In order to work, every vendor must join the union. Though we began as the Service Employees International Union, in 2005 we were incorporated into the Local One Union. The union works out our contracts with each of the concessionaires at the ballparks and they also run our day-to-day operations, determining who sells what. Our union dues are pricy (about $500 a year) but “the machine” protects our jobs and deals with grievances between the vendors and the companies that run the concessions. Our union stewards try their best to win us a good deal, with varying levels of success. The unfortunate reality is that we are somewhat expendable. After all, vending requires no educational requirements or prior experience and does not involve much of any technical training.
What management needs to understand is that Chicago’s beer vendors are undoubtedly the best in the country and the money required to give us a fair contract is more than compensated by the incredible level of revenue we generate. [Fans and beer vendors from all over the country will attest that The Windy City has the most competitive and efficient beer vendors.] Hopefully, the big bosses will not overlook the skill and work ethic we administer out in the stands – every dollar we hustle for (based on our 10% commission) is actually ten additional dollars for their company. A single dedicated beer vendor who works every game of the year (between the two stadiums) that sells an average of ten cases (10x24x162) per game sells a total of 38,880 cans of beer, which multiplied by $6.75 is $262,440! We aren’t asking for company cars or paid vacations, but we do expect to be treated with the respect that any employee raising nearly a quarter of a million dollars of revenue deserves. Most beer vendors may not hold prestigious college degrees, but they show up to work rain or shine and put their heart and soul into selling their item.
The union’s major responsibility is handing out the assignment cards, which determine who sells what throughout the ballpark. Based on the number of vendors and the range of items being sold, the union stewards hand out the assignments based on each vendor’s seniority (the determining factor being the year each vendor joined the union). Though some would like to see high-selling vendors rewarded for their hard work, most agree that this “first-come, first-served” arrangement is the fairest way to run things.
Barring a disciplinary issue or work-related injury, once we enter the ballpark, we are under the supervision of the concessionaire company, which is our rightful employer. We work on pure commission which comes to us in a bi-weekly paycheck from the concession company; contrary to what many fans seem to assume, there is no daily cash-out or paychecks from the team itself or the beer company.
Since the union stewards hand out our assignments based on seniority, upon arrival at the stadium, we put our name on the “list.” For the older guys, the actual order doesn’t mean much, as they each get to choose what item they will sell and from which commissary, but for the younger guys that have recently started vending, there may be fifty other vendors within their “year.” For example, the first vendor that started in 2005 to receive his item may get to sell beer, but once those allotted beer slots get filled up, vendors are then assigned food items. In order to mitigate such circumstances, vendors from lower years (those that started since 2000) “pull numbers” from cup when they arrive to the park; the numbers written on these little scraps of paper determine the vendors’ order in going up to the window to receive their assignments.
When our union stewards are ready, we all line up in the order in which we joined the union, so the old-timers that started in the sixties go first and then those that started in the seventies and so on. Though each year over fifty new vendors are hired, thirty years later, there are often only a few (or no) vendors left from this “class.” It’s kind of like a high school reunion with old guys and young bucks in the same line, except you can see just from looking at the line when each vendor began work. I started in ’94 and since there are only four of us left and we all get beer on a daily basis, we just line up on a first-come first-serve basis. But for the younger guys that started in a year with a lot of vendors still around, their order in line within their “year” can make a big difference. When there are thirty guys that started in 2004 and some will get to sell peanuts on the lower deck while others will have to sell pop in the upper deck, there needs to be some fair way of deciding what order they will line up to get their assignments. A lottery-style system has developed, wherein each vendor upon arrival chooses a little scrap of paper from a plastic cup. Each scrap has a number on it, the lowest number going first and the higher numbers lining up last. I remember these days, particularly the importance we each placed upon these silly numbers. Being “on the fence” like this can be quite nerve-wracking because there could be a hundred dollar difference between selling beer or peanuts on a given day.
Before we enter the park, we need to be in full uniform. The whole uniform saga is a story in itself, as we have gone through more costume changes than a Madonna concert. These days, we are issued a shirt, work apron (for keeping change, etc.) and a pair of pants/shorts. We pay a deposit and hold on to these uniforms until the end of the season, when we can exchange them for our deposit money. For a while, we were prohibited from wearing shorts and even those that haven’t studied the physics involved in heat transfer know that navy blue polyester work pants combined with Chicago summer heat waves do not make Johnny a happy beer man. I don’t know why this policy was reversed (perhaps due to intervention by Amnesty International) but fortunately this form of cruel and unusual punishment was rescinded and we were allowed to work in shorts. As can be seen in the sketches, the uniform shirt has changed over the years, but the vendors always seem to favor those made of breathable material. We are expected to launder our uniform on a regular basis, though several vendors either do not own a washing machine or are completely unaware of the modern advances in clothes laundering. It can be a traumatic experience getting too close to a few of these guys, as standing downwind from them is akin to having one’s head stuffed in a sweat-infested locker that hasn’t been opened since 1982. Besides the hat or cap which we are given, another integral part of our uniform is the strap used to secure our beer tray. It blows me away to travel to other American ballparks because many of the vendors walk around carrying their beer tubs without using a strap to keep it close to their bodies. The idea of lugging around a case of beer using my back like that pains me to even think about it. Plus, putting down that case in order to make an individual sale and then picking up all that weight again only to have to go through this strenuous cycle must be a real strain on one’s back. Whenever I encounter such vendors, I ask them why they don’t use a strap, but most (apparently failing to recognize the possibilities) simply tell me, “Oh, we don’t use straps here.” For those non-Chicago beer vendors reading this book, please, for the sake of your own health, pick up a $15 belt – your chiropractor may curse me, but you will thank me in a few years.
But even among beer vendors that have enough sense to use a strap, some don’t seem to understand the orthopedic advantages. I have seen too many rookies walking through the stands with their belt strapped around their neck. The point of the belt is to distribute the weight of the beer throughout the shoulders and back, not merely weighing down one’s neck. Vendors with their strap too loose can be seen with their beer tray bumping against their knees. The most effective way to wear the strap is with one arm through the loop, so that the tub is even with the waist. This way, the beer is easily accessible and the weight is properly distributed so as to avoid back pain or neck strains.
In addition to this official uniform, there is a wealth of accessories at the beer vendor’s disposal. Most important is the can-opener; without this cleverly-shaped piece of metal, countless fans would be getting frothy beers overflowing into their laps. Some can-openers work better than others (for prospective vendors, be sure to test-pour a few cans before showing up with a new can-opener) and most guys attach them with string or rubber bands around their right wrist. That way, every time someone orders a beer, they can easily grab the can-opener to pop the beer and can then drop it in order to execute their pour and then make change without worrying about losing their opener. Forgetting one’s can-opener is definitely a rookie mistake; trying to pour 250 cans of beer without this tool definitely slows down any beer vendor, leading to a noticeable decrease in commission. When the can opener starts to dull from use, piercing the can becomes a challenge. In order to sharpen the blade, simply scratch it along the concrete for a minute on each side and then (for the sake of the fan), wash it before use.
A weight belt is also a must for any beer vendor, as the strain of carrying these heavy loads can be quite taxing on the back. Since the beers are 16 ounce cans, a case of twenty-four weighs twenty-four pounds, but since many of us often take out “double loads,” that means we are lugging around nearly fifty pounds of beer at any given moment. Running up and down stairs carrying this weight for three hours a day has led to plenty of back injuries amongst our ranks, so a sturdy weight belt is a valuable investment. Along the same lines, many of us also use knee braces, which are in some cases preventative and in other instances necessary to protect already-existing knee problems, the vast majority of which are caused by the stress our job places upon our knees.
Beyond that, several vendors choose to incorporate less-functional accessories into our daily get-up. I must plead guilty on this charge, as any vendor will attest that I have been one of the innovators when it comes to flashy garb. For this reason, I will discuss some of these “extras” in the first person, as I can’t take myself too seriously and will admit that I often embellish my uniform in an attempt to differentiate myself from the mass of beer men, purely in the interests of financial gain. Well, that and a few adulating glances from cute girls…
For starters, I need a good pair of shades. In the course of my worldly travels, I have amassed quite an assortment of sunglasses, some of which are cheap knock-offs that fans have offered to buy for $50. My shades range from low-key everyday models to flashy white frames with shiny yellow lenses. I have about ten pairs in my repertoire but a few personal favorites that become part of my normal rotation. I judge them the way a baseball manager looks at his pitchers, composing a “starting rotation” of sorts.
I have made the wristband a regular part of my get-up as well. Though I claim otherwise to my boss, who seems to believe me when I tell him the wristbands keep the sweat from streaming down my arms into my customers’ beer, the true reason is because they look cool. There, I said it.
I am not a narcissist; the underlying truth is that I despise uniforms in general, as I believe everyone should be allowed to express themselves freely. Sure, I expect to be required to wear a uniform for a job like this, but I see no reason why a beer vendor should not be able to express his personality at the same time. As I try to explain to my boss at US Cellular (who once asked me, “Hey Adam, why you always gotta look like Rambo?”) fans love beer vendors because we bring the game to life. They don’t want robotic vending machines, but rather engaging, personable people with their own beer calls, hair styles and personal style. If I appear to some as a color-coded version of Rambo with fancy shades and silly wristbands, well at least I’ve moved beyond the pale of the norm. If every beer vendor let their personality shine, just think how much fun the ball game would be!
Once we get our assignments, we usually have over an hour to kill before we begin selling. In theory, we are allowed to check in and begin vending an hour before game time, but only a few vendors actually bother going out so early, as it takes quite a lot of energy to sell a few beers and the thought of lugging a case of beer all the way around the stadium just to sell three beers (a commission of about $1.50) is enough to make most of us relax somewhere until the game approaches. Many choose to hang out in the vendor’s “pit” there on Clark and Waveland where we get our assignment cards. There are a few picnic benches set up there and a lot of guys bring a sandwich or read the paper while they kill time. There is a full range of nearby restaurants to choose from, with everything from sports bars, fast-food to hot dog stands to upscale coffee shops to burrito joints.
A lot of the younger guys grab some calories at the AC-cooled McDonalds, while others break company policy and convene in someone’s sedan or minivan to play poker. These guys are quite a sight to behold as their games get so heated that they often decide to pass up working altogether just so they can keep the high-stakes games going. Passing up a guaranteed $100 day to gamble away the money earned the day before may sound like a pretty asinine idea, but….wait a minute, there is no excuse – it is an asinine idea!
When I started vending in ’94, they used to distribute our cards right in front of Gate K, across from the fire station there on Waveland. Back then, we used to kill time sitting out on the stoops of the 3-flats whose roofs have now all been converted to look-out “baseball clubs.” We used to try to catch the balls that were hit out of the park or would head into the bleachers to get some sun as the players launched practice pitches to the bleacher bums, but management now forbids us from “loitering” which is a shame as it was always so enjoyable to watch the balls fly into the bleachers and chat with fans.
Plenty of fans assume that many of us beer vendors actually drink before (or during the game). In all honesty, this is a falsehood. I almost NEVER see beer vendors drinking before or during a game. First of all, drinking on the job carries very strict consequences; nobody wants to jeopardize an entire summer’s wages for a pre-game beer, no matter how frosty cold it may be. And once we start working, there is simply no reason to drink on the job; first of all, we are too busy making money and second of all, we are responsible for every beer we take out of the commissary, so if we drink it, we have to buy it and one generalization about beer vendors is that we are a very frugal bunch. Just like fans who complain, “For six bucks, I can buy a 12 pack,” we also understand the value (or lack thereof) of buying beer at the game, which is one reason why we resist the temptation of chugging one as we walk into the stands. Sure, we can all attest that one or two vendors have showed up drunk to work, but in general, this is not an issue.
Once we are ready to start work, we enter the ballpark through the employee entrance at Gate K, where we show our IDs and head to our assigned commissaries. It may sound cheesy, but no matter how many games I have attended or worked (well over 700 by now), I still feel a thrill every time I walk up those stairs that lead from the concourse into Wrigley Field; it’s as though I am entering holy ground. Though I am not a religious man, I firmly believe that certain places in this world, though they may not be built on any mystical piece of land, grow to evolve a sacred identity. I have visited countless houses of worship from Delhi to Dharamsala to Damascus and observed how each one generates a certain degree of holiness, the result of thousands of people coming to pay their respects for years, decades or centuries. Muslim mosques, Christian cathedrals and Incan ruins each attain their own sacredness; in this respect, I don’t think a place like Wrigley Field is that much different than a 300 year-old Hindu temple or an incense-filled temple deep within the Himalayas.
After all, since 1916, around 150 million fans have come to this stadium, bringing their children, grandchildren and loved ones to enjoy a day at the ballpark. As I see the broad smiles of fans as they arrive, I get the sensation that the stadium itself almost overshadows the team playing on the field (which often seems to be the case). The energy and excitement this many fans bring to the park on a daily basis has created a “hallowed ground” without a doubt. Yes, Wrigley is a sacred place.