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Tijuana's high-rises soar – and so do the rents

The narco fires of August 12-14 taken in stride

Tijuana’s skyline has drastically changed since I first moved in ten years ago.
Tijuana’s skyline has drastically changed since I first moved in ten years ago.

I moved into my first apartment in Tijuana in March of 2012. It was a nice one-bedroom place on the top floor of a three-story building in Colonia Cacho. It came unfurnished, except for a refrigerator and a stove. The kitchen window opened onto the space behind Las Ahumaderas, a taco alley made famous by a visit from Anthony Bourdain. If I left that window open, the apartment smelled like grilled meat and spices. My rent was $350 a month plus utilities. It included a parking spot.

Like many people who come here from San Diego, I moved to Tijuana for cheaper rent — except I did it 10 years ago. Before the move, I was paying $550 a month for a single room in a house in Rancho Peñasquitos with some strange roommates. After half a year of living there, they decided they weren’t going to renew the lease and were moving out. I scrambled to find a place in San Diego. The best I could do was a semi-converted garage near SDSU for $600 a month. To use the bathroom, I would have to go into the house, which was occupied by three college students.

My older brother had recently married a Tijuana local. Back in 2009, he had been living in Pacific Beach, until one night, he crossed the border for a double date and fell in love. Soon after, he moved to Colonia Independencia. He and his wife still live together in the same place. It was through them that I found my first Tijuana apartment: my cuñada’s (sister-in-law) friend’s mom owned the building. Even though I was in a nice part of town and I’m fluent in Spanish, Tijuana still terrified me. One consolation: her friend Leonso lived on the first floor, and ever since we met, Leonso has always spoken English to me. He commuted daily on a motorcycle to San Diego to work in a call center.

I was in Colonia Gabilondo, also known as “La Cacho,” which I call uptown Tijuana. There isn’t a proper Colonia Cacho — the region is composed of several neighborhoods, mainly Madero and its surroundings. Back then, there weren’t many breweries, trendy coffee shops, or fancy restaurants. There wasn’t much of anything. A block away sat “El Viejo Toreo” — an empty lot where the bullfighting ring used to be. Now, there are recently built towers on the spot: a Hotel City Express Plus and what will be known as Plaza Toreo. The closest bar was called “El Camichin.” It was an unkempt dive bar in which there had been shootings. Now, it’s gone, and La Cacho has a plethora of bars and restaurants. Back then, there was nothing in front of my old apartment. Now, there’s a popular craft beer pub named Public House (like that, in English). Next to it, the restaurant Kool 52, featuring modern Mexican cuisine and mixology, decorated with art by Tijuana locals.

Though The Landmark has been bought up mostly by investors, Emmanuel says none of the apartments will turn into AirBnbs, something many residential buildings suffer.

Really, everything that surrounded that apartment in La Cacho has changed, except for Las Ahumaderas, the taco alley. There are so many places to eat and drink in La Cacho that it would take me another article entirely to mention the top 20. And of course, prices — not only for rent, but also for food and other goods — have risen along with the neighborhood.

And it’s not only La Cacho that has grown in both height and expense. “Remember when La Cacho was cheap?” asks Brenda Flores, one of my first Tijuana friends. “Years ago, I could find a nice place for myself for around $200. But even before the pandemic, prices were already doubling, I couldn’t find anything good for under $400. During the pandemic, they were already triple or more. Now, it’s hard to find anything under $800 in La Zona Dorada. It’s really hard to find a good deal. Took me a long time to find a place, especially a place that accepts me with my pets.” Brenda recently moved to a house in Colonia La Postal, a neighborhood nestled in the hills between Zona Río and Otay. She lives in a recently built home with three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms. She splits the $850 rent with two housemates. Also her cat and dog, as well as a number of rescue dogs she puts up for adoption.

THE LANDMARK

Back in 2017, when the vertical boom began in Tijuana, one area got denominated the “Zona Dorada” (Golden Zone) — so called because it was desirable for investors. It ran from the border to the hills of Chapultepec. But the Golden Zone has since extended to include Playas de Tijuana, some parts of Otay, further areas of Zona Río, and really, almost anywhere in Tijuana. Old buildings tend to burn down “accidentally,” and months later, new construction begins. Dozens of buildings have already been built, many more are under construction, and more are proposed seemingly every other week. Towers seem to materialize in a matter of months. As a result, Tijuana’s skyline has changed drastically since I first moved in ten years ago. The current tallest towers are New City Medical Plaza at 430 feet and Sayan Campestre at 407 feet, both built in 2019. A handful of others of around the same size are being constructed and more have been proposed. Some buildings have trendy English names like Adamant, Life, or Icon (by Cosmopolitan), City Center, Skyline, or The Landmark.

“There are more than fifty buildings approved and being built in the city. Traffic is one of the biggest issues in the city, that’s why we are building a road through here,” Emmanuel says as he shows me the models of the proposed buildings.

“Around 80% of the apartments are sold to investors; others are for locals that want to own a piece of the city and pass it on to their children or grandkids,” says Emmanuel Ramos, sales manager of The Landmark. “There are more than fifty buildings approved and being built in the city. Traffic is one of the biggest issues in the city, that’s why we are building a road through here,” Emmanuel says as he shows me the models of the proposed buildings. “This is Phase 1: the mall, restaurants, entertainment, and the first set of apartments. It should be finished by early 2023. It was designed by the same architects that designed The Grove in LA: Elkus Manfredi Architects. Two more towers will be built in the future reaching 105 meters in height, some of the tallest in the city. The Landmark offers something different, with plusvalía.” Emmanuel likes to use that word, meaning “capital gains.” The Landmark is located in what used to be Pinturas Calette, a popular Tijuana home improvement store from the 1950s that closed down due to a flood in 1993 and a fire in 1994. In 2009, the last wall of the building was torn down.

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As we are talking, Emmanuel gets interrupted by a phone call. He answers in English, and I overhear him talking about property taxes. “Who was that?” I inquired. “It was an investor, I think he is from somewhere in Eastern Europe, but he came through California. He already bought two apartments, and we were discussing the possibility of a third. He has multiple properties in Playas de Tijuana and rents them out to Americans, or whoever pays the price. He is looking to do something similar. If I would take a guess, rentals here will go around $1400-$1800 for the smallest unit.” Though The Landmark has been bought up mostly by investors, Emmanuel says none of the apartments will turn into AirBnbs, something many residential buildings suffer. He gives me a brochure with the different layouts of the apartments, but without the prices. Then he shows me a complicated Excel form and tells me the price is roughly around $3900-$4500 per square meter. The smallest apartment offered is 74 square meters, while the largest penthouse is 260 square meters.

THE REMOTE WORK BOOM

“I paid around a million and a half in pesos for my place,” says Karlha Ochoa, a writer and publicist from Tijuana. That comes out to roughly around $75,000 USD. “I bought early in 2017; the foundations were barely even built. It’s worth way more now. I noticed its plusvalía when Torre 2 had their cheapest apartments at what I pay for my mid-range one.” Karlha invited me to be on her podcast La Romántica Idea. She records the show in her two-bedroom, two bathroom apartment (around 75 square meters) on the 4th floor (out of 7) of Kyo Altalia Torre 1 — one of the newer residential towers. Torre 2 is next door, and Torre 3 is currently being built. As soon as I entered her place, I was wowed. The tower sits on top of the hill of Avenida Televisión in “La Juárez,” and her balcony offers a breathtaking view of San Diego, the border wall, and northern Tijuana, interrupted only by a television antenna.

Karlha tells me a little more about her apartment complex before we start recording. “The gym is all right, the common space has outdoor grilling and a movie projector, but the view is blocked by the penthouse. The amenities are not as luxurious as they are at other places. They definitely cut some corners — some parts seem to be made of flimsy material. Once, I flooded my downstairs neighbor by accident. I was going to mop the kitchen, and left a bucket while I was filling it with water. I forgot about it and came back to a flooded kitchen. The water seeped into my downstairs neighbor’s light fixtures. A lot of the apartments are AirBnbs. Some neighbors complain, but neighbors come and go. I see them all the time, people in the parking lot with big bags, ready to live in Tijuana and work from home.” Rents in Tijuana were already going up before the pandemic. But when covid hit and work from home became standard, it became a no-brainer to move down here, and the rents responded. People from all over the U.S. moved here, and to other popular destinations in Mexico — especially Mexico City, where there are mixed feelings toward ex-pats. But for most San Diegans or Angelenos, the easiest option was to move just south of the border. Especially for Mexican-Americans.

“I paid around a million and a half in pesos for my place,” says Karlha Ochoa, a writer and publicist from Tijuana. That comes out to roughly around $75,000 USD. “I bought early in 2017; the foundations were barely even built. It’s worth way more now.”

“Where can I find a cheap and safe apartment near the border? Anything around $800 USD.” Something similar is posted just about every day on /r/Tijuana, the city’s subreddit forum. During the pandemic, the subreddit’s user base in Tijuana grew from less than 10,000 to over 100,000. Many of the new members had a similar story: people working from home, fed up with high rent in California, looking south of the border. Many of them with Mexican roots. Ismael is one of them. He works from home in what he tells me is “education technology,” but he doesn’t go deeper into it. He is also a helping hand on Reddit. Whenever there is a question about the city, the border wait, memes, or anything related to coffee, he is one of the first to post a comment with helpful information. “I started coming to Tijuana in the early ‘90s with my parents,” he says, “but returned as an adult when I turned 27. I must admit, at first I was coming here for… uh… you know.”

“Zona Norte adventures, huh?” I ask.

Ismael nods. “Yes. But soon after, I started looking for specialty coffee shops and started exploring the city. Paramo in Colonia Cacho was the first one to wow me. B-Haus is the nicest to work from. My favorites are Ermitaño and Perimetro.” His username on Reddit has the word “Yirgacheffe,” an area in Ethiopia known for its coffee beans. The coffee scene in Tijuana has grown exponentially in the last couple of years.

Now 32 years old, Ismael was born and raised in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Besides a brief stint living in a frat house while in college, he lived his whole life with his parents, who come from central Mexico, but met and married in Tijuana. They migrated to the LA area in the late ‘80s. “It made sense to move while working from home,” he recalls. “I was turning 30 and sick of living with my parents and I needed my own space. Not only that, but my family owns a house in Playas that was unoccupied. So you know, free rent! I finally took the plunge in October 2020. My little brother just moved in with me a couple of months ago; he also works from home. And my primo also lives with me, but he is not American.”

Ismael considers himself an ex-pat, but he has more advantages than the usual Tijuana outsider. He speaks Spanish well, though not quite well enough to pass as a local. He is still baffled by cultural shifts like the lack of recycling, the treatment of dogs (chained up or on rooftops), and people never being on time. Oh, and the drug wars.

DARK FRIDAY

“I felt like I did when 9/11 happened,” says Ismael, looking back on the cartel’s shutdown of the city on the weekend of August 12-14. “I was shaken and had the general sense of insecurity. I had no idea what was going to happen next.”

I’ve talked to a lot of people in Tijuana about that Friday. Most seemed to have gotten scared on Friday, when the cartels announced the shutdown, but then forgot about the crisis over the weekend. It’s a violent city. People get used to it.

“It made sense to move while working from home,” Ismael recalls. “I was turning 30 and sick of living with my parents and I needed my own space. Not only that, but my family owns a house in Playas that was unoccupied. So you know, free rent! I finally took the plunge in October 2020.”

Tijuana’s Dark Friday. This is how I lived it: it was a slow week. I did not do much. Early in the morning, I went to therapy. I hadn’t seen my therapist in months. She had a family member pass away and got busy with that. I don’t really need to go to therapy that often anymore. I’m doing alright. I avoided work. I avoided people. I spent some time with my girlfriend. I drank beer and shitposted as if it was my job to shitpost — part of my attempt to live as a content creator. For lunch, I wanted Korean food. I went to my nearby Korean place, only to find out that it had gotten popular and that they no longer sell extra kimchi on the side. I got my usual bulgogi and asked for extra kimchi. They barely gave me any.

It was early, but I wanted a beer. I drank two or three beers at Mamut Brewery in Pasaje Rodríguez and walked home. At exactly 7 pm, I noticed — and posted a story about — a fire happening on Calle Segunda (checking my Instagram archives confirms the time). At 7:04 pm, I posted another video as I got closer. One of my neighbors was outside looking at the fire; there were other onlookers as well. It was a few blocks away, and it was in the middle of Second Street coming down from Playas. Zooming in with my phone, I could see it was a vehicle that was on fire. I thought it was an accident, didn’t make much of it, and went home. I thought about flying my drone to check the scene from the sky, but decided against it because I was tired and drowsy from early drinking. My newsfeed started to show that what I saw was a taxi that was set ablaze. And it wasn’t the only one in the city. Several other vehicles had been set on fire by supposed narcos around town.

After scrolling for a few minutes, I felt tired and took a nap. When I woke up at around 9:30 pm, Tijuana had turned into hell… or at least it looked that way on social media. Traffic, terrorism, vehicles on fire, narco threats, and a general sense of insecurity. But outside my window. It didn’t seem like much. There were not that many people in the street. The ones walking around seemed to do so nonchalantly. But the later it got, the quieter it got. That makes sense in many places in the world, but not in downtown Tijuana. Here, the later it gets, the louder it tends to get. Especially on a Friday.

It was quiet.

Everyone went home.

Some were left stranded. Public transit was a mess. Uber and other online transit services were non-existent. Taxis were scarce. If you were lucky to hail one, it was overpriced: triple the usual gringo cost.

Usually, the city is a cagadero on the weekends. That’s why I rarely go outside. There were a lot of music shows, events, and festivals scheduled to be happening that weekend. All abruptly canceled. I was planning to go to a couple of shows — San Pedro el Cortez and perhaps Sincretismo — but decided against it because I knew the city was going to be a shitshow. But I wasn’t expecting this type of shitshow. Everything got canceled — except Baja Beach Fest in Rosarito. That event kept going and going. It felt like it was still going the Monday after. There was supposed to be another weekend of it, and it seemed like it would be even better than the first. I didn’t know or like most of the line-up or the music, but the festival looked like a fucking blast. The stage, the place, and the whole festival looked very well organized. The sound seems good and they nailed many other great details. Not to mention babes in bikinis. Maybe social media lied to me, but my old ass wanted to go to that festival. It looked fun. Pricey, but maybe worth it.

Baja Beach Fest went on like nothing was happening. While parts of Tijuana were acting like it was the end of the world… the rest of Baja was enjoying its regular life. Yes, I am aware that other vehicles were burnt in the other cities in Baja. But you know, burning cars in other cities are not as shocking as burning cars in Tijuana. Other cities don’t make headlines in international news. Mexicali died down fast. Fires and heat in the desert, don’t even bother going outside. Ensenada is usually calm and conservative. Though fewer vehicles were burnt in Ensenada, everything shut down, and it was taken in a graver way than Tijuana. Rosarito? Like nothing was happening.

Karlha’s balcony offers a breathtaking view of San Diego, the border wall, and northern Tijuana, interrupted only by a television antenna.

The U.S. media seemed to love it. They have an appetite for disaster. Oh, and if it involves Tijuana… the news salivates. Look at that juicy disaster content; vehicles burnt like in the Middle East. Only now it has that nice ringtone that news media likes to sound: TIJUANA!

Tijuana is on fire!

Tijuana is always on fire.

My friend Selene, the bartender at Nelson, called me all panicky, asking if she could crash at my place. She was with Benito, a regular at the bar. She said people were running in a crazy frenzy and she was scared. There was no public transit to her neighborhood. I told them of course they could, but to please bring beer if possible. (I had only one.) I saw people posting that they were willing to give refuge to people stranded from the lack of public transit. I did the same. My story got shared, but no one hit me up for help. After a few minutes, Selene still had not shown up. I messaged her to see what was up. She had walked home. Her neighborhood was not that far from downtown, or that far from my own apartment. I talked to Benito. He said Selene had been overreacting and that he calmed her down. They simply walked home.

Selene said she wasn’t overreacting: “La raza no agarra el pedo. I don’t think people understand truly how dangerous this city is.” She saw people with bulletproof vests and guns at a hot dog stand near Taquería Guanajuato enjoying some TJ dogs, and other malandros speeding in suspicious vehicles. Still, a lot of people stranded simply walked home. Or stayed with friends nearby. The university supposedly opened the doors of the gym for students to spend the night, but I never saw a follow-up. More acts of goodwill spread through social media, but also fake news and scare tactics.

Dylan, the other moderator of the Tijuana subreddit, called me in a panic because he couldn’t get home. He was scared. He had gone to the Xolos game, and after the game, there was no public transit to get him home. It was around 11 pm. He told me he would give me 500 pesos to drive him home, but I couldn’t. My car is officially in lockdown at the parking lot at 10 pm. Plus I had been drinking. The city was in chaos and the last thing I wanted was to get stopped by the police for having bad breath. A few minutes later, he texted me that he found a very expensive taxi to take him home. Another Korean-American friend was in the same situation. He also ended up finding an expensive taxi and went back to the border. On the way to the border, he picked up other stranded people. After scrolling through posts and stories reporting that everyone was safe, scared, and at home… I played video games and went to sleep.

Saturday morning after the Dark Friday: it was quiet. Not eerily quiet. More like Christmas quiet. There were people on the street, but at a reduced capacity. Not your usual Saturday. I went for breakfast birria tacos. Many businesses were open as if it was a regular Saturday. Some others were closed. The hipster coffee shop near me was closed. The street taco vendors weren’t. Not sure if businesses closed out of fear or to enjoy the day off. There weren’t many customers outside.

There was nothing noteworthy on the news. There was nothing going on. There was a lot on social media. Somewhat similar to covid, people were quick to take sides. The ones scared of what could happen, begging for people to stay home or calling them stupid for going outside. Others, without fear, went about their lives like usual. I was one of them. Later, the news reported that 40% of the businesses closed that weekend. I can’t say if that’s accurate. A lot of businesses closed from the lack of business. The tourist scare was going to have an impact. Maybe it already had.

Tijuana!

Boo!

Scary!

The city decapitates dozens per week, but it’s not in the touristy area, so don’t worry!

Tijuana!

Boo!

A handful of vehicles were set on fire, but no deaths were reported. Chaos ensued, and everyone worried about the safety of the city. And again. U.S. media got a boner for dangerous Tijuana. There was a video on the Union-Tribune website: “Wedding in Tijuana despite the violence.” Yes. Because it was just another day in Tijuana. What happened on Friday didn’t target churches or civilians. Many weddings were canceled. But I wouldn’t have canceled my wedding.

Did you hear? “The army is coming to Tijuana. 400 more soldiers.” Shit. I’ve seen them EVERY DAY for the past couple of years. In armored vehicles that resemble tanks. Every day they drive in front of my apartment. But no. The news monster needs to be fed. And Tijuana is its favorite snack. It wants to see that powerful picture of soldiers arriving at the airport.

Sunday. More of the same. More of the regular old Tijuana. I went out for beers with a friend. It seemed like a Sunday. Not a summer Sunday, but a winter Sunday. We tried a new sushi fusion place called Yumeko and had beers at Mamut, Madueño, and Norte. Most breweries and restaurants were open, but they were set to close at 10 pm instead of the usual 1 am. Besides that, it was a regular Sunday. The news reported that narcos were apprehended and sent to Mexico City. They weren’t identified. The government rarely catches any. And after Friday, they finally did. It was reported that the criminals that burnt down the vehicles were paid 3000 pesos for their efforts. Roughly $150 USD (what I charge for a standard photo shoot).

The PSN news network depicted narco messages saying that they would attack Tijuana again, it was later debunked as fake. Fearmongering. Tijuana is constantly on fire. Perhaps the event would slow the city down. Perhaps it would slow down tourism. Perhaps it would slow down the ex-pats from moving here. But probably not. The city will continue growing incessantly, despite the violence and a host of other issues.

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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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