Burning Noir 6 – what gifts around comes around

By some miracle I saw Augustus St. George crossing the open playa just as we were dancing around the open flame of the Man’s body.  Here’s what he told me tonight Read part one of this series herepart two herepart three herepart 4 here; and part 5 here – Caveat


IMG_20130826_200611I was back to the French Quarter again.  Everything kept coming back here.  Maybe they’d recreated mythical New Orleans too well:  real criminals were landing on it like flies on wax fruit.

Or maybe that was the point.  Maybe that’s why they built it, and the fruit is all too real.

“Botanica Bodhi Manman nan Bejeezus” offers tarot and palm readings, and provides magical oils and talismans to the needy.  Some say it’s a shtick.  Some say it’s one more example of New Age mumbo jumbo being play-acted for adult children.

But some swear by it.  Some people swear by anything, sure.  But I challenge anyone to walk into a gypsy voodoo magic shop in the middle of the desert, see the hand painted tarot cards, and not be impressed.

It’s a small room:  colorful faces painted on the walls stared at me as I walked in the open door.  Knives hung from the ceiling.  The priestesses of Haiti-in-the-desert can do a brisk trade, but that was the burn night, and it was obvious they were getting ready to close up shop and head out to the big bonfire.

Chakra Kahn wasn’t anywhere to be seen.  But they run a tight knit community here, they know each other’s business.   I was willing to be that all I had to do was find the right member of her crew.

A white woman with dreadlocks wearing a ceremonial robe smiled at me when I walked in.  “Welcome stranger,” she said.  “The spirits will guide you today, if you’ll let them.”

“Mostly they lead me to whiskey.”  I looked over at a table where a deck of tarot cards was spread out.  “But in this case I’m here for a reading.”

“Of course,” she said.  “I’ll be happy to open the doors of perception for you – although,” she fidgeted, “we’ll have to leave when the  art car I’m crewing heads over to the Man.”

“I don’t think this will take that long.”

She smiled, then frowned.  “Is it okay if I don’t offer you any tea?  We usually offer tea with readings, but …”

“If I wanted to drink tea I’d be at folk music concert in Berkeley.”

She gave me a puzzled look.  Apparently she didn’t get a lot of sarcasm here, which surprised me for a faux-voodoo psychic at Burning Man.

“Want to get started?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.  Smiling and back on track.  “Please sit down.”

We sat at the little wicker table and agreed that I should get a palm reading because it would take less time.  Apparently the spirits wanted to see the Man burn too.

She took my hand in hers and stared at my palm.  She traced a line down the middle of it.  It made me shiver.  “You have a very interesting life line,” she said.  “It intersects with many branches of fate.  But … not love, I’m sorry to say.  I don’t think I’m going to be able to offer you much advice for that.”

I tried to smile.  I failed. “That’s okay.  Actually, what I’m really here for is – I need the spirits’ help on a quest.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Oh really?”

Game time.  “Yeah, I’m trying to find a guy – I hardly know him – but he gave me the most incredible gift earlier this week, he caught me on a really bad trip, and he helped talk me down … spent a lot of time doing it, just really great.  And I’ve been trying to think of ways to pay him back, and I finally got something … well, it’s not for him, really, but he has this DJ friend he really believes in, and I can hook him up with a club promoter I met here … except that now I can’t find him anymore!  We used to see each other at The Pierre Lafitte Ice Company, but he isn’t there anymore, and … God I’m so stupid … I don’t even know where he’s camping!  Which …”  I shook my head.  “That’s so Burning Man, you know?  But it’s almost over now, and I can’t even find him, and I have the perfect gift!  So …” I tried to look sheepish “… I thought I’d get a reading.  I don’t expect you to know, or anything, but I thought maybe you could point me in the right direction.”

“Sure,” she said , “absolutely,” and I could tell she was intrigued, but nervous.  “Tell me about this person.”

“Well, he’s kind of tan, about my height, a little muscular – I’ve usually seen him wearing chaps, and he’s always worn a clown wig every time I’ve seen him …”

… and there it was  The look in her eye that says “Maybe I KNOW!  Maybe I can HELP!”  Paydirt.

“… I don’t know his default name, but his playa name is Crispy Clown …”

Her eyes sparkled.

“… he’s a real great guy, really funny, helpful , into bikes – like I said, he went out of his way to be helpful to me when I was in a very bad place, so … I’m just hoping I can find him, you know?”

The wheels in her head were spinning, trying to figure out how to milk it for maximum dramatic effect.  For a volunteer who just wants to make people happy this is a rush:  this is a story she can tell her friends later, about how she really helped somebody do some good right before the burn.

But what exactly would she say?

“Your lifeline,” she said carefully, “can perhaps reveal this information you seek.  I doubt it will give me an exact camp address, but …”

She stopped, and blinked, and the candles in the room all flickered.  Oh, this was good.

“The spirits wish to aid you in your quest!” she said ecstatically.  She cupped my hand in hers and held it closer to her.  “Papa Legba, lord of the crossroads, smiles upon you:  he says the man you seek …” she turns my hand back over and traces a line around it like it’s the perimeter of Black Rock City.  “Camps here,” she puts her finger down around … what would she think that is?  Somewhere in the 7-9 o’clock range, way back.  “He inhabits one of the RVs that …” she closes her eyes … “the vision is difficult to process …”

“Maybe some tea would help,” I muttered.

She shook her head.  Again the sarcasm as lost.  I shouldn’t have risked it anyway.  “It’s like a wall of RVs at 7:30, near the back … G or E … it’s an all RV camp of tech workers, they have their own stage and kitchen crew …”

Plug-and-play.  That figured.  Once he got the bike he never had to leave camp, and camp was practically a set of walls with no door.

“Two of the RVs have red tops,” she said.  Then suddenly dropped my hand. “And that’s all I can see.”

I gaped.  “That was amazing!”

She took deep breaths.  Acted exhausted.  We were both lying to each other now.  “Thank you … that was a most profound vision.”  She smiled.  “I hope it helps.”

“How can it not?  You’re incredible!”

“Thank you,” she said, beaming.  “What was your name, by the way?”


“I’m Tanya.  “I’m going to remember this for a long time, Augustus.  Of all my readings, I think this was the most profound.  Thank you for being part of my Burn.”

“No, really, thank you.”

“I hope I see you again.”

“Me too.”  I stood up.  I had to get out of here before I suffocated on love and self-regard.

“Can I give you something?” Tanya asked.

I hesitated, then stopped.  “Well … sure, but … I think your art car’s waiting …”

“This’ll only take a second.”  She walked over to a bench.  A large copper box was sitting on the top.  She opened it up, and began rooting through small talismans.

Oh God, was she going to give me a gift to celebrate how meaningful her gift had been?

She examined a small bronze bird on a necklace.  She shook her head.  She examined a wrist band.

I glanced outside.  The sun was almost down.  “Listen, can I …”

“This will be just a second more,” she said.  “I want to find the very right one.”

“Yes, of course you do.”  I wasn’t worried that she’d notice the sarcasm.

“You need a talisman from this encounter,” she said.

I had the scent.  I could rain hellfire down upon my enemy … as soon as I could get out the door.

“This was a very meaningful encounter for me … I want to make sure you have something to remember it by.”

“Yes, but, I will … I’ll have helped Crispy Clown’s friend … as soon as I find him …”

“But that’s something you GIVE,” she said.  “I want you to be given something to remember this encounter, remember how much you coming here meant to me.”

I realized I had tapped a wellspring of sincerity much deeper than anything I was equipped to handle.

“Here,” she said, picking up a small copper necklace with a diamond shaped pendant covered in intricate designs.  “This is a symbol of your journey, and it will bring you good luck whenever you follow your heart.”

She pressed it into my hands.

She looked at me expectantly.

Oh Christ, did I have to give her something now too?

“Listen,” I said, “I’m gonna go.  This only means something if I catch him.”

“Thank you for participating.”

I held my pendant up, smiled, and stepped for the door.

I’d been right.  This was a story she was going to tell for years.   I shouldn’t be so upset by it:  her wish to give me something, to make this experience meaningful, was the reason it worked in the first place.  It really was a gift.

We just didn’t understand each other.  At all.  Honestly, that’s probably how most gifts work.  Even the really important ones.  We give from the heart to people we’ll never really get.

Still, I’d told her the truth:  I wasn’t going to let it go to waste.

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

2 Comments on “Burning Noir 6 – what gifts around comes around

  • MonaLisa says:

    Oh Augustus, I feel you. It seems that by default we love someone the way we want to be loved, without ever understanding what they need to feel loved.

    Looking forward to the next installment – Augustus vs PnP!

    Thanks again Caveat, for continuing to track him down for updates! :)

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  • Liza says:

    With experience of course-comes experimentation-then refinement.

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