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The Phish Tanks of Burlington 

Short Story

Trust me, you don't know what you'll do if things get really bad. You think you do, but you don't. If things get really bad, you find yourself in an entirely different dimension of behavior, one in which choices about what you will and won't do cease to be choices. You'll do stuff that you wouldn't believe, believe me.

That goes for every person, and because cities are finally just the sum of their people, that goes for cities, too. When the economy of a city just stops dead, then everybody does things that make no sense whatsoever.

It started, really, with a single downer cow in late August 2008. There was this sickly cow from a herd somewhere downstate, a cow that literally fell out of the transport truck when they rolled up the back door. And the tests came back not just positive, but really, really positive. The FDA started checking Vermont cow and sheep herds, and it turned out most of them had used the same feed supplier, and suddenly hardly a day went by without a story of how some farmer here or there had been forced to destroy his herd.

All of a sudden Woody Jackson cows meant something very different. In August 2009 Ben & Jerry's announced that, pending a change in the situation, their ice cream would be made henceforth from Massachusetts milk. Some farmers burned a pile of tie-dyed T-shirts in a field out in Thetford to protest. But in the end, no one blamed Ben & Jerry's, not really. Because our ideas about what people should and shouldn't do were already different enough.

Then, just two summers later, it was the maples. A couple of towns up near the Canadian border suddenly lost just about every maple tree they had, to a fungus called verticillium that made the branches sag. A brown liquid would drip from the leaves, like dirty tears. It wasn't like no one had ever seen maple wilt before, but this strand -- verticillium maximum -- was something different, entirely unresponsive to any of the standard chemical fixes. Whole forests pulled in their branches, sagged, wept. And for reasons no one could ever explain, the sap turned sour, too.

Talk about a downer.

If IBM hadn't already left, and Husky, and the rest of the large manufacturers, we might eventually have shrugged it off. But they had. Stores started closing, schools started crumbling, and suddenly Church Street wasn't safe after dark.

So when a representative from the Six Flags Amusement Corporation came to a City Council meeting in April 2017 with a very strange idea, we didn't toss him out on his ass the way we might have 10 years before.

No, we gave him a cup of coffee, and somebody even ran to the store to get him the non-dairy creamer he asked for, and we listened. We listened real good. Nobody said a single word as he touched a key on his computer, and the word PHISH flashed up on the wall. And then another three words: THE TANK TOUR.

The Tank Tour begins Where It All Began, or at least that's what the television commercials say. You can't see the walls of Tank One as you crest College Hill because they're made up of third-generation Lucite, a product Dupont now markets as Trucite. You can't scratch Trucite, or break it or cut it, and it resists glare almost completely.

The walls of Tank One completely surround the original Harris/Millis Dormitory at the University of Vermont. According to meticulously reconstructed legend, this is where Trey first heard Fishman's drum kit behind one door and original guitarist Jeff Holdsworth and his 1957 Les Paul behind another. And as any third-grader in Burlington can tell you, the band played its very first date, an ROTC dance, in the basement of Harris/Millis on October 30, 1983.

Who knows if any of that's true? And frankly, who cares? But I can tell you that every half hour, inside the Trucite walls of Tank One, about 60 recent graduates of Burlington High School re-enact all of those events, down to the brand of tennis shoe they wear (Reebok, All-Stars, Nike) and the shaggy neo-feathering of their hair.

My friend Tony's kid worked in Tank One for a year, playing Mike Gordon, which was considered quite the coup. Tony'd been prepping the kid for the auditions for years. Not only do you have to look like the band member you're simulating, you have to be extremely proficient on your instrument, and you have to beat out about 10 thousand applicants in a national search.

Was Tony proud when his kid got cast as a Lead Character? He made me come to the theme park where we work on our day off, pay to get in, and then sit through not one, not two, but three half-hour shows, until I could do them in my sleep.

And don't think Tony hasn't mentioned 50 or 60 times that his kid's year in Tank One paid for college, with enough left over to buy Tony himself a new Evinrude outboard. Because he has.

Tanks Two and Three are also on the UVM campus, and Four and Five are down south at the Goddard campus, but most of the action's in downtown Burlington. You ride a flying hotdog to get there from the top of Main Street. This sounded kind of hokey when management first started talking about it, but the truth is, I like the hotdog ride. It's all a re-creation of the New Year's Show at the Fleet Center in Boston, 1996, during which Trey and the rest rode around above the crowd in a hotdog rocket ship. "My Sweet One" plays on a continuous loop.

But whatever it's based on, I like it: You come flying over the hill and head down to the lake, neon yellow mustard splashed over the metal side of the car into which you're strapped, and down below you -- coming up way fast -- is a huge mechanical hand stretching up above Tank Six/Nectar's, waiting to pluck you out of the air.

Nectar's is enclosed in Trucite, too. My nephew Craig tried out for the role of a Nectar's bartender three years running, but they told him every time he wasn't authentic enough. So he's been manning the mechanical hand for about five years now.

Before my wife left me, we used to ride the hotdog together every so often, when the park had closed for the night. My buddy Spike would fire up the ride just for the two of us, and we'd come over that hill and see the lake lying silent and purple in the dusk, and we'd make out like kids, with "My Sweet One" looping over and over from the speakers embedded in the pickles.

My wife left me for a lot of reasons. One, because I still don't make a lot of money, even with 11 years in at Six Flags. Two, I talk a lot about the old days, before the cows and the maples vanished. I admit that. But mostly it was that she was a woman of intense religious conviction, and she objected to my Tank.

I run the Halloween Tank, which encases what used to be the Flynn Theatre downtown. I always tried to defend it by saying that it re-creates some of the most ambitious showmanship of the late 20th century. That it captures the band's willingness to honor their musical ancestors on Halloween night. That it's a hyperreal extravaganza: simulators simulating Phish as they simulated entire albums by bands like The Who and Talking Heads and The Beatles. That's what the guide always says, anyway.

But my wife Rhonda would never listen. She could come to the Halloween Tank and watch the Quadrophenia set or the Talking Heads number with no problem, but she was adamant that no husband of hers was going to be involved in the finale, the simulation to end all simulations: a full-length re-creation of the 1994 Halloween show at the Glens Falls Civic Center.

Because at the end of "Revolution 9" the actor playing John Fishman does what Fishman actually did 34 years ago. He slowly removes his dress, and stands naked on the stage. Naked like the day he was born. While I run the bubble machine.

Rhonda insisted that I step down from the position of Production Chief, and go back to doing Crowd Control, but I wouldn't. It wasn't just the cut in pay. She couldn't understand that being a part of the show, helping to create the magic, even if it is simulated magic from an event four decades ago, all that means something to me.

My family used to sugar every springtime, and people used to drive in from everywhere in the country because they thought our syrup was special, and it was. That's gone now, gone forever maybe. But we still got Phish, and nothing can take that away.

People can say the Tank Tour is hokey and canned, but you should see the faces every day outside the Halloween Tank, when the kid playing Fishman finally pulls that dress off and stands there like a flabby version of Michaelangelo's David, arm upraised, glasses glinting in the light, bubbles swirling, and John Lennon's last notes dying all around him.

The crowds outside the Tank always understand: This is an artist making himself vulnerable. This is an artist making himself invulnerable. This is music, goddammit, performance. This is art. This is Burlington, Vermont. It may not be what it once was, but it will never stop being what it is, and I'm everlastingly proud of that.

You hear me, Rhonda? Not ashamed. Proud.

Philip Baruth is a novelist and a commentator for Vermont Public Radio.

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