Sunday, October 10, 2010

We Serve and Collect

With the Blackhawks and Bulls starting their seasons at the United Center, I remembered a little-known money-making scheme from some forty years ago. Back then, the teams played at Chicago Stadium at 1800 W. Madison Street.

Although the neighborhood was far more dangerous than today, abundant parking surrounded the stadium. Therefore, I found it strange when a family friend taking us to a Hawks game in the early 1970s pulled his Lincoln Continental into a bus stop right next to the arena. Getting out of the car, I noticed he’d forgotten to lock the front door, so I pushed down the button. “Don’t lock the door,” he said politely. “I’ll explain when we get inside.”

After settling into our seats in the first row of the second balcony, directly under the American flag, he told my father, brother and me, “Did you see all of the cars parked along Madison Street? All of them left their front doors open and a $5 bill in the visor. After the game starts, the beat commander opens the door, takes out the money and locks the door.” He explained that he had the same arrangement going at Wrigley Field when the Bears had played there up until the previous season.

Na├»ve to such things, my father asked him how he did it. “As I drove up to the park, I asked each cop directing traffic ‘Who’s in charge here?’ I eventually found the guy and made the deal.”

My father shouldn’t have been surprised. When his company acquired the adjacent building on W. Grand Avenue in the mid-1960s, it needed a passageway between the two structures, for which a building permit was required. As CFO, he had to pay the local alderman, the powerful Thomas Keane, to get the permit. Keane sent one of his bagmen to collect the cash payment. My father wasn’t happy but you couldn’t move pallets of envelopes between buildings without the connector. Keane would later be convicted on 17 counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy in U.S. District Court.

These petty income enhancement schemes weren’t, of course, exclusive to Chicago. As college senior in 1971, I was desperate to see the Blackhawks of Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito take on the Bruins of Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Derek Sanderson at the Boston Garden. With $10 in my pocket, I was dismayed to find no tickets cheaper than $20.  Just before game time, I heard some kid shouting, “Who wants to get in for $5?  Who wants to get in for $5?” Skeptical at first, I asked him how. “Go up the stairs [outside of the arena] and give the guy on the landing $5,” he said. I bounded up the stairs, handed a man in a suede coat half of my money and walked through a door (with no ticket) with a turnstile manned by a uniformed usher into the Garden. The usher was talking to a uniformed Boston policeman. My guess is the cop took $3, the usher and ticket taker $1 each and the kid got to see a game for free.

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