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Professional criminal re-starts life at San Diego community college

Tough guy comes clean, becomes clean

Lucas Taylor - Image by Andy Boyd
Lucas Taylor

“I’ve always been hard-headed,” confesses Lucas Taylor, “and I have lots of trouble listening to other people’s views. I like math, though. There’s always one right answer.”

The first semester has ended, and Taylor and I sit outside a coffee shop not far from the college. Taylor stands six feet, three inches tall, weighs 340 pounds, and sports a thick brown beard. On this day, he wears dark glasses and a baseball cap turned backward. He is 28 years old.

Two months earlier, in my introduction to philosophy class, students often seemed taken aback at Taylor’s assertive, even arrogant, demeanor during discussion sessions. On several occasions, when he spoke up forcefully, it struck me that an attempt to keep a lid on tight was failing.

Taylor returned to community college in the fall of 2014 to begin forging a new career. After once giving up on school at 19, he’d been pursuing a life of professional crime — and chaos. During that period, he came to be known as “Grizzly.”

“I am the poster boy for the idea that a disastrous childhood leads to lifelong crime,” he had written in an assignment. “Now if that is true, I should never be able to turn my life around.”

In his second try, Taylor wasn’t finding college academics hard, though maintaining concentration was a problem at first. The particular difficulty he had in my class, he says, was stopping his intolerance from flaring up. The variety of opinions that students express he seemed to be finding hard to take.

But in one tangent on cybersecurity, Taylor struck a more knowledgeable than confrontational tone. He displayed a comfortable familiarity with computers and information technology. At the time, he attributed his expertise to experience he’d gained working as a bill collector. He held forth for several minutes on how easy it is to track people online.

As we continue sipping coffee in the afternoon sun, I try to learn more about his technical knowledge. “Remember what you told the class about being a bill collector?” I ask.

“Oh, that was a euphemism for what I learned doing identity theft. I was leery of my classmates dwelling too much on something I didn’t want to explain.”

But it was something else that first piqued my interest in Taylor’s story. A segment of the course on the topic of free will versus determinism, long a staple of introductory philosophy courses, brought forth Taylor’s most passionate expressiveness. He first wrote an essay rejecting criminality as a fate, arguing that anyone could move beyond it to productive activity. Then, in class, he raged against the kind of defeatist attitude that keeps the doors revolving from mean streets to incarceration and back again.

Taylor’s college major will be electronics engineering, he says — to be used eventually for legal purposes, of course. He is sure he can create his own destiny. But does reality allow this to happen? Our unique heredities and the environments we live in often seem to dictate the outcomes of our lives. That is, in fact, what a view called hard determinism maintains. The universe is a vast system of material causes and effects that play out like clockwork. It’s difficult sometimes to see how powerful the influences on us are because the world is so complex. But whatever has happened in our lives could not have been otherwise. And what you “choose” to do today and tomorrow is already written in the blueprint. In other words, our belief in free will is an illusion.

This view was the reason why Taylor became so agitated. He’d already been down a hard road. Were that road and his make-up determining what he thought to be his newest choice? Or will his history bite him in the future and fling him back to the dissolute life again? It’s early yet, and there is no guarantee that Taylor’s turnaround will last. But listening to determinists, he thinks, could cause him to give up. It would be as though he accepts being doomed already.

Many seductions could pull Taylor back into crime. Take only the money. During his criminal life, Taylor claims he swam in bundles of cash. These days he and his girlfriend subsist on his freelance computer troubleshooting work and her steady but low-paying job. He’s no longer the big shot high roller. Isn’t the temptation powerful at times to go back into the fast lane again?

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No, claims Taylor, because “I frittered away most of the dough anyway, on drugs and booze.”

How about the chemical dependencies? His drug and alcohol use became so extensive that he’s had to start taking medication to repair his liver. Again, Taylor is confident. It would seem naively so. But he says he’s not had anything to drink nor taken any drugs for six months. Did he attend Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-step programs? How about a treatment program? Neither one. “I just decided to stop one evening while staring at the ocean from the shore in Mission Beach,” he tells me.

Taylor credits two sources of help. Weekly, he receives psychotherapy, and he has been prescribed medications to help overcome the substance addictions. “I think the doses have to be large,” Taylor recently tells me, “because of my size.”

Football, drugs, and crime

I was curious about the criminal life Taylor says he led, and the extravagance of his story eventually turned me incredulous in regard to many of its details. He tells me he started running afoul of the law when he was in a Spring Valley grammar school.

“I had trouble controlling my emotions, especially anger,” he says. Threatening another student in the fifth grade led to his being expelled. “At the next school the following year, I shanked a student and got expelled again. It wasn’t so much a conscious decision as a violent outburst. I felt bad about it afterwards and, to this day, I still don’t know what the thought process was that led me to do that.” The incident resulted in the transfer to a third school.

The school transfers created tensions with his new classmates, and his reputation had followed him. Toward the end of his sixth-grade year, he says, “A kid who was stealing from the woodshop teacher tried to pin it on me. But I had nothing to do with that one.”

Participation in football, at first informal, began to use up Taylor’s energy in seventh and eighth grades and relieve a lot of the stress he was experiencing. He says he was “only skating by” in his school work.

Then came San Miguel High School, where he made the varsity football team.

By tenth grade, Taylor says he gained a reputation as “having a future in football.... There are only a few ways out of a place like Spring Valley, and teachers began giving me the proverbial social promotions.” Taylor’s mother knew he wasn’t succeeding academically, though, and decided to have him tested for learning disabilities. For a week, he says he went through a battery of tests and came out with high intelligence scores. It encouraged him that “not my intellect, but my motivation and the exhaustion from football were the problem.” But he developed a strong resentment toward his mother for putting him through the tests.

Robotics was one academic program Taylor loved at school.

“I was always good with my hands, fixing bicycles and things like that, so robotics was really fun.” It was also his introduction to computers.

Taylor continued to excel in football and, as an offensive lineman, became proud of his team setting a league rushing record. He eventually suffered two injuries, the second ending participation in football in his senior year. By this time he had already been drinking heavily and using street drugs. As time went on, his behavior became ever more erratic. He was selling marijuana and ecstasy.

Taylor’s mother kicked him out of the house when he was 17 (his father had died in his infancy). So he went to live with his grandparents. The move helped temporarily because he looked up to his grandfather.

“I loved him as the wise man in my life,” says Taylor, “a retired Navy chief, who had survived lots of tragedies. He had been a boxer, someone who put on a very tough-guy face to the world, and I tried to follow his mentality.”

Four years later, his grandfather died of cancer. “It sent me reeling,” says Taylor, “but I didn’t feel I could grieve because I had to take care of my grandmother. To everyone else, though, I became an all-around asshole, losing patience with everyone.”

The steady decline culminated in Taylor’s first arrest and conviction. About this event he speaks only cryptically. It seemed to involve possession of a firearm in addition to drugs and alcohol abuse. There is no mention of it in San Diego County’s criminal records. But Taylor does say that he plea-bargained and had enough money to pay for substance-abuse classes that kept him out of jail. Throughout his criminal career, he claims, he was able to avoid state prison, doing a combined total of no more than 30 days in county jail.

“After that, I toned down my more extreme behaviors, although not completely,” he tells me, “and focused on the business side of things, selling drugs and stolen property, anything I could get my hands on. I tried always to play smart, plan things out. Those who don’t plan well are the ones who end up in prison.

“In drug dealing, there is a graduation that takes place. Most of us would start out with weed. It’s the least likely to land you in jail for a long time. It’s not a fiend drug. Fiends will call you at all hours of the night and come knock on your bedroom window. So weed is the easiest. Then you graduate to a narcotic like ecstasy or cocaine. That was a progression I went through. A lot of dealers stay in cocaine because it can be extremely lucrative. Or you go on to crystal meth and guns. Crystal users are tremendously paranoid, so the gun sales fit right in.”

After a while, Taylor moved to the area near El Cajon and 70th Streets and sold crystal in his neighborhood. But he also became well recognized in La Jolla, where the clientele wanted mostly cocaine and didn’t haggle much about prices. “It was risky, though, especially travelling with the stuff in the car,” he tells me.

He moved again, to another part of town that he declines to identify. There he worked with a few other people on home invasions, strictly to steal property and later fence it.

“We’d have to get in and out fast because lots of times people have alarm systems. So we’d try to disable those first and leave in about 90 seconds. It takes cops, at a minimum, that much time to get there. We’d go for the first things we saw — jewelry, electronic equipment, and so on. But also credit cards or anything else with identification information on it.”

One time, says Taylor, police interrupted a burglary attempt, and he had to flee to his own place. The cops showed up, thinking it was someone else who’d slipped into the house and asking Taylor, as the homeowner, if he’d seen the culprit.

“My two pit bulls were in a bedroom going crazy and the cops decided not to enter that room, where I’d thrown the stolen goods. Those dogs saved my butt more than once.”

Taylor also led larger teams that pulled off lucrative identity thefts. Once they had credit-card numbers, he says, they manufactured 18 or 20 cards and gave them to team members to go out and make purchases. “Girls were good at it because they could often hoodwink a young male cashier into being more careless than he should be.”

Taylor seemed willing to do anything illegal that made money. The one exception was human trafficking. Perhaps it was only the lack of opportunity that prevented it, although he tells me he knew people who were involved in that type of activity.

Even drug-running across the border soon turned him off after a few tries. He claims his last adventure at the border fixed his attitude forever.

In Mexico, he had the right wheel well of his car loaded with a large shipment of cocaine. At the border, the U.S. agent asked him the usual questions, checked under the seats and in the trunk, and everything seemed fine. But a German shepherd began acting strangely and sat down near the cargo, staring at Taylor through the opened right door.

“That’s all the dog did,” says Taylor, “just stare at me. I thought for sure the dog would signal what he smelled to the guard. I remained as cool as I could but, just to show how crazy my thinking was at that time, I prepared to smash the dog in the face if it came near me.

“The guard kept me for about 20 minutes and finally told me I could go. All this while, a smuggler had been in line right behind me. He followed me as I drove to the drop house after I got over the border. For the longest time, he and several others who were waiting at the house grilled me about why it had taken so long at the border. They were suspicious I had been ratting them out while the border guard questioned me. One of them put on such a severe face that I thought I might not make it out of there alive.

“After three hours, they did pay me $1500 and let me go. It pissed me off, though, because I’d done something big for them and then they treated me like crap.”

Rumbling filled the emptiness

Lucas Taylor liked to sit with friends in his favorite night clubs, whose names and locations he keeps close to the vest.

“You would not believe what goes on in those places. On some nights, I saw lines of cocaine strung the length of the table. People you wouldn’t believe are there getting high: doctors and lawyers and anybody else with lots of money.”

To hear Taylor tell it, he was a big player in the bars because he could provide some of the drugs and attractive young women who would go into the restrooms for sex with generous men.

“Everybody wants extra money these days, and I talked a lot of those girls into doing that. It’s the biggest regret I have about things I did in my former life. There’s something about trading in flesh that doesn’t sit well. But at least I never forced the girls into anything or laid a hand on them. I would always have their backs, and they never wanted for anything. If I hadn’t, somebody else might have convinced them and maybe beat them up.”

Taylor says that he often dropped as much as $1000 buying rounds of drinks in the clubs. Sometimes, at the end of the evenings, he and his cronies would end up in street fights outside.

“I really liked to rumble,” he tells me. “It filled the emptiness in me, the way sex does for some people, or gambling for others. Because I was big and good at fighting, it was something that earned me a lot of praise. It’s how I acquired the nickname Grizzly.”

The tough-guy reputation propelled him into the alpha-male position among his peers in crime. By the summer of 2014, however, Taylor had had enough. At the time, he and his girlfriend were having trouble finding a place to live. They had spent short stints with relatives, but other renters were leery of his pit bulls. The couple had been homeless a time or two, but they were always able to keep the dogs with them. Finally, in El Cajon, they found an apartment that accepted the dogs.

But Taylor knew he had to get rid of the dogs. “I loved those dogs but was convinced they would eventually attack someone,” he says. “If I was going to have them put them down, I’d have to have a really good reason.”

One evening, after an argument at home, Taylor went out to Mission Beach, where he stood on the boardwalk staring at the ocean. “Why couldn’t I do something better? I have been successful on the streets,” it occurred to him, “so I could also succeed in a regular career.” He went back, and that evening both he and his girlfriend decided to enroll in community college.

Old demons

It is four months after my first interview with Taylor. We meet in the college cafeteria, where he talks about the math and science classes he has been taking in the second semester. Something tells me they have not gone as well as he expected or that his enthusiasm for electronics has waned.

“People can change their lives,” Taylor insists, “without knowing exactly which direction to take. If you stop doing what you once did, you can start to create new options and control things that once were beyond control.”

But he concedes that he is facing old demons, such as severe anxiety, night terrors, and insomnia. And he still struggles with outbursts of anger. His psychiatrist is now treating him for not only substance addictions but for bipolar disorder as well. He now takes high doses of antipsychotic medications.

Taylor has always given me the impression that he is of two minds about his criminal life. I don’t doubt he wants to change and create a respectable career for himself. But especially his stories of high rolling in the clubs suggest a pride in the status he believes he achieved in the underworld. Do I think he lies about his exploits? Possibly. Exaggeration is probably more like it.

Does he have the free will to change? I can only say personally that I believe freedom to be not a question of yes or no but rather of degree. So, can Lucas Taylor still forge his own destiny? To some degree, yes. He is finding out how much.


Author's update:

Lucas Taylor passed away on Thursday, August 27. He died in his sleep. His fiancee, Ericka Zesati, called me to say she took him to the emergency room two days earlier after he started experiencing a great deal of pain. He then went to his doctor the following day.

Taylor and Zesati were high school sweethearts and had been dating regularly for the last seven years. They were planning to marry this coming January. — Joe Deegan

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Hullabaloo, Stick Figure, Beat Farmers Hootenanny, Josh Weinstein, Adam Wolff

Jazz, pop, reggae, and reunions in Encinitas, downtown, Solana Beach, Little Italy, Coronado
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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