By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Sean explains that the Boston ring of the Nitrous Mafia is made up of about 16 members split into two units, with the entire operation run by the Rhode Island kingpin, Dmitri—the guy with the New England accent slamming the tank against the wall in Williamsburg. With the help of false paperwork, gang members fill up tanks of various sizes at a local nitrous shop, which is a kitchen-supply store called New England Fountain, located in Burlington, Massachusetts. (The store's owner, Paul Abramo, says he's aware that some of his customers might be illegal dealers, but it's impossible to regulate: "We try to make sure they're a business, but beyond that, it's really out of our control.")
During festival season, gang members are able to fill 40 nitrous tanks at a time for $75 each, says Sean. During his employment, the two Boston crews would duel each other every night to see who could make more money. "It was almost like a game to us," he says. Members of each unit split 30 percent of the profits, while the remaining 70 percent was funneled back to their bosses.
The Philadelphia ring is larger and split up into several sub-crews who know each other but operate independently, says Sean. "The Philly guys are more reckless," he says, and more prone to violence and intimidation. "They operate without a code of honor. They were the first kids I saw bringing guns to the lots and putting fuckin' shit to people's heads." The Philadelphia don, who owns his own nitrous supply store and has several workers underneath him, is less apt to show up at festivals himself, says Sean. "He's a fucking nut job," he adds, noting that even Dmitri is deferential to him.
Sean, who admits that he has been in and out of jail for drug charges, was recruited into the Mafia last year during a time when he had no money and no food and was struggling to see his favorite bands. During All Good, a mob acquaintance offered to pay him to go on balloon runs. "Next thing I know, I made $60 in 40 minutes," Sean recalls. "It was big money. Eventually, I started making $900 a weekend." He was employed for a four-month period, during which time he spent nearly every day on the road with his colleagues, living in hotels and U-Haul vans. He fell in love with the lifestyle because of the instant respect that came with being a balloon seller. Girls would remove their tops in front of him just for a huff. "It worked all the fuckin' time," he says. Fans would drop $200 in three hours at his tank.
As a full-time Mafia member, Sean was known for his crafty methods of sneaking tanks past security guards. "I liked to store them inside box springs," he says. "We'd strip out the bottom and stash six cans inside. Then we'd lay it back down, put a mattress and blanket on it and make the bed. Security would open the back of the U-Haul, see a made bed, close the door, and let us ride right on through." On other occasions, he'd rip out the floor panels of vans and stash the tanks, which were always spray-painted black, in the undercarriage. "We'd laugh our way through every check point with three fuckin' tanks underneath the car," he says. A colleague of his—a woman with a young child—would often traffic tanks hidden under blankets in her baby stroller.
During festival season, the Boston and Philadelphia crews band together, operating in higher numbers, assisted by a recruited class of lower-level minions who aren't card-carrying members of the Nitrous Mafia but are eager to make a summer buck. They're often ex-cons—"crack dealers and dirtbag kids straight outta jail," says Sean—who like the idea of selling balloons to rich kids while inhaling all the nitrous balloons they want for free. The full-time workers handle the money and oversee the stash houses, while the younger kids serve as lookouts and runners, communicating with one another with verbal signs and cell phone texts. "It's usually six guys to a tank," explains Sean. "One guy strappin', one guy fillin', one guy takin' money, then usually three lookouts spread out in a triangle about 20 feet in each direction watching for security."
After leaving on bad terms—he won't go into detail—Sean says he wishes he had never gotten caught up with the mob. "I realize the demons associated with it," he says. "They're really ruining the hippie scene." Then he leaves the table, grabs his guitar, and takes the stage, launching into the opening stanza of the blues.
Nitrous oxide has been around as long as the jam bands themselves. There is one brief scene in The Grateful Dead Movie, a documentary about a series of San Francisco shows in 1974, in which nitrous is consumed with an octopus-like hose. "It was easy to come by, and part of the party," says songwriter and producer David Gans, a collaborator of Jerry Garcia's. During the 1970s, the gas was sometimes supplied at recording studios. By the mid-'80s, the tanks began appearing on "Shakedown Street," the name for the public marketplace that Dead Heads ginned up at concert venues to finance their continuous touring. By the end of the decade, nitrous was standard fare, supplied primarily by out-of-town dentists.