The Story of Story Bar

This is a guest post by Indianopoulos.

The sun has declined from its peak, and the shadows have begun to lengthen, the heat to settle with the dust. People have begun to walk the streets drawn in the dusty playa, emerging from tents and RVs where they’ve sat out the hours of high intensity sun—or where they finally slept after the sun came up and indicated that although the music played on and the flow of bikes continued, here was a point where one could argue one day ended and the other began. As those bodies joined others who had the happy deeply sunned squint that comes with spending the daylight hours in full exploratory mode on the playa, Burning Man’s day shifted yet again.

Will—aka Mrs. Carrumba on the playa—steps behind the small, three-person bar we have borrowed from our neighbors at The Seven Deadly Sins and calls out.

“Story Bar! Story Bar is open! Step on up!”

I’m his bar-second; having come to Burning Man for the first time this year, I’ve been eager to contribute to the circus—to dig under the surface that much more, to be a part of the underlying dynamic that makes a Burn more than just a big party. Because it is, of course, a big party on several levels—witness the bar Mrs. Carrumba and I are standing behind, borrowed from a camp where one is invited to spin a wheel of fortune and then receive, upon one’s derrière, the number of lashes upon which the wheel alights. We have stocked Story Bar with drinks of no-label vodka and fruit punch—but the party at Story Bar and, in some ways, at the Burn as a whole, is only the lure. It becomes, at its best, beside the point. Or so Mrs. Carrumba had excitedly explained earlier in the week as we made our way over the Sierras, through Nevada, and into the desert.

Mrs. Carrumba is a Burn veteran, an academic who has been to several Burns over the preceding decade—enough of them that he has at times succumbed to the constant drumbeat of “Burning Man isn’t what it used to be.” The event has transformed from a completely rules-free environment, meant on some level to allow for artistic anarchy as a means toward expression and community building, into an event with a highly structured scaffold on which community members could then build their own versions of artistic anarchy with, hopefully, more people involved and fewer injuries. Mrs. Carrumba has come back, however, because he’s come around to a sense that because Burning Man has been evolving since the first Burn on Stinson Beach back in 1986, there is no Burn like any other Burn; a recognition that the event is ephemeral, and one can only experience it now. Yes, Mrs. Carrumba and the other veterans will always miss what’s past, and fret about what the Black Rock City Arts foundation, which organizes the Burns, has decided will sustain the event’s central dynamic, but they return because the central tenets are still in place and worthy of engaging with.

Story Bar is Mrs. Carrumba’s gift to the event, his way to bring to life what he sees as the most interesting tenet—that in radical sharing, intimacy is created, and that in those moments connection becomes art. In the late night conversations we had as we drove from San Francisco into Nevada, the idea was exciting—for an English teacher, a lover of movies and novels, the notion that how we tell our stories matters as much as the stories themselves, elevates the telling to the level of art, is gospel; like all gospels, in the light of day it sounded a bit wild-eyed, somewhere between naivete and a con.

The talk went on, however—the joy of a roadtrip, where the thread is lost at the rest stop, the gas stop, the change of driver, but comes back as the miles click and the light shifts—and as he told me about the different Burns he’d taken part in, his stories were the manifestation of the connections he’d described: he and I had first met only the night before we began the drive, but we were now Burn-partners.

As with so much at Burning Man, the absurd and the sublime lay separated by only the slimmest line; when we stopped at a Liquor Warehouse somewhere outside Reno, and Mrs. Carrumba scouted for the cheapest frat-party vodka and garishly chemical colored fruit punch, I laughed at the notion that Story Bar was anything other than one more way to offer a buzz wrapped up in a game.

Mrs. Carrumba protested that the drink itself was just a prop—a lure for Story Bar, and then an excuse for those who were drawn to the idea and needed a party “cover” for exposing a vulnerable part of themselves. I remember thinking that that was a pretty bloody high-minded way of thinking about giving away drinks, but Mrs. Carrumba compared it to the best moments at a party, when you find a total stranger who throws down a provocative question and you take up the challenge because—well, now there’s an interesting thing: why do we sometimes make ourselves vulnerable to someone we don’t know more easily than to someone we know pretty well?

We drove on, through towns and dusty hills, and Mrs. Carrumba insisted that this is what humans do: we reveal ourselves in such circumstances because we crave that moment of intimacy—forced intimacy, in a way, as it is invited by the violation of a social norm. Day in and day out, we live isolated lives because we agree not to raise certain common experiences lest we expose one another to risk: ridicule, rejection, hurt. And then, unexpectedly, someone violates that unspoken social contract, and there, in an instant, is the door: we too can choose to take that risk; we see it coming, the question is asked and we force ourselves to answer because when the right question is asked at the right time in the right way, we are reminded of something, something important to us in a way we might not be able to explain, but the answer is enough, someone asking and willing to listen is enough.

Mrs. Carrumba had mentioned previously that he has let all of this ripple throughout the layers of his life; as an academic at a university, he does not try to hide that going to Burning Man is part of what he does, with all that that might imply to others about psychoactive compounds and alternative modes of expression—screaming in the desert tweaked and seeing God, for example, if one needs to put cruder words to it. That, to him, he says, is part of living transparently—a notion I’ve been drawn to ever since I discovered that my immediate family was caught up in webs of adultery, closeted homosexuality, and deceit, including illegitimate births, electroshock therapy…several seasons worth of a full-blown soap opera. Yet, I noted that such transparency in every aspect of one’s life isn’t always possible—as much as I admired Mrs. Carrumba’s ability to carve out the time to attend Burning Man (which is scheduled in the final week of August, as if to make it nearly impossible for teachers to drop out for the week and attend) and to openly embrace the philosophy and practice of the “radical participation” aethestic, doing so as a high school teacher would be seen as advocating a practice (drugs and extreme behavior) and would never really be discussed in terms of the philosophy behind it.

Mrs. Carrumba countered that there were plenty of Burners who were stone cold sober—file this under the often repeated notion, borne out over a week of wandering Black Rock City, that if one can think of a way a group of people might identify, “there’s a camp for that”—and that if there were those who came out just to get as fucked up as possible under the open sky of the empty desert, that didn’t mean the philosophy of the event was defeated; as long as everyone remained aware and open to the possibility of radical participation in any given moment, then that was the driving force, the heart that beat in the dubstep, the thrum of bike tires, the pattern in the drumming, the flow of sunrise yoga, and the criss-crossing of artcars.

Mrs. Carrumba’s own sober burns were those on which he’d brought his daughters; with them too he practiced transparency, and we talked through the various ways in which bringing kids to a Burn seemed (to me) to be insane: the heat, the drugs, the dehydration, the need to search out a portapotty over and over in the course of any wander through BRC. Mrs. Carrumba agreed—for a child. He’d brought his daughters when they were in their mid-teens; to show them this part of his life, to talk with them about good decisions and poor ones, and the extent to which society does not necessarily offer the best guidance (“Do you want to be the girl who has passed out in the dust? Is there any way in which the guy dancing all night under the stars to a concert only he can hear is hurting anyone?”). Story Bar was a part of that as well.

I was part of the second edition of Story Bar. The initial version took place during one of the years when Mrs. Carrumba had brought one of his daughters with him. The bar requires a prompt: an invitation to share that shatters social convention by violating expectations about appropriate topics, thereby creating the possibility for “instant intimacy” among strangers. The prompt he’d chosen for the first iteration was “tell me about your most memorable sexual experience”—provocative out of the gate and provocative yet again with one’s teenage daughter as one’s bar partner. The word “memorable” was the key, he explained, because it was open to interpretation; it required that the bar patron participate from the word go. If the patron asked what they meant by “memorable” they returned “that’s for you to decide.” To get the drink, the patron had to tell a story. Or she could return to her travels, disappearing back into the throngs in Black Rock City. It was up to him.

He was unsure how it would all go, and his two barmates were openly skeptical. There was enough booze to get in about an hour before they would have to close down. He regaled me with a number of tales, ranging from soul deadening to sultry, but he focused not on the story, but the storyteller. Story Bar was a success in its first run, he declared, after a woman in her mid fifties he described as matronly approached the bar rolling solo, and asked what was going on. (Let’s call her StarChild.) His barmates were serving others, so he explained that it was simple: she would tell a story, and then he would serve her a drink. “What kind of story?” StarChild asked, warily. And he gave her the prompt. A brief look of alarm spread over her face, and she glanced about at the others, taking in the scene anew. “I don’t know.” Mrs. Carrumba smiled, and StarChild withdrew a bit from the bar, but did not leave. A few more patrons came and went, and when the bar was momentarily empty StarChild stepped forward, declaring “I want to do it.”

She told a story of her losing her virginity, at a summer camp, in a lake, with a boy she had a terrible crush on. As she described walking into the water, his arms around her back, the kisses, she warmed to the story and Carrumba began to sense her withdrawing into herself and into a memory that seemed to be gaining richness and detail as she did so. As she reached what appeared to be the end of the story, her eyes welled with tears, and when one dropped onto the bar it snapped her out of her revere. Fear shot across her face, and Mrs. Carrumba said he reached out his hand, palm upturned. “I’m sorry,” she said “I feel like a fool.” “Don’t,” offered Mrs. Carrumba, “that’s the best story I have heard all night.” His barmates chimed in, offering their thanks and appreciation. She paused, and gathered herself. Carrumba’s daughter poured and served the drink. As StarChild grasped the cup she looked up at the bar crew. “Thank you for asking me that,” she said. “It’s been years since anyone acknowledged me as a sexual being.”

“That,” Mrs. Carrumba said, “I’m glad my daughter heard.” He had shared with her a vision of a complex adult life and the notion that something as seemingly simplistic as Story Bar had allowed the storyteller to acknowledge a part of herself from which she’d become disconnected. The drink had indeed been a ruse, and the gift was one StarChild had given to herself. Mrs. Caruma looked at me, across the cab of our rented RV, a smug look of triumph on his dimly lit face.

Was I ready to drink the Kool Aid? Several elements, it seemed clear, contributed to the moment, the transcending of the random storytelling experience to the point of real connection. It wouldn’t work with everyone who walked up to the bar, but the bartender/listener was more than a passive consumer: he was an important part of the process who would increase or decrease the chances of “instant intimacy” by his ability to create a safe, inviting space despite opening with a social norm violation. Most obviously, she had to remain fully open to the story throughout, no matter what. Empathy was critically important.

And in addition to empathic, engaged barmates there was what started the whole process: the prompt, which needed to be provocative but not overly directed.

As we rolled through the desert, I chewed on the prompt he’d chosen for our Story Bar: “Tell me about the most poignant moment in your life.” The word “poignant” was, of course, the key to violating intimacy norms and avoiding directedness.

And I found myself thinking that the prompt was, on one level, ridiculous; there isn’t one moment in anyone’s life that is the most poignant. Unless there is. And here’s where I saw part of the genius of the construction: the bar, the playa, the walk-by, the moment of connection: in that moment, whatever pops into one’s head is, in fact, the most poignant because it’s what is calling out to be told.

So that’s the narrative magical realism version, right? We all have a story waiting to be told, and it doesn’t matter what the story is because any story is our story and our story is the only story…

The skeptic in me took a step back. And yet the romantic in me knew there was a story I would tell if that question were asked. I knew it, viscerally, immediately. If I were able to just step forward into the moment. So I stepped, right there in the cab of the RV, and told him this story as he drove: the story of arguing with my brother in the backyard of the house where I grew up, arguing as my mother lay dying in her bedroom upstairs, arguing about how he’d been doing such an excellent job of taking care of all the details of her final days—the hospital visits, the release into hospice, the inevitable funeral—that I felt shut out, and how as I was both arguing and crying I came to see his relationship to her, and what it meant to him to take that role—what it cost and why he needed it—but how I needed to be a part of it too, part of the grief and the burden, instead of merely a bystander to the death of the woman who’d raised me. How the green grass of the suburban backyard, and the small size of it, both struck me as meaningful for those ten minutes, in ways they hadn’t. The whole of it, a photograph of our family, of my life up til then and all it would and wouldn’t be from here on in.

And then I stopped talking, and the warm silence in the RV was enough.

And so, long before we stood on the late-afternoon playa and opened ourselves up for business, I was sold. Still nervous about calling out into the crowd and offering to listen—hadn’t the past several days of absurd excess cancelled out my ability to be sincere?—but knowing I needed to see it through.

People wandered over, dusty and satisfied with the day they’d spent, looking out for the next small adventure in the same way we’d gone, the day before, to the Ninja Camp (yep, there’s a camp for that) vegan burger giveaway and, on request, play-acted ninja fighting in exchange for our burgers. The first storyteller was a guy, Angel Bob, let’s say, perhaps in his early 30s, with an easy smile, who pondered the prompt a moment before telling a story about his grandmother and the bird she kept; his grandmother was now dead, but the playfulness of the relationship between the elderly woman, the boy, and the bird, came alive in his confident spinning of the tale. As he talked, the tale took on mythic tones, the bird was anthropomorphized, part of the family, and the keeper of the grandmother’s loving doting nature. And it became clear that while Mrs. Carrumba and I were the listeners, so was the woman with whom he’d approached. The tentative nature of her laughter at the start of this tale she’d clearly never heard—from a man she perhaps had met only this day—his warm tone and sly asides, the air was subtly electric in the slanting sunlight, the romance of the small boy’s experience reflected in the romancing of this man, who seemed to step into the afternoon light.

As they enjoyed their drink, the connection between them strong and the connection of the bar tangential but essential, a woman in her forties—Shadow, she might call herself—stepped up to the bar with two guys who were looking a bit wary of how this encounter might unfold. Shadow’s eyes were bright as she listened to Mrs. Carrumba explain – “I’ll serve you a drink in exchange for a story. No, not any story…there’s a prompt.” And she paused, and then she started to talk about a trivial fight she and her sister had, returning from a festival, and who would drop off whom first, and how she’d relented to her sister’s wishes despite the fact that it meant she would not have enough time to visit her grandparents that weekend, despite having promised to do so. And her story turned as she explained that her grandfather had a massive stroke two days later…

And though I was in my place, the listener open to the story, the light shifted on my left, and another patron placed himself in the soft sun. Duty called. He was in his late teens, bare-chested and sandle-shod, bronzed and sinuously alive. Desert Jesus. Wide-eyed and confidently bashful. Looking, perhaps, more for a drink than for an experience, but willing to play because that’s what life was for him. He thought for several minutes about the prompt, requiring a definition of the word “poignant”—“Oh wow, that’s…Okay, okay, cool”—and then began to talk in mythic tones about being on the road with friends, the wide road in front of them…and realizing that they were actually going to be at the Burn soon.

Now, the cynic in me, remembering Mrs. Carrumba’s more positively skewed observation that the more mature a storyteller the more layered a story, stepped back and thought, “Really? The most poignant moment in your life happened…3 days ago? On your way to Burning Man? BECAUSE you were on your way to Burning Man?”

But his smile, and the light, and the way his hands moved, his arms opening as he talked…why not? At the age of 19, why shouldn’t one’s most poignant moment be one shared with friends on a road trip to the oddest rave-at-the-apocalypse on earth? I leaned into the story, and he talked. Not for long, but long enough. Enough for the drink and the sunlight and the stillness in the midst of a crowd of 55,000 people.

I was aware, at the same time, that Shadow had begun to cry—she was trying to tell the story but had to stop and start several times as a few tears became sobs. Mrs. Carrumba reached across the bar and put his hand on her shoulder; her friends shifted their weight, visibly uncomfortable; she paused; she started again. Gripping the bar, she allowed the emotion and willed the words. When she finished, she embraced Mrs. Carrumba and the end of the story became a moment of heaving sobs. He offered her a cool glass of water, the other currency of the playa, and she moved off into the shade of the truck behind the bar while Mrs. Carrumba and I tended to other patrons who visited the bar.

Several stories later, Shadow approached Mrs. Carrumba again; she had regained her composure, though her flushed cheeks remained. The men who had come with her were three steps back, still in the shade, as she stepped back into the light and waited for Mrs. Carrumba to be free. She needed to explain, she said. She had chosen that story because she had written about the experience of her grandfather’s death, talked about it in therapy, and considered it “safe.” She laughed at the notion, bright eyes and shaken nerves, and thanked Mrs. Carrumba for giving her the chance to complete the process; to tell the whole thing.

The sun was setting, and there was a breeze that would become a chill wind, turning the hot playa into gatherings of people looking for a moment of warm connection. Story Bar was closing as the sound camps continued to pump out rhythms penetrating to the bone, drawing listeners close as the melodies and basslines were fractured and put together in ways that helped us each hear them anew, to move in our own space, bumping up against others, smiling, and moving on, crisscrossing the open playa on our way to our next encounter.

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About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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One Response to The Story of Story Bar

  1. Pingback: Mrs. Carrumba’s Black Rock City Chronicles | Will Opines

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