This stumbling story perhaps starts with a breakup. I was a third of the way between Allentown and Key West when I cracked my journal and found her message. My heart had been breaking and I didn’t know what to do, but she left me with the encouragement to go off on my own for a bit and before long I found myself sitting on a cooler under a palm tree writing love letters to her using my great-grandfather’s portable typewriter and posters I’d pulled off telephone poles because I didn’t have money to buy paper. Key West was filled with flowers back in 1993 and I’d stuff the blossoms into the envelopes I sent to her.
Then the day came when I packed myself into my late grandmother’s Chevy and I sent myself to Portland to be with her.
The Year Zero
Perhaps it really begins with ZoeKat, our CEO – Cat Executive Officer. Later we also had Lucy, our Cat Financial Officer, but in the early days it was me and her and the kitty, shoulder to shoulder, into the future, fists out, backs to the wall. Jami really was on the cutting edge of reproductive rights, working at a local clinic. Wing nuts still think they serve Jesus by shooting doctors, you know. In 1994 North Portland was still a Pacific Northwest version of a slum, a haven for people who failed to be white enough and punk rockers. A place where lawns often went unmowed and beautiful wrecks of 100-year old homes were bought by artists and slowly renovated into beautiful places. Walter W. Cole, aka Darcelle, of well-earned Drag Queen fame had an amazing place just up the street. Read it and weep hipsters, our neighbor bought his beautiful victorian for $14,000. Our place came with some pedigree, we had reasonable evidence that the obscure indie band Pond had at least darked our towels. Our goofy friends across the street had a garage sale where they attempted to sell off a Budweiser can they claimed was soiled by Kurt Cobain himself, and a perfectly plausible story really.
Hello, My Name is Bigfoot
I’d get up in the morning and drive off to my minimum wage temp job in the tech support salt mines of Beaverton. There was a raccoon family that crossed the street at the same time every morning. More distressing was what’s-his-face and his dog. About the time when we’d moved from the one bedroom apartment across the street to Marsha’s comparatively palatial two bedroom semi-restored victorian he’d been dumped on the street by his sister. He mostly lived out of his car, but we saw him on her porch most of the time. The times we watched them try to feed their cat with baked beans and saltines. This is the North Portland you probably missed out on, like the dead teenage son of another neighbor. Gunned down in Irving Park under unknown circumstances.
“Gidget?! Shuddup!!” Yeah, little 20-something us repeated his reproachment to his fuzzy little dog over and over again to each other because there was humor in the sadness. I still do it. Oh Gidget, where are you now? After his sister moved out, we’d still see him living out of his car, moving around the neighborhood.
After the breakup I discovered that all our friends had been hers and I was left with the kind of loneliness I’d only read about in divorced men. And so I packed up and headed out to Burning Man. There was a forest fire that forced traffic to go the long way around south of Kalamath Falls. I spent the night sleeping on a picnic table in some isolated park. I’d never driven to Nevada before. By the time I was passing Pyramid Lake I was starting to think the whole Burning Man story was an elaborate hoax. But then, I was parked on the side of the road taking a photo when a small Japanese car went by with WA state plates, two women with pixie cuts and mountain bikes. Maybe this Burning Man thing was real after all.
In 1996 the head count was 4,000 or so. By Empire and Gerlach one finally saw the evidence of the art community washing up on the shores of the gas stations and bars. The entrance to the playa, once you found it, $40 got you in and a compass heading. “Go that way and turn right after eight miles” I was told. Alkaline in every direction, a destination over the horizon. I was on my way.
I’m such a nerd, I’m just no good at this stuff. Feeling comfortable with party people. Always the awkward one, that’s me. The tire tracks and footprints in the playa dust of the Black Rock of 1996 constantly resolved themselves into pentagrams, gambling dice, smack and terrible visions of cheap Las Vegas vice in the dark of the night. Eventually I stayed up to dawn chatting with a friendly campmate – really all the BS about making friends at Burning Man turns out to be completely true. Back before Burning Man became mostly a rave, we had a rave ghetto, two miles away from the main camp so people who weren’t hopped up on goofballs could get some sleep. I’d pedaled out there, peeped the place out and was pedaling back across the vast yawning expanse of the desert with the stars exploding across the sky when I came across the tent, halfway between, like some kind of lost Tusken Raider hideout. Here’s the thing about Burning Man, just walk in and say “Hi”. Sure, I’ll try some mushrooms. Let’s go for a ride.
Here’s the Thing About San Francisco, And Your Butt
You are not extreme enough. Don’t get me wrong, I have had an amazing amount of fun that was created by the people thrown off the merry-go-round of the Summer of Love, but still. So much of what I’ve seen is people trying to hurt themselves while saying they are having fun. You don’t have to be on cocaine, acid, ecstasy and speed at the same to claim you’re having fun, and perhaps that’s a bit of difference between the Portland crew and some of the individuals one met from the Bay Area. Sure, we’d get drunk and shout at each other’s art cars with bullhorns, but we’re free from the chip on the shoulder placed by the Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. Or maybe we just don’t know how to party? It’s hard to talk about the Burning Man and Cacophony experience of that era without broaching the topic of not-so-legal substances.