Burning Noir: The Happiest Secret Stays That Way

Black Rock City 2013 (by Mark Harmon)Augustus St. George is never easy to track down, but fortunately I know all his favorite bartenders.  Playing a lucky hunch, I was able to find him at the Jazz Cafe in Center Camp late the other night.  I found him saying terrible things about Miles Davis to the patrons and staff in an attempt to get kicked out.  He’d only tell me what happened to him after I agreed with him about Fusion Jazz.  This has made my friends at BMIR very upset with me, but I think it was worth it.

See other entries in the Burning Noir series here.

Everyone who knows anything about First Camp knows that it has two levels.

Two levels.  Sure.  And David Best doesn’t lace the temple with Illuminati Symbols.  Uh huh.  Of course not.

Two levels are for chumps.  The Rangers took me to the third level – an underground bunker beneath the playa built out of 100% recycled materials by a special “black ops” squadron of the DPW.  I don’t know what their call sign is, but I’ve seen them at work:  they can do things with rebar and plywood that prove there is no God.

The bunker goes down beneath the Black Rock Subway system and into what I’ve since learned that Burning Man calls its “War Room” – a collection of conference tables, computer monitors, and translucent naked statues representing the eternal feminine.  Together it looks like a cross between the Pentagon and an art history teacher’s sex dungeon.

Big Bear, who’s responsible for connections with law enforcement, and Board member Harley DuBois were there waiting for me.

“You forgot snacks,” I said.  “I had a long drive in, some snacks would be nice.  Gift me some popcorn, would ‘ya?”

Big Bear turned and gave me a stern look.  “This isn’t the time, St. George.”

“No,” I smirked.  “You just had a woman I trusted kidnap me to Burning Man so that I could see your secret underground lair.  This is exactly the time that I want a goddamn fruit roll-up.”

“Augustus,” said Harley, “Melinda did that for us because she loves you.”

“Judas was big on hugs too.  When are you Burners going to realize that people who say they love you are the most likely to stab you in the back?”

They stared at me like I was an art grant application from the Vatican.  “That’s cynical even for you,” said Harley.

“Yeah?  I’ve met hundreds of life-long friends at Burning Man, not one of whom helped me move.  Where’s my damn beef jerky?”

Big Bear took a cereal bar out of his pocket and tossed it to me.

I caught it and ripped it open.  “Peanut butter.  not bad.  So you got me here.  What’s so important that it couldn’t wait a week?”

“We’ve got a problem,” said Big Bear.


Harley took a deep breath.  She obviously didn’t like me much.  But I knew that – she’d made her feelings pretty clear in 2009, after I broke up the ring that was using illegal ivory to build art cars and smuggling them from one international theme campy to the next.  She’d thanked me, but then she’d said the kind of words you can never take back.

“This year, one of our guests on the playa is a virgin Burner, an academic psychologist, Dr. Ryan Richards.”

I snorted.  “You aiming for one more monograph that nobody reads?”

“This is different,” said Harley.  “Dr. Richards claims to have discovered the formula for happiness.”

I admit it, I blinked.  “The … formula? … for happiness?  You mean like get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy breakfast, and have a mistress who’s also a qualified paramedic?  Or ‘formula’ like an algorithm that your phone uses to send you a smiley face when your texts start using sad words?”

“Both,” said Harley.  “And neither.”


She nodded.  “That’s what I thought at first, but Larry had a long talk with him and says the guy’s for real.”

“Huh,” I said.  “Huh.”  Larry doesn’t fool around with this stuff.  “So let’s say for the sake of argument he’s got a formula that combines a mean drink with a sensual foot massage.  What’s your problem?”

Then it hit me.

“Oh no …”

“Yep,” said Big Bear.  “He’s gone.  Vanished.”

My eyes widened.  “And you can’t find him with all …” I gestured around the room.  “This?”

“It turns out that our facial recognition software can’t identify people who haven’t taken a shower after two days on the playa,” Big Bear said sheepishly.  “Also it’s pretty dusty. It’s a bigger problem than we thought.”

“Uh huh.”  I shook my head.  “You big data types.  Always so good at predicting the next purchase, always so bad at everything else.”

“This is important, Augustus,” Harley said.  “We can’t let Dr. Richards and his formula disappear.  Or worse, fall into the wrong hands.”

“Like Coachella?”

“Or Bonnaroo.  Exactly.  We know they’re after him.  And if they get to him first, they’ll merchandize happiness,” she said.  “They’ll merchandize it!  Can you imagine what that means?”

I had to think about that.  “No,” I said.  “No, I can’t.  And I don’t want to.  All right, it’ll cost you double my normal rate, plus travel expenses.  And I want a vehicle pass.”


“Plus an inner circle pass.”

“You bastard!”

“You brought me in, you’re going to pay.”

She sighed. “All right, dammit.  Dammit.”

I smirked.  “Good.  Then I hope you have a dossier on this guy, including pictures.”

Big Bear handed me a folder.  “There’s a picture of him in there with deadlocks and a kilt.  Hope it helps.”

“It will.  Now, put me on an art car doing a tour of the playa art.”

“You’ll need a wrist-band for that,” Harley objected.

“Then slap it on!  I need to get a sense of what’s out there before I can figure out where he might be going.”

I had a hunch that he might be attracted to the giant metallic sculpture of the word “Love” out on the playa, because only an academic could think something like that was art, but I wanted to get the whole lay of the land.

“All right,” Harley said, thoughtfully.  “I guess we’ll have to bump Grover Norquist.”

“Show me the right art,” I said, “and I’ll find your secret to happiness.”

The Merry Ellen Carter, which I understand to be some kind of boat with flame throwers and squid tentacles, should be pulling up any minute.  Meanwhile, have I told you that Miles Davis was a hack?

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) Burningman.com



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