Thursday, January 24, 2013

Burning Man Stories: Wednesday night at French Quarter 2012

The French Quarter was our local hub of awesomeness.  Just two camps down, across a narrow street, it called to us like a siren.  As we were setting up our humble shade structures, French Quarterites were working on the second story of their long apartment block, made of solid wood and metal, and painted up like a hussy.  It looks like a piece of old New Orleans has been magically transported to the playa.  The gifts offered at this haven are many and varied.  On my first day on playa, while setting up camp, the word was going around that they were starting to make coffee, and wanting someone to provide feedback on the strength of their brew.  I was happy to oblige, and soon they came out with some coffee that was strong but not too strong: just right for the playa.   I was going to go back and continue setting up, but they prevailed upon me to hang out and enjoy my drink in their lounge space, to be known as the Cafe Fin Du Monde.  It was rather posh, with wrought iron furniture, comfortable seats with cushions, and a few decorative touches to complete the look of a cafe.  I would end up visiting almost every morning for coffee and drawing caricatures of several barristas and patrons to give as gifts.

Other enterprises at the French Quarter included a bakery, a bathhouse, a botanica, a bar, and upstairs was the bordello, from whose balcony, lovely befrilled ladies would wave their kerchiefs and dance seductively.  And that's just the main structure of the camp.  Around the back, there's also a farmer's market, a brewery, a wine cellar, an elegant cocktail lounge, and a hotel.

The French Quarter Bakery was just that: a bakery, with ovens and all the equipment you'd need to make pastries.  When I lined up for fresh hot cookies, I could see the dedicated volunteers working away back there in the heat of the day.  They also came outside every few hours with trays and distributed the goodies to the cafe and anyone else lingering outside the main complex.  Once it was potato latkes, which they called "latke beignets", because everything served at the French Quarter had to be called a beignet, but I heard they were passing out the latkes around the back, at a different cafe, where they were just calling them latkes.

The gifts at Burning Man are freely given, but not totally gratis.  The generosity of fellow burners is not to be used as a convenience like a drive-thru window, but rather, act as enticements to draw you into and make you part of their community.  At the French Quarter, there was a sign to this effect, saying once you receive your treat or service, don't just take it and run off to the next thing, but stay, mingle, give back what gifts and talents you have to share, even just your presence.  The French Quarter was great at incorporating everyone's gifts and enthusiasm into this New Orleans theme.  The Burning Band, a large marching band including a flaming tuba, plays Dixieland music several times during the week, drawing massive dancing crowds that clogged the streets and slowed traffic to a trickle. 

From left: Phil "Nostrildamus", Gerald "Gerflash", Dave "free radical", Mike. Photo courtesy of Michael Fleischmann.
This particular Wednesday night, my three kinsmen and I were planning on singing our prepared Barbershop Quartet set on an art car that looks like an old cabin complete with outhouse.  Gerald, my dad is part of an international organization of barber-shoppers and rallied us to learn and rehearse a few songs.  He naturally sings the lead part in our quartet.  I sing bass, while my brother Phil, here for his second year, sings baritone, and my uncle Mike, a new burner, sings tenor.  As things often happen at Burning Man, the art car did not show up, so instead we decided to sing as we waited in the line for a bowl of Gumbo.  Our first attempt was a bit rusty and largely ignored.  When we got inside the diner, the acoustics were better, and we sang all three songs again, (Let Me Call You Sweetheart, My Wild Irish Rose, and Sweet Adeline) this time receiving hearty applause from the diners, crew and those in line.  Then we were served steaming bowls of gumbo, and each of us got a shot glass of "Crocodile Tears".  Usually I don't drink, but when I do, I wait for my body to tell me it's time, and this time I went for it.  The name of the drink had not prepared me for the extremely salty taste and powerful kick.  Flushed, I sat down with my folks and tucked in to the gumbo.  Nothing like a fresh-cooked meal when you are camping, and this was indeed heaven.  It was fiery hot, with some kind of peppery sausage in there, and made me sweat and take off my warm beanie, but it felt great after being in the cold night air.  What a satisfying meal that was! 

We came back a few nights later, but were too late in line, and missed the gumbo.  Due to our persistence in hanging around, Phil and I did receive a portion of "pot-scrapin's" a thick hard layer of partially-charred food from the bottom of the pot, that could be scraped off with a spoon.  Parts of it were edible.  While not as good as a bowl of gumbo, it was something. 

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