Tribes tour burrows into the Big Apple

Being canonized by Rev. Billy capped a beautifully blurry week in New York City.

Thanks to the help of burners from at least five different tribes that I’ve covered or camped with at Burning Man, my New York City book tour was a successful adventure in art and community, from the Figment festival on scenic Governors Island to exotic eating and drinking in the East Village and Queens to a great underground party at an old Catholic school in Brooklyn to getting canonized by Rev. Billy and his 25-person choir into the Church of Earthalujah along with SF-based performance artist Guillermo Gómez-Peña.

The June 7-13 trip was in support of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, my book chronicling how an event born in San Francisco has spawned a vast, well-developed culture and ethos that is affecting life in cities around the world, even seemingly impervious megalopolises like the Big Apple.

I arrived on the red eye Wednesday morning just as a heat wave was peaking in New York, showing up mid-morning at the Upper East Side apartment of Jax, a recent transplant from SF who I worked with on last year’s Temple of Flux project. Her air conditioner hadn’t arrived yet, so I sweated through a needed nap before surrendering myself to exploring the city.

That night was my Tribes launch party in a great spot called Casa Mezcal on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. Fellow Shadyvil campmate Wylie Stecklow had not only arranged the venue, which is owned by one of his law clients, but he moved the weekly Big Apple Burners happy hour and the final planning meeting for Figment (an event he co-founded four years ago) to the venue, giving me a built-in audience of interested burners who seemed to really appreciate my reading and discussion.

Also joining the party were two NYC figures who appear in my book: Not That Dave, Burning Man’s NYC regional contact and a Figment director, and Billy Talen, the former San Francisco performance artist who transformed himself into NYC’s Reverend Billy, pastor of the Church of Stop Shopping, which evolved into the Church of Life After Shopping before becoming the Church of Earthalujah to reflect a mission that expanded from economic justice and anti-consumerism to environmentalism and a holistic way of looking at the perils of our economic system.

As I’ve been doing at some of my Bay Area book events, I read chapters that introduced them and then let them speak, and they each had lively, weird, heart-warming things to say. Several other New Yorkers who I know through Burning Man showed up at the event to join the discussion, wish me well, and buy books. The most surprising guest was Mike Farrah, former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s old right-hand man who did more to facilitate the temporary placement of burner artworks in SF than anyone in City Hall. He now lives in NYC and showed up late, so after talking SF politics and BRC art over beers, we wandered past some of the oldest tenement buildings in the city together as we headed toward the subway.

The city was sweltering the next day (although Jax’s air conditioner had blessedly arrived), so I spent over three hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which makes SF’s museums seem like mere gallery spaces. I walked through Central Park between the reservoir and the Great Lawn, which was being set up for that evening’s Black Eyed Peas concert, all the way to the Upper East Side and my reading at the Columbia University Bookstore (which nobody showed up for, a combination of school being out, the heat, and a freak thunderstorm that was just rolling in as my event began – my first flop after more than a dozen bookstore events).

But New York is a city for nightowls, as I was just beginning to appreciate, particularly after I made my way down to the East Village that night to meet a Garage Mahal campmate who I’ve known for years simply as Manhattan. He’s been living in his apartment for 15 years and the city for 25, developing a detailed knowledge of the best places to eat, drink, and otherwise indulge.

Manhattan won’t go to the Upper East Side, preferring to remain in “civilization,” as he calls the East Village, which earned its storied reputation as the center of the nightlife universe. We ate Japanese curry at Curry Ya, drank hard-to-find German Kolsch beer at Wechsler’s Currywurst, danced with saucy Armenian women on Avenue C, drank cold sake underground at Decibel, indulged in the most decadent fried pork sandwiches at Porchetta, mingled with beautiful young people in the Penny Farthing, and then drank cocktails on his stoop until dawn, the streets never going to sleep in this lively neighborhood.

On Friday in the early afternoon, I met Wylie at The Cube, a public art piece near the 8th Street subway stop, and we hopped a train down to the southern tip of Manhattan to catch the free ferry to Governors Island for the opening day of Figment, an art festival started there by burners in 2007 that has since expanded to Detroit, Boston, and Jackson.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials have embraced and facilitated the popular three-day event, which now includes art projects such as a treehouse built of old doors, massive steel sculptures, and an elaborate miniature golf course that will remain on the island through the summer. Most of the projects featured the interactivity that is the hallmark of burner art, such as a sound project in an enclosed courtyard in which passerby had to figure out how they were controlling the sounds they heard.

Wylie and I pedaled on borrowed rental bikes to cover all the projects on a large island that is a decommissioned military base with gorgeous views of the Manhattan and New Jersey skylines. Out on the Picnic Point lawn, with the Statue of Liberty looking on from the bay, the venerable NYC-based Burning Man sound camp Disorient hosted a rocking set of DJs under a massive wooden sculpture that they built for Figment and the playa this year.

Unfortunately, Figment is permitted only as a daytime event that ends at 6 pm, because the energy of the 100-plus organizers and volunteers could have driven this party well into the wee hours. Instead, they all gathered after the event at the 340-year-old White Horse Tavern to discuss the day, celebrate, and share endless ideas for new art projects and ways of measuring and directing all the creative energy that flows through their event and city.

After partying until dawn again, Manhattan and I climbed into his car (yes, a car, in Manhattan, the better to cover more ground, he says) Saturday mid-afternoon, picked up a friend near Wall Street, and crossed the Brooklyn Bridge headed toward Astoria, Queens. There, we drank pitchers of rich Czech beer at the 100-year-old Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden, run by the nonprofit Bohemian Citizens’ Benevolent Society, a fraternal order open only to those with Czech blood. With an outdoor capacity of almost 1,000 people, this place was like my beloved Zeitgeist on steroids.

On the way back to the East Village that night, Manhattan did a sudden U-turn and parked in a bus zone in front of a crowded outdoor eatery called Tavern Kyclades, muttering something about needing octopus and telling us he’d just be a minute. The wait for tables at this amazing Greek seafood spot was 90 minutes, but after less than 10 he was back with a to-go container with three long octopus legs, grilled, tender, and just insanely good.

That night, the plan was to hit an underground party in Brooklyn, thrown in a former Catholic school by Rubulad, a venerable party crew. It was after 1 am when we finally left Manhattan’s apartment for the party, catching the subway at Union Square and arriving to find the party in full swing, with more than a dozen rooms with different offerings: DJ dance parties, avante garde films, a piano bar, live music from a trio that had the beautiful crowd dancing hard and smiling. As the party wound down, I headed to Queens with a new friend and we watched a new day dawn on the Empire State building standing tall in the distance.

Sunday might be a day of rest for some, but not for me, not with the kind of roll I was on. So I caught the last ferry to Governors Island at 3 pm and spent the afternoon at Figment with some other burner friends, Shanthi and Patty, who came back to the East Village with me afterward for my third and final Tribes event: being canonized by Reverend Billy during the Church of Earthalujah’s regular Sunday evening performance at Theatre 80 on St. Marks Place.

I’ve been covering Billy and his crew for years, from their performances in San Francisco’s Castro Theater and other local venues to their film “What Would Jesus Buy?” to their work at Burning Man, including their touching sendoff of burner work crews to the Gulf Coast in 2005 to do cleanup and rebuilding work after Hurricane Katrina, an effort that became Burners Without Borders.

As I write in my book, Billy and his choir of several dozen were transformed by Burning Man, and they have returned that embrace of a culture that magnifies and perpetuates their values. And after being called from the audience and walking toward the stage during a rousing rendition of the “When the Saints Go Marching In,” I was warmly embraced by the entire 25-member chorus – actually, it was probably closer to a group grope – and I became Saint Scribe.

And after that, it’s all a bit of a blur, and a vibrant, decadent, Big Apple blur. Thanks, everyone, for a truly memorable trip.

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