"Wha --" I called out. I was leaning over the back of the passenger seat, digging through the cooler behind me for another beer. Carl downshifted his jeep so quickly that I almost ended up putting my ass through his windshield.
I spun back around, dropping back in my seat. "Shit shit shit!" Carl was shouting, and I could see why.
Up ahead of us, all three lanes of the highway were choked with cars. Hippie cars. Deadhead cars. All of us going to the show that night. But none of us going anywhere.
I handed Carl his beer. "Is it always like this?"
"The back-up. The traffic."
"What, are you nuts?" Carl asked.
I sank down further in my seat, dropping the subject. This was going to be my first Dead show ever, but I had managed to go the entire drive without letting on. The last thing I wanted anyone -- especially Carl -- to know was that I had never done this before.
Technically, this was going to be my third Dead show. But somehow I didn't think spending two days last spring out in the parking lots of downtown Milwaukee really counted. Oh, I'd dropped some good acid and had a grand old time, but I never got within five blocks of the theater where the Grateful Dead were playing.
This time I had tickets, and I'd been playing Dead albums on my stereo all month. Bought a tie-dye with a Terrapin Station iron-on on the front, and washed it thirty or forty times so it wouldn't look brand new.
"Shit shit shit," Carl cursed again. The line ahead of us hadn't moved an inch. Carl glared at his watch. "At this rate, we're never going to get in."
"Did we show up too late or something?"
"Naw," Carl answered, chugging the second half of his beer and tossing the empty over his shoulder. It clanked against the nine other cans he'd already tossed behind him on the drive down. "Some idiot at the amphitheater probably just decided not to open the gates until just before showtime. Keep out the venders -- you know? Like stranding us out here on the interstate is any better."
"Parked on the parkway," I agreed.
I had just met Carl that morning, when he picked me up at the strip mall two blocks from my house. I'd found his name and number on the Rides Board at the local college -- the only one I'd called who didn't seem to care that his passenger was going to be a sixteen-year-old runaway.
Not that I was running away, exactly. I was coming back after the three shows. Better to apologize after than to ask permission before, I always say. It's just that most Deadheads on the Rides Board didn't like the idea that my parents might be sending the Chicago cops out looking for me.
Carl didn't seem to care, but -- as I had quickly learned -- it was because he didn't seem to care about anything at all. He'd been drinking beer steadily all day, which normally would have alarmed me if it weren't for the fact that it didn't affect his driving. He was a maniac even when he was stone sober.
If anything, he just got more obnoxious. "Hey, let's get going!" he was shouting now, leaning on his horn.
"They can't move any more than you can," I told him. "We're stuck. Just calm down."
Now that it was clear that we weren't going anywhere quickly, Deadheads were spilling out of their cars and just hanging out right there on the highway. Playing hackey-sack on the shoulder. Chatting and smoking cigarettes on the dotted white line. Lying back across the trunks of their cars, catching some afternoon sun. There were even some venders trolling back and forth: T-shirts, bumper stickers, drugs. And, of course, people wandering around with one finger up in the air -- looking for extra tickets to tonight's show.
If the Deadheads couldn't get to the scene in the stadium parking lots, then the scene would come to the Deadheads.
The windows of a microbus, stranded beside us in the left-hand lane, slid open all at once, and music poured out onto the highway -- "China Cat Sunflower." All around us, the passengers-turned-pedestrians started twirling and dancing.
"Hey!" Carl shouted, leaning halfway out his car window. "Turn that shit down!"
Everyone ignored him.
"What's your problem?" I asked him. "That's the Dead."
"Whatever." He reached behind him for another beer.
"This is my favorite Dead song."
"They all sound alike to me," Carl said.
Here I had been working so hard to make sure that I fit in, and Carl was going out of his way to stand out.
"If you don't like the music, why are you here?"
"Why do you think?" he asked me, draining his beer in three quick swallows.
I turned away, glancing down at the car stranded to our right. It was a cream-colored sedan, with a middle-aged couple huddled together in the front seat. Here they were, off to do a little shopping or visit the grandkids or something, and instead they'd found themselves trapped on the highway with thirty-thousand hippies.
Between them and Carl, I didn't feel so much as if I didn't belong anymore.
A half an hour crept by, and we'd managed to drift only a few car-lengths forward. The microbus had slipped ahead of us and merged into our lane, and then had shut off its engine. VW engines are air-cooled, and the driver didn't want his bus to overheat. But this meant that we had to wait for the guy to restart his van before he could pull forward. We got where we were going to go anyway, but even this tiny delay added to Carl's aggravation.
"You'd think they'd have opened the gates by now," he grumbled, "if only to clear the highway."
Jesus, I thought to myself. I've got to spend three whole days with this guy?
I considered lighting up one of the joints I'd brought with me. The one I'd smoked with Carl at our hotel room that afternoon had long since worn off. But the middle-aged couple in the sedan was keeping pace with us, and the last thing I wanted was to get narcked out at my very first Dead show.
Besides, the two of them were freaked out enough as it was. A shaggy-looking guy, wearing nothing but a pair of Guatemalan shorts, strolled past them on the shoulder, and the wife instinctively shifted closer to her husband, taking hold of his hand.
I smiled to myself. They'd certainly have a story to tell whenever they finally got to wherever they were going.
"Hey, check out the babe," Carl said.
My eyes followed Carl's. It was another T-shirt vender, this one tall and lean, with three feet of blonde hair wafting out behind her like a flag. She was strolling along between the left-hand and center lanes, as nonchalantly as if she were on a sidewalk, holding a T-shirt up to the car windows on either side as she passed. The driver of the microbus ahead of us bought one.
"Nothing like a hippie chick," Carl muttered.
His eyes followed her as she showed her shirt to the people in the Mazda beside us, and then finally strolled up to our jeep.
Up close, she was even prettier. Her eyes were bright and smiling as she brushed a lock of hair from her face. "Want to buy a shirt?" she asked, holding her sample up for us to see. On the front was a picture of a tree, the leaves forming the pattern of Jerry Garcia's face. On the back was the same tree in winter, its leafless branches criss-crossing into a skull and lightning bolt.
"How much for your shirt?" Carl asked, pulling out his wallet.
"Not for the one you're selling," Carl said. "For the one you're wearing. How much?"
"Cute," the vender said, shifting her backpack higher up on her shoulder and turning away.
"Fifty bucks," he called after her, as she continued on down the highway. "Fifty bucks if you'll take off your shirt. I don't even have to keep it."
"Shut up, man," I begged him.
"Don't sweat it," he assured me, reaching out to slap my thigh. "These hippie chicks love that shit. They'll spread their legs at the drop of a hat, too." His eyes focused on something in his rearview mirror. "See what I mean?"
I twisted around in my seat to see the vender coming back up to Carl's side of the jeep. She dropped her backpack on the asphalt, leaning inside Carl's window, her arms crossed on the empty frame.
"Why pay fifty bucks to see my tits," she asked, "when I'll show you my ass for free?"
She stepped back away from the car, turned around with a flourish like a magician's assistant, and hiked her skirt up around her waist, mooning us -- revealing a pair of tie-dyed cotton panties. Several of the cars around us honked their horns, including the middle-aged man driving the sedan.
But Carl was unfazed, sounding his horn too. "That's it, honey!" he shouted. "Show me everything!"
The vender's face appeared in Carl's window again. Only this time she fixed her eyes on me. "You know, your friend's an asshole."
She gave Carl the finger, scooped up her backpack, and strutted away.
"See, man?" Carl said. "What did I tell you?"
"Shut up," I snapped. I pulled my own backpack out from under my seat and climbed out of the car, leaving the door hanging open behind me.
The highway stretched out behind us -- completely choked with cars, all the way out to the horizon. I'd never seen anything like it before. But everywhere there were Deadheads lounging around, like this sort of thing happened every day.
The vender was only a few more cars further down the highway, selling a shirt to an old man driving a day-glo-painted school bus. She glanced over at me as I approached her, but didn't say anything. The old man handed her a twenty, and she handed him back a ten and a shirt, and then walked away.
"Hey, wait up!" I called after her.
"I just wanted to tell you that you were wrong."
She stopped, turning to face me -- studying me up and down before she answered. "Wrong about what?"
"When you said my friend was an asshole."
"He's not an asshole?" she asked, planting one fist against her hip.
"He's not my friend."
She broke into a small smile at that one, her eyes crinkling. "So what're you hanging out with him for?"
"I needed a ride," I told her with a shrug.
"Well, you could do a lot better," she said, starting back down the highway again, holding up her sample shirt to the cars on either side.
"I'm going to have to," I told her, falling into step beside her. "I'm not going back. I'm not going to have my first Dead show ever ruined by some asshole who isn't even my friend."
She turned to look at me. "Really?"
"Well, if he was an asshole who was my friend, now that would be different --"
"This is your first show?"
Shit, I thought to myself. So much for keeping a low profile.
She must have noticed my embarrassment, because she quickly added, "That's really cool. Always glad to have someone else get on the bus, if you know what I mean. My name's Stella. Like the song."
I held out my hand for her to shake, but she enveloped me in a hug instead. "Glad to meet you, Nathan. Welcome aboard."
She jerked her head in the direction she'd been walking, inviting me along. "You're right, though," she continued, as we continued up the highway. "If this is your first show, you need to hang out with people much cooler than that asshole back there." She slipped her arm into mine. "Like me and Lenny, for instance."
"My husband." If she felt me stiffen when she said this, she pretended not to notice. "You got a ticket for the show tonight?"
"Then hold onto your hat, honey, 'cause you're in for the night of your life."
And she was right.
All texts on this web site are © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 by Alex Kolker. No portion thereof may be published or distributed without his expressed written permission. But ask him -- he's a reasonable guy.