February 22, 2010

The Irregular Blather Feb. 22, 1931

No Journal was published Sunday, Feb. 22, 1931.

I'll begin today, of course, by congratulating Alan Greenspan for winning the Dynamite Prize in Economics as the economist most responsible for the Global Financial Crisis - although, looking at the other candidates, I don't see how it was really in doubt. I mean, it's like comparing Babe Ruth to a normal Hall of Famer, or Newton to a run of the mill Nobel winning physicist.

Now for something more cheerful: an optimistic tale of Midtown Manhattan - where capitalism still works.

Bryant Park (west of the 42nd Street library in Manhattan), on a Saturday afternoon. The sun was out, the temperature unseasonably warm. I sat myself down for some heavy thinking. A couple of sixtyish gents sat down behind me and commenced to converse as if I were invisible (I have that knack). One was a hard-boiled looking character with that pickled look you can only get from several decades of heavy smoking and bitter feeling toward your fellow man. The other had a serene punim topped by a full head of white hair. I soon understood that both of them were professional ticket scalpers. Surprisingly, the calm-looking one was a full-time scalper who had already made $400 that day, whereas the more hustler-looking type had a steady job and scalped for extra money.

To my fascinated ears there then unfolded the tale of the Broadway ticket scalping ecosystem. It starts with the theaters, which unload a set of available tickets at bargain prices (around $25) early in the morning. These are snapped up by the first link in the food chain, typically an octogenarian no longer up for the main scalping racket. They are then passed off at a $10 or so premium per ticket to scalpers like these two, who have the more difficult job of selling a $100 piece of paper to a stranger in Times Square based only on their personal guarantee. The rewards for this mind-boggling feat of salesmanship are larger ($30-$70 per ticket), but of course the risks assumed are greater. The ideal is a show that sells out later in the day, in which case, as Pickled-face put it, “I can sell those for $100 – wid' a kiss!” But, in the worst case, they may have to sell the tickets below their cost or even eat them (the idea of using the tickets themselves seemed as alien to them as the concept of thirst to a flounder).

So far so good. But into every Eden a Serpent must enter – and sure enough, talk soon turned to a new scalper who had been conning the customers. Among other offenses, he was said to be passing off standing-room tickets to tourists by telling them they were for a special seating area in the back of the theater with folding chairs. I was surprised by the contempt expressed for this Fugazy scalper (f***in' mutt was a typical term). On reflection, though, it made sense that the scalpers who play it straight would dislike the shady ones because they're bad for business. Mention started being made of a character named Boxer Pete who, it became apparent, was a member of the scalping community who acts as an enforcer running off undesirables. A consensus soon developed that a call to Boxer Pete was in order to get the new guy to straighten out and scalp right.

So, I'm happy to report that while our financial system has demonstrated all the structural integrity of an evil mastermind's hideout at the end of a James Bond movie, there is at least one corner of our world where self-regulated lassez-faire capitalism is still working. Now if they could just introduce a highly leveraged derivatives market they might really have something ...

1 comment:

  1. I love this story and always picture Pickled-Face, Serene Punum, and Boxer Pete when we amble through the theatre district off hours.