By Bob Ruggiero
By Hilary Hughes
By Peter Gerstenzang
By David R. Adler
By Devon Maloney
By Brian McManus
By Jessica Hopper
By Harley Oliver Brown
"They have a total disregard for anyone's well-being but their own," says Rodriguez, the security executive. "They're only there for one reason: getting that money. And they get it whatever the cost."
"Mad adrenaline, mad money, mad pussy," says a Philadelphia nitrous dealer named Beef, explaining why he got into the business. He's standing outside the Electric Factory, in the club-cluttered Northern Liberties section of the city, near the end of a Wilco show on a Saturday night. Beef is with five of his gang mates; together, they have three watermelon-size tanks stored in Nike gym bags, with reserves stowed inside the trunks of their cars. One of the dealers, an older man who looks to be in his fifties, sits in an illegally parked SUV—a hiding place for tanks in case cops come.
A meter-reader approaches—a black woman, who notices the tanks. Immediately, a tall dealer named Jimmy, who wears a baggy gray sweatsuit and looks like Shaggy from Scooby Doo, diverts her attention. "Damn, what's a fine-lookin' girl like you doing as a parking lady?" he asks, approaching her. She smiles, charmed, and leans against the wall next to him. "I just gave out my last ticket," she says, letting the gang off the hook. Later, Jimmy notices an Electric Factory security director pulling into the parking lot. He is asked whether the director ever puts the kibosh on the nitrous parties. "He works both sides of the fence," he explains. "Most of the time, he's cool, but just like women, he wakes up every once in a while with PMS." (At a later show, on a blisteringly hot day in Baltimore, Jimmy cooled down by emptying the contents of two nitrous balloons directly onto his face. Then he hoisted a clump of black balloons into the air and barked his sales pitch: "Once you go black, you never go back!")
All of the nitrous dealers are civil, with the exception of the older man, who warns against taking photographs. Beef, a husky Italian-American from South Philly, has a tongue ring, a lazy layer of facial scruff, and a pair of young daughters at home. Twenty-four years old, Beef says he operates independently with a couple of associates, who together pocket about $50,000 a weekend in the summertime. He offers a handshake and a free balloon. It produces a pleasant sensation from head to toe.
So where did the term "Nitrous Mafia" come from, anyway?
"I think we use it as a negative connotation, like 'death tax' instead of 'estate tax,' " offers Noah Wilderman, who has followed Phish since the early 1990s and is making a documentary about them. "It's definitely kids and bosses, but does that make it a mafia?" His most vivid memory of the gas dealers was when Trey Anastasio played at Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, which attracted an upscale crowd. "I'll always remember a hundred people in ties and dress shirts passing out on the grass," he says.
"They say we're all city guys and not hippie guys," says Beef. "That's why they made the Mafia up. Because of guys like us, who don't blend in, wearing Jordan pants and $200 Jordan sneakers. These kids come out like bobos in their hippie T-shirts."
Beef denies that nitrous leads to problems, and with a jovial, appealing demeanor, he seems anything but dangerous. He says he's a smarter than most dealers. "Some people are ignorant and blast it all night," he says. "But I try to be respectful." Asked about the violence, he says, "Yeah, but you can get in fights over anything. You can fight over a cigarette."
A few fans admit that some of the dealers are cool—and that much of the violence isn't caused by them, but by stoners desperate for free gas. "These kids turn into hippie crackheads and hover over that fucking tank and have no money left," says Sean. "And they beg and beg, and the next thing you know, you got one hippie yelling at a bunch of mob kids, and that's when fist fights break out."
Elliott Dunwoody, the tour manager for the band Bassnectar, once observed one needy fan putting his lips directly to the nozzle of a tank: "He actually tried to sip up the bit of nitrous that gets released after they pull the balloon off," he says. "The kids beat him up."
But other fans say that nitrous enhances the concert experience and appreciate the gas mob. "I love the balloons," says Bobby Goodlife, a nightlife promoter from Baltimore. "They're just fun."
When the Wilco show empties from the Electric Factory, the Philadelphia crew springs to action. Three of the men squat down like catchers, each straddling a tank between their thighs, and begin inflating balloons at a rapid clip. With a half-filled balloon dangling from his mouth and sweat dripping from his brow, Beef is particularly dexterous, able to hold five inflated balloons in his left hand, fill another in his right, and still manage to collect money from customers. The three other men serve as lookouts and runners. The older guy holds a clump of 10 purple balloons high in the air like a cotton candy vendor. "Ice-cold fatties, right off the tank!" he yells to concertgoers, who have now flooded the sidewalk, eager for a slurp of the gas. A bald dealer named Carlo, clad in an '80s-style nylon Phillies jacket, sells five fatties to a man in a limousine rolling by. He offers another fan an entire tank—"wholesale," he says—for $200. Then he gives a free balloon to a legless, homeless man parked in a wheelchair nearby.