I’m sitting in an office. Not a normal office, with cubicles and doors, elevators and ladies rooms. It’s an office in a 100-year-old ranch house. The property is remote: 24 miles outside a town with fewer than 200 year-round residents. Our facilities feature two fabulous porta-potties and a pretty powerful swamp cooler. I manage the Sign Shop for the Black Rock City Department of Public Works and it’s the best job I’ve ever had.
I manage a talented crew of people who are conveniently my friends. Our work allows us to be artistically creative. With spray paint and stencils, exacto blades and transfer tape, metal sign blanks and vinyl, we produce over 2000 signs for the city, plus handfuls of stickers to give as gifts. We work with a few hundred other skilled carnies to produce one of the biggest parties on the planet.
Every day I experience the feeling of mastery. I’m adept at designing the signs; I get into a great flow of click this, cut that, scrawl with a Sharpie on something else and multitasking like mad. I like to think I’m a good manager. The fact that my crew has remained mostly intact for the past seven years may be a testament to that, as well as people clamoring to join us, either as full-season crew or for a cameo appearance. I empower each crew member; by designing a sign, beginning to end, they have ownership of a project and, as a result, pride in their work. I give gifts. And I buy beer. I’m good at this job.
I have a boss who’s always had my back. Unlike other jobs, the opportunities to get into trouble are never ending, since we live, work, eat, play and party together, 24 hours a day for almost three months. I can get mouthy after a few beers, which is pretty much every day. I enjoy ribbing people and sometimes they don’t take it the way it was intended. So yeah. I get in trouble a lot. And my boss gets me out of it. He’s the only boss I’ve ever felt comfortable speaking to honestly. Which is a testament to how great a manager he is.
I’m having a bit of a tough time this year because it will be my last. I’ve got plans that don’t include trekking out to this godforsaken desert for three months a year. Yup, I’m gonna be an “afterburner.” But I’m gonna miss this more than I’ve ever missed anything.
There are phases to what we do here and, with every phase, it strikes me that it will be the last time I experience it: The silence on the ranch before all the other crews arrive. The forlorn way the trailer park feels before it fills up with folks eager to pound t-stakes and “get ‘er done.” The madness of moving trailers and containers and a couple hundred hard workers from one place to another. Acres of dry alkali lake bed stretching out in front of our shade trailer as we install our signs. Waving at arriving participants and accepting cold beers from them.
Before we know it, 70,000 people will be here for the big dirt rave. And then, in the blink of an eye, they’ll be gone and my crew will be taking down our signs. Then comes the final phase — Playa Restoration — when a smaller group combs every square foot of the city, picking up bottle caps and bobby pins, broken glass and cigarette butts. That last bit is the best because we work as one united crew with one goal. As my boss says, “Pre-event we get to know each other but Playa Restoration is when we fall in love.” It all ends in October.
I’ve dissolved into a puddle of tears a number of times already and we’re barely halfway through the process. Yes, I will be heading back to the big city — the other big city — to pursue my dream. But this experience — and these people — are irreplaceable.