This is post is part of a series written by members of the Operations teams that run the public infrastructure of Black Rock City. Check out the rest of the series!
Since 1995, every Burner — old school and new breed alike — has passed through the Café at some point.
To some, it’s their touchstone for the entire event, while others just stagger in for their morning caffeine fix. It is your meeting spot, your acculturation hub and your quick respite from the sun.
To me, it is where I spend most of my time on playa — where I work and live. I am the “new kid” on the Café crew. Although I have been on playa since 2009, and Rangering since 2011, I only signed on as the Assistant to the Manager of the Center Camp Café in 2013.
I have been very fortunate to learn from those who have been at it a while. I had a lot to learn. And, yeah, all that shade doesn’t suck.
And what a shade it is! The Oculus crew, one of the many teams within DPW, is responsible for that shade. The crew of carpenters, riggers and helpers arrive on playa long before the baristas to make sure we all have that oasis ready when we need it the most.
And the first member of Oculus to show up is Monkey Boy. Monkey Boy is a long-time volunteer who has more knowledge in his left pinkie about building in the desert than most of us will ever know.
He arrives on playa three weeks before the gate opens, getting right to work surveying the area and either fixing something the harsh conditions have worn out or creating something new and improved.
Most of us take the bike racks for granted, but we would be in a mess without them — you can thank Monkey Boy for those. He built the prototype and four subsequent iterations before settling on the ones you see circling the Café now.
Can you imagine the Café without bike racks? Oh right, just go to a sound camp at 2:00 and Esplanade on any given night to see the tangle of spokes and kickstands.
Monkey Boy is up at dawn to prep the yard and get the coffee brewing for the rest of the crew. He rarely stops moving and doesn’t talk much while he is hard at work. But if you can strike up a conversation with him when the work day is done, you will hear some fun stories once he gets a well-earned IPA in his hand.
Once the bones of the structure are in place and are secure, the Café Set Up crew moves in. Their job is to get all the furniture, carpeting, decor and art supports nailed down and hung up.
Rolling with Rusty
It takes a crew of about 65 people to get this all rocking and rolling, and one of the guys doing it longer than anyone else is Rusty.
Rusty landed on playa for the first time in 1995. His default-world job is as a set dresser in L.A. for TV and film production, so it made the Café a natural fit for him.
He does everything from carpentry and painting to humping carpet. He is proud to have introduced “wheels” to the Set Up team. Prior to Rusty’s brainchild of custom-made rolling carts, the Set Up crew had to muscle EVERYTHING by hand.
If you’ve ever had to transport enormous “logs” of playa-covered carpeting from one side of the Café to the other, you understand the importance of his inventiveness.
Rusty, now a 20-year Burner, is a jack-of-all-trades and serves as the unofficial/official welcome wagon to the denizens of Café Village, the Café’s crew camp.
Setting up at the entrance to the Village, he welcomes the crew to playa with plentiful shade and chairs for visitors. His regulars know to bring vodka to the playa if they are so inclined.
He’s also a prankster who’s into stage make-up — if you happen to see a length of rebar poking through his hand, don’t call a Ranger just yet…
Now the Café is open, and the coffee is ready! Baristas, ring leaders and runners, oh my! Hundreds of volunteers sign up every year to serve you, and someone needs to wrangle that! We are lucky to have The Good Witch a.k.a. Witchy on our team since 2003.
She showed up to her first Burning Man experience when her aunt cajoled her into attending the raising of the Man at Fort Mason in 1989. She wasn’t quite sure it was for her.
She was 20 years old and a self-described “snotty, basic girl”. She went anyway and managed to enjoy it, but it didn’t quite stick… yet.
Fast-forward a dozen years. She had finished art school and was dating a guy who invited her to join him. She thought: “Sleep in a tent with a gorgeous man for a week? Yes, please.”
After she announced to her warehouse-loft mates that she was going, bits and pieces of gear started showing up outside her door — a headlamp here, a sleeping bag there. She managed to get most of what she needed and experience gifting before ever stepping foot on the playa. The playa still has her heart, and she hasn’t missed a year since.
She got involved in the Café when one of the Coffee Shop leads needed a day off. Witchy stepped up. She asked, “Hey, can I help?” The manager responded, “I don’t know. Can you help?” “I can check in volunteers,” she offered. “Great, do that,” he responded.
With a willingness to lend a hand in this great “do-ocracy” of ours, she pulled it off with no training and today is the People Manager for the Center Camp Café Coffee Shop.
She has brought it into the 21st century — no more scraps of paper with a few names on it and high hopes of volunteers actually showing up. Volunteers can now schedule shifts long before the gate opens from the comfort of their default home.
She has kept some of the “old school” intact with the walk-up volunteer booth for those Burners that want to keep their volunteering spontaneous.
Look at Us Now
The Café has grown from stacked hay bales for seats (we know better now) with one lone espresso machine to a huge shade structure with six espresso machines and three coffee brewers.
We have grown and morphed over the years along with the population of our favorite city in the world. There is one thing, however, that has never changed about the Café — our culture of radical inclusion is nurtured year after year.
If you want to learn from scratch about what it means to work on playa, Center Camp Café is a great place to start. Trust me, I know.
(Top photo by Brad Templeton)