People often ask me what the worst part about my job as a Wrigley Field beer vendor is. (“You mean, other than watching maddeningly mediocre baseball year in and year out?” I always want to ask.) For me, this is an easy one. It’s not lugging my product up and down the aisles like some 21st-century pack mule. It’s not even the drunk and sometimes staggeringly rude fans. Without question, it’s the hour-and-a-half I’m forced to spend before each game mindlessly waiting for the day’s assignment with my fellow grizzled and unwashed vendors.
Back in the “good old days” - I put this in quotation marks because the Old Guard is always pining for times gone by, when vendors allegedly made heaps of money without interference from The Man - we used to congregate before games on Waveland Avenue, near the day-of-game ticket windows across from the firehouse. But a few years back, the Cubs moved the vendors’ staging area to a gated, concrete slab around the corner on Clark Street, affectionately known as “The Cage.”
And that is where my fellow beer dudes and I spend a cramped and noisy couple of hours before each Cubs home game, waiting restlessly for our vending assignments and for fans to flood into the Friendly Confines. Since most vendors don’t have the time or inclination to chat during games, it’s here - in The Cage before games - that we do most of our socializing.
Like any workplace, we’ve got our cliques.
There are the older, generally literate and intelligent vendors who escape the noisy cage for a carpeted locker room redolent of old man sweat and dirty socks. Here, they reminisce about the sitcoms, rock bands and sports heroes of their youths while taping up balky knees and pulling jock straps over saggy pairs of Hanes.
There are the loners, the guys who bury their heads in a book or sleep off yesterday’s hangover in a corner.
There are the younger black kids who play furtive hands of poker in a minivan parked down the street.
There are the Angry Young Men, who mill around on the sidewalk in front of The Cage raging against everything - the fans who don’t tip, the union steward who won’t give them a beer card or the guidance counselor who failed to steer them toward a less degrading life.
And then there’s a second clique of older vendors, mainly Jewish, who sell exclusively in the upper deck and gravitate around a couple of bosom buddies, Les and “Fish.”
For some reason, I’m the only vendor under 35 who’s been inducted into this clan of congenial old-timers, and it’s to them I usually turn to pass the time.
Among their ranks is Howie, a good-natured member of the clique who telegraphs his obvious bi-curiosity (he’s about 60 and married with kids) with his constant jokes about proctological exams and his odd daily greeting of ‘Hey, where are the Butt Brothers?” - a definitely-not-funny-now-if-it-ever-even-was reference to Les and Fish.
(“You know where they are, Howie,” I always want to scream. “I just watched you walk up to The Cage with them.”)
I’ve known all these guys for years, but I only just learned that Howie was a year behind Les and Fish in grade school, somewhere on the South Side in the 1950s, and that he was known then as Crazylegs Hirsch — a reference to a long-forgotten Jewish footballer famous for his spastic gait.
Occasionally, the pre-game monotony will be interrupted by a special announcement from our union steward, Richie, who if you closed your eyes and listened to him talk you’d swear you were hearing our dearly beloved Mare Daley. These speeches are usually reminders to sign up to work special events - say, a NASCAR race at Toyota Park or a soccer game at Soldier Field - or exhortations to make a small donation to the union’s political action arm.
But one day not too long ago, Richie’s pre-game speech was of a darker hue. A vendor named Big Bobby, a soft-spoken walking mountain with arms covered in scars of indeterminate origin (fire? drug use? childhood trauma?), had passed away unexpectedly. His family lived out of town and didn’t have the money to get to Chicago to claim the body, let alone to give him a proper burial. Within a couple of days, the vendors - a notoriously stingy and individualistic lot - had collected enough beer-stained fives and tens to pay for Bobby’s cremation and roundtrip bus fare for a family member to retrieve his earthly remains.
The episode was a sobering reminder that many from our ranks live dangerously close to the edge, with no pension, no health insurance and small room for error. It was also a kick in the nuts to your faithful diarist, who maybe doesn’t have as much cause as he thinks to bitch and whine about the inevitable ups and downs of being a Wrigley Beer Man.