But what are you going to do with a flamethrower?” my boyfriend asks me.
What will I do with the flamethrower? This is the kind of question a person who will never own a flamethrower asks. In any event, it is too late. I have already bought the thing.
As I drive up to the SpaceX parking lot at 1:30PM, I can already see people leaving with large white boxes under their arms. On the side of the box is a line-drawing of a flamethrower; it’s got kind of an Apple vibe, almost, though the box is considerably larger than that of any Apple product. I am, of course, arriving to pick up a flamethrower of my own.
The Boring Company’s Not-A-Flamethrower (the product’s official name) pickup party is also the company’s public debut. About 1,000 people who preordered the flamethrower have reservations for the pickup party, which features a mariachi band and a food truck serving churros and Capri Sun fruit drinks, an apparent Boring Company favorite.
Last December, Elon Musk tweeted “After 50k hats, we’ll start selling The Boring Company Flamethrower.” Musk often says things that sound like jokes but are not — especially on Twitter. On Christmas Eve, he’d evidently sold enough $20 hats, bringing in about $1 million for the company. The flamethrower went up for sale on January 27 (though some alert Redditors found the order page earlier), and I immediately bought it. By February 1, the flamethrowers were sold out. Twenty thousand flamethrowers at $500 a pop meant about $10 million in revenue in about 100 hours. In April, the company raised $112.5 million in equity, 90 percent from Musk and the rest from 31 others.
It’s appropriate that the not-joke flamethrower tweet was how Musk announced the sale. That’s also the genesis of The Boring Company itself: on December 17, 2016, Musk tweeted, “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging…” About an hour later, he named his venture. And two hours after that: “I am actually going to do this.”
In January 2017, The Boring Company began digging a massive hole in SpaceX’s parking lot — or perhaps, more correctly, 16 feet below the parking lot. (The test site didn’t require city permitting.) The test tunnel, which extended for 160 feet, was enough to convince the city of Hawthorne to allow The Boring Company to extend it for another two miles. The Boring Company is also seeking approval from the city of Los Angeles to build a test tunnel, and so far, a haul route for 80,000 cubic yards of dirt has been approved. The project will require other permits, but the LA has indicated it’s willing to fast-track the test tunnel.
What does all this have to do with flamethrowers? It’s possible the hat and flamethrower sales are a way to raise more money for Musk’s newest startup without taking on debt or diluting ownership. But The Boring Company also seems to be a place where Musk is letting his whimsy run wild. The company has a mascot, a snail named Gary — a real-life version of Spongebob Squarepants’ pet — that lives in a pineapple habitat. (Fortunately for IRL Gary, the pineapple isn’t under the sea.) Gary is how Musk explains how slowly most conventional borers go: the snail is 14 times faster than a conventional tunnel boring machine. There are the “Lego-like” construction kits Musk has promised, made from the sludge excavated from the tunnels. As for the flamethrowers, the inspiration appears to be a Beyoncé concert.
I suspect the whimsy has a purpose: it makes The Boring Company seem fun, and is likely to generate goodwill, in addition to revenue. It suggests that Musk can turn his fanciful ideas into reality. It strengthens the community around Musk by offering his fans a way to interact with him and own a piece of his infrastructure company. You know: merch.
The thing about Musk’s whimsical tweets is that they work like that photograph of Pierre Trudeau pirouetting behind Queen Elizabeth. The snapshot suggests spontaneity; the reality was that Trudeau carefully planned and rehearsed his move. I reckon this flamethrower does two things. First, it lets his fans demonstrate their loyalty, just like a band t-shirt at a live show. The second thing it does is more interesting: it implies that Musk effortlessly makes his flights of fancy real.
The Boring Company headquarters consists of two trailers next to a very large hole in the ground in — yes — SpaceX’s parking lot. It a frankly ugly area, surrounded by strip malls, and not far from the 105. Conveniently, it’s about 15 minutes from Los Angeles International Airport. It’s 80 degrees and the sky is a hallucinatory blue. But of course it is — as Albert Hammond told me, it never rains in southern California.
To get to the party, there’s a narrow corridor of chain-link fences, with helpful signs affixed: “Not-A-Flamethrower pickup party,” with an arrow pointing the way. The chain link fences snake through the parking lot, crossing the Dominguez channel, a depressing waterway that doesn’t contain much water. The chain link fences skirt the large hole in the ground, from which large concrete segments are visible. These concrete segments will eventually form the tunnel and are stacked outside the pit, obscuring the view. It isn’t really possible from outside the fence to see the pit.
As I walk toward the party, I pass people leaving. One, a man in a furry hat with earflaps, is in conversation with a companion. “I wanna be like, yo, what have you done to help the world?” he says to his friend. “I bought a flamethrower to help with the traffic in LA.”
Though I’m early for my reservation — all 1,000 of us are coming in waves, starting at noon and ending at 5PM — I’ve got nothing on the first person to show. A man named Dennis drove from North Carolina to get in line at 10AM today, a Boring Company employee tells me.
I arrive at the checkpoint, where we are sorted into lines based on what time our reservation is for; mine is for 2PM but I’m hardly the first in line. I ask the man who lines up behind me — a genial type in his mid-50s wearing a Broncos t-shirt — what he’s planning to do with his flamethrower. He laughs. “What aren’t I going to do with it!” He was thinking crème brûlée, or perhaps toasting marshmallows. Then he pauses and tells me he’ll probably hang it on a wall.
The guy in line behind him, younger and wearing a Fender guitar t-shirt, pipes up: “Snoop Dogg should get one to light his blunts.”
That would be one hell of a blunt.
A woman in line asks if we need licenses. As it happens, we do not: devices that shoot flames more than 10 feet require permits in the state of California, but the Not-A-Flamethrower isn’t that powerful. In fact, there is some question about whether the Not-A-Flamethrower qualifies as a flamethrower at all; military-grade flamethrowers, like the ones used in the Vietnam war, typically use liquid fuel like gasoline to unleash yards of fire. The Not-A-Flamethrower, by contrast, is powered by a propane tank; Ars Technica has suggested it compares to a pretty basic propane torch inside the shell of an Airsoft gun. Our creative director, James Bareham, refers to the device exclusively as a Bunsen burner.
There was a moment, earlier in the year, when it looked like California lawmakers might ban the Not-A-Flamethrower anyway — California assemblyman Miguel Santiago introduced a bill to create a new classification for devices that shoot flames from two to 10 feet. Whatever the Not-A-Flamethrower is, it would have fallen under that classification. Fortunately for me, and everyone else here, the bill stalled in committee.
At 2PM, the line moves. I show my ID to the check-in desk, and am issued a bracelet. It’s my ticket for a flamethrower; once I claim my prize, the bracelet will be cut off, and I will have to leave. Until I do pick up my flamethrower, though, I’m welcome to hang out in the parking lot as long as I like.
Past the check-in desk is the food truck and next to it are the Aurelio Reyes Mariachi Trio. In front of the band are a series of CDs, though no one seems interested in buying them. When I clap at the end of a song and compliment Aurelio’s voice — it really is lovely — he tells me the group is available for events.
Mariachis are sort of a Musk signature. An early SpaceX photo features Musk flourishing maracas next to mariachis on a beige carpet. Is Musk here? He is not.
Beyond the band are three faux-brick walls with Boring Company logos. One by one, people are invited to come forward and try out sample flamethrowers, kind of like if Disneyland had only three versions of one ride, and the ride is toasting a marshmallow with a flamethrower. The marshmallow on the stick in front of me has been there from some time and appears to be giving up; it is charred black.
While we wait, a Boring Company employee comes over with a demo flamethrower to show us how they’re used: first, you open the valve connected to the propane tank — the standard 14.1 oz tank you can buy at a hardware store — to turn the gas on. This is also how you control the strength of the flame. Then, once you have the gas going, you press the ignition switch near the front of the gun to light the flame; that should create the pilot flame. Then, pull the trigger to shoot the fire farther. Simple enough.
When I arrive at the front of the line, I’m told that the trigger has broken and I need only press the ignition switch. This is easier said than done, perhaps because I have the weak fingers of a professional internet typist. But eventually I do manage to light the thing, and a plume of fire shoots away from me.
I love it. Is it a Bunsen burner, a propane torch or a flamethrower? I extremely do not care. It is a surprisingly heavy gun-like device that shoots flames. It’s definitely less dangerous than a can of hairspray and a match, or less dangerous to the person shooting flame anyway. And it feels like a cohesive product, no matter how it was actually designed. This might explain why people are so fervent about Musk: he took a joke and made a real, fun thing.
I aim my fire at the marshmallow — I am not above beating a dead horse — and increase the flow of propane. The wind is blowing toward me, though, and that makes the heat from the flame also blow toward me, and between the sun and the pavement and the heat, I am let’s say a bit warm. After about 30 seconds, I screw the propane valve closed and give the flamethrower back.
The convenient thing about lines of people waiting to use flamethrowers is that they have nothing better to do than talk to a journalist. This is how I meet Mike and Donna, who appear to be in their early 50s. They are from San Pedro, and they are fans of both flamethrowers and Elon Musk. “It’s phenomenal what he’s done,” Donna tells me. “I love the recovery of the rockets. We get to see them bring it back. It’s all bent from re-entry. It looks like it went to space.”
I ask them what they are going to do with their flamethrower.
“I don’t know yet,” Mike says. “I don’t think anyone knows.”
Next, I talk to Anshel, who drove up from San Diego. He’s in his late 20s or early 30s. Of everyone I speak to, he has the most ideas about what to do with the flamethrower: he wants to sear steaks, maybe a crème brûlée, maybe light a cigar. (I cannot recommend this; the flame is too big and you’ll immolate the cigar. Just use sulfurless wood matches!) Anshel tells me he doubts he’ll use it to clear brush and he has no interest in using it indoors. He pauses.
“Actually, I did it to mess with the Galaxy 9s slow-mo mode,” he says. “This is the pinnacle of my immaturity.”
An attractive young couple, Amira Yahyaoui and her companion Cyrl, are walking away from their demo. Though they are both from Tunisia, she’s based in San Francisco and he’s based in Paris. Yahyaoui bought the flamethrower immediately — ”two minutes after it opened,” she says. “I love what Elon Musk does and how he thinks. The moment it went out I was like, buy, buy, buy.”
Now they have to figure out how to bring it back; they are thinking UPS. UPS will ship “dangerous goods” under certain criteria; whether they will ship Boring Company Not-A-Flamethrowers is something of an open question. Musk said at a meeting in LA a few weeks ago that he’d run into “delivery challenges,” so the devices would be delivered by Boring Company employees.
I ask Yahyaoui what she wants to do with the flamethrower. “I didn’t buy it to burn things,” she says. “I bought it to have the object. I think it’s something to collect.” She’s a vegetarian, so she won’t be using it to barbecue. She pauses. “Or maybe for a Halloween costume this year. Maybe.”
Cyrl is no less a Musk fan, he tells me. Both he and Yahyaoui tell me they would volunteer to go to space in a heartbeat, even without a return ticket — so if Musk’s SpaceX plans for Mars need a crew, they’d happily sign up. Yahyaoui dreamed of going to space as a child, but her father told her to give it up; no Tunisian would go to space, he said. “I hope Elon will send people from the rest of the world,” she says. “He could make it possible for private people.”
“Everyone is going to die,” Cyrl says. Billions of people have died on Earth but only 18 people have died during spaceflight. “I want to be part of that number,” he says. “I don’t want to die on Earth. That’s a death, a respectable one.”
After these two worldly souls, I chat up a middle-aged man wearing a green camo shirt. His name’s Artie, and he’s from Temecula, California. “I like Elon Musk as a person,” he says. “He’s trying to make everything better. He’s not a megalomaniac. He’s trying to make the world a better place.” And what will he use the flamethrower for? Well, one of Artie’s buddies needs weeds burned out on his farm, so Artie is going to lock the flamethrower in the back of his truck and drive on over there after this is finished.
It is now a bit after four, and despite having slathered myself in sunscreen, I am beginning to suspect I will have a sunburn later. I leave the lines of people waiting their turn with the sample flamethrower and go to pick mine up. My Boring Company wristband is sliced off, and in exchange I’m handed my very own Not-A-Flamethrower.
But what am I going to do with a flamethrower?
Photography by Liz Lopatto / The Verge