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By Jordan Henry
Working at the ballpark is my second job. I'm the usher at Aisle 6 on the reserved level, straight behind home plate. My aisle is reserved for the Dodger Boosters, the team's official and original fan club: old, retired, season-ticket holders, most of whom have been coming to games since 1958. They don't drink, they don't smoke, they don't bounce beach balls or curse, start fights, or throw things onto the field. A few of the old ladies even bring me food.
Every night after work I take home whatever's been left under the seatsWalkmans, cameras, wallets, glovesand pass them along to family and friends. I've seen triple plays, inside-the-park grand slams, and balls launched completely out of the yard. I've met celebrities, coaches, players, and players' wives. I have the best view of the field in the nation's prettiest park and the easiest-to-please customers in the country's mellowest city.
I hate this job.
It wasn't always like this. I used to love it, back when I started. I'd punch in forty minutes early and sit in the upper deck with my shirt off. Nine dollars an hour to watch a game played on grass, between palm trees, in clean white and blue. Nine dollars an hour for eighty-degree weather and girls in bikinis and day games. Nine dollars an hour for hot dogs and relish, and time and a half in the playoffs.
But we never make the playoffs. And no one cares forever, not in a ballpark. There are too many losses, stranded runners, blown leads. It's a hard screen to stare at. You lose by osmosis, day after day after day. To care and to lose and to care againit kills you. Multiplied over seasons, it kills you.
To survive, you find safer and smarter things to root for than the Dodgers, things like weather and road games and the law of averages. When they win, it's a bonus, like stealing from the lost and found. But you root for the clock, not the players.
Take Gerald. He works Aisle 43 and steals from the breakroom. He roots for free food, and he gets it.
He walks in, puts a chair on the table, stands on it, and hangs his plastic bag of snacks on a nail sticking out of the ceiling, out of reach, practically out of sight, of anyone. Then he grabs everyone else's bags, wherever they might be hanging, and empties them on the table. He takes what he likes and he leaves.
We come into the breakroom and our food is scattered about like loose change, nickels and dimes, fruits and vegetables. But there's no one to complain to. He's one step ahead of us. He shares all his loot with the supervisors.
Katarina works on the field level. Her one and only responsibility is to walk old folks up and down the stairs behind Aisle 2. But every spring, just before the home opener, she tells the supervisors she's pregnant and can't possibly walk up and down the stairs. For the next six months, she stands at her post, fielding compliments, taking suggestions for baby names, and letting old people rub and touch her tummy. Then every fall, just before the season's final home game, she tells the supervisors she's had a miscarriage and can walk the stairs again, today, if they'd like. Five seasons I've known her: five pregnancies, five miscarriages. Just to get out of walking the stairs.
Ben works Aisle 23, deep in right field. He taught me everything I didn't learn at usher orientation. Don't wear your name tag; it makes you identifiable. Ask your supervisor for money every time you see him; eventually he'll stop coming around. Ben keeps a gun in his truck and he laughs like a girl, and every bouncer in the city knows his name. When the money is good and when he can afford some himself, he sells pot to the fans in the parking lot.
He runs an alcohol-for-minors phone paging service in the off-season, so he misses games here and there during prom time. Ben knows the ins and the outs, the do's and don'ts. He roots for teenage girls and their phone numbers.
The undercover, out-of-uniform, second-job cops at the ballpark are even worse than the ushers. They sneak their off-duty cop friends in, hundreds of Žem, night after night after night. In the middle innings, when security's CBs crackle with trouble, when packs of out-of-shape rent-a-cops race through the aisles to be the first to the scene of the crime, nine times out of ten it's an off-duty cop who started the fightdrunk, tired, and fed up with the profanity of a tattooed punk three rows ahead of him, a kid who talked back once too often. The second-job cops and the rent-a-cop cops escort the off-duty cops from their seats up the stairs to a place out of sight from the punks they just beat up in the stands; then they brush Žem off and find 'em better digs, closer up. After games they all meet for drinks at the ShortStop.
Inevitably someone crosses the line. Me, Katarina, Ben, Gerald, anyonesick of work, sick of working, or tired. We take it too far, or not far enough, or take it out on the wrong person entirely. And then it's just a matter of time. A report is filed and a supervisor awakened. He emerges from the breakroom sleepily, his hair ruffled, breath bad, sunglasses on to cover his eyes.
There are three different punishments, depending on the severity of the infraction. I've done them all: Tarp Crew, Bleachers, and the Dungeon.
You wake up early on a Saturday for Tarp Crew and go to the park around breakfast. There's a five-hundred-pound blue tarp rolled and tucked against the third base wall in foul territory, largely ornamentalthere's been only two rainouts at Dodger Stadium in the last eleven yearsbut still, the Tarp Crew rolls and unrolls that bastard every fucking Saturday. Inside the tarp is the mildew and mustard of forty magical years, and rolling it out is a hundred-yard dash pushing a five-hundred-pound rolling pin that smells like a dog in a car. Back and forth you go, rolling and unrolling that beast, sucking in its polluted, pallid air. If you're one step ahead, you fall over its top and disappear. If you're one step behind, you fall facedown in a cumulative L.A. puddle, vintage, preserved after years in the making. Four consecutive Saturdays, and any rain games in between, and you're released to go back to your aisle.
Then, there's the Bleachers. In Dodger Stadium, a twelve-foot-wide walkway separates the outfield fence and the first row of seats in the bleachers. No one but employees are allowed in this walkway. During batting practice, hundreds of balls land there, though, so front-row fans jump the rail into the walkway to get the balls. It's a fourteen-foot drop. More than one Olympian makes the hop and lands with an extra bone in his shorts. An usher's job is to see to it no one jumps.
You stand facing the seats, your back to the field, watching the folks in the bleachers, not the players. Meanwhile, ninety-mile-per-hour roc-kets from the batting cage whiz past you and through you, nonstop. They smack your ass, crack your elbows, ricochet off your shoulders, and short-hop the back of your nuts. Take one on the head and kids fight for the bounce.
Batting practice lasts for ninety minutes, and then there's the national anthem, and then the game begins. First aid is full of ushers by the anthem.
Finally, there's the Dungeon, an off-limits dust-cave deep in the bowels of the stadium. The Dungeon is a shortcut between the field and the loge levels, and occasionally vendors sneak through with their goods. But no one is allowed in the Dungeon except the usher who works there. If anyone comes by, you send Žem back.
You can't see or hear a thing from the Dungeonnot the P.A. announcer, not the organ, not the rhythmic stomping and cheering of the crowd, not Vin Scully's voice piped through a company intercom, nothing. You can read, sing, masturbate, play echo with yourself, do whatever you want, no one cares. Ben once worked a sixteen-inning night game in the Dungeon without food or water. He had passed out by the time the supervisor came to tell him the game was over.
The scary thing is, it's the punishments that save you, that keep you coming back day to day. They're highlights to monotony, an usher's own SportsCenter, complete with bruises, insults, and exhaustion.
Me? I improvise. I go with the flow. Today it was windy, so I farted. I stood behind my Aisle 6 blue-hairs and farted and farted and farted and farted out the foul stench of my intestine's short memory. And when the blue-hairs turned around and gave me dirty looks in the first, third, fourth, sixth, seventh, and ninth innings, I turned around, too, and gave dirty looks to whoever happened to be walking by. I copied their faces and I copied their thoughts, what everyone was thinking, all fifty thousand.
And what they were thinking was this: we're assholes. Ushers are assholes. We asshole around together, just waiting to get fired for being assholes.
But sometimes, during day games, when the night is wide open, I remember what it was like when I cared. Quick one-two-three innings in emerging pitchers' duels. Kids passing out candy. Drunks running the bases. The sun, the girls, the assholes.
And I think to myself, at my post, between pitches: you can't walk away from this job. You can get fired. Sure. Maybe. Anyone can get fired. But no one can just walk away.
JORDAN HENRY lives within a stone's throw of Dodger Stadium in Echo Park,
California. He resigned from his post after the 1999 season and now sneaks
into games for free.
© 2000 Jordan Henry
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