The fans’ mind-altering chemical of choice at Eagles games this season is not reefer, but nitrous oxide.
That’s right, laughing gas.
In yet another bizarre chapter in the city’s storied history of fan misbehavior, thousands of green-and-white-clad Eagles fans now commonly prepare for gridiron battles by tanking up on large doses of the mild anesthesia.
It is a pregame ritual straight out of Timothy Leary’s playbook.
In the parking lots surrounding Veterans Stadium, buzz-seeking fans – drawn by the hiss of escaping gas – line up at a dozen or more 4-1/2-foot-tall cannisters. Five bucks gets a full balloon that’s a little larger than a basketball.
The balloons are everywhere. Brightly colored and tightly clutched, they bob up and down among cheerfully incoherent tailgaters. Occasionally, one explodes and a drunken cheer breaks out.
It looks and sounds like a freak show at a carnival.
“It’s the real s—,” one addled fan in a Donovan McNabb jersey told me after sucking down a mouthful of the gas from a red balloon. “Pure nitrous. ”
Nearby, two heavy-set guys wearing matching yellow Eagles beaks carried three blue balloons each. They looked like overgrown children.
A few, deep breaths, and they were stumbling like fools, lurching in the dust with the pathetic, blank look of utter numbness.
It is strange and it is sad.
And it is completely legal.
Snorting other solvents – acetate or cleanser, for example – is a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania. But according to the district attorney’s office, the use or sale of nitrous oxide is unregulated.
It’s available wholesale at compressed gas dealers, who also rent the steel tanks and regulators necessary to dispense the chemical. A full tank costs about $200, plus the deposit.
“I make about 400 bucks on a good day,” said one parking-lot dealer who, at first, told me his name was “Joe. ” Then, “Tony. ” Then, “John Doe. ” Finally, he said, “Call me Mr. X.”
“But I’m thinking of getting out of the business,” he continued. “Grateful Dead concerts, Dave Matthews – they used to bring in the money.
“It just ain’t the same since Jerry [Garcia] died. ”
Still, thousands of Eagles fans psych themselves for Sunday at the Vet by consuming large amounts of a chemical more commonly associated with dental surgery.
At five bucks a pop, a balloon is cheaper – and more potent – than a stadium beer.
Thus, the lots are a dizzy mass of stupefied men and women – almost all of them in green-and-white jerseys.
When photographer Jim MacMillan and I visited the scene on Sunday, we were greeted with drunken jeering by fans ashamed to have their photographs in the newspaper.
“I don’t need my family to know I do this,” a 25-year-old balloon inhaler said.
Another dispossessed lowlife was so out of it he dropped his pants for MacMillan’s camera and exposed himself.
On 10th Street, an undercover cop had his hands full trying to nab ballooners.
“I know, they’re legal,” the cop told me, “but I hate seeing this stuff around kids. ”
He turned and yelled at three men in their 20s, “Drop those balloons. . .now! ”
The trio sheepishly dropped them, and the balloons sputtered into the air.
The cop turned back to me and explained, “Basically, I just try to scare the s— out of them. ”
Meanwhile, the dealers are brazen.
Before the Sunday night game against Atlanta a week and a half ago, I watched a stadium security guard try to halt sales at one lot by scaring off a dealer. He grabbed the tank and opened its regulator, emptying the gas into the air.
It worked for about 60 seconds – then three burly guys surrounded the guard and threatened to “kick your ass. ”
The scared guard sped off in his golf cart and the dealer was back in business.
Ten feet away, a uniformed police officer seemed more concerned about a group of fans setting off fireworks.
At Veterans Stadium’s famous Eagles Court, Judge Seamus McCaffery said the most he can do is cite dealers for vending without a license.
“You have to be creative if you want to fine them,” he said.
Mr. X, the dealer, said: “The cops hassle the T-shirt vendors more than us. The worst they can do is take your tank – then you’re out some real money. . .
“But to be honest with you, I really don’t like the stuff. It gives me a headache. ”
Harmful to the Clueless
To paraphrase drug-abusing journalist Hunter S. Thompson, there is nothing more helpless and irresponsible than a man in the depths of a nitrous oxide binge.
That’s because the buzz lasts only a few minutes, so users must inhale the gas frequently to remain stoned. The constant inhalation of the gas turns users plain stupid.
It is, however, a fairly innocuous chemical. It is not known for causing serious medical problems and few deaths are linked to its use.
According to the National Inhalant Prevention Coalition, the most serious complication of nitrous oxide abuse is brain anoxia – lack of oxygen.
It happens when especially clueless users breathe either through a gas mask or in a plastic bag. Unable to remove the mask or bag when they pass out, they succumb without fresh air.
The safer way to inhale it is to expel the gas from a tank into a balloon. (Never breathe nitrous oxide straight from a compressed tank: it will freeze your lungs. )
Nitrous oxide has been in use for more than 100 years as an anesthesic, especially during dental surgery. It’s also used to help fuel high-performance race-car engines.
Though some states regulate it as a controlled substance, nitrous oxide is legal in Pennsylvania. However, House Bill 1072 (currently before the Judiciary Committee) would make it a third-degree misdemeanor to use the gas for “dulling of the brain. ”
Meanwhile, it’s available in large tanks at compressed gas dealers, and in smaller cannisters – called whippets – that are designed to spray whipped cream. It’s also available at numerous sites on the Internet.
So, what’s nitrous oxide feel like?
Here’s how one Web site, Just Say N2O, describes a nitrous experience:
“After several deep breaths of air, I inhale a lung-full of nitrous and pull down some air on top and then hold my breath.
“Within seconds, a light tingling can be felt which seems to increase in frequency. The sensation is as if waves were traveling up your body as if you were twisting or spinning.
“Disorientation increases rapidly and the pulsing sounds/feelings increase, wrapping over one another.
“It is now, with eyes shut, that I enter a dreamlike state, where I am thinking out something and the external world has essentially ceased to exist.
“Open eyes reveal some sort of tunnel vision, with regions of disorientation about the outside.
“Slowly the throbbing subsides.”