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Crime & Punishment

Confessions of a Wrigley Field Scalper



Midmorning the sky is a deep and cloudless blue, straight out of a dream; a new, high-pressure breeze is blowing cool but still short-sleeve September weather from the north. And today, thanks to a little foresight and a lot of luck, we have tickets to the actual Field of Dreams--the bleachers, where the sun shines brightest, and the crowd is better than most of the games. In fact, we have three more tickets than we can use. But the game's long been sold out, and there will be no problem getting out money back, even enough extra to pay the baby-sitter. Bleachers can easily go for $20 or $30--anyone who's been around the park knows that. It's not as if I'll be taking money from the homeless, or unfair advantage of anyone. I'll only be trying in my own small way to improve my lot the slightest bit, by taking to heart and following the principles set out by our last two presidents: I don't expect the government or anyone else to take care of me; I'm doing it myself, by my own ingenuity and enterprise. Pursuing the American Dream.

Forty-five minutes before game time, I head down Waveland Avenue toward Clark Street, where I've bought tickets myself in the past, on both sides of the street. My wife will go with our friends and save me a seat in the bleachers while I sell the tickets. Don't take less than 25, she's told me, and though I might not get that much, with her encouragement I'll try. There are the guys I always see on the Clark Street corner, and a couple more on the other side. I walk up to the first two and ask if they're interested.

Yes, they nod, but they sneer at paying more than ten. Obviously they want to resell them for what I will get. Across the street, the other two are talking to two obvious buyers; when the prospects leave I slip over and offer my tickets. They snort at 25 and walk on. I amble back toward the left-field gate, then past Murphy's, heading for the Addison el stop. With all the fans coming off, I know there's plenty of action there, and I still have a half-hour before the first pitch.

Just past Sheffield, I approach a guy holding up two fingers. He too snorts at 25 a seat. Fifteen minutes and a half-dozen snorts later, I'm thinking that my wife might have been a bit optimistic. Supply and demand is teaching its basic economic lesson here, and woe to him who cannot hear. I may be a slow learner, but I'm not stupid.

I lower the price to 20.

I'm right outside the el station door now. Three guys come over. The one who talks is skinny, clean-cut, early 20s. They want bleachers bad, and he offers $50 for the three.

I glance at my watch. Twenty minutes till game time. Prime time for sales, I'm guessing. I'll hold out for five more minutes.

"Fifty bucks cash, right now," he repeats. "Take it or leave it."

"Sixty and they're yours," I say.

They turn and walk down the street.

The crowd from this train thins and a uniformed CTA attendant calls to me: "You sellin' tickets?"

"No," I say quickly, "just waiting for a friend."

The next trainload starts coming down, but I move on down the street. After a few more no-sales, I realize that if I want to see the beginning of the game, I'd better get this done. I'll take 15, 40 for all three.

A paunchy guy in a red Cardinals T-shirt walks up with a white-haired woman next to him. He asks how much, then says something in Spanish to the woman. He asks how much tickets are from the box office, and I say I don't know, but they're sold out. Again he translates something to her, and then offers me $25 for two of them. Quickly I say yes.

I suppose I've replayed those last two scenes in my head a hundred times. I replayed them while walking between the two burly cops (why are cops always "burly," if not downright "fat"?) who grabbed my arms and flashed a badge in front of me; and again while staring at the change and keys and wallet and slips of paper I'd empty from my pockets onto a station-house table; and while trying to remember the phone number of a friend who might be home on a beautiful Sunday afternoon and be willing to come to the station with money to bail me out; and while staring at the patch of blue sky glowing through the barred window just below the ceiling, beyond the cell where I sat . . .

If I hadn't been so greedy. If I hadn't stood there so long, had kept moving. If I'd got out of there completely when the CTA guy asked what I was doing. if I'd stayed up by Waveland, or someplace where the crowds were thinner, so I could see who was around, who might be cops. If.

Of course the lesson that jail and the whole legal system are supposed to teach is deterrence: you don't want to be here, so don't do what gets you here. Obey the law. And of course what you do learn isn't obedience; even if you're middle class, and have been raised to respect the law, what you learn is what the textbooks tell you every con learns: hatred of the cops, who seem as evil as any criminal; hatred of the system that got you here; and the conviction that you can beat it, that you're not stupid (the word that keeps coming back into your head--stupid), that you can get away with it next time.

"These guys are hustling every day," I say to the plainclothes cops who are escorting me away from the park. "And once, because I've never done it before, I got some extras I figure can pay for the baby-sitter--"

"Shutcher fuckinmouth and walk."

Two of them, one in front and one behind, walk me the three blocks to the station. All five feet, four inches, and 135 dangerous pounds of me, carefully guarded by two cops who must be at least three times my size. I can understand their care. After all, I've heard Sylvester Stallone isn't more than three or four inches taller than me. And I was thrown in jail once for an illegal left turn when I had an out-of-state license 20 years ago. And I was photographed by the FBI at an illegal demonstration with Rennie Davis outside McGaw Hall in 1970. In fact, as late as last year I knowingly ran a stoplight. They keep a close watch. They know how to handle the dangerous. And at each step of the arrest, the casual degradation whose practice the cops have mastered inspires a kind of pure rage:

As they hand my arrest form to the turnkey who supervises the lockup, he says, "What's a nice Jewish boy like you here--" The venom in the word "Jewish" is obvious.

When I ask about making the phone call we're supposed to be allowed, he says, "You'll get a chance to make yerfuckinphone call. Now give me yer belt and yer shoelaces, or take off yer shoes. We don't wantcha hanging yourself."

And so on.

I keep my mouth shut. I resist the temptation to ask these guys who they think is being hurt by scalpers. I know the stock answer: the poor average fans who can't get tickets, because, they say, scalpers would buy all of them if they could. But the "poor average fan" can only get tickets to weekend and night games well in advance anyway. Isn't it a service, this underground economy? Doesn't it give everyone a chance to actually go to the park on any game day and get in as long as he or she can pay the price? Isn't that what free enterprise is all about? A commodity in short supply forces up the price, and those who have the vision and wherewithal to control the commodity profit, and they go on to put that profit back into the economy as they buy other goods. Right?

And what about the ticket brokers who buy huge blocks of the best seats and resell them at prices far out of the means of the poor "average fan"? Aren't they the ones the cops are really protecting? Along, of course, with the poor Tribune Company.

I keep my mouth shut. Like any con, I know the only way to get even is to go them one better next time. To get away with it.

For the dozen-dozenth time the turnkey, who isn't fat, and in fact looks like he could be a baseball player, hums the opening bars of the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" as he opens the gray steel barred door and points inside.

"Here's your fuckinfriends," he says. And closes the door behind me.

The cells is maybe 8 by 12, the seatless toilet straight ahead of me in the corner, cigarette butts and other debris floating atop the yellow scum. Two dark brown steel benches, about four feet deep and maybe eight feet long, are the only other furniture. Four obviously dangerous criminals silently occupy the benches.

On the bench near the door a man is stretched out prone, just breathing, while another in a red shirt sits straight up, feet dangling over the edge. Across the cell, two more men sit, one in his 20s, with his knees drawn up to his chest, arms crossed loosely over them. In the middle of a gorgeous late summer day, he looks straight from the beach, or a lawn chair. The man on the other end of the bench, in jeans and a T-shirt, seems tall and thin even sitting down.

No one says anything.

I could fit onto one of the benches, but who knows how much room these guys need? This is, after all, the violent center of the big city. Even asking questions can be dangerous.

I slump onto the cement floor between the toilet and the door and look around again, avoiding everybody's eyes. The guy lying on the bench hasn't moved. The others stare blankly into space. The thin guy catches my eye just an instant.

"What you in for?" I risk asking.

"Spec-a-latin." He shakes his head.

It doesn't register right away, then I remember the charge on my arrest form. "Speculating." Ticket scalping.

"You?" he asks.

"Same." I shake my head and grin faintly.

He nods toward the beach boy and returns the smile. "Him too."

The beach boy doesn't move. The guy in the red shirt snickers. "Caught being American," he says. "Trying to make a buck."

"Our tax dollars at work," the beach boy says. "Really protecting the public."

I look up and across the cell. "You guys too?" I ask.

The red shirt shakes his head. "Drinkin'," he says. "Public nuisance, they call it." The nuisance giggles again.

"My old lady--my ex-old lady--was comin' over and we was gonna watch the Bears and have a little lunch, ya know, it was gonna be nice. Then I'm gonna call her about nine, but I figure I'll just run down to the store and get a paper. So who's there but Mike, says he got a little change, let's get a bottle. So we get a bottle of Richard's and look for a place to sit down, and just when I open the bottle here they come round the corner. I didn't get one damn sip. They poured the whole damn thing out right there on the street." He shakes his head and laughs. "Shit."

"Ain't it," the thin guy says. "And they weren't even my tickets. I was drivin' a bus to the game and when I let 'em off, this guy just gives me two tickets extra. So up comes this broad, real pretty, and I'm talkin her up. Two box seats, let her have 'em for 15 apiece." He shakes his head. "Fuckin' fingerprint me an everything. A hundred bucks to get out. How much for you?" he looks around the room.

"Fifty," the nuisance says. The other two of us say the same.

"They fingerprint you?" he asks.

Everyone shakes his head.

"Shit," he says. "What they do that for? If I don't get out of here in time to drive that bus back, so long job. And I just got it. Can't hardly call the boss and say, I can't drive back, I'm in jail." He laughs and shakes his head again.

"How long does it take for the prints to come back?"

"Four to 36 hours," the nuisance says. He hops off his bench and goes over to the john. When he's done, he reaches under his shirt and pulls out a pack of cigarettes, then a lighter, and offers smokes around. They frisked us and took everything we had before they put us in, but obviously this guy's been here before and knows how to smuggle things in.

The turnkey comes back with a guy who looks little more than a teenager, blond and ponytailed, wearing a "St. Louis Sucks" T-shirt. He takes his place on the first bench with the two drinkers.

"This here's the next governor's nephew," the turnkey says.

"No kidding," the bus driver says as the turnkey leaves. "Spec-a-latin'?"

"Shit," the kid says. He looks up and stares a moment, then nods.

"I'm the black sheep. They just love putting me in jail. Think it's a big deal or something. The minute they find out I'm related. Used to be when Daley was mayor, you'd just say who you were and you were out."

The turnkey calls a name and the beach boy hops off the bench.

"Your bail's here," the cop says, opening the door. The prisoner leaves without a word.

A minute later, the turnkey comes back with another man, this one a little heavy-set, wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap. This guy walks straight over to the toilet and fishes out a smoke while he pees. He shows around the cigarette, and the man with the lighter tosses it over. The newcomer takes a deep drag and holds it. The sweet smell of dope filters through the cell.

"Who's smoking marijuana!" the turnkey bellows from the office down the hall.

The bus driver snickers. "Ain't me," he yells back, "must be you."

The guy smoking the joint pinches it out and stuffs it back into his Newport pack, then pulls off his T-shirt and waves it to clear the air.

"You guys partyin' up there," the bus driver yells, "an we're sittin'. What kinda place is this!"

The turnkey comes back down to the cell, but the smoker's got his T-shirt back on.

"Must be that cell there," the bus driver says, pointing to the wall.

The turnkey walks around the corner to the next cell.

"What you talkin' about," someone yells from that cell. "Ain't you guys in enough trouble?"

"Fuckin' assholes," the turnkey says to all of us, and starts back to his office.

"Hey, turnkey," the bus driver says, "how long till my fingerprints come back?"

"Four to 12 hours," he answers. "You late for a party?" He walks on to his office.

"They got you before?" the nuisance asks.

"Made a living sellin' tickets a whole year," the driver says. "That Soldier Field, you can really make it. People pay plenty."

"What do they fine you?" I ask.

"Dismissed," the guy with the joint says, "if you go to court. But it could be a hundred." He looks at the bus driver. "You go to court?"

"Hell, no. I ain't got time for that shit."

The guy with the joint shrugs. "OK," he says.

The turnkey calls two more names and the nuisance goes to the door. His friend rises slowly, shakes his head, and hops off the bench. The turnkey opens the door, and they're gone.

"Your bail's coming," the turnkey says to me. The one friend I did reach had hurt her back and couldn't drive, but apparently she had managed to find someone. I check my watch, which they've let me keep: still time to see half the game anyway, and the one ticket I kept in my pocket for myself they've let me keep in the "personal effects" bag where they put everything else.

When the turnkey calls for me a few minutes later, I stand up quickly and head out the door. None of the other prisoners says a word. I don't even know if they look.

At the front desk, I sign a form and collect my bag of effects. I stop on the stairs just long enough to lace up my shoes, and I'm out into the sunlight.

The first sensation is relief, something like getting out of the doctor's office, or the hospital, to find that you're still alive, even if only temporarily. In two weeks I have a date in court. I don't expect it to be fun, exactly, but it stands to be an inconvenience at worst--expensive, but manageable. "Speculating" is a misdemeanor, and won't land me in Cook County or Joliet, at least by itself.

When I get to the bleachers the game's only half over, the Cubs one run behind. I find my friends, happily sip the beer they buy me, and feel my anger rise at the mass of St. Louis fans cheering a Cardinals hit. But when Guerrero strikes out with a man on base, I find myself screaming in the full rage of vengeance, straight down at those loudmouth Cardinals fans in the row beneath, to sit down, shut up, go home, stuff it up their orifices.

I'm ready for one to turn around and challenge me. I'm ready to kill him.

I know this isn't completely fair. I now there are good cops out there tracking down crack dealers, murderers, rapists, doing a hard, dangerous, and mostly thankless job, for not much money--even if it's more money than I make. I know that every year some of them get killed or badly wounded doing it. I know the legal system far too often fails to protect them or us from violent, hardcore cons who know how to beat it, and haunt our streets every night, like a walking bomb waiting to explode in another innocent face. I know. And I wasn't treated all that badly. Nobody beat me or manhandled me; they let me take as much time as I needed to remember phone numbers, and use my three quarters to finally raise the friend who arranged to get my bail. They let me keep the one ticket I had left in my pocket to see the game.

But I think of the manpower, and tax dollars, assigned to keep the likes of me off the street, not selling tickets to pay my baby-sitter--the plainclothes couple who set up the sting, the two plainclothes cops who arrested me, not to mention the hours it takes to fill out the necessary forms, to process me through the system. And I, of course, am one of many. I think of who is profiting from their labor.

Then I think of the woman killed at the cash machine up on Winthrop, and the one near Rush Street, and the one raped at the rush hour el stop, and the small business owners who are robbed every day, not to mention the "fans" who come down my alley near Wrigley after every game to piss and throw beer cans and keep my two-year-olds awake at night.

And I know this kind of thinking makes people crazy.

But I truly believe that in this proverbial nutshell lies some kind of key to the decline of America. In the new Republican America, which is not much different from the old Democratic America, which is not much different from the Amerika that the 60s movements railed at, and Kafka satirized in the living dream of his novel, the contradictions are impossible to ignore. Publicly we praise individual enterprise, but our public policies do everything to contain it within the control of a bureaucracy that can thereby profit at the expense of the individual. The police, the whole legal system, do not protect individuals, the helpless, the victims, except as an incidental concomitant--second, always, to protecting the established powers, the already wealthy. The Tribune Company. The ticket brokers. Carl Icahn. Oliver North. Richard Nixon.

And just as attendants in mad wards become more and more like their patients, just as prison guards become more like prisoners, and those in concentration camps began to take on the values of their captors--just as the oppressed sooner or later seem to embrace the ideology of their oppressors--so the system works flawlessly to convert the innocent and the cops into the criminals.

But in the sixth inning, the Cubs--our perpetual underdog, all-American team--do their Horatio Alger thing, coming from behind to win yet again. And along with 37,000 others, not counting the millions watching on TV, I'm part of it. It's a nice day, after all, a dream season. It's the reason we're at the ballpark, that perfectly enclosed, enchanted universe, where hard work, a little luck, and divine intervention can actually make miracles. Where we can forget for a while about everything outside.

And at home, I've got tickets to three more games yet. More tickets than I need.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.

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