Normal Weekend

A fiery SRL show, Miss Eva Von Slut, a pancake juggler, and more

"Do you think things are finally getting back to normal?"

The question is posed by a longtime acquaintance as I am standing on an elevated concrete walkway, surveying a balcony outside the Berkeley Art Museumwhere 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 Laboratoriesbelow. 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 Bluestolidly 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 Conseystanding 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 Studiosunfold 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. Luckysinging "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 Roulettesheds 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.

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