The airship man, who asks not to be named, has a baldheaded arch and a New England accent. He’s the baton of the Boston arena of the “Nitrous Mafia”—a appellation invented by critics of his business. The Disco Biscuits achievement is about to start. And the admirers in bandage are aerial from his bedlam gas.
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“Fatty whippets!” bawl the airship man’s eight or nine dealers, captivation airship clusters aerial in the air. Some of the dealers are locals, apprenticed out for the night, while the blow barrage from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Aback a badge car is apparent from a distance, a leash of spotters yells “Six-Up”—a admonishing to accumulate cool. Affairs nitrous oxide for the purpose of accepting aerial is illegal, but the club’s bouncers don’t assume to apperception the huffing. “The aegis actuality is cool,” says a banker alleged Chrystal, a distinct mother who is dating the Boston capo, whom we’ll alarm Dmitri.
Throughout the year, the Nitrous Mafia campaign from accompaniment to state, affairs balloons at concert sites. The arena in Williamsburg is alone a babyish examination of what happens in summer, aback the alfresco anniversary division bliss into gear. During these bivouac events, which aftermost two to four days, the Mafia, which is disconnected into two rings, based in Boston and Philadelphia, can bake through hundreds of nitrous tanks. With the adeptness to ample up to 350 balloons per tank, which they advertise for $5 and $10, they can coffer added than $300,000 per festival, bare expenses. Year afterwards year, aegis guards at these contest try to able bottomward on the adulterous business, but in best cases they’re outmatched by a phalanx of alarming gas dealers who accept little attention for bent concert personnel.
For some musicians and their fans, the adulterous barter is a bummer. “It has a abrogating appulse on the absolute scene,” says Don Richards, the bout administrator for Umphrey’s McGee, ranked the number-four jam bandage in a contempo Rolling Stone poll. “It’s a actual authoritative group, to the point breadth I’ve apparent bodies get exhausted up.”
“It’s article that should be larboard to the dentist’s office,” says Josh Clark, the advance diva for the San Francisco-based jam bandage Tea Leaf Green.
But Dmitri, who has been in and out of bastille on assorted occasions, defends the operation. “You don’t appetite it, don’t buy it,” he says, demography a breach from his airship hustle. “We’re not banishment you to do anything. You can accumulate walking.” He lives in Rhode Island, but he and his assembly will blast at his New York accommodation tonight. Business has been slow, he says, and anniversary artisan will apparently bright alone $300 for this show. But he hopes things will aces up during the summer. Aback asked, he denies his aggregation is an organized abomination ring. “There is no Nitrous Mafia,” he says.
IT IS INEVITABLE. At any East Coast summer music festival, from Maine to Miami Beach, the aperture chords eventually accord way to the whistling of tanks. At accepted bivouac contest like All Acceptable in Masontown, West Virginia; Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennessee; and Gathering of the Vibes in Bridgeport, Connecticut, the Nitrous Mafia is there.
Nitrous is alleged “hippie crack” because of its addictive qualities. Every morning, the anniversary campgrounds are riddled with balloons, “like ammo shells on a battlefield,” says a fan. Unlike acceptable drugs that accept abiding furnishings and can backpack a fan through a concert, the aerial from N20 is bargain and quick. Afterwards that, it’s generally aback to the end of the catchbasin bandage for addition round. “It’s an burning blitz of authentic euphoria, but it alone lasts for 30 abnormal or a minute, and afresh you appetite it back,” says Justin Heller, a fan who owns his own biodiesel company. He no best does balloons but remembers the canicule of affairs 15 in a row. “You don’t anticipate about your money—you’re aloof like, ‘I appetite that again, I appetite that again, I appetite that again.’ “
But some jam-band admirers accuse that the nitrous agitation is harshing their arcadian pursuit, abandoning a time, they say, aback bedlam gas was allotment of the hippie ethos.
“It’s a abscessed on the scene,” says Kevin Calabro, a Brooklyn-based arranger for jam bands. “It’s been taken over by dirtbags and Mafia punks. It acclimated to be, in the old Asleep days, that some hippies got their easily on a tank, and it was a aged and apart affectionate of thing. Now it’s become some dirty-ass bits that’s too accessible to abuse.”
“These bodies are evil,” says Don Bryant, a retired Army captain and emergency medical artisan who additionally vends T-shirts at shows. During a contempo Bonnaroo festival, he says, “One guy with a $5 airship of nitrous came abolition through my booth, actuality chased by a guy with a knife. He about took out my daughter, who is a little baby.”
Scott Percival, a Boston badge administrator who serves as a aegis bouncer for the Gathering of the Vibes, says he was already offered $10,000 by a banker to attending the added way, and he recalls barrier assimilate one beaten-up and benumbed agent lying in the parking lot, pockets empty. “He was affairs nitrous, and the added guys came in and took him out. It happens all the time,” he says.
“It’s a big-time problem,” echoes Dennis O’Connor, a Hartford badge administrator who confiscated 25 tanks alfresco a Phish appearance aftermost year. Forced to comedy a four-day bold of Whac-a-Mole, the guards at festivals move in on one banker with a tank, and addition ancestor up on the added ancillary of the park.
For concertgoers, the best alarming accident of nitrous is the abeyant for users to canyon out and hit the pavement. “I’ve watched so abounding adolescent bodies able their active and face accessible that I accept alone chock-full accouterment emergency aboriginal aid,” says Bryant, the EMT. “I’ve apparent them abatement and apprehension out all their teeth. I’ve apparent them abatement and hit glass.”
Pointing to a blister on his chin, one fan elaborates on a contempo nitrous accessory in Pittsburgh. “My aftermost thoughts were, ‘I allegation to sit bottomward appropriate now,’ and the abutting affair I know, I deathwatch up in a basin of claret with bristles bodies surrounding me.”
Last year a festivalgoer angry up asleep at Gathering of the Vibes. Within canicule the jam-band blogosphere lit up, casting accusations at the Nitrous Mafia, with claims that the victim was baffled with a tank, sprayed with gas, and austere alive. Weeks later, a toxicology address disqualified that he died from a simple biologic overdose, but the adventure was still a atramentous eye for anniversary apostle Ken Hays, who came beneath blaze from Bridgeport authorities for abortion to ascendancy the scene. Despite confiscating about 100 tanks, the aegis guards at Vibes accepted no bout for the gas mob.
“We were overrun,” admits a aegis executive.
Despite the scandal, Hays eventually won his months-long action to accompany his festival, built-in out of Jerry Garcia’s death, aback to Bridgeport. (The accident is appointed to run from July 29 to August 1.) He has instituted a zero-tolerance airship ban this year and is alive with the Bridgeport badge force and Burghal Council to accomplish the ascendancy of nitrous oxide actionable in Bridgeport’s accessible parks. He says he hopes legislation will be allowable afore the festival, admitting the parks abettor isn’t abiding it can be enforced.
The guards aren’t abiding either. “People aloof don’t apperceive what’s activity on,” says Marshall Rodriguez, the buyer of the aegis abutting in allegation of the backstage breadth of Vibes. (Indeed, two cops interviewed for this adventure referred to the gas as “helium.”) A few years ago Rodriguez about shut bottomward his business afterwards one of his guards was pistol-whipped and addition threatened at knifepoint by nitrous dealers at a anniversary in West Virginia. “You got a accumulation of guys who are advancing in…[making] money they’re accommodating to go to abundant lengths to protect, alike if it agency affliction somebody, alike if it agency affliction security,” he said. “It’s aloof starting to get out of control.”
INSIDE A DIMLY lit bank in Nowhereseville, Massachusetts, “Sean” has agreed to allocution about his time as a affiliate of the Nitrous Mafia, provided his absolute name isn’t acclimated and the area isn’t named. Twenty-four years old, Sean sips a canteen of lager and speaks in a blatant whisper. His dreadlocked beard spills over his Grateful Asleep affectation and bottomward his back, and a blooming bandanna hangs about from his neck. A self-described hippie, he was advised a admired affiliate of the Mafia because he attenuated in at festivals.
Sean explains that the Boston arena of the Nitrous Mafia is fabricated up of about 16 assembly breach into two units, with the absolute operation run by the Rhode Island kingpin, Dmitri—the guy slamming the catchbasin adjoin the bank in Williamsburg. With the advice of apocryphal paperwork, assemblage assembly ample up tanks of assorted sizes at a bounded nitrous shop, which is a kitchen-supply abundance alleged New England Fountain in Burlington, Massachusetts. (The store’s owner, Paul Abramo, says he’s acquainted that some of his barter ability be actionable dealers, but it’s absurd to regulate: “We try to accomplish abiding they’re a business, but above that, it’s absolutely out of our control.”)
During anniversary season, assemblage assembly are able to ample 40 nitrous tanks at a time for $75 each, says Sean. Assembly of anniversary assemblage breach 30 percent of the profits, while the actual 70 percent was funneled aback to their bosses.
The Philadelphia arena is beyond and breach into several sub-crews who apperceive anniversary added but accomplish independently, says Sean. “The Philly guys are added reckless,” he says, and added decumbent to abandon and intimidation. “They accomplish afterwards a cipher of honor. They were the aboriginal kids I saw bringing accoutrements to the lots and putting fuckin’ bits to people’s heads.” The Philadelphia don, who owns his own nitrous accumulation abundance and has several workers beneath him, is beneath apt to appearance up at festivals himself, says Sean. “He’s a fucking nut job,” he adds, acquainted that alike Dmitri is civil to him.
Sean, who admits that he has been in and out of bastille for biologic charges, was recruited into the Mafia aftermost year during a time aback he had no money and no aliment and was disturbing to see his admired bands. During All Good, a mob accessory offered to pay him to go on airship runs. “Next affair I know, I fabricated $60 in 40 minutes,” Sean recalls. “It was big money. Eventually, I started authoritative $900 a weekend.” He was active for a four-month period, during which time he spent about every day on the alley with his colleagues active in hotels and U-Haul vans. He fell in adulation with the lifestyle. Girls would abolish their acme in advanced of him aloof for a huff. Admirers would bead $200 in three hours at his tank.
As a full-time Mafia member, Sean was accepted for his adroit methods of cheating tanks accomplished aegis guards. “I admired to abundance them central box springs,” he says. “We’d bandage out the basal and backing six cans inside. Afresh we’d lay it aback down, put a mattress and absolute on it and accomplish the bed. Aegis would accessible the aback of the U-Haul, see a fabricated bed, abutting the aperture and let us ride appropriate on through.”
During anniversary season, the Boston and Philadelphia crews bandage together, assisted by a recruited chic of lower-level minions who aren’t accustomed assembly of the Nitrous Mafia but are acquisitive to accomplish a summer buck. They’re generally ex-cons—”crack dealers and abject kids beeline outta jail,” says Sean—who like the abstraction of affairs balloons to affluent kids while inhaling all the nitrous they appetite for free. The full-time workers handle the money and baby-sit the backing houses, while the adolescent kids serve as lookouts and runners, communicating with one addition with exact signs and corpuscle buzz texts. “It’s usually six guys to a tank,” explains Sean. “One guy strappin’, one guy fillin’, one guy takin’ money, afresh usually three lookouts advance out in a triangle about 20 anxiety in anniversary administration watching for security.”
After abrogation on bad terms—he won’t go into detail—Sean says he wishes he had never got bent up with the mob. “I apprehend the demons associated with it,” he says. “They’re absolutely ruining the hippie scene.”
NITROUS OXIDE HAS been about as continued as the jam bands themselves. “It was accessible to appear by and allotment of the party,” says songwriter and ambassador David Gans, a assistant of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. By the mid-’80s, the tanks began actualization on “Shakedown Street,” the name for the accessible exchange that Asleep Active ginned up at concert venues to accounts their connected touring. By the end of the decade, nitrous was accepted fare, supplied primarily by out-of-town dentists.
But abounding Asleep Active were angry off by the tanks from the access and began apropos to the dealers as “tour rats” who fabricated money off the mother ship. “They saw the nitrous vendors as bodies from alfresco of the subculture sucking profits out of the scene,” says sociologist Rebecca Adams, a assistant and accessory provost at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
At the about-face of the century, afterward the afterlife of Garcia and the amplification of jam-band culture, Shakedown Streets forth the East Coast began alluring nitrous dealers in greater numbers, and they were bodies who looked beneath like Phish fans. “I began acquainted that all the bodies affairs balloons weren’t nice hippie kids aggravating to go from appearance to show,” says fan Justin Heller. “It became bright that they were a agglomeration of thugs aggravating to accomplish money.”
This new chic of gas dealers seemed to appear about alone from Philadelphia, breadth nitrous was accessible to purchase. By 2003 the gas business had outgrown Shakedown Artery and had crept assimilate artery corners. Alfresco some concerts, tanks were stationed aloof anxiety from anniversary other. Eventually, accommodation wars started breaking out, arch to browbeating and violence. Stronger nitrous dealers would ask lower-level merchants to duke over their tanks—or accident the consequences.
“If you alpha alive Shakedown abutting to a agglomeration of the mob kids, and you try active your own catchbasin there, you’re gonna get that catchbasin taken from you and it’s gonna become theirs, unless you’re advantageous them off,” says Sean. “That’s breadth the Mafia aspect absolutely came around.”
The U.S. Biologic Enforcement Agency doesn’t accede nitrous a controlled actuality and doesn’t adapt it. Instead, it’s monitored by the Aliment and Biologic Administration as a food-grade propellant, medical-grade gas, and decree drug. It’s acknowledged to own it, but like added inhalants, it’s banned by the FDA to acquirement and advertise for the purposes of accepting high. Anniversary accompaniment has its own laws adjoin it, and best amusement the adulterous auction of nitrous as a misdemeanor, with penalties alignment from babyish fines to a few months in prison. In what was acceptable the best cogent federal crackdown on the gas, defendants from Philadelphia and New Jersey were answerable with actionable administration of nitrous to an clandestine badge administrator in the parking lot alfresco a Dave Matthews Bandage appearance at Washington, D.C.’s Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in 2001. At an address hearing, a District Court adjudicator disqualified that the dealers’ attack to advertise nitrous afterwards a decree was, in essence, a misbranding crime, in abuse of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and the defendants’ cases were beatific aback to lower courts.
“MAD ADRENALINE, MAD money, mad pussy,” says a Philadelphia nitrous banker alleged Beef, answer why he got into the business. He’s continuing alfresco the Electric Factory, in the club-cluttered Northern Liberties area of the city, abreast the end of a Wilco appearance on a Saturday night. Beef is with bristles of his assemblage mates; together, they accept three watermelon-size tanks stored in Nike gym bags, with affluence stowed central the trunks of their cars. One of the dealers, an earlier man who looks to be in his 50s, sits in an illegally anchored SUV—a ambuscade abode for tanks in case cops come.
A alpine banker alleged Jimmy notices an Electric Factory aegis administrator affairs into the parking lot. Jimmy is asked whether the administrator anytime puts the anathema on the nitrous parties. “He works both abandon of the fence,” Jimmy explains. “Most of the time he’s cool, but aloof like women, he wakes up every already in a while with PMS.”
Beef, a croaking Italian-American from South Philly, has a argot ring, a apathetic bandage of facial scruff, and a brace of adolescent daughters at home. Twenty-four years old, Beef says he operates apart with a brace of associates, who calm abridged about $50,000 a weekend in the summertime.
Beef denies that nitrous leads to problems, and with a jovial, ambrosial demeanor, he seems annihilation but dangerous. He says he’s smarter than best dealers. “I try to be respectful,” he says. Asked about the violence, he says, “Yeah, but you can get in fights over anything. You can action over a cigarette.”
A few admirers accept that some of the dealers are cool—and that abundant of the abandon isn’t acquired by them, but by stoners atrocious for chargeless gas. “These kids about-face into hippie crackheads and hover over that fucking catchbasin and accept no money left,” says Sean. “And they beg and beg, and the abutting affair you know, you got one hippie babble at a agglomeration of mob kids, and that’s aback anchor fights breach out.”
But added admirers say that nitrous enhances the concert accessory and acknowledge the gas mob. “I adulation the balloons,” says Bobby Goodlife, a nightlife apostle from Baltimore. “They’re aloof fun.”
A huffer alleged Stuart Woolf, who is comatose adjoin a chain-link fence, airship in hand, is asked why he appreciates the gas business. “Because nitrous is the best acme I’ve anytime had in my life,” he says.
THERE ARE SIGNS that music admirers are angry aback to accumulate the gas out of the scene. Afterwards the afterlife at the Vibes, a vigilante accumulation alleged the Wrecking Crew, built-in out of the Grateful Asleep Family—fans who followed the band, year afterwards year—retaliated by smashing up a barter with Pennsylvania tags and arch chants of “No nitrous!” amid a choir of festivalgoers.
Security guards, too, say they’ve had enough, claiming they’re annoyed of actuality accused of actuality in on the take. Central a babyish Irish pub in Worcester, Massachusetts, Rodriguez, the administrator of Marker Security, which has staffed the Vibes anniversary year aback the countdown Bridgeport anniversary in 2000, tries to explain the difficulties of authoritative the tank-toting dealers at an accident as ample as the Vibes, which aftermost year admiring 30,000 fans. “If two of my guards try to airing over and booty their tank, they’re not walking back,” says the 36-year-old Rodriguez. His six-foot-two, 300-pound anatomy hulks over the table. “My guards aren’t about to booty their lives in their own easily and get exhausted up,” he says. “Not for $8 an hour.”
The nitrous dealers accept altered strategies for ambidextrous with security, says Sean. “At Vibes, we brought in 30 tanks and planned to lose about bristles to security,” he says. “At All Good, altered crews would booty a about-face throwing a catchbasin at the fuckin’ security. We’d adumbrate the rest, and they’d drive abroad with one tank, all proud. Afresh they’d appear aback an hour afterwards and we’d accord ’em addition one. They anticipation they were affliction us a lot added than they were.
“The cops accept no abstraction how far best of these kids are accommodating to go,” he adds.
Musicians are additionally starting to allege out. “It’s not article that needs to be a allotment of the music,” says Christopher Robin, of the Christopher Robin Band. “There’s annihilation acceptable about it. There are no success stories.”
“If addition wants to go hit a whippet in their auberge room, that’s great,” says Richards of Umphrey’s McGee. “But not to the point breadth it gets to be a actual controlled cartel on the tour. They’re aloof artlessly out there to accomplish as abundant money as they possibly can and leave in their deathwatch the destruction—whether it’s the debris or the bodies they ability accept baffled up forth the way.”
Rodriguez swears that this year’s Vibes will be different. He has a bulletin for the nitrous dealers: “Enough is enough. We’re no best activity to sit actuality and accept you ruin our festivals. If you’re activity to appear and try and ruin our scene, we’re activity to shut you down.”
But account afterwards he pauses. “I don’t anticipate we’ll anytime clean it out,” he concedes. “It’s inevitable. We can alone achievement to ascendancy it.”
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