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Red meat and rednecks
The strange and unusual species of New England Patriots tailgaters

You could devote an entire football season to studying Patriots tailgaters. You could do this by monitoring the parking-lot antics outside Gillette Stadium during all eight regular-season home games: cataloguing the most popular snacks on folding-table spreads (EZ Squeeze cheese, Ritz crackers, and nacho chips would rank high), jotting down the crowdís most culturally telling bumper stickers (NO OIL FOR PACIFISTS; BELICHICK/PIOLI í04; AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT), and hunting for rarities (tofu, hipsters, liberal bumper stickers).

But you could also learn a lot about tailgating rituals in a single game day, simply by roving the asphalt playgrounds that are the stadium parking lots. Which is what I set out to do on January 2, the day the Patriots faced the abysmal San Francisco 49ers in their last regular game of the season. In one eight-hour stretch, I counted the number of people I witnessed taken into custody for public drunkenness (two); noted the number of fans I passed with black eyes (two, one of whom also had a purple nose); and considered the refreshments offered by friendly tailgaters (cheeseburgers, Christmas cookies, Jell-O shots, ostrich meat, shrimp and cocktail sauce, cognac, Diet Coke, seven-layer nacho dip, rum and Coke). I attempted to pinpoint the precise moment that the average alcohol-imbibing tailgater slipped from pleasantly buzzed to garblingly inebriated (around noon), and jotted down how many times anxious fans saw my notebook and asked if I was taking down their license-plate numbers (three).

"You should start your article like this," tailgater Dave Wallace told me. " ĎRed meat on a hot grill, with lots of alcohol, and good friends.í Better yet, start it like this," he said, pausing for effect. " ĎCharcoal grills, red meat, and rednecks.í That, Iíd say, captures the scene perfectly."

So it does.

Phase I: Set-up, 8:30Ė10 a.m.

The first indication that Iím about to enter Patriots Nation is the blinking marker on Route 495 North, directing me to Gillette Stadium. The second sign that the bumper-grilling land of the obstreperous masses lies ahead is the New England Patriots wheel cover on the RV that cuts me off on Route 1, about two miles from the stadium. The third signal that Iíve crossed into the NFLís domain is the sting of robbery I feel after handing over $35 to park at Gillette.

The stadiumís official Web site says its parking lots open four hours before kickoff ó which, in todayís case, is at one oíclock. Itís seven minutes before 9 a.m. and not only are the gates already open, there are more than 100 vehicles gathered nose-to-nose on the white-lined pavement. Middle-aged men with fanny-pack-size paunches unlock the rear gates of their pickup trucks. Elementary-school boys with Alfalfa cowlicks scale a dirt-encrusted snow bank beside portable toilets. Sleepy-eyed women sip coffees while their husbands crack open beers. Two high-school boys with fuzzy lips and down jackets slouch in canvas camping chairs behind their carís bumper. Their thumbs hit PlayStation 2 controllers, whose snaking wires are attached to a color television peeking out from their open trunk.

Thereís no such thing as alphabetized parking nomenclature here anymore. Instead, thereís the Freestar lot, the Mustang lot, the Expedition lot, the F-Series lot, the Taurus lot, the Windstar lot, the Escape lot, the Ranger lot, the Explorer lot, the Focus lot, and the T-Bird lot (that last one is for limousines). And the sponsorships donít end there. Obviously, Gillette Stadium itself is an enormous razor advertisement. But even its entrances have financial backers: the stadiumís south gate is the "uBid.com entrance," while its northern equivalent is the "Bank of America entrance." Banners featuring action shots of current and former Patriots players all bear sponsorsí ads: Andre Tippett is branded with Home Depot; Steve Grogan shills McDonaldís; Bruce Armstrong apparently keeps running and running with Duracell batteries. Iím surprised the smelly portable toilets arenít covered with air-freshener ads.

But the fans donít seem to notice. Grills are already firing up, spoons scooping out lumpy chili. About 20 parking spots away, thereís a shantytown of tarps and tents. Scott and Mike, two men in Pats jerseys, are tossing metal washers into PVC-pipe ends implanted in wooden boxes. Scott, who seems excited to have anyone interested in his homemade game, explains that itís essentially traveling horseshoes. Heís devised a scoring system: five points if the washer lands flat on the edge of the box; three points if it falls inside the PVC pipe; one point if it falls inside the box; game lasts until 15 points are scored, with the victor winning by two. Scott seems sheepish about his ability to turn construction scraps into entertainment. "Really, this is just an example of how men can be amused by anything."

Apparently so. As I pass an E-Z Up Instant Shelter, one guy shouts at another, "I canít believe you: youíre drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and you dumped twice!" He sees me staring and beckons. "Yeah, he dumped twice! Want to come over?"

I donít think I will.

Phase 2: Breakfast buzz, 10Ė11 a.m.

The real action is across the street, in a woods-encircled dirt clearing known as Lot 11. Accessible by a narrow bridge stretched over Route 1, the dusty ground is about a quarter full at 10 a.m., with vehicles parked along the lotís perimeter. The site is privately owned, so the atmosphere is much less constrained than it is over in Gilletteís general parking ó more debauched campsite than automotive advertisement. Thereís charcoal smoke drifting out of the woods. Thirty-packs of cheap beer are already half-empty. Cans lay at the construction-booted feet of men in football jerseys who are flipping pink hamburgers on charcoal grills.

Thereís a party going on in the woods. Five twentysomethings in puffy jackets play beer pong on a rectangular table. People mill around a small campfire (despite the posted NO OPEN FIRES notice), a littering of coolers, and a grated grill of blackened meat.

I climb over a snow bank to get a closer look. A round-faced woman wearing a Patriots Santa hat emerges from the knot of people. "Are you lost?" she asks, sipping from a red plastic cup. I can smell the vodka from 10 feet away. No, I explain, I was just checking out the scene back here. "Oh, great!" she squeals. "Iím LeAnn."

A voice from the beer-pong table hollers, "LeAnnís drunk as drunk can be!"

LeAnn smiles gleefully. "This is the first game when I havenít had to drive in years! So Iím getting drunk!"

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Issue Date: January 14 - 20, 2005
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