A Secret, Boxed-Up Bazaar Of Fantastical Things

May 15, 2011

Jon Kalish

Box trucks line up as setup begins for the Lost Horizon Night Market in Oakland, Calif.

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 comprise 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 with 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 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 in 2009. Mark Krawczuk was one of its co-creators.

"It's like coming to the small town neighborhood that we all have virtually through emails and through newsgroups," he says. "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 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.