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Gratefully Yours

Or how not to treat a brand-new Cadillac.

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I had called ahead and explained to the woman at Avis that I needed a station wagon or an SUV or a van, and now she was saying there was no such vehicle available. I said to her, "You don't understand. We have tosleep in this car for three nights." I stood before her in a tie-dyed shirt, cutoff jeans, sandals, and a Grateful Dead baseball cap.

Considering the circumstances, I think she and Avis deserved what happened. This poor, misguided woman looked right at a twentysomething kid wearing sunglasses inside on a cloudy day, at a person who had just stated that multiple people will be spending the night in whatever car she gives him, and she said, "Well, sir, the biggest car I have available is a brand-new Cadillac Seville."

It was too beautiful. And too horrible.

A few signatures later, we were testing the limits of the sound system, pulling cold ones from a cooler in the backseat, dipping fries into ketchup in between us, and rolling north out of Chicago, bound for the Alpine Valley Music Theater in Wisconsin.

It takes a lot to get noticed in a Dead show parking lot, but a spotless, jet-black Seville pulls it off. In the usual sea of VW vans and repainted school buses, we stood out like a spaceship. People got out of our way. They probably figured we were with the band -- or that we were cops.

The parking lot was a former crop of some sort. It was hot, windy, dusty, and filled with Frisbees, fireworks, and freaks. Instinctively, I knew the Cadillac wouldn't make it. It couldn't.

We parked between a guy selling elephant ears and a bus whose inhabitants were busy setting up big speakers and a disco ball. I popped another beer and stood on the Caddy's hood to take it all in. A Frisbee bounced off the trunk.

That first night it was hot. It must have been 7,000 degrees. The show was huge, though -- the kind of musical event that had strangers hugging each other, people wandering around dazed when it was over, the band pulling out an encore they hadn't done in years everything.

Then, with all of that whacked-out energy and all that dancing vibe, all those concertgoers decided to work it out the rest of the night at "the disco bus." This, of course, was right next to the poor Seville. Turns out sleeping in the Cadillac wasn't much of an issue after all.

The next night, toward the end of the second show, I noticed a cool breeze swirling around the amphitheater. It was most welcome. Then it got cooler and breezier. Then, ironically enough, as the band closed with the song "Sunshine Daydream," it started to rain. It was a full-summer, Midwestern thunderstorm -- rain that sends people running. At least, it would send sober, non-Deadheads running. What it does to Deadheads in their second day of a bender is make them think, Dude, this whole hill is like a mudslide!

Disco bus, mud, dancing, more rain, Cadillac. You get the picture.

After that, it just rained. It rained so much there wasn't even mud anymore, just water. The third show was in a pond. The band tried to humor us with all their "rain" songs, but we didn't care. There comes a point where you're so wet you can't get wetter, so why worry? If we want to dry out, we can just, you know, chill in the Seville.

On the last morning of the concerts, jeeps were driving around the parking lot, charging a joint or two to haul cars out of the muck. The sky was clearing, but the damage was done. The lot was lost, and people were stumbling around like refugees, looking for a ride to Indy for the next show. And the Cadillac well, like I said, it never should have been there in the first place.

It had about 230 miles on it, as I recall. Total. Since its manufacture. It was also no longer black. From the air, you wouldn't have been able to locate it in the field. It was being swallowed by the muck. The seats looked like a two-week-old cake, and the floor was, we decided, the home of a new element in the periodic table. We had a science experiment going on in the back seat: What happens when you put mud, water, grass, beer, pot, coffee, donuts, clothing, and elephant ears in a dark, warm, moist place for three days, then stay the hell away from it.

Of course, we still had to take it back to Avis. We slinked up behind the drop-off zone, parked it, left the keys on a burger wrapper so they could be found, and ran like hell. We had a train to catch and consequences to avoid.

We even left Avis a present. Underneath enough soil to plant next year's corn, on the once-shiny bumper of that brand-new Cadillac Seville, an unauthorized, adhesive, rectangular addition said it all: "Good ol' Grateful Dead."

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