Perfect Strangers

I woke up to the sound of a strange man playing the piano in my camp.

I don’t just mean “strange” as in a stranger. He also, with his playafied white hair and his white pajamas, seemed like a pretty strange person too. No one else was around the camp, or they were all still asleep in their tents after what seemed to have been pretty wild nights. There was only me and this strange man playing a piano. Playing it very well.

I got up went through my morning routine, ate breakfast, all without exchanging a word, as he sat there, a white phantom, playing classical music in an empty desert saloon.

He stopped playing and left just before other people began to stir. We shared this experience, just the two of us, but honestly I wonder if he even knew I was there.

The intense heat of the first few days has finally cooled into our normal range of unbearable. The days are still hot, the nights now slightly cool, and no one feels like they are dying just by living. I have been able to spend more time out in the city, walking just a few blocks at a time before sitting down to be given cucumber water by svelt hippies in elaborate outfits who tell me I am a radiant being. Another two blocks and I am invited for endless Bloody Marys and apple slices with people who like to sit and watch the mountains change color all day. Two blocks more, and a semi-naked, primarily queer-identifying camp from L.A. and Australia offers me a cool lavender scented face mask and a personal fan. “This fan,” a woman says, furling and unfurling one dramatically, “once hit Justin Bieber in the face at an L.A. party. Twice.”

There are complete strangers to me in Black Rock City who I feel like I know better than people I went to school with for years.

I attended a memorial for a dear friend: a kind of genius who must have mentored dozens of young doers and artists and activists in his day. We celebrated his accomplishments, his sense of humor – which was dazzling not just for how funny he was but how much he could get away with in polite company – and mourned the fact that by the end he seemed to be working himself to death because he wanted to feel loved, even though … god dammit Tom … we loved you madly the whole time and the only person who didn’t know it was you. That’s the thing about gifts, of which love is the most perfect and problematic: accepting them can be as difficult as giving them. And Tom could only give.

As we sat and told hilarious stories that made us cry, the door to the camp façade opened, and two people in bunny costumes walked in. They looked around. Two more came in. They all walked up to the bar, which no one was behind. We kept on talking, and crying, and remembering our friend, as another three bunnies arrived, and huddled among themselves. Eventually, during a conversation about how Tom tried but failed to change his diet after his heart attack, the bunnies gave each other looks, got up and left.

And not a word about it was spoken. Almost as if we hadn’t known they were there. But we knew. And it was perfect.


Photo by Betty Emirzian

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

5 Comments on “Perfect Strangers

  • Will Chase says:

    Nicely done, sir. Nicely done.

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  • Grandeblu says:

    Reading this was quite a powerful experience,
    Thank you Caveat

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  • Dirk Anderson says:

    Was it Red Bar where the piano was played?

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  • Fati says:

    It was lovely to spend some minutes plying you with bloody marys, good sir.

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  • Radar says:

    Reading this now makes sense to me. Last week it would not. I was a virgin burner this year and the entire event was moving and confusing all at the same time. I wanted to share my experience in writing this as I came with all the intentions of participating, giving and learning as I could. What I found was that many burners who have years of experience may have lost touch with some of those elements. Many camps I wandered into did not acknowledge me, even as I tried to make an effort. Other camps made a connection and made me feel welcome. Noticeably I was greeted more by the women than the men. Being guy, that is okay, but really not what I expected.

    Since this journal entry was about strangers, I will tie it back. I am no longer a stranger to anyone I meet or see at BM, that is what I left with. In a city of people who all dress differently, yet exactly alike, removes the strangeness and creates openness. I just wish that burners who came to just go a little crazy were more out going to the newcomers. Not so focused on themselves or their burn. For those that did greet me, connect to me, and help….it made all the difference and it has changed me. What I saw in art, fire, music and even dance, was fascinating, but it was the people connection that had the greatest impact. For that I am thankful and I know there is still more to learn and experience.

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