The tentative cheer floating through the streets of downtown Atlanta on this September Saturday morning belies the sure knowledge of sun-baked hours yet to come. Downtown, which we’re walking through bearing, among other things, a cookie cake and two flasks of bourbon, has the sparking live of an urban center whose buildings are not so dominated by weekday business as to crush the life from weekend warriors.
The Starbucks, in particular, has a motley crew at ten A.M. You’ve got the writers, hiding their souls beneath their headphones and venturing into the screens of their Macbooks. The jabbers rocking phones, chatting and texting and tweeting and slurping their way through pumpkin spice lattes that feel out of place in a southern city still weeks away from a proper Fall. We grab waters, iced coffees. A hedge against the coming heat that will be both vital and entirely overmatched.
It’s a 30-40 minute walk from our rented condo to the Georgia Tech campus, depending on how willing we are to jaywalk. Which, it turns out, we’re quite willing. Bursts of adrenaline come in racing across the four lane avenues, traffic not quite snarling at this hour, which only makes the crossings more nerving, as if the other, missing, cars act as witnesses. Keep each other from indulging in the impulse to rundown the sandaled guy lugging a pack of Coors Light.
Parks burst out of nowhere on the walk. Statues and proclamations giving notice to history that we largely ignore in specific but admire in general. Things happened here. We don’t quite know what they are, but they were important. Runners catch the last hour of good temps, before taking feet to the sidewalks becomes an act of foolhardy recklessness. A fire hydrant in the middle of the sidewalk stages a surprise attack, but our man recovers, sans dignity, and we press on.
The hosts, Georgia Tech alum, drop tidbits about the city and, as the campus comes into play, various buildings. Tour guides awash in their own memories and casting particular moments out loud for the rest of us to parse. Filling in the blanks of someone else’s life. But the tone’s pleasant enough, so it’s an enjoyable exercise. Transposing my own college memories into another place, another major, another color scheme.
The stadium, which we pass by en route to a tailgate, is crowded, controlled chaos. People pound together metal fences; building cages to funnel the thousands that will be approaching in the next few hours. Busses clog closed streets. Officers yell at people, at us, to get out of the way of moving traffic but there’s nowhere else to go and everybody knows it. Everybody accepts things will be slow-going, and they do it with a smile. Why not? It’s game day, and nobody’s yet a loser. Might as well have fun with it.
Nowhere is this attitude more relevant than in the assortment of stands selling every flavor of merchandise. The Georgia Tech mascot, a cool bee named Buzz with well-toned arms, is everywhere, and loved by everybody. Someone has inflated a twenty foot-tall balloon of the bee. Next to the century-old brick buildings, the dichotomy feels oddly natural. Two things that shouldn’t mix, but when they do this time, come together beautifully. We find our tailgate near a drained fountain as the Georgia Tech marching band and an assortment of cheerleaders start to gather for a pregame pump-up session.
The tailgate is as tailgates are: a buffet of various sausages, beers, and breads. The cookie cake is devoured before the heat can turn it into sludge. The only vegetable on hand in salsa. Our hosts have, mercifully, found a spot in the shade – an oasis that becomes only more important as the clock ticks on. Eventually the band signs off and breaks into a run, as though evacuating a crisis only they can see. An invisible swarm of bees, perhaps. They scatter, and we take it as the sign to clean up. To join in the wandering crowds heading back towards the stadium.
We sneak the flasks in, seeing as the primary search method these days consists of a somewhat mystical sweeping of a plastic wand around one’s body. As bourbon is neither a gun nor a knife, it’s not detected and we quickly procure Cokes with which to blend the stuff. This, I’m told by more experienced Southerners, is the best way to beat the heat. Namely, numb your senses so that it doesn’t matter anymore.
The logic behind this strategy makes itself apparent in blasting fashion minutes later. Metal bleachers in 12:30 PM heat in the Georgia sun. It’s a spotted blue day, with clouds destined to provide popcorn bursts of shade that come too slow and leave too fast. The football churns below, men bashing into each other as the run-heavy offenses grind back and forth. It’s entertaining, moreso because we’ve found ourselves in the midst of a group rooting for the opposition. A group that gets at first testy and then mired in a sort of depressed malaise as the game fails to go their way. Every first down becomes a cheer as the grander cause’s grim outlook brings minor achievements into greater focus.
The alumni, my friends among them, consistently belt out cheers and songs in complete synchrony with each other. It’s a ritual beholden to one’s alma mater, and a privilege. Still, I’m impressed at the sheer number of verses and different, yet entirely aligned, songs produced. Effort has clearly been made to grow a rich culture of fight songs, chants, and other such things at Georgia Tech. At first, the loud roars of my fellows annoy our opposing group in the stands around us. As the diverse cries continue, though, the annoyance turns into grudging respect. Much like the team down on the field, my friends have earned, through such perfect play, the respect of their foes.
And it’s all a damn good time. We might be melting, but the joy of sports is more than able to overcome the heat. For a few hours, we’re all in harmony with each other and the throwing of a ball below us. Everyone is cheering or booing at once and all together. Flasks are emptied. Hand shakes and high fives make the rounds as introductions between people whose only thing in common, at that moment, is the moment.
When it ends, we’re drenched in sweat. Blasted by the sun and happy. We ditch our collectible cups to a series of immaculately dressed freshmen, apparently tasked with securing the things by their upper-class overlords. The blazers and ties look out of place there, surrounded by older fans in all manner of t-shirts and shorts. Baseball caps and sandals.
Georgia Tech won. Convincingly. The glory, though, faded as we wandered from the stadium. The magic of those hours fell away, leaving us with the rest of the day, and a tireless sun driving us towards the darker corners of Atlanta. Where, on the TVs, a whole range of other games and their own moments were set to begin.