Respecting the badge

Zecon_Toll_BoothA sweltering 4 p.m. at 8:15 and A.  I’m sitting in a stranger’s camp recovering from the heat – they have been kind enough to mist me and offer water.  Across the street, I see something funny.

A young man and woman – in their early 20s if they were a day – have opened up a toll plaza at the side of the road.  They have a surprisingly realistic toll booth, including an arm that rises and lowers mechanically, that the young woman is manning, while the young man is out in the street in a cap and uniform demanding that bicyclists and pedestrians going one way stop and pay the toll.

It’s a classic bit, and well executed.  But, I think, they could use a couple of pro-tips.  The first one is that if you’re going to pull this off you really have to commandeer a part of the road.  Having their toll booth off to the side makes it too easy to ignore – and you really should have more than one person in the middle of the street trying to stop traffic.  I don’t mean to sound preachy on this, but trust me, it makes all the difference.

The second tip I offer to him as I step out of the shade and into the line to pay the toll:  you need to give people a reason to stop beyond just the fact that a toll exists.  Believe it or not it really makes a difference to some people.  “Come on you guys,” I shout at some bicyclists ignoring the bit.  “The toll supports the roads!  If you want roads at Burning Man, you’ve got to pay the toll!  Come on, how else can they maintain the roads?”

He gives me a look and picks it up immediately, adding it to his patter.  “Toll for road maintenance!” he calls out.  “Traffic going this way needs to pay the toll so that Burning Man can have roads next year!”

The kid’s good, I think.  Got a promising future.  

Standing in line, I see what the “toll” is.  You have to display a talent.  The young woman behind the booth is great at coaxing the people who have stopped into dancing, or singing, or doing a flip.  This is a great bit, and I start thinking about what I’ll do when my turn comes up.

“Road toll!” the young man shouts.  “All traffic going in this direction has to stop!  Don’t you want to support the roads in Black Rock City?”

Then a cop car … going this direction … pulls up and stops right next to him.  The officer rolls downy the window and leans out of it.

“Crap!” I think.  What can I do to help?  Take down his ID number?  Go interrupt on the kid’s behalf?  No, that’s stupid.  That’s escalating.  Trying to intervene when I have no standing is dumb.  All my pretensions to being a senior prankster with pro-tips are out the window.  The kid’s on his own.

I can’t hear the conversation very well, but I can tell the young man’s trying to explain the bit to the officer.  I hear “toll road” “stop and …” “talent.  Sing a song.  Tell a joke.”

The cop’s talking to him now, and I can’t hear a word.  It turns into a conversation.  Is it getting heated?  I’m nor sure.  It’s all I can do not to run down there and ask for a recap.  How’s this going to go?

A moment later, the cop pulls away.

I break out of the line.  I run over to the kid.  “I’m sorry,” I say, “but I have to ask.  WHAT HAPPENED THERE?  What did he say?”

“Oh,” the kid says, like it’s nothing.  “It turns out he isn’t very talented, but I let him through anyway.”

Caveat is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. Contact him at Caveat (at)

***NOTE:  I failed to adequately record the participants’ names.  If the toll collectors involved read this, please send me an email at the address above, and briefly describe what I did when it was my turn to pay the toll (so I’ll know it’s really you), so that I can get your names (playa or otherwise) and credit you properly for your fine work.*** – 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

One comment on “Respecting the badge

  • Jones says:

    And there was no way the cop wasn’t observing him for levels of intoxication. Cops are your friends out there, folks. Invite them into your RVs and serve them tea. Ask them if they’d like to have a look around.

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