From Big Easy to Big Apple

An artist in the Bywater turned the markings made on New Orleans homes flooded by Hurricane Katrina into a steel sculpture.

It’s tough to get back into the swing of life in The City after lazily pedaling through sultry, soulful New Orleans last week (although I am looking forward to my The Tribes of Burning Man reading/discussion at Asiento tomorrow night). I wish I had the resources to go on sabbatical and continuously tour all the vibrant cities that I touch on in my book – including Austin, Denver, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Philadelphia – to connect with the myriad urban tribes in the communities that nurture them.

But I was thankful for my embrace by the Big Easy, and I’m excited to be headed to the Big Apple in June for some Tribes-related events, a trip I just confirmed. I’ll be at Cafe Mezcal (86 Orchard St.) for my NYC book launch party and discussion with that city’s monthly regional gathering on June 8 at 8pm, doing a reading at Columbia University Bookstore June 9 at 6 pm, attending Figment that weekend, and being canonized on Sunday the 12th by Rev. Billy and the Church of Life After Shopping.

I’m honored and humbled by the efforts of Billy Talen, Wylie Stecklow, and other NYC burners to bring me there and facilitate a discussion of the issues raised in my book. The response to the dozen or so book events that I’ve held so far has been great, and my readings in New Orleans were no exception, with engaged crowds that were hungry to talk about Burning Man and how it is shaping the country’s counterculture.

There was the couple I met at my Garden District Book Store who showed up in their burner finery and brought me a beautiful purple, hand-embroidered dust mask as a gift. And the woman at my Maple Street Books reading who loves the burner culture and makes her own costumes – and who is actually a sitting judge in New Orleans, giving a new dimension to the question she asked about privacy and photos at Burning Man.

And it isn’t just burners that are injecting this kind of color and life into their communities. I went to New Orleans with my pal Jason Henderson and we stayed in the funky Bywater home of his friend since childhood, Richie Kay, a zookeeper, author, and maker of amazing tallbikes that he pedals through neighborhoods that are still just coming back from Hurricane Katrina. There is a lazy ease and warm amiability to New Orleans that makes it feel almost like being in Black Rock City

Richie has never been to Burning Man, but he knows the burner culture well, from Cyclecide and other bike culture burners in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis down to his roommate, a veteran DPW guy who had lots of good stories about all the figurative bodies buried around Black Rock City. And Richie embodies that DIY builder and communal ethos spirit that Burning Man tends to bring out in people as much or more than anyone I’ve ever met on the playa.

Because it isn’t Burning Man per se that is shaping the “new American counterculture,” but the spirit and spirits that it attracts, awakens, and cultivates. The Man is mostly a rallying point around which to gather, its real value derived from the efforts of the multitudes working, dancing, and communing around it.

As I wrote on page 213 of Tribes as I explored the connection between the counterculture and the mainstream political culture that was in the process of electing Obama in 2008: “Ultimately, it isn’t really about the Man in the Middle; it’s about the community around it and how that community was being shaped by its involvement with Burning Man. And if the community around Obama wants to expand into a comfortable electoral majority – let alone a movement that can transform this troubled country – it was going to have to reach the citizens of Black Rock City and outsiders of all stripes, and convince them of the relevance of what happened [at the Democratic National Convention] in Denver and what’s happening in Washington DC.”

But for now, I’m thrilled to be the Man in the Middle of my book tour, observing the inspiring people all around me.

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