You think you might be able to do a season with the Department of Public Works as it builds Black Rock City, but in all probability, you can’t.
It might be because your lifestyle or career or family would not allow you to put yourself in the desert for a month or more, but there’s another reason, too: It’s too hard for you.
True, not all DPW jobs require intense physical labor in the most challenging environment, but a lot of them do. The Spires crew builds and installs all the graceful wooden guideposts you see throughout the city. The Fence crew doesn’t stop on Fence day, they’re pounding metal stakes into the desert for weeks, lining Gate Road, the airport, walk-in camping, and on and on. The Transfer crew mucks out the piles of compost from the Commissary waste. The Special Projects team always seems to have a dirty job that no one else either can or wants to do.
And very few jobs in the DPW call for as much endurance, strength and force of will than being on the Shade crew.
Lucky Charms likes to wear a sweatshirt with the word “Shadochist” on it, because it perfectly describes what kind of person you have to be to thrive on the Shade team.
You have to be tough. You have to be able to laugh at the sun. It helps if you’re funny, and maybe a little dirty. Not sleazy/dirty, but funny/dirty, the kind of person who delights in ridiculous and sexy double-entendres, because to keep some semblance of sanity, you have to be able to laugh at how difficult the work can be, and you have to do something to keep your mind occupied, or you will lose it.
Sometimes you lose it anyway.
And underlying everything about the Shade crew, which puts up nearly 200 structures of varying sizes all around the playa, there is one unyielding and crazy-making truth: The people who make the shade never get to be in it. As soon as the shade goes up, it’s time for them to move on.
They move as one organism, from their enclave in the Ghetto (the Shanclave), to the morning meeting, to the supply depot, to the places all around the playa that need shade. Then they go back to the Shanclave to rest and drink and maybe party, but definitely to talk about shade.
These people never seem to be comfortable when the sun isn’t shining on them. “It happens even when we are [back at camp],” Lucky Charms says. “The chairs are all set up in the sun. We’re used to it. It doesn’t feel right to be in the shade.”
The demand for shade never goes down, of course. Once you have it, you are never going to say nah, thanks, we’re good, we don’t need any shade. It’s usually just the opposite – each year, in fact, there’s an increase in the number of shade structures built, as well as the actual square footage of those structures. The numbers go up, they never come down.
Art Art Art has been the head honcho for Shade for a number of years, and his world alternates from spreadsheets to shade cloth and back again. He can cite the facts and figures and square acres of shade installed, but we’ll spare you the deep statistical dive. Suffice to say that it’s Art Art Art’s job to rally and commiserate with his troops, to hold the line on demand when he can, and to make sure what’s on the list to be built gets built.
The process is not all that complicated, but the execution is … well, it’s a bitch: Find the site. Unload the lumber. Line up and attach the boards on the ground. Raise up the supports. Make sure everything is straight and square. Stretch the shade over the top of the supports and nail it in. Attach slats to the underside of the shade to keep it all in place.
That last task might be literally the most back-breaking part of the job. You have to hammer up over your head while you are bending over backwards. This is not fun.
Repeat the whole process about 200 times over the course of three weeks, building shade structures large and small, working every day from the early morning until dinnertime.
Piece of cake.
You think you could do DPW, and maybe you could, but only a very few of you could hang with the Shade crew.
How is it even possible that they are always laughing? Even at 3 in the afternoon, when the heat is baking your brain and your will seems about to crack?
The noise from the impact drivers drives out conversation, and sometimes all thought itself. But when there’s a break in the noise, Yabba Dabba likes to go off on stream-of-consciousness / rap / poetry slam-type riffs in which he talks about almost anything, but familiar topics include (you guessed it) shade, the sun, sex, and maybe the existential nature of existence.
What are the hardest things about the job? I threw out the question to one of the crews the other afternoon, and I asked them, just this once, not to be modest, not to minimize the difficulty. We promised not to make it seem like they were complaining, because they weren’t; and we promised not to make it a contest with other crews about which has the hardest job, because it’s not a contest.
Here’s some of what they said:
“We all have a pretty good flow in the morning, but I feel like this time of day (later afternoon) is the hardest. … You’re using the same muscles over and over again, isolating the same things.
“You’re not just doing one thing; you’re carrying lumber, you’re using a drill, you’re using a hammer, you’re lifting things, you’re stretching things, you’re pushing things, you’re holding things … every single angle and part of your body … there’s no break from anything.”
“I built a 17×30 patio before I got here to kind of get ready,” Citrus said. “Pavers, four inches of gravel underneath it, 70-foot long brick pathway, sand underneath. … I did it in sweatpants and a hoodie in Georgia weather” to get ready for the heat of the desert.
Not all of the challenges are physical. There are mental challenges, as well:
“You have to work together with peoples’ emotions and how they feel in the morning, how they’re coming from the night before, whether they’re hung over, whether they’re sober … Whether you want to talk to the person or not, some people don’t even want to give you the time of day. Some people just want to run their ladder from one side to the other side because you’re not moving fast enough, you know?”
“Sometimes you work really fast, and you’re the LAST one done, and sometimes you work really fast and you’re standing there waiting for everyone else to be done.”
“I chose it because they said it was the hardest crew to be on,” said Shadling, a newcomer this year. “People asked what crew I was on, and I said Shade, and they were like, oooohhhh!”
There are 31 people on the various shade crews, including LoDog who does the surveying, and they drive three big shade installation trucks — Priscilla, Elvis and Lisa Marie. There’s also a “wolf” truck, which is usually manned by a single person, who goes back and fixes what might need fixing, or fetches an impact driver that’s been left behind, or what have you. You’d lose a lot of time if you sent the whole crew and its big truck back to a site.
Xeno, the assistant manager of Shade, is helping a crew line up the boards, and he says simply, “You can’t drink a thank you.” What does that mean? Well, it means that if a shade crew does something you appreciate, and you say thank you, they can’t drink that. They CAN drink beer and whiskey and LaCroix (that’s the real liquid that waters the playa; forget PBR).
Some people get it. Someone left a 24-pack of beer for the crew, but they had crossed out every word on it, and just wrote “Thank you” instead, so in this one case at least, they COULD drink a thank you.
Xeno’s been on DPW since ’02. What keeps him coming back? “It’s the hard work,” he says. “Sure we’ve had people who’ve had conflicts and didn’t want to work together … but by and large, we have a really tight crew.” It’s the kind of bonding that happens when you do something really hard with a group of people who are working as hard as you are.
Like a lot of people, Xeno loses money to be here. He leaves his job as a waiter at a very nice San Francisco restaurant to work in the desert. He also has a long institutional memory. “I like being in a position where I can tell stories from the days of yore, and keep a little bit of that attitude of self reliance.” And for the new people on crew, “I want to provide a point of view about experiences that a lot of us have had.”
So that’s your Shade crew out here in Black Rock City. When you’re thankful to have a place to chill in what is shaping up to be a very hot Burning Man, remember: You can’t drink a thank you.
Here are some more pics: