“Ladies and gentlemen, put down your glow sticks and prepare to be dazzled by the light of adventure and discovery!” The carnival Barker calls out from behind the counter set into a wall at the Midway. “For tonight and tonight only you have the chance to experience not just the greatest game in the Midway but perhaps the most extraordinary art experience ever to come to Burning Man in all its long history! I refer, of course,” he points to the sign above his booth “to: Knock Out!”
His tone darkens. “But beware, for while it is an experience of joy and whimsy never to be exceeded in a generation, it also has the terrifying potential to break even the hardiest man’s spirit! Why, I’ve seen grown men cry, marines bleed from their ears, and boxers fall to their knees from the incredible pressure that comes not from failing, but from winning: KNOCK OUT! But step right up one and all if you dare …”
A small line forms. As the game goes on … it’s mostly patter … the crowd grows bigger.
There are many ways Burners can participate in the Midway. The Regionals were invited to create displays and experiences; there was an open call for ideas; there are two stages with performances going on all week (I took advantage of that one). You can harass innocent, well-meaning, Burners as they try to make it through the maze (okay, that one too). And then … then … there is “The Wooden Nickel Carnival.”
That’s my favorite.
Officially here’s how The Wooden Nickel Carnival works: you pass a flat wooden cut-out of a clown saying “You must be this tall to play” – and demonstrating how tall with his extended middle finger. All the games – like Knock Out, like ring tosses, hat tosses, “Partisan Darts” in which you throw darts at political logos, and so on, are set into a line as booths. To play any and all of them, you need to get a wooden nickel which you can wear as a necklace. To get the necklace, you need to give the woman behind the counter a gift – a song, a story, a joke, something out of your pocket. Once she’s got that, she gives you the wooden nickel necklace. You show that necklace to the people behind the counters at the games, and you get to play. If you play well, you win a prize. Seems simple. It is.
But … but … there’s one more thing. If you see an empty game booth, any Burner – at all – can go behind it, set it up, and run it. And make up whatever rules you want, and create whatever experience you can … if people will stand in line for it.
That’s what the Barker in “Knock Out” is doing. The way this is supposed to work is that people come up, show him their wooden nickels, and then play a game in which they throw beanbags at wooden clown faces and try to knock out their flimsy teeth. If they can knock out enough teeth, they get a little decorative gee-gaw that is waiting in a box behind the counter.
A man steps up and shows his wooden nickel. “All right,” he says. “My turn to play.”
The volunteer Barker that nobody asked for tilts his head. “You think so?”
The man nods. “I’m next in line.”
“Well, you don’t have to go bragging about it! I mean, you can still be polite, can’t you? Is this your game?”
The man looks confused. “No …”
“So don’t you ASK when you want to use someone else’s things? Don’t you?”
The man looks at his friends. “Okay, I can see how that would be a little rude …”
“A LITTLE? Think about how I feel! You just coming in here and act like you own the place just because you got here before the people behind you … did you ever consider their feelings?”
“Maybe we can start over?” the man asks. He seems to think he shouldn’t be taking this abuse, but, a bunch of people have said this was the best game running tonight – in fact, some of the people in the other booths have been saying “that’s the one you want.” Were they setting him up? He has no idea.
Eventually they reach an accord: the man asks nicely if he can play the game, and the Barker acknowledges that the “western hegemonic concept of a line” may have some legitimacy – within limits.
“Now,” the Barker says, “I see you have a wooden nickle.”
The man nods and holds it up to be seen.
“Well, I have good news and bad news,” the Barker says. “The bad news: I don’t accept those here. The good news! I am open to bribes of almost any kind. Whataya got?”
The man’s friends laugh, but he gives the Barker a look. “Oh, so we’re back to barter now, are we?”
The Barker shakes his head, looking horrified. “Oh no no no, this isn’t barter or gifting! This is extortion! This isn’t one of the 10 Principles, it’s one of the 10 Felonies!”
That also gets a laugh. He’s been doing this for hours now, and not one person has walked away. Maybe it’s because his patter is too good, maybe it’s because most people don’t mind giving something up for what seems like a fun experience, or maybe it’s because rumors have spread that he isn’t giving out the usual prizes: that in fact he’s brought his personal art project with him, that it’s particularly interesting and different, and that everybody who plays – every single one of them – has managed to leave with a piece of it.
Whatever the reason, the man begins to negotiate. Over the last few hours the Barker has gotten chocolate, glowsticks, glow-wire, flavored toothpicks, dreamcatchers, cigars, cigarettes, and scarves. He’s gotten flashed and made out with. He’s gotten different flavors of whiskey from a variety of flasks.
For the most part, he doesn’t care (although Beacon, he’ll think of you always): he’s just trying to raise the stakes. The more people commit, the better the experience will be. He figures since he’s giving his own art away at the end, and tilting the results so that everybody wins, it still counts as gifting. Although, he admits, there is a gray area here.
Once he’s accepted the bribe, he takes three bean bags off the counter. “Now you see before you that have one … two … three …” he begins to juggle them “… of the finest beanbags ever made on this earth. They were created by Himalayan nuns for use by the military, but we managed to procure a few from a shadowy underworld kingpin named ‘The Bishop,” because we care. Just use them with caution, as they are honed to a deadly balance and any mis-throw could kill a man.”
They get the three throws to knock as many clown teeth out as they can. Is this actually the way the game should be played? He has no idea. How many should they knock out to win? He doesn’t know. He wings it every time.
When somebody self-evidently doesn’t win, he offers them another bean bag in exchange for another bribe. If they swear they don’t have anything else, he starts calling out to their friends, and then to random strangers, to come help them in their moment of need. Eventually, something is arranged, every time. Eventually, they get the extra throws they need to win.
The one exception is the woman who gave him the green tea flavored toothpick – an item that she was deeply attached to, for reasons he did not understand. She took three throws and didn’t knock down a single tooth. The only person to do that all night. They were spectacular misses.
She was considering what else she might possibly have to give him – another toothpick seemed out of the question, she only had two left – when the man with her said “Look, she deserves a win just for the high value of the irony here: this is a game about teeth, she gave you a toothpick as a bribe, and she’s the only person not to even knock down a single tooth. Come on: that’s special.”
Suddenly the three of them were convulsed with laughter. Was it really that funny? In that moment, in was. It took them minutes to recover, and finally the Barker – taking a deep breath – agreed. Yes, just this once – this one time only – he will accept this as a special reason to win. He congratulates them, extols the watching crowd to clap, and pulls out the art project.
Gradually his patter, made up on the spot and perfected through repetition, gets familiar to the people waiting in line, many of whom are doing this because they’ve seen the prize, the gift he brought to the playa, and they want it too. The last person he plays the game with before leaving the booth the way he found it and heading out into the cold and dusty night, can finish most of his lines before he does.
“The beanbags,” she says, “made by Himalayan nuns.”
He grins. “Do you want to do this when I leave?” he asks. It’s a serious offer, but she doesn’t get it. “Awwww,” she says. “Why do you have to leave?”
He shakes his head. He’s actually exhausted. He asks her about her burn. She’s a virgin named Alley, and she says she’s having the time of her life, that this is amazing, that this is an experience that is changing things for her in a big way. He’s heard that from a lot of virgin burners this year.
“Just remember, though,” he tells her, “that Burning Man has sold out and is no longer a transformative experience.”
It’s supposed to be sarcastic, but the joke doesn’t land and she gives him a puzzled look. She’s not part of that conversation – it seems obvious to her that OF COURSE this is a life changing event. It’s happening to her right now.
He decides not to bother trying to explain the joke. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s play.”