Yankee Stadium Vendor
ight after the last class bell clanged throughout the halls of DeWitt Clinton High School, Stephen Calculator and I blew out of the ancient gothic Greco-Romanesque building. By age sixteen, I was ready for a more exciting after-school job. On this drizzly April afternoon, we were eagerly en route to apply for the part-time job of a lifetime. We leapt down the concrete steps after flinging open the southern most doors at the school’s side entrance and made a beeline up the incline from Bedford Park Avenue West. The concrete was slick. We timed our leaps through the gutters to avoid the slick rainbows of dissolving motor oil. Our pace settled into a purposeful trot, but then we shifted gears to a sprint when we heard the rumbling of the train coming down from the northern most station at Woodlawn. We took the steep set of stairs, two at a time, up to the elevated train. Only slightly winded, we simultaneously put our twenty-cent tokens into the side-by-side turnstiles, pushed through the swiveling barriers which yielded with a clunking sound, echoing as if on a giant spring, and we flew up yet another steep set of steps. The train would soon be partially blocking off the view of the outdoor world at the top of the stairs. We heard the whoosh of airbrakes. The doors wouldn’t be open for long. We put ourselves into highest gear. We jumped from the platform and stopped the doors from closing with our bodies, now wedged in between the rubber extensions of the doors. Graceful in a sloppy teenage way, we crashed onto the IRT #4 Jerome-Lexington Avenue train at Mosholu Parkway just before it made another belching sound and pulled away. We were heading seven miles south to the most revered building on the planet. We plunked down into the hard plastic seats, looking up lustfully at the Miss Rheingold finalists as we steadily chugged towards the hallowed grounds at 161st Street and River Avenue for the chance of a job interview at glorious Yankee Stadium.
This wasn’t a set appointment where you have a prescribed time to meet with an executive. A secretary would not be showing us into a fancy office. We were going to attempt to gain entrance through any open gate where Security could direct us to whichever person was in charge of hiring. Stephen had gotten word from his older sister, Karen Calculator, that the Harry M. Stevens Corporation was hiring vendors now, and we had to get over to the Stadium as fast as possible.
Vendors worked on a strictly commission basis. Thus, both teens and grown-ups, the unemployed, underemployed and even some unemployable stood a chance to be hired. How were we to know the qualifications were so flexible? Who wouldn’t want to work inside Yankee Stadium? We nervously envisioned the competition we would be up against: some smart Asian kids, great in math, from the Bronx High School of Science; retired minor league ballplayers whose pension wasn’t enough; ordinary, cast-off old guys, with their stamped blue books, sent from the unemployment office.
The train ride down was fairly short, in spite of the stops at Bedford Park Road, Kingsbridge Avenue, Fordham Road, East 183rd Street, Burnside Avenue, Tremont Avenue, Mount Eden Avenue, 170th Street, and 167th Street before finally reaching our destination, 161st Street. When you’re sixteen, even a short trip is a long enough time to experience a wide range of conflicting thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, at age sixteen, there isn’t anything you can’t do. If we wanted a job hawking wares to thousands of spectators on weekends, we could have it. But then, indecision and insecurity. What if there was a test or a really difficult interview? A scenario to see how you would handle a pressure situation, like having two hot dogs left and a guy wanting three and demanding you go back and get an extra right away? The old guy with the unemployment book, the competition, lurking just outside the interview room, waiting for you to screw up. How would I handle that?
The rapid switching of topics, another characteristic of teen life, interrupted my focus on the anticipated interview. The physiology of being sixteen reared its unmitigated nature, as measured by the rising in my pants, as I gazed upward at the cardboard Miss Rheingold.
What would I be saying to her now if she came to life out of the advertisement? Would I try to be cool (no hope) or feign interest in her life (like a therapist?), or just beg that she be my first? Why did I stick with my older friends and go to the all-boys Clinton High School, when Roosevelt High was coed? But wasn’t it reported that Puerto Rican gangs ruled that place? But Denise goes there and she seems to be OK with it. Do you just go where your friends go, do what they do, and that’s the end of it?!
Friends would say weird stuff at that age that I would believe without a moment’s hesitation.
“Don’t take French. It’s easier to get Spanish books than French books.”
“Don’t do too good on the first test, they’ll think you’re smart and expect too much from you.”
“Don’t let the gym teacher know your name. It can only mean you’re in trouble."
Keep trying to piss. It’ll take the strain off your balls.” (This was told to me by an “older guy” (by 2 years) at a party, after I had strained my nuts earlier that day, sliding on an apricot pit while making a nice infield stoop-ball play)
Another physiological fact of a teenager’s life - male anyway - is the desire to consume food at least every few hours. Coming down the stairs at 161st and Jerome, we quickly debated about stopping in for a slice of pizza for fifteen cents off Lou Gehrig Plaza, right across from the imposing gray stone structure of the Criminal Court Building. But the drive to get into the Stadium as quickly as possible, ahead of what we imagined to be the daunting competition, plus the pull from the magical ballfield itself, forced us to put the pizza on hold. As soon as we passed through the grandstand gate on the rightfield side of the Stadium, we met up with what we used to disrespectfully refer to as a “Pinkie” (Pinkerton, Rent-a-Cop, Toy Cop, Fake Cop Mickey Mouse Cop)…i.e., any security guy in a uniform without a gun like a real New York City Policeman. After half-listening to instructions from this puffy-faced, overweight, pale looking guy with a bad smoker’s cough, we were shooed off in the direction of the Harry M. Stevens offices. It took a while to find, as we searched through the relative darkness under the grandstands and concourses, located within what is referred to in these situations as “deep within the bowels of Yankee Stadium.”
As we got closer to more consistent light sources, we followed some rumbling noises and a stench that turned out to be cigar smoke. There was a big foreman-looking guy chomping on a stogie ordering around some peon-looking guys who were carrying boxes upon boxes of Yankees Yearbooks, felt pennants, and other souvenirs from a big blue flatbed into what was apparently the vendor’s centralized distribution center.
“Hey youse two guys!” the big fat foreman yelled in the direction of me and Calculator, “quit acting like you’re on a nice stroll down lover’s lane and help unload these boxes!”
Now we had to think fast. Did this mean that we were just going to do some slave work and not get compensated? Or was this some test of motivation? Or were we already hired? I glanced at the acne-laced Calculator. He returned the look with the movement of his cowlick in the direction of the flatbed. We grabbed boxes and carried them into the storeroom. About twenty minutes later, after the flatbed was emptied down to its rust-stained bottom, the foreman told us to write our names and social security numbers down on the pad he was passing around.
“Try not to drip your pimple juice on da pad!”
Turned out that that was the interview. He followed with the briefest of “orientations”, in true New York City fashion.
“Be here at least tree hours before game time. You’ll pick up your badge here. Bring money fuh a rolla quaddas. Dat’s ten dollas fuh how many quaddas, einsteen? Right, forty, so ya can make change. Fuh doze of you who don’t get it, don’t come back! Now get outta here and don’t run out on da field!”
We were hired! We would be somehow closer to the “Proud Tradition of Yankee Stadium!” We were signed up. For a second, it felt as if we would be scouted as players. How could we celebrate that satisfied feeling of good things coming?
“All right!” I pounded Calculator on the shoulder.
“Yes, and it counts”, he shouted back, quoting Marv Albert, the great play-by-play man for the New York Knicks and Rangers.
We bobbed and weaved our way out of the cavernous lairs and into the now brighter afternoon. Small shadows fell in front of us as we moved east up 161St Street towards the Grand Concourse, briefly stopping to pay homage to the weathered copper sign on the parking island in honor of The Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig. Then we sprang for a well-deserved slice or two of pizza (twenty-five cents) and a small coke (fifteen cents).
The first game I came to vendor in was the Grambling vs. Morgan State football game. Instant course in race relations! 62,121 Blacks and me. This experience would serve me in a much bigger way than the thirteen dollars and forty cents I earned from working the game. Whenever I would go for an interview as a social worker/therapist, there would be the inevitable question: “How comfortable are you working with minorities?” I conveyed a much more positive impact than the usual applicant, who tried to make up some crap about treating all people equally; or those who tried to pawn off some over-dramatized account of how he felt so bonded with an oppressed victim. All I had to do was give a realistic account of my being in service/selling hot dogs among those 62,121 spectators …
The real challenge of that first game wasn’t racial politics or even mathematical projections. It was that my uniform pants were way too big, with its white, highly starched ice-cream-man-looking pants, with matching white top that had deep, giant clown pockets to hold all the loot, napkins, and other serving accoutrements. What compounded that clothing glitch was that I hadn’t worn a belt that day. There was no way I could take my real pants off, because the uniform pants weren’t going to stay up. So, if I didn’t want all of Yankee Stadium to see my BVD knockoffs, I had to wear both pairs, clutching the waist of the uniform pants, while trying to lug the trays, pass out sodas, and make change from bills that had gotten wet from soda drips.
While on line to get my uniform, I had been getting advice from a “veteran” vendor, age eighteen, in the hope that perhaps he could help me unravel the mystery of getting off to a good start.
“You see that big, tough ol’ lookin’ Black guy handin’ out the uniforms?”
“He’s Carl. Been here forever. Almost as long as Pete Sheehey in the clubhouse. If he likes you, he’ll take care of you. If not, you’re finished.”
I’m looking at my new mentor in amazement. He continues. “So, what you need to do is to make sure he knows you put his fare in the cup.”
“His what in where?”
“His fare…tribute…you know, his tip…into that paper cup hangin’ by a nail in the wooden beam over there. That’s the kitty!” The knowing one tilted his head over to the wall nearest Carl.
And there it was. A blue and white waxy Dixie cup, maybe twelve ounces, not very big, holding a heavy load of change. How did it defy gravity and stay up there like that?
There were still about fifteen guys ahead of me getting their uniforms. Still time B to learn the secrets of how to get in good with Carl.
“When you get up there, don’t say anything else to him except your size. That’s it! No matter what! Nothin’ about the weather, how’s it goin’, how’s the family, nothin’. He don’t go for small talk. Remember! Nothing but your size!”
I thanked my mentor for the tip. He added one more final, crucial caveat. “Now, you have to make sure he knows you put your fare in! Sometimes he’ll be looking down and won’t see it, so you have to make sure he hears you put it in.”
“Well, how do I make sure of that?”
“Right after you tell him your size, make sure he hears your coin rattle into the cup against the other coins.”
I looked at him dumfounded. He looked away, frustrated, like I’m a real slow study. After rolling his eyes, he decided to be even more direct.
“Just slam your coin into the cup!”
“How much do I have to put in?”
“That’s the thing. It doesn’t even matter. A nickel’s even OK, as long as you slam it in hard to make sure he can hear it clink against the other coins.”
I approached the front of the line. Carl looked up, menacingly, without even trying to be mean.
“Twenty-six,” I declared, stating my waist size.
“Smallest we got is a thirty-six!” He turned to some assistant young looking guys and yelled, “smallest we have!”
Hey, that was nice of him, asking for the guy to look for the smallest they had…maybe a smaller one than a thirty-six.
I reached into my pants for a coin and slammed it into the cup. Wham! The cup ripped off the nail. Bang! The sound was like a cymbals crash. Coins were rolling everywhere, getting stuck into the cracks between the wooden planks of the floor.
Other vendors were down on their hands and knees even before I was, gathering up the loose coins and quickly putting them back into the cup so that they wouldn’t be included in whatever wrath Carl was going to direct towards me. Carl came out from behind his counter. Some of the vendors continued to help corral the “hot scramble” while the others tried to gain a safer distance between themselves and the scene of the crime. Time stood still as Carl approached me. Then unexpected calm. No wrath, no lecture, not even a raised voice.
“Let me ask you somethin’, kid,” the beleaguered Carl, who had seen it all, asked. “How much money did you put into the cup?”
Thoughts of a ruined vendor career before it even started, swirled in my brain. I had to be honest.
“Yep. It’s always the guys who put in a nickel that have to slam it down the hardest,” Carl said with a tone that showed he was resigned to his lot in life, putting up with greenhorn kid vendors like myself.
With order restored, and a new cup up on the hook, waiting for its next victim, I gathered myself, and bravely put on the size thirty-six pants over my “civilian” pants. Without a belt, but still with high hopes of making it as a rookie, I trudged towards the awaiting stadium crowd, both hands on my soda tray when I could. My right hand always had a grip on the wire server while the left one joined in when it could, when it wasn’t busy hitching up my pants every fifteen seconds or so.
“Soda here, getchyer ice-cold soda here!”