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A hiss pierces the air as music fans wait in line outside the Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg. Across the street from the venue, a man stoops over his tank, inflating balloons and passing them to his associates by the fistful. He shuts off the valve and surveys the scene. Deciding his handlers are moving too slowly, he picks up the tank and slams it against the corner of the warehouse, sending a shrieking echo into the night. "I don't see you working fast enough!" he yells. Then he unleashes an exploding stream of gas into the air, rapidly firing left and right and cackling devilishly like a kid with a water pistol.
The balloon man, who asks not to be named, has a shaved head and a New England accent. He's the leader of the Boston ring of the "Nitrous Mafia"—a term invented by critics of his business. The Disco Biscuits performance is about to start. And the fans in line are high from his laughing gas.
"Fatty whippets!" yell the balloon man's eight or nine dealers, holding balloon clusters high in the air. Some of the dealers are locals, contracted out for the night, while the rest hail from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. When a police car is seen from a distance, a trio of spotters yells, "Six-Up"—a warning to keep cool. Selling nitrous oxide for the purpose of getting high is illegal, but the club's bouncers don't seem to mind the huffing. "The security here is cool," says a dealer named Chrystal, a single mother who is dating the Boston capo, whom we'll call Dmitri.
Throughout the year, the Nitrous Mafia travels from state to state, selling balloons at concert sites. The scene in Williamsburg is only a small preview of what happens in summer, when the outdoor festival season kicks into gear. During these campground events, which last two to four days, the Mafia, which is divided into two rings, based in Boston and Philadelphia, can burn through hundreds of nitrous tanks. With the ability to fill up to 350 balloons per tank, which they sell for $5 and $10, they can bank more than $300,000 per festival, minus expenses. Year after year, security guards at these events attempt to crack down on the illicit business, but, in most cases, they're outmatched by a phalanx of menacing gas dealers who have little regard for unarmed concert personnel.
And for some musicians and their fans, the illicit trade is a bummer. "It has a negative impact on the entire scene," says Don Richards, the tour manager for Umphrey's McGee, ranked the No. 4 jam band in a recent Rolling Stone poll. "It's a very controlling group, to the point where I've seen people get beat up."
But Dmitri, who has been in and out of jail on multiple occasions, defends the operation. "You don't want it, don't buy it," he says, taking a break from his balloon hustle. "We're not forcing you to do anything. You can keep walking." He lives in Rhode Island, but he and his associates will crash at his New York apartment tonight. Business has been slow, he says, and each worker will probably clear only $300 for this show. But he hopes things will pick up during the summer. When asked, he denies his crew is an organized crime ring. "There is no Nitrous Mafia," he says.
It is inevitable. At any East Coast summer music festival, from Maine to Miami Beach, the opening chords eventually give way to the whistling of tanks. In parking lots and alleyways. In mountain crevasses and open fields. At popular campsite events like All Good, in Masontown, West Virginia; Bonnaroo, in Manchester, Tennessee; and Gathering of the Vibes, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The Nitrous Mafia is there.
"You hear the hiss of that tank, and you know you're approaching a shady corner," says Clark, of Tea Leaf Green. "When I'm near it, I'm always afraid I'll wind up in some blurb for a music magazine."
Nitrous is called "hippie crack" because of its addictive qualities. Every morning, the festival campgrounds are riddled with balloons, "like bullet shells on a battlefield," says a fan. Unlike traditional drugs, which have long-lasting effects and can carry a fan through a concert, the high from N20 is cheap and quick. After that, it's often back to the end of the tank line for another round. "It's an instant rush of pure euphoria, but it only lasts for 30 seconds or a minute, and then you want it back," says Justin Heller, a fan who owns his own biodiesel company. He no longer does balloons, but remembers the days of buying 15 in a row. "You don't think about your money—you're just like, 'I want that again, I want that again, I want that again.' "
But some jam-band fans complain that the nitrous racket is harshing their idyllic pursuit, recalling a time, they say, when laughing gas was a part of the hippie ethos.