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New Times: It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

March 16, 2011

It’s 9:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 25, and I’m fairly certain that the moving truck I’m occupying is about to turn onto its side, a byproduct of uninhibited revelry and no small quantity of booze. Nicholas Walter and Jeremy Thomas – New Times’ Geek Out columnist and the Santa Maria Sun’s staff writer, respectively – appear committed to this potentially dangerous outcome. They dash frenetically from one side of the truck to the other. News Editor Colin Rigley, dressed as a banana – more on that later – laughs madly as the dancers begin to bounce against the wall like popcorn kernels celebrating their own demise.
Just as I convince myself that this is not such a terrible way to die – and far less humiliating than making a phone call to Aaron Steed (owner of Meathead Movers) to apologize for overturning one of the five moving trucks he graciously let us borrow – the feverish pitch begins to subside. The truck continues to bounce into the night to some unidentified techno beat – Art Director Alex Zuniga’s disco ball will be returned less several mirrors – but nobody will be escorted to the emergency room.

In the beginning …
   Word on the street is that god created the earth in six days; I wasn’t truly impressed with this feat until I considered that he, too, was working off the grid.
No permits.
No Porta-potties
Box City took something like six months to bring to fruition, and I have to admit that I stole the original idea from a series of guerilla art events called Lost Horizon Night Market (laughingsquid.com /the-lost-horizon-night-market/) in San Francisco. Artists rented trucks, drove them to an industrial corner of the city, and filled them with beautiful and bizarre experiences.
Don’t let the word “market” fool you: The entire stunt was free, a surreal gift to the community pre-packaged in Budget Rental Trucks that smelt of udon, paint, and sweat. A seemingly innocuous street filled with vehicles, inside which blossomed restaurants, hot tubs, seedy hotels, bowling alleys, and even a night sky.
What the revelers probably didn’t realize was that for every hot tub, there was an exhausted artist – or five – charged with locating and carting it to the remote location. Behind each volunteer there were five businesses or individuals who offered to help but bailed in the days before the event, or arrived late, or not at all.
Box City didn’t come with a set of blueprints or guidelines. Or a cushy budget that would allow us to throw money at problems that arose along the way. Make no mistake: Dancing in a moving truck is an absolute blast. I highly recommend it. But I spent most of the day trudging through the rain with generators and bamboo, with the guarantee that the effort would amount to anything at all.
On Dec. 31, Arts Editor Anna Weltner and I met Meathead Movers’ Aaron, hoping to convince him to part with a few of his trucks for an artistic odyssey that would take participants into the city’s darkest industrial corners. It was surprisingly easy. The business owner seemed to immediately grasp the scope of our vision and promised us our trucks, making a theme suggestion of his own as well: a wrestling demonstration.  We could celebrate the conclusion of 2010 with the promise of adventure in the year to come. We settled on our dates: Feb. 25. Which would turn out to be the day the sadistic weather gods predicted snow for the Central Coast; March 25; and April 1.
Choosing themes was the easy part. Everyone had an idea. “Anime City,” suggested graphic designer Brendan Rowe. “A bomb detonation truck,” begged Executive Editor Ryan Miller. “A food fight truck,” proposed the staff at Sally Loo’s. “A Tetris truck,” said Aaron, following his original suggestion.
We had far more ideas than trucks.
After much debate, we settled on the following themes for the first even: a dance party facilitated by KCPR, a Japanese tea ceremony, a paint-a-shared-canvas mural, a movie theater, and a wrestling demonstration, per Aaron’s suggestion.
Several hours in, the wrestlers were restless. From the vantage point of their truck – padded with borrowed mats – they could see directly into KCPR’s dance truck, which had the advantage of music and, more importantly, girls. Staff Writer Matt Fountain had been tapped to act as referee, wearing the standard black-and-white-striped shirt provided by Costume Capers.
“I think I only saw one real win that whole night,” Matt revealed several days later. One of the 10 or so Cal Poly athletes pressed into spending a Friday night in a sweaty moving truck, there was one who truly embraced the unorthodox bouts. He mostly rotated through the other wrestlers as sparring partners.
Our disgruntled wrestlers took a break, promising to return. Matt used the opportunity to go on a Jameson run to Crossroads Liquor, where he happened upon Nick and Colin, who had independently engaged in the same quest. Business at the liquor store had apparently been booming as a result of our little lark, and the Jameson flowed so freely that the cashier ran out of flasks of the good stuff.
Guests took advantage of the empty wrestling truck to settle their own scores.
“I think Dora and Russell kicked it off,” Matt theorized, referring to production designer Dora Mountain and her boyfriend Russell Garner, who at one point could be seen body slamming one another in the back of the wrestling truck.
Dora had a different story to tell, maintaining that she decided to “wrassle” her beau after watching Matt and Tanya Gallardo (New Times’ Marketing Coordinator) re-enact several scenes from Kill Bill. Sans samurai swords. Whichever duo kicked off the do-it-yourself “wrassling” trend has to be credited with inadvertently notching up the event’s interactive component. Until that point, passersby could cheer on their favorite wrestler, but the act of clambering into a truck and throwing yourself into the action is what defined Box City. Or, at least, the Box City that hovered hopefully on the horizon of my mind.

The anatomy of a moving truck
   Inside each truck, we had approximately 192 square feet to work with, the larger of the trucks hitting 234 square feet. In order to remain sane – or find a reasonable approximation of sanity – I knew I would need to find facilitators willing to assume responsibility for each of the trucks, and the dimensions would be of particular importance to them.
The tea truck was the most difficult to assemble, mostly because our facilitator only really fell into place the week before the event. I had approached several local tea proprietors, hoping they would agree to participate, but for one reason or another, none of them could. Santa Maria Sun Managing Editor Amy Asman stepped up to the plate, offering to serve as prop mistress to the truck of Feb. 11 after I sent out a desperate e-mail pleading for assistance. We pillaged our co-workers’ houses and garages for décor – figurines from Brendan, parasols from Executive Editor Ryan Miller, a screen from Heather Walter, an Oriental rug from publisher Bob Rucker, and a trio of coffee tables from myself, Tanya, and Ryan.
The heavens pelted us with rain all throughout the set-up process, which began around 3 p.m., but we theorized that hot tea and a meager offering of appetizers would stave off some of the cold.
If cleanliness is next to godliness, punctuality must fall several notches down on the virtue list – somewhere between keeping a tidy bath towel collection and  mowing your elderly neighbor’s lawn. By 5 p.m. Chloe Rucker – who had been pressed into service by her mother, Cindy – and I were frantically stringing up curtains and had seen neither hide nor hair of any of our dozen or so “eager” assistants. Tanya had already dropped off the bulk of our props and was bravely navigating Bob Rucker’s truck through the wet street to acquire the last of our loot. Everyone else, it turned out, was applying the finishing touches to their costumes, namely make-up. Which is a little difficult to get behind when you’ve long since given up hope of being anything besides waterlogged.
But that was all before the bamboo.
The Wednesday prior to the event, Amy came over to my house with some unidentified cutting tool and we felled a small army of bamboo. The slender, brittle stalks felt like plastic in our hands and seemed at odds with the green leaves that fanned out gracefully from their peaks. We interspersed them throughout the tea truck, using a solid wood panel that ran the length of the vehicle for support, and the yellow stalks were suddenly august to their playful leafy counterparts. It was still raining. But we were no longer standing in a cul de sac in SLO; we had the good fortune of occupying a tearoom in Japan. Four trucks, empty shells really, awaited our attention. But Box City was going to work. That was the moment I believed it.
By 6 p.m., Amy had arrived, along with graphic designer Heather Walter and Linnaea’s baristas Chris Burd and Chaz Daum, both of whom came in costume and with a variety of tea-making apparatuses. The team of four had the tea truck running within the hour, a bower of warmth and hospitality in more ways than I had intended; it somehow became known as the booze truck, in which weary wanderers could acquire a hot cup of tea – or sake, if it was more their taste. At any given point, the tea truck was filled with guests sitting side by side, politely chatting.
“Multiple people told me, ‘What you’re doing is really awesome! I’ve never seen anything like this is SLO before,’” Amy recounted. “They all acted like they’d stumbled into the Land of Oz.”
The truck was not without its problems of course. The unruly banana, feeling fresh apparently, hopped into the tea truck and demanded that Amy ask if he wanted tea.
“Colin, would you like some tea?” she obliged.
“Yes, that would be very a-peeling.”
Bad puns are everywhere, it seems. Even Oz.

The chicken or the egg?
   Box City was a mere two hours old, and our newest sales rep, Jon Fox, was wearing a bellhop costume provided by Costume Capers, and fully in character as a lecherous Frenchman. Amy, Chris, and Chaz were resp9onsibly serving libations. Ryan, as flamboyant as any peacock, was dressed as a red-cheeked busker, and boldly engaged passersby to take a gander at a nearby truck. And somewhere, our news editor was wandering around dressed as a banana, looking for a gorilla named Bo.
Not surprisingly, the gorilla was friends with the art truck’s Neal Breton. I was excited when he pitched Bo the gorilla as an interactive, improvisational performer, but became paranoid that Bo’s real motivation behind volunteering to participate was a desire to commander one of the moving trucks. This came from his first e-mail, which had a postscript that read: “Doesn’t it seem like a lost opportunity to have an event on wheels that doesn’t actually move anywhere? Maybe I am missing a clue.” This was followed by an offer to drive one of the trucks should the need to “[drive] the party to the people” arise, and an assurance that a) his gorilla mask did not obscure his vision and b) he had driven some very large trucks for previous jobs.
Of all the things that could have gone wrong at Box City – getting shut down by the city, no one showing up to share in our vision – I had never considered the possibility that a renegade gorilla might hijack one of our trucks. But once your mind has entertained such possibilities, clearing them from your head is no simple matter. So when Colin volunteered (begged) to be a banana to Bo’s gorilla, I acquiesced, figuring that large, yellow, phallic distraction might be the difference between a high-speed chase down Broad Street and a peaceful event. And for the most part, interaction between Gorilla gorilla and Musa acuminate was affable. They even shared a moment of synergy on the dance floor.
If Bo was well behaved, the bearded nutjob who brought him to our attention was slightly less so. After agreeing to run the painting truck, Neal had scheduled an opening reception the same night as Box City. The day of the event he texted that his friend, Julian Small Calvillo, would be running the truck in his stead. Neal and his trademark beard would make appearances throughout the night, but he was a belle with two balls. In his characteristic militant fashion, he insisted that Julian was “a good soldier for the cause,” pointing out that for many teenagers and college students, “it’s not cool to give a shit about anything.” The cause Neal refers to, by the way, is a youth art movement that sputters into and out of existence every few months, characterized by ambitious ideas and less enthusiastic execution. If Julian is a soldier, Neal’s the general, often standing alone on a battlefield with neither ally nor enemy in sight. But he’ll say yes to just about anything – so long as it’s in the name of art – and that makes him a rare commodity in this sleepy community.
Julian and Neal tarped the truck and unloaded some 20 to 30 cans of paint. Then they disappeared, looking to borrow lights from what Neal called some “DIY art kids.”
Even after the lights had been strung and two 16 ½-foot canvases had been drilled into either side of the truck, the space was spare. But with Julian enthusiastically appealing to all corners and insisting that everybody contribute something to the wall, the atmosphere was festive, though the artists knew that their renderings stood only a small chance of surviving to the night’s end. Portraits covered portraits. The banana painted a banana. Someone scrawled, “I believe in art” to the right of a well-endowed female torso and above a narwhal. Another naked blue figure appeared on the opposite canvas, along with a panda, a squid, and a bright green seahorse.
When solicited for an opinion about the quality of the art, Neal laughed heartily for 30 seconds before sobering enough to give an uncustomary charitable response: “In terms of the average Joe slathering paint on the canvas, it’s fun for them and it’s fun for us. As for something artistically substantial, I don’t think that was the point.” (For a more comprehensive review by New Times intern Christopher White Sanborn visit newtimesslo.com.)
And though the stalwart general does not dance nor wrestle, though he didn’t step foot in the movie theater truck where our Frenchman-for-the-night flung dollar-store candy, he did find one attraction that suited his taste.
“The best part was the unicyclists juggling for fire,” he admitted, referencing the madcap team led by Mark Wilder. “I watched them the longest hoping something would catch on fire or they would fall. I was still hoping for chaos. But everything went well, and that’s OK, too.” “Breton” is British for bloodthirsty. Perhaps not. But it could be.

And on the 182nd day, they partied …
   It was nearly an hour after the KCPR truck had proved its mettle. Miguelito Court had seen somewhere between 100 and 150 celebrants, with the numbers swelling to their peak around 10 p.m.; we reasoned that people were having such a good time that they called their friends and encouraged them to brave the cold. That’s when the truck once again issued a stentorian call to dance and, more specifically, to pump one arm into the air while bouncing up and down to a song that vaguely had something to do with pyrotechnics. I rushed Tanya up the ramp, where we joined Amy, Jeremy, his daughter Teva, and Matt. What ensued was a passage from a Dr. Suess book. I jumped. We jumped. He jumped. She jumped. They jumped. The truck jumped. Eventually, my stomach protested, and while they continued to jump, I exited the truck. But I would remember it as one of the night’s highlights.

Let there be light …
   “There were sparks and then everything went black,” Alex said, describing a mishap in the movie theater truck. The popcorn machine New Times had rented for the event elected, in dramatic fashion, not to work.
The question of how to power the trucks – the lights that were required for illumination, the video projection equipment, KCPR’s DJ equipment, the popcorn machine that would run briefly and then not at all, etc. – overshadowed all other planning concerns. What good was bamboo if nobody could see it? What good were DJs if we couldn’t play their music? The answer was obvious. Generators. But borrowing enough generators to power all five trucks for no less than four hours wasn’t the easiest of tasks. In the end, Bob provided all three generators – one of his own, one borrowed, and one rented. But until they were all up and running – connected to each truck by a network of bright orange extension cables and dull power strips – our team of wet, cold and Japanese be-robed volunteers held collective breaths. And even then it wasn’t uncommon in the hour before the first of our guests arrived for an entire truck to suddenly blink into darkness. A volunteer would climb down from the truck, jiggle the all-important cable connecting generator and whatever needed power, and sigh with relief when the borrowed Christmas lights once again filled the space with light.
But a rogue popcorn machine was the least of the movie theater truck’s concerns. Bryce Wilson, New Times’  Blast From the Past film columnist, after considerable thought, had selected Repo Man as the truck’s cinematic offering. Jon, our “French” usher – who, with Alex’s assistance was facilitating the truck – went rogue at the last minute, bringing his own pile of films, including Life Aquatic, Barbarella, and The Warriors.
The truck’s walls were lined with cheap posters, purchased for $2 apiece from Hollywood Video on Foothill Boulevard. With a selection that ranged from cheeseball romantic comedies (Four Christmases, When in Rome, etc.) to sad “they must have done it for the money” fare, I decided to embrace kitsch and even purchased an advertisement for a Brendan Fraser move called Furry Vengeance.
Our theater seated 20 or so, with the screen at the very back of the truck and heavy curtains lending the illusion of isolation. Theater-goers could comfortably fall into another reality – be it the watery one inhabited by Bill Murray and his team of red-capped, flock-wielding misfits or planet Tau Ceti where a leggy Jane Fonda attempts to rescue Doctor Durand-Durand. We stocked our concession table with no less than $70 worth of dollar store candy. When numbers within the movie theater truck dwindled, Jon made his way through the other trucks recruiting viewers with treats.
“In the KCPR truck, he tried to give Jeremy some Mike-n-Ikes. When he realized the box was empty, he threw it over his head. It ricocheted off the [decorative] shark and hit someone in the face. He also threw Nerds at us in my truck,” Amy recalled.
Jon Fox became something of a legend that night. He’d unleashed no fewer than a half-dozen one-liners; stopped playing Barbarella 45 minutes in the after the orgasm machine, insisting that was the peak of the movie; drunk texted his boss (Bob) at 2 a.m.; and inadvertently exposed a pastor’s children to bare breasts in Life Aquatic. (It must be noted that the pastor is a Wes Anderson fan and thereby should have known what he was in for.) All while preening a pencil mustache that refused to remain properly glued to his upper lip.

No rest for the wicked
   With one successful event under our collective belts, the team of New Times and Meathead Movers was feeling pretty smug. Despite the fact that they many denizens of the city we had jointly created somehow managed to disappear as soon as we pulled the power on the KCPR truck around 11:15 p.m.; the clean-up crew would consist only of people who were too slow-witted or drunk to make their escape. And, being Americans, we had no clear exit strategy in mind. Mostly, I just coaxed people to do simple tasks with the promise that we would go to Black Sheep afterward. What business they had at Black Sheep, I don’t know. But slowly, by cramming furniture and empty candy boxes into every spare vehicle we could find – and spilling a respectable quantity of paint in the bed of Bob’s truck – we managed to clear out the trucks. And just like that, Box City was no more. Miguelito Court was just another cul de sac, home to a half-dozen or so businesses.
But really, the thing- block party, carnival, caravan, happening – that took place that night was just the beginning. We’ve got two more nights to experiment with all of the possibilities afforded by a handful of moving trucks. And theme-wise, we’re only getting more ambitious. On the evenings of March 25 and April 1, we invite you to cast your lot with our wheeled venture, to relax with us, dance with us, get metaphorically shackled by the King, experiment, witness, celebrate.
The euphoria lasted until Monday. Nobody knew what they had experienced, but it was utterly unlike anything they’d seen in SLO before. As we pieced together what had happened that night, box by box and character by character, assisted by stray praise from KCPR and compliments from everyone who attended, we came to some important conclusions.
There are certain epiphanies that can only happen in a moving truck swaying to the beat of some wildly righteous tunes. Thoughts like “If this is art, I don’t want to be right.” It takes a village of idiots to raise a city, not for profit or personal gain, but because we could. Because we only get to live once, and we don’t want to waste it by only politely nibbling crackers and cheese.
“That was fun, right?” I insisted to Tanya. “Dancing in the KCPR truck?”
“You know that was a Katy Perry song, right?”
Crap.

Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach did not know that was a Katy Perry song. Send revised histories to aschwellenbach@newtimesslo.com.

***

The first installment of Box City took place Feb. 25, from 7 to 11 p.m. The second takes place March 25 t 3600 S. Higuera St. in SLO, and round three takes place April 1, all from 7 to 11 p.m. We are welcoming theme suggestions for future events, as well as businesses, organizations, and individuals interested in facilitating trucks for future events. For more information, or to volunteer to participate or suggest a theme, contact aschwellenbach@newtinesslo.com or call 546-8208.
 

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