COLUMBIA — As I exited Memorial Stadium just before kickoff, I defied the crowd. As it streamed in, I pushed my way out. I wanted to find the party in the parking lot.
Just 45 steps from the door, I was in a no man’s land. Trunks closed, tents empty — the tailgates seemed not only over, but hurriedly abandoned. As the sun set slowly, it was almost eerie. I should have expected the sudden quiet that replaced the raucous tailgating crowd, but it still surprised me.
On the west side of the stadium, the people were few and far between. Some tents were empty, others were still fully stocked with food and beverages.
Cary Bushko, of Lee’s Summit, reclined in his tent, snacking and drinking.
“Somebody’s got to protect the food,” Bushko said. “Hopefully I don’t eat it all.”
Bushko struck a key element of the abandoned tailgate: trust. Especially on the west side of the stadium, many cars and tents were left unattended, almost inviting hungry stragglers to take advantage of a free buffet.
“People just might help themselves to a little bit of this,” Bushko said.
Maybe Bushko’s spread, which he’d mostly covered and sealed to preserve, would appeal, but much of the abandoned food had seen better days. The 80 degree heat has a funny effect on things like icing and cheese — they don’t quite melt, but solidify into a glistening sheen, and abandoned hamburgers slowly petrify into brown patties of disappointment for hungry tailgaters at halftime.
And that’s just what was left on the tables. The ground was another story, a spotty carpet of trash. As a cop spoke with a small group of tailgaters, another man surreptitiously swallowed a Jello shot and left the empty plastic container under the wheel of a squad car.
Searching for signs of tailgating life, I stumbled over a wider variety of discarded food. First shrimp tails, then flattened brownies and spilled condiments. It’s amazing how the smell of ranch dressing can carry after slowly warming on hot pavement.
Although there was the occasional cluster of blue and silver beer cans, no two crushed into the same shape, most were gathered into recycling bags and stacked next to trash cans.
Janet Moreland, of MU’s Sustainability Office, spends game days distributing recycling bags, which she says has reduced the number of cans on the ground.
“People love to take the bags,” Moreland said. “Everyone takes bags. There’s only one person out of a hundred that doesn’t want one.”
Heading north toward the main gate — I’d been told I might find more people there — the smells began to hit. First, cigar smoke. Then, the aroma of barbecue sauce and burgers that lingered faded, replaced by concession-stand aromas of grease and cotton candy. Was that better than the bitter cigar smell?
With the grease- and cotton-candy-scented breeze came what I was looking for: the crowd. In a tight pack just southwest of the north gate was the party. The group seemed to have forgotten that there was a game going on just a few yards away.
“The north and east side, that’s where the partying goes on,” David Gibson, an ambulance supervisor for University Hospital, said.
I had noticed that I could hear the game more and more, but at this pocket of never-ending tailgating, all sounds of the game ceased. Stereos replaced the announcers, soft rock and hip hop tuning out the noise of the crowd. Game? What game?
As the time ticked toward 6:30, the party raged on. With every wave of applause and rattle of the cannon firing, there was a flurry of questions. Touchdown? Field goal? Does anyone know the score?
“I can just hear the yells,” Bushko said. “And as soon as I hear the yells, I’ve got to check my BlackBerry to see what happened. Just if it’s a good high yell, then I know the Tigers did good.”
That’s the thing about the tailgates: There’s an aura of uncertainty. No one’s quite sure of the score, and there’s only so much that the roar of the crowd can convey. The rest is left to everyone’s imaginations — if they’re even listening.