The Man Who Came to Dinner

If you live in the Bay Area and don't know what Burning Man is, try throwing a stone -- then go ask the person it hits. Alternately, you might surf over to burningman.com, where you'll find a wealth of information and a shining example of the Web's much-lauded interactive potential.

Of course, if you're the Man Who Came to Dinner, you can simply insinuate yourself into the home of Larry Harvey, the eccentric, outspoken founder of this unique pagan-esque ritual turned experiment in temporary communal living.

What began as an offbeat way for two friends to kill a cool June 1986 evening -- burning an 8-foot wooden man out on San Francisco's Baker Beach -- has grown into an annual five-day convention of what Larry calls "radical self-expression." Last year's event, which now centers around a 50-foot neon-accessorized man, attracted an estimated 15,000 expressers.

Tonight I'm standing in front of Larry's giant Edwardian apartment building on Alamo Square with a bottle of wine and a certain amount of apprehension about what I'll encounter upstairs.

My imagination has been given a shove by members of Larry's advance team, who've told me in slow, deliberate voices: "Oh, I know where Larry lives ... that should be quite an experience for you," and, "We'd like to join you but his place can really only accommodate two people at a time. You'll see."

Oh, mommy.
I prepare myself for the worst: ritual cleansing, pre- or post-meal sacrifice, cauliflower.

Once upstairs, of course, Larry Harvey proves to be nothing but a highly intelligent and passionately articulate human being. The apartment is small. Sure. And cluttered. Very. But beyond that it's a simple San Francisco home.

Larry shares the place with his 16-year-old son, Tristan, and a roommate, Dan Miller, who holds a proud title within the Burning Man organization -- Chief Erector.

After he greets me in the hallway I follow Larry into the tiny kitchen where, owing to a layer of white pastry dough on his fingers, we engage in the first ritual of the evening: the traditional Can't Shake Your Hand 'Cause Mine Is Doughy dance. Still, I force the issue, grabbing Larry's hand, intuitively aware that in order to bolster our mutual comfort levels we'll need to begin with a genuine act of human connection.

But I sense it may take Larry a fair while to warm up to me. "How long you been here?" I begin, hoping to break the ice. "Twenty years," he replies. "You kidding? I could never afford to move."

As Larry returns to his labor at the stove I settle into one of the patchwork-covered chairs that he seems to have squeezed in for the occasion. He's a bit younger-looking than his 50 years, with a sloppy, childlike air about him. His wrinkled dress shirt hangs out over black jeans and shoes.

"So what are you up to lately?" I ask, in a second attempt to get the conversation going. As Larry begins talking about a recent trip to Houston I remember an interview I read in which he condemns all reporters who stare mindlessly at him with "raisin" eyes. I self-consciously attempt to contort my pupils into a variety of shapes and sizes, silently trying to figure out: What the hell is the opposite of raisin?

I fade back into the conversation as Larry pours me some white wine in a handleless ceramic mug. "I want to talk to the mayor," he says, "about what's happening in this city."

Since inadvertently founding this modern social movement -- which is Burning Man: The Project -- Larry has also fallen into the occasional role of spokesman for the current generation of, let's call them, nonconformists.

"Basically San Francisco is the bohemian capital of the world," says Larry. "That's what it's always been known as. We [Burning Man, et al.] are the bohemian community. We're not asking for very much. We're incredibly self-reliant. We have our own sources of income. It has nothing to do with asking the city for money or the NEA for money. It never has."

As he talks Larry is dipping his hands into a bowl of thick white paste, then scraping his fingers to let heavy blobs drop into the lone steaming pot on the stove.

This, it seems, will be my dinner.
Larry goes on to justify his agenda as a critical element in the long-term image and prosperity of San Francisco. "Because if you take away the grass-roots culture in this town," he argues, "you take away the bohemian tradition -- and it's Sacramento West. That's all it is. It's just a little Podunk town with only 600,000 people." He cuts the ends off a bunch of fresh asparagus, setting them in a separate pan of water to boil.

Larry excuses himself to go knock on his son's bedroom door -- "Dinner's almost ready!" -- and I liberate myself from the chair to sneak a peak inside the mysterious steaming pot. The paste has expanded into doughy clouds, taking on some brownish hue from the bubbling substance below. "I knew it," I think, briefly panicking. "Brains. We're having brains."

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