The eve of the 37th Super Bowl was a balmy January night, made balmier by thousands of pedestrians moving through a Gaslamp Quarter largely closed off to motor vehicles. Although celebrity sightings had run high in the area for days, this Saturday-night crowd hadn't necessarily come to brush shoulders with the likes of P-Diddy. They were wired up, ready to rally behind their teams and eager to sample whatever downtown San Diego had to offer.
A constant flow of humanity merged onto the main thoroughfare of activity, Fifth Avenue. Heading south down the middle the street, the scene resembled Pirates of the Caribbean crossed with Goth by way of hip-hop.
Surely, this couldn't have been the first occasion Buccaneers fans were made aware that their team's nickname rhymes with a popular expletive. But Raiders fans made sure to remind them-over and over again.
"Fuck the Bucs!" was a common exhortation. It was printed on t-shirts. Hand-held contraptions that looked like New Year's Eve party favors spun around, spelling it out in circles of little, red lights.
As helicopters, blimps and klieg lights soared overhead, men carried huge team banners, waving them gracefully as they streamed through the crowd. Others sported hand-written signs: "The Buc Stops Here"; "Help me 1-2 tickets $$$$"; "Jesus Saves."
Digital cameras, recording all for posterity, were in great abundance. Lots of people held their cell phones up in the air so folks back home could hear all the commotion: "I'm down here! It's crazy! Listen..." to the loud sing-song of "RAY-durrs! RAY-durrs!" answered with "Raiders Suck! Go Bucs!"
"Looks like Mardi Gras," one reveler commented. And it did, albeit one where alcohol consumption was strictly relegated to designated areas (i.e., not in the streets). Gaudy, plastic beads were much in evidence, with deluxe models, featuring Tampa colors or silver and black, both with footballs, going for $10 each at a 99-cent store.
Had it been a costume party, Raiders fans would have been big winners. Wearing many variations of the silver-and-black motif, ranging from pajamas to sombrero ensembles, they sported feather boas, helmets, wigs and masks.
The deeper one delved into that territory, the more taunts zinged by from every direction. "You'll get beat up, boy!" "Well, we've got Rice!" "How are you a Raiders fan when you live on Mira Mesa Boulevard? Think about that one, chick!" Then, the ultimate: "This is California! Go home! Take your ass somewhere else!"
Two lissome females stood on a corner, asking for local advice. "What're you looking for?" a young man inquired. "Dancing or just get drunk?"
What the Bucs fans may have lacked in flamboyance, they made up for in vehemence. One middle-aged man, enraged by words hurled against his team by the Raiders faction, started to answer back and was soon yelling and sputtering. "You're going nuts," his wife told him, firmly but with a nervous smile, as she took him by the arm and led him away.
Several blonde women drinking at an outdoor café table shouted profanities at some Raiders enthusiasts, one of whom violently shook a "Chucky" doll-signifying Bucs coach Jon Gruden-with a noose and a sign that read "Who's Your Daddy?" hanging from its neck. All around him, shutters snapped and flashes went off as people lined up for a photo.
The face-off heated up midpoint along the route. Red-shirted Bucs fans amassed behind countless plastic pints of beer and a chain-link fence barrier outside an establishment ironically named after the Blarney Stone. Bouncers and police officers provided an extra layer of protection as Raiders fans, led by a tall man in a disturbing bull/wolf/Viking get-up, let loose a merciless barrage of chanting, gestures and body language. The besieged retaliated in kind: "Awhhf! Raiders fuck!"
A young man from the Raiders camp managed to briefly swoop forward across the barrier and snatch a woman's pro-Bucs sign from out of her hands before security could react. He threw it on the ground and stomped on it, eliciting a mix of cheers and disgusted shouting. A policeman commented in a low voice, "10-1 Raiders lead." One man behind the fence whispered to his friend, "I don't think we're allowed to leave now."
Nearby, the steady pulse of a Caribbean-flavored percussion group inspired a young man, stripped to the waist, to perform a sensuous grind in front of an open window above street level. As he moved, he poured the contents of a mineral water bottle onto himself, massaging it over his torso.
Down below, a large group formed a circle around the mesmerizing beat. Dancers, both male and female, single and in pairs, darted in and out of the circle. "We're in a tribal zone," one of them said. A man in sunglasses and smoking a cigar gyrated. A surfer dude writhed on the ground.
Heading back toward Broadway, movement became more difficult as those heading out to the trolley station and back to hotels passed hordes of new arrivals. Or, as someone said, "We're like salmon spawning upstream."
It was only 8 p.m.; the night was young.