Miami Phish, New Year’s 2003

[In late December 2003, after breaking up with the man I saw as my last best hope for lasting love, I went selling with an all-girl crew to Miami. Surrender, exhaustion, and lack of a boyfriend opened me to a few precious nights in flow.]

Growing up in Brooklyn I knew what to expect every year, two days after Christmas: my favorite dinner of no-frills macaroni and cheese with ketchup; a homemade chocolate cake with the legend “Happy Birthday Helen” looped in purple, green and orange goop over a thick crust of chocolate icing; and a handmade card garnishing whichever cheap metal-plastic aggregate I was currently lusting after—a clock radio, a curling iron, a red-white-and-blue accordion like the one the rabbit-eared urchin in Gummo plays while perching forlorn on a toilet. I sprang awake at dawn on birthday mornings, eager to start my span of being special, and greet my personal new age.

On December 27th, 2003—the day I turn twenty-seven—I bolt out of my sleeping bag for a different reason: to grab a slot on the potty before the other six members of my seven-woman selling crew begin stirring, and needing to pee. Today I am no cosseted birthday girl, but a Zendik revolutionary, preparing for the day’s first unnerving mission: wresting cash from the gritty alterna-tourist crowd passing and patronizing Uncle Sam’s music store, on Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. I must get “on,” I must spin my mirage of a beautiful world into money-making spells, in the swampy sunshine and surreal heat.

At this, as of mid-afternoon, I am failing. Few are seduced by the gothic cast of my CDs and magazines—the slogan “Stop Bitching Start a Revolution” blaring from my t-shirts and bumper stickers—my lackluster, panic-tinged pitch. “Hey, have you seen this?” I shrill, as likely targets approach—“It’s underground art.” I am dismissed with a shake of the head, a flick of the wrist—or skipped over entirely, by eyes fixed on the heavy gray-blue horizon. My partner Emily, on the other hand—a boisterous, athletic eighteen-year-old who’s been selling Zendik for one year, to my four—is kicking ass, as always. Why? I wonder. Did she get a head start on proselytizing during her teenage stint as an evangelical Christian? Did she inherit a money-making gene from her dad, who’s made a career of fundraising for the Boy Scouts? Was she learning ease with strangers from her bubbly mother, while I was learning quiet and shyness from mine? Or is she simply more committed to the cause than I am, more closely attuned to that righteous revolutionary vibration? I know I should rejoice in her success, since every sale she makes raises our trip total and helps sustain our farm—but the truth is, each twenty she pockets for a t-shirt makes me quake inside. How will I ever catch up? How will I ever explain? I can never outright blame “the scene” for a low number—since selling is “all energy” and energy is available in equal abundance in every situation—but still: The better she does, the more likely I’ll be to get slammed for poor performance.

As we walk back to the parking lot to rejoin our crew, Emily stops to badger a plump, pierced, shaven, black-clad man. I join in, keening to redeem myself by securing one massive, miraculous donation. He flirts with us for a good ten minutes, then giggles in feigned innocence and exclaims, “Oh, you’re trying to sell your stuff! I don’t carry cash!”

My anger keeps me brittle till we reach the van. Then Emily asks if I’m okay, and the flood escapes: “No I’m not okay I’ve felt horribly competitive all day I don’t know what’s wrong with me I hate the way I feel.” I retreat to the far end of the bench seat and stare down at the worn red carpet, vainly attempting to calm the tremor in my voice, and hide my tears.

Cayta—who’s been selling the longest, of all of us—leans heavily against the sliding door, already weary of this latest take on an oft-repeated scene. Having moved to Zendik fresh out of high school, she hasn’t tried—and isn’t tempted by—other ways of living. I envy her certainty.

“Maybe you should stay here and sell by yourself tonight,” she suggests, her voice raspy with exasperation. “I don’t want you dragging everybody down at the Phish show.”

It’s not a bad idea. Concerts make me nervous—sneaking in, dodging venue security—and if I sell by myself on the beach I won’t have anyone to compete with. I’ll get the chance to play out my fantasy of selling as it was a couple decades ago: each seller alone in her own spot, running her own show.

“Think about it while we’re in the store,” Cayta says.

The girls disappear into Wild Oats, to get jacked on sugar and—perhaps?—buy me a birthday cake. I know chances of this have slimmed since Emily proposed it earlier in the day but still I’m hoping—not because I’m especially keen on eating a slice of white fluff slathered in fake cream, but because I yearn to be recognized; most years I get lumped into the collective December birthday celebration, or I get no celebration at all. Whereas Arol, Fawn, the kids—even Wulf, who’s dead—get their own individual cakes and parties. I tell myself that someday, when I’ve been around long enough—when I’ve proven myself true enough—I too will merit a separate fête. Also I’m prone to bitter dreams, come late December, in which I demand my own homemade carob cake with carob frosting. All I can do now is caution myself to expect nothing, and turn back to the overwhelming question: whether or not to sell solo.

In the old days, I’ve been told, this was how it used to go: In the morning you got dropped off by yourself, in front of a movie theater, a health food store, a book store. You sold alone till sundown, when the van circled back to pick you up and take you to your place to stay. There you cooked and ate dinner with your host and crew—unless you’d chosen to go home with a cute girl or guy you’d met on the street, to get a little Death Kultur loving and maybe do a little Ecolibrium recruiting. Selling had started out as a social gambit—at a time when Zendiks supported the farm largely by appropriating inheritances, drawing welfare checks, shoplifting and busking, some of the more outward-oriented members had wished for a way to interact one-on-one with “Normals,” while retaining their heretical edge. The upshot was the magazine—originally a single mimeographed sheet titled The Cosmic Revolutionist—and the solo foray into the DK to sell it.

I covet the sense of freedom and self-reliance I imagine sellers had, in the years before the industrial selling trip was born—no one watching you, no immediate pressure to make money. One hundred dollars was decent then (as compared to two hundred fifty to three hundred now); if you called home in a funk and Wulf answered he’d tell you to “shoot for forty.” The seventies and eighties seem to me like a simpler time, when money earned selling was more tightly tied to the basics of survival. Now the farm’s finances are a maze of bills and loans and mortgages and credit cards, sequestered in Arol’s and Fawn’s chambers; once we the sellers bear our offering of carefully counted and rubber-banded bills to the Addition kitchen, it disappears. If I make more money I don’t get better stuff. I don’t feel any more righteous about adding new socks, or colored markers, or eyeglasses, or a doctor’s appointment, to the shopping list. If I make less money I get slammed but I don’t starve. Occasionally even “power” sellers, like Cayta and Emily, are ripped apart—for getting “ego-jacked” on the street—when they have brought in substantial wads of cash. No matter how many times I’m reminded, This is how we eat, I do not, in my gut, believe it.

Selling by myself for one night won’t revive this basic correlation, I know, but perhaps it’ll jolt me to the raw truth of hustle-to-survive. Running my own show on Miami Beach I’ll have no one to measure myself against—and also no one to laugh with, no one to lean on.

Then the girls swarm back to the van and Cayta rescinds her offer. It would be an act of excessive cruelty, she says, to leave me to be eaten alive by the blood-red-fingernail girls and slicked-back-pompadour boys who prance the night scene in pairs and packs. “We want you to come with us,” she says, “and just relax and try to have fun.”

“Here,” says Emily, handing me a paper bag. “We got some cookies. For your birthday.”

So I sniffle a little more, but this time with hope, and settle into the back seat with two chewy peanut-butter-chocolate-chip morsels of delight. On the drive to American Airlines Arena I decide to give up on making money—to strip this next episode of pressure, and let it be a grand adventure. Instead of pushing, I’ll open to whatever plump, luscious possibilities are ripe for the plucking.

* * *

My first mark inside the arena hails from Oregon. He’s rolling or stoned or something. He extols the snow on Mount Hood, the idyll of dwelling high in the pine forest in a cozy timber cabin. I leave my magazines in my pocket, and listen. At the close of his soliloquy he hands me fifteen dollars for a sticker and a t-shirt, despite the fact that I’ve said next to nothing about Zendik. Magic! Maybe I’m on the right track….

Just before the intermission I approach a tall, chubby man parked by the hot dog stand. His cheeks and eyes shine with sweat and chemically induced bliss. “Ah, Zendik,” he says. He knows us from Savannah, where he used to work as a bouncer at a nightclub. He’s not hissing, or warding me off with crossed fingers, so I figure he must be a friend of ours, worth chatting with for a while.

Minutes later, the crowds pour out of the concert hall, and my internal alarm goes off. Prime time! It shrills. Ready-set-go-ten-minute-window to hit people up like crazy and make tons of money!

But no. Tonight I will not salivate at the usual stimuli. Tonight I will breathe deeply, and continue my conversational meander…which turns to middle names, and other simple revelations that amuse both of us immensely, in our respective altered states.

“Timothy!” he giggles.

“Madgelma!” I reply.

“Do you know what’s in my wallet?” he asks.

“Something of value?” I guess.

“Maybe….” he says.

He gives me his beer to hold, and pulls out his billfold. Shuffles through it. Extracts a crinkly wad, and starts pressing crumpled bills into my free hand. My exquisitely honed large-denomination detector kicks in instantly—these particular patterns of green mean, This is big. That one scans as a U.S. Grant…that’s an Andrew Jackson…and another Andrew and another…and two Abes plus a few Georges…. I thank my benefactor like he’s just pulled me down from the cross, and give him a magazine, a sticker, a double-X t-shirt, and one of each CD. Then I scurry off to count the money: one hundred twenty-five bucks. More than any one person has ever given me…as far as I know, more than any Zendik seller has ever received from a single individual. O wonder! O joy! O deeply personal hands of truth, dispensing my psychic reward!

And yet, I’m nervous. What if the bouncer sobers up, asks, “What have I done?!”, comes hunting for a refund? Certainly if I see him again I’ll run the other way…. But anxiety rings only a little ding in my delirium: Now I will float through the evening, assured already of doing well enough to avoid censure.

I spend the rest of the night—the rest of the trip—lilting from one leisurely colloquy to the next…steadily accruing cash as I sniff out hints of what I have in common with this collection of civilians.

“Where’d you get that necklace? You made it? You make jewelry? It’s beautiful!”

“You’re from Nashville? What kind of music do you write? I love country songs! I love the stories they tell, and how simple they are.”

“Parks Highway…isn’t that in Alaska? Where in Alaska are you from? I hitch-hiked to Alaska once….”

I follow each Phish-head down a different stream. And when one looks back and asks, “What’s that in your hand?” I say, this is our art. You can check it out if you want to. Often they do. And when they don’t I let the “no’s” flow harmlessly over me—I wasn’t expecting anything anyway.

I notice that my switch to “It’s all good” mode changes whom I choose to hit up. In more desperate times I’ve focused on misshapen middle-aged males, thinking, They have money, they’re susceptible to the charms of a young woman. Now that I’m just hanging out, surfing the social scene, I feel free to approach a heretofore intimidating, hence off-limits, demographic: attractive young men. Who are plentiful at Phish shows, since I’m partial to hippies, and those who sojourn among them. I feel as though I’ve stepped through a tie-dyed curtain into a hard-nosed chamber of heaven—who would have thought I’d be able to make money and fulfill my revolutionary duty by flirting? Maybe I, like Fawn, will learn to use my sex appeal to recruit new Zendiks. As I sell, I daydream: Maybe this one will move to the farm…or this one…. If I were still with Kro I’d be battling these thoughts, I’d be seeking confessors…but that’s over. I urge them all to come visit.

* * *

When my selling crew departed North Carolina for Florida on December 26th, we were planning on a relatively short stint in Miami. We’d sell three out of five Phish shows, and then drive home on December 30th—knowing we’d be back in time for the farm’s New Year’s Eve festivities made it easier to countenance retreating from the general celebratory bustle to do road prep and selling meetings on Christmas Day. Our fourth morning in Florida, though, I sense our contract’s been extended—that’s my interpretation of the deepening commas at the corners of Cayta’s mouth, as she mutters, “Uh huh…uh huh…uh huh…” on the phone with home. Of course she asks the rest of us before committing—but what can we say? Which of us wants to be Judas, choosing her own comfort over the cause? Which of us wants to be accused of “holding back” or being “precious”? “Only in giving is there living,” as Wulf used to say….

My gut sinks, when Cayta relays home’s request. I’ve done well three days in a row, and I’d like to get the hell out of town before I blow it. Also I know it’s useless to resist. And I’m so exhausted—so thoroughly in selling mode—so sorely bereft of a boyfriend at home—that I’m fine with another couple nights on the road. Once I’m a certain degree of fried I begin to crackle—my pupils dilate so wide the tripping hippies I’m selling to swear I’m tripping too—why not stay here? Why not ride the high? Why not live out of a van, follow the Phish-heads, subsist on tuna salad and rice and sell every moment of my life?

The one wrinkle in the new plan is that Karma—a diplomat’s daughter who sells with the grace and charm of an accomplished socialite—has lost her voice to laryngitis. She needs drugs, if she’s to make money. So she and Cayta and the others drive off in search of a pharmacy, while Emily and I repair to the patio of our place to stay, to fold paper towels from a roll into napkins. Carlos, our laid-back Brazilian host, doesn’t mind if we expand our operation to the outdoors; he’s been ceding his living room floor—and kitchen, and bathroom, and so on—to Zendik selling crews since the winter of 2000, when I recruited him at a juice bar in Coconut Grove. He tends to be especially accommodating when said crews are composed, as ours is, entirely of girls.

Folding paper towels is my idea: Keeping a stack of napkins handy on the dashboard will encourage us to clean our stainless steel eating bowls, and I despise a pile-up of dirty bowls. Also, making napkins is kind of fun. It requires soothing, repetitive motion; it doesn’t require us to talk to people, or sell anything. And it helps us feel that we’re not just sitting in limbo, like civilians, while our fellow sellers are off on a mission. We’re doing something; we must always be doing something. After all, as Wulf said, “The Warrior waits for no one.”

* * *

On New Year’s Eve—the night of the final Phish show—Karma scores a pass to the VIP lounge. Which means she’s out on the VIP balcony, tossing complimentary cans of Budweiser down to Emily and me, as the Christian epoch turns two thousand and four years old. We stand at the railing and drink, watching Roman candles explode over the water, beyond the desolate, floodlit parking lot. For the moment, life is good: I haven’t bombed since my birthday, and tomorrow we go home. I feel young, rugged, desirable, committed…blessed to be a Zendik.

If you liked this post, you’ll love my memoir, Mating in Captivity, in which my twenty-two-year old self enters a cult with a radical take on sex and relationships. Learn more here.

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