The Gift Economy

In the desert at Burning Man, Joanne Solomon dissects the implicit transaction that defines her cross-cultural love affair.

Joanne Solomon | Longreads | January 2019 | 13 minutes (3,195 words)

Nine months into our relationship I take my relatively conservative, Argentine, businessman of a boyfriend who doesn’t yet speak fluent English out to the middle of the Nevada desert for Burning Man. My last boyfriend would have fit in perfectly. He owned a didgeridoo. But Eduardo is different. He wears a suit, has health insurance and approaches everything with a fair amount of caution. Asking me, his English teacher, out on the first day of class was a bit out of character. To be clear, this was not tabloid fodder; when we met, he was 34 and I was 35. My 20s were spent teaching puppetry in the South Bronx, and performing in alternative theater festivals. Desperate for a partner, I yearned to be moved up from the kid’s table, and Eduardo felt like a bona fide ADULT. In turn, Eduardo had just gotten out of a long stagnant relationship, and looked to me for levity and fun. I liked being the muse, for a time.

Burning Man is more of an art city than a festival. It pops up the last week in August and absorbs close to 70,000 inhabitants who camp in every form of temporary lodging imaginable: tents, campers, tiny houses. There is Art everywhere. This world is built on the tenets of self-reliance and radical self-expression. Many people are naked and many don costumes in which they weld, cut and busily construct their projects. Burning man commissions larger work from artists who spend their entire year constructing and shipping their work to the desert piece by piece. Artists build otherworldly, giant sculptures, often two or three stories high that participants can climb on, and crawl through. On every corner you can find some sort of installation that inspires, or titillates or offers you something unexpected. And while this world may initially feel lawless, upon deeper inspection you’ll find a hospital, a DMV, an around-the-clock sanitation department, law enforcement, and an airport.

***

At Black Rock City, there is contradiction everywhere. You can spend days and nights simply roaming around on a bike and never see the same thing. In theory, after you’ve paid the hefty ticket price ($200-$2000 which varies depending on one’s art project application or role at Burning Man) once inside, you can’t buy anything except for coffee and ice. Burning Man utilizes a gift economy. Participants offer whatever goods or services they have to bring to the table. Some people provide home cooked meals, others wash your hair, a few groups offer bike repair. But if you want to find something more specific, it can be found. Tango? Physics Club? Japanese Fan making? Yes. Naked sunrise yoga? Yes and Yes. You are not allowed to drive your car around Burning Man unless it’s an Art Vehicle. “Art cars” roam the Playa 24/7 pumping music and stopping to pick up people and host impromptu dance parties. People organize themselves into theme camps, with names such as Snow Cone Camp or The Seven Sins Saloon and usually have an art car to match thematically.

I lie in my tent while listening to the party around me and wonder why I thought it would be a good idea to bring Eduardo here. People warned me. They said, ‘Are you sure? Burning man can be BRUTAL on relationships.’

At Burning Man participation is highly encouraged but oddly it is not a place where people are in your face either. If you need to be left alone, for the most part, people respect that. And after a week of mixing and canoodling and picture taking and dancing and discovering and experiencing and wandering, on the final weekend, a massive wooden man (a stand-in for the man that keeps us all down) and an elaborately ornate temple get burned to the ground. Then, the entire city disappears, as quickly as it was built.

I try to let Eduardo off the hook; I say, “Look Eduardo, it’s a really harsh environment. There’s no showers or running water, it’s boiling in the day and freezing cold at night, there are a lot of annoying hippies on drugs dancing to obnoxious electronic music, so I totally understand if you don’t want to go.”

But he insists. “No, Punk,” he says, referring to me by the nickname I love, “Don’t put labels, I want to go.”

***

I take great pains to make him comfortable. I fly a six-man tent across the country, I buy a solar shower, and order us a shade structure that is to be picked up in Reno upon our arrival. As we are driving into the desert with two bikes strapped to the top of the car and enough food and water for a week, Eduardo confesses, “I want to be honest about something; I am not really a friend of nature.”

I realize we are in for a colossally long week when, in the first few minutes, a topless woman in a tutu offers Eduardo lemonade and he curtly responds “No.” I explain again how the gift economy works at Burning Man. My brother and I have made inspirational quote pins to pass out (Gandhi quotes, Mandela quotes), “So she gives us a lemonade and you offer her a quote pin.” I explain gently, then ask,. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” he grunts. “But, no. I won’t do that.”

We are only a few hours in, and the desert dust is already everywhere: in our bed, in our crow’s feet, between our toes, in our belly buttons, in the cracks of our lips. As the days pass, Eduardo insists on maintaining his exhausting grooming and hygiene rituals, seemingly pointless in a perpetual dust storm. But, by day three, everyone is filthy except for him. He is so pristine, his white t-shirt and sunglasses so unmarred, he actually looks like he’s in a clean costume. It’s as if he’s stepped off the pages of an Armani ad, aside from his hair, which is totally white because of the dust, an occupational hazard of using gel in the desert.

Not only have I brought my very conservative, straight as an arrow boyfriend to Burning Man, I’ve brought him to GAY Burning Man. We are camping with my brother and his boyfriend and their friends, a raucous group of gay men from San Francisco. As is only fitting, we spend the first few days building the infrastructure of our camp to the soundtrack of The adventures of Pricsilla, Queen of the Desert.

Never having been around so many gay men before, Eduardo is taking a crash course in cultural codes. His accent along with his classic good looks highlighted by his thick dark eyebrows and full head of shaggy brown hair make quite an impression on our new campmates. There is lot of innuendo floating around as we make our introductions. “If you guys need anything, I mean ANYTHING, let me know.” Carlo says with a wink. “Please don’t hesitate, we are all here to serve you.” Mark concurs with a smile.

Bad, obvious jokes aside, the men we are camping with go way out of their way to make us comfortable. They cook for us, the help us build our shade structure, they offer us costumes, extra blankets.

As the days pass, I find myself getting used to this world where I am not the one being objectified and give public nudity a try, feeling very free in my new reality. Eduardo on the other hand, becomes increasingly more anxious and clingy. I start feeling frustrated and grow tired of babysitting him. He seems overwhelmed by even the smallest of tasks. He is so serious all the time. Going out and exploring feels overwhelming to him and by our third day,we still haven’t really left our camp.

I lie in my tent while listening to the party around me and wonder why I thought it would be a good idea to bring Eduardo here. People warned me. They said, Are you sure? Burning man can be BRUTAL on relationships. But it’s the extreme nature of the experience that made me want to share it with Eduardo in the first place. On the one hand it’s an entirely contrived and synthetic experience but to me its extremity gives it a distinct authentic quality. You can’t get what you get there anywhere else.


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But for now it mildly feels like a crucible. Our routine grows progressively problematic. We are in the tent by 9 p.m. every night. By the fourth day, Thursday, he completely shuts down. We are at what is, arguably, one of the most social places in the world, participants in an intentional community built around the idea of human connection, and it becomes blindingly clear that Eduardo does not like that essential part of the experience. I keep hoping he’ll turn a corner, though. I drag him out to a nightclub, a giant geodesic dome fully decked out with velvet carpets, marble tables and cocktail waitresses, or pull him up on a Mad Max-like fire-breathing art car, but he starts to visibly cringe when people approach, and clings to his backpack.

On Friday, I wake up determined to make it work. I borrow a pink lamé cocktail dress from my brother, throw on a blue wig and drag Eduardo to the camp across from ours that is set up to look like a martini bar. It also has a trampoline. I’m doing “kneesies-sitsies-upsees,” a trampoline routine I learned as a child, when I try to pull Eduardo up on the trampoline with me. He yanks his hand away and huffs off towards the porta-potties as I shout, “Jump with me, it’s fun!”

When he storms off, I find the martini bar. As I hand the bartender a Sylvia Plath quote, he starts up the blender. Sipping my Martini I think about how everything is an exchange. I enlisted Eduardo to be the adult, so I could feel more like an adult in his presence without having to really take ownership or fully develop those qualities in myself. Eduardo had enlisted me as his muse, allowing him to be more playful, impulsive and fluid without having to take ownership or fully develop those qualities in himself. This has been our implicit arrangement. But now I’m done with it, and from the state of things, I’m sure he is too.

Two hours later, I find him sobbing in the tent. “I can’t,” he cries, “I can’t. It’s just too much. I thought it would be ok, but I can’t with the language and the dust and the constant pretending that I get everyone’s jokes…I’m sorry but I just can’t do it.” I’m instantly crying empathy tears. I talk him down as I find the baby wipes. I say, ”Ok mi amor, I understand; let’s leave tonight.”

He calms down as I spritz his arms and legs with vinegar and water and then take a baby wipe to his face. “I’m sorry,” I assure him. “I understand.”

“No, I’m sorry,” he says. “I understand.” We cry and laugh and hold each other. And I do understand. But I also think this is the beginning of the end.

Then my brother calls me to come get ready for the Critical Tits Parade, meant to be a topless celebration of estrogen and the power of women. I promise Eduardo we’ll make our escape just after the parade.

Jeff paints sunny-side-up eggs on my breasts, and bacon on my stomach, for the Critical Tit Parade. As he moves the brush, he awkwardly crooks his wrist to avoid my nipples. My brother’s boyfriend is taking a picture. “Dear Mr. Solomon,” he jokes. “Congrats, this is where your college money ended up.”

We are all giggling. It feels like a weird double date. When Jeff adds the final touches, Eduardo and I get on our bikes and join the 300 other topless women and others at the starting point. At some point we lose each other and then a sand storm hits. Everything is white. The dust is so thick it’s impossible to see, and everything comes to a halt. The world grows silent.

And then I hear, “Marco?”

I say, “Polo?”

I’d taught Eduardo the joys of the game of Marco Polo in a swimming pool on a family vacation earlier in the year. We go back and forth for a while:

“Marco.”

“Polo.”

“Marco.”

“Polo.”

We find each other. He immediately takes off his perfectly white shirt and covers my mouth and nose with it, protecting me from the dust storm. (I am now thankful he’s managed to keep it so clean.) When the dust clears, we are surrounded by a disorienting sea of women on bikes in every direction and we are just standing there, in the middle of this topless mob, hugging and laughing at the absurdity of it all. We can’t stop laughing.

A man is nearby in a pig shaped art car; the pig’s mouth is open, facing hundreds of dusty, topless women. The guy looks at Eduardo and says, “Awkward.”

Eduardo nods in agreement, “Si, si…awkward.”

We ride back to the tent when it starts to rain, but soon a sprawling, full rainbow envelops the city in a perfect frame. People are cheering and clapping and dancing, caked in mud. It’s the perfect moment to leave.

“I think we should stay and take the love pill that your brother has recommended,” Eduardo says coyly, surprising me, as I unravel the pump chord to deflate our mattress. Someone had apparently commented to my brother that they had extra MDMA when they heard us fighting in our tent the night before, and my brother passed on the message to Eduardo. But now I’m the one who wants to leave. The strain has been intense this past week, and I am relieved we have an escape plan that no longer feels explosive.

There are moments that leave no room for allegory or metaphor. We could have ripped the page from Alice in Wonderland or clipped the scene from the Matrix. I think Eduardo is a little more Neo than Alice, but either way, he insists on taking the pill. Burning Man is artfully disorienting. The “up” in growing-up isn’t always that clear. This is Eduardo’s time to grow. Maybe someday down the line I’d have the chance to become the one to get up in time to put my dry cleaned clothing on and head out the door to get where I need to be in time to do what is necessary. But it’s clear that now, I have to follow his lead.

Four hours later we find ourselves on an art car, a meticulously crafted pirate vessel, when Eduardo turns to me and says, “I think it’s taking an effect hermosa. Do you mind if we get to the land?” We are dizzily stepping off the vessel that seems to have transported us to an alternate universe when Eduardo slips into a narrated stream of consciousness.

I watch in disbelief as this uptight man whom I’ve dragged out to the middle of the Nevada desert jumps, carefree, on a trampoline. He’s so far from home, in a place where all the cultural codes are upside-down and backwards.

“Oh, hermosa. I thought it would be like drunk but, no, Punk it is not. I have to tell you that this is maybe the best experience in my 35 years.” When Eduardo notices me shivering, he opens the bag, “What, are you cold? “, he asks, ‘Here, put everything on.” he instructs as he helps me on with my snowsuit, Yes, I’ve brought a snowsuit to the desert because the temperature drops drastically at night, sometimes to the low 30’s. As he zips me up, he expresses more to me than he has in the entire time we have been together. It’s not just that his English is flowing, it’s his heart. The love drug is working.

“Puuuuunk” He whispers as he grabs my face in his hands. “When I was growing up in Buenos Aires there was a lot of fear. A military government is heavy. You can’t imagine. My parents were scared and my dad was so…so…rigid. We had many rules. I could feel everything in that apartment. Not easy, eh? When the economy crashed, I witnessed my parents lose all. Punk, they worked their whole lives, they are STILL working! You can’t imagine what it is like to have to make a decision to leave a country you love so much. People need stability. Do you realize how lucky you are to have grown up in a country that feels safe? You know that safety offers freedom, no? And opportunity, idealism. “This” he gestures, “could never exist in Latin America. Oh hermosa, I am so grateful to you for bringing me here! You Know, I…”

And, just as I think he is about to proclaim his love for me, he trails off. And then…

“Suddenly a muffin appear.”

“What?” I ask, trying not to display my disappointment that he hasn’t confessed his true affection.

“Suddenly a muffin appear!” He repeats.

And I look, and I scream, “Yes!” because it is true. Coming towards us is a giant, motorized, blueberry muffin riding across the desert. And it’s NOT the drugs. It is an actual 20-foot-tall muffin art car with purple neon lights and styrofoam molding that looks like creamy vanilla icing. And we are mesmerized.

We begin searching for a quiet place to talk. We stop a guy in a bowler hat who points toward the empty desert and says, “Walk in that direction, trust me.” His girlfriend, in a fringy red flapper outfit, chases after us and gives Eduardo her water bottle. When I look back, he is giving her a hug and I overhear her say, “De nada.

We walk for a half-a-mile until we arrive at a little mushroom house that is quiet indeed. It has blankets and a little porch light and we crawl inside. We talk all night. Eduardo and I touch on a lot of things that night: our families, the past, but mostly he wants to break down the complexities of the couples staying in our camp. “Mark is so kind and beautiful, yes? But Carlo, he’s a little bit of a bitch, no?”

Once we are back at our camp, Eduardo jokes around with a few of the guys while they struggle to pull rebar out of the ground. I’m ready to collapse from exhaustion when he drags me over to the trampoline and gets on.

“I want to learn the thing,” He says emphatically.

“You mean ‘kneesies-sitsies-upsees?’”

Si,” he says nodding, as he attempts to first fall on his knees, then jump into a sitting position, and then jump to a standing position. I watch in disbelief as this uptight man whom I’ve dragged out to the middle of the Nevada desert jumps, carefree, on a trampoline. He’s so far from home, in a place where all the cultural codes are upside-down and backwards. He’s covered in dust, his hair white, and his beautiful long eyelashes sprinkled just so. He’s jumping and jumping and jumping. Something in me settles, and I don’t feel compelled to take care of him or DO anything but watch him. For the first time in a long while there is a seamless line from the top of my sun-warmed head to the soles of my dusty feet as he whispers down at me, “Te queiro.”

Then, as if on cue, the giant muffin roars in, pulling a wake of dust in its tracks.

* * *

Joanne Solomon is a NYC-based writer and performer working with The Moth Mainstage, Houses on the Moon Theater Company and 5th Wall Studio. She is currently working on a memoir and show based on her time in the off Broadway aerial production of De la Guarda. Her Longreads essay, “When it Takes Being Thrown to Learn how to Land,” recently received a Notable Mention in The Best American Sports Writing 2018.

Editor: Sari Botton