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Van Dam murder fractures the Sabre Springs image.

"It’s a great enclave of homes"

Kids at play in Sabre Springs, a block away from the van Dam home - Image by Joe Klein
Kids at play in Sabre Springs, a block away from the van Dam home

Dad leaves for work. Mom stays home. Kids ride their bikes in the street. Dogs run free across the green lawns. Flowers grow even from the street drains. One homeowner confessed that her biggest problem with Sabre Springs is that kids let their softballs fly into her yard. And everyone knows everyone and everyone waves and says hello to everyone. People are so nice here it makes you question your own perhaps questionable nature.

Westerfield house. “I had a client who wanted to see the Westerfield property, and I wouldn’t show it because of my ties to the van Dams."

Every mother seems to know the right way to handle children, the right thing to say when Johnny scrapes his knee, the right way to correct little Mary when she won’t share her toys. It really does hurt these moms more than it hurts their children when they have to scold and punish. And yet, as I talked with Sabre Springs residents this week, I learned that since that February night when seven-year-old Danielle van Dam was snatched from her bedroom, the residents of this planned community set in among the hills along Poway Road haven’t always slept so well.

Vicki Sanders: "I woke up to helicopters circling, saying, ‘There’s a missing girl’; and I heard the neighborhood kids yelling for Danielle."

Polly Ross, a real estate agent for Remax of Poway, has been selling Sabre Springs for three years. She also lives in Sabre Springs. “I think what happened initially hurt sales in the area, but when people began to recover, so did the market there. It was down for about two months until they found Danielle, and then even more when they found her body and when Westerfield was arrested. I think people had a false sense of comfort, like, the bad guy is cornered so we can go back to normal.

George Allen and his daughter: "My wife helped clean the fingerprint dust and made dinners and desserts for them. There was purple dust everywhere."

“I had a client who wanted to see the Westerfield property [the house where the man accused of murdering Danielle van Dam lived], and I wouldn’t show it because of my ties to the van Dams. My role is not as a realtor but as a friend. But someone in my office called and asked to list it. So those are just my feelings, not everyone else’s in the office.

“There’s been a division in the neighborhood since details of the van Dam lifestyle [Brenda and Damon van Dam admitted, in court, that they smoked marijuana and had engaged in extramarital sexual relations] came out. The neighborhood treats them differently, because people don’t know how to handle death in a normal situation, much less something like this. So instead of saying anything, they just say nothing.

Sabre Springs. "There were barbecues here before, and get-togethers, and none of that has changed."

“I think Brenda is amazing. She’s so strong. I asked her, ‘How do you get out of bed?’ She told me, ‘I do it for my boys because they don’t have anyone else.’ She showed me Danielle’s room, and I think I was more uncomfortable than she was. She keeps Danielle’s room open, and the kids play in it because, she says, she doesn’t want them to forget her, because Danielle is still there.

John Grant: "My daughter had to have therapy in school. She still sleeps with us."

“Brenda should be commended for holding her head high even though people now know the most intimate details of their life. I have heard they were asked to move from the neighborhood, not from them but someone else, and I never followed up on it.

“I have heard from someone else that the van Dams have approached people who have looked at buying the Westerfield house. They shouldn’t be criticized. Who knows what any of us would do in their situation.”

Nasrin Razavi: "Even last night she said, when I went into her bedroom, ‘I hope I don’t get kidnapped.’"

Realtor Mary Mohebbi observes, “Nine houses are for sale right now, so I wouldn’t say the area has been affected by what happened. I have a client who wanted to see the [Westerfield] house, and I told her it wasn’t a good idea. She’s a friend, and I just thought, ‘I don’t want any problems.’ She really wanted to see it, though maybe to buy. She said, ‘I don’t mind. How do you know he’s guilty?’

Gina Clapper: "Someone from a London paper wouldn’t leave me alone even though I had just moved here and knew nothing. You could hear generators all night long."

“I have heard that the Westerfields have talked to people who are looking at the house. It’s more difficult to show than other houses because the agent won’t just let you in. You have to have a pre-approved client, which means they have the money ready to go. Normally a client only has to be prequalified.”

Vicki Sanders, 33, has lived in the neighborhood for the past two and a half years. Her husband is an air traffic controller at Miramar. They have a seven-month-old daughter, Hannah. Sanders sells real estate from home for Prudential.

Her shoulder-length blond bob is so well manicured that it sways when she talks, going back to exactly the right place. She wears denim shorts and a pale yellow tee (and not the kind from Target) that looks remarkably clean, given that she cuddles the baby against her breast and shoulder. The house, like the yellow T-shirt, is immaculate. Sanders is the wife all men want: freshly scrubbed in her cuteness, sweet, smart, and supportive. Erin Brockovich plays on the oversized television, and baby Hannah giggles in her walker. The only thing that differentiates this house from others on the block is it has pink bougainvillea growing up the side.

As a repairman leaves, Sanders says in her mellifluous soprano, “Have a nice day!” which is what she will say to me, later, when I leave.

“We came from Alexandria, Virginia,” she tells me. “It’s wonderful here. We loved Virginia’s older neighborhoods and hated to leave, but it’s great here. We love it. I’d say the neighbors and neighborhood are considered middle class. Mostly white, some Asians, some African-Americans. No Hispanics that I know of. The kids here are mostly little to middle school.

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“The houses range from 1700 to 2150 square feet. We drive a ’95 Explorer, and you’ll see mostly SUVs in the area.

“We moved here because my husband had an acquaintance who was also an air traffic controller and he lived here. Even though we didn’t know them all that well, they were here to help when we moved in. When we’re on vacation they watch our house; a lot of the neighbors have keys to each others’ houses. We work on our yard about two times a week. We’d like to move to a bigger house, but we don’t want to leave the neighborhood.

“When everything happened, my baby was just one month old. She was a great sleeper, but I wanted her in our room. I had a hard time putting her in her crib after what happened. It didn’t affect my dream life, and I know it could have happened anywhere and to anyone. The media coverage was...well, the jokes, like calling it ‘Sabre Swings’ or ‘Swing Sabres’ or whatever, was hard. When people asked where you live, you did not want to tell them.

“When it all happened I woke up to helicopters circling, saying, ‘There’s a missing girl’; and I heard the neighborhood kids yelling for Danielle. We opened our common space so the kids could walk by.

“The van Dams’ lifestyle didn’t really bother me. Everyone has their own lifestyle. There was a missing girl, and who really cares about anything else? I think there was too much focus on the van Dams. Brenda did a fantastic job of taking the media off her and putting it on what was important. We took flowers up, signed the book, and prayed for them. We would never consider moving.

“Neighbors have said that they had heard the van Dams had talked to people who were looking at the Westerfield house, but I haven’t heard it from any realtors. And you know what? If that had happened to me, I don’t know that I wouldn’t do the same thing.”

Cheryl Betyar, One Source Realty, says she’s the number-one realtor in Sabre Springs and has been the top agent for the area since 1994. “We’ve sold 12 to 13 houses this year in Sabre Springs. Last year, for the whole year, we sold 12 homes. We’ve already met all our sales for that area. The entry-level home is now about $425,000. Last year it was about $375,000. The smallest homes are about 1300 square feet, with the largest at 4400 square feet.

“I think the only thing the van Dams did was bring heightened awareness to the area. It’s a great enclave of homes. The demo is people making about $120,000 to $150,000. There’s cultural diversity. Twenty-five percent work in the high-tech industry, the FBI, police, in Sorrento Valley for places like Nokia, Qualcomm. The average age is about 35 to 40.

“I did hear of something like the van Dams talking to people who were looking at the Westerfield house. One agent told me her client was talked to by the van Dams. By law, whenever a death has occurred in a home, you must disclose it for three years afterward. The seller’s agent of that house wants to make sure potential buyers know whose property it was.

“I’ve shown it to two clients. Both said, ‘We understand, and we still want to see it.’ One said they didn’t like the floor plan; the other, the wife was okay with it, but the husband said he wasn’t okay after what happened there.

“The property-owners’ association does have some basic rules, like you can’t run a business from home, and you can’t run auto work from home. Fences have to be preapproved, and you can’t change the color of your home. It’s all to keep the neighborhood looking as nice as it does.”

Neighbors

Barbara Crum, 44, has three boys, aged 9, 12, and 17. Her husband is in the military. She sports a perfect Ban de Soleil tan, flawlessly styled blond shoulder-length hair, and wears denim shorts and a blue-and-white Hawaiian-print tank top. She’s a middle-aged Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Her two Lhasa apsos, Reggie and Rocky, bark only a few times until she tells them to stop, and they do so on command. Bikes line her front yard as her boys come and go with their friends, who act as if the house were their own. Her automatic lawn sprinkler goes off right on time while we talk.

“We’ve been here eight years and moved here from Newport, Rhode Island. It’s incredible here. We love it and don’t plan to leave anytime soon. It’s a friendly, great community, where everyone knows everyone. It is safe, contrary to what’s happened. It’s just a fun place. The girls walk every morning.

“What happened to the van Dams has been a tough lesson to learn. It helps that the school is close by and that everyone watches out for everyone else’s kids. We do all hang out together, with block parties and things. We play Bunco as a group, we drink wine; it’s just a very close community and cul-de-sac.

“It is diversified. We have a lot of Asian people. Mostly middle-class people live here with kids in elementary school through middle school. Most people’s homes on this street are between 2000 and 2500 square feet. The rules for living here are through the homeowners’ association, and you have to have a certain color of doors, no changing the exterior color of your house. You have to have approval to build a pool.

“We drive a ’97 Dodge minivan. An SUV is probably the average car you’ll see around here.

“It’s very friendly here. It was and is a close community before all this happened. All the kids play sports together. I’m the Little League president, and one of my sons plays with Derek van Dam in the same league.

“It certainly affected my children. They know David Westerfield and the van Dams. It probably affected my nine-year-old the most. But it has affected all of us and how we think, every day. It’s hard to reteach trust. My nine-year-old had problems and had to talk to a counselor. We’re more cautious, and we used to take for granted how safe it was here. You never think it will happen because this is the perfect place to live, and now you hold everyone a little closer. The dream hasn’t changed. We hope to stay here forever, or at least a while.

“The media coverage did impact us during it all. The San Diego local media was at least respectful. The national and L.A. media were more aggressive. One reporter even came into our garage! They were here nonstop for weeks. We stayed inside more, didn’t hang out in the front yard like we used to, and we played in the back yard instead. We got strength from each other in the area. We knew we’d all get through it together.

“The van Dams’ drug use and sexual preferences...well, it’s their life, it’s their choice. No matter what, they didn’t deserve what happened to them. David Westerfield, when I saw him on TV, he’s aged, he’s heavier and looks nothing like the man we all knew, who used to be tan. He was the fun guy in the neighborhood with all the toys, always washing them. Even all these months later, when we all talk about it, those of us who kind of knew him can never say in hindsight, ‘Yeah, there was this or that about him, something weird about him.’ There wasn’t. I’d say I’m acquaintances with both the van Dams and David Westerfield. I was called as a defense witness because I saw him on Saturday afternoon when he got back. I don’t know the van Dams well. Our sons play baseball in the same league. I bought cookies from Danielle the day before she was taken.

“We attended all the candlelight services, made meals to support them. This whole thing may have brought us closer together as a family and community. It’s made us more cautious, careful about everyday life. It hasn’t changed the way we live or things that we do. It has taken our innocence away, but we’re trying to move forward with our kids.

“I have heard that the van Dams might be moving after this is all over, but I don’t know. Who knows anything for sure?”

Gina Clapper, 42, is a travel consultant. Her auburn hair is up in a clip, and she wears a white short-sleeved tee with pedal-pushers. She’s in good shape and seems to be someone who’d always be willing to talk and offer a laugh.

“We got this house last November. I’m from the Bay Area. It’s wonderful here. We had barely driven the U-Haul into the driveway at night, and within ten minutes our neighbors were knocking on our door offering to help with anything we may need. We have great neighbors. They’re friendly, with lots of kids. The kids play at night; it’s just great. I’d say 70 percent are white; the rest are mostly Asian. Most are upper-middle class. Most kids are 12 and under. As for church, I think the elementary school has a church service on Sunday, and it seems to be growing, based on the number of cars I’m seeing there now.

“The average home is about 1800 to 1900 square feet. The rules here are things like, you’re not supposed to put your car in the driveway. Ours is there because our garage is too full of stuff. You can’t have certain screen doors, and you can’t leave your garage door open. Most of the cars you’ll see around here are SUVs, and I have a ’92 Toyota Paseo.

“We were only here a few months prior to what happened. But after Valentine’s Day we’ve had three parties around here, with fire pits in the driveways, cooking marshmallows, wine, fruit-and-cheese trays. Then there was an Easter-morning party. This neighborhood has always gotten together.

“The media hasn’t been around much since March. It was a zoo. Someone from a London paper wouldn’t leave me alone even though I had just moved here and knew nothing. You could hear generators all night long. I just went on with my normal life and didn’t let it affect me.

“My stress level wasn’t affected by what happened. At first I made sure I locked all my doors. I never used to do that before all this happened. I always kept my screen door unlocked. I do think this is an isolated incident. It could happen anywhere. It hasn’t hurt prices on homes. They’ve actually gone up, I think.

“The van Dam sex thing? I don’t really care what they do as long as what you do doesn’t harm anyone else. Drugs, if you have children, you have to instill values. You can’t tell kids ‘Don’t do drugs’ when you do drugs. It does impair your judgment. I wouldn’t do it myself, and I don’t even have kids. I think you need to set an example.

“The child-porn thing and Westerfield... you shouldn’t be doing it. I don’t know him, but I think it’s kind of sick. If he were looking at women on tape, that’s different. But kids? That’s different, that’s wrong. I’ve never spoken to him though, and I’ve never heard any gossip before all this happened about any of them.

“We did bring some flowers up to the van Dams and went to the website, and I forwarded Danielle’s photo when she was still missing to people I knew to make them aware of her, because I thought that might help. I also wrote to the van Dams on the Web.

“Nobody deserves to have a child taken away. I feel bad a child won’t get to grow up who deserved to. At first, before it happened, kids would walk alone to school. After it happened, parents would walk with their kids. Toward the end of the school year, there were lots of kids walking alone again.

Paula Call is a stay-at-home mom who used to teach literature. Considering that she has five kids, she’s in amazingly good shape. With her big, beautiful eyes and her sleek brown hair pulled back, it’s hard to believe her when she says she’s 36. Affectionate, she requests kisses almost every time one of her children walks by.

Her house looks like the Z Gallerie showroom, with iron candle holders, an antique Irish Bible on the coffee table, unusual flooring, and lots of framed hearts. It looks like a very cool decorator furnished it, but without taking away the comfort of a home. The home is tidy. Backpacks hang on neatly placed hooks in the garage, and the garage floor looks clean enough to eat from.

“We’ve lived here three years and came from L.A., the Newhall area. We lived in a friendly neighborhood before, and that’s why we chose this area. I have a problem saying the area is upper-middle class, because it sounds elitist. It’s very subjective. The kids here seem to be a little younger, teenagers too. Average home is about 2500 square feet. We do a little work on our yard every weekend. We go to church pretty regularly. We have a pool, so it’s pretty low maintenance. We have a 2000 Expedition, and you’ll see a lot of minivans and SUVs. The homeowners’ association won’t let cars stay parked on the street for very long, and you can’t paint your house without approval, because, God forbid, somebody painted one pink!

“When we moved here, the homes were already built, and I just took it for granted that people will be nice because they were in L.A. The dream didn’t change for us. There’s an innate desire to have a happy life. It affected us daily, but not for the long range. After what happened, it’s still pretty much the same here. It hasn’t affected the neighborhoods. I do double click the doors at night, and I sit outside to watch when my kids are playing.

“My daughter was in Danielle’s class. She was dramatically affected. We all were. If we hear something at night, we can’t let it go now. We don’t watch TV; we watch movies, because I don’t want the kids to see the trial or hear about it. When one of my children says they’re scared, we take it seriously. My three-year-old was saying his prayers, and, among other things, he said, ‘Don’t let us die.’

“The news media were here from morning until night. I was at the van Dams’ house 24/7 and at 10 a.m. that morning. Every week I’d think things would calm down, and then they found Danielle, then they made an arrest, and it didn’t stop until her funeral. It was crazy in their home. People helping to organize, the Laura Recovery Center took on a lot — 15 people, sometimes, in the home.

“My daughter wanted Danielle to spend the night that night. I said no because I just wasn’t feeling right. Then Danielle wanted her to spend the night, and I said no again. I don’t know, I just — I wasn’t feeling right.

“Their lifestyle? It didn’t matter to me, because I didn’t feel like it had to do with their daughter being taken. John Walsh told them that when it happened to his son, Adam, rumors began flying about him too. He told them to not deal with all the stuff about their own lives and to get everyone to focus on their missing child. It’s easy for people to say they should have come out front and talk about it, but the focus would then not be on Danielle.

“The porn thing from Westerfield was no surprise. Most child abductors are into porn and have a history of it. Someone doesn’t start this at age 50. I’ve heard stories of teenage girls who were visiting his kids and who felt uncomfortable about the way David Westerfield lives, and they wouldn’t come back. I also have a friend whose friend was missing when they were little, in Poway. She lived on the same street as David Westerfield did, or his wife did. Anyway, my friend called the Danielle tip line twice and nothing happened, so I told her to call our police contacts.

“The van Dams got 24 hours of my attention. Neighbors helped with my kids. I mean, our kids are in baseball together. I wanted to do anything I could, and my neighbors helped take care of my kids.

“I don’t think the neighborhood has changed, but globally things have changed. It changes about how you give your kids attention hourly; if someone drives up, I check them out. I mean, you don’t ask for a résumé of your neighbors. You don’t meet someone and get their résumé. You assume they’re friendly neighbors.

“What’s funny is, I didn’t see one person come to David Westerfield’s house to support him. I found that strange. If you had a full life, wouldn’t you have friends who would come over, no matter what, and support you? I didn’t care if Brenda and Damon were accused of anything. I didn’t wait for them to pass a polygraph.

“As for the homes here, we used to joke about the prices dropping and moving, but we’d never consider moving because of what happened. At one point we got help for some of our kids. Danielle was my daughter’s good friend. My mom and sister died not too long ago, so that in a way may have helped her prepare for death. I just tell her that Danielle is still here, but she’s in a different place looking down on us like my mom and sister.”

George Allen, 41, is in sales at Siemens. He wears a baseball cap pulled over a thinning hairline. He has a quick smile, a warm handshake, and is dressed in a T-shirt and running shorts. He hopes to break his best time for this night’s run. The family Lab watches us from the driveway. I see, in tanks in the garage, a snake and a lizard.

“We moved here in December of 1999 and have two girls, 10 and 14. We’re from Portland, Maine, and drive a Saab. We also have a chocolate Lab. I’d say it’s very friendly here, friendlier than where we were from. There are mixed races, it’s upper-middle class, and the kids here are usually little or middle-school-aged. Our house is about 1800 square feet, and we have Marathon fescue grass. As for rules here, I don’t know of any. I haven’t read them. I spend about eight hours a week on my yard. That’s my therapy.

“Everybody is cordial here, and everyone is supportive of the van Dams. The neighborhood hasn’t changed. There were barbecues here before, and get-togethers, and none of that has changed. The day-to-day dream is almost identical. Overall nothing has changed except we’re all sad and surprised it happened. I thought it was a huge distraction and a shame, and I was very surprised it happened in our neighborhood.

“I just avoided the media, and they were very conscientious. Not intrusive in the least.

“My wife knew Brenda from school, but usually I’d just wave as I passed by. We were on the rescue search. My wife helped clean the fingerprint dust and made dinners and desserts for them. There was purple dust everywhere. We watch our children more closely now, and it’s made us more aware.

“Homes? It hasn’t affected the price by decreasing or increasing it.

“We’ve had our kids sleeping in our beds. It’s sometimes hard to explain to kids you’re safe in your own home. We just explained things in candid terms.”

John Grant works in real estate. He is 37. Wearing a black mock turtleneck and black pants, John is over six feet tall and looks as if he could give any football quarterback a run for his money. He looks like Ryan Leaf with gelled hair. He has two girls aged 7 and 12. He’s been in this house six months, having moved from another one in the neighborhood where he lived for two and a half years. He drives a 2001 Mitsubishi Montero.

“I’d say it’s very similar to Chicago. There are a lot of very friendly people here. Mostly Caucasian and middle-upper class. Our house is about 2400 square feet. I don’t know what the rules are for living here. I spend zero time on my yard.

“I don’t like people’s comments about Sabre Springs, but it’s nothing compared to Chicago. I’ve been to Dad’s, and I’ve never seen there what they say goes on at Dad’s. I was surprised about all the sexual goings-on. I was surprised for [Brenda]. I kind of knew the lady, but she seemed like a good mother. My seven-year-old was in Danielle’s Brownie troop. My daughter had to have therapy in school. She still sleeps with us. She did sometimes before, but not as much.

“I’m sickened by child porn. Those people who like it are freaks. Brenda seems very loving, a concerned parent, dedicated to her kids. We wrote letters, brought dinners. I’d move only if Westerfield came back here. We tried to make it an isolated incident, but we double-check our doors, check on the kids constantly. We disconnected our cable because we don’t want the kids to see the trial. You never feel safe again. How can you ever really feel safe again?”

Nasrin Razavi, a 41-year-old engineer, has two daughters. She wears her brown hair short. Her business suit shows she’s a professional, but on this night she pops open a Tecate beer and drinks it in her comfortable living room, decorated mostly with classics: gold picture frames, mirrors, tapestry chairs, leather couches. She drives a 1993 Mercedes-Benz.

“I lived in Mission Valley for three years. I find the friendliness [here] about the same as before, as in my old house. It’s family oriented, no singles, always noisy. It’s a busy cul-de-sac. Kids come from Rancho Bernardo to play here. Our house is about 1800 square feet. There aren’t any rules that I know of. I look at everybody’s house, and mine looks the same, so I say, ‘I’m okay.’

“I remember once, when I first moved here, I had a birthday party for my kids. I invited the neighbors so I could meet people, and only one family showed up. I said, ‘Screw it. I don’t need to get invited to your things either.’ So I stay in my corner.

“After [the abduction] happened, the only thing I did was make sure my security system was working on every window. My daughter was in Danielle’s class. The only time I saw her was the Saturday before she was taken. It was a slumber party at a friend’s house. The mom gave me a picture of Danielle and my daughter from that night, playing. My daughter would say every day, ‘I miss Danielle.’ Even last night she said, when I went into her bedroom, ‘I hope I don’t get kidnapped,’ and I told her, ‘No, honey. All our eyes are on you.’ I tell her not to ever trust or talk to strangers. Better to be afraid than missing.

“[The van Dams’] lifestyle really bothered me. My coworkers tease me and say I might be one of them, just to get at me.

“I really don’t see a difference in the neighborhood. Kids are still unsupervised on the street. Their balls still fly into my yard. I clean it every day, my flower bed I’m always looking after.

“The media didn’t bother me too much. It makes it a less desirable neighborhood overall, though, to move into.

“It didn’t shock me. Child pornography, it doesn’t shock me, but it does bother me.

“I went to the rescue-team meetings, but I saw all the volunteers and I wasn’t needed, and I thought I didn’t need to sacrifice my private life. I’d never consider moving from here because of what happened.”

James Wu, 24, just graduated from UCSD. He and his 20-year-old sister Jane live with their parents. They look like all-American kids in their shorts, T-shirts, and khakis. Their house is decorated without color, white on white. Shoes are left at the door.

“We’re from Diamond Bar, and my parents have lived here for four months. I’d say Sabre Springs is a normal, middle-class neighborhood, with cookie-cutter houses and a variety of people, culturally. The community is nice, but we don’t associate with the neighbors too much. Our house is 2000 square feet. My parents work on their yard about an hour a week. There are lots of families with minivans, BMWs, Volvos, and Lexuses. We have a ’95 Volvo and a ’97 Dodge Caravan. My parents say the neighbors don’t talk to them too much. In Diamond Bar we had a Welcome Wagon. Here, people seem to avoid each other, maybe because of what happened.

“Our neighborhood has a lot of barbecues, but I haven’t seen a lot of yard sales or anything. The murder didn’t affect us too much, because we’re not here all that much. Their sex life — it was kind of odd, but that’s their business, and everyone has a right to their own sex life. The drug use, personally, I didn’t think it was wise because they have custody of their kids, and it affects your judgment, and it wasn’t the wisest thing as parents to do. Westerfield’s porn, if it’s not illegal, it’s his own personal thing. As long as it doesn’t affect other people.

“We see the van Dams cleaning the rims of their cars a lot. I’ve never seen their kids. I’ve seen people pick up and drop off their kids.

“Overall I don’t think property values have been affected, and my parents would never consider moving because of what happened, even though we pretty much live right across the street from the van Dams.”

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Cassie and crew at the Las Vegas Sphere.
Cassie and crew at the Las Vegas Sphere.

Basketball great and San Diego icon Bill Walton died on May 27. The next day, sports commentator John Canzano posted an interview clip on TikTok in which he asked Walton how many Grateful Dead concerts he had attended. “Not enough,” replied Walton, before recounting that his first Dead show had been when he was in high school. “I was 15. I’m listening to FM radio and the disc jockey, it had to have been Gabriel Wisdom, that was the guy that everybody listened to, and he said, ‘Boys and girls, that last jam you just heard, that was a new band from San Francisco, and they call themselves The Grateful Dead.’” Wisdom then said that so many people had showed up to the Dead’s recent show in San Francisco that everyone got in free, and that maybe the same would hold true for their upcoming show in Los Angeles. “We said, ‘Yeah, that’s us, let’s go chase the dream!’ So one of the guys stole their parents car for the weekend, right? Nobody had driver’s licenses, nobody had any money, we just went up there in our shorts and our tennis shoes and a T-shirt. We just went up there, got in free somehow, went right to the front, and our lives were never the same.”

“Not enough” Grateful Dead concerts translates, in Walton’s case, to somewhere north of 850. Many of the stories written after his death made mention of his devotion, sometimes to the point where his storied basketball career seemed to be secondary. What were two decades on the court compared to more than five decades in the stands — and on the stage? (Walton famously joined the Grateful Dead offshoot band Dead & Company onstage as a white-bearded, rose-crowned Father Time for its 50th anniversary celebration in 2015.) Drummer Mickey Hart recalled that his dear friend Walton would “regularly send messages that said, ‘Thank you for my life.’ He was the biggest Deadhead in the world and used our music as the soundtrack of his life.”

Three days after Walton’s death, Dead & Company paid tribute to him during a performance of his favorite Dead song, “Fire on the Mountain.” The biggest Deadhead got the biggest sendoff: his image, name, and player number 32 splayed across the gargantuan curved screen of the Las Vegas Sphere, where Dead & Company are in residence until August 10. They started their run in May, after finishing their farewell tour in July of last year, and my wife was in attendance opening night. When she returned, she insisted that she needed to go back — this time, with me. She insisted that Dead & Company was not simply a glorified cover band, rehashing old favorites with the help of relative youngster John Mayer. She insisted that the band was revitalized, in an almost literal sense: the Grateful Dead were alive again, somehow, lo these 30 years after the death of founding member Jerry Garcia.

She knew just what to say. Like many fans, I had thought the Grateful Dead era ended when Garcia died. My wife understood my feeling, if only because she was a little like Walton and other devotees who talked about the Dead — and Garcia in particular — in tones that bordered on the religious.

Garcia was a reluctant high priest — he saw himself as a working man — but that didn’t stop the true believers, even if the best they could offer to explain themselves was, “They are a band beyond description,” one that provided, through their music and the community that formed around it, the closest thing to a religious experience they had ever found. “I am the human being that I am today because of the Grateful Dead,” Walton once said. And like converts, it wasn’t enough for them to attend; they had to tell the world, convince them to come along. “You’ve got to get on the bus, man!” They were friendly, wide-eyed, hopeful you’d join them. But for many, including myself, it felt like they were trying to describe a rainbow to a blind person.

On May 5th, 1990, I got on the bus — or tried to. My best friend at the time was a drummer named Steve Harris. He know I was into progressive rock: polished bands delivering tight performances of frequently complex music. He did not care. He insisted that the Dead were something I had to see, “a band beyond description.” He bought me tickets to see a set of weekend shows in a field at Cal State Dominguez Hills. He proudly declared that these were his first Miracles. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he had a sincerity that was hard to resist, and it seemed important to him that he share this experience with me. Besides: free tickets.

We wound up sitting on the grass, fairly close to the stage. It was extremely hot. A lady seated in front of us said, to no one in particular, “I wish I knew somebody who was at their first show.” Steve quickly let her know that I was just what she was looking for. “Here,” she said, handing me a tiny square of colored paper. “Eat this.” I looked at Steve for reassurance. He was happy to provide it. That set us up for a 16-hour psychedelic ride. But before the acid kicked in, the band strolled onstage and spent what seemed like five minutes tuning their instruments. I had never seen that before, or heard it. It sounded…disorganized. And when they started playing, they kind of fell into the song. The vocals seemed sloppy. I didn’t hear any of the songs I had heard the band play on the radio. The rest of the crowd seemed to approve, but I didn’t get it.

Then they took a break, and when they came back, well, only the drummer came back. The drummer played for what seemed a long time, and when the rest of the band came out, they started doing the strangest thing I had ever heard musicians do. It seemed like they were playing badly on purpose, making sounds that did not link together in any discernible way. By this point, I was thoroughly altered, and the discord sounded weird and even ominous.

By way of consolation, Steve leaned over and said simply, “Space.” I was not consoled. I was annoyed. I had heard so much hype about how good these guys were. Then, finally, they started in on a song that the crowd seemed to recognize, and it was like the whole audience exhaled and relaxed in unison. Then this guy who looked more like somebody’s grandfather than a rock and roll star started to sing something about needing a miracle every day. Steve leaned over again, and explained that a miracle wasn’t just a free concert ticket — it was a gift.

By this point, the LSD had taken hold. I had never experienced it before, and after an hour, I found it close to overwhelming. When we left the venue, we were in no condition to drive. So we sat in Steve’s car, and he played his current favorite Dead song on his car stereo — a slower number called “Box of Rain.” He explained that the song was about the bass player’s father dying of cancer. I remember still not getting it. I remember saying that they sounded like a low-budget Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, with passable but loose harmonies.

Later, my friend Steve died of cancer. Now, when I hear the song “Box of Rain,” I am taken back to the good times we shared before the sickness blossomed in him like a poison flower, and invariably, I will weep. The song has become a time stamp for a moment in my life. It hits deep. But even so, and even though I saw the Dead again a year after that first “miracle,” I did not become a Deadhead until I saw the band’s current iteration at The Sphere. The Dead are an acquired taste; it took me three decades to acquire it.

My wife kept showing me videos taken of Dead & Company at The Sphere. She told me it was a must-see event, that the venue was as much a part of the show as the band, and the internet seemed to share her opinion. Okay then. But our flight out of San Diego was delayed, and despite skipping dinner and making a mad dash to the venue, we arrived after the show started. I should have been soured on the whole experience, but the experience was too sweet for that.

Trying to describe The Sphere makes me sympathize with Deadheads trying to describe the Dead. I will say this: it feels like the future. There are something like 40 individual speakers per seat, and the sound is focused like a laser beam. One section might receive audio in Chinese and another in English, and there would be no confusion. Despite the sonic excellence, it was hard at first to judge the band’s music, because the visual experience was placing such a massive demand on my attention. The curved screen behind the band was enormous; the graphics, all but overwhelming.

But as I settled in, I found I couldn’t help but be impressed by the musicianship of John Mayer (and the rest of the Dead’s new blood). He was doing Jerry Garcia’s guitar licks, but taking them further. And while he got all the words in all the right places, he wasn’t trying to sound like Jerry. He was doing his own thing, and it was working. In short order, I was dancing along with the rest of the crowd.

Back in my younger days, when the band did their “drums and space” thing, that was bathroom and beverage time. No longer. This giant contraption with dozens of drums and assorted instruments was played by three members of the band — and that’s when I noticed the haptic seats. When the drums hit certain notes, I could feel it through the chair. The sound seemed to be three-dimensional, at times bouncing noticeably off the front, back, and sides of the Sphere. But it wasn’t like panning a speaker left and right; it was all around me. And then Mickey Hart did something with an instrument called The Beam that triggered light effects that were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. A one-hundred-and-fifty-foot brain appeared on the screen, the nerves pulsating as if stimulated by whatever it was he was doing. It was incredible! I would pay the ticket price just to see that one aspect again.

As it was, we came back for the Friday show with better seats, and again on Saturday. Each night, the emotional impact grew. The old favorite songs were new again. I started to get it, to understand why the Dead got so big, so ongoing, and why the scene is still so vibrant today. It’s something profound, something beyond music. After the last show, while we were doing the exit shuffle, riding the escalators down, we found ourselves face-to-face with people on another escalator. Our eyes met, and we started cheering, not for the band, but for each other. That’s the kind of love and goodwill I encountered.

Back home, I sought out the local Dead cover band scene. To my amazement, I found around a dozen. Does any other band have a dozen cover bands in one town, or 1800 nationwide, with at least six being full-time touring acts? Dead & Company called their Sphere residency “Dead Forever;” given what I saw and felt, it does seem like the long, strange trips will be going on for a long, long while.

— Albert Barlow

In 2023, Dead & Company announced that their current tour would be their last. They hadn’t played San Diego since 2021. I had to travel to Los Angeles to see the second show of that last tour at the Kia Forum and then to San Francisco to see the very the last one at Oracle Park. But just because they’re no longer touring doesn’t mean they’re no longer playing, which explains their residency at The Sphere. Or helps to explain it.

I frequent a bar in Coronado. One of the bartenders there is Cassie. She’s tall, with dusty blonde hair, the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen, and she’s drop dead gorgeous. That aside, she’s got heart and soul and is a Deadhead. One day, I went in for a beer. Cassie gave me a wide smile; her eyes sparkled. “I just got a bunch of tickets for Dead & Company shows at The Sphere.”

My interest was piqued. “How do I get in on that action?”

“I got tickets for the first weekend and second weekend. I think we’re going on the second weekend.”

“That’s the weekend I want to go!”

Buzz began to build within the local Dead community; people wanted to know who was going to which show. It intensified when the first clips hit the internet after the opening show on May 16. I didn’t want my experience to be spoiled, so I resolved to avoid them. But the thing about spectacles is that you want to look at them. Happily, they didn’t lessen my excitement about the real thing.

Cassie, her friend Fil, Evan and I were the Coronado Tribe, headed for the May 24 show. Unlike Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, we opted to fly instead of drive. (Cassie let me know which flight to book and already had a hotel lined up.) Like Duke and Gonzo, we had plenty of drugs to keep us company: eight hits of LSD (4 microfiche and 4 liquid gels), five infused joints with kief and rosin, one pressed Ecstasy pill, sixteen Molly caps, four cannabis pens, one bottle of 1000 milligrams of THC tincture, and a quarter of mushrooms.

That Friday morning, Evan came to pick me up in his golf cart. Golf carts are not uncommon on the streets of Coronado. Evan is 26, and is in the Navy. The Navy promises one sort of adventure; our journey promised an entirely different sort. We met Cassie and her roommate Luke at their place to catch a Lyft to the airport. (Luke was heading to London and his flight was around the same time as ours.) Fil was already inside the airport bar, waiting for us and drinking a beer. Cassie and Evan opted for Starbucks, but I stayed with Fil and ordered a $14 Tito’s & soda on the rocks. I’m not a big fan of flying, so a stiff drink was in order. Fil is 43, svelte, and has eyes that pierce into one’s soul. That gives him authenticity.

We arrived at our hotel around 1:30. Fil had arranged for a suite at the Hilton Grand Vacations Club. After unpacking, it was time to change into our Dead attire and head out to Shakedown Street. For non-Deadheads, Shakedown Street is the designated vending area set up in the parking lots of Grateful Dead concerts. Vendors sell clothing, jewelry, arts and crafts, food, drinks, and illicit items. In this case, Shakedown Street was at Tuscany Suites & Casino, less than a mile away from The Sphere. We arrived at 4 pm, and after we had taken a couple of laps around the lot, we concluded that it wasn’t as robust as others we had visited. (I recently learned that the vendors eventually moved inside the hotel due to the heat.) Fil noticed something odd: “I don’t hear any tanks or see any balloons! Headshops sell tanks here in Vegas, though.”

Cassie bought a hoodie and we decided to walk towards the Sphere. Along the way, we passed by Lawry’s Prime Rib Steakhouse on Howard Hughes Parkway. I was telling my crew that the place was an iconic restaurant when I noticed something else: “There’s a headshop!” Inside, we learned that 2.2-liter nitrous oxide tank prices ranged from $45-$99. We all pitched in for the $45 tank and some balloons. People sell nitrous balloons for up to $20 at shows.

We found a staircase at a shopping center across the street from the Sphere to do our balloons. But we got kicked out by security immediately after doing our first round. We decided to head into the Sphere parking lot to see if there was a space for us to do our thing. First thing we saw were police officers getting ready for their concert shift. We needed a different spot after that encounter. We looped around and found an abandoned parking lot. There, we were free to do our derelict activities: inhaling balloons, smoking joints, and playing music.

After our frolic it was time to march to the Sphere (but not before hiding what was left in our tank in the bushes). We found the line to the entrance. While in line, I saw fellow wordsmith Emily Elizabeth Allison from San Diego. I went to say hello and get her thoughts. This is what I got.

Dead Forever

Giant round belly

against the sky,

an egg, giving birth

within itself

to itself.

Outside-in

swirling dervish

calling across dry sun,

an unforeseen spectacle

so full of nothing

but offering something…

spiraling dreams

in a bubble

that no dawn can burst.

You are a memory

of past desert days

and simpler times.

You are the magic ball

of the future

telling fortunes

in rapid blinks,

sensory reminders

of parts of ourselves

that had been forgotten

and now beg to be

remembered.

You are a balloon

with its exhale

catapulting itself

against hopeful blue

sky water.

You are my bucket of joy

and then my hollow of grief.

I never could have known

how I would be swallowed

into your orbit

and spun within your cycle

of a million stars.

You remain for me

a single planet

unmoving

like a gift

with no corners

or ribbons

and seemingly no end.

Perhaps,

like Christmas,

your smile will subside

and you’ll start a new list

of naughty and nice.

But for now,

you are the wizard

behind the curtain

showing all the love

and unexpected tears

are my own.

Decades ago

I never could have imagined

you are rolling up to my gaze

like God’s spaceship,

offering a portal

that demands no vehicle

but breath.

You, round star,

watch my arrival

then spin behind me

as life pulls me away

back to the sea.

You are indifferent

to my comings and goings

and still, I see your wink

inviting me back

each week

to swim in your sphere.”

Our seats were in the 300 section. Once at our seats, we ingested our LSD. The information I was getting on social media was that the 300 and 400 sections were the best for catching all the visuals of the show, and the floor was good for dancing, spinning and being up close to the band. I haven’t experienced the floor yet. (I stress “yet!”), but confirmation can be provided that the 300 section is good for the visual aspects. Viz: the doors opened to the Grateful Dead House in Haight-Ashbury while the “Music Never Stopped” and then everyone was floating up into outer space. Not to mention standing underneath a waterfall, letting the water run between my fingers and catching the rain with my mouth, only to arrive at that cathartic moment viewing Jerry’s silhouette during “St. Stephen.” The crowd on the floor looked like amoebas moving in their pseudopodal state.

The show ended and it was time to find our tank. Cassie had a pin on it, but wasn’t confident one of our brains would work enough to get us there. Good thing I’ve had children, because my fatherly instincts for finding the child kicked in, and we found our parking lot and continued our derelict activities. There was enough in the tank for two more balloons, and we smoked a joint. That was night one.

Next day was recovery by the pool, drinking beers, hitting the vapes, putting tincture under our tongues and relaxing. At one point, Cassie sat up from her lounge position and declared, “We fucking deserve this! I know all of us work so hard!” After sufficient relaxation, the plan was to get cleaned up and head to the Venetian for the Dead exhibit they had there. When we arrived at the Venetian, we learned the exhibit was (and is )at the Palazzo. Exhibits about the history of the Grateful Dead; I probably don’t need to recommend that. Cassie, Evan and I started eating mushrooms at a microdose pace; we didn’t want to trip out too hard before the show.

The Palazzo connects to the Venetian, and the Venetian connects to the Sphere. Because we were in Vegas with some time to kill before the show, we all splintered off to do some gambling. We set a meeting spot, and after meeting at our designated rendezvous location, we shared our stories of being up and down and happy to lose only around $60. We all considered that a win.

Time to go to the show. Night two was not as intense and I was able to grasp and capture everything better because I was in a more stable state of mind. We all opted to head back to our hotel after the show because we had to wake up at 7 am for a 9:30 flight. Our flight back only took thirty-six minutes, but we were stuck on the tarmac for over an hour because there was a plane with maintenance problems stuck at our gate. That was the worst thing that happened on our trip.

There were firsts for each one of us. It was my first back-to-back shows. It was Cassie and Fil’s first indoor show. It was Evan’s first Dead show ever, and the first time he did LSD. He had moments of going deep inside himself, trembling and being confronted with moments from his youth. He made it out with enlightenment. None of that can explain, nor can anyone explain what happened. As Cassie said, “It’s inexplicable!” Our own experience is the one we have. I got to share and rejoice with my sister and brothers.

As the late Bill Walton (Rest In Power) once said, “We all won, and everybody wins.”

Gabriel Garcia

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