By August 31st, 2001 I had been camped in Black Rock City (née Black Rock Desert) long enough to have developed several daily habits. It was the fifth day of the Burning Man festival and while I won’t say that I was hitting my stride I was at least settling into a bit of routine amidst the blissful chaos of a 28,000 strong collective of the arty and the absurd.
My day would begin shortly after the sun rose and started beating down in earnest onto my little two-man pup tent. Within minutes the temperature inside my little fabric den would double, then triple…no matter how spent my body was I would be forced to get up and out of the tent before the mercury started getting seriously exponential. After a quick trek to the nearby porta-potties I would cozy up to my cooler which would be full of icy-cold water left over from yesterday’s ice. After brushing my teeth I would empty the icy cooler-water onto my dirty, dusty feet, a shocking and very effective wakeup maneuver that would rival even the strongest espresso, plus I could experience the brief joy of having a pair clean, shiny feet at the end of my legs.
My gleaning feet would last only moments though, for my next daily chore would be to march down to Center Cafe to buy a couple of morning coffees and my daily bag of ice – the only two products that were for sale anywhere on the festival grounds. The coffee line was usually pretty reasonable but the ice line was always long. So long in fact that I would regularly buy two bags and sell one to whoever was last in line (at cost, of course), a standard trick of benevolence that I regularly employ in such situations.
Back to camp I would then go, generally with my head down and blinders on so as to not get distracted by ten thousand impossibly unique fragments of irresistible fun and creativity – which is what Burning Man is. I don’t know if you recall an old Sesame Street animated segment where a kid rides his bike past a series of crazy, unimaginable bits of strangeness until he’s lost, at which point a weird man with a yoyo tells the kid to simply go back past all the things he has seen in reverse order*, which he does (though even as a young child I could never understand why the animators chose to skip a couple of things on the way back and even placed two of them in the wrong order)?
Anyway, trying to go anywhere at Burning Man was like that: just an innocent guy trying to get from A to B whilst the oddest, most engaging bits of wonder were constantly vying for his attention from all sides.
Anyway, back at my camp I would dump the ice into my cooler, make something to eat and then start my shift at the Psychiatric Help 5¢ booth.
One of the only things I knew about Burning Man before I arrived was that everyone attending was expected to “participate”. We were not to be passive observers; we were all required to add to the wack. I don’t know how I settled upon my idea to set up a Peanut’s-style Psychiatric Help booth but I do know where I got the idea from. I had seen a guy with one set up in the lot at a Grateful Dead concert in Vermont several years earlier and I thought it was hilarious, so I decided to copy it.
So somewhere along my long and epic drive through America I had drawn a little diagram in my notebook and when I was in New Mexico (I believe it was) I stopped into a Home Depot and bought the wood, nails, paint, and brushes. As I was looking to buy a handsaw I noticed that they would cut your wood to custom lengths right there in the store for free and I took full advantage, scratching my head and consulting my little drawing whilst feeding measurements on-the-fly to the helpful staff member.
I loaded all the wood into the folded-down backseat of my Honda Accord and that night at my campsite in a state park I painted all the pieces, balancing bright yellow boards up against the picnic table and the barbecue pit…I’m sure it was quite a sight (site).
When I arrived at Burning Man a few days later I found myself camping with a group of seven Canadians who were mostly first-timers like me and they had not brought anything with which to “participate” so they piggy-backed onto my creation which was great (well, okay, they had brought a trailer full of equipment to hold a street hockey tournament – more “sand hockey” I guess – but once I got my booth set up they didn’t even bother to open their trailer). I was happily surprised that all my measurements and rough planning had been bang-on; the thing went together easier than Ikea and soon I had a big, beautiful yellow Psychiatric Help 5¢ booth complete with a removable In and Out sign, indicating if the “doctor” (me) was working or not.
When I first sat down at my happy little booth I had no idea there would be a lineup for services, but there usually was. I expected to provide a little background comic relief, just a funny bit of wallpaper for people to snicker at as they walked by. Well, it turns out there is an awful lot of strife and drama involved in spending eight days in the desert at an ultra-freedom nudist-centric art/life/wackiness gathering – people were clamouring for an ear to hear about it and I heard it all. They would just sit down in front of me, hand me a nickel (or more likely some odd trinket, as BM is intended to work solely as a cashless gift-economy) and proceed to pour out the most intimate details of their life to a completely unqualified stranger (me), often bursting into tears. It was insane. Several people would start their session by asking if I was indeed a licensed psychiatrist (a question I had never anticipated) and when I would say, “No, I’m just a guy sitting behind some plywood,” they would just shrug and start pouring out their troubles. About half the people needed help with how to deal with other people in their Camp. I heard lots of partner-problems and even did some couples counselling. A gay couple complained that one of them was unwilling to experiment while the other wanted to try everything under the sun (quite literally: outdoors and in the desert). A guy who made his living writing and performing rants in comedy clubs wondered if he should walk away from his relative success to focus on his real dream of being a horror writer. A girl complained that she couldn’t orgasm via oral stimulation and did I have any suggestions? while her boyfriend sat there shrugging at me. One lady told me that she and her husband were recovering junkies that had given up their daughter and the only way they could get her back was to return to Los Angeles but she was sure that if they moved back to LA they would both end up back on heroin. You know, stuff like that. It got really, really heavy at times.
That said, a good chunk of people would line up just to sit down and become part of the joke, which was great. One time a guy named Dave sat down and we started a really funny back-and-forth that had us cracking up everyone waiting in line. Turned out Dave was an amateur comedian and he returned later in the day to ask if I wanted to join him for a two-hour slot hosting a show on one of the temporary radio stations that broadcast to and from Black Rock City. “Sure!” I replied.
His nickname was Psycho and mine was (and remains) Velvet, so we called our two-hour show the Psycho Velvet Hour. We spun some fun tunes (I remember playing Kevin Breit, nero, and Bob Wiseman) and half-way through I decided to start a radio-telethon which soon had a lineup outside the pop-up studio door around the block, as people raced to join us on air. The statute of limitations is too long to allow for any more details at this time, but it was epic, hilarious, and the parts I remember were unforgettable**.
Which pretty much sums up the whole week.
*It has good music too. Bless those early-’70’s Sesame Street vignettes for indoctrinating my soul with such great music and wacky ideas at an impressionable age.
**Ask me about it the next time I’m on my deathbed. No cameras or recorders allowed.