Thursday, August 10, 2006

Gate 9

Bill Glahn writes:

I needed a little extra cash so I signed on with the Ozarks Empire Fair as a ticket taker for the 10-day duration from July 28 to August 6. The car payment was overdue. So were the phone and Internet service payments. The $5.35/hr pay sucked, but there was an opportunity to put in a lot of hours in a short period of time. On my first day at work. they took one look at me and reassigned me to Gate 9. They explained that it was a parking lot job, but that they would still pay me the $5.35 rate instead of a drop to $5.15. Thanks.

Instead of handing me a little red flag to wave cars into open spaces, they handed me a walkie-talkie programmed to Channel 3. Channel 3 is the security channel. “Don’t let any traffic proceed down Smith Street past the Gate 9 entry,” I was told. Gate 9 is the entry to the west parking lot, by far the biggest at the fair. Smith Street is designated one-way during the fair. At Gate 9 a wooden barricade blocked the northernmost lane of Smith. An orange barrel, the other. I was to move the orange barrel only for fair operational people, emergency vehicles, and the crew and performers for the grandstand shows. In short, I was the last line of defense against traffic that wanted to continue down Smith to Grant Ave, a main artery. Or the fans who wanted to get to the backstage area at Gate 10, just 100 yards down the road. Or the farmers who wanted to take a short cut to Gate 7, which lay beyond Gate 10 close to Grant. All these people I had to direct through the west parking lot and instruct them that they would have to head south through the parking lot, exit, and then make 2 or 3 left hand turns to get to the place they wanted to go. That place was clearly visible a couple of football fields downhill on Smith from Gate 9. Not many wanted to hear that, from Gate 9 onward, Smith was closed to traffic by order of the Springfield City Council.

Gate 9 has history. “Last year, the Gate 9 attendant walked off the job on his first day,” Ellen, one of the supervisors in security told me. “He said he wasn’t getting paid enough to take so much abuse. I had to finish his shift and find somebody else.” Of course, she told me this four or five days into my employment, and by that time I already knew as much. On day two this year, a taxi zoomed through the barricade during the morning shift and sent the orange barrel airborne, hitting the golf cart of one of the supes riding to the gate to explain why he couldn’t go through. The morning shift attendant had little desire to stay after the incident.

My shift started at 3 p.m. each day and ran through 11 p.m. During one of the year’s worst heat waves, Gate 9 offered no shelter from the elements. By the time I reported to work each day, the asphalt was melting. A pair on sandals ruined by day 2; a pair of sneakers by day 4. And the tempers of the people in the cars were already frazzled by the time they got to Gate 9. I couldn’t blame them. I couldn’t let them through either. I needed the paycheck. So, no matter how much abuse was hurled my way, I remained polite.

“No, ma’am, I can’t move the barrel for you. You have to exit through the parking lot and take Norton to Grant.”

“No sir, there are no exceptions.”

“Yes sir, I realize your hogs are just down the road inside Gate 7. City Council has designated this stretch of road for emergency and operational use only.”

Sometimes, expletives were hurled at me in response. Tires screeched as frustrated drivers stomped on the gas as they entered the parking lot. A couple of farmers threatened to kick my ass if I didn’t move the barricade.

“No, sir. I can’t do that. I need this job.” Neither followed up. Sometimes there is an advantage to being physically intimidating. Even when you don’t mean to be.

I lost my composure only once.

It was on Sunday July 30, day three on the job. At about 6 p.m., a new Cadillac DTS pulled up to the barrier. I approached the driver’s side window.

A cool blast of AC hit me as the driver rolled down his window. He seemed to be in his late 60s or early 70s. A woman of similar age sat in the passenger seat. Both wore scowls that seemed permanently fixed. They were obviously well-off, dressed in conservative finery. Neither seemed as though they had allowed themselves the discomfort of exiting their air-conditioned domain for any time longer than it took them to go from their house to their car.

“I don’t want to go to the fair. Move the barricade,” the man barked at me in a manner that indicated he was used to getting his way.

“I’m sorry, sir. Smith Street is closed to all traffic from this point onward. You’ll have to proceed through the parking lot to Norton and exit there.”

“I am going down to Grant. Move the barrel.”

“I can’t do that, sir. Please proceed through the parking lot.”

The guy looked at my name badge and took note. “I know many important people in this city. I can have your job. This isn’t a request. I said move the barrel.”

I gave him the city ordinance spiel. He reiterated what an important a member of the business community he was. I would “have to make an exception."

By now I was ticked off. “Well, sir, if any of your important buddies are on city council, take it up with them. But if you want that barrel moved, you’ll have to get out and move it yourself. And there will be another barricade further down the road. You’ll have to get out of your air conditioning and move that one too. Do you think you can handle it?”

“Look. If you don’t move the barrel, I will sit here until traffic backs up to the zoo.”

The zoo is about a mile back on Smith; by the early evening rush, traffic was probably backed up to the zoo anyway. So I called his bluff with one of my own. “Then I guess we’ll just have to get a tow truck.” I pressed the button on the walkie-talkie. “Gate 9 to security. We have a car that won’t move and it’s blocking traffic.”

As the guy turned his wheels to pull into the parking lot, his wife leaned over and said, “This makes you not even want to go to the fair.”

“Ma’am – the first thing your husband told me was that you didn’t want to go to the fair. No loss there.”

I returned to being Mr. Polite. But no matter how many cars offered up some bottled water or Pepsis to this beleaguered “ticket taker” (and there were several), there weren’t enough random acts of kindness to make me like this job any better.

Then came Tuesday night.

Miranda Lambert was the headliner. Although I’m unfamiliar with her music, she did a fine version of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” during her sound check. Come downtown / Have to rumble in the alley. I laughed to myself. Out of nine lives, I spent seven / Now, how in the world do you get to Heaven / Oh, you don’t know the shape I’m in. It was perfect dark comedy – this heat was about to burn number eight right out of me.

I had been instructed to let the wife of one of the fair board members through Gate 9 to meet Lambert and view the show from backstage. Rank has its privileges.

She proceeded through to Gate 10 at around 7:30. The show started at 8 p.m.

About 8:10 a ragged-looking car approached the gate. An old Dodge (I think) from the mid-80s. One of the cheap models. Definitely on its last legs. Definitely the car of a person who is struggling. I motioned the car into the parking lot but it stopped. I approached the driver’s window. It was a lady, slightly overweight, not well-dressed.

“I’m late. I got lost. I need to get to Gate 10. They’re waiting for us there.”

“Who is ‘us’?”

“The name on the guest list is Gypsy Rose [I don’t remember the last name]. This is Gypsy Rose and she’s a big fan of Miranda Lambert’s. We’re backstage guests, and Gypsy Rose is supposed to meet her tonight.”

I glanced over at the passenger seat. Gypsy Rose might have been 10 or 11 but her frail body was more that of a 6-year-old. She was dressed in a new t-shirt and new baseball hat, probably the best “duds” her mom could afford. There was no hair protruding out of the cap. She had what looked like a surgical wrap around her neck. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me with wide hopeful eyes.

I got on the walkie-talkie. “I have Gypsy Rose at Gate 9. She doesn’t have a Gate 10 pass, but she was told to go to Gate 10 for entry.”

The response was what I expected. “Gate 10 is shut down. We’ll check to see if she’s on the guest list and then she’ll have to go to Gate 5A.”

Then word came back that she wasn’t on the Gate 5A list.

I wasn’t going to dash this girl’s dreams. “Bill, can you come down to Gate 9?”

Bill Cantrell was my direct supervisor and I had grown to know him as a genuinely nice guy who had enough years (16) with the Fair to get things done. I told Gypsy Rose and her mom not to worry. Her mom kept apologizing for being late. Gypsy Rose never said anything, and I realized that she couldn’t vocalize. But, damn, she could communicate. And what she kept saying with her eyes was that this was the biggest thing in her life. She was excited and kept bouncing up and down in her seat with anticipation. She wasn’t discouraged. She gave no indication that she had anything but the highest appreciation for life.

I explained the situation to Cantrell. He broke through the red tape – got hold of one of the stage crew and found out that Gypsy Rose was indeed expected and that everyone was worried when she didn’t arrive. While Bill arranged for a customer services vehicle to transport Gypsy Rose and her wheelchair to Gate 10, I chatted her up with questions that didn’t require more than a shaking of her head. Her body language spoke so much more.

“Have you ever seen Miranda Lambert before?” (No)

“Do you like her CD?” (Big shake yes)

“Are you excited?” (Her whole body started bouncing up and down and her hands clapped together as she put special emphasis on her yes nod.)

The customer services guy lifted her onto the cart and as she sped toward Gate 10, I yelled “Have fun!” The smile she flashed back to me was only surpassed by the one she had on her face the next day when she and her mom stopped by to show me pictures. It was a smile that will be embedded in my brain forever.

The rest of the week was a breeze.

Mr. & Mrs. Cadillac DTS are probably still miserable people. But that’s their problem. I’m feeling just fine.