Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

Lost Vegas: 2

In Nevada on June 30, 2009 at 12:00 am


When most people picture Las Vegas, they think of colossal, world-famous hotels, like the pyramid-shaped Luxor, or the French-themed Paris. If you want to see knights jousting, visit Excalibur; for pirate battles, Treasure Island. The Strip has become Las Vegas; there is more hedonism and entertainment packed into the Strip’s three miles than in any dozen American cities. Many casinos are strung along the Las Vegas Monorail, which easily whisks tourists from Sahara to MGM Grand for a (comparatively) measly $5 a trip. And if you book a room in, say, Caesar’s Palace, you could spend an entire day exploring the mall and casinos.

But the Strip is also gigantic. Each hotel is its own maze-like superstructure; there is a general absence of maps and directories, or even exit signs. Visitors are expected to wander on foot, from slots machine to theme-restaurant to souvenir shop to blackjack table, leaving just enough time to hail a cab to The Phantom of the Opera. Few people make a plan in Vegas, except for specific shows, like Penn & Teller or Cirque du Soleil. Otherwise, the hours are spent on impulsive gambling and shopping, picking up a chili-dog simply because the hotdog stand enters one’s view. The only taboos on the Strip are a schedule, a budget, or a proper bedtime.

Over 30 million visitors a year can’t be wrong: The Strip can be great fun. That’s what it’s designed for, after all.

But it can also be a good recipe for exhaustion. And when you’re lost in the nether-corridors of Paris, you’re hungry, your feet hurt, and nobody – not even the security guards – can give you sensible directions to the Monorail, the alienation can get frustrating, and some people can get snippy. Like us.

Lost Vegas: 1

In Nevada on June 29, 2009 at 12:00 am

West Coast 2 051

We watched in wonder as a motorcyclist, mounted atop a tiny Motocross bike, revved his engine and jolted forward, then swung back, rocking the vehicle like a pendulum along the frame of his spherical steel cage. Then, as he picked up speed, the rider made a full trip around the sphere, flying in improbable circles, as the 50-or-so onlookers exploded into cheers. After a full minute, he stopped abruptly, idling at the bottom of the cage, and threw out his arms in an expression of victory. The crowd screamed and applauded.

Then a second biker entered, and the act was repeated – except now the riders were dodging each other, cross-hatching the cage at imperceptible speeds. Then a third bike entered, and the trio continued their daredevil stunt, incapable of flinching, pausing, thinking…

Every night, the cage appears on Fremont Street, and new visitors crowd around the stuntmen. I had heard of the motorcycle-in-cage stunt, but I’d never seen it firsthand – much less witnessed three riders at once. Kylan and I swigged our two-dollar Coronas and shook our heads; no words could express our awe, and even if words sufficed, no voice could be heard over the wailing death-metal score that blasted from surrounding speakers.

Above us, a giant canopy loomed – ninety feet tall, about 1,500 feet long, a sheer off-white surface that curved like a basilica’s ceiling. Every few minutes, psychedelic images would project against it, as if the sky were stained with morphing neon paint and two-story-tall go-go dancers. All around us, Fremont Street was packed with people, some of them laughing in groups, others staggering drunkenly, and some even lying on the ground. A comedian interviewed passersby, asking them where they were from, what they were doing in Las Vegas; most of the interviewees sputtered and laughed, but their images were project against that massive ceiling. “The largest television screen in the world!” exclaimed the comedian. Here, we could do anything we wanted. There were no open-container laws. Tobacco-smoking was practically encouraged. Couples posed for $40 caricatures. An artist etched words and pictures into individual grains of rice. The possibilities seemed endless.

The New Used Car

In Pittsburgh on June 27, 2009 at 12:00 am


There are lots of car accidents in America, and we have a lot of words to express the damage: Dinged, dinked, dented, scratched, smashed, crushed, T-boned, three-sixteed, and, worst of all, totaled.

Bill’s car was totaled. Not his fault. The insurance company still owes him $1,300. But for now, he’s driving a friend’s car while she’s away in East Asia.

It’s not easy driving somebody else’s car. “I feel like a mooch,” Bill concedes, cruising down Greensburg Pike in search of a parking lot. We arrive and meet J., talk with him about his rusty, rarely-driven Honda, and take the car for a spin. J. is a friendly retiree; he’s traveled around the world and he seems like a nice guy. But his car is a little clunky, and Bill does his best to negotiate a dirt-cheap price.

As a non-driver, I don’t have much to offer except my presence. After all, men behave the strangest when they’re debating the worth of a car, which is why men like to arrive in pairs — there’s a psychological advantage when a friend is standing in the background, wearing sunglasses and folding his arms. Even a non-threatening guy like me can only help, as long as my eyes are covered and my forearms are intertwined.

J. insists on joining us for the test-drive, so halfway through the trip I pretend to send a text-message. I am, in fact, sending a text, but it’s to Bill, who is sitting right next to me: MY OPINION: IT DEPENDS HOW DESPERATE YOU ARE. I THINK HE’S HONEST, BUT THIS CAR WON’T LAST TWO WINTERS WITHOUT SERIOUS WORK. When we park, I keep waiting for Bill to check his phone. They barter. I wait. Finally I say, “Hey, Bill, do you know what time it is?”

Bill pulls out his phone and glances at it, then pockets it again. “Two twenty-five,” he says.

My text hasn’t arrive. I really need to switch service.

Bill finally holds out, and I’m grateful. Even for $850, this car is still an Eighties Honda, and it hasn’t been driven regularly, and its oil pan is dodgy. And like most almost-30-year-old Americans, Bill and I will examine an engine and nod vaguely. If it has moving parts, it looks good to us. We are a scam-artist’s dream.

Driving into Wilkinsburg, Bill pulls into a used-car dealership. I’ve never actually visited such a lot; all I know about them is what I’ve seen in cartoons: A man in a cowboy hat and bolo tie is supposed to wave to us and start calling us “Chief.” Or a guy with a mustache and suede jacket will suddenly appear, startling us, and smoothly whisper a price. And every car is really a lemon, and every odometer has been wound back 50,000 miles. Isn’t that how it works?

But this lot is even weirder: It’s surrounded by chainlink fence and has two levels. There are only about 30 cars on the lot, and it looks more like a mechanic’s garage than a dealership’s headquarters. Grass is growing beneath some of the wheels. Bill parks his borrowed car next to a sedan, with “Parts for Sale” spraypainted on the windshield. I start to second-guess whether the Honda was a good idea.

Bill doesn’t need to buy a used car. His credit score is fine and his last car was new. “I’m just tired of making the damn payments,” he explains, and I don’t blame him. Bill has a steady job, working at the hospital, but he’s criminally under-paid, and all a car does is depreciate in value. Paying for the whole vehicle, outright and in cash, relieves the monthly headache. No bills, no APR. Instead of waiting several years, he’ll own his car by this afternoon.

Bill gravitates toward a 1992 Volvo. The car is painted dark purple and the myriad buttons don’t make any sense, but the car is spacious and lightly worn. For a car that has 217,000 miles on it, the engine starts smoothly and careens nicely around the hills and narrow streets of Wilkinsburg. The lot’s manager is a casual enough guy, and so are his mechanics.

“We were asking two thousand,” says the manager, “but for you, fifteen hundred.”

“Does the cruise control work?”

“I don’t know.”

“Air conditioning?”

“Don’t know. We’re selling it as-is for fifteen hundred. So honestly, we don’t know much about it. The guy who owned it drove with the windows rolled down. He was old. Maybe he just couldn’t see very well.”

This confession is more candid than I expected from a used-car salesman. Even though I’m just Bill’s moral support, standing silently in the back, I’m impressed by their up-front dialogue.

Bill is exercising restraint, but whatever he decides, he’ll need to dig up his old license plate, so he drives me home on the way back to his house. He’s quiet as we ease down Penn Avenue, back toward downtown Pittsburgh. This is a problem I’ve never had to solve — one car totaled, another car borrowed, two used cars optional, plus the expense of registering, the fear of getting conned, the art of the deal. There is so much power-struggle: One man has the car and wants to sell it; the other has the money but also limited time. This is supply-and-demand at its grittiest, playing out on the gravel lot of a low-rent dealership, on a sweltering summer day, in one of Pittsburgh’s most challenged neighborhoods. As micro-economics goes, this is the business school of hard-knocks.

Before, I had to text Bill because I couldn’t speak freely. Now that I can speak freely, I have no idea what to say.

The Woods Are Lovely, Dark and Deep

In Uncategorized, Vermont on June 25, 2009 at 12:00 am

Christmas in Vermont 042

I was once asked, during an audition, to name my favorite place on Earth. I said, “The woods outside my parents’ house.”

Life in Vermont can be hard: It’s ludicrously expensive, the winters are long and bitter, and the summers are humid and buggy. My parents built their own house with a wood-burning stove; everything else runs on electricity, including the well and septic system. My first “job” was to dig rocks out of the garden for 50 cents a bucket, a job I undertook for about 45 minutes before giving up on work (and money). My second job was hauling wood in a wheelbarrow down from the forest. Manual labor is tough, tedious work. Also, I was lazy.

And like all rural people, Vermonters live without certain amenities: You can’t just call the police and expect a squad car within 20 minutes. Same goes for the fire department, although both services are remarkably efficient considering the great distances between buildings and towns. Wildlife is always wandering through — bats, nests of mice, skunks, snakes, raccoons, whatever. My favorite: A bird that crashed through our garage window and died next to my Dad’s table-saw.

But that’s all succotash. The rare beauty of my parents’ house is its quietude. Nobody bothers them. The woods that surround their house makes it feel as remote as a log cabin. The summer nights are pitch-black, because no street-lamps infringe upon the darkness; in winter, the unblemished blankets of snow sparkle like mounds of jewels. Dark autumn soil is carpeted with gold leaves, and by late fall the forest’s canopy glows fiery-red. Time crawls in the Vermont woodlands, and nature’s unfolding is a lifelong lesson in patience.

Add it all together, and I’ve probably spent months in the forest around my parents’ house — pacing, pondering, gibbering loudly to myself like a lunatic. All my best ideas were hatched in this woodland. With my Dad and brother, I’ve hiked, skied, snow-shoed, sledded, zip-lined, tree-climbed, and felled Christmas trees in these woods. I’ve seen herds of deer sprint through the glade. I’ve spotted owls and heard coyotes howling. For my entire childhood, a sylvan life seemed normal. Now, having seen the diverse ways people come of age, I still have trouble imagining youth without wild greenery. This is the livelier version of Plato’s Cave. And unlike those mythical Socratics, who ravenously journey the world, free from their cavernous prison, I’m also relieved to come back, and take a deep, full breath.


In Vermont on June 24, 2009 at 12:00 am

Christmas in Vermont 022

“So where are you from in Vermont?”

“Do you know Middlebury? Middlebury College? It’s kind of, you know, in the middle?”

“Oh, yeah. You’re from there?”



“But I’m from Cornwall, right outside of it. And Middlebury is the shire town.”

The questioner snickers. “Shire… town?


“Like, The Hobbit?”

“Well, it’s the county seat—”

“You really call it a shire town? Wow. So you’re from Middlebury, huh?”

“Uh, yeah, sure.”

For a tiny town of only 8,000 people, Middlebury has many distinctions: Woody Jackson lives here. The Morgan Horse Farm is located here. Woodchuck Hard Cider is brewed here, and so is Otter Creek beer. The foot-bridge that spans the creek was used for a scene in Me, Myself & Irene. Middlebury College is triumphantly mentioned at the beginning of The First Wives’ Club, although the opening scene was glaringly shot somewhere else. I briefly waited tables for the Waybury Inn, where “Newheart” allegedly took place (although not a single room was used for the show).

The tourists like to walk Main Street and see the stone church, the gazebo, the large-ish Battell Building. They buy hemp shirts and smelling salts and bandanas with cow-patterns. When you grow up in such a tiny town, the tiny shops become iconic: The Rainbow Room, with its pendants and greeting cards; Comics & Collectibles, the basement nerdtopia where I whiled away summer afternoons; Skihaus, the ultimate over-priced ski-supply store; and my favorite place in the world, the Vermont Book Shop, whose narrow stacks of books always smelled of must and sandalwood.

If you were really autonomous MUHS student, you could stroll down to the Marble Works — an industrial neighborhood where marble was once cut. The converted warehouses are all constructed from rough-looking marble blocks, and in the summer the white stone gleams incandescently. When I was finally allowed to leave my high school campus during free periods (a luxury reserved only to seniors), my friend Rory and I would spend hours at Lee Zachary’s, a colossal pizza parlor tucked into one of the Marble Works warehouses.

But the most illustrious landmark in Middlebury is the waterfall — this is why outsiders see New England as magical. Middlebury has a main street, simply called Main Street, which is the developed section of Route 30 (pronounced: “Root Thrr’dee”). In the middle of Main Street (which is to say the middle of Middlebury), there’s a stone bridge that arches over Otter Creek. The architecture of this bridge is magnificent enough, as it’s composed of roughshod masonry that looks venerable in any season or light. But the bridge also overlooks a powerful waterfall that crashes beneath it — a waterfall that’s routinely frosted over in ice or shrowded in mist.

My relationship with this waterfall is complex: picnicking next to it, climbing the boulders around it, make-out sessions at its frothy foot, and so on. My brother once waded across the water to chop free a dead tree-trunk that was caught on the cliff’s edge. And most remarkable of all, legend has it that escaped slaves once hid beneath the water as they rode the Underground Railroad to Canada.

As a teenager, it was chic to trash Middlebury as a pit of universal despair. To us, it was a colony of hypocrite yuppies and braindead rednecks. We’d wait to see which worthless dickwad died in a drunk-driving accident, and we’d laugh when the yearbook was dedicated to him. We’d wonder which drop-out farm-girl would get knocked up with twins. Our cynicism was pointless, and we knew it, but we claimed our lives would only be worthwhile if we abandoned ship.

Now I’m a tourist, and Middlebury is just a spot on the map. It’s a nice promenade, and the sights are particularly handsome in summer. The thugs I once feared have grown up or moved away. And when people give me attitude, I just remember that I’m not from Middlebury. I’m from Cornwall.

Small-Town Celebrities

In Vermont on June 23, 2009 at 12:00 am

Christmas in Vermont 020 

When my parents first came to Vermont in the 1970’s, they stopped at a service-station. The state was crawling with hippies and bohemian drop-outs by that time, so it made sense that the owners used the station to sell home-made ice-cream. The two owners were old friends, a guy named Ben Cohen and a guy named Jerry Greenfield.

Today, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream is a global, multi-billion dollar corporation. And Cherry Garcia is delicious.

For such a tiny state, Vermont is packed with celebrities. Michael J. Fox and David Mamet have houses in the Green Mountains, and they have each contributed to Vermont-themed movies.

In my childhood winters, I would take ski-trips to Breadloaf, home of the Breadloaf Writers Conference, and skate-ski to Robert Frost’s mountain home. It’s fitting that Frost’s domicile is an isolated building, given how thoroughly the man suffered at the hands of other people. Small wonder, after losing most of his family and committing his sister to a mental hospital, that Frost wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

For the Middlebury Community Players, I performed in a production of Dracula with David Moats, who soon after won a Pulitzer Prize (and state’s first Pulitzer for journalism). The next year, I performed in Follies with Ron Powers, who won the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for TV criticism and co-wrote Flags of Our Fathers. I went to elementary school with a kid named Sam, whose father, Gary Margolis, was shortlisted for the Pultizer in poetry. For a long time, I just assumed that every small town was crowded with Pulitzer-winners.

My Mom is friends with the world-famous novelist Julia Alvez, who lives in Middlebury, and so does governor Jim Douglas, who has occasionally stopped by my parents’ house for political talk.

John Deere grew up in Middlebury, but he didn’t invent his tractors until he moved to the Midwest.

I have sung Handl’s “Messiah” in a Middlebury Church with Dr. François Clemmons, who is better-known as Officer Clemmons from “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” I’ve corresponded with Bill McKibbon, one of the most respected environmental writers of the past 30 years.

But I still haven’t met Trey Anastasio. I’m working on it.

Where I Was From: Vermont

In Vermont on June 22, 2009 at 12:00 am

Christmas in Vermont 016

Here’s how the conversation usually goes:

“You’re from Vermont?”


“So you make maple syrup?”


“Wait, really?”

“Well, I don’t make it, but my Dad does.”

“Your Dad makes maples syrup?”

“Well, he has in the past. But for the past few years he’s spent maple season in China—”

“Wait, your Dad is in China?”

“Yeah, he teaches English in Inner Mongolia.”

“Is your Mom in China?”

“Oh, no. She stays in Vermont. That’s where she teaches piloting.”

“Hold up. Your Mom’s a pilot? Like a commercial pilot?”

“Oh, heavens, no. She flies prop planes. Cessnas, stuff like that. She’s a piloting instructor, and I think she does tours once in a while. She wanted to pilot for this company in Cape Cod, but from the way she tells it, their instruction was a little confusing, so they parted ways.”

“Wow. Your parents are awesome.”

“I know, right?”

I’m not your typical Vermonter, but then again, nobody really is. Vermont is a peculiar state: It’s rugged and rocky, and so are the people. It’s the “most rural” state in America, and one of the smallest. Vermont was long populated by loggers and quarrymen, every one of them a diehard Republican; and yet Bernie Sanders, the state’s junior U.S. senator, describes himself as a socialist, and the state is now famous for its hippie population. Vermonters are usually quiet and hate crowds, but they’re also shameless self-promoters: They love to show off a new barn door, a souped-up motorcycle, a sprouting herb garden, an extensive DVD collection, anything to wow a guest or friend. Most Vermonters claim to love quiet and the outdoors, but most Vermonters I’ve ever met lead turbulent, dramatic social lives. The peacefulness is relaxing for ex-urbanites, but the boredom can make people stir-crazy. Vermonters pride themselves on open-mindedness and civility — and most folks are pretty open-minded and civil — but there are deep pockets are resentment and cruelty: By far the most racist, homophobic, misogynistic comments I’ve ever heard were spoken in Burlington. And above all, Vermonters are incredibly touchy: They stew over careless words for months and years. Most people end up dying before their grudges do.

These days, I only visit Vermont once or twice a year, and my sojourns are always brief. The house my parents built will always be my one true home, a palace of sloped ceilings and broad windows, surrounded on all sides by acres of forest. Otherwise, I’ve become a kind of tourist in my hometown, where dirt roads I once disdained now look charming and pastoral. I do the things that tourists do: canoe down Otter Creek, bicycle to Fort Ticonderoga, order a pint at the Waybury Inn, where I once waited tables. I wave to my parents’ friends and ask how their grown-up children are. But all my memories are whispers; they seem distant and worn, unexpectedly revived by smells and sights. My adolescence was stiff and inflexible; I didn’t play well with others. As Vermonty as my lifestyle is, my heart is pure Pittsburgh.

But as an experiment, and for the sake of my fellow Flatlanders*, here begins some snapshots of my homeland, the Champlain Valley. Pictures and words may not do it justice, but there are no mosquitoes here, and it’s way cheaper than a New England bed-and-breakfast.


* “Flatlanders” is the slur for anybody who grew up outside of Vermont. Since the state depends on tourism, they’ll never say it to your face. Nor will they call you a “Leaf-Peeper,” the local term for people who visit in autumn and drive very slowly to take in the breathtaking views of changing leaves. Vermont’s economy literally hinges on leaf-peepers, even though natives despise them with a passion.

Phish: 3

In Pittsburgh, Vermont on June 19, 2009 at 11:01 pm

Phish Show 014

At the gate, a squat female security guard tells me to raise my shirt. I pulled up my shirt, revealing pale skin beneath. When she asks about my bulging pockets, I pull out a folded hat and some bundled napkins. “I can unfold the napkins, if you want,” I offer.

“Nah,” she says, sighing. “Not like it even matters with this crowd.”

As we migrate into the undulating ocean of Phish fans, the thousands of heads shaded violet in the setting sun, I see what the guard meant: Stoners are pulling on joints and fingering bowls and sucking one-hitters. They’re exhaling great clouds of marijuana, or chomping marijuana cookies or talking loudly about marijuana: “DUDE!” cries a bearded guy on the beach-blanket below us. “I AM SO FUCKED UP! BUT YOU GUYS KNOW! YOU KNOW!”

I don’t really know — instead of ‘shrooms and tabs, I settle for a 22-oz. cup of Coors Light, purchased for an astonishing $11 at a bar that looks like a Slushee stand. But Phish fans require alchemy; the music is designed for disordered minds, and without some kind of chemical enhancement, the music is simply off. So Coors Light it is.

When the musicians walk on-stage, the audience erupts — screaming, hopping, punching at the air with fists. But even as the first song begins, and the enormous speakers project animated chords into the sweaty air, I’m transfixed by the Glow Sticks. I’ve seen crowds full of glow-in-the-dark chachke, but I’ve never seen them hurled. Each stick is flung into the air like a tomahawk; they arc beautifully before splashing into the crowd. But a dozen sticks are firing at once, a great synchronicity of projectiles, like wordless neon messages curried by pitching arms and gravity.

The songs unfold gradually, great tidepools of rhythm and circular harmonies, shifting tempos and entropic optimism. The silhouettes around me sway and stagger; migrants part the crowds in search of lost friends. Everyone is dancing, and even I am dancing, imitating the electro-shock gyrations that hippies favor. I bop my head and try to abandon all pretentions; the songs are long and tedious, and when dancing no longer seems worthwhile, I sit in the dewy grass and just listen, letting the siege of bodies envelop me. Because even if Phish isn’t “my” kind of music; even if I’ve eschewed the one ingredient that will make it “meaningful”; I can enjoy the company of a dozen friends and ten thousand eccentric strangers, sharing a sloped lawn in the middle of the night, whipped by strobe-lights and swaying to a playful beat.

Then something magical happens: A song winds down, and the instruments stop. The music becomes an arrangement of voices, nonsense syllables, switchbacks of speed and pitch, bleeping in the dark like a coven of deranged robots. It’s as if all the previous songs have been inside-jokes, and now they’re proving just how masterful their musicianship is. In this one, purely vocal moment, Phish is revealing its true prestige, like the magician who has piddled with card-tricks and is now effortlessly escaping from his eel-tank.

The guitarists also manage to play their instruments while bouncing on trampolines, shifting direction in choreographed swivels. They sing a snatch of four-part harmony, and Fishman even performs the greatest party-trick of all time: playing an ordinary vacuum cleaner. The range of sound that passes through Fishman’s face is spellbinding — not only as a novelty act of weird noises, but as an ode to Vaudeville tomfoolery; the skills that seem impossible. I think of the Vermont I once knew — the Vermont of buskers and craft fairs and wacky hitchhikers. I think of the New Age boutiques and teenagers selling hemp-necklaces on the sidewalks; I think of the Wicca ritual I attended in the basement of a Unitarian church, and the old men who smoked pipes on the porches of their antique shops; I think of Bread & Puppet Theatre and Circus Smirkus; and as Fishman blows fat notes through his vacuum tube, everything clears away, and my mind trascends to simpler strangenesses, and I hear and see what other people come here to hear and see.

Phish: 2

In Pittsburgh, Vermont on June 19, 2009 at 10:10 pm

 Phish Show 006

The morning is drizzly and cold, but when we arrive at the Post-Gazette Pavillion, the sun is beating down on the gravel parking lot. John and Lindy arrange their chairs and my friend Fred and I perch on coolers. Lindy’s college friend Ben offers high-quality beer, and for the next three hours we consume can after can, our bodies vaporizing in the humid air. We joke and take pictures and gab about current events. The crowd swell around us — an artist selling psychedelic canvases out of his car; a skinny guy in a goatee selling silver bracelets out of a padded box. The breeze is musty with ganja-smoke; all around us, joints are puffed and bowls hit in the open-air, then pocketed as broad-shouldered cops lumber past. The line for the restroom grows by the hour, from a half-dozen to a score. Scruffy loners offer bottles of Yeungling.

“Two for five dollars!” one vagrant vendor calls out.

“How about one?” says the guy ahead of me in line.

“Two bucks.”

Money is exchanged, change is made, the man takes his bottle and the vendor struts off, happy with his sale. I turn to the guy ahead of me and say, “Wait, did he say one bottle for two dollars or two bottles for five?”


“Does that make any sense?”

Later a virile youth runs up to me, shirtless and flashing white teeth, and he proclaims: “YOU JUST GOTTA SLAP MY WINE SACK AND YOU GET FREE WINE!”

The “wine sack” has been removed from a box of Franzia, so it’s like a transparent wine-skin that has a platic nozzle sticking out of it. A bearded man smacks the sack, as instructed, spanking the plastic surface. He turns the nozzle and sucks down the red wine as onlookers clap. I decide to follow suit — I high-five the bag and then drink the mixed-berry taste of cheap Merlot.

“Well, too bad you have hepatitis now,” Fred says.

“Oh, I’ve had it for years,” I reply.

“What about the herpes?”

“Those, too.”

Having spent most of my youth in rural Vermont, I’m surprised by the tailgating demographics: The crowd is mostly young men, dressed in cargo-shorts and T-shirts. Many have stripped away their polos to reveal toned musculature. Their eyes are hidden by expensive sunglasses and their feet are bourne by authentic Birkenstocks. Most beards are well-trimmed, and some are passing footballs. They are not the scraggly, skinny, Devil Stick-flipping hippie vegans I was expecting. I spot a schoolbus and a few VW buses, but no hand-made signs exhort the virtues of a biodiesel engine. Dreadlocks float in a sea of salon-styled beach-cuts. This doesn’t feel like the commune I expected; it feels like a frat-boy convention.

It’s rumored that Dave Matthews will make an unexpected cameo at the Phish concert, and my friends tremple. The going wisdom is this: “Dave Matthews is all right, but I hate the fans.” This has become the Zeitgeist: Dave Matthews is a talented hack, but his fans are trust-fund yuppies in hemp necklaces.

I don’t know much about Dave Matthews — conceivably less than I know about Phish — the difference being that I can hum two Dave Matthews songs. It’s curious how much the two camps despise each other: The Phish-fans who tell endless stories of their glory days, when LSD was cheap and concerts were tent-cities; the Dave Matthews fans who will never meet the South African mega-star in person and yet refer to him as “Dave,” insisting that the song “Fall Into Me” singlehandedly awakened their manhood.

I’m in the company of Phish-fans: Fred, John, Ben, and soon others as well. Lindy is more ambivalent, like me. But there’s one thing we can all agree on: This is a fairly unusual Phish crowd. It combines the band’s crunchier fanbase with wolf-like packs of suburban boys. Bandanas blend with backward baseball caps. The only common accoutrement is a good Frisbee.

As the sun melts into the trees, the crowd starts streaming between cars, toward the Pavilion’s gates.

“All right, kids,” says John. “It’s go-time.”

Phish: 1

In Pittsburgh, Vermont on June 19, 2009 at 9:17 pm

 Phish Show 013

Never bring me to a concert. Not rock, not jazz. No concertos or symphonies. Hiphop will never work out. No Linkin Park or GWAR or Rossini. My brain is poorly wired to watch people play instruments. In crowded rooms, I just want to sit down. In music halls, I slump in my seat. I keep glancing at the time, wondering how long this will last. I keep interrupting the middle of a song to ask a friend how his girlfriend is. I’m the only sane, social, 29-year-old American male who doesn’t understand the point of seeing live music.

I also grew up in Vermont, and I’ve never seen Phish. People have been hanged for lesser crimes. I’ve been a traitor to my people. Until today.


My Mom once flew her Cessna over Coventry, Vermont. It was a grisly day, barely flyable, but something caught my Mom’s eye: A few thousand feet below her fuselage, the highway was packed with cars. The horde of minibuses and vans stretched for miles and miles, an endless gypsy caravan snaking toward the horizon. When she landed, Mom called me and asked about it.

“Do you know anything about a band called Phish?” she asked.

“A… band… called… Phish,” I said slowly. “Are you serious?”

“Why would I joke about that?”

My parents have particular musical tastes, even for Baby Boomers: They prefer upbeat folk music, such as Celtic reels and Klezmer, and their collection of Broadway and opera records is extensive, both on CD and vinyl. They enjoy jazz, but only in its most innocent form, and they love Gospel and Swing. My parents have both sung for well-traveled a cappella groups, and my Mom’s all-women barbershop choir, Maiden Vermont, has earned some significant local ink. So I’m not surprised that my parents couldn’t name a mainstream pop-music band after 1965.

Except that Phish is an institution — half of Vermont’s people live there because of Phish and the lifestyle that this freewheelin’ hippie jam-band represents. Phish carries a torch first lit by the Grateful Dead (who are also veritably unknown to my parents). After three decades of living in Vermont, taking pride in their Vermont adulthoods, Vermont culture, Vermont freedoms and civic duties, how had my Mom missed the state’s most successful export? (Except ice-cream, and IBM microchips). And compared to my Dad, who proudly describes himself as an “old fogey,” my Mom is a boundless vault of pop-culture knowledge. If Mom didn’t know Phish, my Dad almost assuredly didn’t.

But fair’s fair: I’ve spent years avoiding Phish. The music has never interested me, nor has the legion of fans. I know only unavoidable snippets, the stuff everybody knows: Trey Anastasio is the immortal lead, and he’s enjoyed a tidy solo career. Fishman likes to get naked onstage. There are two other guys in the band, but I have no idea what their names are. They play a song called “Bouncing Around the Room,” a song that I can almost hum. But having spent a two-week road-trip with two friends who played nothing but Phish and Grateful Dead recordings, being able to hum part of one song is a pretty weak skill.

Two months ago, my friends John and Lindy proposed going to Pittsburgh’s singular Phish concert. “Free tickets,” John said. “All we want is a case of beer. And we don’t want to drive.”

And after all these years of willful ignorance, I surrendered. I’ll do anything if it’s free.