Burners, music enthusiasts, and Santa-clad partygoers crowded the dance floor of Public Works for a rowdy night of fun. Photo by Erica Hellerstein.

The first time I sauntered into Public Works, it was December 2010 and I thought I knew exactly what to expect.

It was a pulsating, cathedral-like space with spiraling staircases and a towering ceiling, the dim lighting punctuated by staccato shooting stars of strobe light. The atmosphere was casually confident, the space crowded without being claustrophobic. It reminded me of some of my favorite spots in Buenos Aires.

The drinks were nothing special, but decadent cocktails really weren’t the point of a Public Works night. The floor had a gummy, sticky residue from fumbled beverages the evening before, which was kind of gross, but I didn’t think about it too much because it was 1 a.m. and the DJ set was just starting to melt my bones into wavelengths.

I remember talking to all kinds of people that night. Elated, pupil-dilated ravers, a moon-faced girl from Russia, the converse-clad owner of a startup. Waifish types lounging against clammy walls, drizzling across tables outside, languidly smoking cigarettes. Inside, people writhed and undulated to those dynastic beats.

Since then I’ve been to Public Works many times, for many reasons. Parties, special DJs, “chill” nights gone awry and vice versa. I’ve stayed until the bitter end and I’ve left far too early, but one thing I’ve never done is gone sober and alone.

Saturday, Dec. 1, almost two years after my first foray into this rhythm-driven world, seemed like the perfect time to try it out.

*               *               *            

There’s no line to get into the club at 10 p.m. The bouncer, a serene, willowy man, glances at my ID and ushers me inside, where I pay a $10 pre-11 p.m. cover charge.

The club’s theme of the night, “Holidaze,” means, of course, that everybody is sporting furry Christmas/Santa-themed outfits. Two girls stumble out of the bathroom dressed as reindeer, giggling and holding hands.

“Dude, our face paint looks so good!” reindeer #1 squeals as they scamper toward the bar.

I tuck myself into the coat check line, which is somehow always excessively long. This time around, clutching my damp raincoat and umbrella, I’m sandwiched between two doe-eyed couples: one with a penchant for deep staring, the other for heavy stroking. The duo in front of me, Tyler and Silvia (“with an i,” I’m informed), are dressed as Santa and Santa’s little helper.

“How do I look with my butt out like this?” Silvia turns around and asks me, eyebrows raised, slurping on a frothy concoction. She’s wearing skyscraper fake eyelashes, a minuscule red velvet skirt lined with white fur and a red bikini top; she has the legs of a vixen in black fishnet tights and patent black boots. I am in black shorts and a baggy top, sans sassy cocktail. I feel like an asshole.

“You look great!” I assure her. “Seriously, I wish I had a costume.”

She nods and smiles patronizingly. “I wish you did too,” her eyes seem to say. She turns around and Tyler kisses her on both cheeks, then pats her other cheeks with his right hand. My cheeks and I feel very alone.

I patiently wait until it’s my turn to hand $3 to the lanky coat check man with the skinny jeans and Ben Franklin hairstyle. He’s in no mood for small talk, already grabbing $6 from the couple behind me as I zip up my purse.

It’s 11 now and more people are trickling in. Drunken Santas deck the halls, double-fisting drinks of merriment. They stumble around, hats playfully askew, and sidle up to scantily clad girls coyly sipping their drinks through straws.

“He’s not even that hot,” one guy snickers, gesturing toward a shirtless man wearing a Santa hat and suspenders who is withdrawing cash from an ATM.

“Yeah, he looks better from the back,” his friend concedes.

I make my way to the bar and order my sober drink of choice, a $3 bottle of water that I pour into a cup with ice — so that it looks like vodka on the rocks, of course. Or, as I like to call it, a blue dolphin.

The bartender, wearing bright fuchsia lipstick, a patterned tube top and a miniskirt, tells me it’s going to be a busy night, but a fun one. It’s a Burner crowd, apparently, as the event is put on by the Burning Man camp Distrikt.

“There’s a lot of love here,” she says.

It’s true, the crowd is friendly. If you’re ever going to go to a club by yourself, make it on a Burner night.

“The vibes are nice tonight, for sure,” says a woman to my left with two dark braids, a nose ring and thinly strung silver upside-down tulip earrings. She’s of the non-Santa-ly clad minority, in brown flats, faded jeans and a beige floral top. I could see her working as a barefoot waitress in a sleepy seafood joint on the jagged Portuguese coast; she looks out of place surrounded by these flashing lights.

She extends her palm and introduces herself: “Liliana,” she says, shaking my hand firmly. A tiny silver ball flashes on her tongue between syllables, gleaming like the pearl of a Mission oyster. She moved to San Francisco from Seattle five years ago. When she first got to the city, she went to the dowdy, cramped bars in North Beach.

“Never again,” she says derisively.

I ask if she’s been upstairs, and she tells me there’s a “Santa Props” room there where you can dress up and take photos.

“It’s fucking amazing,” she says. “Let’s go.”

Liliana’s an expert crowd weaver and I follow her upstairs. Sure enough, it’s packed with face-painted partyers, shimmying in holiday-themed gear and flashing toothy grins at the camera.

“So these are all costumes?” I ask a man who is gingerly folding costumes and helping with the dress-up.

“Oh honey,” he smirks, gesturing toward a bondage Santa. “This lady was dressed like a nun before she walked into our lil’ workshop.”

*               *               *      

After reveling in the props room for a couple of minutes, Liliana and I head to the dance floor, which is full of people gyrating — chests out, heads back, arms flailing — to the DJ’s rhythmic beats. A crystalline disco ball circles overhead, spilling teardrops of light onto the revelers below.

The crowd quickly swallows Liliana, and I don’t see her for the rest of the night. The people upstairs seem hipper, sleeker, more judgmental, and I’m very aware of my solitude.

Intimidated, I slink around and limbo under the hip crowd’s laser-like vision, searching for a comfortable corner in which to dance. I find a spot near the back of the dance floor but am quickly elbowed out by two elves grinding and making out.

“Look at her go! Look at her go!” male elf gleefully exclaims at female elf, twirling her by the tips of her fingers and nearly knocking the blue dolphin out of my hands.

If I smoked cigarettes, this is precisely the moment when I would need to inhale deeply. I inch out of my corner, leaving Santa’s helpers to their naughty devices, and glide down the stairs to the smoking area outside.

It’s past 1 a.m. now, and the tables are brimming with sloshed partygoers in naughty Christmas costumes, like spiked eggnog with a pulse.

A man with an aquiline nose and waist-long blond hair talks to me about sunsets. He recalls the first time he saw one, a radiant halved grapefruit illuminating the horizon. Later he asks me how my tongue feels. I tell him pretty nice, I burned it this morning on a scalding cup of coffee, but it’s getting there.

A hodgepodge group of three Burners approaches me. They ask me why I’m standing alone and I tell them I’m flying solo for the night.

“Man, that’s awesome,” one responds brightly.

“There’s no shame going anywhere by yourself.”

They tell me I’ve come to Public Works on a very special night — the crowd is great, the music is great and everything is perfect.

One of the Burners, Louis, says he’s from France but has been living in San Francisco for 15 years.

“I’m a California dude, from San Diego,” says Tom, the second Burner.

The third Burner, a small, dark-haired man, doesn’t tell me his name or where he’s from.

“So do you want to smoke this joint?” asks the identity-less man.

“No,” I tell them. “I think I’m OK. Thanks, though.”

They look stunned.

“Why doesn’t she want a joint?” the Frenchman asks, motioning in my direction.

“Who doesn’t want a joint?” the California dude chimes in.

The Frenchman jerks his chin towards me. “She doesn’t want a joint.”

“Yes,” I repeat. “I don’t want a joint.”

“Man, you don’t want a joint …” California dude clucks his tongue and trails off. “That’s cool, though. Wait, so what’s your name again?”

*               *               *              

The Burners head back inside “to warm up,” and I linger by the tables, taking it all in.

The only other person by herself is a girl in front of me in a tight blue dress and black stilettos. She’s smoking a cigarette and chattering on the phone, a thin wisp of smoke hovering over her head, twirling around before vanishing like Liliana on the dance floor.

I stay put and watch people come and go. A petite blond in a white lace dress and lacquered turquoise pumps sways back and forth, eyes glazed, as her male companion envelops her in a protective embrace.

“Man, she’s way too drunk to be here,” a friend or concerned citizen tells him.

“I mean, just like, take her home, or sit her down, or something,” he continues.

The male companion heeds his advice and sits on the concrete step next to me. He pulls the petite blond with him, and she crumples into his lap.

“If you’re gonna throw up it’s OK,” he whispers, massaging her head.

I stay outside for another 20 minutes, then head back in. It’s 2:30 now, and I decide to spend the last hour dancing.

I push my way to the front of the dance floor and see absolutely no one I know or have met so far; the anonymity is strangely liberating.

A man with a Cheshire grin in a white fur suit fist-pumps to my right. He is inspiring. I dance by his side for 35 minutes. It’s getting late now and I’m starving. I would sacrifice my dog for a plate of nachos, but I can’t leave because I have to tell the gentleman to my right that he is absolutely incredible and I’d probably be fine with bearing his children.

I smile in his direction for close to five minutes and finally, as I’m on the verge of looking like the creepiest person in the entire club, we lock eyes.

“You can pet it if you want,” he offers, extending a silken arm.

“Thanks,” I reply, running my fingers along its smooth fur. Somehow this feels like the most genuine interaction I’ve had all night.

“No prob,” he says, cocking an eyebrow. “But just don’t get any ideas.”

*               *               *            

The night is finally drawing to a close, beckoning me to meet up with my friends, or get some food, or collapse on my bed.

I get in another unreasonably long line at the coat check. Ben Franklin is still collecting jackets, his expression stoic.

I hand him my ticket, eagerly awaiting the moment I’ll be able to slip into my jacket and leave this belligerent winter wonderland. Naturally, my coat is misplaced.

“I don’t know where it is,” Ben says. “Did you maybe put it with a friend’s stuff?”

“No,” I reply, feeling self-conscious, “I didn’t come with any friends.”

“Cool,” he responds nonchalantly, continuing to rifle through rows of outer garments. He doesn’t stare, doesn’t snicker at my solitude, doesn’t ask why I’m alone at a wild party packed with raucous groups of friends.

After five excruciatingly protracted minutes, he finds my coat and umbrella. He hands them to me and apologizes for the delay.

“No problem,” I respond earnestly. “And thank you.”

I can’t wait to leave this place. I zip up my jacket, step outside and mentally bid farewell to the drunken Santas, wondering where I can find a steaming plate of nachos on this crisp Sunday morning.

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