A Secret, Boxed-Up Bazaar Of Fantastical Things

Originally published on May 16, 2011 12:09 pm

In a desolate, industrial section of West Oakland, Calif., the first of 20 box trucks arrives before sundown. A couple of cargo trailers are parked on a street that is home to an abandoned cement factory.

When this Lost Horizon Night Market is in full swing, a bunch of sideshows and art environments will make up what is essentially an open party for adults in a public place. Attorney Michael Burstein is the self-described cat-herder-in-chief for the San Francisco Night Markets.

"We're probably in violation of a variety of parking ordinances," he says. "I'm sure some of the attendants will show up and have open containers, which is illegal in San Francisco and Oakland. And I'm sure there will be a variety of minor infractions."

Burstein is right about the open containers. Many in the crowd of 700 swig from bottles of wine or small chrome flasks. Invitations to these Night Markets are spread by word of mouth, and people are asked not to publicize them on mailing lists, blogs or via social networking channels.

At the market, people wander from one box truck to another parked along the dark city block. The Best Little Boxtruck in West Oakland has swinging saloon doors, a bar that serves sarsaparilla and several bales of hay to cushion the fall off a mechanical bull that has a bunny head on it.

The entertainment at this inner-city carnival is a bit unusual. For those who enjoy destroying breakable objects, for example, there's the smash truck.

Inside this small box truck is a woman with a cigarette clenched between her lips. She wears a welder's mask and thick suede welder's gloves as she smashes a computer and a plastic rocking horse to bits. There's a Plexiglas panel protecting onlookers from debris as the woman wails away with her hammer.

There's something for everyone at the Lost Horizon Night Market. If you don't want to vent aggression, you can hang out at a cozy campfire inside a truck with a hole in the roof. There, David Marti — a mechanical engineer at Stanford University and a member of an art group known as the Department of Spontaneous Combustion — presides over a fire pit improvised from a wash tub.

"Does anybody want a sausage?" he shouts. "Well, what else do you do with a campfire?"

Box Truck Culture

The installation artists who participate in the Lost Horizon Night Market rent their box trucks for $150 for the day and deck them out with outlandish props that transform the trucks into vehicles of fantasy.

Inside one there's a speakeasy where Catie McGee strums a ukulele and her sidekick Absynthia pours a potent, green fermented beverage. McGee wears a corset, fishnet stockings and a black feather boa as she leads the crowd in a bawdy singalong.

"He ain't too smart but he gets things done," she belts. "He's a long-tongued, double-jointed son-of-a-gun. He's read the Kama Sutra 26 times and he wears my panties on Tuesday nights."

How It Works

The Night Market concept originated in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2009.

"It's like coming to the small town neighborhood that we all have virtually through emails and through newsgroups," says Mark Krawczuk, a co-creator. "And this is actually a physical manifestation of it — but mobile and temporary."

At these events, the entertainment tends toward the conceptual and avant garde. One of the San Francisco box trucks is a library where empty bottles with rolled up papers sticking out of them have dreams transcribed. Another box truck is full of succulent plants and artwork.

Yet another — the Notional Clearinghouse — encourages visitors to dispose of their notions.

"The movie you will never film, the book you will never write, the product you will never sell," says a man in front of the truck. "Get it out of your head, into our cabinet, gone from your cranium and away you will go — satisfied and ready to fill it up with other things."

'A Carnival For Adults'

"Hi. How are ya doing tonight?" says a maitre d'. "Welcome to Mac and Attitude. You might only come for one — but you're gonna get both."

Mac and Attitude is a 10-seat diner inside a box truck, complete with U-shaped counter covered with a checkered table cloth.

"My name is Anita. Employee of the month, four months," a waitress says. "We've been operating now 47 years. Family-owned business."

Of course, the Mac and Attitude diner serves only one dish: macaroni and cheese.

"We got two types tonight," Anita says. "One for the carnivores, one for the vegemites. You know, they're all over San Francisco."

And whether she is a vegemite or not, Lisa Berger of San Francisco is enjoying this scene.

"I feel like I'm at a carnival for adults," she says."You see everyone running around and playing and acting like they're 5 years old again."

A Lost Horizon Night Market is being planned for Detroit. Organizers also say that these box truck parties may soon surface in Portland, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LIANE HANSEN, Host:

One was held recently in the Bay Area, and Jon Kalish sent this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

JON KALISH: Attorney Michael Burstein is the self-described cat herder-in-chief for the San Francisco Night Markets.

M: We're probably in violation of a variety of parking ordinances. I'm sure that some of the attendants will show up and have open containers, which is illegal in San Francisco and Oakland. And I'm sure that there will be a variety of minor infractions.

KALISH: Burstein is right about the open containers. Many in the crowd of 700 swig from bottles of wine or small stainless steel flasks. Invitations to these Night Markets are spread by word of mouth. People are asked not to publicize them on mailing lists, blogs or via social networking channels.

(SOUNDBITE OF ACCORDION)

KALISH: People are wandering from one box truck to another parked along the dark city block. The Best Little Box Truck in West Oakland has swinging saloon doors, a bar that serves sarsaparilla, and several bales of hay to cushion the fall off a mechanical bull with a bunny head on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

KALISH: The entertainment at this inner city carnival is a bit unusual. For those who enjoy destroying breakable objects, there's the Smash Truck. Inside this small box truck is a woman with a cigarette clenched between her lips. She wears a welder's mask and thick suede welder's gloves as she smashes a computer and a plastic rocking horse to bits. There's a Plexiglas panel protecting onlookers from debris, as the woman whales away with a hammer.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

U: It's a good time. Yeah. Yeah. So a little bit of aggression goes a long way.

KALISH: S'mores and sausage, huh?

P: Well, what else do you do with a campfire? Does anybody want a sausage?

U: Is this meat?

P: This is meat. That is burnt marshmallow.

U: Oh yeah.

KALISH: The installation artists who participate in the Lost Horizon Night Market rent their box trucks for $150 for the day and deck them out with outlandish props that transform them into vehicles of fantasy.

(SOUNDBITE OF UKULELE, CROWD AND LAUGHTER)

KALISH: Inside one there's a speakeasy where Catie McGee strums a ukulele and her sidekick, Absynthia, pours a potent, green fermented beverage. McGee wears a corset, fishnet stockings and a black feather boa, as she leads the crowd in a bawdy song sing along.

M: (Singing) He ain't too smart but he gets things done. He's a long-tongued, double-jointed son-of-a-gun. He's read the Kama Sutra 26 times and he wears my panties on Tuesday nights.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

M: It's kind of like creating a secret city within the city.

KALISH: That's Mark Krawczuk, one of the co-creators of the Night Market concept, which originated in Brooklyn in 2009.

M: It's like coming to the small town neighborhood that we all have virtually through emails and through newsgroups. And this is actually a physical manifestation of it, but mobile and temporary.

KALISH: At these events, the entertainment tends toward the conceptual and avant-garde. On this night, one of the box trucks is a dream library where empty bottles hold small scrolls with dreams written on them. Another, the Notional Clearinghouse, encourages visitors to dispose of their notions.

U: The movie you will never film, the book you will never write, the product you will never sell; get it out of your head, into our cabinet, gone from your cranium and away you will go satisfied and ready to fill it up with other things.

ANITA: Hi. How are you doing tonight? Welcome to Mac and Attitude. You might only come for one but you're going to get both.

KALISH: Mac and Attitude is a 10-seat diner inside a box truck, complete with U-shaped counter covered with a checkered tablecloth.

ANITA: My name is Anita, Employee of the Month, four months. We've been operating now for 47 years. Family owned business.

KALISH: Of course, the Mac and Attitude diner serves only one dish, Macaroni and Cheese.

ANITA: We got two types tonight: one for the carnivores, one for the vegemites. You know, they're all over San Francisco.

KALISH: Whether she was a vegemite or a carnivore, Lisa Berger of San Francisco enjoys this scene.

M: I feel like I'm at a carnival for adults. You see everyone running around and playing, and acting like they're five years old again.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.