Studying the Free Market at Harvard

It was September 1979 and the school guidance counselor wanted to set up an interview for me and my friend Mike with some guys starting up a concession business at Harvard Stadium.  Hot dogs, popcorn, that sort of thing.  Would we be interested?  We looked at each other.  “What’s it pay?” Mike asked.  Mike was type of guy who liked to know up-front about money.  This was a trait I would come to admire in him over the next few months.  The guidance counselor hadn’t thought to ask about the pay.  We decided to check it out anyway.

It made sense that we had been sought out for the Harvard job.  Mike and I had both worked as vendors at Fenway Park for the past two summers, so we knew about selling food and handling cash at large sporting events.  We were both sophomores at Latin—Boston Latin School, founded in 1635, the oldest public school in the nation, alma mater to Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and countless other cultural luminaries.  I suspect that our connection to Latin meant more than our experience at Fenway to our would-be Harvard employers.  To have Latin School boys peddling their wares at ye olde Harvard Stadium seemed traditional somehow.  Classy, even.

Mike and I showed up in Cambridge a week later, an hour before kick-off, as we’d been instructed.  The guys running this operation, it was clear, were new to concessions.  We were the only vendors they’d hired, and there were no cooks or tray-setters. It was just the two of us and the two of them.  We helped them get the dogs cooked, the popcorn popped, the cokes chilled, and all of it loaded into trays, but it was a pretty last-minute job.  They had hats, I think, but that was about all they had for us by way of uniform.  Just before the game started, they began to run us through the price-list they’d worked up.

“Okay, boys,” the first guy said. “The hot dogs are fifty cents.”

“Do you have buttons?” Mike asked.

“What kind of buttons?” the guy responded.

At Fenway, you had to wear a big button indicating the price of the thing you were selling.  In a large and loud crowd, it made it easier when people asked, How much?  Instead of yelling, you just pointed to the button.

The Harvard guys didn’t have any buttons.  Mike said out of the corner of his mouth, “McDonough, dogs are a buck now.”  We went through the rest of the list with the guys, and after each one, Mike would say, “McDonough,” and he would double the price.  By the end of the drill, he was just giving me a knowing look.

Harvard Stadium was an easier place to sell concessions than Fenway, where the bosses were constantly patrolling the park to make sure people were working.  These guys were too busy in the booth outside trying to keep up with cooking and pouring drinks.  They had no idea how much we were charging in the stadium.  When we were done selling one tray, we would return, give them the amount they were expecting, and help them load up the next tray.  Then off we’d go through a side-entrance to the stadium, waved through by the security guards, who were all very friendly.

In fact, everybody was friendly.  The people who came out to see Harvard play on Sunday afternoons, I discovered, were nowhere near as unruly as Red Sox fans were.  They never complained about our overpriced hot-dogs or Cokes.  I started to feel a little bad about ripping them off, but Mike’s heart was hard.  “Ah, fuck ‘em,” he’d say. “Nobody’s forcing them to buy anything.”

A few weeks later, Mike took me aside just as we were going back to re-load our trays.  “You know what this guy just told me?” he asked, nodding his head toward the security guard.  “These are all general admission seats.”  So what?  “So what?!  It means that all you gotta do is show your stub to the guy and he lets you in.  There’s no assigned seat.  Nobody’s gonna yell at you for where you’re sitting.”

He showed me a ticket stub he had in his hand, and indeed, it did say General Admission.  When I pointed out that we weren’t here to watch the game, he rolled his eyes.  “McDonough, McDonough, McDonough,” he sighed in exasperation.  “Come with me.”

We walked past our hapless bosses at the concession booth, over to the vicinity of the ticket office.  Mike accosted someone standing in line.  Tickets were eight bucks, but Mike offered to sell him the stub for four.  In a matter of seconds, the deal was done, and Mike was four dollars richer.

As we made our way back into the stadium, I asked him where he had gotten the stub. “I traded a dog to somebody for it,” he said, smiling.  “Not bad, huh?  Eight hundred percent mark-up.”  We had been studying economics at school, but it had not occurred to me that our lessons might have some practical application.

By the time Mike had stumbled on his stubs-for-dogs racket, there was only one game left in the season, so we never really had a chance to test the boundaries of this unfettered free market.  And although the prospects for profit were bright, neither of us went back to the Stadium the next year.  By that time, we were juniors, which meant we could work night-games at Fenway selling beer.  “There’s better money selling beer to drunks,” Mike told me.  I was certain that he knew what he was talking about.

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About Uncomely and Broken

I teach Latin and Greek at The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.
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One Response to Studying the Free Market at Harvard

  1. Pingback: Pickle Juice and Defeat | uncomelyandbroken

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