There are certain DPW types among us who have been here long enough to start “in my day”-ing people. We try not to do it that often — regale newer volunteers with horror stories of our pre- and post-event Ranch living back at the turn of last century — but when we’re asked, we can go on sometimes. Crews wandering off, rice with maggots in it, overworking constantly, stress-fights, and piles of junk with no OSHA regulators in sight.
We try to use as little emotion as possible when telling the kiddoes about the days before the Internet exploded, before the DPW developed a vast and internecine infrastructure.
This writer joined the DPW in 1998, staying for cleanup here and there sometimes over the years, until 2008. As always with this Burning Dude thing, the DPW was making it up as we went along. Seven years later, this writer has once again stayed in the desert past Last Supper to document Playa Restoration, and boy have things changed.
Playa Restoration manager D.A. joined DPW cleanup in 1999 and changed the name to Playa Restoration in 2005. He’s now the general who strategizes with maps, leading the charge at day’s beginning as we set sail from the shoreline for the open sea of Lahontan to search for MOOP.
“It was raw,” D.A. agrees about the olden times. “We weren’t as well-funded. We weren’t as healthy becaause we didn’t know what it meant to be healthy out here. The Fluffers changed everything for the DPW.”
(Fluffers, for those who don’t know, have nothing to do with pornography and everything to do with driving around huge utility trucks full of snacks, drinks, and self-care sundries. They huck heavy coolers full of water and ice and make sure we don’t die.)
“We used to get dropped off in the middle of nowhere with just a bucket of water, and sometimes it spilled over,” D.A. says. “Now we have buses that stay with us — and radios. We didn’t have portapotties with us. We dealt with it but it was time-consuming. Now we have a person whose job it is to keep a portajohn with the lines.
“We have a 24/7 auto shop,” says D.A. “When we broke down before, it was for the whole day. We didn’t get as much done. The system we have is still the same system — it’s just evolving.”
D.A. branched out in his own Burning Man DPW cleanup career by joining Special Forces in 2002 — a new crack team of capable people assembled by Phyxx to deal with the moopy hot spots. There was rivalry at first. These days, everyone on the line sweep crews gets to be Special Forces for a day or two.
“But the line sweeps are the heart of the matter,” D.A. says. “They just needed love. We put the Fluffers, Portajohns, and buses at the line sweeps. Special Forces can roll.”
When speaking of ye olde DPW Days, it’s always hard to avoid sounding like a Russian grandmother visiting an American grocery store for the first time. Some of the vintage DPW crew still huddle together to gush over the delicious meals our Resto kitchen now serves us — serves us with a smile, without yelling, without leaning over to dump their shirtless tits in the food, and without maggots.
It’s beautiful. ::cries::
Also, nobody’s really drunk or fighting or tripping or having psychotic breaks on the line any more. We’ve hit the marathon-not-a-sprint stride. There’s no drinking until 5pm in the DPW now. That’s a firm rule. There’s no reason to drink — not like there was.
“Back in the day we drank beer all day long,” Railroad Mike says. “But you remember that. Sometimes we were shitfaced by noon, and that’s one of the things that made it tolerable.”
Even those who didn’t always drink were driven to do so in the post-season cleanup fiasco. In fact, this writer, who hasn’t drunk any alcohol for over half a decade, feels a little awkward doing line sweeps again in 2015, but stone-cold sober and/or not hung over. However, everyone working hard here in harsh conditions seems to be enjoying themselves, and the atmosphere is a lot less life-or-death.
In the beginning, the DPW had no MOOP sticks at all, not until around 2006. Previous to that, everyone picked up every piece of trash off the ground by hand.
“When I started out we were all bending over,” Railroad Mike says. “Nobody had MOOP sticks. So we were all basically walking the desert at a 90-degree angle.
“The flock of fluffer trucks always beckoning you forward now, with everything from smokes to snacks to …” Railroad’s voice trails off as his eyes gleam with gratitude for the bounty.
There were 30 people on cleanup crew in the year 2000. With minimum equipment and resources, we hoed a hard road to set the desert back to rights. Fluffers didn’t exist yet; neither did Collexodus. Without Mama Loella, the original fluffer, we might have starved to a Lord of the Flies level a couple times.
“So when people got sick,” D.A. says, “legitimately sick or the bottle flu … next thing you know you’ve got 13 people out there.”
Now, 2015’s Resto crew has 140 members, and cleanu– er, Playa Restoration functions like a well-charged Lorentz gun. (Lord willing and the dust storms don’t rise.)
Once Resto starts, we’ve already moved to the trailer park in Gerlach — where we have four walls and a roof to stay in, away from tent-living with crawling bugs and scorpions on the Ranch, and we have showers. Like, real ones, not a horse trailer with a hose hookup we soaped up with on the 80 acres.
After days of stooping and MOOPing in the wind, being able to wash that corrosive alkaline dust off one’s meatsack — in a closed bathroom, without any growing dehydration-paranoia about creepy cowboys spying on your naked body from behind a clump of sagebrush — is the truest way to avoid an eventual meltdown.
Maybe that’s the point. We melted down in every way possible. Now we know what not to do.
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