Getting High on Nitrous: Meet the Phish Fans Sucking 'Hippie Crack' Outside Madison Square Garden

Phish fans sat and even laid down on a Manhattan, New York, street as they sucked nitrous oxide from balloons they bought for $5 or $10 each. Josh Saul

When the sound of pressurized air hissed across Manhattan's 31st Street on Saturday night, tie-dyed and red-eyed Phish fans rushed forward like a flock of hungry pigeons eager for a discarded hot dog bun. A team of hustlers bent over a 2-foot-tall scratched tank of nitrous oxide across the street from Madison Square Garden and filled colorful balloons they sold for prices ranging from $10 for one to five for $20.

With some still singing along to the band's encore song Cinnamon Girl, the Phish fans crowded around the tanks. The concertgoers handed their money to one hustler and accepted a handful of balloons from another, then sat on the curb or leaned against a building to inhale the gas, and grinned through the short-lived high. A man in cargo shorts and a safari hat clutched his cellphone between his ear and shoulder and said, "Hold on, I'm in the middle of a nitrous balloon," before sucking a big lungful from a yellow orb.

The hustlers filled balloons as fast as they could while constantly popping their heads up like meerkats to peer down the street for police. They worked hard, refusing discounts and speed-walking as they carried their heavy tank when they needed to shift locations to avoid cops. The oldest seller, a middle-aged man who nursed on a pink half-full balloon as he worked, wore a white "Jimmy Buffett at Fenway Park" T-shirt and directed a small team of 20-somethings as they filled balloons and ferried tanks. "Anywhere there's a Phish concert, there are balloon people," he told Newsweek.

After the Phish concert ended on Saturday, July 29, concertgoers spilled out onto New York City’s 31st Street and bought balloons full of nitrous oxide, which they inhaled for a short high. Josh Saul

With the iconic jam band Phish playing 13 shows at Madison Square Garden in late July and early August, every evening around midnight the "Balloon People" make Midtown Manhattan look like a cross between a children's birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's and an opium den. Hustlers selling "hippie crack" have popped up in New York City before, with local headlines like "Nitrous Oxide-Fueled Fans Terrorize Williamsburg Locals" and "Man Caught Selling 'Laughing Gas' Balloons Outside Irving Plaza."

"Tank Rats," as a quartet of nitrous users laughingly called themselves Saturday night, are common at concerts across the country—especially outside shows of Grateful Dead–style jam bands like Phish, Widespread Panic and the Disco Biscuits. Chicago police arrested two men outside a Phish concert at Wrigley Field for selling nitrous last year, and in 2015 police in Maryland arrested 12 people they said were part of an organized group that travels the East Coast selling nitrous at concerts. "The Nitrous Mafia," divided into two rings based in Boston and Philadelphia, can burn through hundreds of nitrous tanks at outdoor music festivals and make over $300,000 at each one, according to The Village Voice.

The blurry scene outside Madison Square Garden comes in a year when California lawmakers are trying to restrict sales of nitrous oxide, a California town became the first in the U.S. to completely ban its sale, South Korea revised its law so inhalation without a permit is punishable by fines of about $45,000 and three years in prison, and concert organizers in Ireland and England have banned it.

Phish fans sat and even laid down on a Manhattan, New York, street as they sucked nitrous oxide from balloons they bought for $5 or $10 each. Josh Saul

Outside "The World's Most Famous Arena" on Saturday night, New York police had no interest in arresting either giggling balloon-suckers or the hustlers manning the tanks. Two bored police officers walked down 31st Street shooing away the Balloon People like they were herding rabbits out of their vegetable garden. (Using or selling nitrous oxide is only a misdemeanor in the state of New York.) "Let's go, let's go," yells a female officer, flapping her arms. "Let's go get high somewhere else." The hustlers, white, black and Hispanic, slipped one tank underneath a Chevy Suburban and walked slowly away with a crowd of buyers, all of whom are white, returning within minutes to resume business. (Nitrous oxide is mostly used by middle-class or well-off people, while somebody huffing gasoline or glue is more likely to be poor, Matthew Howard, a professor at the University of North Carolina who studies substance abuse, tells Newsweek.) When an NYPD van drove slowly down 31st Street, the hustlers ducked behind a white van but didn't stop handing out balloons.

Around the corner, on Eighth Avenue, sellers were noisily filling balloons from three tanks outside the Blarney Stone bar as the subway rumbled by below their feet. A few times each minute there was the sound of a popping balloon, and the sidewalk was littered with hundreds of deflated balloons. The sales strategy on Eighth Avenue was more complex than it was on 31st Street. Here the sellers deputized homeless people, including one in a Yankees hat who had been trying to sell Oreos out of a large box he carried. The sellers handed over a half-dozen balloons and the homeless man walked the avenue hawking them to the Phish fans who were lying down on the street outside Amadeus Pizza. The sellers also scooped up discarded balloons off the grimy street and stuffed them back into a plastic shopping bag so they could be refilled for new customers.

By about 1:30 a.m., sales on Eighth Avenue were slowing down, but on Seventh Avenue and 30th Street, a different crew of nitrous hustlers was still doing a brisk walk-up business as a busking bluegrass band picked away at their instruments nearby. Their tanks let off the "pssh" of escaping gas. A concertgoer walked by the sellers, with a brown cloth wrapped monk-like around his shirtless upper body, joking to his friend about the sound, "That's why the band is called Phish!"

Nitrous balloons are a common sight at concerts for jam bands like Phish, Widespread Panic and the Disco Biscuits. Josh Saul