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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Where the tailgate wags the dog

A college football Saturday is like New Year's in L.A.

October 24, 2009|CHRIS ERSKINE

Today, we're studying the health benefits of tailgating, an autumn ritual with spiritual and emotional rewards. One young scholar just crushed a Heineken can on his forehead, so I suppose there are tactile benefits as well. The more I study sports, the more I feel like Albert Schweitzer.

Oh, Calcutta, is this USC campus a snuggly place, with the sort of congestion that often breeds epidemics and looting. It's hot as a cup of coffee. Late September, and Tommy Trojan is still wearing his summer toga (probably linen).

Lust. Musk. Tusk. Here on Trousdale, "Animal House" has sprung to life. I haven't seen partying like this since . . . actually, I've never seen partying like this. And I used to live in New Orleans.

Did I mention the grub? It's like a farmers' market -- but better, full of grill smoke. My favorite new L.A. sports figure, "Tri-Tip Bill," got here at 6 a.m. to secure his usual spot. Bill grills up 15 to 20 tri-tips on game days, with a dry rub that might make you forget your obligations, might make you forget your name.

Not only is he jovial and generous ("I charge everybody the same," he says. "Nothin' "), Tri-Tip Bill grills up the best tri-tip ever. He carves it a little rare and then finishes it off with a final char before dishing it out to friends and passersby. Yep, Tri-Tip Bill gives away gold.

Why?

"USC did a lot for my son," Tri-Tip Bill explains. "This is my way of giving back."

Next door, Dan O'Hara, a nice guy despite his Notre Dame name, says he arrived at sunup to get the perfect spot -- stage left of Tommy Trojan. O'Hara and several friends wheel in tents, grills, coolers and chairs for every home game. "It's very strategic, despite our drunkenness," explains his wingman, Jesse, an '05 grad.

Three hours before the game, it is like a scene from a Judd Apatow movie. The guys at O'Hara's party huddle around lovely Amanda Baal as if she were a bonfire. She is here only for this tailgate party, she says, which reminds her of the parties back at her alma mater, Indiana U.

Huh? They had porn stars in Bloomington?

Because that's what this other woman, a bobblehead coming up the street, resembles. She's wearing a too tiny T-shirt and heels, which apparently are different heights, for she can barely walk. I've never seen porn myself. But I know the type. "Naughty Tailgaters," soon to be available on Vivid.

Wow, what a scene. L.A., the city that can't hold a decent New Year's Eve bash, sure has tailgating nailed. Forget party spots like Old Pas or CityWalk -- places without grit or substance. This is the real deal. This is our town letting go: a smoky, belchy blast.

Indeed, even the students have set aside their books for a few hours to prepare for the upcoming contest. The things they do here with a funnel and a hose would frighten a Viking. I guess you could say the young scholars are investigating Newton's "Principia," and the laws of mass and attraction. Tell me, is it possible to have your brain pumped?

"Come on, try the beer bong," begs my new friend Andrew.

Andrew looks just like Seth Rogen, except he parties harder.

"Yeah, show us how to do it," says his brother Ben.

"Maybe next time," I lie.

At about 6, the marching band arrives -- talk about bobbleheads. They are bangin' stuff and making all sorts of noise. The trumpets line up right in front of O'Hara and his gang -- 40 archangels, announcing imminent doom.

"Tusk! Tusk! Tusk! Tusk! Tusk!"

"I've seen worse concerts that I actually paid for," says my pal Rich.

Closer to the stadium, the mood is lively, but less like spring break. At the lot off Menlo ($25, first come-first serve), it is as if the 101st Airborne Division is tailgating, except the food is better and they have more tents.

Benny Castro and his friend Lori Zavaka seem to have figured this whole tailgating thing out. The game began 30 minutes ago -- who needs it? I've got a hunch they aren't even going.

"We gave our tickets to our kids," Zavaka confesses.

The creature comforts are better here anyway. Castro and Zavaka have two big pop-up tents, a satellite dish, a 46-inch big screen powered by a generator, several tables brimming with food, 30-foot high USC flag poles, even a camp toilet in a small, triangular tent ("the pee-pee tepee," Zavaka calls it).

The whole setup, which feeds 20 to 25, is better furnished than my first apartment. Party lights flash in the warm September night. The smell of carne asada perfumes the parking lot.

Each game, Castro explains, they have some sort of theme.

"For UCLA, we're gonna have a disco," he says. "You should come for that."

And I probably will.

--

chris.erskine@latimes.com

Erskine also writes "Man of the House" in Saturday's Home section.

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