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Like a dodgeball ninja

Deception and blood on the gym floor.

His skills at ducking, squatting, sliding, and jumping over balls made him look like a live action video game. - Image by Andy Boyd
His skills at ducking, squatting, sliding, and jumping over balls made him look like a live action video game.

If you mention dodgeball to someone over 18 years of age the most likely response will be to either praise or denigrate the 2004 film of the same name starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. Dig a little deeper and you are likely to unearth tales of gym-class heroics or nightmarish recollections of humiliation. The Eagle Rock Yacht Club’s aim seems to be to target the latter group and provide them with a safe haven for stress-free bombardment.

“I try to aim for people’s feet,” says Martine De Bijl. “My favorite throw is the sniper throw, where the opponent is in their throwing motion.”

Chris Alves and Craig Fowler founded the first chapter of the Eagle Rock Yacht Club (members call it ERYC but don’t pronounce it “eric” — it is strictly E-R-Y-C) in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2008. The organization is a public charity whose mission statement declares it to be “an adult dodgeball league, a circle of friends, an army of do-gooders. We establish and run adult dodgeball leagues while partnering with the local rec center to develop original programs for children in under-resourced communities in Los Angeles and Detroit.”

In more concise terms, the Eagle Rock Yacht Club is basically a charitable fight club that has elected to switch out bare-knuckle fists for squishy rubber balls.

Martine de Bijl started her own dodgeball league after her search for a San Diego chapter came up empty.

Martine de Bijl moved to San Diego in July 2015. She had participated in the Eagle Rock Yacht Club (as well as other dodgeball leagues) while living in Los Angeles. When she arrived, she immediately sought out any sort of local dodgeball leagues similar to those. When her search came up empty, she had the idea of attempting to start a chapter down here. She contacted Alves and was given the green light.

Place

North Park Recreation Center

4044 Idaho Street, San Diego

The first step was finding a recreation center that would work for both the sport and the community. After a bit of a search, North Park Recreaction Center was chosen. The inside was a bit cramped since the single basketball court would have to be split in half to host two simultaneous games. The community seemed to be a perfect fit, though.

“We want to be in an area where hopefully we can make an impact once we have enough people,” De Bijl explained. “North Park is kind of cool because there are always kids’ programs going on. That’s what we try to focus on when we’re doing our activities with the gym — working with the kids that are there.”

She continued, “In L.A., there are some kids that started with Yacht Club dodgeball when they were five or six. Now they’re in junior high or high school, and it’s, like, ‘What happened?’ You kind of keep an eye on them when they’re around…because they’re always around. They, in turn, listen to you a little more if you are around. There are three days a week where you see these kids, and you can say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? How’s school?’ It’s kind of like a check-in.”

The next step was getting the word out. According to De Bijl, this has been the biggest hurdle: “Not a lot of people know that there are adults playing dodgeball in San Diego.” In order to gain awareness, she utilized an old-school, punk-rock approach. “I went to Kinko’s and spent a hundred bucks on flyers and I walked up and down El Cajon and University; anywhere I could put up a flyer I put up a flyer,” she said.

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She also developed a relationship with the neighborhood tavern Tiger! Tiger! (3025 El Cajon Boulevard.) The group would head to the bar for drinks after games and, in turn, the bar would tweet @Eagle Rock Yacht Club and post their flyers. One of these flyers caught the attention of 27-year-old Leo O’ Driscoll, who moved to San Diego last year and was looking for new meetups.

“A year ago the thought of playing dodgeball had not even crossed my mind,” O’Driscoll wrote in a letter to the Reader. “I didn’t know it was an option. I was new to sunny San Diego, unemployed, and looking for ways to meet people. I had joined countless meet-ups and had failed to attend a single one. I had considered various sports leagues but was deterred by high costs or fear (‘athletic’ is not a word anyone would use to describe me). Still, after spotting a poster for adult dodgeball, I decided this would be the sport I would check out. I had of course seen the movie and was interested to see how reality would match up to the silver screen.”

O’Driscoll went on to detail how his initial trepidation quickly dissipated when the games began. Within a year he had become a dodgeball addict. He ended the letter with an open invitation to come and play with the group and enjoy the “magic.” He would be “the devilishly handsome bald guy getting down to Drake.”

It was an invitation that only a fool would accept, so I freed up a couple of Sundays to go play with the group. The first day of reckoning was a roasting late-August afternoon. I hopped on my bike and rode up to the rec center (luckily in my neighborhood) decked out in athletic shorts and sneakers. I also brought a backpack stocked with water, a Gatorade, a towel, and five bucks for admission. A local basketball practice was wrapping up when I entered the gym. None of the kids on this day would stick around to throw balls at one another.

I looked around for a devilishly handsome bald man but instead stumbled upon O’Driscoll. He introduced me to De Bijl, who in turn gave me a quick overview of the group and the game. I tried to recall the basic rules of dodgeball from my youth. I remembered that a ball hitting you knocks you out and a caught ball eliminates the opposing team member who threw it at you. But would a ball that had bounced off a wall and then hit you knock you out? Could I use a ball to block another ball? Could I catch a ball coming off a wall to get an opponent out? Another facet of my youth was returning to me: lack of preparation for a test.

I should pause here to state that I didn’t pause to stretch before we started. This was a mistake.

De Bijl divvied up the players and it was time to prove my worthiness. I wasn’t scared to play this back in middle school, so why was I suddenly terrified? But I didn’t have long to cower.

Seven balls were placed on opposite ends of the center of the court. Three on one side, four on the other. The typical dodgeball placement is all of the balls on the center line, and opponents from each side making a mad dash for any of them at the onset. Eagle Rock Yacht Club’s San Diego chapter utilizes this alternative set-up due to a bloody mishap.

“Alex [Brummer, Leo’s cousin] actually broke her nose!” De Bijl explained to me later. “Alex and her friend Stephanie, they were on different teams, and they did a stare-down at the beginning over who was going to get the balls first. They both went to get the same ball and when they bent down to get it, Stephanie slid into it and Alex bent down at the exact same moment that Stephanie was sliding in, and she just cracked her nose on the top of Stephanie’s head. It was like a massacre of blood. I knew that she had gotten hit, but I didn’t know how bad it was. She was laying face down on the court with both hands on her face, so everything was covered. All of a sudden, all this blood starts pooling out. I was, like, ‘Oh, my God!’ She didn’t even know she was bleeding. I told her, and she looks up, rolls over, and it’s, like, drip, drip, drip.”

I’m glad I was unaware of this tale before De Bijl yelled, “DODGEBALL!” and we were underway. The throwers from each side began to pick targets as I stayed in the back trying to make sense of what was going on. Soon enough the volleys began and certain tricks to successful gameplay became apparent. The first was that it’s a better idea to try to dodge an incoming ball than attempt to catch it.

Brummer later explained to me that she tends to dodge all the balls. She claimed to have awful hand-eye coordination, which made catching difficult. During the 15-minute warm-up before play, she would try to have someone throw at her to get practice but that in the actual games she rarely went for catches.

O’Driscoll says that he despised catching so much that he hated being the final player alive on a team, solely because of the pressure to make catches and bring other teammates back into play.

Despite the general favoring of dodging over catching, I learned quickly if you throw a duck straight at somebody’s chest, they’re likely to catch it. I made the mistake of targeting De Bijl above the waistline a couple times and she easily caught my wussy throws. In my defense, she was one of the few participants that was aggressive with making catches.

“For me, my general rule is that if it’s coming to me, I’m gonna try to catch it,” De Bijl said. “If I have to reach for it, I try not to. If I’m the last one in, I’ll generally scan the group and determine who out of the group I think I can catch. Then I will focus on that one ball and hope it comes to me, or move to where that one is coming so I can catch that. Rather than focus on three balls or four balls, I’ll focus on one. If the other ones hit me I’m out, but I’ve caught at least one.”

On the other side of the coin, the best trick for avoiding getting your throws caught was to aim low.

“I try to aim for people’s feet,” De Bijl explained. “My favorite throw is the sniper throw, where the opponent is in their throwing motion. That’s the time when the player is the most vulnerable. As they’re winding up, they have lots of surface area to hit, including the back leg that is showing while they are at the crest of their throw. That’s my favorite time to hit somebody. They’re completely open, and you have lots of leg to aim for and they don’t think it’s coming.”

The cat-and-mouse game that develops between opposing throwers aiming at one another is one of the most enjoyable aspects of dodgeball. There are all sorts of ways to try to tempt someone to throw at you, just so you, or someone else, can quickly take aim at them. One easy method is to creep up toward the center of the court, pretend you’re going to try to retrieve a ball, lock eyes with a thrower on another team, and have one of your teammates peg them while they are concentrating on you. There are all sorts of methods of deception that seem to work well in this game. One that I attempted, with little success, was to keep one arm behind my back so opponents would think that I was hiding a ball... or was I? It was something I came up with to throw the other team off. It didn’t work. Nobody fell for my hidden-ball trick. As a matter of fact, I don’t think anybody noticed that I was attempting to pull off this trick. A more worthy trick I employed was the no-look throw — eyeing an opponent and then launching the ball at a different opponent. I had to apologize for two direct hits to adversaries’ noggins when I employed this method. Luckily, no noses bled.

As I started to adapt to the rhythms of the game, I was surprised at the lack of coordinated attacks when one side had managed to gain possession of all seven balls. The Eagle Rock game intensity, players told me, is obviously more lax than other dodgeball leagues. So the kind of mapped-out play I envisioned would likely be considered taking the competition a bit too seriously. The unofficial motto of Eagle Rock Yacht Club is “Don’t be a dick,” and participants are much more likely to get an earful for playing too aggressively than they would be for slacking off.

Since Eagle Rock is a social meeting group and the overly aggressive players more often tend to be men, De Bijl employs a method that would probably make Bar Rescue’s Jon Taffer proud. “I will go up to them and say, ‘Hey, she’s kind of cute. You may want to get her number later — maybe you don’t want to hit her in the head.’ That generally works. If not, I just say ‘We’re all here for fun.’”

Not coincidentally, it would seem, De Bijl met her boyfriend at dodgeball. His name is Urson Urbanik and he was one of two players who really stood out. A burly, bearded fellow, he looked as if he had been dropped off by a casting director from the Discovery Channel’s Alaska: The Last Frontier. Not only was he an apt ball catcher, but he had a ripping sidearm throw that made him a menace on the court. While playing against him, I kept an eye on him constantly. The other standout was Jeremy LaPeer, who perfectly embodied the defensive side of the game. He was a master dodger. His skills at ducking, squatting, sliding, and jumping over balls made him look like a live- action video game. He was like a dodgeball ninja.

I was starting to feel pretty confident as the initial 90-minute session was wrapping up. Then one of my opponents scored a direct hit on what I will refer to as my family jewels. The balls (not my testicles) the league utilizes are smaller than a standard soccer ball but larger than a softball and composed of what feels like a thin, quite squishy rubber. I was surprised at how jarring a direct hit to this area could be. I tried to play off my pain as best I could, but I knew that there was no hope of making it to Tiger! Tiger! for post-competition drinks at that point.

The final game was referred to as “speed ball.” It’s a variation on dodgeball in which everyone can only hold on to a ball for five seconds. It made for a delightfully chaotic finish. When it was over, I hit the bench and mourned the fact that I had failed to bring more liquids. All my water and Gatorade had long since entered and exited my body. Overshare alert: I’m a year-round heavy sweater. And dodgeball, supposedly a silly, nostalgic throwback for adults, had exhausted me. I felt like I had just run a half-marathon and pitched nine innings. I hobbled to my ride and found that my front and rear lights had been removed from my bicycle frame.

I knew I was in trouble when I got home and noticed — overshare alert number two — that my urine resembled nuclear waste. I done dehydrated myself real good. I filled the bathtub with cold water, hopped in, and stayed put for about an hour. As I cooled off and healed, I pondered how sore I would be the next day — very, it turned out — and whether it was a good idea to actually do this again. (I decided it wasn’t.)

But a couple weekends later, I found myself back at North Park Rec. Wiser from my first dodgeball experience, I left my new bike lights at home and stretched beforehand. I noticed some new faces, but De Bijl, Urbanik, O’Driscoll, and LaPeer were all in attendance. As the games began I felt much more relaxed — and surprisingly patient. This time out I would definitely pace myself a bit.

As a result of my calmed nerves, I found the second session to be truly enjoyable. I played like a complete moron at points (getting hit by a ball that had been softly tossed at me in one instance) but felt that my spirit was a closer embodiment of the Eagle Rock Yacht Club’s pathos of just having fun. I even found myself to be the final competitor on my squad at a couple of points, which not only presented me with the opportunity to dodge a barrage of balls, but to also take advantage of one of Eagle Rock’s most unique rules. Since gameplay at North Park Rec incorporates two courts (separated by a net) that run perpendicular to the full-size basketball court where they are located, each dodgeball court has one basketball hoop near the mid-court line. If you are the final player on your squad, you can get all the players on your team back in by hitting a three-point shot with a dodgeball. I played basketball for years and could drill threes on occasion, but trying to shoot one of these small dodgeballs through the rim gave me a more sympathetic perspective on Shaquille O’Neal’s abysmal foul-shooting.

Other rules unique to Eagle Rock Yacht Club include two ladies getting freed if a female catches a ball; “quiet dodgeball,” in which players are not allowed to talk, clap, or make any sort of noise; and medic, a game variation in which a selected player on each team has the ability to “heal” participants who have been hit by balls.

“We have an extensive history of coming up with weird, wacky rules,” Chris Alves told me. “We just try to give as many opportunities for it be as fun and lively as possible.”

Dodgeball, like kickball, has transformed into a tongue-in-cheek adult-league activity driven by nostalgia. The Eagle Rocck version strives to make it a sort of healing variation of a sport that gave many of its players gym-class post traumatic stress syndrome. It takes you back to a certain time and place but allows you to rearrange those memories with a fresh and positive spin.

“I think when we try to get people to come play or try it out, I think there’s that initial thought in everyone’s head where they zoom back to fifth grade when it was the two team captains picking players one by one and no one wanted to be the last player,” Alves said. “Everyone probably had nightmares about that situation. I think we’re trying to find a way to rewrite that memory.”

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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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