or three weeks,

my friend Dick has been talking about chili dogs. "You gotta come to my Super Bowl Party," says Dick. "We have great people, a lucky ball, and then everyone eats these great chili dogs." Although my daily diet would make even a pig reach for the Rolaids, I consider a chili dog extreme. Still, my Pavlovian reflex is working just fine. For weeks, I salivated over the image of a special, foot-long dog from Elgin, simmered in exotic chili meat, maybe fresh deer or something, a tangy sauce recipe, passed down from Super Bowl to Super Bowl, and home-pickled relish, all placed on a soft, steamed sesame roll. I was there, baby.

Besides Dick and his girlfriend Susan, I know nobody at this gathering. No matter; soon, we're old friends. Janis and Mike share a lovely home in an incongruently pleasant, almost toney, section of South Austin. Slowly, the room fills. Janis is aggressively but good naturedly disinterested in sports. Her husband Mike, anti-Cowboy I'm pleased to note, occupies the lucky, center chair. A loud cry for that "big hunk Deion" heralds the arrival of Sara, a well-known singer-person. Right before kick-off, another Mike, and his wife Megan, arrive with the "lucky ball." Men understand this lucky ball (shirt, hat, dog) thing at some primal, single-cell, guy level. Even the most enlightened women don't get it. The lucky ball was surreptitiously removed from Cowboy training camp some years back. It's been at each Dallas victory for the past three years. It's presence is absolutely essential. It is lovingly cradled and caressed by all male Cowboy fans present.

Before I touch the lucky ball, the Boys are up 10-0. Sara sits by to me on the couch and regales us with outrageous, unsubstantiated gossip about Troy Aikman's, (Sara ambiguously calls him "biscuit lips") surprising sexual preferences. Her wild allegations are discussed at length and accorded more credence than might otherwise be the case, because Sara's a musician and musicians know about that kind of thing.

The score's now 13-0; I'm wondering about the chili dogs. Whining Dallas fans churlishly gripe about "bad calls." Someone -- me perhaps -- sneers, "Two bad calls every 20years is not so bad." My man Mike nods agreeably. The other sportsfans stare in stony silence. Sara's talents allow her to sing, in key, most of the commercials. She tosses in some additional malicious gossip, now pillorying Diana Ross. Still, I'm thinking chili dog. Thus, I'm encouraged, at the 5:52 mark of the second quarter, to observe Mike stroll, with a spatula and tongs in his back pocket, out to the patio. No wonder I don't smell the pups! It's all in a big cooking pot outside. Hot damn!

The game sucks. I can contain it no longer. "I've been thinking of these dogs," I announce, "for three weeks."

"The fuck you talking about? They're just chili dogs," says Dick.

"Yeah but," I say, a tad of doubt slipping in, "but they're special, aren't they?"

"Well," allows Mike, passing through the room, "I guess so. I mean we got some Ballpark Franks from HEB, some packages of Mrs. Baird's Special enriched hot dog buns. Damn special, if you ask me."

"But the chili, Dick made it," I'm trying to sound upbeat and not ungrateful, "...didn't he?"

"Why, it's Hormel's finest," says Mike. "No beans, either."

Showplace Lanes: In

spite of my bad manners, I'm accorded special status in the food line because of a second-half commitment at a bowling alley. I can't imagine a more appropriate place for a gathering of the Steelers Fan Club. Following blindly up a dingy staircase behind several inebriated fans, I enter another world. Momentarily stunned, as my eyes adjust to the murky gloom, my other senses take over -- stale beer, the acrid smoke, joyous shouts of "Fuck you, Troy!" and "Blow me, Jerry!" Yes, even before my pupils come back into focus, revealing a small room with a giant television in the front, a smaller one high on the wall to its right, Steelers banners flanking each set, the room packed with at least 150 drunken, enthusiastic Steelers fans, each one wearing a black-and-gold jersey, yes, in the seconds before any of this is clear, I know, with an uncommon clarity, I'm in a good place.

As Pittsburgh quarterback Neil O'Donnell throws the first of his two inexplicable, disastrous interceptions, a Tim O'Kelly from Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania lurches in front of the giant screen. O'Kelly allows, over the din, that though he's had eleven beers or so, he simply won't tolerate any damn quitters in the room. "I wanna hear some goddam noise in here!" The assemblage responds with great gusto. Toasts are offered, backs are slapped, beer sloshed here and there.

Pushed to the back wall of the room, I find myself by Pat Cummings, president of the Steelers Fan Club. "Every Monday, Thursday, or Sunday, whenever the Steelers are on, we're here. They gave us this separate room up here, ya know," Cummings yells over the din, "to avoid, uh... confrontations with those assholes downstairs."

It's a blue-collar, mostly male crowd, median age 28. The average hair length is, maybe, three inches. Everybody looks like a blood relative of the Steelers reserve quarterback, Mike Tomczak. There are no liberals or hippies, past or present, in this room. I don't believe anyone in this chamber had ever heard of The Austin Chronicle.

When Pittsburgh, impossibly overcoming another egregious O'Donnell gaff, cuts the score to 20-17, total bedlam envelopes the mob. It's not possible to overstate the level of drunkenness in the room. Tottering precariously on a cheap chair, hysterically waving a terrible towel, I hear a normally decorous civilian shriek, "Eat shit, biscuit lips!" Tim O'Kelly, now well into his 13th brew, gives the non-combatant a powerful high five. To the misfortune of the erstwhile journalist, we miss hands. O'Kelly's hand smacks me square on the nose, knocking me from my perch. Somebody pounds my hand, spraining my wrist, as O'Donnell throws another pathetic interception. Clearly, the correspondent for The Austin Chronicle, a bit caught up in the flow, as it were, has lost all sense of journalistic protocol. Reporters from channel 36 gaze on in horror.

The flotsam in the aftermath of this bacchanal is impressive. Bottles of Bud -- clearly the Steelers fans' beer of choice, litter every table, nook, and cranny. Spilled ashtrays, balled-up napkins, food checks, half-empty Cheetos bags, beer nuts, Coke cans, and smunched paper cups of hot sauce and chips litter the filthy rug.

It's sad watching my new friends, now broken-hearted, say goodbye. Tearful hugs, handshakes, and backslaps are exchanged. The Steelers are the common bond. Most won't see each other again until next season. With a heavy heart, I trudge down the steps into the foggy night. This is clearly a bad night for Western Civilization. Above me, I hear Cummings bravely shout, "Let's go, Penguins! Let's go!" n

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