The question is posed by a longtime acquaintance as I am standing on an elevated concrete walkway, surveying a balcony outside the Berkeley Art Museum where more than 100 museum directors and curators from around the world are pressed against a low wall, craning to see the havoc being wreaked by Survival Research Laboratories below. I ponder the question and brace myself for the blast of the "Shockwave Cannon." The curators' jaws fall slack, their digital cameras dangling from their wrists, impotent and forgotten. A roiling bank of smoke envelops the southeast corner of the courtyard as Violet Blue stolidly aims the "Air Launcher" at a large painting of a midget; the recoil of the machine is accompanied by a tremendous report and flames, which shoot out of the back end. I make a note: There is no safe way to approach the "Air Launcher." A few yards away, the euphemistically named "Hovercraft," easily one of the loudest robots in the world, shunts between the "Inchworm" and the "Running Machine." A bolt of lightning, seemingly bored with the tinfoil-wrapped trees in its vicinity, shoots out of a colossal Tesla coil and strikes a point on the viewing terrace. The art royals skitter away from the edge of the balcony, then return grinning as the "Flame Tornado," a pulsing jet engine that shoots water bombs and produces a rapidly rotating column of fire, does just that. A pillar of flame licks the edge of the balcony and streaks past the curators' faces; water strikes the ceiling over their heads and cascades back down on their evening wear. In a moment of confusion, the guests gasp and look themselves up and down; then, inconceivably, most of them grin and return again to peer into the business end of the Flame Tornado. Showing no favoritism, the Tornado leaps into action. The "V-1," the sound of which would shatter all the windows on the museum's south wall if run at full throttle, menaces the resident foliage as another fire-wielding robot ignites a spliff dangling from the mouth of a giant teddy bear fastened to the balcony. Overhead, a well-endowed Cyclops drops Styrofoam boulders. Three museum directors with thick European accents, lipless grins, and blazing eyes jump over the safety cordon and take a few steps down the walkway, trying to get better photographs as the giant teddy bear and his joint blaze, and the smell of low-grade marijuana permeates the air. The machines roar below, and the crisp fall air begins to smell singed.
"This is real," I say, gently ushering the directors back across the safety line, while listening for the approach of sirens.
The "Big Arm" reaches toward the balcony and tears at the architectural supports holding the teddy bear and the balcony aloft. Under its force, the supports splinter and crumble.
"Mostly real," I clarify as the director nearest me stops mid-gait and begins laughing like a child who has seen bubblegum for the first time.
"Is dangerous," he says with unveiled glee.
I nod. The sirens don't come.
I decide that things are, indeed, getting back to normal, as normal as normal can be in a geographical location where transience and transmogrification are the most common states. "I still couldn't do a show like this in San Francisco without getting arrested," reminds SRL director Mark Pauline. "But people can't usually get shows in their own town, anyway."
Still, watching Berkeley Art Museum director Kevin Consey standing amidst the smoldering aftermath of the V-1, quietly contemplating the experience of SRL over a cigarette and glass of cabernet, seems to signify a great relaxation of spirit being experienced around the bay. People are ready to play again.
"Where's the party, baby?" shouts a thick-necked vulgarian, insulated by four similarly gorged pals waiting in a line on Broadway.
Some things never change. I navigate the sidewalk, pushing through the weekend North Beach crowds, teeming as they always are, and ever shall be, with ROTC candidates, and find myself at a familiar door. Once the home of the On Broadway, an early stopover for Iggy Pop and the Nuns, the Broadway Studios unfold like an oasis: baroque woodwork, candlelight, thick red fabric, huge wrought-iron bird cages swinging from the rafters, and an exemplary jazz band on stage with Mr. Lucky singing "Goldfinger." As in the "good old days," the crowd in this room does not reflect the crowd outside, and neither does the entertainment.
Miss Eva Von Slut, an employee of Mom's Tattoo (if the giant Misfits-style reaper on her back does not adorn more than one fair back), strips down to pasties and a corset, and Scot Nery, renowned pancake juggler, performs a mind-numbing escape from his own backpack (worn as a straitjacket) and very nearly balances four chairs on his chin. Forgoing his pogo stick for a more international routine, Roky Roulette sheds his slide rule and pocket protector for butt-floss and socks and breaks plates to Greek wedding music. Thankfully, he has the gams for it.
"Gams ain't all he's got, honey," says a red-headed vamp in fishnets and combat boots as she heads off to the bathroom for a more thorough discussion of Mr. Roulette's chances.
Inspired, I'm off to the Tenderloin where Leonidas Kassapides is conducting his Greek shadow puppet play in Cohen Alley near Ellis and Leavenworth. As drug dealers and whores wrangle across the street, dragons and princesses lurch across a white sheet stretched between two apartment buildings. A live trio provides accompaniment under an urban slice of starry sky, and the crowd -- young couples, friends, and families with children seated in rows of folding chairs -- shout out warnings and encouragement to the characters who dance before them. Even if the voices in the play are garbled and the story is a bit protracted, the city scene is enough to make a sane person delirious: just another fall night in the Tenderloin.
Winding back through SOMA, I find myself staring in the window of the dubious late-night eatery that is King Diner, watching cosmic belly dancers, ethernet faeries, and silver-faced space aliens consume corn dogs like waylaid travelers making do in a launch pad cafeteria. More people appear, denizens of Bonnie Duque's "Sexadelic Scorpio Space Harem" who are searching for sustenance in strange quarters, under fluorescent light. They eat and talk and wander back the way they came. I follow. For years, the Bonster's annual birthday party has writhed and thrived underground, undaunted by permits or police, but this year's party is unabashed in its size and scope. The space, decorated in black light and fabric and enhanced by a kaleidoscope of more than 1,000 fetchingly adorned hedonists, is huge, and the music is comparable. The walls in the cavernous ballroom are sweating; the floor is vibrating. Even from outside, you can't miss it. A string of 11 police cars speeds past, and not one of them returns to investigate the outlandish crowd standing in the parking lot near Duque's "secret" door. A giant glowing squid wanders out for a spot of fresh air. No one blinks an eye.
In the Mission at last, unwinding after the long weekend, I curl up under the soft glow of red lamps that hang from the ceiling of Amnesia like wilted flowers and tattered fezzes. We're watching Tony Gatlif's Latcho Drom, a visual explosion of melody that follows the migration of the Rom through song and dance. The man next to me sings along. He knows the words. Others at the bar know the rhythms and they clap along. At the door, a beautiful woman with bare shoulders and a kerchief tied around her hair applies mascara mustaches to every new arrival's upper lip.
"Two dollars off with a mustache," she explains.
We sit around with our makeup mustaches, singing along to the final plaintive strains of Gatlif's song as the live gypsy jazz ensemble Gaucho sets up on stage, and I think to myself, how nice it is that things are finally getting back to normal.