An odd little cultural phenomenon.
ASTORIA, New York- I made a list recently stating the five reasons why I set up a base of operations in New York City. I tried not to mention a certain sixth reason but a reader quickly called me out:
He was right. Here’s the thing: when I was making my decision of where to go next I was well aware of the fact that the Bills play back-to-back games in
New York City New Jersey to open the season. So that meant I could easily make at least two away games … plus being only 400 miles from Orchard Park meant that I could easily go to all the home games … plus having easy access to two major airports meant that I could easily get to even more away games … You see where this is going.
I’ve debated whether I will write about football this year. These posts seem oddly placed in a publication about travel. I initially found this topic relevant to this blog because if you’re talking about travel you’re inherently also talking about culture, and the culture of the place where I grew up and how I interact with it is a fundamental a part of this story. To put it simply, there are not many other segues into WNY culture.
It’s not often in travel when you have the opportunity to deeply connect with your roots — almost by definition. But, to be honest, it’s not often when you have the opportunity deeply connect with groups of people at all. Sure, you make a lot of friends and ask a lot of questions, but the depth of these engagements are often conspicuously superficial. But spending time with YOUR people in situations where you are, for once, not the Other, where the culture is your culture is really something special after you’ve been wandering around the planet for decades. When you’re in your own realm you can watch someone jump off the back of a pickup truck, slamming their body through a folding table and you don’t have to ask why.
I’ve written about the past few football seasons, but have started feeling as if I may have used up my equity with this topic. These posts don’t perform well and they kind of bugger the “image” of the site — and I think they bore people. They’re not really good for business. Shouldn’t I be off in no-mans-land writing about Kazakhs or something? Yes. But for three months a year I do something a little different. And this is what the traveling life is ultimately all about: doing what you want, going where you want, when you want to. Anyone who governs themselves by outside rules and expectations doesn’t truly understand the fundamental premise of the profession.
However, something has begun happening over the years that I have been more acutely complying with my childhood psychosis: following this football team has become a weird sort of a communal travel experience… dare I say, sort of Grateful Dead like. Each away game thousands of people get together and migrate out to wherever it’s being played. They party for two days straight and return home and tell tales of the good times … as the word spreads. The next game, the next season more people travel out and the movement grows. Then big media reacts and we get all proud of ourselves:
Jets need to discount ticket prices or give some away for free because there were way too many empty seats at MetLife Stadium & way too many Bills fans in building. Bills defensive players were actually waving their arms to rile up the crowd because there were so many Bills fans
— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaNYDN) September 9, 2019
The object is, to put it bluntly, to take over their stadium. We want every game to be like a home game. What’s amazing is that the players respond. They jump around and pump up the crowd in another team’s stadium, which is probably the ultimate F-you.
But let’s put this in perspective:
There’s only 256,000 people in Buffalo, 208,000 people in Rochester, and a meager 2.8 million people in the entire Western New York region … but somehow this swath of the country produces enough people who find it worth it to travel hundreds of miles to football games that they come close to matching the local fans. There’s 23.6 million people in the NYC metropolitan area.
It’s just a different culture surrounding the game between Buffalo and NYC. In NYC football is just another form of entertainment, on par with other sports or going to the theater or going to see a movie. You show up, experience the event, and go home. In Western New York, the allegiance to football isn’t really about football — the game itself is more or less just an excuse for something far bigger and more important:
It’s something highly ritualistic, completely unique, and … totally, absolutely off the hook. The space has it’s own culture, it’s own codes of behavior, it’s own mentality. People from the outside only see people cooking food on saws and rakes on the hood of an old car and morons taking ritualistic shots out of the holes of a bowling ball, but there is truly something special happening here. It’s the building blocks of cultural cohesion that American life is conspicuously devoid of.
For most other cities, tailgating means drinking a couple beers with a few of your friends for an hour or two before the game. In WNY, the party starts the day before game time. People go out to the stadium in Orchard Park and camp out for the night before home games, we start drinking in bars on Saturday for road games… and keep it going until late Sunday night.
It’s a little absurd if you just look at it superficially: grown men and women investing so much time and money into a recreational event that ultimately has little to do with them. But if you look at most cultural practices of identity, they all seem kind of dumb on the surface. I’m not going to go as far as to say that the Buffalo Bills are a way of life, but they definitely represent a way of life. WNY is a former industrial epicenter that economically collapsed in the 90s when the factories moved away. The winters are long and harsh. The people are heavily blue collar. It’s a culture of underdogs and misfits. People who come from places like this tend to be proud of it, and there is just something about watching people smash into each other on the football field, playing for a team that is a perpetually underestimated (that recently missed the playoffs for 17 straight years) that we simply identify with.
But the real essence isn’t really about the game itself, it’s about the culture that’s been built up around it. There’s kind of this familial, tribal feel to it all. You go out and spend a couple of days for few months with people who grew up near you who faced the same struggles, who like the same food and drink the same beer, who are wearing the same colors, who similarly identify with something as frivolous as a football team, and it makes you feel as if you have “a people” — a rare thing in this age of geographic and cultural disorientation.
It’s also just fun. I mean, where else can thousands of grown men and women go out and do shit like this and have it be 100% culturally accepted, normal, and encouraged. Take time off of work to travel to see a Bills game and your a hero here … everywhere else you’re an irresponsible jackass.
My best friend from home came out for the game in New Jersey this past weekend. He showed up on Thursday morning and we just went around the city having a good time, talking about things from the past, making new memories, sharing experience. The game was the reason but not the purpose.