Who Needs Tickets?

I was a ticket scalper in the '70s and, boy, do I miss those days

He knows a guy who knows a guy who can set you up.

The ticket-scalping game was more fun when it lurked in the shadows and back alleys and dimly lit street corners and, yes, the filthy gutters of America’s cities and towns.

Where it belongs.

Nowadays, it’s a ton simpler to just score seats online. Sites like StubHub and TicketsNow and even Craigslist can put you into most any concert or sporting event that you’re willing to drop coin on — without ever getting your hands the least bit dirty.

That doesn’t necessarily make things better. It just makes them less interesting.

I grew up at a time (’70s) and a place (New York City) where scoring concert tickets was a true adventure and rite of passage. The Stones playing three shows at The Garden? Great. Tickets go on sale at 9 a.m. sharp next Wednesday; who’s gonna skip class and wait on line? “Quadrophenia” tour sold out? I know a guy who knows a guy who can maybe set us up. Pink Floyd tickets impossible to land? I’m willing to train it to Manhattan and troll around Penn Station the night of the show, hope for a score; who’s with me?

I actually did some ticket scalping myself back in high school. Me and my friend Frank would stake out the lines at all the city’s major concert venues, buy up as many tickets as we could afford, then sell them at as high a markup as we could finagle. We only dealt with top-tier shows, as those tickets were the easiest to sell and commanded the highest prices.

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Ticket scalping was not at all legal back in the day, and so wasn’t without risk. It was common for undercover cops to stake out venues prior to a show and pretend to be desperate fans needing tickets. Frank and I always tried to unload our tickets before the night of the show. We made a little less money this way, but it was better than running the risk of getting pinched — and losing the money we’d spent on whatever tickets that might get confiscated.

If we did have to move tickets right before a show began, we never did it in front of the venue; our rule (my rule, actually) was to sell no closer than a city block away. The one time that Frank broke this rule, outside of Madison Square Garden before a Led Zeppelin show, the cops took half a dozen tickets from him. They didn’t arrest Frank, but they did drive him to the precinct house, called his parents and messed with him long enough that it was guaranteed he’d miss the show. It just so happened that I was holding our tickets for that night, a couple of Row 4 center orchestra seats as I recall. When I saw the cops putting Frankie in the car, I figured the night was shot, and so I went around the block, sold the pair of tickets and hopped on a train back home to wait in case Frank called.

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Furthermore, this was not the relatively safe and accommodating New York of today, the one that Giuliani took a law-enforced broom to and a billionaire named Bloomberg scaled upward in his image. Far from it. This was old New York. Where students (this student, anyway) traveled the subways to school wearing brass knuckles, and where anybody who knew what was good for him went around in a pack, never solo.

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Ticket scalping was, of course, a cash business. A cash business conducted on the aforementioned street corners and back alleys and gutters of an anything-but-safe metropolis. Often as not, Frank and I found ourselves having to protect our wares — and, more importantly, each other — in circumstances that could never be confused with being accommodating. (The time Frank got ripped off while trying to deal a combination of Sly tickets and weed in a part of Brownsville he should never have gone to alone comes to mind.) Still, it was a lot of fun. I miss it, actually.

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Recently, in fact, I discovered just how much I miss those days. I had been late to discover that Jethro Tull, one of the classic ’70s rock and roll bands, was scheduled to appear in the small New England town where I now live. The concert had sold out months earlier, but I learned of it only days before it was to take place. Naturally, I took the modern-day approach to locate an available ticket: I went online.

Sure enough, I was able to locate one primo second-row orchestra seat. The face value of the ticket was $75, but the asking price was $125. I emailed the seller to say that I would take the ticket and soon afterward received a response asking if we could meet and conduct our business. The seller, as it happened, lived no more than a mile from my home, in a very affluent neighborhood overlooking the sea. His name was Steve.

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If I needed to be reminded that I was no longer a 17-year-old pothead scoring Who tickets on a hot and smelly subway platform in Brooklyn, this confluence of events did the trick quite nicely. Steve had himself gone online months earlier, and had also paid $125 for the ticket. He wasn’t out to make a profit, only to offload the ticket that his brother-in-law was meant to use but couldn’t.

Then, of course, there was the transaction itself. It seemed even more bizarre to me. Because it was, well, so normal.

“I could meet you tomorrow afternoon, any time after 1:30,” Steve wrote. “How about we say outside the Cookie Jar?”

Steve arrived to our meeting not smoking a cigarette or toking on a joint but sucking on a Frappuccino. He wore a pale grey Patriots hoodie, which was a good couple shades darker than his hair. We shook hands, engaged in some pleasantries, swapped the ticket and the cash (he’d have taken a check!), and were on our way.

All very civilized, for sure. Just not nearly as much fun as the old days.

Tags: memoirs

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