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 ...

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