Since 1992, I have spent my summers at Chicago’s fine baseball stadiums. Though I grew up a north-sider (evolving into a long-suffering Cubs fan), I have always enjoyed my trips to the South Side as well. Unlike too many Chicago baseball fans, I learned from an early age that one need not hate the opposing team in order to show one’s allegiance to their own. After all, it wasn’t until 1997 when I was already 22 years-old, that the Cubs and Sox started playing official games head-to-head. I had grown up with friends and family members on both sides of the fence and learned early on the spirited dedication each team’s faithful lauded upon their players. Being raised with ideals of respecting other people’s beliefs, I never had the instinct to look down on someone for their religion or color of skin, let alone their favorite baseball team. The Cubs were always first in my heart, but why would I cut myself off to the successes of a Chicago sports franchise? Before I started working at the stadiums, I was fighting for Greg Luzinski’s and Ron Kittle’s home-run balls with the rest of the kids at the Old Comiskey Park during the Winnin’ Ugly days of ’83 and the cheering on Leon Durham, Fergie Jenkins, Ryno and company as the Cubbies rallied to their division title in ’84. Sitting with my father in attendance at Wrigley for the NLCS Game 2 against Steve Garvey and the Padres, I remember thinking to myself how cool it would be to actually work at Wrigley Field. For a ten year-old, it seemed like the pinnacle profession; little did I know that in the decades to come, I would go on to sell hundreds of thousands of beers within these same “Friendly Confines.”
I started my stadium “career” as an usher back in the Andy Frain days, and yes, I had to wear those stifling yellow V-neck sweaters and black clip-on tie. My job was simple: I stood at the main gate on Clark and Addison and took people’s tickets as they entered the turnstiles. Once the game began, I counted up my tickets and hoped it matched the number of people that had passed through the turnstile, though I must admit that once in a while when someone approached me with a fresh $20 bill, I waved them through. (I hope there is a statute of limitations on this sort of transgression, but I am not too worried, as Andy Frain ceased to exist years ago). Besides, what can you expect when you pay someone $4.25 an hour?
As a matter of fact, it was this measly salary that repelled me from the job altogether. As an usher, I remember talking to some of the vendors, as all of the employees share a certain degree of camaraderie. The first time I asked a beer guy how much money he hade per game, my heart nearly stopped. $150?! I was pulling in a measly twenty bucks and I had to be there two hours more than this guy, who was strolling in at game time and walking out in the eight inning with serious cash in hand. Needless to say, that off-season I joined the vendor’s union and underwent my vendor training and the rest – though it may not be illustrious enough to merit the expression – is history.
My first few years I sold whatever they gave me: peanuts, malt cups, pop, hot dogs, you name it. Since the system is based on each vendor’s seniority, I had little choice of items. During that first summer in ’94, by the time I would get to the window after all of the other vendors had “chosen” their items, I was often left being assigned a product. Just another face in the crowd, the union stewards had to ask my name every day as they handed me my assignment card. “Okay, Mister Carter, you’re selling upper deck malt cups.”
Though we all knew there were a lot more profitable items to sell in the park, I hustled up to the commissary and sold the hell out of those chocolate ice creams, wooden spoon and all. After earning minimum wage in years past, I suddenly found myself in a money-making opportunity and as many people in their first commission-paying job will attest, I recognized the potential value of my own hard work. In short, I was eager to make some extra cash. Eighty bucks may not be a fortune, but for a twenty-year old college student, that’s a lot of $5 pizzas and $7 cases of beer! And it was four times what I had been making as an usher. Plus, I finally rid myself of the demoralizing yellow V-neck sweater, which needless to say, is not so comfortable for a 1:20 game in the middle of a July heat wave.
The first few summers, I specialized in peanut and ice cream sales. Peanuts are the most fun non-alcoholic item to sell in the park. First of all, they are very light, so even with a full tray, there is not much strenuous lifting involved. And best of all, tossing peanut bags is plain old fun. I used to really toss those things and whenever I spotted someone way up in the grandstand, I would make a hand signal alerting the customer to expect a throw and I would hurl that bag as far as possible. Even if it didn’t reach the desired customer, it was fun for the fans. When people spend three hours watching professional athletes throw and catch on the field, it gives them pleasure to get into the action and participate themselves. It’s part of the whole baseball experience. Sadly, vendors are now prohibited from throwing peanuts, undoubtedly because some one filed some silly lawsuit claiming a broken neck from the impact of an 8 oz. bag of peanuts. I am convinced that if these executives could see the way a nine year-old’s eyes light up when he puts up his little mitt and catches that bag of nuts, he would once again allow us to fling peanuts.
Just as a fan starts to understand the complexities of the game, in these first few summers, I started to learn all of the intricacies involved in the vending business. Peanuts, for example, sell well until the fourth inning or so because most people buy their peanuts as the game is starting, but few even finish the entire bag, so sales drop off considerably. This early finish allows the peanut man to check out early, which means more time swimming at the beach, playing basketball or whatever other activity one had planned for a sunny summer day. Unlike peanuts, ice cream sales don’t pick up until the third inning or so. Since most people eat something (hot dog, pizza or nachos) before their dessert, they aren’t ready for their ice cream until later in the game. Though kids may ooh and ahh every time the malt cup guy passes by, their parents will seldom fulfill their wishes until they have eaten something solid (not that there is much nutritional value in a ballpark dog). One thing I liked about selling ice cream is the simple fact that it is cold. Running up and down stairs is pretty strenuous and having a huge bag full of dry ice definitely helped me stay cool.
On the other hand, hot dogs were always a nightmare. There was money to be made selling dogs, but I always hated carrying around that bulky metal monstrosity. The tin was warmed by a Sterno flame underneath which got pretty hot and gave off an odor that started to pervade my very being by the fourth inning or so. It was nearly impossible to count money with those plastic gloves they made us wear and was quite annoying to have to search in that tub for the little condiment packs every time a customer asked for two ketchups, a relish and three mustards. I was amazed so many customers used to ask if I had any onions, as though I had my own supply hidden somewhere. “One second,” I used to reply as I dug into my pants, “I think I have some in my pocket…” It amazed me to see so many people failed to pick up on my sarcasm. I must admit though I brought some of this suffering upon myself, as I couldn’t believe that ketchup wasn’t served at Comiskey Park. Being a lover of the red stuff myself, I dropped a well-written letter in defense of ketchup-loving fans (probably insisting it was an affront to their human rights not to serve their favored condiment) into the Employee Suggestion Box and alas, we all reaped the benefits. The fans got their ketchup and I got a $50 check from the White Sox to acknowledge my “helpful tip.” Thus ends my illustrious career as consumer advocate.
Perhaps even worse than selling hot dogs is schlepping around a huge tray of pop. It wasn’t the weight that was a problem, it was the fact the pop was all over the place. My hands would get so sticky I couldn’t count money and worse of all, the excess liquid would gather in the tray and since it was angled towards my body, it would seep into my pants. I won’t go into details about the unpleasantness of cola-soaked underwear, but suffice to say it isn’t a common spa treatment.
After a few years hawking these lesser items, I was ready to step up to the big leagues. As any vendor will admit, there is a huge gulf between being an “item vendor” and a full-fledged beer man. Before I graduated to this higher level, I assumed the only real difference was the amount of money I would be earning, but I soon learned there was much more to it. For starters, the beer man has to go through additional training. No, there are no Pouring Clinics going on with tips on how best to open a beer and avoid excess foam, but rather an alcohol training session similar to what most bartenders or wait staff are sentenced to complete. Beyond that, there is a full range of accessories the beer vendor can choose from, the most important being the can opener. Though I had practiced on a few cans at home (for in those days my level of beer consumption was quite conducive to such test-pours), I knew that executing my first pour at the stadium would be a big deal. I remember the day in June of ’96; for some reason (perhaps it was a wet Wednesday afternoon or maybe there also happened to be a conflicting Sox game that had split up the amount of vendors) but there was not the usual array of beer men in attendance. When I stepped to the window to get my assignment card, I strained my eyes to decipher the little form in front of my union stewards that indicated there was still a beer spot available.
“I’ll take that beer card,” I tried to say coolly, my heart rate increasing.
“What’s your last name,” they asked, still unaware of my existence as more than a nameless face.
“Carter,” I replied.
“You have your alcohol-training card?”
I pulled out the pink slip in question and just like that was handed my first beer card. In unabashed excitement, I showed it off to some of my buddies, treasuring it as though it was a college diploma or a stock certificate. To a long-suffering “item vendor” this card was my golden ticket, my “way out” as they used to say. I started work quite early that day, eager to make this experience as profitable as possible. On my first sale, I had some butterflies in my stomach, but I executed a pretty decent pour and from that point on, I strolled through the stands with a new-found confidence. All of a sudden, everything had completely changed. Most importantly, the fans actually treated me with some respect. Being a peanut or hot dog guy, I was always subject to people’s smart-ass comments, as guys often tried to impress their buddies by putting down the vendors.
“Hey nut guy – I got some salty nuts for ya, right here in my pants.” Gee, how clever!
“Hey hot dog man, go make yourself worthwhile and send the beer guy over.” Though I usually got the last laugh with a comical retort, I had grown quite sick of the barrage of rude comments I was sentenced to endure. After all, how many people go to work only to be harassed by 30,000 people every day? I guess this is one thing I had in common with the players on the field, especially in those hapless Cubbie days.
But armed with my beer tray, I discovered I wasn’t subject to nearly as much verbal abuse. In fact, people actually greeted me with kind words for once! “Alright here he is! Hello beer man. We’d like three regulars please.” Wow, I even got please and thank you – how civilized! I imagine it’s no different than anyone that has received a big promotion at work, but walking through the stands, for the first time, I actually felt important. “We’ve been waiting for you buddy,” they would greet me, often kindly requesting that I stop by on my last call. I learned through the fans the protocol involved and the extra responsibility that being a beer man entailed. The only unfortunate result of my cherry-popping day was the fact that for the remainder of the summer, I usually found myself consigned to selling a food item, which is a tough pill to swallow after my ever-so-brief taste of the good life.
The summer that followed however was a dream come true, as I found myself with enough seniority to sell beer on a daily basis. Having just returned from my first round-the-world journey, I arrived in Chicago with a new appreciation for the value of the U.S. dollar and was determined to make the most of my new-found opportunity as full-time beer man.
Though I had entered the upper echelon of vending, there still existed a very large chasm between myself and the top beer guys. Being a novice, I had no idea about the tricks of the trade. But more importantly, I was stuck selling Old Style, while the older guys were all selling Budweiser, the difference in income being about 40% less with Old Style, the beer-child of the Milwaukee-based G. Heileman Brewery. Upon my stateside arrival in late May, I jumped right into my new life as beer man, but was soon demoralized to learn that though I was making considerably more money than I had in summers past, I was still subject to the daily jeering that I had encountered selling hot dogs and peanuts. Due to their marketing appeal of years past (primarily with the defection of Harry Caray to the “red side”), Budweiser had supplanted Old Style as the beer-of-choice in Wrigley and Chicago in general. Die-hard fans still looked for guys like me with the blue tub, but more often than not, fans were looking for the red tubs of the Bud guys. As a result, they hurled insults my way with such clever phrases, such as:
“Hey Old Pile – go get the Bud guy” or “Old Stool? That gives me the runs!” Finding myself once again humiliated, even as a venerated beer man, I had to ask myself if I would ever climb out of this morass of rude baseball fans. But I stuck with it, assuring people they didn’t know the difference between the two beers or promising them I would definitely not send the Bud guy. I learned early on that my sense of humor was perhaps my most useful trait.
Fresh from my extensive travels in Asia, I was also endowed with another tool that would prove profitable as a beer man: my dreadlocks. Fortunately, my appearance was enough to differentiate me from the pack and that is when I learned the importance of letting my personality manifest itself on the job. I was unwittingly bestowed with the nickname “Rasta Man,” which helped my sales though I had to constantly inform people that no, I didn’t have any weed for sale. I wanted to embroider “Beer for Sale - No Spliffs” on the back of my uniform, but I took it all in stride, as people were having fun with my new moniker, myself included. Most importantly, people recognized me and one thing I have learned is that fans like feeling at home in the stadium, which is to say that they feel comforted when they can call out the beer guy from across the park, yelling “Hey Rasta man – over here!” Whether they “know” me from the last sale or a game two months before, what matters is that they feel like they’re more than a faceless fan – they feel accepted. They tell their buddies how they remember me from last time, I pretend to do the same, they give me a high five to look cool, and everyone is happy. I was fortunate to have a job that allowed me to have dreadlocks for three years, but even luckier to learn that my hairstyle would actually increase my earnings. My parents hated it, but the fans loved it.
For the next four summers, I was a regular Old Style guy. Though I was being outsold by the Bud guys on a regular basis, I slowly refined my technique and had soon established myself as one of the top Old Style vendors in the park. As described in the “Tricks of the Trade” Chapter, there are many strategies involved in boosting one’s sales; during these four summer, I was busy learning and improving my own “style.” When selling the less desirable Old Style, for example, I would turn the blue tub around so that the big Old Style sticker faced away from the fans. Instead of advertising my brand, I billed myself simply as a beer man. While the others were walking through the stands yelling “Cold Old Style!” I was simply yelling “Beer here!” It may sound like a minute detail, but I knew that many fans didn’t even realize there were two different brands sold in the park. The die-hard Old Style drinkers knew to look for the blue tub and the others, well, that wasn’t my responsibility. After all, if someone wants a beer and I have 24 of them, who needs to nitpick over brand names?
Another trick I employed was feeding off of the overflow from a busy Bud vendor. One of the unwritten rules of vending (and by far the most important) is that once a vendor occupies an aisle, no other vendor selling that same item is allowed to sell in that aisle. Though we are free to roam the entire stadium, we all (except for a few money-grubbing scumbags and ignorant rookies) respect this territorial stipulation. For some vendors, this rule is a godsend, as they are able to monopolize busy aisles, which means that by the time they get halfway up the aisle, they have already sold their entire case. If they are carrying two cases at once (a “double load”) they are able to sell a quick 48 beers without having to do more than climb 30 steps, which translates into quick, easy money. The most successful 3 or 4 beer vendors each have their own aisles. Though there is no sign stipulating this ownership, it is understood among the rest of the vendors; after all, these guys have each been vending for over twenty years and even if a beer man happens to enter the aisle when that aisle’s prescribed beer man is down in the commissary getting a fresh load, he will often realize that no one is buying. Then all of a sudden when the regular vendor reappears with 48 frosty cans, hands go shooting up everywhere. Though I respect the wardens of these thirsty aisles, there is no stipulation that an Old Style vendor cannot occupy an aisle with a Bud guy. While many Old Style guys were carousing the park in search for empty aisles, I often made a beeline to those aisles that I knew consumed a lot of beer, as long as the Bud guy was less than half way up. That way, I could run up to where he was pouring, step in front of him and jump into my generic “Beer man!” call, picking off the sales of the thirsty fans.
Though I was often the high-man on Old Style (and making more than some of the slow or lazy Bud vendors), I still had to deal with the daily humiliation of selling the inferior-selling product. Even worse than working 25% harder to earn 25% less than the lucky Bud guys was the daily barrage of jeers that fans threw my way. I became so sick of hearing people ask if I could send the Budweiser guy that in many cases I politely answered, “No” or would maybe spice it up by telling them I was not allowed to. Regardless, I was so hungry for a Bud tray that I kept coming back season after season, hoping each would be my magical summer. Just like the hapless Cubbies, I too put faith in the phrase “Maybe next year.”
My conversion to Bud did not occur overnight, but arrived instead in a three-year transition. In the summer of 2000, on days when not as many beer vendors showed up (primarily weekday afternoon games) I would occasionally be awarded Bud. Needless to say, I basked in the newfound prestige and treasured every second of the experience. For once, I didn’t have to hide my product, for once I didn’t have to put up with fans’ abuse and for once I was on an even playing field as the rest of the vendors. I knew deep down I was a better vendor than most of these Bud guys and had been craving my opportunity to shine. When that moment finally arrived, I attacked the crowd with such fervor that the older guys started calling me (and a few of my buddies that suddenly found themselves in the same position) as “hungries.” We vended as though we were on a mission and worked our asses off. Though it may have appeared to some of the older guys that we were exerting ourselves to such an extreme just to win the respect of our comrades, in my case it was the financial reward that encouraged me the most. After all, an extra fifty bucks a game can be quite a motivating factor for a kid traveling the world in the off-season spending $20 a day to live the good life in exciting foreign lands. That being said, I will be the first to admit that the competition amongst us vendors is fierce; there exists a hierarchy within our ranks and just like a silverback gorilla, everyone wants to be as close to the top as possible.
In the years to come, I sold Bud on a more regular basis and by the summer of 2003, I had established myself as one of the top-sellers in the park. To this day though, the driving force behind my often-tireless work ethic is the financial reward. Though I once viewed the status as being somewhat important, I now realize this was largely an illusion. I guess I was like an ambitious office worker eager to prove my skills and tireless work ethic to my boss or workmates. In time though, my priorities changed as I realized there were much more important things for me to be worrying about.
My experiences abroad had been opening my eyes to the harsh realities of the world; suddenly, coming home to the identical daily arguments and the same vendor rivalries took on much less importance in my eyes. I will admit that it is often difficult for me to jump back into the work swing upon my return to the country. In an effort to maximize my time abroad, I usually come home and start work immediately and needless to say going from straight from virgin beaches and ancient temples to a commissary full of forty sweaty vendors can be a bit of a culture shock! Every year I find myself growing as a person, yet the second I get back, I realize that absolutely nothing has changed. In that respect, coming to the ball park has taken on a timeless quality of sorts. I am sure many fans will agree – I can see it on the faces of the octogenarian grandfathers and pre-pubescent kids that time is suspended within these sacred stadiums. Though I find it unsettling to see how static things can be, it has only inspired me to broaden my own horizons. Still, I feel a little less connected with the whole group every year, as though we are slowly drifting in different directions. Much of this sentiment is fully warranted; after all, the only thing I have in common with many of my work-mates is the fact we share the same job. Few comprehend the extent or reason for my travels and even less have any idea of the humanitarian focus of my “off-season.”
Though I am the only vendor I know that spends the entire off-season living in foreign lands, people I meet abroad must get the impression that America is indeed a very rich country. I am fully aware of our country’s socio-economic problems and often find myself explaining to incredulous people the fact that America is home to millions that cannot afford adequate food, housing or medical care. Still, when they discover that I earn enough money to visit all of these exotic countries for eight months a year solely from my income selling a few cans of beer at a sports stadium, they must imagine the streets are in fact paved with gold. If the beer vendor makes twenty grand, imagine what the shopkeepers, doctors and farmers earn, they think to themselves. I try not to tell them what the players make, as it only depresses people. Try telling a tin miner in Bolivia or a wheat farmer in Zimbabwe that toiling fourteen hours a day that a baseball player earns more in one day that they ever will in their entire lifetime and you will discover that some truths are better left untold.
Though the way I spend my off-seasons differs considerably from the rest of my workmates, we all share a common summer bond. Just as many fans equate the arrival of spring with the start of baseball season, I also identify summer with vending and in the last fourteen years have grown quite accustomed (and dependent) upon this marvelous gig. Did I ever imagine I would be vending for so long? Certainly not. I remember striking up a conversation with a fan at a Cubs game a few years back. Somehow the topic of Spain came up, so I told him how I been sent to live there for nine months through a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship in order to carry out independent research about the socio-economic effects of African immigration in Spain. He looked me up and down, obviously impressed and proclaimed, “Congratulations, young man, you must be the only beer man that is also a Fulbright Scholar!” Ah, yes, I retorted, but I am also the only Fulbright Scholar working as a beer vendor. But though I know I could have spend my time with more worthwhile ventures, I wouldn’t it trade it for anything.