“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.” – William Shakespeare
I am incredibly fortunate in life to have a number of wonderful, compassionate, solid friends whose support and love has been constant and unwavering. Several of them I met during my freshman year in college, fall 2000 – spring 2001, and our crew still gets together for adventures and celebrations, 17 years later.
Each relationship is unique, and one of the most special friendships that I am lucky to have is with my buddy, Bill Cromie. We met during the first month of freshman year, when we lived in the same dorm, 3 floors apart. By the end of the school year, he dated one of my roommates and I dated his next door neighbor, and everyone in our large group of friends had enjoyed a lot of partying, exploring New York City, and getting to study things we were actually interested in (for the most part).
Bill was then and is now the guy who seems to know everything. In part, that’s because he does know a little bit about a lot of things, and a lot about enough topics that he can bullshit the rest and most people will accept it. He speaks with confidence and authority and has an honest face, so unless someone else is present who actually knows more about a topic, many people defer to his knowledge and experience. I’ve seen it happen countless times, so I am fully aware of his soap-box magic, and I support it because I know he will always use his powers for the betterment of his fellow humans.
He has gotten much better about saying, “I don’t know” or qualifying his statements with “to the best of my knowledge” over the years, because, well, when you’re in your early 20s, you know everything and when you’re in your mid-30s, you’ve become very aware that you don’t know a whole lot and neither does anybody else. But let’s go back for a moment to when we were 20:
The first semester of sophomore year was dominated by the events of September 11th, and the second semester was still very much impacted by it. The dorm we both lived in was only a mile north of ground zero, and it was south of a police checkpoint that remained in place for several weeks that required us to show our school IDs to get past. Many of my classes turned into group therapy sessions (being led by non-therapist teachers who were themselves shell-shocked).
A positive memory I have from that time is that Bill taught himself to contact juggle a glass ball while living directly 1 floor above me with our friend Andrew. Think Jareth from Labyrinth, but learning, so with lots of, um, gravity lessons. Many other fun times were had among the moments of intensity and darkness that year.
In the fall of 2003, Andrew convinced me and another friend to go to Burning Man, and during the school year that immediately followed it (our senior year), we easily convinced Bill and a few others to go in 2004. Since then, he has gone every year but one (while I have sat out 3 years), and this year he went for the 13th time. If one wanted to, one could call it his “Burn Mitzvah”. Being the man that he is, he has always given a lot of his time, energy and money to the camp that our friends have called home over all of those years. In recent years, as the camp became ever more self-sufficient, he has given some of that time and energy to work for the Gate crew.
Several months before this year’s burn (2017), I was thinking about Bill, and about how I wanted to make him some art. I have a personal goal of making a piece of art to give to each of my close friends, a goal that has been a source of inspiration long before it was even a formal goal, like with “Nolan’s Fireplace” and “Homeskillets”. I wanted it to be a piece I could start and finish quickly, unlike the fireplace which took several years. I’m currently in the middle of another newspaper piece, so it seemed prudent to choose a different medium for this project. Since the other trophies that I’ve created only took a month or two each, I felt fairly certain that Mike and I could finish it in time to give it to Bill at the burn. When I settled on making him an art trophy, it felt right because I wanted the piece to honor his contributions to the world. But the first inkling of inspiration really came from the base, and my desire to use-it-or-lose-it.
I had had the base already among my things. I had picked it up somewhere (thrift store, yard sale, etc) for a short film I production designed in 2011, “Crazy Town”. I had used it as shelf-filler in an office set, and then it took up space on a shelf in my apartment in the years since. I had recently picked the base up during a stuff-purge and debated donating it, but as I was contemplating it, I realized it could make a great base for an art trophy. And since it already had a flame motif, of course it should be a Burning Man trophy. And the person most deserving of a Burning Man trophy that I know is Bill. Sometimes everything just fucking clicks and it’s magic.
I bought the Drum Major figure from a trophy shop in Hollywood, and it was surprisingly hard to find. Many trophy websites sell the drum majorette figure, but don’t carry the male version. I looked through hundreds of website catalog pages and only found the 1 at a reasonable price (since I could go pick it up in person and not pay a ridiculously high shipping charge for a small, lightweight item). The important thing is, I found one and bought it, and Mike and I got to work transforming it.
I wanted to keep the hands and face gold (I’ve decided that all of the figures on my art trophies will be the same skin-tone: the factory figurine gold), so we covered them with painters’ tape and “blue stuff”. Mike air-brushed the clothes, then I sculpted the top hat out of milliput and rounded out the tennis ball. I did the details on his jacket (with reference photos taken by Bill’s girlfriend, Meghan) and Mike painted the tennis ball and the headlamp. Then he glued on the hat’s ribbon, and finished the figure off by painting and dusting the base with real Black Rock playa.
When we went to attach the figure, we measured how tall it would be and realized that it would be difficult to ship with those dimensions (we gave it to Bill at the event in Nevada and he flew home to NYC after, so I knew it would end up getting shipped). So we added velcro strips to the figure’s base and to the trophy base so that the figure could be removed for transport (and/or played with once it gets home; now mini-Bill can get re-positioned anywhere!).
I had the nameplate made at another trophy shop in east LA, and getting the quote was a group project. It’s a family quote, something Bill had said many times before. But there wasn’t a consensus on the wording, so our friend Virginia had to ask for confirmation from him at a party without arousing suspicion (and relay the correct wording before getting inebriated and forgetting). To this day, I’m not 100% sure we got it exactly right, but hey, that fits with the quote itself, so there you go!
I’ve long ago lost count of the number of times that I’ve cried on Bill’s shoulder. There were sad cries, happy cries and even a relief cry after he managed to find a rolled-up mural, “Vincent: Love Triumphs!”, that I’d made for our friends’ wedding that had been put with the trash at the end of the reception. So, true to form, I cried a little when I presented the trophy to him at our camp’s speakeasy bar last month. It was a happy cry, happy that I got to celebrate a wonderful human and happy that I am so fortunate as to be his friend.
This time, I think he cried a little bit, too.
Photo credits include: Sai Naz, Tim McDonough, Leah Bonvissuto, Joel Remland, Sam Berlin and others.
Many thanks to Virginia Monaco for help with the quote, to Meghan-Sara Karre for jacket pics and for keeping the secret for so long, and to Nina Hazen for the trophy pictures and video on-playa! And an extra special thank you to my talented and supportive boyfriend, Mike Lewis, for contributing his skills and time, and for putting up with my project-managing and perfectionism.
And a billion thank yous to Bill, for hosting this website on his server, and for being you.