Chicago, Il – The second episode of my food vending enterprise took me to Chicago, where the jam band Phish played three nights earlier this week at the University of Illinois-Chicago Pavilion, just ahead of a three-night run in Denver that will cap the band’s 2011 summer tour.
Following a lukewarm debut of Daisy Dick’s Donut Ballz at the Grateful Garcia Gathering earlier this month, I expanded the menu to include a few hardier food items. My sidekick and I also brought along a cooler full of dank Wisconsin beer and another full of bottled water. And, for good measure, we had a large tub of individually wrapped Twizzlers that sold 5 for $1.
I was ready to accumulate dollars.
After checking into our shit hole motel on the edge of a south side ghetto, we rolled up to UIC Pavilion near the heart of downtown Chi-town to await the arrival of 3:30 p.m. when authorities opened the lot. We parked illegally on a side street along with dozens of other vendors, grid skippers and fans, some of whom had followed the band all summer long. Moments before authorities removed the sawhorses that barricaded the entrance, everyone dashed to their vehicles. But rather than beat the gridlock they created it. Hundreds of hippies laying in wait in the surrounding blocks must’ve shared some kind of telemetry for within a minute or two traffic stretched as far as the eye could see.
Snags with our operation were immediately hit. The central lot, where vendors peddle their goods, was full by the time we arrived, so we were directed to one of two overflow lots. Then, once the fryer reached temp, I discovered that my veggie chimichangas were still frozen solid. Hungry after driving all day, I grilled up a PB&J, another menu item, but I couldn’t get the stove to a low enough temp to prevent the honey butter from burning. In an instant, my expanded menu was reduced to donut balls, bottled water and Twizzler sticks. And beer.
Thank goodness for beer.
The beer sold out within 90 minutes, giving us a tiny cash infusion. Food sales typically hit their peak once the concert lets out, but with our two staple menu items unsellable, we packed up and left. It would be at least 12 hours before the chimis thawed and the grilled PB&Js were a total loss. My strategy needed some retooling, but with a mere $130 between us, prospects were few. So we did what many on the cusp of failure too often do: we turned to alcohol to help solve our problems.
Few places in America can match the surreal spectacle of a Phish lot. During the day it has the airs of a festival-flea-market hybrid, but by night it’s a lawless wasteland of drink and drug-fueled excess.
Revelers from all over the country pour into the lots, some to vend, some to party, some to do both. Many have toured all summer, following the Vermont-based band from city to city, flipping dollars on lots outside of the various venues.
Worn down vans with thousands of American highway miles on them form the bulk of the vehicles you’ll find on Shakedown, as the vending area is known. It’s a label passed down from the Deadheads and derived from The Grateful Dead song Shakedown Street.
In Chicago, dozens wandered the lot with a finger in the air indicating their want of a ticket for the sold out show, which were going for upwards of $250. The more financially-strapped sought miracles (another nod the Dead), i.e. a free ticket from a generous benefactor.
You might think of the Phish lot as a self-assembling, transient ghetto for privileged white kids and older heads who’ve never stopped truckin’. It’s a shadow economy that functions largely off the grid, where untaxed goods are sold freely without permits and illicit commodities exchange hands as openly as they do in America’s inner-cities, but without much risk of arrest. To their extraordinary credit, law enforcement has traditionally cast a blind eye on this commerce, a precedent Chicago police pleasantly honored.
Without a doubt, undercover cops lurk in the trenches, as evidenced by the kid who was frisked Wednesday on the hood of my van. (He was ultimately let go.) In fact, a uniformed officer on duty Tuesday night was observed walking the lot Wednesday night in civilian clothes. And DEA scum are known to have cuffed more than a few over the years. Jerry Becka, the DEA special agent here in Madison, is rumored to have cut his teeth working the Dead lots back in the day. But for the most part, the police just kind of keep watch from the perimeter, not a drug dog in sight.
In the late 90s when I was more committed to Phish and Further tours, I’d sell beers from a cooler and $1 grilled cheeses cooked on a little Coleman camping stove. Traveling was cheap back then. Even if you only brought in $60 a show it was enough to cover the essentials: gas, beer, smokes and food. Now, $60 is a half tank of gas. Supporting oneself on the road is no easy feat these days and the Phish lot is perhaps the only forum in which an easy dollar can be earned. Yes, I said ‘earned,’ because anyone who’s ever worked a show knows the hustle involved.
After our performance Monday night, I wasn’t feeling too good about things Tuesday morning, but I had an idea. After running out of beer the night before, I perused the lot to scope the operations of other vendors. Amid the usual coterie of merchandise – t-shirts, hats, artwork, jewelry and gems – were several food vendors with an array of customized kitchens. Most offered cheap eats like veggie wraps, burritos, quesadillas and grilled cheeses. One guy made French bread pizzas in a home kitchen oven retrofitted to run on propane. Another sold macaroni with gouda cheese. Nom nom nom.
It occurred to me that what was missing from Shakedown was a neighborhood tavern. Sure people sold beer and some sold limited mixed drinks but they didn’t do it well. One kid was charging $2 to swig from a bottle. Cold sores anyone? So we plunked our $130 down on beer and bum jugs of liquor and launched The Shakedown Tavern. It was a whopping success. Within three hours we had sold out of everything, nearly quadrupling our investment. Sweetening the night further were the rave reviews we received from those who bought our chimichanga plates. They had thawed, but whatever was leftover on Tuesday would be unsellable on Wednesday.
On the way back to the motel we made the no-brainer decision to double our alcohol inventory for Wednesday night’s show, when The Shakedown Tavern became a full-service bar with enough beer and spirits on hand to ensure our sales until the lot closed around 1 a.m. Wednesday, being Phish’s final night in the Windy City, was also expected to draw the largest crowd of the three nights, a circumstance we intended to capitalize on completely. But the next morning our effort was nearly sunk by Angel, the very un-angel like front-end manager at a Sam’s Club in Tinley Park who refused to sell me the alcohol I so desperately needed.
Invigorated by Tuesday night’s payday, we hightailed it that morning to Sam’s Club, where we loaded up the cart with eight cases of beer and several mixers for a variety of liquors. I was hours away from recouping a large chunk of the cash I had thus far invested in the overall food vending enterprise, but was a tad concerned my expectations were too inflated and that I’d be left with a bunch of unsold booze. After selling out of beer the first night, disappointment panged my heart each time I had to turn customers away. The disappointment that’d come with an empty cooler was enough to mitigate the worry.
I’d forgotten my Sam’s card in Madison so my sidekick presented hers and was promptly asked for ID. The clerk gave it a deliberative once-over then asked for another form of identification, which my sidekick didn’t have. The clerk signals her manager, a frumpy blonde called Angel, explaining that she isn’t sure they accept the ID.
“Why?” I asked. “It’s a government issued ID.”
“Well, it says it’s a temporary license,” the clerk replied.
My sidekick, who has never had a driver’s license, explained that in Wisconsin learner’s permits are identical to driver’s licenses except that they say temporary on them, that rather than issuing separate documents as they did in the past, a temporary license and identification info are now consolidated into a single card. The clerk seemed confused by this as did Angel when we explained it to her.
“I just ain’t never seen an ID like this before,” said Angel, who then solicited the opinion of yet another manager who took the ID card with her to an office.
I again explained to Angel the Wisconsin way, who repeated her spiel about having never seen an ID like that.
“Well now you’ve seen one,” I said. “Now you know they exist.”
The other manager returned with the ID saying they wouldn’t accept it. We protested loudly, explaining we had an event to be at shortly, but Angel, smirking ever so slightly, wouldn’t budge.
After storming out, we went to a nearby grocery store and then K-Mart, whose liquor prices were nearly double of those at Sam’s. The next nearest Sam’s store was an hour away and an additional 45 minutes to the lot. By then we most certainly would lose our coveted spot on the side street, potentially costing us a spot in the lot’s commercial center. Our whole scheme seemed to be blowing up in our faces.
We lost an hour scoping prices at other stores before I decided to try Sam’s again. I dropped my sidekick off at the strip mall across the street, got a temporary Sam’s card from the front desk and loaded up the cart. I didn’t see Angel anywhere as I approached the check out aisle with the shortest line. Then, out of nowhere, she’s leaning on my cart with that shit-eating smirk on her face.
“We’re not going to sell this alcohol to you,” she said.
“Why?” I protested. “I’m thirty-three, I have a driver’s license and I’m a Sam’s Club member.”
“Because you were in here earlier with someone whose ID we rejected,” she said.
“Look,” I said, “You didn’t deny us earlier because you questioned her age or the legitimacy of the ID. You said it was an unacceptable form of ID because you’d never seen a temporary license card. It’s obviously a government-issued card with holograms and a bar code.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” she said.
“So, what?” I asked. “Are you going to deny me tomorrow because I came in with her today?”
“That’s not the issue.”
“That’s precisely the issue!” I growled. “How long do I have to wait before I can buy alcohol at this store again? Am I banned forever? What if I came in with someone else and they want to buy alcohol? Would you deny them, too?”
“Sir, we reserve the right to refuse alcohol sales to anyone for any reason,” she ejaculated. “I’m just doing my job.”
“No, you’re just being a bitch because you can,” I snapped back, accepting the futility of trying to reason with an idiot.
I’d be remiss if I left the impression that the Phish lots are only about drugs. To an outsider, a Phish lot at first glance may seem like a depraved antithesis of civilized society, a flagrant flouting of our law and order ethos as police stand idly by, breathing in the marijuana-scented air. Though recreational drug use is for many an integral part of the Phish experience, most fans I suspect will say it’s a sense of community that underlies their devotion to the scene.
For me, it’s the countless small, unrepeatable moments that fill the air with magic.
On Tuesday night, a quartet of musicians dressed in classy black suits asked if it would be okay for them to play in the empty stall next to Purple Thunder. “More than okay,” told them, figuring the music would draw a nice crowd to my bar. For a solid three hours these guys played a rollickin’ set of traditional bluegrass jams. I poured the banjo player a vodka-cranberry on the house, thanking him for his music. The band, known as Sexfist, is wildly popular in Chicago and played regularly at an established spot that recently closed.
Night had fallen by the time they wrapped up. Afterwards, the guitar player sat on a cooler next to my van and played Grateful Dead songs for the next couple of hours. A small circle of people gathered around to listen, passing joints and singing along with the sweet-voiced guitarist beneath the halos of street lamps. In moments like these the pinnacle of happiness has no limit.
The Phish lot is always chill like this, teeming with glassy-eyed people with wide smiles and eager to swap travel stories and other trivia from their lives. On Monday after the show started we were approached by a pair of girls who’d flown from Chattanooga to Milwaukee, then bussed down to Chicago and were waiting for Tuesday night’s show, tickets for which they paid $250 for. We were tearing down for the night when they came and sat for awhile on our coolers and shot the breeze with us before heading back to where they were staying for the night.
Things do sometimes get tense. There came a point on Wednesday night while we were tearing down when a loud hissing spewed from near the front of my van. Someone with a nitrous tank had set up shop between my vehicle and another. Knowing the cops would certainly zero in on the telltale sound of nitrous balloons being filled, I told my sidekick, “Let’s just sit for a minute,” fearing we might get caught up in the mix. We watched as dozens of kids flocked toward the hiss like children chasing the music of an ice cream truck.
Vendors were unnerved by the ill-fated attempt at flipping dollars since the police at anytime could shut us down. Plus, situations can easily become overheated pretty quick amid the chaos of a police shakedown. Within minutes we were completely surrounded by people huffing nitrous balloons until ubiquitous cries of “Six up! Six up!” filled the air.
Heeding the alarm, the knucklehead with the tank cracked it wide open to release the gas before the po-po arrived, which happened soon enough. The cops confiscated the tank but made no arrests, offering instead a terse reminder about what nitrous does to the brain. Everyone booed. Resuming our tear down I observed dozens of discarded balloons next my van. I picked up each one and threw them in the trash.
During my argument with Angel from Sam’s Club, my sidekick texted to inform that a grocery store in the strip mall across the street had comparable liquor prices and a better beer selection. Indeed she was right. We raced around the store, loading the cart with jugs of rum, vodka, tequila, whiskey, mixers and beer. We checked out without incident. But as we were backing out I realized I’d forgotten margarita salt so I ran back inside and got another taste of absurdity.
“Do you have ID?” the clerk asked me.
“For margarita salt?” I asked.
“It’s used with alcohol,” she replied.
“Do you card for grenadine, too?”
“We card for anything purchased in the alcohol section.”
“But what if I’m nineteen and just want to make kiddie cocktails?”
“I guess you’d be S.O.L.”
I’d had enough of Illinois, but the morning’s stresses were quickly abated once we got on the lot and opened The Shakedown Tavern. Not only was it our most profitable night, but also the most fun. My friend Cliff, a film student living in Chicago who I hadn’t seen for years, came down to hang out and help us man the stand.
The vendors next to and across from us were also selling beers and a whiskey drinks, but with our inventory and cheap prices people flocked to us. For four hours the spirits flowed and bottle tops popped. People were pleased we had premium liquors and name brand mixers, many of whom returned several times, especially those drinking our margaritas. One couple, so pleased with our service, stopped by to thank us before going into the show, tipping us with a ganja gooball.
While sales were great, so were the tips. People are so conditioned to tipping the bartender that we set out a tip jar that we kept having to remove dollars from to make room for more. Turns out my worries about being left with a bunch of unsold alcohol were completely unfounded. By 8:30 p.m., we’d run completely dry. I gave myself a little kick for not having more inventory after turning away dozens of people. With the lot open for another four hours we could very well have doubled our haul. But after three days we were ready to head home.
After walking the lot for a while and catching up with Cliff, we were off, headlights trained toward Wisconsin but with our sights set on Denver, where Phish in a couple of weeks will play its final shows of summer 2011.