All photos by the author.

Car culture can be amazing. A bunch of people gather on a random day in an empty parking lot and talk about their hobby, practice their photography on exotics they’d never have access to otherwise, and get a chance at meeting their heroes. One meet I attended wasn’t quite what I expected, but that may have more to do with me than with it.

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On a recent Sunday afternoon I went to my college’s car meet, located in a parking deck on the corner of campus. A parking deck is a fun environment for a car meet because of the great acoustics, and also the space.

Every group of enthusiast, be it by brand, model, or some sort of a “theme,” has a corner to gather in. Dank slammed Miatas on deck five; scores of Subarus lined up against the wall just under the top deck; all while the cream of the crop collects the last of the day’s sunlight at the top for all to look up to.

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I like this system because it’s an added layer of organization and culture that is often mismanaged at a Cars And Coffee or similar events. At this meet, people ride together and arrive together. They all park together, get out and talk about the rides together, and then they walk the deck together. The personalization of each ride is easier to spot, easier to appreciate at the very least, and easier to envy and admire at the most.

The majority of people in this parking structure are college-aged guys who operate in packs. Some make cracks with their buddies at the expense of the new cars filing in, while others stick to congregating around their cars. It all gets very tribal very quickly. But this comes with the environment and isn’t too unexpected. (However, if you somehow still subscribe to the myth that young people don’t care about cars, you need to come here.)

There’s a constant flow as cars lap the top two or three decks trying to work their way to a spot. If you’ve never been to a college meet, picture the early Fast & Furious movies, except nothing exciting happens.

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As an outsider looking in, this set up that brings out the flaws. If you don’t have a group to go with and instead try to wing it alone, you’re going to be disappointed. These meets are as much a social courtroom as was the high school prom or the first day of class. If you’re in, it’s great; if you’re out, you’re left alone. Instead of one guy in a lawn chair hoping for someone to ask him about his car’s “legacy” and assortment of awards, you get clusters of people with inside jokes making plans for the after-meet meet.

College meets are for gathering with your existing friends, whereas Saturday morning coffee events are for meeting people, building connections, and discovering an aspect of your hobby you may not have known before. I’ve got a roommate, but he bails on the weekend and I haven’t found any other friends car-crazy enough to tag along.

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Having just moved to my area I’m used to going to these events as an outsider. But my first time at a college meet didn’t do much for me. The photos are more difficult to shoot, the crowds are more compact and much, much louder, and the atmosphere of angst and chauvinism from some can be suffocating.

But my biggest personal issue wasn’t with them—it was with me. Not belonging. I parked away from the deck and walked in early, which is horrible if you aren’t a fan of small amounts of people in large amounts of enclosed space. I’m fairly certain someone inquired where my car while shouting from the top deck.

I’m not ashamed of my plebeian Ford Focus hatchback. I just didn’t expect it to belong. I’ve come to recognize that not all see it as the Aston Martin I view it as. It’s a college kid’s car in the sense that it transports me, some friends, and some stuff. It gets good mileage and isn’t going to accelerate my chances of fiery death or leave me stranded. I’ll buy something faster and better someday.

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But I have to face the honest truth that I’m not proud of it, either, and I agree with the imaginary collective mindset of the college meet group that my car wouldn’t have a space reserved in their parking deck. At least, not until I put a Jalopnik sticker on it.

But I wasn’t there to show off, or try to convince anyone I should be there. It was an open door into a community I’m learning about, and an opportunity to expose myself to people and experience something familiar but new.

People here spend an hour moving their car until it fits into the most familiar lineup. They get out in their chino shorts, tall black socks, and fashion-forward hairstyles and make vape clouds with their friends. It’s astonishing how much they are proud of being so similar to one another, and so different from the other groups.

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It’s much harder to approach a group and next to impossible to single anyone out. By the time you catch up to the other kid taking photos of everything, his fellow Volvo wagon friends have pulled up. The only question you’re asked is if the car you’re photographing is yours, and the awkward no is a conversation killer.

It wasn’t a bad experience. And I don’t believe the troubles I had with it was unique to my college’s meet. They have a great social media community that I love checking in to, and at the end of the day we were all there to share and open ourselves to others. In college, this is damn hard to find.

I’m not bothered by being an outsider. It’s interesting to see these people interact and embrace each other. Luckily everyone is ultimately friendly. The guy with the air suspension wants to make you smile. The BRZ owner with the unbelievable stance angle wants to tell you how he did it. The lifted truck bros thrill at your look of confusion and disdain.

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If you go for photography practice like I like to, the crowds present a challenge, but you’ll find that you’re capturing more of the event and the society, and less the objectification of cars.

I think, in time, I’ll start to meet people and figure this out. After all, it’s exactly as advertised. It’s also nice to have a camera to hide behind. In the meantime, this is a social event and less of a networking event vibe I get from something like a Cars And Coffee.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, and I’m positive some of you have had far worse experiences. My event was crash free (not enough Mustangs, perhaps) and, while judgmental at times, mostly free of outright hate. It was on par with what to expect from a crowd of students. The cars were all unique and interesting, and it’s entertaining if you let it be.

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I plan on going back, because a lot of cool cars and good people showed up. I don’t have a solution to being isolated from a gathering I’ve never made an attempt to join.

The only answer is to expose yourself and try to have as good of a time as everyone else, because at the end of the day that’s all this sort of thing should be about.