The Taming of the Burn | A Considerable Town | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly
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The Taming of the Burn 

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At Esplanade and 5 o’clock — a prime address by Burning Man standards — a silver-haired, ruddy-faced young man in old-fashioned service-station coveralls beckoned women beautiful and unbeautiful off the playa with a friendly but insistent pitch: “We’re gAsso, your full-service ass station on the playa.”

Inevitably, the women heard him wrong. “Gas station on the playa?” they asked, staring incredulously at the inoperative gas pump in front of the theme camp’s plywood structure.

Smiling, the man repeated himself.

“No. Ass station. We take care of your ass.”

A few yards away, he’d point out gAsso’s prime contraption, the “Chairway to Heaven,” an elevator shaft 30 feet high with a chair rising to sweeping views of Black Rock City day or night. Inside was a “Spank-o-Matic,” a heart-shaped paddle on a stick hooked up to a mechanical lever. And tucked away behind the scenes stood the contraption of which the gAsso man was most proud. “This,” he announced with a flourish not unlike Carol Merrill unveiling a washing machine behind Door Number Two, “is the Orgasmatron.” While cleaning the seat lovingly with Lysol, he invited the women to ride as he caressed their backs with encouragement and breathed gently on their necks. Nothing more than a bicycle seat, a smooth round ball and a paint mixer arranged with imagination, the Orgasmatron worked.

In another era, the Orgasmatron might have been a playa hit, satisfying female libidos and thus saving long-distance couples from the rocky shoals of Black Rock infidelity. In 2004, however, the Orgasmatron’s strange delights remained somewhat of a secret, despite its tenacious barker. “We used to have it out in front on the Esplanade,” the man lamented, “but the sheriff came around a few too many times, so we moved it out of sight. We worried we’d get cited for public sex. You know,” he said, “it’s not like it used to be around here.”

No, it’s certainly not. Citizens of Black Rock City don’t get to vote, so none of the year’s 35,000 participants in 2004 ever had a say in the organizers’ slow drift during the last decade from “radical free expression” and libertarian ideals to a state-run bureaucracy bearing more resemblance to an idyllic, middle-class version of Cuba. Art no longer spreads randomly across the dry lakebed the city occupies in the week before Labor Day, but pops up at carefully spaced intervals, each piece labeled on a map with a number key identifying every creator; structures no longer recklessly combust around the city on the night of the burn but get deposited in strategically located “burn bins” made of filigreed metal and raised a few inches off the desert’s surface. And gone are the days when you could stand outside Bianca’s Smut Shack at midnight and watch a man expertly fellate another while an audience of women — ecstatic at the educational opportunity — cheered him on. Since the giant mechanical sculpture celebrating sodomy disappeared from the front yard of Jiffy Lube’s compound in 2001, the moral laws of Black Rock City have been clear as the northern Nevada night after a dust storm: Burning Man has community standards now, and they do not condone public displays of sex. Not even with a machine.

Many of the rules have to do with the ever-stricter Bureau of Land Management, which extracts another pound of bureaucratic flesh from the corporation known as Burning Man LLC every year it applies for a new land-use permit. And then there’s the Washoe and Pershing County Sheriffs, whose influence can be felt in the marijuana-smoke-free environment that has prevailed here since local law enforcement started ticketing drug offenders six or seven years back. But the Burning Man organization itself has changed, too: Founder Larry Harvey is well into middle age; other longtime organizers have families and responsibilities. Kidsville has tripled in area and numbers over the last two years; explicit porn has gone behind walls, and rebellious individualism — along with the guns and heroin so prevalent in the early ’90s — has been replaced with something ever-so-much more admirable. Call it community spirit, perhaps. And try not to snicker.

It’s possible to argue that this is all a distortion of Burning Man’s original intent, that freedom of expression has been abandoned in favor of high-minded social betterment. It’s also possible to argue that, 19 years after its birth in a small party on San Francisco’s Baker Beach, Burning Man still brings out more of the best in people than it ever did. As the political world outside its boundaries moves further toward punitive solutions and obstinate self-interest, Burning Man has become more a society in which people seem to live just to make each other happy and comfortable, where the greatest honor one can bestow upon another is to accept someone’s offer of a freshly made Sno-Cone (an enterprise that involved hauling up the machine and fetching daily refills of two-dollar block ice from Center Camp). Emphasis has shifted away from the Saturday-night burning of the man — a creature that has shrunk so tiny in recent years that rumors abound of a transgender shift (“She’s got ovaries!” one enthusiastic participant observed) — to the more sobering Sunday-night burning of the Temple, an elaborate wooden structure designed by artist David Best, on which people inscribe the names of lost loved ones and statements of intent for the Pagan New Year. Safer, more family-friendly, environmentally conscious and orderly, Black Rock City has evolved into a lovely place to live.

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