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Tailgate Like a Clevelander

A parking lot primer for Dawg day afternoons



The "Jackson sucks!" chant sure is deafening, but it never quite hits a full boil.

It's a cold and sunny Sunday in November, and in a few short hours the Cleveland Browns will host the Carolina Panthers.

On the shoreway, just across from the ginormous Cleveland Municipal Parking Lot, frustrated fans form a conga line of idle cars. They're counting down to the newly established 7 a.m. entry time to their pregame holy land. But this party should have started hours ago.

For years, tailgating Cleveland-style commenced whenever you decided it did. Many were the fans who camped out overnight, blissfully reduced to a pickled and sloppy disaster just in time for kickoff.

Earlier in the fall of 2010, however, Mayor Frank Jackson outlawed pre-dawn tailgating at the Muni Lot — and jacked up the price of entry for good measure.

But given that this is Cleveland, the party rages on unabated. And at the end of another mischievous marathon, the home team ekes out a one-point underdog victory. It might as well have been by a six-touchdown margin. Or a humiliating defeat. Why? Because Browns football in the modern era is all about the party. And because you can't lose a tailgate.

But you can do it wrong. We're here to prevent all of that. But first, a brief bit of history.

A Brief Bit of History

The earliest known versions of local tailgating date back to the late 1960s, several years after the last Browns championship and just a few years before comics started working Cleveland material into their acts. Our sporting triumphs have come somewhat sparingly ever since.

And let's face it: When you don't have a football team worth watching, the act of tailgating itself rightly assumes a role of bloated significance.

It all started very much like any blue-collar lunch: nothing more than a bagged sandwich with a loaded flask to wash it down. But Cleveland's party found high gear when the Kardiac Kids came to life.

"I started tailgating in the early 1980s, in the days prior to the famous Red Right 88 incident," says veteran tailgater Tony "Mobile Dawg" Schaefer, owner of the Mobile Dawg Pound, a converted church school bus that he pilots to each game from his home in Sandusky.

"Back then, it was a much simpler thing. I used to have a regular van, and the group we went with would throw a picnic table in the back and some benches, and we would drive down to Mall C. There was definitely some tailgating going on back then," he says.

But times have changed in a large way. At last count, nationwide tailgate-related sales figures have surpassed $12 billion annually, according to people who add up these kinds of things.

Clevelanders tend to select their tailgate location based on the kind of experience they wish to have. And most remain true to the spots they've staked out.

The options include lots at Burke Lakefront Airport and the adjacent northernmost Port Authority Lot (now called the "Yellow Lot"). Lots and decks off of East Ninth Street, the Justice Center, Lakeside Avenue, and the Warehouse District all tend to be far less vigorous in their festivity, but you could do worse.

There's also The Pit, a stretch found on the east bank of the Flats that hugs closest to the southwest corner of the stadium. The Pit offers a welcome mix of young-to-not-entirely-young tailgaters peppered with seasoned veterans who have outgrown the frenzy up the street. It's not Mayberry, but it's not mayhem either.

The real bedlam happens at the Muni Lot, a senses-overloading cocktail of Halloween, Mardi Gras, and R-rated frat party that is ground zero for Cleveland tailgating. With asphalt enough to accommodate as many 1,400 vehicles across its 15.7 acres, the Muni Lot has long been the place to see and be seen. It's definitely not for everyone, but we're betting it's for you.

The Muni-ficent Mile

In the seasons leading up to the Browns' abrupt departure for Baltimore, the Muni Lot teemed with slavering, sauced Dawgs well before game time. Television cameras began to gravitate to the spot, taking in the swilling swell of humanity that often convened the day before.

When the party resumed in 1999, with a new stadium and a new, certifiably unwatchable team, years of pent-up mourning gave way to an explosion of tailgating enthusiasm.

Along with it came incidents involving fireworks, fighting, and hijinks on the nearby railroad tracks and shoreway.

Panicked by safety and liability concerns, then-Mayor Jane Campbell considered shutting down the Muni Lot altogether. Alas, it was a fleeting notion promptly quelled by the threat of Dawg-eared lawlessness.

In a sense, the Muni Lot is the NFL's lone bastion of renegade bawdiness: It's the only major tailgating lot in the country that isn't owned and privately policed by the home team.

It's why Mayor Jackson cut back the hours of operation and jacked up the price of entry — most recently from $15 to $20, to cover costs of security and morning-after cleanup, which itself is a FEMA-worthy spectacle.

And did it work? Not even a little bit. The Muni Lot curfew was enforced for only brief moments last season. Determined tailgaters simply parked their cars a day in advance and celebrated their newfound reason to start the party Saturday. The city, to its credit, looked the other way.

But enough of the pageantry. It's time to get your shitface on.

The Healing Salve of Sausage

"I'll be honest, I haven't covered a whole lot of tailgating in my career," says Dan Coughlin, a veteran sports journalist, now retired from WJW-TV Fox 8. "And I can't say I would recommend it based on the one experience I had.

"Back in 1999, when the Browns came back, a cameraman and I agreed to shoot a piece down in the Muni Lot. And from where we were standing, it was like walking into a bar at midnight when everyone is drunk and you're the only one sober," he says with a laugh.

A valuable lesson can be gleaned from Mr. Coughlin's experience: Never tailgate sober.

On any given Sunday, a home crowd could draw up to 10,000 rabid Dawgs to the Muni Lot alone. Sprinkle generously with 200,000 adult beverages, and your entertainment options become somewhat varied.

Gearheads could spend the whole morning and well into the first half of play touring the customized vans and buses, and schmoozing with their owners, who will beam with pride as they regale you with details of the $26,000 they invested in a $1,500 vehicle. Mobile Dawg Schaefer's ride, for instance, features such accoutrements as a Browns helmet paint job, a hood ornament in the shape of a urinating canine, and a fully functioning Art Modell commode (no No. 2's, please).

It is widely known that cocktail wieners and Pop Tarts make for a suitably grand pre-game repast. But today's tailgaters are just as likely to work up markedly more fantabulous grub for their friends and neighbors. Envision your most tongue-tempting dream meal — say, an entire chicken grilled with a can of beer shoved up its butt — and you can bet someone's cooking it up come game day.

Hankering for smoked prime rib? Deep-fried macaroni and cheese? Wood-fired pizza? It can all be found in The Pit and the Muni Lot, where lobster bakes, huge crab boils, and pig roasts for dozens sprout up in every corner. Best of all: You're no more than a bartered Bud Light from partaking in it. Which brings us to a key tenet of tailgating ...

The Nomad and the Pro

"Look, if you want to talk about your 401(k), you'd be better off just hanging out at the local bar." So says a man known to most only as "The Taj," a Muni veteran from Lake County who operates the mysterious "Temple of the Tailgater" mobile home that comes to rest each football Sunday at "Signpost A" — the first section of the Muni Lot.

Talk of tailgating strategy is frowned upon at Taj's place of business, it seems. So he steps outside to resume the conversation.

"It's not for the faint of heart," he says with a chuckle.

But if you're not sure where to begin your adventure, you would be wise to test-drive life as a tailgate nomad. It allows you the opportunity to tour the various options at downtown parking lots, learn the ropes and traditions, and — most important — do almost nothing of your own to prepare for it.

Hell, you don't even need a tailgate. Best bet is to patronize the RTA rapid system's Waterfront Line, which heads from Tower City to Browns Stadium on game days and accumulates moss in the RTA garage every other day of the year.

From there, nearly every tailgating destination is within modest shambling distance. This is a great way for newcomers to gain helpful "consumer" knowledge; much like finding the right neighborhood bar, research and reconnaissance are important.

Sufficient gear for the well-prepared nomad consists of a backpack of provisions to share — by which we mean cans of beer, the international currency of tailgating. A stout backpack can comfortably accommodate a 12-pack; nomads who boast two hands can readily tote another 24.

Science tells us that there is no more effective way to pass time at adult gatherings than to play children's games while drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.

Happily, the tailgating landscape is rife with pursuits ranging from cornhole to ladder golf to washer pitching. The best of these are the ones that someone else has lugged downtown instead of you.

When angling for sport, don't forget your most efficient option: games fashioned around the act of drinking itself. A couple of quarters and a Solo cup can provide hours of family fun, just as "Frankenbong" — look for it near Taj's Temple of the Tailgater at the front of the Muni Lot — has been known to seduce rival gang members into loving embraces.

More into team sports? Octobong at the Browns Bunch's party features a whopping eight mouthpieces for riveting barley pop races. Watching such sport can be as much fun as partaking. But if you're game, both of these longstanding Muni Lot camps encourage crowd participation.

Perhaps you've decided it's time you contributed something to tailgating's greater good? There are myriad considerations for planning your own soiree. The following two might be considered the most important:

• Bring at least 25 percent more of everything than you think you will require, because there will be no shortage of nomads hoping to earn your love and wieners.

• Secure your liquid provisions no later than Saturday. Rare is the store that sells booze in Sunday's pre-dawn hours.

The bigger the tailgate, the more space you will need — and the earlier you'll need to show up (see above notes on Saturday arrival). Start early, plan a couple of days beforehand, and make sure to have a list — and check it twice.

Wisely use your days as a nomad: Watch and learn from those who do it well, then perhaps tag-team with a more established tailgate party and see what they suggest. Often, the best advice comes from one-to-one, fan-friendly word-of-mouth.

And buy your mentors a beer or two. You might just score a new neighbor for eight Sundays.

How to Get Arrested

You might think that getting blind drunk in a public parking lot patrolled by a notable contingent of police people would be a suitable means of getting your sloppy ass arrested. And you would be correct.

But the crafty tailgater knows that friendly arms of the law would prefer to look the other way as you shotgun your 23rd Black Label whilst fertilizing the adjacent shrubbery. "Discretion" is the operative word here.

There is also another word.

"If you follow the simple 'Don't Be a Dick' philosophy when you tailgate, you really can have a blast amongst the zoo," says tailgating luminary "Dawg Pound Mike" Randall, who hails from Akron. Randall has been an anchor of the Muni Lot since the team returned in 1999, but his tailgating days date back to the mid-'90s.

He says that cops can be cool — even helpful — to your cause. Hell, most of them wish they were you on tailgate day. Plus, as Randall sagely points out, their job is hard enough without people like you making things worse.

Offer some food, a can of pop or bottle of water, or something warm come November. Talk to them, thank them, treat them well, for they just might save your bacon when someone else goes asshole out there. Because every weekend, without fail, somebody always goes asshole.

With that in mind, following is a handy reference for not being that asshole this weekend:

• Refrain from throwing objects at opposing fans or picking fights with them. Even some Bengals fans have redeeming qualities, although these could not be confirmed as of press time.

• Drunken drivers are trouble magnets. Once you have parked and started the party, do not attempt to move your car for approximately three years.

• Nature calls each one of us. Do not answer it by dropping trou in front of the Watson family. More elaborate party busses have whizzers, and even clandestine trips to the bushes are honored by most cops. Do your best to relieve yourself with dignity.

• Do not break shit, yours or others'.

• Do not get nekkid.

• When making a spectacle of yourself, strive to downplay curse words and garden-variety belligerence.

• Remember: Drinking alcoholic beverages in public is still "illegal." To avoid being that guy who didn't get the memo, be sure to keep reading for ...

Be a Booze Ninja

Tailgating may be synonymous with getting your drinky on, but it also takes place under a sign that reads "Open Containers Are Prohibited."

Brazen boozing doesn't fly here. Get caught and you'll be asked to pour out your bottle or can, or perhaps something even worse. Of course, there are numerous ways to avoid this fate. The best of them is to drink your beverage in an opaque — and preferably interesting — vessel.

That does not mean you need a "Beerbelly" or "Wine Rack" (look 'em up, they're real). That gym workout water bottle rolling around the floorboards, travel mug, or insulated coffee cup will work just fine in a pinch. A trusty red Solo cup is a simple and classic choice, and almost every party station can spare one for you.

(Special note for child consumers: The creators of this respected news source do not condone the underage consumption of alcohol products. But if they did, they would surely remind you to eliminate all suspicion by bringing along at least one empty can of soda pop. This can be used to pour assorted other beverages into throughout the day, or to fashion into a stealthy sheath that sits over a can of beer. Not that we ever did this.)

Tailgate Time Is Family Time

More than just a mass of slobbering drunkenness, Browns tailgating is an inevitable celebration of family unity among folks who would never claim relation to one another in any other context but this one.

And as with all families, Cleveland's tailgating clan is known by its unique tics and obsessions. People look out for each other, save each other's time-honored parking spaces, and make concerned phone calls to those who were expected to show but haven't.

There aren't turf wars so much as appropriate right of way given to elders, with various bits of wisdom imparted along the way. Often with plentiful cursing, if the turf infractions are blatant.

More valuable than any police presence is what local radio guy Mark "Munch" Bishop calls "The Munitown Neighborhood Watch." It can make your day and save your ass.

"Most tailgaters go out of their way to make sure a few bad apples don't ruin the bunch," says the host of ESPN Cleveland's Munch in the Morning, who also hosts a pregame show broadcast from the Muni Lot each game day.

In the wizened words of Munch: "No one wants to ruin Cleveland's dysfunctional family picnic."

Truer words were never spoken. Because until Mike Holmgren, Pat Shurmur, and Colt McCoy land us the sizzling sausage of Super Bowl victory, that bratwurst sandwich and suspicious-looking Hairy Buffalo punch bowl is really all we've got.

That, and the best party on the planet, should be enough to see us through the hard times.

Peter Chakerian is a tailgate nomad, longtime Scene contributor, and the author of The Browns Fan's Tailgating Guide (Gray & Company). Chakerian's first tailgate was in 1989, and he still isn't over Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

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