I didn’t turn.  Looking in Krista’s eyes means falling in love all over again.  I don’t need that.  “Tell him I’m at the trash fence.”

“Augustus … he looks desperate.”

“They all look desperate.”

“I don’t think this was a bad trip.”

“You can tell just by looking at him?”  I growled.

“Yeah,” she said.  “And so can you.”

“Give me one reason I would even consider getting up from this stool,” I said as The Mayor filled up my glass.

“I like to watch you work.”

I took a hard slug of the hard stuff.  “Dammit.”


“Send him over.”

She flashed me a smile straight out of a Vegas billboard and walked across the room.  A moment later a slender man in leather chaps and red clown wig sat down at the bar next to me.

He was shirtless and proud of it.  He had the kind of tan you get from French kissing cancer.  The bandanna tied around his neck matched his camel-back, telling me he worked in the Bay Area tech industry and had more money than sense.  But Krista was right:  he had the expression of a skunk who’d watched his best friend get hit by an RV.

An impotent skunk, I decided after giving him a second look.

He stared at my radio and ID badge.  They always stare at the radio.

“Are you Augustus St. George?”  he asked.

“That’s what the Org says.”

“I’m Crispy Clown.”

“Of course you are.”

He paused like a DJ looking in a mirror.  Then shook it off.  Smiled harder.  “How’s your burn?”

“Die slowly.”

His smile cracked.  “Excuse me?”

“I’m expressing myself radically.  Got a problem with that?”

“I … um … no …”

“Good.  Because that’s one of the 10 Principles.”

“Yeah … yeah … I heard about that.”

I think it’s important, when I don’t like someone, to help make sure they know it.  It’s good for the soul.

“So …” he said, slowly, now aware that I saw him as human MOOP, “I’ve been told you’re a man who can help somebody with a problem.”

Ah the eternal dance.  Like fire spinning, only all the burns are on the inside.  “I have been known to help people resolve their problems, from time to time.”

“They say you’re especially good with stolen bicycles.”  He thought about this for a moment.  “They say you’re the best.”

I took a deep breath and nodded.  “I have in the past been retained by the Org to track down stolen bicycles and bring the perpetrators to justice.”

“They say you’re the one who found Oddwally’s bike after it was stolen by Yakuza agents in Kiddsville.  They say if it wasn’t for you, it would have been covered in anime stickers and left in pieces on the roof the Thunderdome.”

“They have a big mouth.”

“But is it …”

“I can’t talk about past clients.  It breaks the code.”

His face crinkled.  “What about radical self-expression?”

“Silence is self-expression, if you do it right.  You want old war stories?  Go to War Stories Camp.”

“Is there a War Stories Camp?”

“Kid, every camp is War Stories Camp.”

I took a drink.  The acrobats walked off stage to huge applause.  A woman in a tight corset and a man wearing a cock ring and a horse head stepped up to the corner next.  This, I thought, might get interesting.

Crispy Clown’s face went from cocky to despair without ever passing hopeful.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I know I’m bothering you.  I just … my brother gave me that bike, and he we just lost him in a motorcycle accident and …” he gulped for air and turned away.  “I can’t believe I didn’t take better care of it.”

“You file a police report?”

He turned back.  “Yeah but, come on … one bicycle … 61,000 people …”

I took another drink.  “You got that right.”

“Besides, I’m scared the cops will search my tent, and …”

“Yeah, okay.  Got it.”

“Can you help?”

Great PourThe Mayor moved to fill my cup, he and Fernando were keeping the bar roaring, but I put my hand over the lid.  The Mayor gave me a look.  Word has it he and Fernando just got back from a long stay in Mexico to wait out the law on crimes they committed as buffalo soldiers.  I always mean to ask about that, but never get around to it.

“Describe the bike.”

“It’s a …” he hesitated.  “It’s a Hatori Hondo.”

My jaw dropped.

“You know his work?” he asked.

I suddenly realized I was grinding my teeth.  “You’re telling me you took a genuine Hatori Hondo bike to Burning Man … and you lost it?”

He nodded.

So that’s why Krista wanted me to see this clown.  I tried to shoot her a look, but she was busy watching the simulated horse fellatio in the corner.

“Aluminum or carbon fiber?” I asked.

“Carbon fiber,” he said.

I took a notebook out of my pocket, and a pencil.  “Write it down,” I said.  “Every spec, every detail.  Keep it neat.  I need to be able to read it.”

He started.  Diligently.

I stared at the brown liquor at the bottom of my ash cup.  A genuine Hatori Hondo.  Those bikes are rarer than a heart in a Google executive.  In all these years I’d only seen one other Hondo on the playa … and that had been the bike that started it all.  The reason they’d brought me in.  The reason Larry Harvey had sat me down in his living room, filled with strange religious art, and said “I believe we have a problem,” and …

… I shook my head.  No use crying over spilled tequila unless you’re the worm.

Unless … this wasn’t a coincidence.  After all these years, another Hondo had showed up on the playa.  And disappeared.  That didn’t mean anything, did it?  Did I really think the hand of Duchamp could reach all the way out to Black Rock City from his Pittsburgh cell?

No telling, unless you look.

I thought of getting on the radio.  I thought of calling Big Bear, of making this their problem.  I thought about it for maybe 10 second, and then finished my drink and hooked the cup back up to my utilikilt.

This is a do-ocracy, after all.  They can kiss my dust.

“Here you go,” said Crispy Clown, handing me back the notebook.

I glanced it over.  He was thorough:  tire size and tread, break mechanism, precise color, pedal type.  The kid wasn’t as stupid as I wanted to think.

“One other question, hotshot.”

He nodded.

“Where’s the last place you saw it?”

“Nexus,” he said.  “My friend was DJing …”

“… Of course he was …”

“He’s really good!”

“Sure he is.”

He looked down at the ground.  “I locked it,” he said.  “I swear.”

“Uh huh.”  I stood up. “All right, I’ll take the case.”

Relief washed over his face like bubbles covering a warm bath.  “Oh, thank you.  What do I … what do I owe you?”

I blew air through my lips.  “Nothing – it’s a gift.  What are you thinking?”  Jackass.

“Right,” he said.  “Sorry.  Right.”

I pointed my finger in his face.  “You meet me here, 1 o’clock, every day, and if I’m not here, you wait.  That’s how we keep in touch.  Got it?”

He nodded.

“All right.  We’ll touch base tomorrow.”  I started to turn away.

“Do you … do you think you can find it?”

I stopped.  Thought about it.  “They think I can,” I said.  And walked to the exit.

Krista turned from watching the horse-man carry the dominatrix on his shoulders and spinning around.  She blew me a kiss.

My lips moved to say “Fuck you,” and I walked out into the blasting sun.

It’s the heat and the stupidity that kill you.


I’ll try to catch up with Augustus St. George to see how things turn out tomorrow. – Caveat

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

12 Comments on “Burning Noir: a chance meeting with Augustus St. George