A journey through the heart of Indianapolis during football's biggest weekend.
“…And just like that, out of nowhere, a great big screaming eagle came swooping out of the goddamn sky and took my hat. Shredded it to bits.”
“Jesus, do eagles do that?”
“This one did! Damnedest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Nearly took off my head and that’s why I never bet the Eagles to win anymore.”
“That’s smart, Jim. The Eagles were not a very wise investment this year.”
This was Jim. He was your average American in every way. Average height, average weight, average age with an average job, an average wife, an average annual income and probably two and a half completely average kids. Jim owned an average house, an average car and a dog of no spectacular pedigree. In fact to see him from afar you might even call the dog average.
But on this particular Friday Jim was doing something very un-average. Today, Jim was whooping it on an airplane bound for Indianapolis, home of Super Bowl 46. On this particular night he and a million like him would be moving through their own personal Mecca, an ever-changing place devoted to fast-living, food, football, the occasional spat of violence and fun.
Jim is still talking by the way, about manatees now and excited as all get out to be travelling at great speed towards the biggest sporting event of the year, completely unaware that something very rare is about to happen to him. He’ll soon be gripped in a life-changing moment that will only ever happen every so often and under perfectly ideal circumstances.
“…and there are about 30 or so manatees that just come right up into the strait and start mating like horny bunnies all over my backyard…”
“Jim, listen to me,” I said, interrupting him and grabbing him by the collar. “That story is completely ridiculous. You shouldn’t tell it to anybody. They lock people up for babbling about things even half as crazy as what you’re telling me now and by god, they’ll lock you up too.”
He was silent, wide-eyed and fearing for his life.
“Jim, listen,” I said, releasing him from my grip and straightening out his collar. “Jim, I’m your friend up here and I don’t think you’re crazy but I’m going to help you out anyway. You’re going to the Super Bowl right?” He nodded but I couldn’t tell if he understood the question. “Goddammit, Jim! Answer me!”
“Right, ya, the Super Bowl,” he managed, his mind still reeling from the sudden shock.
“Good Jim, now listen, I’m going to bring you to the Playboy party tonight where you can meet some real people who talk about real things and dance into the night with the statuesque blondes behind the bar. Are you listening Jim?”
He nodded again, the light coming back to his eyes.
“But Jim,” I said, leaning in and becoming very serious, “you have to promise me something. Will you promise me?” He nodded a fourth and final time. “Jim, you have to promise me that you’ll stop talking about the goddamn manatees fucking in your backyard. It’s totally queer and not polite conversation in the company of strangers. Will you promise me you’ll stop talking about the manatees?”
He agreed and I assured him his life would be better for it and I went back to reading an article in Time about the collapse of the Keystone pipeline. Jim, for better or worse, just stared straight ahead and said nothing, maybe to nobody ever again.
That would be the last time I saw Jim that weekend and I only mention him because he was the standard by which the mold was made. Millions of Jims were descending on Indianapolis and millions more were watching at home wishing they were. This was America at large and alive, the jersey-clad masses moving in hordes through an otherwise quiet city on an otherwise inauspicious night. It was Friday, 47 hours away from the Super Bowl and we were all young, drunk and free.
“Is it always like this,” I asked Lexi, a local girl and our guide for the weekend through the clambering chaos.
“No, never, not even a bit. Indy is deadly quiet on most nights. You could hail a cab for miles, hear a pin drop.”
As it was, we were stuck in foot traffic, blocked in by thousands of Tom Bradys and Eli Mannings all circling in a drunken swarm around the car. Downtown Indianapolis had morphed into a haven of excess, a Mardi Gras 800 miles removed and two weeks early.
“My god, all these people can’t be going to the Super Bowl? The stadium wouldn’t hold half of them. It wouldn’t hold a quarter!”
“Half of these people aren’t going to the Super Bowl,” replied Lexi, jamming on the horn and slowly swerving around another hapless pedestrian. “Half of them are full-time partiers travelling around like a circus from town to town until they either burn it down or just burn out. They’ll never see a Super Bowl and they don’t really care. That’s not why they’re here.”
And they weren’t. Only 68,658 would actually see the game live and a couple hundred thousand more would watch from the bars surrounding the stadium; the rest of them were total action freaks, high powered animals looking for a good time in a new city however many miles away from whatever they called real life. Escape was an overarching theme here and we were only minutes from the ultimate one.
“I’m going to let you out here,” said Lexi, “you’re better off walking up to the venue then me trying to push through this.”
We thanked her and stepped out into the madness, into an infinitely louder and disorienting environment. Throngs of people moving en masse, nervous to break from the crowds or maybe not able to. The streets of Indy had been transformed into a full blown cattle drive of the human variety, impatiently scrambling from block to block, bar to bar in search of the next big party.
Ours was through the stampede on the corner of Maryland and Meridian, an otherwise quaint and normal looking inn overhauled by Bud Light to resemble something of a movie set. Makeshift tunnels lit by blue light and trafficked primarily by gorgeous women in couture dress. A lobby doubling as bar and flowing beer and familiar faces, faces of notable fame passing freely through the winding halls until the whole thing explodes into a cavernous dance floor and a stage taken by storm by the best and brightest of the top 40 charts. Long lines of beautiful women rush from bar to bar and back to the dance floor. The upper balcony booms as another artist takes the stage and by god, a Bunny. A Playboy Bunny, tail, ears and all and in droves with her fellow playmates following along. There is a surreal vibe through the whole thing, something that can only be captured by being in a room, with a capacity crowd and bunnies at every corner. Scantily-clad and extremely talented and limber women hanging from ceiling in linen cloth, weaving in and out, hovering gracefully above the earth. The lights changing color and tone, shifting moods as the DJ breaks into another long set and the whole thing a sensory overload to the point of necessary reprieve. A party like this only comes along every so often and they only last for a limited time but in that strange span, in this strange space it is a complete warp from the world, a frozen free place where almost anything goes and lines are only things to be pushed. Barriers are the limits of your mind and for one evening you’re anyone you want to be and it doesn’t really matter who. We’re all right here again, back where we started: young, drunk and free.
Ne-Yo takes center stage.
I escaped back into the halls, into a quieter space for a moment to collect my thoughts and maybe talk to someone over all the welcome but wild confusion. The TV above the bar told me the Lakers were up by five and that Boston had already inched by the Knicks but the whole thing seemed meaningless at the time, as if the outside world didn’t exist in this space and its intrusion was only for show. The NBA had to be on hold while we were here, the whole world did. Nothing was real outside where we were right now; the land other people were living in was a myth.
I took a seat next to a lonely looking girl at the bar and watched Kobe drain his only three of the night. The bartender brings me a drink and suddenly I’m lost in the gin joint scene from Casablanca.
The girl next to me is crying, weeping soulfully into her drink and I’m tempted to call her Isla ask her why of all the Playboy parties in all the world she had to walk into mine. But instead, I hand her a tissue and inquire as to what the trouble might possibly be.
“Oh,” she wails, “I came here to be famous. I wanted to be famous and gorgeous and rich and now I’m alone, I’m nothing, just a fly on the wall at a world renowned Playboy party.”
“Famous?” I said, “Jesus sweetheart, we're all famous here. This is the main event, the central nerve. You can be whatever you want. You’re at the Super Bowl, at the goddamn Playboy party! Anonymityville, USA. This is the American dream in action baby; you’re fucking living it.”
She looked at me and just like Jim, I wasn’t sure if she had heard when suddenly, like a woman possessed, she burst from her chair and threw herself at me.
“Oh thank you! Thank you!” she screamed, “I didn’t think I would make it but now I know I’ll be great. I’ll be famous and I owe it all to you!”
And she was gone. I never caught her name but the next time I saw her she was flailing a bottle of champagne wildly out of the sun roof of a 20 foot stretch limo and screaming something about the top of the world.
Back inside the mood had shifted, the haze setting in, everything moving in unison and all connected to an underlying and unseen beat. We were hitting an indiscernible peak, a climax that might never come again. The DJ launched into one long last scramble, amplifying everything and capturing the energy that had been echoing off the deep red velvet curtains and the dull violet glow. The crowd was moving at strobe light speed, flashing in and out of focus, caught forever in a moment no one wanted to end. The long, luxurious legs of the girls poised on the risers above entranced the crowds below, their rhythmic sway hypnotic and strange. Yes, this was it. This is what we had all come here for. One long night of unapologetic excess and fun. One last hoorah at the end of another football season. This truly was the main nerve, we we’re standing on it I’m sure and when final note sounded through the clamor and noise we were gone, lost for at least a while someplace far away in a moment we’d never forget.