On Tuesday morning of Burning Man, a blast from an air horn woke me up. It was surprisingly loud, but this is Burning Man, where loud sounds are de rigeur. I have a sense of humor, and mischief is a long-standing tradition at Burning Man, so I ignored it and started to go back to sleep. About a minute later, the air horn went off again and I ignored it and started to go back to sleep. About the fourth time this happened, I was seriously pissed off and decided to get out of bed and have a violent verbal interaction with whomever was blowing that god damned air horn. But by the time I found my glasses, the air horn had stopped and was nowhere to be found.
On Wednesday morning of Burning Man, a blast from an air horn woke me up. Before I was even fully awake, I snatched up my glasses and ran, completely naked, out of bed, out of the dome, and through our camp into the street. I looked both directions and didn't see anything that looked like an air horn, but then I heard it again, out by the playa on the other side of 10:00, and I took off in that direction. As I came out onto the playa, I saw the air-horn car. It was a motorized, three-wheeled riding vehicle towing a trailer. On the trailer was an air compressor about the size and shape of one of those car-top cargo carriers. A mast stuck up from the front of the trailer and two air horns were attached to the top of it.
I started to walk towards the car, intending to give the driver a piece of my mind, when I noticed a bicyclist ride up and start talking to the driver. I took advantage of the driver's distraction to circle around the back of the trailer and examine the compressor. On the back of the compressor was a start/run switch and a key. Wanting to make a point to the driver, I turned the key, and sure enough, the compressor turned off.
At this point, I expected the driver to notice that the compressor was off. I guessed that he might say something like, "Hey! What are you doing!" and I might say, "Turning off your fucking air horn, you asshole!" Except he didn't notice that the compressor was off. Maybe he was just distracted by the bicyclist. Maybe he was deaf from listening to his own air horn all day. Eventually, he would notice, but would my point be made? Probably not. He would just turn it back on again. And he hadn't even noticed me yet. I might as well have been invisible.
I walked back to the compressor, took out the keys, and dashed back to my camp as fast as I could. There was no more air horn for the rest of the burn. Every morning, we slept until the heat forced us out of the dome.
Later, I thought to myself, "That air-horn driver looked like David Best." My friend said that it probably was just a guy who looked like him. My other friend said that it was totally David Best. So I went back and asked him and he said that he was, in fact, David Best. I shook his hand. "I love your temples," I said, "but I hate your fucking air horn." He explained that he was blowing the air horn because there was a sound camp nearby that he didn't like, and he blew the horn in the morning in response to their music. "You're waking up everybody in a three-block radius," I said. He seemed to think that I would take some solace in knowing that his intent was to target the sound camp. "They took my keys," he said, "but we're going to figure out a way to get the compressor working again and hang the horn from a crane over their camp and blow it." Great.
Anyway, now that I had the keys, I had a little bit of a moral quandry. Should I give them back to him, my point made? I didn't want to actually damage or destroy his equipment because I would consider that to be outside the scope of the prank that I was intending to pull. On the other hand, if I gave the keys back to him, was he going to say, "Aw shucks, you got me. I didn't know my air horn was that annoying. I'll cut it out." I mean, the only apparent purpose of this vehicle was to drive around and blow an air horn. I'm thinking that the driver knows it's annoying, doesn't care, and intends to keep using it. So I decided not to give his keys back, and if he had to pay to re-key the compressor, then that would be his asshole tax for this year. But somebody pointed out to me that the Temple's theme this year was the Temple of Forgiveness, and I couldn't resist the poetry of "forgiving" the Temple's designer himself even though I would rather have said, "fuck off" and kept the keys.
On Saturday, I took a copper-and-brass necklace that I had made to gift and strung the keys on the necklace string. I also took a "Friend of Larry Harvey" card, another gift that I made, and strung it on the necklace. I went over to Temple camp and found David Best. I walked up to him and handed him the gifts with the key visible on top, saying, "I've got some playa gifts for you. I think you'll like them. It's the Temple of Forgiveness this year, and I forgive you for blowing your air horn."
What reaction was I expecting? Best case, he would accept the gifts and have a sense of humor about the whole situation. I mean, the kind of person who goes around blowing an air horn to wake people up in the morning has to have a sense of humor, right? Heck, maybe we'd even be friends! Years from now, people would say, "How'd you guys meet," and I'd say, "Well, I was at Burning Man 2007, and there was this asshole with an air horn..." Worst case, he would tell me to fuck off, but at least he'd be glad to get his key back.
I didn't expect self-righteousness, sanctimony, and lecturing. He stood up, approached me, and said, "Let me tell you something: you don't mess with a man's tools!" He seemed adamant and even angry. His reaction was so unexpected that I didn't know how to respond. "I'm going to go now," I said, "have a nice burn." "You need to forgive yourself," he yelled after me as I went. "I already have," I shouted back, "have a nice burn."
Now, you might ask, "What did you expect? You took the keys to the guy's air compressor!" Here's my thinking: If you're the kind of guy who thinks it's funny to blow an air horn and wake up a three block radius, then you're a damn hypocrite if you get all high-and-mighty when somebody pulls a prank on you in order to disable your air horn. I mean, I don't hold the air horn against him. I don't think he's a bad guy. Burning Man is all about radical self expression, and if David Best wants to express himself with an air horn, he's well within the social contract of our little community. And so am I if I want to express myself by taking his keys away until the end of the burn. Our social contract says that we don't destroy or deface another person's art, and I didn't destroy or deface his vehicle; I just disabled it temporarily.
What about the argument that, "you don't mess with a man's tools." Are tools somehow sacrosanct? Maybe so, but if they are considered to be outside the pranking game, then they need to stay that way. The minute a civilian picks up a weapon on a field of battle, he loses theh protections of a civilian and becomes a combatant. The minute you use your air compressor to prank everybody in a three block radius, it ceases to be a "sacred tool" and is fair game. If you don't want your tools to be pranked, then don't use them to prank others. Makes sense to me. But David Best doesn't see it that way, and I know, because I told him basically that same thing, and I'll tell you how he responded.
On Sunday, after the burn was over, I felt bad about the whole interaction. I didn't feel guilty about taking the keys; I felt completely justified in that choice. I felt bad because I walked away from David when he was angry and yelling at me. I wanted to be able to offer him compassion and give him the opportunity to express his feelings and hopefully resolve them, instead of leaving him with a bunch of unresolved anger and hurt in his heart. I decided to seek him out, but I didn't want to do it without a witness, so I went out to the Temple and found a Ranger, who I'll leave nameless for the time being in case he would rather stay out of this. (Okay, I just let on that it was a male.)
I told the Ranger that I had a conflict with David Best earlier in the week, and I wanted to talk to him to try to resolve it, but I didn't want to do it without a witness. After getting a little information about the situation, the Ranger went off and came back with David. The Ranger stepped to the side and witnessed the interaction.
David was friendly and smiling, which surprised me, given the tone of our last interaction. Before I could say anything, he shook my hand and said, "I think you get it now. You don't mess with a man's tools. I accept your apology." I realized that there had been a miscommunication somewhere, and David had the idea that I had come to apologize to him for taking his keys. I hadn't come to apologize, because I thought that my actions were totally justified, but I was willing to accept his forgiveness nonetheless, and I thanked him for it. I think. I might have been speechless or stuttering while trying to figure out what to do about the miscommunication. He went on to tell a story about how he learned not to mess with another man's tools and concluded with, "... and just like I never forgot that, you'll never forget this." I said, "I walked away from you last night because I could tell that you were angry, and it was burn night, and I didn't want to get into it with you just before the burn, but I wanted to come back and give you a chance to say anything that you felt like you wanted to say, and to give you a chance to really be heard." He indicated that he felt like he'd been heard.
I said, "I have some things that I would like to say, if you'd be willing to listen to me." He said that he was listening. I said, "I understand what you're saying about not messing with a person's tools. A person's tools are their livelihood, and there is a difference between just playing a prank and messing with a person's life. I agree that messing with someone's life is a much bigger deal than just playing a prank. But I think that when you use your tools to play a prank, you lose that protection. It's because you were using the compressor to blow the air horn that I thought it was justified to take the keys (and give them back to you so no permanent damage was done)." When he heard this, he seemed to get angry again. "You didn't come here to apologize," he said, "you came here to justify your actions."
I was pretty shocked by the next thing he said. "What do you contribute to this community," he asked. (That's a direct quote, but the rest is not verbatim, and if anybody who overheard remembers his exact words, I hope they'll contact me.) "When you start contributing to this community, maybe you'll have the right to do what you did. What do you contribute? You think about this and maybe someday you'll understand what I'm talking about!" And he turned around and walked away as I held my silence. I wanted to shout back at him all the things that I contribute to the community, but really, he wasn't asking a question so much as he was making a statement.
David's question, "What do you contribute to this community," really surprised me. Obviously, few of the tens of thousands of people who come to Burning Man contribute as much to the community as David does. Frankly, if we all did contribute as much as he does, we'd have to expand the trash fence. But what does that have to do with me pranking him? Is he saying that those who contribute more should be immune from pranking by those who contribute less? Is he saying that there is a minimum contribution threshold before one can prank? I don't get it. More to the point, I would argue that creating an atmosphere of good-natured, mischevious competition is, in and of itself, contributing to the community. In other words, taking the keys to his art car was one of the things that I contributed to the community. Maybe next time he won't leave them hanging off the back of the darn thing.
But to answer his question directly, here is what I contribute to the community:
- I disabled an art car that was pissing off TONS of people by waking them up early in the morning. An informal survey of people in my camp shows that all of them agree that this is a significant and positive contribution to the event.
- I was an Alpha Ranger (a trainee) this year, and will Ranger future burns as long as the Rangers will have me.
- In 2007, I learned to work brass and copper so that I could make jewelry to give out as gifts. Although I had no previous experience with jewelry-making, I made about forty medallion necklaces (image) and gave them out. I realize that making forty necklaces over the course of a year doesn't sound like very many, but each one took a ridiculous amount of work (mostly due to my low skill level).
- I designed, then printed up 200 "Friend of Larry Harvey" badges and gifted them. People seemed to really enjoy them, and several times, a recipient said, "Oh, I've heard of these!" That suggests to me that the community valued my contribution.
- When I heard that the bike repair camp was not going to be active this year, I brought my bike repair supplies with me to the playa and offered repair services to anybody who needed them. I repaired several peoples' bikes and helped several people assemble their bikes.
- I'm the Ranger Team Lead for the group that is creating the Alchemy event in Georgia. We are creating a brand new event for burners to enjoy. Although Alchemy is not sanctioned by or officially associated with Burning Man, the attendees of Alchemy are largely burners, so I submit that counts as contributing to the community.
- At night, I carried around a box of glow-bracelets and gave them out to anybody who didn't have glow. When I saw un-glowed bikes parked on the playa, I glowed them, to keep them from getting run over.