The Driver's Tale

Shakedown Street
By Jennifer Gardner

The pungent scent of marijuana and clove cigarettes drifted sweetly through the lingering smell of gasoline from sputtering Volkswagen engines and mingled with the red Georgia clay dust to settle on my lungs. I fanned the short skirt of my batik dress, rippling the hem of marching mustard and beige elephants in an attempt to discourage the rivulets of sweat coursing down my back, chest and brow. My soggy reddish-brown hair was knotted in a sweaty, three-day-old French braid that I was afraid to attempt to untangle. I didn't want chunky dreadlocks like the ones on the bare-chested man set up in the patchy grass next to me. He was selling glass pipes with swirls and dips of blues and greens and tiny, diaphanous nymphs or translucent frogs with pink eyes perched on fragile stems. It was difficult to tell the man's age — in everyday life, we take clues from how someone dresses or carries himself. On tour, everyone seems to think they're children, and dress and act accordingly. This man sat cross-legged on the ground, his leathery legs poking out from his patched corduroy shorts like spindly kindling sticks. He juggled two Hacky Sacks in one hand and pinched a clove cigarette between thin lips. Early 40s, maybe. I spread my blanket on a patch of clay and dirt at the 1998 Further Festival Atlanta venue, the first show of a summer-long tour, and joined Shakedown Street.

That year's Further Festival showcased three bands: Rusted Root, the youngest band of the three, a fast-paced group that tried for a primitive sound with African-influenced percussion and warbling vocals; Hot Tuna, the leftover members of Jefferson Airplane, of which Jorma, the guitarist, was the only one who seemed vibrant enough to play an instrument; and The Other Ones, Grateful Dead sans Jerry Garcia. The Other Ones had recruited Bruce Hornsby, a pianist and vocalist who, along with a new, young saxophone player, lent the otherwise laid-back band an occasional hint of Las Vegas that stuck out like Wayne Newton at Woodstock.

The show didn't start until 6 p.m., but the parking lot was packed by 1 p.m. The campers crowding the Stone Mountain National Park, where my boyfriend Philip and I had camped for the past five days, all went to the parking lot after waking, cooking or scrounging breakfast, and going through morning drug rituals. Among common morning requests put in to fellow campers and deadheads were guitar strings,"wake-and-bake" tokes off someone's pipe, or bites of whole wheat bagels with vegan Tofutti cream cheese. Most everyone shares nicely — belief in karma often spurs ostensibly altruistic behavior.

Philip Edwards helped me display my wares, crocheted pouches and hemp necklaces, on the yellow-and-blue quilt with star burst designs, which I'd had since my 11th Christmas. He told me everyone called the main row where people set up and sell goods Shakedown Street after a Grateful Dead song. Ironically, the song says "nothin's shakin' on Shakedown Street - used to be the heart of town," which seemed depressingly true in this 90's attempt to keep alive a tradition most of the misfits here were too young to have ever seen in action. For every VW bus selling patchwork skirts and tie-dyed shirts, two brand-new Neons or Saturns unloaded drugged-out teenagers wanting to charge purchases on their parents' credit cards.

This was Philip's 52nd Dead show. He'd never seen them without Jerry Garcia and talked a lot about Jerry, as did most deadheads on this tour. Philip's cat was named Jerry.

"It's still the Dead experience," Philip insisted, referring to all-night campsite drum circles and the Shakedown, where you can buy pot grown almost anywhere in the world, blankets, bongs and burritos, without walking more than 50 feet.

Philip was only 25, though, and still had missed the real heyday of his favorite band. He was a clean-cut closet hippie, who usually bartended at a swank restaurant in Destin, Fla., where I waited tables. He brought his pager and laptop on tour with us. He checked his email whenever he found another "hippie" with a cellular phone to power his computer.

I was 20, and this was my first Dead experience. I'd spent the past five days sweating beside Lake Atlanta, at our campsite, watching strange sleek-coated animals glide through the water. I sat on the sandy, sweltering shore in a rickety lawn chair, crocheting tiny lavender and off-white pouches and attaching them to necklaces. I could make one an hour, without much concentration, and hippies buy these stash sacks, into which they tuck hits of acid, pills or baggies of pot, for $15 a pop.

I stared at the Stone Mountain, its pink-streaked belly wavering in the June heat. It looked like a giant sow flopped on her back, wallowing in the lake. At night, we joined an exodus of hippies tripping on a variety of visual enhancers and watched the laser show dance off the butt-end of the pig.

After I set up my rows of necklaces and bags, I left Philip in charge and went to wander around, all the while trying to get accustomed to the strong smells of tour. Fried falafel, bean burritos and rank body odor covered up with Patchouli oil (known as a hippie shower) mixed with tobacco, pot, cloves, mint leaves — nearly anything that's ever been shoved in a pipe and smoked, including the occasional olfactory offense of crack, which smells like rotting tires burning.

After a couple of weeks on tour, the initial accost of scent and sight becomes commonplace. Only a few times we ventured away from the caravan of vehicles festooned with dancing teddy bear bumper stickers and signs that said "The Further Fest furthers!" to grocery shop. The stark whiteness and non-smell of packaged food seemed curiously antiseptic, like a hospital corridor.

I bought greasy falafel dripping with tahini from a florid, fleshy woman with wispy brown hair matted to her flushed face. Her voluminous pink flesh rippled freely around the sides of her homemade shirt, which consisted of the little patches of material — the kind found on remnant racks at fabric stores — hastily sewn together in a square and hitched around her heat-rashed neck with a halter strap that was all but enveloped by folds of skin. Those remnant scraps are called fat quarters in the store, the same thing hippies mutter when they are trying to sell quarter-ounce bags of pot. The back of the shirt was just an inch-thick strap in the middle and the sides of her conspicuously sagging breasts showed when she hunched over to fry more falafel. She worked under a makeshift awning constructed of a bright blue tarp attached to what looked like the first Recreational Vehicle ever made.

I passed an emaciated guy who looked about 18, clad in purple Birkenstocks held together with electric tape and a blue, red and purple jester hat with bells perched atop blond shoulder-length curls turning into dreadlocks.

"Boomers," he chanted in a low sing-song, strung-out eyes wildly darting to catch any sign of interest. "Nugs."

Philip explained to me that boomers are psychedelic mushrooms and nugs are bags of prime pot, called that because they're worth as much as gold nuggets. Judging by the amount of money Philip spent, the pot cost about as much as gold, too.

We bartered for our dinners after the show, which was a wild gyration of swarms of people amassed on an expansive lawn. I watched barefoot dancers uproot the fertilized grass and wondered how much it would cost to resod the place and how often it was done. A girl with an impossibly pert, young face and fresh blond hair gave us veggie burritos and Sobe Energy drinks in return for a stash sack. She didn't look older than 15. She always wore broomstick skirts that flared out with her long hair when she twirled to the music. We traded with her throughout the tour, but never learned her name.

Near the end of the tour, we started selling food, too, in order to pay for repairs on Philip's '82 Honda Accord and earn gas money to make it back to Florida. In August, at our last show, we sold veggie wraps with Thai peanut sauce in Deer Creek, Ohio. Parked across from our staked-out spot was a rusty-patched U-Haul. A 30ish man with greasy black hair and a droopy redneck mustache emerged wearing cut-off jeans and a sleeveless Pantera T-shirt.

"Hey," he managed to croak in a strangled-sounding voice, an insincere smile wavering on his green-tinged face, exposing a cavernous mouth missing several teeth. "Do you have a mirror? My buddy needs to hit himself in the neck."

I smiled and shook my head, and he walked up Shakedown until he retrieved a mirror. He opened the back of the truck and a figure sat doubled over on a bare mattress inside. I didn't understand the whole exchange until the second man staggered out and approached me, uttering one word.

"Food," he muttered, with momentous effort, as if his voice were coming across a great distance. His bare arms were pockmarked pincushions with thick ropy veins, pink scars and purple, bulging spots. He was shirtless, and his chest was scarred and splotchy too, amidst sporadic patches of mangy black hair. His eyes were milky-looking, like an aged dog developing cataracts, and the yellow-crusted whites were streaked with red. I looked away when I saw the wound still pulsing in his neck where he'd given himself a fix.

That was how I passed the summer of 1998, crocheting bags and fashioning macramé necklaces in the passenger seat of a rusty Honda with a bum starter and a bumper sticker that read Interstate 420 across the rolling Blue Ridge Parkway, Pennsylvania, from Cape Cod to Michigan and Deer Creek, Ohio. My craft improved along the way, and I attempted flowers and more elaborate designs on the delicate little bags that provided us with food and sometimes shelter.

Our last night, we slept at a rest stop in Kentucky, scrunched up in the front seats of the car while the rest of the tour headed west to Colorado and California. I woke with a familiar musty feeling, nearly gagging on the stench of leftover Thai peanut sauce. When I padded barefoot to the bathroom with shampoo to wash my hair in the sink, there were no girls washing their feet or letting their dogs drink from the faucets while sharing joints. Two women in suits stopped talking to look at my wrinkled clothes and knotted hair. I was going home.

Since that summer, I have had no desire to go to another Further Festival or a Phish show. Or to the Woodstock anniversary show, with members of my generation overdosing and paying $100 to flail in Port-a-potty overflow and set things afire to protest the $3 bottles of water. Once, I smiled ethereally with pleasure when someone called me a hippie. Now, I can't help but think it an insult. In keeping with the temptation to slap a label on every generation, maybe the one following Generation X should be called the Regurgitation Generation. Nothing is as pretty or sweet-smelling when it comes up a second time.

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