A Letter to the Burning Man Community from a Black Man

Rob Smith, aka Black Rock Smitty, is a filmmaker from New York. He shared this perspective on social media and gave us his permission to repost it here. As always, we ask you to keep it kind and constructive in the comments. We will not tolerate hateful, racist or ignorant posts.

Greetings,

I hope you’re well & safe during these unprecedented times in the world. With the current climate of police violence, race & racism, politics, & covid 19. Questions & actions have been taking place all over the country. I’ve seen posts and threads relating to all topics. But I have refrained from throwing my 2 cents in the pot. I can’t tell you much or more than you already know about covid19, I can give you a fair conversation on politics. When it comes to police violence, race & racism, I could share my experiences from age 14 til now. But today I want to discuss race & racism on playa.

When my friends asked me what’s Burning Man like after my 1st journey home in 2018, I would reply that I can’t exactly explain, it’s just awesome & it’s the ONLY place in the world I’ve ever been where hundreds if not thousands of white people told me ‘ Welcome home, I’m so happy you’re here!!’ Someone had to have slipped me some LSD on the Burner bus in to Black Rock City for this to be real. Don’t get it twisted, I’ve been in the film industry for 25 years. I’ve probably got more White, European, Asian, & Hispanic friends than a lot of Burners have black friends. But the energy, the vibe, the frequency of Black Rock City is unlike any other. I’ve only had 2 Burns so far & I was so looking forward to this year’s Burn. It’s become my happy place, my peace, my sanctuary away from the default world & the prejudices of society, that for me have been going on all my life, & now in these times everyone’s seeing what we’ve lived.

I’ve seen discussions on things that can be done to help the Black community & diversifying Burning Man. With these discussions there are moments, when I’m reading through a thread where I feel like a charity case. The Burner community is large & dominantly white as we all know. So when you have these discussions in an open forum; you’re talking “about us”… as opposed to “to us” and It feels wrong. We might not have large numbers yet at the Burn but we are here. We are present. You can talk to us, we would love it. We welcome it.

Read more on diversity, Radical Inclusion and differences in the global Burning Man community in this long-form series.

When I hear some people talk about Radical Inclusion and the perceived and/or actual lack of diversity and representation, they often make the point that anyone can buy a ticket, so “all are welcome”. This is a relatively passive way to think about one of our 10 Principles. The active way of thinking about it would be “We welcome all.”

We can answer some questions such as “do black people camp?” And just like white people or other ethnicities…some do & some don’t. You can’t tell me every single white person in the world camps. Stop it, that’s nonsense. But “do they like EDM music”, or techno, or house, or anything that isn’t hip-hop (ya’ll call it rap). But again just like white people & other ethnicities…some do & some don’t. And let’s be honest here… anybody that parties & gets fucked up like Burners is gonna dance to whatever the fuck is coming out of the speakers. Shit, some of you probably can’t stand any of it sober & what are a lot of you listening to when you’re not at the Burn… Jay-Z, Biggie, Beyonce, Drake, Kanye? So what’s the difference there? We can get down to damn near every type of music & make it look good. Wait, except for Metal — that shit looks dangerous. Oh, but “can they afford it? Is it too expensive?” I spend roughly around $3K each of the 2 times I’ve attended, coming from NY. But I know people in the hood or ghetto that aren’t drug dealers that spend that kind of money on a belt, sneakers, & a night at the strip club. (I know, I know.) We can be resourceful, focused, & have great resolve when we want to do something or go somewhere. And worst case that’s what low-income tickets are for. Cause if all the white & other non POC are rich or well off, who the fuck is buying all the low-income tickets? Not the black people! Maybe some of us, but not all of us. So what’s the difference there?

Photo courtesy of Rob Smith

There’s no real differences between any of us in any of the above mentioned scenarios except for perceptions & stereotypes. Stop that shit. Don’t put us in a box, we’re human beings just like you. We like adventure, we like art, we like yoga, we like the sun. (I haven’t touched a bottle of sunscreen ever on the playa — top that!! ) We like beer & liquor, we like dope sunrises with omelets, we like yoga & seminars, we like riding our bikes, we like funky, cool, wardrobe & outfits. Come on, some of you have seen my Black Rock Smitty vest! It’s hard, it’s cool. A lot of you thought I was a veteran Burner my 1st year because of the vest. Cause the vest says I belong here, I had it made because I wanted to be here & I knew I belonged in Black Rock City.

Ok, now that’s all out the way. When it comes to Black people & POC, from what I’ve talked about with my people in real life & on social media, a great deal of them have never heard of Burning Man. Working in the film industry, I’ve asked some celebrity POC artists if they’ve been to Burning Man & the reply is, “Nah, what’s that.” And it’s the same question from my everyday friends & family, my social media followers (6k might not be a lot to some of you, but it’s more Black people than you know hmph) when I started posting I’m going to Burning Man on my Instagram. “What’s that?” When I describe it, the replies… “Never heard of it, sounds like some white people shit.” Followed by “You make it sound amazing, I think I wanna go.” So that makes me wonder….if there’s no real advertising about it (at least not in urban circles or communities), the only way we would know about it would be from word of mouth, or someone who attends inviting us. I found it on my own & made it my mission to get here & I’m not rich. I’ve only been 2 times and I have about 10-20 people if not more interested & ready to make the journey home. And that’s just me. I’m sure other POC Burners might have the same responses. If the Burn contains what, around 80,000 people & there’s only an estimated 300 plus POC attending. Some who have found their own way to the playa, some invited by the aforementioned person, & the rest invited by non POC or white people. Remember no known advertising so that leaves 3 possible scenarios.

  1. You’ve tried & your black or POC friends aren’t interested or they’re here.
  2. You don’t have a lot or any Black or POC friends that you would…or wouldn’t invite.
  3. You don’t have any Black friends! If so, I can be your 1st! If you would like or need. But my price is steep!! I don’t do disrespect, passive racism, public humiliation, or servitude! Unless its for 2 women or more on a Wednesday night, on an art car, after my dope ass camps party is over, at sunset. I’m quick witted, sharp tongued, sarcastic as a motherfucker & sometimes utilize racial jokes to break the ice cause some of you can be tense, timid & unsure of how to communicate with another human being of color. A Black man, a Black woman but still human beings. And I can almost guarantee I either am or will be one of the coolest motherfuckers you ever met in your life, period!

I’m doing my part, I’m spreading the word. But don’t worry, I know the Burn isn’t for everybody for various reasons. So I’m a bit selective in who I would bring into the vibe, cause I don’t want my trip home to be fucked up in any capacity. Like the friend someone brought that got too drunk or too high (wait, what’s that matter at the Burn duh) or the friend who tried to fight, or harassed a woman or a man. I know those things have happened. I’ve heard the stories & I’ve seen the scenarios. I wouldn’t bring that to the dope ass camp I’ve been with the last 2 Burns, Ashram Galactica. I’m one of the handful of POC at the camp & the core family has embraced me & shown me nothing but kindness, care, & love since day one. But let me keep it a buck ( 💯). If you’re not up on urban slang that just means I’m about to be really honest. You ready.

As amazing & as wonderful as Burning Man is, Black Rock City is not completely exempt from some of the racial prejudices of the default world. For the most part I’d say the vast majority of my interactions are awesome. But I’ve also had people not acknowledge my greeting them. I’ve seen people look at me whisper & turn away. Overall it doesn’t bother me, the default world prepared me for that a long time ago. And with 80,000 people there, the odds are good that some won’t completely embrace the concept of radical inclusion. And stereotypes….oh boy. My camp is awesome & the Gilded Lily Bar is in my humble opinion… one of the best bars on playa. Shout out to Jamie Mac. I usually enjoy the party there until midnight or a little after, before I head out into the night. But when I’m there you can usually find me right at the entrance greeting people. And for some reason (stereotypes) on occasions people talk to me & then wait for me to grant them admission into the bar. I AM NOT THE BOUNCER OR SECURITY! Some of my camp mates think I should get a rubber stamp that says I’M NOT THE BOUNCER. You’ll find out if we did it next year.

Closing out — sorry for the long read (if you’ve gotten this far) — Radical Inclusion, right..?

Once any of the black Burners bought a ticket to Burning Man…that was Radical Inclusion. Once any of the black Burners rolled thru the gate…that was Radical Inclusion. We are here, we are present, talk to us, engage with us… We are human beings. Pitstop at that camp with a lot of black or POC people. Drink with us, dance with us, laugh with us cause we’re fucking funny. In the default world many of us have to be the ones to break the ice, start the convo, or make you comfortable with our presence. If you feel intimidated or timid about approaching a black person on playa, imagine being black & rolling up to camp with 20 white people outside and saying hi. That should not be the case at Black Rock City. We are here and we are Burners that just happen to be black — radically include us & your friends in the default. And if you don’t have any black or POC friends in the default, get some, it’s time.

Sincerely,

Rob Smith / Black Rock Smitty


Top photo by Greg McMahon. 

71 Comments on “A Letter to the Burning Man Community from a Black Man

  • Markus Fromherz says:

    Awesome! So glad you’re at BM. Next time I’ve got to check out Gilded Lily Bar. I’m looking forward to meeting you!

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    • Smitty says:

      Markus I’ll be there keeping an ear or an eye out for ya

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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    • terri mintz says:

      Hi, Rob! You sound like an amazing human and Burner! I’d be honored to be your friend. I’m with Pink Heart (the camp that gives out cucumber water and vegan ice cream and has the big pink beacon). I’ll look for you next year! And if you come to Pink Heart, expect love and acceptance and water! Ask for me – I’m Terri

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  • Luke McGurrin says:

    Thank you for sharing Black Rock Smitty, you sound like an all around awesome guy and would love to meet you at Next Years Burn! This was actually a big takeaway for me from last years burn. I couldn’t help but notice how many white people there were. Then naturally my next thought was how many people will never even know this experience (which I would compare to heaven on earth) and not only never get to experience a burn, but even worse, experience the opposite of it in their daily lives because in the normal world they don’t get even the most basic of opportunities. I love how you mentioned that so many people said “Welcome home, I’m so happy you’re here!”. I think with us not being able to go to the burn this year, we get to bring that same enthusiam into the world, wherever we all are, we get to look at every human all around us and say “Welcome home, I’m so happy you’re here”. Thanks again for sharing Black Rock Smitty and I’ll be swinging by the Gilded Lily Bar next year to meet you!

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  • Leslie Moyer says:

    Thanks for sharing your story and perspective, Smitty!

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  • Ananda says:

    YES! Just fucking yes, from end to end, thank you Smitty!

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  • cinnabar says:

    So, first-ever comment here for me. I’m a 65-year-old white woman from North Carolina (hey Burning Man can be great for all kinds of us) and I just want to tell everything you said is brilliant. I’ll go so far as to say fucking brilliant. Thanks for writing this.

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  • Elizabeth Dear says:

    Thank you for sharing! This is my first comment and I’ve just recently found out about Burning Man and have never been there… I loved hearing what you have to say. Makes me want to go even more…

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    • Smitty says:

      Liz thanks for the time. If you haven’t been yet then I look forward to seeing you there next year.!! No excuses and don’t cheat yourself out of an amazing experience, come on home.

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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  • Geomom says:

    Amen to all that. We’re camped next to the potties, and one year we started blasting what came to be known as Mariachi in the Morning just for fun – get people up and dancing while they did their morning ritual. It was a mix tape belonging to a person of Mexican/Yaqui descent who has been to the burn since the nineties. He said he never knew how many Mexicans (and Guatamalans, Ecuadorians, etc.) came to the burn until then. We did evening Muslim prayers one year, and suddenly our camp was filled with people from the Middle East with a full range of opinions on Islam. So yes, it’s not all lily white, but I think sometimes people are shy about their own heritage, for good reason. Too many have received negative blowback for being themselves – sometimes in very damaging ways. And definitely racism exists in signaling (you mentioned several versions of this) if nothing else. Glad you are here, busting through the stereotypes, and just … glad you are a fellow burner. We are all going to miss that last week in August on the playa this year.

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  • Cinnamon Brulee says:

    Where is the repost of our flirty convo thread??? )*(

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  • K-Bomb says:

    God I hope I get to meet you on the playa one day Smitty! <3 love you!

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  • Nina says:

    Rob, thank you for that. I’ve read a lot of pieces about racism on the playa, and this one really resonated with me. I’ve not seen anything before (maybe I just didn’t dig deep enough) that spoke to the lack of representation of PoC at burning man that actually came from a burner perspective. You happen to be quite funny, and I really appreciate you using that skill to differentiate between the issues of race vs income. So I run a camp at a regional burn, and while I’m sure you’ll never come to ours (agreed, multiple thousands of $$ per thing), I’d love to chat about how we could be less dickish / more anti-racist at ours. in any case, really, thanks for this.

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    • Smitty says:

      Nina I haven’t been to any regionals yet. But it’s something i’m looking forward to in the future. If I can make it to the Burn i’m sure I can make that happen as well. I’m open for conversation about anything that leads to change.

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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  • Satellite says:

    Thanks for writing this piece, Smitty! Would love to meet you next time. We love to go to Ashram Galactica’s Monday night welcome party! Found it by chance on our wandering our first year, our first night 2010. Wild! Best party on Playa! (I did not know the bar’s name was the Gilded Lily. We have referred to it as the decadence bar with grape vines.) Great to hear your invitation to befriend you! Burners are Burners, and you gotta love that.

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    • Smitty says:

      Satellite
      Great to hear cause that means I’ll definitely meet you next year. I love our Monday night party. For me it’s the best on playa.

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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  • Laura Dane says:

    Thank you for this, Black Rock Smitty. I hope to meet you on playa one day; I’ll keep my eye out for that dope AF vest.

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    • Smitty says:

      Laura
      Then I’ll see you soon as long as you’ve got your eyes out for the best.. I mean vest. Then it’s bound to happen. If not you know where to find me

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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  • George Marinopoulos says:

    Sending you a big dusty hug Smitty!

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  • Sophie Graubner says:

    THX SO MUCH! Dusty hug!

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  • Gee Notes says:

    I’ve worked with Smitty 2 times, maybe 3 (if my memory serves me right, which is no guarantee these days). Those are the only times we’ve crossed paths in person. We keep pretty frequent contact thru social media and sometimes a phone call for the important shit. I have so much respect and love for this dude (I like to believe it’s mutual) and it all stems from those 2, 3 minimal interactions. Tells you how much of a stand up guy he is to make an impression so quickly.

    I’m definitely interested in checking BM out and he better f**king take me with him. So next year, if you see a tall, good looking, muscular Black man standing to his right, look to his left, cuz I’m actually the short bald Puerto Rican guy with the Italian nose and the Pakistani eyebrows.

    That being said, this was a great read. Not that I’m surprised. Smitty has a sharp mind. My man ✊

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  • TerenceTheScribe says:

    Hiya Smitty, thank you for a much needed reminder that even in Black Rock City we still have a long ways to go to truly live up to ‘radical inclusion’.

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  • playamoth says:

    Bigotry manifests itself in Burning Man sad to say. One time at Everywhere Pavilion, there was a mixer with an open bar. I was thirsty from working prepping the place so I checked to see what’s there to drink. The bartendress kept ignoring my presence even if I was already in front of her and she’s even picked up people’s orders from behind me. I can’t believe what was going on. I asked Pokiedot who she was and she told me go tell her you built the structure. I didn’t but we gave her the silent staredown until she felt uncomfortable she left.

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    • Smitty says:

      Playamoth

      It happens, sadly. Yet we have to point it out or make the person uncomfortable if need be with their behavior. Some want change, some don’t. We’ll find out who’s who slowly but surely. We have enough of the community on our side.

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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  • Jennifer says:

    I invited my black friends, most say no to the heat and dust like everyone I invite. A few might come with me next BM from Montana. Now to my mamma mode, Smitty, try to wear sun screen you can still get skin cancer.

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    • Smitty says:

      Jenn
      Some of my friends feel the sam way about the dust, the heat, the Porto’s, ( they bougie lol ) but I have quite a few that are willing to step out of their comfort zones for the experience & some naturally born for it. All or most will be there in due time.

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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  • Bat Thing (Noemi) says:

    Hey, babe!! Come to Blazing Swan in Western Australia. Over the Easter long weekend.

    We’ll welcome you with open arms! <3 <3 <3

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  • Phoenix says:

    This is SO great!! Thanks for expressing this. More diversity is BETTER and this will help. YAY!! See you in the dust!

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  • The Dude says:

    Yo Smitty, looking for you at Mansonian, the Unofficial Museum of BRC in 2021.

    Thinking about you & your screed, though not tedious, & you’re right on. The majority of our white friends say no to BM too. For the same reasons. They lose.

    See you in the dust my friend.

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    • Smitty says:

      The Dude
      Love the name brother. I’ll be looking for you next year so keep the drink cool .!! Hey the ones that say no save us headache of trying to acquire a ticket. Their loss out gain.

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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  • Drew says:

    I can’t speak to how powerful this article is and how proud I am that you wrote it Smitty. It was an absolute blessing and I’m so glad that you were my Ashram mentor last year (even though I was on my third burn and you on your second haha). I love the instant bond and respect we built through our list trip home together and having chats about what the city seemed like through “your” eyes.

    What’s even more incredible and important is that through this post, you just became a mentor for an ENTIRE city/community.

    I can’t wait to spend more nights hanging out at the back of the Gilded Lily with you and welcoming people as they come in.

    Stay safe and can’t wait to see ya in the dust!

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    • Smitty says:

      Drew my guy.!

      Miss you brother. I look forward to our chats and run ins and other camps with beautiful fire dancers.!!
      Last year was a blast and I can only expect it to be more next year. See you soon broski

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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  • Crusty says:

    Smitty, thank you for making me laugh, smile, think, and identify. I love you even though I haven’t met you yet, but next year I’ll keep my eyes peeled. It remains to be seen whether we’ll bring our pizza oven next year–we planned to skip it this year–but if you check in with Kidsville early in the week, they’l know whether we’re serving. Dusty hugs when we can give up on social distancing!

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  • Biscuit says:

    Thank you Smitty for this eye opening article. I’m also a Black Burner from NYC who attending my first burn in 2018 and subsequently in 2019 as well. Your story and mine is remarkably parallel. Stay safe in this crazy world.

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    • Smitty says:

      Biscuit
      What’s going on bro hope all is well. Be safe out here the city is slowly opening back up. Need you safe & healthy for the next burn. Until then i’m around

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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  • Gimpy says:

    Great read. I fucking love you man++++

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  • Spin says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this and for inviting and encouraging more POC to attend. I want all people who would enjoy this crazy place to be a part of it. For me Burning Man is love and unity and inclusion, and it would warm my heart to see more beautiful faces of all colors and ages. I hope I get the chance to meet you in the dust. Much love. <3

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    • Smitty says:

      Spin
      Speak it into existence and I’ll see you next year and you’ll see more color of all varieties soon enough. Nothing but love & dusty hugs.

      Smitty
      @allcitysmitty

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  • KEVIN CLARKE says:

    Please please please come to Pigmalions next year, where I will make you the sickest 15 ingredient bespoke Bloody Mary that will jump start your morning! And sip on it in our living room with all our other beautiful guests, while you wait to have bacon served to you [if you go for that sort of thing.] Price? One hug. Ask for Tapioca. And wear that VEST!

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  • Rick says:

    Rob,

    I remember meeting you last year on top of the giraffe doing a cartwheel statue in deep playa. You were wearing a wide brimmed hat woven from wolverine hair, and I was wearing pants. You gave me an airplane ride and we did 2 rounds of patty cake. We said nothing and nodded simultaneously, then you wheelbarrowed me back to camp. My hands were raw but my soul was full. It was then that I realized I’ve never been to The Burn. I think about it every year. If I find my way there, I will see you at the Guilded Lily Bar. Thank you

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  • Juju says:

    Fantastic. I enjoyed reading this, and put myself in Black Rock Smitty. Soooo… I didn’t think black people were invited. I’m a Latina and didn’t think I was “allowed”. My art would be, my vision would be, just about everything I believed would be, but didn’t think some crazy latina Bronx chic who vibes the same way as a Burner would be. This is that “elephant in the room” thing. Are we invited?

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    • Smitty says:

      Of course we’re invited. It’s a creatives dream place to be. And don’t let the Bronx shit slow you down. I’m from the Bronx, I live in the Bronx. Connect with me and I’ll show you the path and when your ready to go you will. That elephant in the room is smaller than you think.

      Smitty
      @AllCitySmitty

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  • Mike G says:

    Thanks Smitty – You helped me think! Especially about the importance of word of mouth … Good post :-)

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  • Reverend Tequila says:

    Thanks for the words my friend. My touchy-feely comments are on the article by Tatiana Smith (hope you go look).

    My quick word here is I will look for you at The Gilded Lily and you look for me at The Man. I am the really tall, old, white dude with the ponytail working with ManWatch.

    I look forward to getting a hug from Black Rock Smitty! Stay safe out there in the meantime.

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  • Reverend Tequila says:

    Thanks for the words my friend. My touchy-feely comments are on the article by Tatiana Smith (hope you go look).

    My quick word here is I will look for you at The Gilded Lily and you look for me at The Man. I am the really tall, old, white dude with the ponytail working with ManWatch.

    I look forward to getting a hug from Black Rock Smitty! Stay safe out there in the meantime.

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