Power Hungry 

Rummaging for high-voltage tinkerers with Dr. Megavolt.

The bargain-hunters strolling through the razor-wire-capped gates of Dr. MegaVolt's garage sale weren't looking to score an old wine rack or sleeper sofa. Online ads for the sale on the Well and Craigslist were aimed at a far more rarefied East Bay clientele: those with an interest in "weird and bizarre electronic devices."

The Saturday before last in a lot abutting a West Oakland warehouse, rows of tables were piled with gadgets covered with dials and switches that nary a layperson could easily identify. First to arrive were solo young men with tousled hair and wild-eyed looks. They pawed through the piles, picking up a video projector part here, a '70s stereo component there. A girl in a pink T-shirt with the word "rodeo" on the front street-tested a helmet covered with springy coiled wires, while her friend -- a skinny British chap with a shaggy mod hairdo -- smiled admiringly.

"Wait," said John Behrens, a tall, lanky, blond fellow who was helping out, "that helmet goes with a toast-powered bicycle." He then trotted into the warehouse to locate it.

Dr. MegaVolt himself was keeping a low profile. The doc is more commonly known around the Bay Area as "The Tesla Coil Guy." He's responsible for the existence of two huge Tesla coils that he carts to Burning Man and other artsy parties where, with protection from a special suit that looks like something out of an old Frankenstein flick, he allows himself to be zapped with deadly voltages.

The massive coils are high-frequency transformers, like those found atop power poles. When charged up, they crackle noisily, and shoot giant bolts of lightning into the night sky -- striking anything stupid enough to venture within thirty feet. When these bursts connect with a properly suited Dr. MegaVolt, they disperse harmlessly in a glorious light show. Without the suit, the bolts would turn him to charcoal.

The real reason the doc wasn't present at his sale to sign autographs or sell the odd capacitor is that he doesn't actually exist. MegaVolt is actually an all-male gang of science geeks who range in age from late twenties to early forties. They met through the industrial performance-art group, Survival Research Labs, best known for building extremely dangerous machines and pitting them in battle. A mostly East Bay phenomenon, the group is trying to raise $50,000 to build its largest coil yet, a 23-foot-tall monstrosity that sucks a hundred kilowatts of power.

Behrens, a 28-year-old MegaVolt crew member who often dons the Frankenstein suit during performances, wheeled out his toast-powered-bike. It looked convincing -- a silver toaster bound to the back of the seat with a colorful mass of tubes and wires. But this gizmo was pure theater -- a prop from Behrens' act when he'd played "Dr. Croissant" -- a crazy French scientist -- on a children's television show. Rodeo shirt seemed undecided.

Nearby, bargain-hunter Walter Funk displayed his newly acquired oscilloscope. "I put lenses on these and call it a 'holographic funkalizer,' " he explained, taking pains to spell out the name of his creation. "It creates abstract, generated-wave-form animations."

Later, as the funkalizer headed for the exit, Behrens knitted his brow. "I have some neon transformers I probably should have put out for that guy," he said.

The temptation immediately proved too much: "I think I'll go get them," said the tinkerer, turning to jog back towards his warehouse.


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