By Mike Weaver and Neil Ribald
Baltimore Times-Sentinel Investigations Team
April 1, 2001
Does Uncle Sam know who I am? A record number of mostly young, mostly white followers of the Grateful Dead rock bank and its many offshoots are asking that question of federal authorities.
Now an independent review of federal Census data conducted by the Times-Sentinel's investigations team suggests they could be right: The government may have failed to enumerate more than 1.5 million tie-dyed citizens.
In response to complaints from hundreds of Beltway-area residents, the Times-Sentinel analyzed U.S. Census results from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The undercount apparently stemmed from the Deadheads' constant travel and lack of interface with the record-keeping systems of mainstream society. The joint investigations team, working in conjunction with sociologists from Baltimore State University, developed customized software based on the international standard for counting refugee migrations.
A useful point of comparison for researchers proved to be Athens, Ohio, a college town where the caravans of roving Deadheads set down for predictable seasonal visitations. A local radio station there had echoed a call posted on the band's website (www.deadheadcentral.com) for Deadheads to make sure Census would "Count Every Head!" Last year, 1,768 self-proclaimed Deadheads presented themselves to be counted at the federal building in Athens. As a result, notes Mayor Ken Schweikert, Athens' total population surged into a new, and more favorable, lending category for developers.
The Grateful Dead themselves had long predicted that the official head count would not catch up with their peripatetic extended family. Lyricist Robert Hunter told a Rolling Stone reporter in 1998 that Census takers would "need a miracle every day" to reach every bead stringer and grilled cheese sandwich chef in the endless migration.
Not every member of the parking lot community is happy with the campaign to make the census include Deadheads. Several older fellow travelers expressed emotions ranging from dismay to anger at younger fans' eagerness to be noticed by the federal government.
"I didn't go through natural childbirth in an unheated cabin without drugs so she could turn around and do this," groused bead vendor Yvette Wynotte. "The next thing I expect to hear is that she's gone and gotten a damn Social Security number."
"Once they're off the road, it's all over," agreed Angela Motorman, who described herself as the founder and driver of the 27-year-old Great Coastal Axis Liberation Army and Permanent Floating Caravan. "My sister's kid got it into her head she wanted a "traditional" wedding, and for that she needed a marriage certificate, which meant she had to get a birth certificate, and before you could say "Casey Jones" she's walking into court and asking some judge to change her legal name to Jennifer. Like Astromeda isn't her true name anymore!"
Dr. Sybil Fawlty, head of the sociology field program at Baltimore State, had unusually harsh words for the U.S. Census effort to count itinerant hippies, calling director John O'Reilly's original plan "preposterous." Dr. Fawlty continued, "O'Reilly's men never finish the job. They're so clueless they can't even find the door."
Commerce Department spokewoman Avril Phoule defended O'Reilly's work, and denied that the Times-Sentinel study reveals anything new. "These individuals were already reported to have been missed," she said, referring reporters to a press release last week that confirmed 3.2 million people throughout the U.S. were overlooked by Census takers.
"You don't really think we have a million and a half people living completely off the grid in this country, do you?" asked Phoule. "It stands to reason these are weekend hippies who take off their beads and tie-dye Sunday night, and put on Dockers and a tie Monday morning."
Yet the thousands of young neo-Rastafarians converging on the parking lot outside Baltimore's Kurt Schmoke Arena contended that Ms. Phoule has no idea what their world is like. One earth-toned twenty-something man with an oversized candy-striped top hat, introducing himself "Shane from Long Island," protested that he and his "buds" have a right to be counted as Americans. "Man, just because it's a long, strange trip, I mean, sometimes you don't know where you're at, you know? That don't mean nothing. I got rights, too."
Observers of the vagabonds agree that the majority of fans following the Grateful Dead spinoff tours really do not have any fixed address.
"How can you be in two places at once, when you're really nowhere at all?" asked Dr. Philip Proctor of Baltimore State. "Still, we need to know how many bozos there are on this bus, so to speak."
A spokewoman for the band's Census campaign web site (www.deadreckoning.org) vowed yesterday to continue the push for full recognition. Connie Anjan promised to bring their encampment to the suburban doorsteps of individual federal Census officals if necessary. "We're really well-practiced at being mobile," she said, "and we're tired of being invisible."
As the aging children of this ephemeral city packed up their pachouly, glass pipes and embroidery for a move to the next concert site in Buffalo, one thing seems certain. However many they may be, these hippies will get by. With or without a touch of gray, with or without the federal government, they will survive. "No matter what," says Angela Motorman, "we keep on truckin'."