Interview by Ariana Assaf
Not all heroes wear capes, and rarely have I seen that statement ring so true as when I talked to Ben Feibleman. Burners may know him as the man who famously took down a ticket scalper two years ago when he attempted to sell a Burning Man ticket for a whopping $950. In light of tickets selling out phenomenally fast Wednesday—various media outlets put the range somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour—we pursued talking to Ben about what motivated him ensure justice was served and ultimately, to get to Burning Man.
A man with a self-professed knack for shenanigans, Ben had recently been fired from a tech startup in Palo Alto when the scalping situation went down. Now a journalism graduate student at Columbia (where he also did his undergrad), Ben says he’s “a storyteller by nature, I just always end up getting myself in to trouble.” Though he hadn’t yet been to Burning Man at the time, “we watched that video with the Go Pro on the hula hoop and we were like, this shit is crazy. We’re going.”
The only problem was that tickets were sold out. “That’s the thing about Burning Man,” Ben said speaking to the festival’s popularity. “It doesn’t matter if you change your mind last minute, you can sell that shit at a Walmart at 4am in Reno.” But one scalper took the demand for tickets too far, marking up the price to double face value. Ben wasn’t having it.
“He was a first time burner with no sense of community,” he said. Through a series of savvy moves documented by Business Insider, Ben was able to get enough information about the ticket and it’s marked up price that would have rendered it void (and thus worthless) had he made good on his threat to pass the information on to the Burning Man office. He ended up posting the scalper’s name and ticket number on Craigslist in order to warn others against buying from him, noting that the Burning Man office would void the ticket, as they do all tickets that are resold for unfairly high prices. Left with no other option, the scalper sold Ben the ticket for $450.
Though Ben won the day, he noted that the way his situation ended up turning out was never guaranteed. “This was a guy I was feeling out before I threw down the gauntlet…I could have had a fight on my hands” he said. “I do remember thinking he might try to pull something on me.” Whether that be attempting to turn the tables and contacting the Burning Man office or do him bodily harm, he couldn’t be certain, but “I don’t think this was a die-hard scalper.” And though the scalper was certainly upset, it was clear he wasn’t looking for serious trouble.
“At the end of the day, you shouldn’t encourage scalpers by letting them win, but if you told me that you could get me back the money for the ticket and travel expenses and all I had to do was wipe the experience from my memory, I would tell you to fuck right off.”
Ben became a “microcelebrity” at Burning Man that year, receiving praise from fellow burners after the Business Insider article was published, and even meeting a venture capitalist who offered to fund his startup. But it wasn’t all hoorays and high-fives; some extended members of Ben’s family were actually upset to have their name in the public domain. “I had cousins, aunts, and uncles sending me hate mail over this article, saying I came off like a pompous asshole. Looking back in terms of talking about how the world should be a better place than this, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I just knew that I was going dammit.”
And therein lies his true heroic nature. Like all of us, Ben isn’t perfect. Sometimes we just want what we want, and it just so happens that in this situation Ben got what he wanted while simultaneously being able to make the world a better place. Even though he says he may have never really come back from his first Burning Man, his rabble-rouser nature is certainly alive and well. He left the festival halfway through the next year, still covered in dirt, to head back to San Francisco for a meeting with admissions officers from Columbia. “I basically showed up in my Burning Man uniform. One of them was definitely trying to figure me out and I was like dude, I spent the last 24 hours tripping on LSD and chasing around a sexy nurse. I had other things to do.”
“I had to scheme my way in that year as well,” Ben explained. “I bought a wristband from a local Native American on the reservation. It worked until someone higher up stopped me and realized I didn’t live on the reservation. He said, ‘You’re lucky I’m in a good mood.’”
Ben is currently doing a combination of travelling, studying, drugs, writing, and looking for a Burning Man ticket. If you have one, let him know. He’ll pay you a fair price.