Last night Sarah and I were at the Mets game, a big win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. Sarah stepped away to get some food in the fifth inning and a few moments later the usher came over to check my tickets. That almost never happens. You see, sneaking into better seats is quasi-accepted tradition in baseball. It’s definitely not allowed, but it is tolerated within certain unwritten guidelines. I’ve been to a whole lot of baseball games, so I feel comfortable sharing some of those guidelines with you.
The main guideline is: don’t get greedy. Obviously sneaking down from the worst upper deck seats to field level seats is a bit of a stretch. The most expensive seats intended for stock brokers, salesmen, IBankers and other corporate types who don’t actually like baseball. These are pretty hard to sneak into as there are actual protected entrances to keep out the riff raff. The seats just below the upper deck? Not nearly as well protected.
Another rule that’s very important to the on the sly seat upgrader is to make your move later in the game. The ushers are usually very attentive in the early innings. They are on the lookout for folks who need assistance locating seat 7 in row 4 as those folks are usually good for a dollar tip. You wipe their seats, you smile graciously, you pocket your tip. They also serve to prevent conflicts created by people arguing over seating, which seems like a very reasonable and useful goal. By the sixth or seventh inning, the crowd has often started to thin and the ushers are usually much less interested in their policing responsibilities. This is especially true if the home team is getting the stuffing knocked out of them.
The ushers will sometimes check tickets if they see people going to sit in seats that may not be their own, but they rarely check the tickets of people who have been sitting in their seats for four innings. In fact, they usually don’t check tickets at all unless they think you look suspicious when compared to the quality of the seats you’re trying to sit in. You see, that’s the third big rule to be aware of. Don’t look suspicious. The trouble is, just being black is considered suspicious in this context.
“Sometimes I hate life. You know why? Because I was born a suspect. All black people, born suspects.”
I’ve seen plenty of instances where a group of old white men with upper deck tickets clutched in their hands sat themselves down in a section without a worry in their minds. I’ve also seen the (usually elderly white gentlemen) who serve as ushers sprint all the way across a section to check the tickets of a Black or Latino family looking for their seats. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen people of all races, ages and backgrounds acting as seat scofflaws. It’s just that being young, or non-white, or hip hop automatically make you look suspicious. That’s simply unfair.
Logistically, the ushers cannot check every single person’s ticket to ensure that it matches the seat they are sitting in. So, they have to make snap decisions about when and how to enforce this mostly unenforceable rule. It’s in these situations that long held biases seep out and effect our behavior. It’s in these circumstances that the hidden message that blackness implies “poverty” or “sneakiness” or “otherness” is driven into all of our subconscious minds. One hit isn’t very hard alone, but together all of these little impacts accumulate. They become a chorus of background voices that can effect what we hear and what we say in our more important interactions with people from different backgrounds.
They can effect the places we choose to go and the things we choose to do. On Friday night, Sarah drove home and I sat in the back seat as my band made our way back from the gig. I had been thinking of driving, but the reality of “Driving While Black” profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike made me think twice. I was surprised by that myself.
The effect of these experiences can effect how we interpret a situation where a cop arrests a frail elderly black professor in his own home. Was that racism? Perhaps not, the situation seems very complex and has a lot to do with our current servile attitude towards authority figures such as police officers. At the same time, it’s hard for me to really believe that a white grandpa figure in his home in Cambridge would have been similarly handcuffed and brought to jail. Is that a bias of my own? After a lifetime of being treated differently because I am a black man, often by cops and other authority figures looking for suspicious people, perhaps so. If you’ve never been detained by cops for being black, that might be hard to understand.
It might be hard to understand why every time I hear someone call Oprah or Obama or Professor Gates an “elitist” I hear “uppity”. It might seem odd that whenever I hear someone challenge Obama’s birth certificate I hear “black people are not really Americans”.
White conservatives love to talk about “race baiting” and “playing the race card”. I wonder if they would feel the same way if white skin meant “suspicious”? Would they feel the same way if the children they love were treated the same way? I doubt it. That’s the funny thing about human nature, the other guys problems always seem so petty and small.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the usher who checked my ticket is a nice enough guy. I’ve sat in the same seats for 9 out of the 50 or so Mets home games this year. This gentleman was about five feet away from me in a section of maybe 200 people for almost all of those games. We’ve even had some decent conversations about baseball. He never even saw my ticket, to be honest with you. Once I reached confidently into my pocket he told me not to worry. Maybe he started to recognize me, or maybe he read the confidence with which I reacted to his challenge. Hard to say.
In any case, I always sit in my assigned seat because I know that being black makes me a suspect. Always. At this point, I can imagine that many people are thinking to themselves, “is this really worth complaining about?” The thing is, there are many areas of life that are still exactly like this. It’s just not fair. It’s tiring. The thing is, I don’t have any great suggestion to fix this, other than being honest with ourselves and patient enough to wait for the future.
Big Mets win, by the way.