I envy the life of Joe Cahn, to some extent. Anyone who spends their days traveling between college football games and cooking up a gourmet tailgate has a blessed experience in my book.
The Hon. Mr. Tailgate, Gathering No Moss
Joyce Wadler, N.Y. Times (Sep. 21, 2006)
IT is a tragedy of modern life that self-awarded titles rarely bring the proper respect. This is perhaps why, on a search for Commissioner of Tailgating Joe Cahn in the drowsy early morn, as the fog is just lifting from the Hudson, I encounter a peevish tone in a neighbor at an R.V. campsite at the United States Military Academy: there are other people here besides the commissioner of tailgating, he says. Were there dictionaries of tone, his could be defined more precisely: delusional, self-promoting.
No matter. The commissioner, who for 10 years has made a career of traveling to football games, and whose work schedule, within little more than a week, will take him to Giants Stadium, a Redskins game in Maryland, and Florida International University and Dolphins games in Miami, is a happy man. He has parked his 40-foot Country Coach home — the only home he has these days — six feet from the Hudson in a game-day campsite for recreational vehicles. The circular bed of his winsome traveling companion, Sophie, is on the dashboard, so that she might also enjoy the view, although how important this is to a cat is hard to say.
The cost of his night’s stay in one of the loveliest spots on the Hudson: nothing. Now, at 7 (0700 hours, that is), the commissioner is preparing to do what he loves best: hang out in the tailgate zone, where someone always has coffee on, and it’s always — an occasional grouch excepted — hello, neighbor.
The commissioner, who is 58 and so garrulous he could make the old Borscht Belt social directors look introverted, loves tailgating. He has a whole spiel about it, which he will recite whether you ask or not. Even now, the shad seem to be swimming frantically in the Hudson to get away from it: tailgating provides the largest communal backyard in America, the modern substitute for the stoop. Nobody is sitting alone at home here, surfing the Web — everyone’s talking.
On this day, a beautiful Saturday when Army will be playing Kent State, the tailgating will begin with a group of West Point social sciences instructors whose hospitality he has enjoyed in the past. The commissioner, whose name and title, like those of a bureaucrat of rank, are on his door, has put out coffee, juice and a fruit salad and is now preparing breakfast burritos.
And when the officers, including Capt. Eric Bjorklund, Maj. Jon Byrom and Lt. Col. Dan Evans, get the house tour, they will be dazzled: the 42-inch high-definition Panasonic! The floor space, when the R.V. is expanded to its 12-foot width — more than some officers have! The closet holding the jerseys of every team in the N.F.L., plus T-shirts from the top-ranked college teams!
“What a wardrobe!” one of the officers says. “That’s like the dream guy selection!”
It may also be the dream guy life, for not only does the commissioner travel to any game he desires, he has thrown off the shackles of work by selling the cooking school he owned for nine years in New Orleans. Home on the road would, of course, seem to be an expensive life. His latest R.V. cost $225,000 used; expenses run about $30,000 a year.
How much did he get when he sold the cooking school? “Less than $10 million — way less,” he says. “Mid-six-figures.”
That was in 1989. How has he supported himself since?
“I do windshields on the corner,” the commish says, deadpan. “I beg a lot. Sometimes I find corporate sponsors. This year Stanley thermoses is one of my corporate sponsors. It’s a 1913 company. They have a green thermos. It’s an interesting thing what’s happening with tailgating: you’ve got brand-new products, then turn-of-the-century products like coffee thermoses to position, but it’s not only for coffee. It’s chili or soup or apple cider with ginger —— ”
Stop! No advertising in this space, pal! What does this outfit pay you?
“A little less than $5 million.”
We get it: a lot less.
“I also have the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. There’s also the Joe Cahn foundation. He’s a very generous guy.”
How often does he go to football games?
“What games?” the commissioner asks. “I didn’t realize until five years ago there was a game. I thought everybody got up to go to the bathroom.”
What is it that makes a man forsake the pleasures of annual evaluations from the boss, property taxes and lawn work? For Commissioner Cahn, it is that old American dream of freedom and a television show of one’s own, an on-the-road life sort like that of his hero, Charles Kuralt, but with cooking.
And the commissioner, who grew up in New Orleans, has always been a creative thinker. When his high school band instructor punished him and a few pals by requiring them to write a 3,000-word essay on a musical theme, he brought in three pictures because — you see it coming? — a picture is worth a thousand words. By his late 20’s, he had had 35 jobs, not counting horse and buggy driver. His parents have been counting.
In 1980, he opened the New Orleans School of Cooking and the Louisiana General Store in a shopping center, where students learned to cook four Louisiana dishes in three hours, sat down for a meal, then went out to the shop and bought stuff. There was a marriage to Karen Humphries, a nurse, that lasted 11 years. A year after their divorce, in 1996, Mr. Cahn hit the highway, visiting each of the 29 N.F.L. stadiums his first year.
He started as a football fan, but soon the games were supplanted by the happy sociability of tailgating and R.V. life. He tailgated at Nascar races and Jimmy Buffett concerts. Within a year he had sponsors, eventually pulling in Coca-Cola for a year. He got the latest R.V.’s on loan from Monaco Coach, even had a visit from Charles Kuralt.
The commissioner spends most of his driving time listening to audio books. Even now, to hear Mr. Kuralt describing his visit with him in “Charles Kuralt’s America” — that’s pretty special. There has been talk of the commissioner’s doing his own book, and nibbles from producers about a television show, but it remains just talk. Home? That would be wherever the R.V.’s are.
Doesn’t it ever get lonely, he is asked after the morning’s tailgaters have departed.
“Alone is a gift from God,” the commissioner says. “Only it’s darn lonely.”
He talks of what went wrong in his marriage. “We were married to the business,” he says. “The fault probably lies with me. But when we divorced, we remained friends.
“Three years ago she called me and said she found somebody, and she asked me to walk her down the aisle. It lasted two years. I’ve always waited, because I knew we were going to get back together. I’m a Disney character: I believe in happily ever after. I was the Eighth Dwarf: Hungry.”
He wanted to get back with her, but walked her down the aisle. Did that hurt?
Certainly, the commissioner says. But if you cut out ego and accept that you can control only what you can control, it helps. “I’ve learned a lot from audio books as I travel,” he says.
His instincts proved right: the commissioner and his ex plan to remarry in a year. He will cut back his tailgating to four months a year, and his bride will join him for the occasional weekend.
It is now 1200 hours. The West Pointers who have tailgated with the commissioner have invited him to join them and their families for jambalaya on a hill overlooking the stadium. “Tactical tailgating,” an officer called it at breakfast. “The high ground has been secured.” Maj. Spencer Clouatre, an economics instructor from St. Amant, La., who met the commissioner at a game in 2005, has been cooking for hours.
The commissioner finds the tote bag printed with his name and title and a few lines in tribute to his spiritual hero, Mister Rogers, which so beautifully capture the essence of tailgating: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day in the neighborhood, do you want to be my neighbor?” He fills the bag with what he refers to as his “edible calling card,” jars of spices with his picture on them created for him by Paul Prudhomme, a New Orleans buddy.
Then he heads to the small lake in front of the stadium, where he introduces himself by name and title to other tailgaters. No one has heard of him, but he hands out calling cards anyway. Then, breathing heavily, he makes his way up the hill to find Major Clouatre and the Tactical Tailgating Corps.
When they spot him, they call and wave. There’s no mistaking their tone: “Joe ... Commish ... whatever you want to call yourself, come on up and join the party.”