Thursday, March 21, 2019

"suggested Donation"

by travelingseth (writer), mission, San Francisco, September 19, 2009


A disenchanting experience with San Francisco's Burning Man culture.

“It’s a $15-20 suggested donation”, says the hot dominatrix working the door.


I’m at Anon Salon, a generally very cool underground bar/art space in SOMA.  I’d been there several times before.  Never paid a cover.  There’s no band tonight.  No theater or other expensive art to justify it.  Their cash bar charges standard SF drink prices (think $6 Smirinoff cocktails).  They’re making plenty of money. 

Adding to the cover’s absurdity, it’s a “Burning Man” event.  Burning Man being the truly magical place I went for the first time this year, where money is banned and everyone operates in a “gift economy”—which works inspiringly well.  Perhaps that’s why they threw in the “suggested donation”.  That or it's legal cover (not quite sure of the place’s status, or lack thereof).

I turn back to Matt and Denise, who share my cover shock.  We decide our donation will be $20 for the three of us. I turn back to the dominatrix (yes mistress, take my dirty, dirty money!) and she cuts me off with her hand and takes the couple behind us.  They pay $30.  When she’s done with the couple, I tell her we're probably only staying for a couple drinks and ask if $20 for the three of us is okay.

“It’s a fifteen to twenty dollar donation”, she says, flatly, implying non-negotiability.  Incensed, for the first time in my life I invoke the power of the word donation.  “Well, that’s our donation”, I say.  She glares at me, waiting for me to crack.  Finally, she takes my twenty, adding, “The couple behind you paid full donation, so I’m going to have to frown upon this”.  Really? As I pass her I say, “well, I’m going to have to frown upon the use of the word donation”.  As we pass into the main room, a man standing nearby in a decked out twenties style suit yells after us, “Hey, we got bills to pay!”.  This is not Burning Man.

Inside, the environment was cool.  But my mood soured.  After spending a week at Burning Man, a place 100 times cooler than this, where money doesn't exist, the door had put me off.  I walked to the nearest bar and ordered a round of drinks—a cosmo, Corona, and water.  The bartender handed me a dixie cup of cosmo, a bottle of Corona, and bottle of water.  I’d wanted a cup of tap water from the tap behind the bar, and I almost ask the bartender why she didn't ask.  But I’m starting not to care. “That’ll be $13”, she says.  Fine. As I’m paying, I notice a sign behind the bar informing me that drinks are a $6 “suggested donation”. 

I am officially done with this “suggested donation” bullshit, btw.  Maybe an underground bar has to do it for legal cover.  But it's all over SF.  At parties, art galleries, events of all kinds.  And it’s bullshit.  What it really means is, “this is the price”.  Pay it or you’re a cheap bastard.  99% of people just pay it for fear of looking cheap, and the people running the event get to feel like it’s some enlightened system.  It’s not.  It’s capitalism.  Just acknowledge it.

I try to shake my mood and get into the event.  For the most part I succeed.  The environment is good.  A DJ spins good tunes from the living room/dance floor.  Great Burning Man photography covers the walls.  Burners mill about in cool costumes.  But  the differences between the SF Burning Man party and Burning Man keep getting starker.

There's Burning Man culture galore. But the spirit is absent.  The people are dressed like at Burning Man, but acting differently.  They're generally friendly, but only talking to their friends—despite being crammed closer together.  Instead of giving gifts, they’re competing.  Shouldering into the bar, scouting good chairs on the roof, schmoozing their way to the front of the excruciating long bathroom line (give me a Porta Pottie!).  Sitting with Matt and Denise on the roof, a man asked me (not in an unfriendly way, but not in a friendly way either) to move my chair forward to make room at the bar behind me.  I didn’t move far enough so he asked me to keep moving until I was almost touching the heat lamp in front of me—thereby blocking the exit route for the chairs to my left.  Ugh…

I began to ponder SF’s Burning Man culture.  A culture described in a recent Guardian article (recommended read) as a “year round culture with its own unique social mores, language, fashion, calendar, ethos, and infrastructure”.  Its proponents, one of which echoed this sentiment to me at the party, say that you can live Burning Man all year long.  But while the fur boots and bee scooters made it back, something got left.  At least at this party. 

Maybe it’s just too big a business now.  The Burning Man organizers (who are a for-profit LLC with executives drawing salaries) probably don’t make THAT much from the actual event, considering the infrastructure and services they provide.  But the Burning Man BRAND is hugely profitable.  All over this city.  All over the world, burners are throwing huge, not cheap parties all year round.  Often underground, non taxable parties with covers/ticket prices reaching into the $30 and $40 range.  Not to mention water sales (very sustainable Anon Salon).

Or maybe it’s the extreme Burning Man environment.  Maybe people only act in the spirit when they travel thousands of miles (at great expense), to live a week in an extreme desert environment. With extreme temperature swings and dust storms. Where basic survival is actually on your mind.  Where, to your amazement, total strangers provide everything you need and much, much more.  Where you're continually surrounded by the most amazing, out of this world art projects people have spent thousands of hours and dollars creating, just for this.  Where you can take your broken bike to a free repair shop, get spot-on advice from a super friendly mechanic, and while you're sweating over your bike, fixing it yourself and feeling empowered, a woman offers you a bite of the most delicious chicken apple sausage you'll ever eat.  And this is not even notable.  Just another typical encounter.  And you find in yourself an overwhelming desire to give back.  To contribute and be part of it.

Sigh….I’m sure I’ll continue going to these Burning Man parties.  It’s a good brand, Burning Man.  The music and art are top notch.  Beautiful, sexy people abound.  And I’m sure a lot of the money’s going into camps and art.  But I fear my innocence is gone.  The parties and culture may seem, from here on out, a glittering, fur-lined shell.  The spirit that formed it gone.  Hibernating, under the fine, shifting sands of an empty Nevada desert. 

Next year….

About the Writer

travelingseth is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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3 comments on "suggested Donation"

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By travelingseth on September 20, 2009 at 02:45 pm

" I would have asked that woman at the door to stand on her head. That way she would be able to convert her "frown" into a nice "smile." "

Haha.  That would've been a good one.

Do go to Burning Man though.  Best festival ever.

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By travelingseth on September 21, 2009 at 03:15 pm

Hurrican Dean is a great name.  No surprise it came from BM.

It is cool how much they spend on art.  The BMF does seem like a really good organization. 

I just saw this interview with the executive director talking about what we can bring back from Burning Man.  Pretty interesting.,32068,39616455001_1921966,00.html

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By Neon on September 24, 2009 at 03:06 pm

Burning Man being the truly magical place I went

It’s Thursday night—make that Friday morning, about 3 a.m. I’m in Center Camp, in the heart of Black Rock City, and I’m here to take a breather. It’s been a wondrous night already; I’ve been taking advantage of this warm, calm evening. I take a seat on a dusty cushion, breathe deeply, and sit back, savoring, soaking and slacking. I don’t have to wait long before a person of interest appears. She’s a classic burnbabe, maybe 25 or 27, sporting a lithe figure, framed by a sparkly halter top and gypsy-esque pants. Her face is super-cute, topped with a thick headband and playatized semi-dreadlocks.

And she had a hoop. A simple hula hoop of small diameter. And what she proceeded to do with that little doodad was downright dazzling.

She walked out into the middle of the performance space, raised her arms, and twirled the hoop above her head for a few beats, getting a rhythmic feel for it. Then she let it spirally slide to her waist, expertly catching it above her hips, where she parked the hoop and began to gently pump it. Whip, whip, whip went the hoop, circling her luscious hips with a most exciting speed and authority. Very quickly, I was a fan. You go, girl!

She let the hoop drop to a latitude just above her knees and kept it there, totally in control, with the hoop easily and lazily circling with just the slightest twitches of her thighs. Fascinating. And, it must be said, kinda sexy. I mean, yeesh. She continued to sling it right there, the hoop carving sure circles while riding on her firm, dusty quads. And then, with an imperceptible flick, the hoop slid upward, perching once again above her hips. She was now ready to bring it. Bring it for real. Suddenly, that hoop was rocketing around her hips in fifth gear, and the ripping rotation she achieved was happening with a minimum of visible effort. There was no major thrusting or gyrating going on, just these subtle but perfectly efficient hip moves that had that hoop slingin’ through space with a whirlwind velocity.

She didn’t keep these hoopulations up for long, but long enough so those of us entranced onlookers could appreciate that what we were witnessing was not some jive hula hooping from the vapid ’50s, but hooping that would be at home in the ancient bazaars of Babylon or Rome, hooping that could proudly take its place with the best of fire dancers, jugglers and acrobats. Hooping that smacked of timeless celebration, a welcome part of any grand festival of The Goddess, where men and women dare to come together to laugh, leer, and emulate satyrs and nymphs.

After a few minutes, she stopped, slung her hoop over her shoulder, and walked back out into the city. Thank you lots, hoop goddess! Then, the guy with the crystal ball perfectly balanced on his shaved head stepped into the performance area …

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