EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ —
The entire day really couldn’t have gone any better, up to this point. My weekend excursion to New Jersey had included some of the best pizza I’ve ever had, a tailgate menu worthy of it’s own review in the Food section of The New York Times, several different beer fueled BS sessions with friends old and new and an ill gotten yet spirit lifting win for the 49ers. Did the Niners deserve to win? Probably not. But as an East Coast Niners Fan, leaving a road stadium with a W in my back pocket doesn’t get old.
At this point, my good friend Mark Harter (who you may remember from such posts as, Derek Jeter’s last game) dropped me off at Newark-Penn Station; left to my own devices. I surveyed the bleak scene at Newark-Penn, took stock of my own appearance which included a gold, satin 49ers Starter jacket which engaged every beggar and crackhead in the entire station into an attempted conversation with yours truly and decided it would be a brilliant idea to get the hell out of Newark.
A quick visit to the Amtrak window revealed a train to DC was departing in 30 minutes, a good 2+ hours before my scheduled train was to depart. $40 later for an upgrade and I was off to my homeward bound chariot; the good news wouldn’t stop there. As I waited on the platform, to my surprise, an Acela train showed up. Not processing that $40 would not be close to an Acela upgrade, nor having the common sense to double check my ticket, I was all aboard. At this point, with a belly full of grilled meats and a head full of cheap beer, I searched through several cars for a seat until finally my butt found the soft cushioned leather of an open Acela seat. A good day, was just about complete as I dozed into a splendid stupor.
Abruptly awoken by an Amtrak ticket inspector, I rubbed my eyes and cheerfully handed over my ticket for approval. I looked out the window into the never ending darkness of whatever state we were in now, and asked how far to DC. The disgruntled inspector reviewed my ticket, turned to me with a look of utter disdain and dryly informed me:
“Sir, we have a problem. You’re on the wrong train”
I’d been looking forward to my first ever excursion to The Meadowlands since the 2014 opponents had been set. Once the schedule for 2014 was announced, my anticipation and excitement grew. November 16th, 1PM, perfect. No holiday or birthday obligations, and more than likely perfect football weather. Harter had the ticket and empty guest room, all I needed to do was get to Jersey.
The train ride from Union Station up the Northeast corridor towards New York City’s Penn Station runs pretty much parallel with I-95, but a trip on the tracks reveals much more of the urban blight that plagues many cities in the Northeast. On this particular Saturday afternoon, the remnants of fall were barely hanging on. Bright reds, oranges and yellows hung on for their final days of autumn to the sun kissed trees as my train made it’s way through the backwoods of Maryland and through Baltimore. The ride is a mix of striking vistas; one minute your crossing the confluence of the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, between Havre de Grace and Perryville. Shortly before and soon after, you have a front row seat for neighborhoods in cities that once were. Block after block of blown out warehouses and row homes greet you in Baltimore, Wilmington and Philadelphia. Smoke billows out of stacks in every state, and sad sites like the tired looking Harrah’s Casino in Chester, PA are commonplace.
Night fell as we chugged into New Jersey, just in time for the lights of the Lower Trenton Bridge, emblazoned with the cities motto: TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES. I’m a big fan of cities not only having a bad ass motto, but displaying said motto in lights on the side of a gigantic bridge.
I pulled into Newark and immediately bought a copy of the New York Post from the news stand on the platform. I don’t even I think I opened it up that weekend, it just felt like the right thing to do. As I navigated through a sea of New Jersey Devils fans who were filing over to the nearby Prudential Center for that nights game, I made it outside and was briskly picked up by Mark, his lovely wife Molly and friends Tim & Jody (thanks again guys). From there we bee lined it to Star Tavern, in Orange, NJ, a place Harter had been hyping for weeks as having the best pizza in North Jersey, which based on the way he phrased it sounded like high praise.
Star Tavern’s pie did not disappoint, even in the face of heightened expectations. We got five pies for the table and I’m not ashamed to say we put a dent in number five. This isn’t NYC big slice pizza, or New Haven brick over pizza, it’s just damn good pizza. If I lived anywhere near this place, I’d have a heart attack at 40. However, I’d also have a really good chance of meeting East Orange natives Naughty by Nature, so there’s that. Full of pizza and Sierra Nevada’s, we retired for the night and rested up for Sunday.
Still full of Star Tavern pizza, I eschewed any semblance of a breakfast, anticipating the tailgate menu that laid ahead of us. Harter has a regular tailgate he attends for Giants game, that he swore by. After his pizza hype delivered, I was inclined to believe him on all things food. First, we had to get to The Meadowlands.
MetLife Stadium sits in a sea of parking lots in the New Jersey Meadowlands, near the banks of the Hackensack River, 10 miles west of Midtown Manhattan. Our ride took us across I-78 and up the New Jersey Turnpike, with the NYC skyline on the horizon. I have been referring to The Meadowlands since I started watching football, not really thinking about what it actually was, besides a setting for a football stadium. The Meadowlands in fact are quite beautiful–tragically polluted–but beautiful. The entire area spreads over 8000 acres and includes many wetlands, waterfowl and yes, meadows. We made our approach into the MetLife parking lot on a final sliver of land through the swamps of Jersey, on a grey, windblown and chilly morning in the Garden State.
An added bonus, was listening to Mike Francesa’s morning show on WFAN as we made the drive. Francesa can definitely be a pompous blow hard with a holier than thou approach to sports radio, but the guy knows his NFL and listening to his baritone, Long Island accent break down the week 11 slate as we rolled down the Jersey Turnpike was a proper prelude to an afternoon at The Meadowlands.
Upon arrival, we found a parking spot and made the trek to Lot G. Besides MetLife, the complex also has the Izod Center, Meadowlands Racetrack and the ill conceived Meadowlands Xanadu, a vacant structure that was to include retail, entertainment and an indoor ski slope. When the economy tanked, the project was halted. In the meantime, this shrine to the last recession sits next to the Jersey Turnpike, a kaleidoscope of every color ever to be featured in a 1970’s living room. As Harter put it, “I guess they decided the Turnpike needed another ugly building next to it.”
Lot G outside MetLife Stadium is the lot for buses, trailers and campers. It’s also the lot of some of the most over the top and mouth watering tailgates I’ve ever witnessed outside a football stadium. Before I could begin my search for Jimmy Hoffa’s body, our gracious host was delivering paper bowls of drunken clams with crusty bread into our mitts. I inhaled these delicious bivalves, with my pizza coma from the night before a distant memory. The hot, garlic enhanced broth was the perfect antidote for the plummeting temperatures and gusty winds that infiltrated North Jersey on this morning.
Clams were just an appetizer. Pork belly? Beef ribs? Marinated pot roast? BBQ sandwiches? Affirmative on all fronts. Plus every side you could imagine and the cous de grace, a Sabrett hot dog cart with dirty freakin’ water dogs and a station to add all your fixings (I’m a mustard and relish guy myself). Obviously, not the first rodeo for this crew.
Then there’s the other bells and whistles. Flat screen TV, suped up sound system for music, a full bar and the bus that brought this whole production to Lot G in the first place. With the Giants retired names and numbers painted on the outside, and an interior decor that consisted of Big Blue carpeting and leather seats, I was unsure how I’d ever be able to go back to the charcoal grill burgers and AM radio pregame show of the tailgates of my past.
Time drew close to kick off, as we ate and drank and then ate and drank some more. I had almost forgotten why we were there; we had a game to watch; one the Niners surely couldn’t lose if they had any hopes of making the playoffs. When pressed on my prediction, all I could commit to was “16-13, somebody”. It felt like a low scoring snooze fest was on the menu today, as Jim Harbaugh would no doubt try and sneak out of Jersey with a conservatively played win. The fishy point spread (Niners -3.5) made me queezy, but I’d eaten much too well and had drank enough can beer to feel too uncomfortable about the game.
As we approached the center entrance of the stadium with a growing crowd, two guys in front of us had this exchange:
“You know what would make marriage so much better? If you could date too.”
“What about your wife, could she go on dates too?”
“Sure! Let someone else buy her dinner for once.”
And with that, there was no questioning what I was walking into. An NFL game in New Jersey.
Giants Stadium had stood in The Meadowlands from 1976 to 2009, until it was replaced by MetLife Stadium. Growing up, Giants Stadium was always one of those holy grail type of stadiums, the scene of many epic NFC East games as well as several legendary playoff games. It was where the Giants won two NFC Championship Games, shutting out both opponents. It was where LT and Simms and Banks and Bavaro and Parcells all made their careers. Put as is typically the case, the stadium grew old and new digs were needed. After an unsuccessful attempt by the Jets to get a new stadium on the West Side of Manhattan that would have also been used for New York’s (failed) 2012 Olympic host bid, the Jets and Giants (the NFL’s odd couple) agreed on plans for another shared stadium in the Meadowlands Sports Complex.
MetLife Stadium is a good looking stadium, outside and in. For football, as Harter noted, “all you really need is an oval”. That’s true, but by oval standards, this is a really nice one. As we snaked through the security lines and check in, we easily found a beer stand with zero line. In fact, the stadium overall was pretty easy to navigate. With openings on the exterior of the building, there are several vantage points of the Manhattan skyline, the comically absurd Xanadu and the heavy flight traffic coming out of LaGaurdia and JFK. Once in our seats (section 131, corner end zone) it was not surprising to find that we had great site lines of the playing field. Any newer stadium seems to have gotten this engineering down to a science, as even the upper decks at newer places have great views of the field.
What was surprising was that my cell phone worked perfectly throughout the entire game. Having been subjected to cell phone prisons like FedEx Field, where a carrier pigeon would have better luck delivering a message than my cell phone’s texting capability, it was nice to have full 4G coverage so that I could stay on top of my winning FSB pick that day, the Seahawks/Chiefs over. Those picks, by the way, are on fire right now. Check ’em out here for free.
The game itself played out very much like I expected. A low scoring battle between two teams very familiar with each other saw lots of sustained drives, but also lots of sloppy play. The Niners cruised down the field on their first drive, until Frank Gore uncharacteristically fumbled in the Giants redzone. This drive would be a perfect representative for the rest of the afternoon. Lots of blown chances by both teams, with the headline being Eli Manning’s five interceptions. Not to be outdone in the ineptness category, San Francisco would turn those five turnovers into a whopping three points.
A potential turning point happened in the 3rd quarter, after a Josh Brown 43 yard field goal cut the 49ers lead to 16-10. As Harter and I awaited the Giants kickoff, I turned to him and said something to the effect of “Here comes a Giants onside kick.” I’m not even sure if he responded to my matter of fact declaration, but then seconds later the Giants executed and recovered an onside kick, their first recovered onside since 2004.
Want to know what I’ll bring up every time I see Harter for the rest of our lives? Calling that onside. For a moment, I felt like I could see into the future, perhaps I’d unknowingly skimmed through Biff Tannen’s Sports Almanac from Back To The Future 2 on the train ride north. Or maybe it was dumb luck, aided by jumbo stadium beer.
Eli and Big Blue would have one last chance, after a circus catch by Odell Beckham (go figure) set them up at the Niners four yard line. Then the Giants would run not one, not two, but THREE straight fade routes to the back corners of the end zone. After the first one, Harter was livid. After the third? He and the rest of the Giant faithful were having full Jersey Turnpike road rage meltdowns. On 4th down, yet another pass play was called. The throw would end up in the hands of Niners rookie linebacker Chris Borland, for Eli’s 5th and final pick, which for all intents and purposes ended the game. The Niners would escape the east coast with a 16-10 win.
We headed back out to Lot G for a little more revelry, as the Giant fans wondered aloud to no one in particular, what had just happened? The Niner contingent was strong this day in New Jersey, as they typically are in stadiums across the league. A fan base that’s not been the most well behaved in the Bay Area, has been nothing but courteous from what I’ve seen in a number of NFL cities over the years.
We settled back into the tailgate for more food (totally unnecessary) and a few more drinks (for my celebratory mood, totally necessary). As the grill raged on and the crowd settled into camping chairs for Eagles/Packers on the big screen, the sun quickly slid behind the horizon and it became easy to wonder, do these people ever leave?
Eventually, we did make our exit from the MetLife Stadium parking lot, more than seven hours after we arrived. Harter carted me back down the Turnpike to Newark Penn, as we listened to fed up Giants fans called into the WFAN post game show. 24 hours after arriving in Newark, I was back to make my trek back home.
I did a little research on Newark Penn before I made the trip, foreseeing that I may have to hang out there for a few hours due to my train schedule. After speaking with some friends and stumbling on some Yelp reviews (seriously who writes a Yelp review for Newark Penn?) it sounded like not the nicest place to kill time. “Killing time” is actually a REALLY poor choice of words when discussing Newark Penn.
As I mentioned at the top, I took one look around the station and decided I didn’t need to spend any more time in Newark than was absolutely necessary. I got my departure moved up and headed to my track. With a about 30 minutes to spare, a pit stop at Blue Comet Bar in the corner of the station near track 5 was definitely in order. With its hazy windows and nondescript entrance, I couldn’t help but get one more slice of Jersey life before heading back to Maryland. The train station bar is like a cousin of the airport or hotel bar. A bunch of people, heading in a bunch of different directions, all gathered for a brief respite from their travels, enjoying their beverage of choice.
I only had time for a Jameson neat, and then paid the lady as the Packers were busy putting up a 50 spot on the visiting Eagles on the corner TV. I climbed the stairs back to track 5 just as my train was arriving. As I mentioned, the Acela train was now my mode of transportation after a modest $40 upgrade, or so I thought.
Before I dozed off as we chugged south, I did catch a few glimpses of the pristine Acela car. It’s definitely nice, but not worth the rates I’ve seen compared to the coach trains. I also made the mistake of sitting in a quiet car, where the well heeled sit in silence and read The New Yorker. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many copies of The New Yorker in one concentrated area in my life.
After I caught a glimpse of how the other half lives, it was lights out for this guy. That is until that rude awakening I got.
“Sir, we have a problem. You’re on the wrong train.”
Um, crap. As I gathered myself I helplessly looked out the window into the vast, black emptiness of the night time 95 corridor. At least I hoped it was the part of the 95 corridor I needed to be whizzing past.
“Where are we? Where’s this train going?” I asked the inspector, slowly realizing if I’m on the Acela then I’m at least on the main line. The only issue now would be if I were Boston bound. That wouldn’t be good.
“Trenton. You’re going to have to get off in Philly. This isn’t your train.”
Oh. Well what’s the difference I thought. The difference was I was on a sold out train (sorry whose ever seat I had) and would have to plunk down another $200 (!) upgrade to stay aboard. The inspector, running short on patience, as I put my bogus ticket back into the pocket of the gold, satin 49ers jacket (yep, still wearing) helpfully informed me that my train is actually behind us, about 10 minutes or so. Well then, no biggie.
I got off at Philly, ran up to the big board in the station just to confirm the track number for my ride home and came to find it’s delayed an hour. I was crestfallen. After chatting with an Amtrak employee in the main lobby about his love life (don’t ask), I found another train station bar at the 30th street station. As the Eagles game mercifully ended with the Packers winning in a romp, a few long, Philly faces departed to find their trains to take them someplace else. This bar was actually quite impressive, not surprising for a city full of great bars. I had a Yuengling and then decided to end this impromptu, northeast train station bar crawl before I ended up on another wrong train.
Finally, after a brief wait on the breezy and lonely platform, I got on my train. Homeward bound, I now was.
In a little under 36 hours, I’d been to The Meadowlands and back with a lot of good food and laughs in between. On top of it all, I got to witness another win on the east coast for my beloved Niners. The game wasn’t pretty, and San Francisco probably didn’t deserve to win but somehow pulled it out.
Not unlike my train ride home.