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50,000 Chaldeans live in El Cajon

Most of them Trump supporters

El Cajon neighborhood sign
El Cajon neighborhood sign

Downtown El Cajon is classically American. Main Street is a wide, two-lane road with a rundown western vibe. A quaint bakery, a dress shop, and a café vie for attention. An old hand-painted typewriter-repair sign remains etched on one building. During the summer months, Main Street hosts weekly antique car shows.

Babylon Market on Main Street

On those days, downtown El Cajon looks like a midcentury time-warp. But perhaps what aids the most in making Main Street authentically American is the multicultural vibe. Most notably, the steady stream of Middle-Eastern owned restaurants and grocery stores. Many business signs are written in Arabic — not surprising, as El Cajon is home to the largest population of Iraq War refugees in the world. It hosts the second-highest population in the United States of Chaldeans — Aramaic-speaking Christians from Iraq.

Roughly 50,000 Chaldeans live in El Cajon. With an influx of refugees fleeing their homelands due to religious and political persecution, those numbers are growing.

Ben Kalasho

“I think it is going to end up being troublesome,” worries Ben Kalasho, founder and president of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce. “While non–Middle Easterners think it, they won’t say it because it is not politically correct. A poor town like El Cajon cannot sustain it. Forty percent of the people live below the poverty line and that was before the refugees came in.”

(City data indicates the 2015 poverty rate in El Cajon is 26.4 percent.)

Kalasho sits in his office at the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce inside a half-way renovated home in Fletcher Hills. He immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq in the 1990s. He is 32 now but looks younger. Even in a perfectly pressed suit with pocket square he looks boyish. “I was nine when I came [to the United States]. My dad used to invest here in the ’80s. We came right before Desert Storm. My father was here and knew they were going to close down flights [from Iraq]. We ended up getting chartered out of there. We left everything behind because we thought we were going to go back. We only had, like, ten grand. After the war happened, our house got bombed and the hotel we used to own got turned into a weapons manufacturer. We ended up having to start from scratch here. It was pretty crazy.”

Kalasho feels strongly that his family benefited from having to assimilate to their new country. He is concerned that the established Chaldean community in El Cajon has become, in a sense, a hindrance to the Chaldean refugees coming in now.

“It’s funny, I just read an article about what happened in Brussels and people want to attribute [the attack] to alienation. They are saying that alienating Muslims creates super jihadist and terrorist extremists. That is bullshit. [My family was] alienated, not on purpose, and we adjusted well. We didn’t join ISIS. We didn’t feel like blowing anything up.”


Kalasho continues, “There are pros that outweigh the cons of being in America. It’s not the perfect country, nothing is, but many times refugees don’t see all the good parts that America has. They complain a lot. They will say things like, ‘I wish Saddam was still there.’ They will say things like that because they are closed in this box of El Cajon. They don’t leave El Cajon. They go to Arabic stores. They converse with their neighbors in Arabic. Speaking English is eighth on their priority list because they don’t need to learn it. That’s a problem. It is a lot different than the Hispanic community. A Mexican crossing the border and coming over here is starting the initiative toward a better life. People coming in from the UN refugee program signed up to come here because it was one of the countries on a list. They don’t want to come here. That is why I would like to see them more spread out and more diverse.”

Kalasho acknowledges that his views are not shared by many others in the Chaldean community.

“[Other Chaldeans] are going to have a more biblical view. They will say, ‘We have to save all the Christians!’ Mine is a more pragmatic approach. It’s about human beings. I am not going to get behind a Chaldean agenda just because it’s Chaldean. That doesn’t make any sense. The local economy affects me more than the national economy. I care about my home values. A priest at a church, he is going to tell you differently. He wants refugees to come here because he wants to grow his congregation. They want more money.

“What we want to push for — the pragmatic individuals within the Chaldean/Assyrian community — is to create a safe haven; a new province in Iraq where it houses a lot of these minorities — Chaldeans, Assyrians, Yazidis, and what have you. The western-developed countries like France, Germany, United States, and England [could] carve out a piece of land, like the Plains of Nineveh, which is mostly modern-day Mosul, and train a force there made up of these people and to say this is a new province that has our blessing. That would pay dividends to both sides. It just seems like there isn’t a return on investments for the western countries to do that. I think it’s more about getting a cheap workforce like what is going on in Germany. There is actually talk right now in Syria about creating a federation within Syria for the refugees, so it’s obviously possible.”

However, Kalasho is unsure if Chaldeans are up for the challenge.

“Chaldeans aren’t really fighters, especially the ones in Iraq. Their whole lives revolve around going to church. It’s like having an army of Jains. You can only protest so many times. You can only go to the United Nations and cry wolf so many times. The Kurds have a female army. You can’t even get a male army on the Christian side. The teaching is so passive. If someone slaps you, give them the other cheek, love your neighbor. If you look in the Koran, that is just not in their book. How do [Chaldeans] fight them when they want to die? [Chaldeans] could have a gun and [Muslims] will have a spoon and they will still fight you. That is a problem. That is the thing that no one wants to talk about.”

Murals outside Ali Baba Restaurant on the corner of Main and Ballantyne

Before wrapping up our interview, Kalasho points out that being Chaldean is not an ethnicity, it is a rite in the Catholic Church.

“There is no difference between Assyrian people and Chaldean people. The divide between the Chaldeans and Assyrians started 400 or 500 years ago, when the churches split. One went with the Vatican and one became an Eastern church. That is a problem, because we are so divided. Had these people been united I think they would have been a force in Iraq and would’ve stopped a lot of the problems going on right now. The Chaldeans don’t want to join the Syrian army and the Syrians don’t want to join the Chaldean army. Divide and conquer is the magic formula. The other side just looks and laughs because you don’t have that on the Kurdish side. If you’re Kurdish you are Kurdish even though there are different kinds of Kurds.”

Al Sanati, a refugee who fled Iraq in the ’70s, has a few opinions that differ from those of Ben Kalasho. Sanati spent a large portion of his life assisting not only Chaldeans, but Cubans, Somalis, and Russians, among others seeking asylum in the United States.

Al Sanati

After struggling for a few years upon coming to the U.S., Sanati decided the best way to give back to his people was to help them find safety in America. He says he has assisted hundreds of refugees seeking asylum in the United States.

After Sanati left Iraq in 1976, he spent a few years living as a refugee in Greece before being granted asylum in the United States.

He moved to Detroit, home to the largest Chaldean population in the United States, then to Orange County, and lastly to San Diego in 1989.

“In 1975, the old regime, the dictator regime, bombed and destroyed 225 villages that belonged to the Christians. At the time I worked as a TV journalist. Because of that, I was a target for the government. I had no choice but to leave. I left in 1976. At that time it was very hard to come to the United States. You had to come to one of the surrounding countries. I went to Greece. I stayed there from 1976 to 1979.”

Sanati applied for asylum in the United States but was denied multiple times before being accepted along with his wife in 1979. When asked about his village in Iraq, Sanati becomes sentimental. Upon moving to the United Sates he changed his last name to Sanati in dedication of his birth place, Sanat.

“They call my birth village ‘the lost paradise.’ Iraq was one of the most beautiful countries. We had freedom like here in the United States. If I showed you a picture of how we used to live, you wouldn’t believe it. We were the most educated people. In the time of that regime, [Iraq] had 33,000 scientists. Iraq was almost like a European country. I miss it a lot. I left with my memories and dreams.”

In San Diego, Sanati became very involved in the Chaldean community. Because of his work aiding refugees, many friends and neighbors came to him for help and advice on family members still in Iraq and those who had fled to surrounding areas.

“In 1988, the Iraqi regime attacked the north territory by chemical weapon. Part of my [extended] family was still there. My family crossed the border to Turkey. By that time, it had been almost 12 years since I left Iraq. I was at home here when someone knocked on my door. Some guy I didn’t know said he just came from the camp in Turkey and three of my first cousins were over there. They [gave him] a letter for me. In the letters were pictures. I no longer recognized them because they were just boys when I left. They begged me to do something for them. They thought the Iraqi government were bribing and paying the Turkish to get the Chaldeans.”

Sanati managed to collect donations for his cousins. Despite the risk, he decided he would fly to Turkey and visit the camps.

“People in the Chaldean community heard I was going. They had people in the camps, too, but they were scared to go. Turkey was very dangerous at that time. People sent money and letters with me for their families.”

Sanati flew to Istanbul and from Istanbul to Agra to Kirkuk to the camp on the borders of Iraq and Iran. He stopped at a security point to gain permission to enter the camp.

“They asked me, ‘What did you bring with you?’ I said, ‘Nothing.’ They said, ‘Some money?’ I said, ‘No.’ I told them I had several letters with me. They opened the first one, the second one, the third one, they had someone translating the letters. He was a snitch in the camps that worked as a servant serving tea and coffee. His background was Iraqi and he spoke Arabic. After reading one of the letters he became crazy and he slapped me very hard. The officer said something in Turkish. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Sanati was locked up for three days.

“They gave me a little bit of food. They put me in a room all by myself. On the third day the officers came to get me. They asked me, ‘Do you know what is in the letter?’ I said, ‘No, you opened it, not me. He gave me the letter to read and I was surprised. Before I came I told the people if you write a letter, do not include any information that you are sending money with me. Well, some stupid guy from Detroit sent $1000 to his nephew. The first sentence said, ‘I sent a $1000 with this man. You have to figure out how to manage with these stupid Turkish people!’ I told them I didn’t even know that there was a letter that said that. His response was, ‘You lied, you said you didn’t bring money.’ They were about to lock me up again but I negotiated with them.”

Sanati claims he had to fork over $2000 to the guards before they would allow him to enter the camp and that the guards insisted they escort him to convert his dollars to lira. In the end, Sanati estimates he was ripped off another two grand.

“By the time I got to the camp I only had $8000. I had to give them the names of everyone I was seeing at the camp. I asked the nephew of the man who wrote the stupid letter, ‘Why is your uncle so stupid? They threw me in jail and only allowed me two hours to stay in the camp. I lost $4000! I shouldn’t give you anything,’ He was crying and ashamed, so I still gave him $1000.”

That was the first of many adventures Sanati detailed. It is difficult to determine whether Sanati exaggerates or if his life really is like an action movie. He described a trip to Cyprus in which he helped a group of Chaldeans sneak into Greece after a heavy rain storm distracted border guards. He also detailed an account of being detained at the airport in Italy after trying to assist refugees into the country.

“Either I am after the trouble or the trouble is after me. You could write ten action movies about my life,” Sanati says with a small chuckle, the first laugh and hint of a smile he allows to pass his lips during our conversation.

Sanati is a serious man. He is soft-spoken and small of stature — not much more than five feet tall. During our first interview he wore a dark suit, a silk tie, and shiny dress shoes. The next time we met, during the early afternoon, he wore slacks, a freshly pressed black button-down with discrete white polka dots, and a beige sport jacket.

Despite his love of adventure, for now Sanati has put aside aiding refugees through the asylum process. He has moved on to what he believes to be a loftier cause — suing the Iraqi government for billions of dollars on behalf of the Chaldean community. He believes winning the case will cause the United States to up the number of Chaldean refugees allowed to immigrate.

“They allow 72,000 refugees into the United States every year. The Iraqi share is only 2000 to 3000. There are 200,000 people stuck in Iraq. There are 60,000 in Turkey in the camp. There are almost 20,000 to 25,000 in Lebanon, almost 80,000 in Jordan, and 15,000 to 20,000 in Egypt. Those people have hope. We cannot kill their hope.

“If we win our case, [Iraqi immigrants] won’t hurt your economy. They won’t need a penny from the government. We can bring in money by pushing our claim. According to the Iraq constitution, the one forced by the Americans, every single person that was hurt from 1968 to 2003 has to be reimbursed. The Shiites got their share. The Sunni got their share. The only people that didn’t get even one penny are the indigenous people.

“We own the real estate that other people are on. Everyone wants the territory to add to their share because it is the richest piece in Iraq. [The Chaldeans] own a portion of the oil and the wealth of Iraq — billions of dollars. According to the Iraq constitution, the territory belongs to the indigenous [Chaldean] people. I think we will win. I have met with John McCain, Duncan Hunter, Barbara Boxer, and the assistant of John Kerry. I think we are going to win.

“I don’t think people should stay [in Iraq]. That territory is not going to be stable for another 20 or 30 years. A lot of people want to die over there. They don’t want to leave their country, and the church doesn’t want to empty the country of Christianity.”

With the mention of church, Sanati’s normally soft voice goes up an octave. He blames the church for many of the struggles Chaldeans face and for much of the upheaval in his country.

“The church is the worst dictatorship on the face of the earth, because they are not following Jesus. I am against the church 100 percent. Their rules ruined our life. They controlled us for the last 1400 years to be a peaceful people, and we have to follow whatever they say. Four hundred to five hundred years ago there used to be seven million Christians in Iraq. Now there are only 240,000. The church didn’t want us to do anything. Instead, they teach us that our hope is not here, you have to look to heaven. But that is wrong!”

As for the future of Iraq, “I don’t know what is going to happen,” he says. “My brother lives in France now. He says, ‘We are in a war zone; all of Europe is.’ If our government does not do something right now, within two years they are going to be on our soil. If Hillary Clinton becomes president it will make things worse; [her] policy is the same policy as Obama’s. At least Trump clearly says that he will not let any of those people get into the country. Americans, the media, they need to understand that [Muslims], even if they are very educated, when it comes to religion they become crazy. It is their mentality, they came by force. They came by sword; when they read the Koran it says you must use force.”

When I point out the irony that someone who has spent the better part of his life aiding refugees seeking asylum in the United States would be a Trump supporter, he grimaces and says, “I think Trump has the majority of the Chaldean vote. You don’t know. The American people don’t know what is going on over there!” He lets out a weary sigh and repeats again, “You don’t know! If we don’t do something right now, within the next ten years, they are going to take over this country. Don’t you see what is happening in Europe? You have to react. The people need someone strong in the White House. For the last eight to ten years we have gained enemies. The fact that you take over Iraq, and the people were thinking Iraq was going to be paradise because of your help, they receive you with the most love that they have, but now you have turned them all against you, and that is what is happening in Syria because of the policy of Obama. The people they think that if we have a strong person in the White House things will be better.”

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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.


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


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


like a gift

with no corners

or ribbons

and seemingly no end.


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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