850 Bryant and The Burnerverse!
Updated: Apr 28
850 Bryant is as bleak a building as it looks. There are no smiles, polite greetings, or even a head nod from the people climbing the gunmetal stairs. Most everyone who enters is doing so as required by law. Fun is a shriveled balloon that never came close. This loveless building is the county courthouse and jail for San Francisco County and a vapid echo chamber for misdeeds and conflicts. Any time I’ve had to enter my legs become much heavier as I lean into the gravity of the law.
This was one of those days.
Like any schmo that lives in a metropolis crammed onto a seven-mile-wide peninsula, I had parking problems. I was living in a tiny apartment in the Lower Haight and my DPW truck was amassing street cleaning tickets. Yet again I would be woken by the sound of the sweeper, which meant an $80 parking ticket was already flapping under my windshield wiper. The stack was mounting so I bit my lip, grabbed about $500 cash (this was before online payments), and slogged down to 850 Bryant.
Why the hell did I bring my truck down here, I thought to myself as I bullied my way down Bryant St toward the looming fortress of the courthouse and jail. Even my dirty white pickup truck that I bought from Cowboy Carl was pissed at me for bringing it there. Then the poor choice deepened. There was, of course, no place to park. Parking meter spots stretched for blocks and were viciously fought over. And even if one opened up, the City Hall of evilness had installed HALF-HOUR METERS ONLY! Any courthouse errand was sure to take longer ensuring ANOTHER GOD DAMN PARKING TICKET!
“Are you shitting me?” I shouted into the dusty cracked windshield. “So how the fuck does anybody deal with this shit?
On cue, the hand of greed came into my view. It was a pay parking lot with a sign that read: “City Parking - $25 for the first half-hour and $5 for every half hour after.”
I was running short of time and out of options. I made the smoldering choice and cranked the wheel.
“I shouldn’t be more than an hour,” I said to the attendant handing him the keys. He lifted an eyebrow as he glanced at the wrecked magnificence of a Burning Man Department of Public Works work truck. He tilted his head at the DPW door logos and regarded them. He glanced back at me with a sideways grin. A needle prick of embarrassment jabbed me. He was a younger dark-haired fellow with a slim build wearing a white attendant uniform without a spot on it.
“She’s a bit dusty,” I said sheepishly. “I can drive it to its slot if you don’t want to get in.”
Without a word, he brushed a cloud of dust up off the seat, got in, and gunned it off to a numbered slot. Even the trucks and cars seem like they’re being taken to jail when under the shadow of 850 Bryant!
After climbing the stony stairs and getting processed through the metal detectors, I navigated through the dark marble hallways, following the grim signs. Turning a corner I found the appropriate room. There was a line of people coming out the door and down the hall.
“There’s like a hundred people in line here!” I said to no one. My mind instantly flashed to City Parking. I was finding out why the price went up every half hour. I shoved my hands in my pockets and got into the world’s most unfriendly line.
About $30 in parking time later, the line had inched enough that I was actually stepping into the room. It was harshly lit with no windows, blank grey walls, and an angry line of people. I’ve never experienced angrier. People tend to handle serious hardship way better than being inconvenienced. Along the back wall was the only feature in the room: a drab service window with a small elderly lady attending it. She was sitting behind inch thick cloudy bulletproof glass and looked like an irritated badger with librarian glasses. Judge Judy came to mind. A clue to the nature of her work was a large sign on the wall behind her head. It was the only thing on the wall and it read in boldface:
“Profanity is not tolerated and is punishable by up to 90 days in jail, a $300 fine, or both!”
Between the bulletproof glass and this sign, I was wondering how many times this lady had been cussed at, shot at, or both! Parking is a stressful venture in San Francisco.
It was close to two hours and $40 bucks parking time when I finally got to the window. “Good afternoon”, I said to the badger lady behind the glass. I got zero response. Better folk than I have tried. As I pushed the paperwork through the small opening at the bottom of the glass, I noticed that there was a brisk draft sucking through the opening due to a fan the lady had cranked up to full blast in her room. Must get hot in that little box, I thought. But I was in no mood for pity.
“That will be $487 dollars, sir. Will that be cash or check?” (This was long before Apple Pay.)
“Cash”, I answered as I dug deep and pulled out my wad of moola. I placed the stack on the ledge but before I could stuff it through, the draft caught the stack, sucked it through, and poofed it into the face of the badger lady like a confetti popper! The bills then swirled into the fan wind and blew everywhere! The lady never moved. She just sat on her stool and lasered me through her librarian glasses as the money flitted around her head like moths. Several people in line noticed this. Many cracked a smile. It may well have been the first bit of levity in their dreary day. Sensing an audience, I glanced over my shoulder and said,
“Wow! This place is so greedy it literally SUCKS the money outta ya!”
I can’t be certain of this, but I like to think that I may be the only person in San Francisco citizenry to ever get a laugh out of the grumpiest lineup in town! Badger Lady, however, was NOT amused as she slid off her stool and started gathering the bills, one by one. Now I did feel bad and would have offered help in picking up the cash, but, you know, the bulletproof glass and all…
Walking out of the building I had a pretty dark scribble hovering over me. I was covered with the gooey tar of getting reamed and my wallet was still smoking. But it was done and I was clear of the parking burden. Or so I thought. I had forgotten about the pay parking lot across the street where my truck was still imprisoned and needed bail. I wasn’t done hemorrhaging cash quite yet. My spirits sank even lower as I checked my watch. Two and a half hours had passed! After the gut-punch of the $487, I was getting a last kick in the crotch for another $45!
I hustled to the lot knowing that another half-hour was about to expire and stood at the booth waiting for the next attendant. There was nobody around as the clock ticked. Another ten minutes and another half-hour hit the meter. These crooks are doing this shit on purpose! WHAT A SCAM! I was about to blow. And just when I started to redline I saw my dusty truck rolling toward me from within the lot. The same dark-haired young guy was driving it and this time he weirdly had a giant smile on his face!
Not only was he gouging me out of $50 bucks, but he was also smiling about it! The nerve of this guy!
I stood in quiet rage. He popped out of the cab of the truck and almost skipped over to me handing me my truck keys taking full pleasure out of the moment. What a putz! “So - how much do I owe?” I asked in a measured voice. I was in no mood to tangle with him.
But when the young lad handed me the keys with a soft smile, something about him disarmed me. His smile seemed genuine - filled with decency.
“You don’t owe a thing,” he said. “Today’s parking is on the house. This is a thank you for building Black Rock City. See you out on the playa, my desert friend!”
With that, he winked and strode off. He knew it was a DPW playa truck all along. I stood stunned. I had never misread a scenario so badly.
Have you ever had a day go from horrid to wondrous in a split of time? I did. That pure gesture erased all the treachery in one sweet swoop. Free parking is nothing to be trifled with. But more to the story, it was a selfless act of kindness asking nothing in return - a glittering gem in a pile of schlock.
The traffic home didn’t bother me a bit as a steady grin piloted me. Such a simple act, I thought. But not really.
I have never underestimated the might of our growing Burnerverse since. We are truly everywhere. That’s because we live in the heart.