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The Taming of the Burn

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.

I’m tempted to be cynical, but I can’t sustain it. In places like the Infinite Oasis Village, Sanctuary Village and Luminaria camp, professional psychologists gathered for the simple privilege of teaching strangers to feel better about themselves. For free. (No one gives out a business card after a class.) The people of Snuggletown couldn’t build a dome big enough to accommodate all the men who want to learn the mechanics of the female orgasm from a black-haired woman in blue-bangs with a charming resemblance to Lisa Simpson. In the Alternative Energy Zone, where I’ve happily camped for the last two years, a small camp of men used a laser pointer, a 4-foot-high LED timer and a Game Boy to track the iridium flares of satellites crossing into the sunlight. When I stayed up until 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning (sober, even) to celebrate a spot-on prediction — a huge ball of fire expanding for a few seconds in the northern sky — they seemed grateful for my enthusiasm. Another man from San Francisco built a 20-foot-high, three-seat Ferris wheel that rolled across the playa as its riders pedaled from their seats. When I asked why he did it as I climbed off its struts, he had only a few words. “Because,” he said, “I thought people would really like it.”

—Judith Lewis

My Day With Dick

We’re on a mission. My friend Jeffrey Vallance bought an old Montana license plate and noticed that the southwest corner of the state of Montana, as rendered on the plate, is shaped like Nixon’s profile. So now we have to take it all the way to Nixon’s grave, in Yorba Linda, to get it blessed.

Jeffrey knows about these things. He’s the curator of the Traveling Nixon Museum, which has been touring the world since 1991, and author of dozens of Nixon articles and two Nixon books: the soon-to-be-published My Life With Dick and the never-to-be-published (but, curiously, still pre-orderable on Amazon.com) Jeffrey Vallance Presents the Richard Nixon Museum. The Nixon Library Web site lists the unpublished title on its bibliography page, as a source of Nixon info. “They liked it,” says Jeffrey, “because it sounded like it was gonna be really good.” Jeffrey was also the first person to observe, not long after Nixon died in 1994, the greenish mist of Nixon’s ghost hovering above his grave; according to psychic medium Dorothy Maksym, who channeled President Nixon for Martin & Birnes’ The Haunting of the Presidents: A Paranormal History of the U.S. Presidency, Jeffrey is possessed by the spirit of Nixon, and dead Nixon expresses himself through Jeffrey and Jeffrey only.

Good people, Jeffrey is.

If you’re old enough, you may remember a time before the Republican Party held Stalinist gatherings to worship their presidential candidate as the Chosen Representative of the One True Lord and worship their own party as being the One True America, such that anyone who thinks Bush is, for example, Satan’s own miserable little cunt must feel the same way about the United States of America itself. Remember? Probably not. But there really was a time when instead of not standing Bush, most people couldn’t stand Nixon. Oh, every now and again you’d run into a Nixon freak — some dimwitted cash hound, praying for a world where the rich and white walk tall and long so that the ever-huddling masses might still die young in poverty — you’d run into one of these, and you’d say, “Hmm.” You’d wonder what caused the disease that rendered its victims so uncaring for their earthly roommates, and if there was any treatment.

“It was fun to hate Nixon,” Jeffrey says in the car. “It’s not fun to hate Bush.”

As scheming as Nixon was in his day, his schemes weren’t shit compared to those of the current Mofo-in-Chief’s puppet masters. As Jeffrey points out, if Nixon were president today, there wouldn’t be any Watergate scandal, because with the Patriot Act in place, it would all be legal. Nixon would simply contact Agent Smith, identify Ellsberg as “suspicious” and authorize the seizure of his psychiatric records. Agent Smith would arrive at Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and present him with the certified request. If Dr. Fielding did not comply, he would face indefensible jail time of a cruel and unusual length, and Agent Smith would still get what he came for. And One True America would live happily ever after.

We make a left into the Nixon Library & Birthplace parking lot, find a shady spot and head inside. It’s opening day of the White House Replica Exhibition. What a sight: Almost 20 honky people stand indifferently in the air-conditioned gallery, wandering around the centerpiece. Measuring 60 by 20 feet, the highly detailed, one-twelfth-scale model, created by John and Jan Zweifel of the Great State of Florida, has taken over 43 years to build, and has been touring all 50 states since 1975. It’s constructed from the same materials and paint as the original, and contains miniatures of all the paintings, furniture, area rugs, fireplaces and wastebaskets. All the lamps and light fixtures work, and there’s even a bit of real plumbing — the fountain in Jackie Kennedy’s garden kind of dribbles. Muscular anthems of artificial triumph and majesty flow through the PA as we bend over the velvet ropes, trying to watch television. (In some rooms, functioning 2-inch television sets play local broadcast signals.)

Tiny motorized security guards posted in the minibushes move just slightly, back and forth, keeping the peace. The guard outside the Map Room looks like he’s just returned from a six-pack lunch: He slides left and starts to fall, then catches himself at the last second and repeats, evermore. Painstaking accuracy.

But before I can cry, a real security guard reminds us that the place is closing soon, so we head out back, to Nixon’s grave, for the Blessing of the License Plate. Jeffrey places the plate reverently beside the grave, and we stand in silence for a full 81 seconds, until the plate is thoroughly blessed.

Then we retrieve the plate and run off to the gift shop, where, just as the cash register closes for the day, Jeffrey buys The President’s Wastebasket, in miniature, for $4.95. At the security guard’s recommendation, we celebrate our day’s triumphs as Nixon would’ve wanted us to — at the library staff’s favorite Mexican restaurant, the Blue Agave Southwestern Grill, home of the Albequerque [sic] Margarita (“Discover the ultimate margarita!”), the Blue Agave Caddilac [sic] (“An exciting new Caddilac [sic]!”) and free toothpicks.

If only we had only Nixon to kick around.

—Dave Shulman