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Labor of Love

[whitespace] Quenching that burning yearning in San Francisco

By Michelle Goldberg

Ever since I moved to California, Burning Man has been the ominous black cloud over my otherwise dreamy life, the crystallization of almost everything that's wrong with my uptight, urban-provincial self. As the monolithic West Coast bacchanal, Burning Man has become de rigueur. I felt like Molly Ringwald and the prom in Pretty in Pink--people told me that if I didn't go to Burning Man, I'd regret it for the rest of my life. Every September, Burning Man torments me, sapping my psychic energy and driving me to tears.

See, Burning Man is the epitome of most of the things I loathe: heat, camping, drum circles, tripping frat boys and new-agey hippie stuff. Though I've traveled to four continents, I'm still neurotic about showering, unwilling to be seen grungy, naked and unwashed--especially by people I'll have to deal with in my real life at home. Through I'm comfortable in almost any big city, I'm useless in nature. I'm not proud of this--it's sick to have so little connection to the earth, to be so slavishly dependent on urban infrastructure. I considered helicoptering in to Black Rock for the day, or renting an RV with air-conditioning and a shower. Even so, Burning Man seemed like a three- or four-day prison sentence, a painful punishment that I had to endure for my failure to exorcise my essential JAPness.

So when an old friend called and announced that she and her boyfriend would be visiting me over Labor Day, my dilemma seemed to be solved, my mind made up for me. While most of my friends trekked out to the desert, I was blessedly left in the city, determined to prove to myself that there is life besides Burning Man.

I started consoling myself on Saturday over cheap vodka drinks at Sugar, the ecstatic and intimate bimonthly soiree at the Stud. Though Oblivion, the magazine that sponsored Sugar, has folded, its successor, Cream Puff, has kept the club going without missing a beat. I knew I was home when I asked one young guy why he wasn't at Burning Man, and he replied that he'd never heard of it.

Ben Peters and Molly Ingraham, two stylish 23-year-olds lounging by the bar, had heard of Burning Man, but decided to skip it. Why? "Because it's expensive, and from what I hear it's not so much a celebration of art as it is a celebration of drugs," Ingraham said. Peters said he'd thought about going, but, "I just moved into a new place, and I'd rather buy a bureau or some shelves. All my friends who were going to go didn't end up going; in fact, I don't know anyone who went."

Feeling significantly less lonely, I went outside to smoke and was further cheered by Christina Stubbs, Leah Broder and Stacy Melczer. "Burning Man is over," Stubbs said decisively. "Labor Day is about in-city fun."

With that in mind, I headed to the opening of Dollhouse, a new club for sexy baby dykes and their friends at Big Heart City. I got there just in time to see two people hung by meat hooks from the ceiling. As I walked in, a boy with a crucifixion tattooed on his back was suspended by two metal claws through the skin near his shoulder blades, which were attached to a pulley device. Affixed to the other end of the pulley were four hooks piercing a pretty woman's back near her shoulders. The boy had two spikes protruding from his chest, from which he hung sand-filled bags that weighed him down. As he sunk, she went up, and soon they were both swinging several feet off the ground. "They look like angels," gasped one woman.

On Sunday, I headed to Baker Beach, where there was a version of Burning Man akin to the original one more than 10 years ago. An 8-foot-high replica of Larry Harvey's first burnt offering was erected, and 30 or so Burning Man veterans had convened to perform a tamer version of the Black Rock inferno. Some of them were people disenchanted with the commercial direction that the main event has gone in. Others had kids too young to endure the desert. "Thirteen years ago, this is where it happened," said the woman charged with burning the man, Mandy Miller, a curly-haired blonde with a peach feathered boa draped around her shoulders. "As much as I love the desert, I love the beach. I'm closing the circle."

After the crimson sun had sunk below the horizon, and it had grown dark and crisply cold on the beach, a few participants made speeches about their communion with the folks in the desert. "I just want to say that we are in Nevada right now," said one man, as I muttered, "No, we're not, thank God." One of the many tiny children in attendance (most Black Rock veterans as well) screamed, "It's a burning kid! That's too short to be a man!"

Miller lit the man, but he didn't catch. He was more of a smoldering man, his feet turning to black carbon as his body remained unscathed. Because his legs burned so much faster than the rest of him, he swayed and then fell over. Finally, the reclining man's head was lit, sparks zigzagged and pirouetted through the sky, and the popping, lapping sounds of the fire mingled with the lulling ocean. Then, puncturing the hushed moment, a cell phone rang. I love San Francisco!

Years ago, apparently, Harvey started Burning Man as a catharsis after a failed relationship. As the man on Baker Beach devolved into a mere bonfire, I tried to invest him with the massive obsessive angst that I've felt over Burning Man, hoping that the burning boy would free me from worrying about my failure to rough it in Nevada.

And I think it worked, because a few hours later I had my hands in the air at Stompy at VSF, sweating, swaying, grinding and cheering to the (synthetic, urban) house music pouring out of the sound system, then catching up with a couple old friends on the rooftop patio. From there, I jumped in a cab and went to Spundae at 1015. Throngs mobbed the front doors, and inside the air was cracking with holiday abandon. The bone-shaking bass in the main room alternately massaged and battered my brain, leaving little room for neurosis. The lights were entrancing, the crowd delirious, the music nearly orgasmic. Here in the city was a physical rush, a kind of communion. And when I was soaked and exhausted, there were taxis to take me home, to the center of San Francisco, five minutes away.

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From the September 21-October 4, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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