Sometimes a lack of tradition can be a tradition unto itself. I think there are people in my life who feel bad about that, but having no obligations during the holidays brings the same wild sense of freedom as having a vacation day while the rest of the world works. The day is your own, the streets are empty and other people's traditions are yours for the taking.
This year, I was finally taking part in the beloved Thanksgiving Cowboys football tradition. I was excited as soon as the invitation came but I couldn't have predicted the sense of strange pride that came when people would inquire about my Thanksgiving plans.
"Oh, actually, I am going to the Cowboys game," I would say casually, until a weird, strange smile would grow across my face. It wasn't quite bragging but it felt good to say.
It was strange to me that I hadn't been before, but if I had gone even one holiday sooner, I am not sure I would have seen the day through the same eyes.
Not being quite at the level of tailgating as the families roasting whole turkeys on-site, we got a Thanksgiving to go from The Grape, where we got a view into their traditions. At the counter of restaurant, Courtney Luscher called my order to the front. Her daughter, shorter than the counter, stood before the cashier learning each step as the stuffing and the sweet potatoes and the turkeys came from the kitchen. She reached up and punched something into a computer, handed her mom a receipt to give me and as I signed it, she sweetly yelled at me, "And I keep the change!"
The Grape has fed me on first dates, before teenage school dances, at graduations and later as an adult I would find myself in the back tiny bar feeding on small plates with big groups. This all colored my memory as the next generation handed me Thanksgiving in her small hands.
"What are your plans for the holiday?" an elder Luscher kindly asked, and that strange smile spread across my face.
"What?! Is there butter on the ball or something?" a man in blue and gold yelled from courtside.
"Well, it is Texas. We put butter on everything," I replied.
"I am trying to talk shit here and you people are just too nice."
Before the Cowboys and the Raiders met in Arlington, another California and Texas rivalry played out closer to downtown. The Mavericks and Golden State Warriors whetted the appetites of sports fans who had escaped for our North Texas plains and Tron skylines. And apparently our reputation for hospitality was preceding itself. "No, really. I walked in and a Mavs fan told me he hoped my night didn't go well. That was it."
Pretty tame for an insult in an arena, the last bastion of pre-approved brawls and verbal abuse, although trading in the age-old familial arguments and tension for more obvious enemies actually seems like a healthy exchange, since many people are far more loyal to their teams than their blood.
Next to us two timid men in Cowboys gear quietly admitted that they are actually from Tennessee. And had never been to Texas. This they would not live down. There, surrounded by all those shit-talking Warriors fans (and full disclosure, my invitation came via a gentleman who kept calling it "the Raiders game"), we made tailgating plans.
I will ride or die for the Mavericks, and I went to Rangers games and snuck down into the good seats before any of you fair-weather fans started buying them up, but these Dallas Cowboys ... well, the Cowboys are an entirely different kind of symbol. Besides, cheering for the Raiders meant I got to wear all-black everything.
If you haven't tailgated at AT&T Stadium yet, then get thee to a tailgate. Whatever impressive level of on-site cooking goes on at our day-to-day football games all gets cranked another 50 yards for Thanksgiving proper. Turkeys were smoking, casseroles were still hot and kids were tossing footballs as men looked on with beers.
Gathered around our warmed ribs and turkey and rum and beer and stuffing, we were a small gang in black, shotgunning beers and taking shots of Coquito. Any second thoughts I had about jumping sides subsided when the California kids arrived, unprompted, with three bottles of Champagne.
People booed us, we yelled back. You have to look harder for your kind when you are the "other" team but the reward is greater when you find them.
Jerry World simultaneously looks like an inflated Cold War bunker and a spaceship, so in that way there is still something old-fashioned about it, which makes it a strangely comforting place to spend Thanksgiving. And given the holiday's reputation for excess and indulgence, it's not hard to jump onboard with giant screens and seat-side cocktail waitresses. Nothing has been forgotten at Jerry World. Like the best overbearing holiday mother, the Jones family has made sure your every convenience has been provided for and your favorite pie is still warm.
I high-fived so many strangers. The Cowboys fans didn't high-five each other. Occasionally they came together to yell at one of us, but quickly I recognized that being the black sheep is the real way to find family.
In our seats a family in front of us was decked in Cowboys gear. All the kids doted on the clear patriarch, although one daughter certainly lost her place in the will when she forgot his Jack Daniel's. He poked fun at us, and then asked where we were from ... I considered not answering, but finally told him, "Dallas." He gave me the same look your grandfather may have given you when you got your first tattoo. And it felt just as good. He finally laughed and said something homophobic, which is just what your real grandpa might have done too.
Half-time, I learned, may sound great, but it is for TV and left me wishing Mary J. Blige would have stuck around past the national anthem. Selena Gomez is adorable but you have to be a performer of grand stature to compete with a space bunker of this magnitude.
After halftime we started a quest to a tunnel that we knew we didn't have access to. None of the ushers seemed to know its location, but we swore to them that our friends were there. We never found the tunnel but we did find ourselves in empty seats on the 50 yard line and in pictures with all the characters who get the most screen time on the Jumbotron. Beetlejuice seemed so happy up there, but he was bummed about the game in person. It was a good game.
In the parking lot everyone was taking off their hats and pullovers and affiliations. We had already lost our makeshift Raiders clan. Some families are permanent, some families are temporary. But black sheep or no, this is Texas, and the tradition of football is forever.