There is more to this than wins and losses.
ORCHARD PARK, New York- “If you want to go to a good tailgate you have to go to one in Buffalo. It’s the best there is,” I stated simply to our Airbnb host in Baltimore who expressed interest in experiencing a game of American football.
“He may be a little impartial, he’s from there” my wife piped up with a laugh.
“No,” I retorted as I turned to her, “it’s universally accepted: Buffalo is the best place in the world for tailgating.”
This isn’t an arguable statement. The tailgating in Buffalo isn’t just good because of a local culture that’s extremely passionate about their football team to the point of it being a psychosis, but because of how the stadium and the land rights laws around it are set up.
The stadium where the Buffalo Bills play sits in a rural area outside the city. It is surrounded by private land who’s owners rent out space for people to park on. This is where the good tailgating takes place.
The key term here is “private land.” Up until a couple of years ago police or other authorities had no right to enter and regulate activities, so the culture of tailgating evolved into an all out fucking free for all. Buffalo Bills tailgates make it into the national media nearly as much as the team. They are something epic that is extremely rare in 21st century hyper-regulated America.
While cops apparently now have the right to enter private lots, it’s still a legally sticky area, and I’ve never seen them actually do it.
Hannah’s first experience of tailgating was in Baltimore — where the stadium is located downtown and the fans are under the thumb of relevant authorities. It was pretty boring — just people standing under an overpass drinking beer; nothing more wild or interesting than taking a stroll through a bar district at 9pm on a Friday night.
Hannah couldn’t realize how much it sucked. She thought this was just what tailgating was.
“No, it’s different in Buffalo. It really is.”
There was nothing more than I could say. I would just have to wait until the next weekend when she could experience an Orchard Park tailgate for herself.
Hannah laughed at me when I announced that we would be leaving for the game at 6am.
“What? The game isn’t until one, are you trying to be the first person there?”
“No, if we leave then we will be getting there after everyone else.”
She thought I was being ridiculous. I knew that she didn’t understand, so we woke up at six and planned to leave before seven. We left and quarter past.
“We’re late!” I roared, “Let’s go!”
She didn’t believe me. She was convinced that we were going to be super early and just sitting around by ourselves — victims of my overzealousness.
It’s around an hour and a half drive from Rochester to Orchard Park. I love this drive on game days. It’s a pilgrimage of sorts — everybody is going to the same place, everybody is wearing the same costumes, chanting the same songs. The rest stops on the 90 become defacto party zones — there are groups if dudes with their shirts off with boomboxes on their shoulders dancing around in the bathrooms. Packs of women in stretchy Zubaz pants jumping up and down around their respective busses.
I’ve been around a little but I’ve never really seen anything like this — the sheer joy and celebratory excess in an otherwise uptight culture is almost surreal. People just let go completely. For eight days a year our stupid politics, morals, and social divisions disappear — race, class, and religion are rendered irrelevant. Everybody becomes the same: just another motherfucker who wants nothing more than to not give a shit about anything on Sunday.
We arrived near the stadium stuck in a line of cars. I turn into a private lot and mutter the code word to get five bucks off the entry fee. The guy collecting cash didn’t want to bother counting out proper change so I got an additional five bucks off. I drive around the lot looking for a place to park. The place was packed.
“See, we’re late,” I snidely remark to Hannah.
“Late for what? To stand around next to our cars drinking beer,” she retorted with a laugh.
My friends from Albion were late. While I tell people that I’m from either Rochester or Buffalo I’m actually from a small town called Albion. I believe five thousand people live there — a third of them in prison.
Bills games are kind of like a high school reunion for me. I see people that I went to school with from kindergarten to graduation that I haven’t seen in over a decade. I see the people that I played baseball with, the guy on my hockey team who started a bench clearing brawl, the people that I have this common history with that extends back to the time I was five years old.
I’ve been traveling for nearly twenty years, they are all doing jobs and running businesses, we all have kids, but when we see each other again we go straight back to high school, and those decades that passed seem to be something we collectively imagined.
I used to think that I was traveling to find “my people” — some subculture or tribe or village in some far flung part of the world that I would be accepted and who were just like me. Around a decade in, I gave up on this search, writing it off as immature and delusional. I grew content with not having a tribe. I just never integrated myself in with another group, I never became part of another culture, I don’t have a community somewhere. The people that I grew up with is the closest thing that I have to a “my people.”
I didn’t realize this until a few years ago when I started going to football games regularly. I was kind of taken aback at first — these people still remember me, they still like being around me, they still view me as one of them.
I’m an insider here. For a traveler, that’s a very, very unusual thing to be.
I took Hannah over to the Red Pinto tailgate. One of my old friends from the Buffalo days is a part of that group, and it’s always excellent to see him.
Wade and Steve. Known this dude since 2001.
I will talk more about what happens there in a couple of weeks. 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.
Wade and Ken Johnson, aka Pinto Ron.
Hannah refused to take a shot out of the bowling ball. For thirty or so years it has been used ritualistically before games. Fans walk up to it, take a shot of Polish cherry liquor, drop it on the ground holes facing up, and then blow a big red plastic horn. The bowling ball was first called into use when a special shot glass that was previously being used for this purpose was broken. As breaking rituals is overtly inauspicious here, a bowling ball was introduced in its stead.
It did the job.
“Why did you have a bowling ball at the tailgate?” I asked Kenny when he told me the story.
“We used to set up beer bottles like bowling pins and smash them with the ball. Tailgating was a little different back then.”
The NFL once stepped in to shut down the bowling ball ritual. Due to this interference, the Red Pinto tailgate was taken to a private lot — to Hammer’s lot, a character of Buffalo tailgating lore who doesn’t exactly respond passively to organizations like the NFL telling him what he can do on his land. As a compromise, a package of baby wipes is set up next to the ball for fans who are a little squeamish about such rituals.
By the time that it was Hannah’s turn to take her shot it was, admittedly, pretty grimey. She lost her nerve. Next game.
You haven’t truly lived until you wash it all down with a beer that was chilled on ice in a toilet mimicking a cooler and danced in a tribal circle like a whirling dervish in the pouring rain chanting “Let’s Go Buffalo.’’
While this sounds like a futuristic world where people survive by consuming copious amounts of alcohol and the only place to find cookware is in junkyards, it actually happens to be what is arguably the greatest tailgate party in the National Football League hosted before each Buffalo Bills home game by Rochester resident/super fan Ken Johnson, aka “Pinto Ron.’’
This Pied Piper of Partying, the King of Ketchup, the Sultan of Shots has been hosting his unique bash for nearly 30 years, in all sorts of weather, through all sorts of losing seasons and there is no sign of the good times ending anytime soon.
Find out more about Ken and his bowling ball in this NFL Films segment:
Two former Bills players were at the tailgate this Sunday. Aaron Williams, a fan favorite who would still be playing if it wasn’t for a Jarvis Landry cheap shot, and Shawne Merriman. They blended in — partying hard like everybody else.
Apparently, Lee Evans was also there, but I suppose he blended in so well that I didn’t recognize him.
The Albion crew arrived just before we were ready to walk into the stadium. Hannah met my best friend’s brother and a couple other guys that I went to high school with.
We walked towards the stadium, still pounding beers. We spilt up at the gate and Hannah and I tool our seats in the Rock Pile. My best friend’s brother never made it to his seat. He walked into the stands, looked around for a moment, turned, and left the stadium. He went to the Big Tree bar down the street.
You don’t really go to Bills games for the football.
No, you go for the friends.
New Era Field. A.k.a. The Ralph. A.k.a. Church.