A pirate ship at Balsa Man.

En Español

Chino, a clean-cut young man lying on a picnic blanket, looks across Dolores Park with the air of a sea captain surveying his vessel. It’s a beautiful Saturday, and the park is dotted with people sprawled out in the sunshine like barnacles on a hull.

After awhile he speaks. “The hoopers are missing. All of them. They’re just gone.”

“I don’t see anyone wearing furry legwarmers,” says Caroline, squinting, also on the blanket.

“Or riding a furry bike,” says Frances. “That’s a change from a typical Saturday.”

“Sports Basement is all out of blinky bike lights,” adds Caroline. “They told me to come back next week.”

The night before, 51,515 campers had officially checked into Black Rock City, a temporary city on an extinct lakebed 350 miles away in Nevada. At 47,234 residents, the Mission has officially been a less populous community than Burning Man for two years now, albeit one with better services and utilities. And so, with an unknowable number of Mission residents 350 miles away, how is the neighborhood changed?

Four Barrel and Ritual both have lines out the door, but say that business has been slow for the last week. Patrons brag about the prime seating available in both locations. Rainbow Grocery is a ghost town. Eighteenth Street between Guerrero and Dolores is as impossibly crowded as always, but the Bi-Rite has also had a slow week, after an initial surge in the days just before the festival opened. “The first to leave took our cured meat, our olives, our wine,” says Mitchell McCartney. “They took the things that they knew would last. Then the ones who left just before the weekend took all the fresh fruit.”

McCartney, who has eschewed the standard Bi-Rite uniform for a close-fitting black jumpsuit and broad-brimmed floppy hat that makes him look like a superhero sent from the 1970s for some as-yet-unknown purpose, is not at Burning Man for what he describes as “personal reasons.” “I appreciate the ideals of building a temporary community around art,” he says, gazing intently from beneath his hat. “But you can get cell-phone service out there now.”

“Just go take a look out back,” says Mike, the magnificently muttonchopped gentleman on bouncer detail at the Zeitgeist. “Business is good, but…bleached blonds and button-up shirts. The Marina moved in.” A man in a dress shirt and brown loafers strides past us, a blond woman in strappy sandals stumbling behind him. “Told you,” Mike said, cocking one eyebrow. “It’s my job to be observant. “

Mike has never been to Burning Man. “I hate hot weather and I hate hippies,” he explains, half apologetically. Neither has the coffee shop employee, who requests not to be identified and says only, “If I want to take drugs, I’ll take them in the city.”

“Ten years ago, my entire startup closed down the week of Burning Man,” says Bob, cozily ensconced in one of the sofas in Ritual’s front window. “Our CEO, CTO — they all went out, and they camped together. Google used to camp together. I was expecting maybe 20 out of the 50 employees of the startup that I work at now to leave. We lost three. I think it’s maybe — people in startups then were really in it for the money. A startup that would get $1 million now would have gotten $80 million then. And we would spend that money on severs.”

“And Burning Man,” interjects Bob’s friend, Susan.

“And Burning Man,” admits Bob.

He continues. “Today, to be in a startup, you need to have that really dedicated hacker mentality. I don’t think Burning Man attracts those people the way that it used to. It’s more of an escapist holiday for middle-class thirtysomethings than for people who want to build something.”

Bob is not at Burning Man because he finds other countries more exciting, less arduous and roughly as expensive to visit. Also because he doesn’t like heat and massive quantities of sand. Susan is not at Burning Man because it has never sounded especially exciting to her, though she has an equally reluctant friend who was lured out by the promise of: a) a free ticket, b) a seat in a private plane going directly to Burning Man and c) a trip to Alaska afterward in the same private plane — an extraordinary bribe that proved impossible to resist.

Passing through the Presidio in the evening, it becomes more clear what is missing. Clots of improbably clad hikers are disappearing down a steep walkway leading to the beach. Here is the aggregation of el wire, petticoats, waxed mustaches, bosoms squeezed into corsets, jumpsuits, Victoriana, people who want to talk to you about their open relationships, flared pants, serge-sewn poly-knit blends, annoying techno, cowboy hats, jerry-rigged art, standing around in the cold, in-jokes and megaphone-based trash-talking that the Mission has been missing for the past week.

“We’re here so that we can say that we were at tiny man when it was cool,” a man says, bending over to speak to his child.

Balsa Man advertises itself as Burning Man at 1/16th the scale. There is a tiny entryway with tiny signs, tiny grilled cheese sandwiches, tiny art that replicates some of the art currently on display in Nevada, a tiny newsletter, tiny marshmallows toasted with a Bic lighter.

“I was given a pill that I was assured was either a PCP, MDMA, GHB or a tic tac,” says one woman to another, sotto voce.

Not for the first time, I find myself wondering what Burning Man is, exactly. An aggregation of shared experience and in-jokes? A San Francisco inhabited by mostly white people? A place where subcultures (the ravers, the bunnies, the queers, the hippies, the dancers, the BDSM crowd, the pirates) collide, and make out with each other? What people do now that Shriners are no longer cool? A place where overworked San Franciscans are forced by the weather to sit very still and drink beer? A way that people who mostly interact via the Internet can experience the novelty of living and sharing meals together? An experiment in behaving generously with people unlike — but not too unlike — yourself? Training wheels for the shantytowns of the future?

The sun has almost set. There are no easy answers, anyway — just a lot of cold people, from a variety of backgrounds and occupations, who are largely invisible in San Francisco society except when they join together to wear outfits and burn things.

“The only thing missing is the annoying fire dancers,” someone mutters. It’s hard to believe that he overheard her, but across the crowd, a man throws himself down and begins undulating suggestively in the sand. In each hand is a lit cigarette. The crowd bursts into applause. Behind us, the Pacific Ocean stretches away into the inky horizon.

Someone informs me that this is Balsa Man’s third year. By the time the three-foot wooden man goes up in a surprisingly large explosion of flame and fireworks, there’s a crowd of about 200 people. The joking imitation of Burning Man has almost exactly the same number of attendees that the actual Burning Man had in its third year, back when it was still held in San Francisco.

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Heather Smith covers a beat that spans health, food, and the environment, as well as shootings, stabbings, various small fires, and shouting matches at public meetings. She is a 2007 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a contributor to the book Infinite City.

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  1. I love when people go out of their way to hate on BM. There are tons of things I don’t go to but would rarely spend the time hating on it. A lot of people sit back and have a lot to say about something they have never even attended. Does that make any sense?

    I’ve been here for about 15 years and reading some of these posts are very indicative of this city’s new landscape. Boring and apathetic. I think folks are more open minded back home in NJ;)

    The biggest argument I hear about hippies cracks me up. Hippies and trusties don’t go to BM, (well they are nowhere near my camp), they can not afford it and there is too much work to do.

    Anyways, I have to work in the morning. Good luck and I hope you have fun on labor day whatever you do.

    -Take care folks

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  2. heather – this is my first time reading Mission Local and this is a fantastic article. Keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

    As an aside, I can’t say I noticed a difference in SF the week of burning man. However, I live on the other side of Market Street and don’t spend a lot of time in the Mission.

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  3. Someone made up t-shirts that nail it – “Burning Man: The Best Week in San Francisco”

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  4. Maybe Balsa Man is a “Tongue in Cheek” but not a joke Burning Man. I see it as an encouragement for people to let their creativity out without a huge allotment of time or money. And the fact there were several regionals going on around the world is pretty cool. And isn’t art supposed to be fun?

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  5. Just a bunch of annoying white/asian trust-fundies (or a close approximation).

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