Down the Rabbit Hole: A Night at Line Culture

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Rainy Friday March 4th, the tents and canopies are already turning on 18th Ave.

The wait was almost over. After two months of inactivity since that amazing night at Columbus when the Portland Timbers were crowned 2015 MLS Cup Champions, Portland was ready to have their Timbers back.

The season opened at Providence Park on March 6th, and the anxiety was felt everywhere around the stadium. From restaurant owners preparing for the increased patronage, the club working the last details for opening day, the city putting logistics in place, and the fans…well, the fans are the really special part of the story. MLS was upon us, as was the familiar line of tents  in front of gate 3, the one reserved for the Timbers Army.

This gathering is referred to as Line Culture. It started in 2011, the year the Timbers entered Major League Soccer, and has become a normal occurrence ahead of big games. It’s popularity has grown in the last years. Portland isn’t home to world renowned players of the likes of Villa, Kaka, or Steven Gerrard, but the European-style level of passion it enjoys is one of the club’s main attractions. The club’s popularity has the league just as puzzled as eager to find ways to reproduce it, especially when it comes to the Timbers Army.

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The morning of match day

Success has translated into increased demand for seats, “Sold Out” signs, and record waiting lists for tickets. There is an added desire to get in those first rows on the North End, the Timbers Army stands. Bending to that demand, the club created a system of wristbands, given in a first-come, first-serve basis a few hours ahead of gates opening on match day. This system was designed for those who already have their tickets, whose attendance is already guaranteed, but still want a first chance at sitting in the first rows of sections 101-108 and 201-208, right in front of the capos.

A thousand of those wristbands are given out and they are highly sought after, enough so that fans spend the one or several nights camping for their spot in line to get their hands on one. Images that the US public is used to seeing for Star Wars openings, big concerts or the new iPhone have become a normal thing at Providence Park ahead of the biggest matches of the season. It is a remarkably unique event and a testament of the intensity of the fans.

Line Culture is becoming a growing tradition among some of the most fanatic men and women of the Timbers Army. The night of March 5, they would stage their biggest numbers yet. An ESPN camera crew’s activity around the stadium had ignited rumors, and the first tents rose at Gate 3  Thursday afternoon, three days before kickoff. By Friday, the line reached SW 18th street, and by late Saturday it wrapped around 18th, past Gate 1, to SW Salmon.

The rain makes the camping event a bit more challenging.

The rain makes the camping event a bit more challenging.

I didn’t really know what to expect of the night, and was even less sure what would I be writing about. I dropped my heavier gear at Gilda’s Restaurant, ProstAmerika’s headquarters for the opener, taking to camp only the basics.

My hosts, Megan Smith, Chantanelle Dahl, Megan Willmarth, Fernando De Jesus Lopez, among others had so kindly opened their Line Culture home to me. They had been there since Thursday, at times taking turns to tend to their life routines.

I had been talking to my hosts and soon-to-be neighbors daily since Thursday, ahead of my Line Culture experiment. The weather was very much in my mind, the previous nights it hasn’t been much of a friend of the campers, and it didn’t seem it would improve much. I arrived in the early evening of Saturday with a notebook, my Nikon and a back pack with my immediate necessities, a change of clothes and my sleeping bag.

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Lyle Cushman got to see Pelé in his first season as a Timbers fan in 1976

I walked into the tent and the term “home” couldn’t have been more fitting: cots for beds, a space heater, camping chairs, all over a thick carpet that shielded us from the wet, cold concrete. It had an L-shaped canopy, ample and comfortable, with a tall ceiling. This canopy was specially acquired for Line Culture some time back.

 

Water accumulations became a bit of a challenge, a problem since this house has no real gutters, and some minimal leaks occurred. With a bit of ingenuity it was dealt quite efficiently. The welcome atmosphere couldn’t have been better, I found a corner to lay my back pack and started the journey.

There were a great variety of type of tents, with many degrees of sophistication, besides the “mansion” where I was staying, full tents of all sizes, some are open walled, some as small as to just give enough cover from the rain, some just had their camping cots in the open, and there was the one that had full working video game system playing a very popular soccer video game.

Afternoon gave away to the evening, the sunlight faded, and many campers were lured by the festivities in bars and restaurants around the neighborhood. Line Culture has their go to places, but that night there were a few special events on account of this being the season opener, mainly the official Timbers Army party downtown.

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Jason Arnold Burke his white Timbers kit properly shielded from the falling rain.

I must admit I was a little hesitant to leave camp. “Don’t worry, we all know who is supposed to be here and who is not,” Megan Smith assured me. My first impression was that Line Culture was quite organized and the tents were watched as there was always people at camp. There is a core that group have been attending line for some time, they know each other quite well, even as they have assimilated new members through the years, there is great camaraderie, self-policing, and the camp is mostly safe. There has been a few instances of some theft, in most cases shoes taken some times from tents in a distraction. This is all about having a good time I am told. So I went with it.

I decided to stay close to camp, and attended a Columbus Crew party at the local Irish Pub. They were visiting with the line culture folks, taking selfies with and without Timber fans in front of the stadium. Stories about how friendly Columbus fans were the day of the final on December were still echoing, so it was time to reciprocate. Between rounds, toasts, and photo ops, both groups of fans seemed to enjoy each other’s company. They were one of the largest contingents to cross coast to coast for an away game, I was told by Columbus Crew fan Kristina Balevska, about a 100 of them; at the pub I counted about 20.

Later back in the campground, I took to converse around camp, as the early waves of campers started slowly dribbling back in from rowdy bars. The camp on the other hand is animated but not unreasonable noisy. There are various groups of people making time by having a good time, while sharing snacks and beverages. My hosts introduced me to a good number of friends, fellow campers, and I had the chance to listen to their stories and to observe the group dynamics, and to be a bit a part of it.

Lyle Cushman, an older gentleman, told me about his first season attending the Portland Timbers, it was the year 1976, when the mythic Pele did one of his last official professional appearances with the star-filled New York Cosmos. A lot later, in 2011, Lyle was among the first in line culture. He referred to those early days as “it was a chore at the beginning, but now I really look forward to it.”

Rick Johnston told me, “I only have camped at Providence Park and that one time at a Sohomish soccer tournament in July”, he has been attending Line Culture since 2012. Jason Arnold Burke, spoke in fluent Spanish, telling me about his trips to Argentina, and also about camping in Line Culture with freezing temperatures. Jason is well geared, and proud of how well he sleeps, at least up till the trucks start moving about the street, and they start setting the fences around the stadium.

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Laughs stories, and you don’t need to zoom in that picture, it is root beer, the “Best Damn Root Beer.”

“We all meet here,” tells me Wendy Perrier. She said most of this group have been attending the camp outs since pretty much the beginning, and the evenings become a favorite social event, a chance to hang out with good friends. They sure love the wristbands and to be able to stand in first rows, but urban camping for it is a big piece of the experience. That is how they like it. Passion for the colors, the outdoors, and the desire for each other company all comes together.

I was running also into friends and acquaintances in other groups, talking candidly about their Line Culture experiences. Almost by Gate 1, a man who started attending Line Culture last season, nodded and sarcastically claimed not without pride, “really, this is crazy.” I heard accounts of how Line Culture has been met over time not just with acceptance and even support, non-official support, some time players have dropped by to say hello. They have met with great surprise, but also with some level of perplexity, and even rejection. Complaints in the past have been minor, mostly from the resulting litter, accusations of various levels of transgressions, and few counted noise complaints by the neighbors.

It has been been used in the past to accuse the city of double standards, as homeless camps met law enforcement orders to vacate, while soccer fans were left to their own devices, even while a few other local ordinances might have been tampered as well. “It is all legal now,” I heard in reference to Mayor Charlie Hales change of camping city rules.

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Megan Smith and Rodger Klingsporn heading to an evening event.

Chantannell Dahl and Fernando De Jesus Lopez told me one time the police came after a complaint call from a nearby apartment complex, not really understanding what was going on, they didn’t even know this had been going on for a few years already.  “What are you waiting for… really… soccer?” They talked for a while and the officers ended up giving Fernando junior crime fighter stickers. Also a camera crew came last play off season at 5 a.m. and asked the fans to chant for the camera, a neighbor didn’t take the early morning cheer too well and egged the tents, getting their canopy. “I was not there that morning. I just got to clean up the eggs off my canopy,” said Dahl. 

The conversation was getting very fluid, everybody was chipping in with a story or two, it was getting hard to track who was with who when such and such happened. The memories and the stories poured over shared laughs, and refreshments, as it often flows among close friends. There was great humor and enthusiasm, and yet it wasn’t too rowdy, someone laughed, or spoke a bit loud, but it is not a general tone. Quite to the contrary is pretty measured, also we were barely past 10 p.m.

The makeup of the campers is also very diverse, from those who bought the their tents just for Line Culture, diehard outdoors, Burning Man veterans, straight, LGBT, small business owners, retired, engineers, teachers, graphic designers, bartenders. Not all of them are camping, some are just supporting friends in the line, with some of them taking turns on camp to go to work, or go home rest, shower.

Marco Roberti, owner of Gilda's, goes about the tents with complimentary sandwiches to the campers

Marco Roberti, owner of Gilda’s, goes about the tents with complimentary sandwiches to the campers.

Timber Jim and Marco Marco going around the tents

Timber Jim and Marco Marco going around the tents

As diverse as this platform is, they all have this huge thing in common: the love for the green and gold. They wore their swag with pride, told their away stories, their Line Culture anecdotes, and some lucky ones about their trip to the 2015 final. Either by really knowing each other or united by their affections for the team, they appeared to all have a strong bond. They are a very self-aware group inside the Timbers Army, with their own rites, unique experiences, rules and education, ironically that is almost word by word the very definition of the word culture.

At 11 p.m., many in camp were still out and about and our amazing sponsor Marco Roberti, Gilda’s Italian Restaurant, came through with over a hundred Sloppy Giuseppe sandwiches to boost morale at camp. Morale was not an issue, but a tasty dinner is always a reason to smile. Helped by ProstAmerika editor Steve Clare, and writer Niall McCusker, all coming back from a promotion event of our book “Cup Bound and Crowned” and with Timber Jim, author of the book’s preface, they distributed the supplies. Jim took over the camp, as for me, I was lucky to get a hold of one last sandwiches and totally hit the spot.

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Line Culture spills to local businesses. Gabriel Ughetto playing pool in a nearby bar.

Later that night, winding down at another popular local bar, Gabriel Ughetto, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, cared to share some of his story with me, it was way past most people’s bed time. Gabriel has been attending line culture since almost its beginning back in 2011 when they were just a couple of tents. “We all know each other here,” he said. “We love coming out, we have a great time.” He views it as chance to go out with friends, and celebrate their common appreciations for the club. He explained that coping with a restless night in town, fatigue and even the occasional hangover till the end of the match the next day is all part of it. “Line Culture is a way of living the Timbers passion, a way of showing the love for the colors,” Gabriel continuesd. Gabriel and I share our Argentine background. The conversation couldn’t avoid drawing comparisons, “you really can’t do this things back home”, “no way!” Gabriel said. “It is a whole different thing over there,” I agreed. Then we deviated to talk about things back in the old country.

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3:00 a.m. and the camp is mostly asleep.

And the truth is that  what I had been witnessing is an occurrence unique to the Timbers Army, this is a night to make memories, and a big part of of the distinctive culture that’s built up around the club. I could see that  nights at the camp are nights of bonding, where true friendships have been built over the years around campers’ love for the Portland Timbers, yet another genuine Portland anomaly. We closed our tabs, caught in conversation, I had made it past closing time.

I got back to camp as the last waves of campers took to their tents, their sleeping bags, cots, mats, and camping chairs. The weather had been light rain on an off up to this point, but the feared wind made an appearance. The wind is the worst, as tents are harder to be secured to the concrete, a couple of them need to be physically held to stop them from flying and crashing on the neighbors.

There were about 200 people spending the night, gradually falling to a slumber, camp became very quiet, unintelligible sound of voices could be heard from small groups still keeping it going in the morning, however they were easily drowned every time by the less and less frequent passing of cars. Feeling the weight of the long day and ahead of a busy Sunday, it was time for me to head back to the tent, and attempt to catch some sleep.

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Camp awakes just after sunrise, starts packing the tents and forming the line

Back at the tent, my backpack had caught rain, my change of clothes and even the sleeping bag were soaked. As for an act of Line Culture miracle, my hosts produced an extra sleeping bag, previously they had lent me a cot were I was to sleep. Did I mention sharing is a major thing in line culture? Everybody does, spending a night urban camping can be tricky, and the camaraderie is the biggest highlight. I got inside the dry sleeping bag, lied down surprisingly comfortable falling quickly asleep.

I was awakened by murmur of the early movement of the camp. Line Culture was breaking camp and slowly the wristband line was starting to form. It was 6:30 a.m., I have gotten about three hours of sleep, and the wristbands would be awarded in an hour. A big challenge during the wee hours of the night is the bathroom, you are reminded to use that last call not just for your last beer, this is your last chance as nothing would be open for hours. A coffee shop nearby is the first one to open in the neighborhood, the line can get almost to the street.

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Coffee on hand the campers line up in Gate 3 for the delivery of the wristbands.

At 7:20 a.m., everybody was up. Everybody knew the routine as it has been repeated many times: the line forms as the camp is packed, the group of the early risers start join. By the time the volunteers appeared with to dole out wristbands, there were well over a 1,000 people waiting. The whole process didn’t take long, the wristbands ran out quickly and those who held the vigil in Line Culture get their reward.

It was 7:50 a.m. on the watch, and the camp was almost gone. A record attendance evening, took three days to gather the full camp ground, gone in an hour. Line Culture makes a point of cleaning after themselves, and the more veterans urge newer campers to clean up. They put things in the big trash cans available, leaving bottles and cans out, often picked up by the needy, the homeless, but success comes with a price. The garbage cans were left over-flowing, but cleaning crews from the stadium take care of the garbage cans frequently. By the time when I was back later, there was not a trace of the night before, but a huge crowd amassing in front of the closed gates stirring with anticipation.

Doors would open in less three hours, the match was to start in over five. From here, some will look for places to have breakfast while some others would take a quick trip home. The wristband is only warrantied to those who show up at least two and a half hours before kick-off. Gate 3 usually opens 30 minutes before all other gates.

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It has been up to 3 nights in camp for some, the prized wristband is finally theirs.

I was lucky a good friend lives nearby, in just a short walk to his place where I was able to steal a couple extra hours of sleep and a hot shower. At 10:45 a.m., it was time to head to the stadium, did I mention I was also to do regular photographic coverage of the opener? I am not moving as fast as usual and I had to slip into same night clothes. Noon came with a quick brunch and a cup of coffee at the press box.

The lethargy of the waiting time passed in conversation with colleagues, and taking my time getting gear ready. When you are tired, the wait is the worst. My head was weary for the lack of sleep. I worried a little with fatigue, and a slight headache as we were waiting for events to get started.

Behind the north goal, I saw the familiar faces of the night before at the line, on the first rows of the North End, proud wristband holders, singing and chanting, the scene was set. The weather changed close to game time to patches of sun, and all that light on tired eyes, turned last night confusing, a bit surreal. Reminded me of that old tale, I went down the rabbit hole of Line Culture, and at the other end I was back at Providence Park on match day. Photographer Mark Murray laughed when he saw my face grim a bit when the big drum of the capos started roaring. Drums mean players are out for warm up.

Close to kick off, the energy started filling my lungs, fatigue faded, it was “go time.” Wait was over, the ball had yet to roll on the pitch but for us the season was already well underway. Rest would come after the game, after all, when you do line culture, copping with the previous night and then being tirelessly energetic during the match are part of the deal.

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11:00 AM on match day, doors are close to been opened. The 2016 season is finally here.

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