How dealing with the Russian mafia led to better gig composure

Remember the Russian

It began on my flight to Burning Man. We were just taking off on the second leg of my trip from Denver. The stewardess gets on the PA and goes “Is everyone excited for Burning Man?” Everyone goes “Yayyy”, and as I’m joining in cheer it hits.. “Yaaaaoooohhhhh FUCK.” I had forgotten my ticket on my desk. At home. 2000 miles away.

Panic sets in. For a good 20 minutes. My brain starts tinkering with a few ideas but nothing is really standing out as feasible/sure-fire. It was Saturday night around 5 PM EST, my flight would land around 10 PM Reno time. If I were somehow able to get someone into my apt (which is locked), even next day air shipping wouldn’t get to me until Tuesday mid-day. UPS & Fedex were all closed through Monday.

I jump onto the in-flight wifi and immediately start firing off emails to folks I’m meeting up with to see if they know anyone with spare tickets. Initial responses come back negative.

Stepping back, I know I’m on a full plane of burners. It’s basically fuck or walk. So, I walk up to the flight attendant after their routines settle down. I explain I forgot my ticket, and wanted to know if it was possible to announce that I would be waiting outside the gate if anyone had an extra after we landed. She was sorry to hear that and agreed, yes she’ll try and help me out.

I get back to my seat and hit up Craigslist to see what the local market looked like on the ground. Most tickets are going for $800… but, there are tickets. Doing the math, even if I did hang around Reno in a hotel until Wednesday, I’d still be dropping a couple hundred bucks in food and hotel fees and whatever it would cost to get a ride into the Burn. The difference wouldn’t end up being all that much.. so getting everything back to normal for $800 doesn’t seem too bad in the grand scheme.

I reach out to every post saying that I can buy their ticket ASAP, cash in hand. Responses aren’t coming back. Except, one. It just so happens this guy can meet up shortly after I land and is staying at the same hotel my caravan is staying at. Perfect. Option 1.

A friend comes back saying that he was able to bypass losing a ticket by going to Will Call, canceling his original pair and getting new ones. Not a terrible option, but the problem was I had a friend coming in from San Francisco at a different time with the other ticket from my order. If I cancelled he might be screwed, and meeting up outside the gates would be a nightmare. Blegh.

Downtown Reno

We land, my new friend makes the announcement over the intercom which incites jeers and a bunch of comments, “What an idiot!”. No fucks given here, I deserved it, but I was going to Burning Man if it was the last thing I do. I had eight hours until my caravan left, time to get to work.

I wait outside, like a sad puppy who knows he effed up with his tail between his legs. No one is approaching… The plane continues to empty and.. no one.

The exodus trickles down now and I begin to lose hope. I start to gather my things but lo, a girl approaches! Her boyfriend has an extra but won’t be in until the following afternoon. No problem! We exchange numbers and off I go.

I check into my room and head over to the casino where my group is grabbing food. I get in contact with the one seller I found on Craigslist and agree to meet at the nearby Walmart. Since I’d be walking around with $800 cash I wanted this to be as public as possible, especially since it was now past 11 PM. My crew needed supplies so I had them tag along in case anything happened. Plus, this is Reno people.

Before we head over I find an ATM to withdraw some cash. Well, of course as I attempt a withdrawal of $500 I’m declined. A large random withdrawal from a casino in Reno doesn’t look suspicious at all…

Oh, maybe I attempted an amount higher than my daily limit. I know it was around $300, let me try $200.

Denied. ARGH.

$100? Denied. -.-

I text this guy saying I’m having trouble withdrawing cash, can he take a Paypal/Venmo transfer on the spot? Yeah sure. Aright perfect.

Sidequests in Wallyworld

I head over and meet at the Walmart entrance adjacent to the carriage corral.

Here’s this bald guy, a hulking 6’2”, at least 240 pounds with just as heavy a Russian accent, sidekick in tow. Oookay. I inspect the ticket to make sure it’s not a fake and check Burning Man’s banned ticket numbers. All checks out.

Aright mate looks good, would you like PayPal or Venmo?

No good, cash only.

Uh, what?

I thought we..

Yeah well I need cash.

Uhh, ok. I explain to him I’ve been having trouble but let him know that if he gives me some time I can get cash.

Ok no worries, no rush. We’ll just meet back up at the casino.

Option one was getting some cash back at a Walmart register. Ok, we all need to buy shit anyway so lets try that. I run around and grab the shit I need but lines are INSANELY long. Great.

While I wait my head starts churning through ideas. What could I possibly do to increase the probability I get this cash tonight? Dude is texting me, asking me what’s going on. It was approaching an hour and I hadn’t even checked out yet. “I’ve got a lady friend to meet up with so speed it up”. I later piece together that the reason he probably wanted cash last minute is that his lady-friend was, in reality, a prostitute.

Are you traveling sir?

As I wait in line it hits me that I should probably call up BoA and talk about my denials and, oh by the way let them know I’m traveling. I call and clear up the freeze on my account, let them know that yes I am in fact in Reno, and oh by the way need to withdraw $800 cash within the hour. Whatever you need to do to make that happen, do it.

Ok sir, I will increase your daily withdrawal limit to $1000 for 24 hours, after that it will drop back down.

Great. Meanwhile I realize that there was no way I’d be getting $800 cash back from a Walmart till. Duh. I check out and make my way back to the casino, a solid 10 minute walk through massive parking lots. I revisit the casino ATM and attempt my $800 withdrawal. Declined.

FUUUUUUKJOIU$(%($#)#)(U(^JKGJGROF!!!!!

$300? DECLINED. -.-

Fuckit. Let’s try a cash advance of $400 on a credit card. Nooppe.

At this point Mr. Russian again meets up with me and is surprisingly veryyy chill about all these delays. We head over to the Casino Cashier window in hopes that speaking with an actual human will unlock $800 from the multitude of plastic in my wallet, regardless of the fees I’ll incur. At this point, just give me the goddam ticket. I’m getting more and more delirious as things continue to go south combined with the late hours taking a toll on my sanity..

It is now around 1 AM PST and the caravan leaves within five hours. If I miss my caravan, it will cost north of $100 to get into the burn, let alone figuring out how the hell I’m going to make that happen.

After queueing up we get to the teller and I explain what’s going on. They point me to the ATM’s adjacent to the window and tell me to try there first. Mmk. I fumble with the prompts on the screen and of course, the damn thing is broken. Dude comes over shortly after, fixes it, I try again. Nope. No cards are working. I go back to the teller to just get a cash advance, split between two or three cards. But, everything is getting declined.

Jesus. Christ.

At this point you might ask why I didn’t call back BoA? Or maybe call up your other banks to ensure your cards are cleared? You see by now I’m frustrated beyond measure. I’m tired, adrenaline has been running through my veins for over six hours and I have a big Russian guy following me around a casino in Reno, 4 AM my time who is at the least bit sketching me out while he itches to get to his cash-only late night entertainment.

When I make horror-movie-like decisions

For some reason, the teller suggests we head down to an actual BoA to see if that will help the withdrawal. It’s 1 AM. They’re clearly not open. It doesn’t make any sense that would help my cause. This guy is offering a ride in his truck, definitely not something I’m interested in doing. But, I do agree to take a walk to the bank on the outskirts of the casino property which happens to be a full ten minutes away. Alone. With the Russian. Something I’ve been trying to prevent the entire time.

Ok fine, we’ll see if that helps. Whatever. At this point, either I’m going to Burning Man or I’m going to die, either of which I was fine with at that point. Let’s just end this already.

We start walking away from the casino and start chatting along the way. I can begin to see the bank, wayyy off down the winding driveway. It’s very much in the middle of nowhere. There’s a single streetlight on the corner. Might as well have been flickering like a Tarantino movie. It was the perfect scene for a stabbing, robbery at gun point, strangling, any one would have easily fit the bill.

As we talk, he asks where I’m from and we hit a cord when I mention New Jersey. It’s where I grew up, he was actually there on business about a month ago. “Yeah got called to clean up a suicide”.

Umm, what?

Oh ok.. acting like yeah that’s completely normal.

Not two minutes prior he told me he got the extra ticket through the bank he works for.

Oh, ok. Big Russian guy, works for Russian banks, cleans up suicides with his morning coffee with hands the size of my face.

I start a downward spiral of scenarios on how this guy is going to shank me once $800 spits out of the oncoming ATM. We’re in no-man’s land at this point, halfway between this island of a bank and empty casino parking lots. No one will know, no one will care.

Immediately continue the conversation and look to relate as much as possible, thinking he’d be less inclined to want to bash my face in. I recall a nephew he mentioned who had just started going to college on the East Coast. “Where did you say he was going again? What is he thinking about majoring in?” ANYTHING to connect with this guy.

We get there, and of course the ATM fails to give up the goods. I call up BoA and get a someone on the phone, this way no one is getting off the hook until I get my cash. Of course theres a ten minute hold, which felt as long as a walk across hot coals. Finally, we go through a number of security questions, which of course is providing information to Russian oligarch behind me. I try to reply with nondescript answers like “Option B” as opposed to “Yes my address used to be X. Please let Putin know exactly where I live”.

Lo and behold, cash finally flies into my blue, ice cold hands. Welp. This is it, moment of truth. I’m either going to Burning Man or Hell.

We swap cash & ticket and begin to walk back. About 60 seconds into my chatty relief and jubilation that I’m still alive he drops the whole “You totally thought I was going to cut you head off haha!” Ahhh hahaha….. funny guy ehhhh!

YOU’RE DAMN FUCKING RIGHT BUDDY!

He starts asking what I’ll do with my other ticket, you know the one a couple thousand miles away. Well, nothing. Who cares now. He says if I can get it here over the next few days he’ll sell it for me. Just have it delivered to my hotel and he’ll take care of the rest…

Uhh, whats in it for this guy? Sketchy as it was I kind of just let the opportunity fade away. Something just didn’t seem right.

But did you die?

I sleep about two hours once I get back to my room. The caravan’s leaving earlier than expected. For the rest of the entire trip, not a single thing could throw my mood. I managed to get through some hellish drama and pull off a ticket heist within four hours on the eve of Burning Man.

And oh yeah, I didn’t fucking die.

From this point on, my mantra of “But did you die?” was born.

It didn’t matter what happened once I got into Burning Man. Dust storms, without water for an entire day, camp setup taking twice as long, didn’t matter. I was unshakeable. Because regardless of how bad it got, I wasn’t dead. I’ve taken this with me. Regardless of the shit-show of a mess I may find myself in at a wedding or event, I remember the Russian. Knowing that I’ve gotten through worse and that I’m alive has a very calming effect.

How the hell does this apply to DJing? Well, shit it going to happen. Entertainment is not the steadiest of industries if you haven’t realized by now. Schedules will get botched, equipment will fail, bridesmaids will get trashed and harass the shit out of you. You can either react like many might anticipate and have to clean up a mess as a result. Or, you can keep a positive mindset and stand out like you’re superhuman.

Will you die? Probably not, you’ll get through it. Keep in mind that ‘this too shall pass’.