Tucked about a mile away from Lincoln Financial Field – where gridiron gladiators battle, far from the pricey parking lots – gathers a group of tailgaters who have seized a piece of land for their own like squatters through adverse possession. This occupy movement that began in the 1990s is a diverse coalition of blue-collar dudes and professional cats holding it down in the space between a few warehouses among the many that dot the South Philly landscape.
The warehouse walls would be ideal for that open face brick look so desired in many chic condos and lofts, like in a nearby neighborhood of Old City. However, it’s not décor here but just a functional part of the place where fellas from various sections of the city – like West Philly, Germantown and Mt. Airy – can groove like Pieces of A Dream. For a few hours on an autumn or winter day they exhale.
In this case, it’s the early evening before the Sunday Night game between bitter NFC East rivals Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. But to paraphrase a Philly superstar, we’re not talking about a game. Brothers gather together to get through this thing called life. Along the way, they grab a drink and fish samich with Biggie, Schooly D, Marvin and a catalogue of good music as the score, while rapping about football, women, politics and more.
The ‘gate-goers embrace each other as they arrive with warm hugs and smiles not worried about the pause-clause. What follows is more true interaction, unavailable through social media platforms. Although there is a discussion about learning how to synch Pandora playlist with the television audio while watching a college football game, the gathering is mostly void of tech talk. This Twitter and Facebook-free gathering is reminiscent of heads at the barbershop riffing on local and global matters.
The ‘gate started back in 1995, the last season that Randall Cunningham, the ultimate weapon, played in an Eagles’ uniform. Since Cunningham’s arrival, perhaps no city more than the City of Brotherly Love has embraced the black quarterback. It begs the Bell Biv Devoe type question of who do you like more: Randy, Donnie or Mike?
Ira, also known as “Pete,” a graduate of Central High School (a city landmark as one of the nation’s oldest high schools) and marketing representative, who now makes his home in Central New Jersey, recollects with glee about Cunningham’s pure athleticism – it makes it hard not to pick him as his favorite. Bob, from West Philly, who recently began his second tour with the ‘gate after a brief job change took him to Wichita, countered that Donovan McNabb was steadier and, unlike Michael Vick, could and take the punishment. But even he, after pondering for a moment, couldn’t deny that Cunningham was also his favorite.
Perhaps, prisoners of the moment, no one was eager to tab Vick. Last week’s performance (17-37, 217 yards in the 24-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals) and his turnovers has Vick on death row. How quickly Vick has faded like a Philly fade haircut.
The ‘gate began with a couple of guys staking out the corner at Pattison and Galloway with a simple hibachi when the Eagles played at the worn down Veterans Stadium. It mushroomed after a few diehard Bird fans – disillusioned with the team during the late 1990s after three consecutive losing seasons – considered giving up their season tickets before discovering the joys of the tailgate.
The Eagles have moved to the more modern facility in the Linc’ that share a sports arena corner unlike in any city, with Wells Fargo Center (Sixers and Flyers) and Citizen’s Bank Park (Phillies). However, the ‘gate has merely moved from the corner to a spot a few hundred feet deeper into the warehouse property.
One of the original tailgaters, Mark, mans the grill and cooks up the standard meat products but also usually provides a surprise dish. This week it was a Black folk New Year’s Day dinner of rice with black-eyed peas. A few years ago, had to give up his season tickets, but he still chooses to remain at the ‘gate to watch the game on the TV. A few fellow ‘gaters remain with him.
The men for the most part are in their late thirties and forties having seen life’s ups and downs – as well as the down and out pass routes – know the score. As in life, they can depend on the Eagles to give them a few moments of ecstasy as well as agony.
This day, two tailgaters share a similar situation. Courtland, an executive with Merck, treks from Central New Jersey and, en route, checks in with his dad since he moved to the Philly burbs. His pops, although relegated to a walker, is full of life. The other, Eric, who himself is undergoing health issues drives the two hours from his home in Maryland to not only get with the crew, but also spend some quality time with his ailing father.
As the moment strikes that the mile hike is ahead to get to the stadium for the game, Courtland sums it up with a toast.
“Wins will come and go, but the fellas are forever.”