Certain parts of the American experience have eluded me.  One such element was the “tailgate party.”  Having attended a small college whose football team struggled against Quaker schools, and a graduate school that did not have a football team, I never attended a tailgate party.  And, while much of my adult life was spent in northern New Jersey where the Jets and Giants are known to attract partiers to their parking lot, I was never tempted.

This hole in my resume of life was recently filled when my wife’s employer at North Carolina State University decided it would be a good idea if the Chinese students she helps to acculturate attended a tailgate event preceding a football game.  Always marginally willing to experience something new, I volunteered to go along.

The day loomed sunny and hot, a final scorcher squeezed into the last week of summer.  I thought I would help at home by offering the bit of football-fan knowledge I had, namely:  one is supposed to dress in the color of the home team.  In this case, that would be bright red.  I looked in every closet and every bureau.  I ran up and down the stairs.  Unfortunately, other than a long-sleeved platform-tennis shirt and a souvenir Panama national soccer team jersey, my wardrobe is devoid of bright red.  My wife also was unprepared in this regard because her employer, an independent affiliate of the University, directed its employees to wear company polo shirts; they are blue.  Luckily, the shade of blue is not close to the “Carolina Blue” of the detested rival, the University of North Carolina.  Still, blue is a long way from red.  I opted for what I hoped would be an inconspicuous white shirt.  After all, I thought, there could not possibly be absolute adherence to this custom.

I had several other pre-conceived notions.  Naturally, the tailgate party would feature food.  I anticipated this food would likely be served from coolers stored in people’s trunks.  I surmised it would have been made at home or purchased from a fast-food place along the highway.  I even predicted some celebrants would have some form of barbecue sandwiches, since barbecue is the much-ballyhooed local obsession.  There would also certainly be beer, perhaps a six-pack for each car-load, maybe two.

Finally, as to my expectations, large sporting events engender traffic jams.  However, since the game was not scheduled until six o’clock and the tailgate event was to start at two, I did not expect crowding to be an issue.  After all, how many people would be at a tailgate party in the parking lot four hours before game-time, perhaps several hundred?  I groused we were going too early.  “What if the parking lot is not even open?” I asked.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

We exited the highway about a mile from the stadium and immediately fell into a massive traffic jam.  Pick-up trucks festooned in red flags and banners predominated.  As we crawled towards the stadium, the challenge of locating our group’s designated location, “Space 2675,” became apparent.  Hordes of fans holding plastic cups walked back and forth across the six-lane highway, seemingly oblivious to traffic.  Music blared from speakers set up along the road by fraternities and sororities vying for attention from unaffiliated freshmen, like politicians looking for the last undecided voters.  Everyone was shouting or laughing or throwing footballs or playing corn-hole, a horseshoes-like game indigenous to North Carolina that involves the throwing of beanbags.  Each entrance to a parking area was blocked by a barricade indicating what sort of permit one needed to enter.  There were alumni parking lots, season-ticket-holder parking lots, booster parking lots and staff parking lots.  There did not appear to be any “regular people” parking lots within hailing distance of the stadium.

After fifteen minutes of circling, we were spun out of the main stadium area like satellites shot into orbit and alighted upon an open area abutting railroad tracks that was attracting random attendees like ourselves.  After parking amidst the weeds, we asked several students and security officials about the elusive “Space 2675” and received looks blanker than an empty canvas.   We started to walk towards the now-distant stadium, all the while receiving text messages and phone calls from bewildered Chinese students who were also somewhere in the vicinity.  My wife tried hard to convey confidence that we would all eventually arrive at Space 2675 a confidence that she did not actually feel.

First, we walked through a dusty, unpaved lot that was staked out by student-aged revelers.  Since they were uniformly dressed in red, we felt conspicuously out-of-place, both old and discolored.  Food was not a major element among these participants, but beer certainly was.  There were no six-packs in evidence – more like six kegs in the back of each pick-up truck.  The guys were mostly dressed in T-shirts and shorts; the girls all wore cowboy boots.  “Are we in Wyoming?” I wondered.  I am still seeking an explanation.

As we reached the next level of parking lots grass and dust gave way to loose gravel, and the population changed.  Vehicles were not mere pick-up trucks but resembled military-grade assemblages.  They had tires appropriate for the lunar module.  Others could certainly have towed airplanes.  We were now amidst the Greek community at ground level.  Nineteen-year-old boys were wearing white buttoned-down shirts with red ties over plaid shorts and sailing shoes.  They smoked cigars and held plastic cups with alcoholic concoctions beyond mere beer.  Every twenty yards or so, another tent was set up to house a booming stereo system and bar.  Girls draped themselves over the boys and tried to out-do each other with enthusiastic, attention-grabbing gusto.  Whose legs were longer?  Whose shorts were shorter?

We rushed to move beyond the cacophony but still took time for a photograph or two, just as one would if surrounded by amiably oblivious, wild animals on a safari.  Finally, after at least a mile of walking, we scurried across a highway to where paved lots began.  The population shifted again.  Here were alumni and boosters, the highest order of tailgating civilization.  The music was quieter, the imbibing more dignified, but the infrastructure was amazing.  As we rounded a corner behind the stadium, there was a sea of red tents as far as the eye could see.  There were hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand North Carolina State-branded tents.  Each was surrounded by a circle of support vehicles.

Several of the tents held a mere card table and chairs with some fast-food boxes.  However, the overwhelming majority harbored folding tables with red table cloths, over-stuffed lounge chairs, flower arrangements, and massive barbecues aflame.  The smell of sizzling meat competed to overload one’s senses with the noise of stereos and the sheer blaze of red bunting.

We must have looked conspicuously clueless because a kindly lot attendant in a golf cart pulled up and asked if we needed help.  Actually, what he said was:  “D’ y’all know whe’ ya goin’?”  We gratefully sputtered something about space 2675 and he told us to “hop on in.”  We hopped.  Our savior chatted the whole time he drove us.  We understood very little of what he said due to his thick North Carolina accent and the wad of tobacco contained in his cheek, but we were so grateful for the ride that we nodded and smiled encouragingly at every opportunity. At last, he deposited us in a relatively quiet outpost in the far reaches of the lot.  A tiny sign informed us that we had arrived at the 2600 area, where non-regulars can set up a tailgate.   Several of my wife’s co-workers were already there, looking exhausted.  They gaped enviously as we departed the cart and casually bade our chauffer good-bye, as though our good fortune had been arranged on Expedia.

The company tent was modest and only a few students were present when we arrived.  But staff and students alike were busy with cell-phones directing a far-flung Chinese diaspora to our location.  More arrived every few minutes, appearing as though they had just crossed a desert.  Culture shock was combined with shell-shock and provoked the inevitable question of whether we could/should provide the students something stronger than soft drinks and water.  The answer was “no.”

The company van contained coolers of soda and ice water and several interns unveiled the feast that doubtless made our tailgate unique among its surroundings and, possibly, the history of tailgating – dumplings.  Students and several employees had spent the morning shaping, filling and boiling vast quantities of pork, chicken and beef dumplings.  A sign was unfurled to advise our neighbors, who were already amazed at the sight of fifty or so Chinese students in their midst, that we had dumplings to spare.  When several sidled over to sample our dumplings and share their spicy boiled peanuts (definitely an acquired taste), our tailgating experience was underway.