(Ed. Note: I found myself falling into the “Chasing Amy” philosophy with my writing this week. I finally had something personal to say. However, despite Ms. A’s protestations to the contrary, some things just ARE too long for the Internet. To that end, this is part one of at least two on something that took me about 30 years to get to write. I hope you enjoy it. – Doc)
It’s 7 a.m. and several vans, trucks and SUVs crawl into the parking lot of a local exhibit hall.
Grunting as they dismount from their steel steeds, the men can see their breath as they start to unload their wares.
They balance giant plastic tubs and cardboard boxes on top of rickety carts. A few of them have homemade display cases that wobble about as the carts move.
The event this week is in the Presidents Hall. Giant oil paintings of past presidents hang throughout the room.
Massive brass chandeliers hang overhead. They are great for an effect, but lousy for improving the lighting in here.
The room is chilly and the heat isn’t on. A guy who looks like Kenny Rogers directs people to their designated areas.
The men say little as they unpack. A few girls have accompanied their fathers so they can help out.
One woman, who is hawking cosmetics, shares a table with her husband who is a regular at these events. She has placed a large sheet cake on the table with a simple sign: Pineapple Upside-Down Cake. $1.50 per slice. She is the oddball in this collection of oddballs.
The men bang about as they find their spots in the giant hall.
One guy shouts, “Don’t trust that prick! He’s under Nixon.” A smattering of laughter cuts through the air.
All told, there will be about 15 dealers here, displaying upwards of $1 million in merchandise.
It’s Sunday morning. It’s the sports card show I’ve waited my whole life for.
It’s all my fault. And I don’t mind a bit.
It’s my fault that my mother lost half of her linen closet, her back bedroom and most of her basement.
It’s my fault she has six sets of old library card catalog files in her back room.
It’s my fault that we were within six inches of having half the house collapse into the basement. (Luckily, the main support beam for the house was extra wide.)
When I was 6 years old, I came home from school and started a 30-year journey from bonding experience to hobby to obsession for my father. I did it with the simplest question and without intentional malice.
“Dad, can we get some baseball cards?”
Dad pushes our hand truck of three Tupperware tubs into the room. I’m following with a couple giant framed posters of Brett Favre. Howie, the guy we’ll be next to, has promised to buy one of these from us before we leave.
The men here are men’s men. Dirty, ratty baseball caps, unshaven faces and flannel shirts. Some wear jerseys of their favorite players. Scarred faces, misshapen arms and balding heads. When they laugh, they reveal missing or brownish teeth.
The laughs are frequent.
A guy named Tim yells from the corner, “What did Michael Jackson say on his deathbed?”
When no one responds, he adds, “Take me to children’s hospital.”
The laughter fills the room.
When I was a kid, there was a Rexall’s Pharmacy about two blocks from my grade school. We’d just moved into the neighborhood a year or two earlier and friends were hard to come by for a diminutive hermit.
Mom tried to buy some friends in a round about way. She paid a local stay-at-home mom to watch me after school for an hour until Mom was done with work. She also had to drop me off for an hour before school. The woman had three kids at the school, one of whom was in my grade, so we trouped off to school together each day and came home the same way.
On the way home, we’d often rework our route so we could pass by Rexall’s for some penny candy. The dour-faced woman who worked the counter seemed to dread 2:55 p.m. every day. It would take years for me to fully understand why. Now, as an adult on the other side of the, “what can I get for a dime?” question, I understand her daily dose of Dante’s Inferno.
One day, one of the kids bought baseball cards. I was mesmerized. Not only did you get the picture cards, with trivia and photos and statistics on them, but you also got GUM!
After we got home that day, I asked Dad the question. The rest was history.
The men unpack their wares. Some have bed sheets they use as makeshift table cloths. The 8-foot tables are scarred with gouges and cigarette burns. The sheets give the tables a vague sense of dignity.
Dad bought a table and a half, the half being shared with Howie. We thus collectively control one side of an aisle, which I’ve lovingly dubbed “Asshole Alley.”
“Hey, I’m going to put my sheet over about an extra three inches to see if your old man notices,” Howie whispers. “Watch this.”
Dad notices right away.
“What the hell, Howie?” he asks with mock anger. “Trying to screw me already? Jesus Christ…”
Mock anger is a staple of the humor here. If you’ve got a thin skin or don’t understand this, it can make for a long day.
We’ll collect until you are bored, Dad told me. He figured it would last about a year.
We went to Rexall’s and bought a bunch of packs. We sorted the players into teams and used the checklists on the back of each card to see who we needed and who we had. Each team was rubber-banded together and stuck in a shoebox we kept on the top shelf of Mom’s linen closet.
Dad would take me to a card show on the north side of town once a month, if I’d been a good kid in the days preceding the show. At each show, there was a Kids Auction. Each dealer was told to pony up one item or group of items. Each kid 12 and under would write his or her name on a slip of paper and it went into the hat. Each kid had to pay a quarter when his or her name was picked. That quarter bought you the right to pick something off the table. It was a magical time filled with possibilities. Packs of cards, boxes of stuff, autographed balls, broken bats and more were all just a fingertip away. The tension as you waited for the guy with the microphone to call your name was palpable.
After I got my treasure from the table, Dad bought us a hot dog or pizza slice from the concession stand. We were usually home in time to catch the Packer game.
While Dad watched, I’d sort through my booty, figuring out what I got and what I’d be taking to school the next day to show the guys.
The tables are pretty well stocked at this point. Some guys are trickling in after 7:30 mass at Blessed Sacrament, which is just up the road. Those of us who either hit the Saturday mass or who are don’t bother with church are ready for action.
“Hey, Tim,” Howie yells. “You in on the pool this week?”
Tim shakes his head and says no, leaving Dad and Howie as the only participants.
The bet is simple: First sale of the day earns you a buck from the other guys in the pool.
The value, however, isn’t the dollar, but the bragging rights. Dad won last month and threatened to frame Howie’s dollar and bring it to every subsequent show. Again, the humor is something of an acquired taste.
“The kid bought something from me in the parking lot,” Dad says, pointing to me.
“NON-DEALER SALE, NON-DEALER SALE!” Howie barks. “None of this cheating bullshit.”
Shortly after his stipulation to the rules of the game, a seller shows up from the model car show down the hall. He buys one of Howie’s bobbleheads.
Howie wants his winnings.
“The guy’s a dealer, Howie,” I point out.
“He’s not a dealer in here,” Howie pushes back.
“You said dealer,” I insist. “Card dealer, car dealer, crack dealer. Dealer’s a dealer.”
“Jesus Christ,” he says to my father with mock disgust. “He’s your fucking kid all right…”
After the first few years of buying, Dad set the rules. We’ll collect for 10 years at most, he said. He bought a set from 1980, one year before we started co
llecting, with the logic that we’d then have one of every card from 1980 to 1990.
Back then, all we had was Topps. Collecting was pretty easy.
Dad said no football. Baseball only. I’m not getting into all sorts of extra stuff, he explained.
When I was sick or something, he’d buy a couple packs of football cards as a pick-me-up gift. He figured they had no value. I still give him crap about getting a Joe Montana rookie card somewhere along the way.
We stopped buying cards from Rexall’s by the pack. Too inefficient. Dad found a wholesale distributor called Vic’s, which was located in one of the worst parts of town. Every sign in the place was written in English and Spanish, long before this was a marketing ploy.
We’d buy cards by the box, open them up and sort them. We’d then build sets. Plural.
When we’d finish ordering them, we’d scour our doubles from previous boxes and see if we could complete the sets.
When that wasn’t possible, we’d write down the numbers of the cards we didn’t have and go out shopping. Card stores were popping up around town. Shows were becoming more frequent. We’d take our lists and cross off the numbers as we found the cards. Other guys at Dad’s office were also collecting, so trades were always possible. I still remember Dad coming home with a 1981 Johnny Wockenfuss that I swore was a myth. I also remember pulling one seemingly magical card from a pack and being excited because I heard that a card featuring a guy named Mickey was worth a ton of money.
Dad managed not to laugh as he explained the difference between a 1951 Mickey Mantle and a 1981 Mickey Klutts.
It’s 9 a.m. and people are filtering in. P.J., the guy running the show, has two girls staffing the card table at the door. Admission is a buck. I think kids under 12 are still free. At least, it used to be that way.
“I don’t think we’re going to make table,” Dad says with a look of concern.
Dealers pay $30 for a table at the show. Two tables can be had for $50. Dad and Howie split a table and a half, so we’re into this deal $40 from the start. Anything after $40 is profit.
When I was a kid, dealers always made profit. A guy Dad knew got laid off in about 1982 and when they wanted to bring him back later that year, he refused. Selling cards earned him more than his day job, so he became a full-time dealer. It was impossible to get a table at a show. Selling cards was like a license to print money in those halcyon days.
Now, with a lack of interest in the hobby, oversaturation of products, too much specialization and a recession, dealers think about making table first, everything else second.
Dad is one of the few guys who doesn’t need to worry one way or the other. He’s retired, has a good pension and has his house paid off. This is truly a hobby and a good way to spend a Sunday with his kid. Still, he doesn’t want to lose money, so he’s thinking about making table.
Howie sells a bobblehead to a real, live, non-dealer, so Dad’s out a buck.
“Shit,” Dad mutters as he hands Howie a dollar. “Now we’re down $41.”
As I got older, we got into some very strange collecting habits. Dad stopped buying cards from Vic’s. He worked out a deal with a dealer where we’d split a case of cards that came directly from the factory. A case, if memory serves, had about 12,000 cards in there. They came in 500-count boxes that needed to be sorted. We would often take over the dining room table with wobbling stacks of cards.
I stopped looking at the fronts of cards and only noticed the backs. Numbers mattered. Dad often worried from year to year if the font they’d use for the numbers would be large enough or clear enough to see. His eyes were getting older and bifocals wouldn’t be far off.
Sorting was a job.
We’d break the cards down into 100s, 200s, 300s, 400s, 500s, 600s and 700s. Then, we’d each grab a hundreds grouping and sort them into 10s, 20s and so forth. Then it would be 1, 1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3 and more. We’d usually settle on a certain number of sets we’d try to pull out of the case. Usually, we’d have one really raggedy set that needed lots of help. We always tried to squeeze out one more than we really could.
We also look for cards while on vacations. One year, Dad and I found a set of homerun hitters put out by the Circle K stores in Arizona. Dad bought as many as he could get his hands on, leading to a great deal of cussing by my mother, who had to find a way to pack all of these damned things in her suitcase.
I was starting a few separate projects as well. One year in the kids’ auction, I got a stack of 1971 Topps cards. I sorted them, made a list of what I was missing and set about on a mission to build the set. Of course, what I didn’t realize was that these cards were rare, expensive and required some serious perseverance. Dad would chip in some cash for some cards. For Christmas one year, I got Nolan Ryan and Al Kaline. Some times, I’d clean something or cut the lawn or do some other menial labor to get cash to pour into the set.
The last card we found was in an Arizona card store/pawnshop. It took three years in those pre-eBay days to find it.
It cost $2.50. I would have paid $250 if I had to.
Never one to leave money on the table, Dad haggled it down to $2.25.
One of the guys Dad knows stops by the table to say hi. They talk about other shows, old guys they know and such. Then the guy breaks out this joke:
A man comes home to find his wife packing a suitcase.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
“Las Vegas,” she says. “I saw on TV that prostitution is legal down there and you can get $400 for a blowjob. I figure if I’m doing that already, I should get paid for it.”
The man immediately grabs a second suitcase and begins to pack his stuff.
“Where are you going?” his wife asks.
“I’m going with you,” he says. “I want to see how you can live on $800 a year.”
The laughter kicks up something fierce. I honestly think this is the last place where off-color jokes are told without fear someone is being insulted.
Not even bars are this open.
As the guy wanders off, somebody shows up at Dad’s table and examines our wares. We try to look helpful without being stalkerish.
“You see something you like, let me know,” Dad says. “We can cut you a deal.”
The person picks through a couple packs of cards, fingers a few of our higher-priced cards and then moves on.
“No way we make table today,” Dad says.
It’s only 9:30.
Why don’t we have a table? I asked Dad once when I was about 12 or 13.
We don’t have enough stuff, Dad explained.
Mom would have begged to differ at this point in life. Dad had not only taken over most of the linen closet, but had filled the back half of his own closet with cards.
One winter, we were taking inventory. We dug out all the sets we had and laid them across Mom and Dad’s bed. We had put about two-thirds of them away when Mom showed up and said, “Oh my GOD! You guys have THAT MANY CARDS?”
The battle was constant. Dad wanted the linen closet, Mom wasn’t giving it up. Mom wanted Dad to put the cards in the basement. Dad feared moisture.
By now, cards had started to evolve a bit more. It wasn’t just wax packs, but collector’s packs, rack packs, specialty cards and such. While these had been around for a while, the importance of garnering them took on new meaning around this part of the 1980s.
Dad was appalled when Upper Deck came out and was charging 99 cents per pack for glossy cards with images on the front and back.
“It’ll be a cold day in hell before I spend a buck a pack for cards,” he said on more than one occasion.
However, if a food product during the 1980s or early 1990s was using baseball cards to entice a purchase, chances were pretty good that we ate it at my house.
When Gardner Bread put out a series of cards to commemorate the Milwaukee Brewers, we bought 10 loaves at a time and froze them. Dad would have me sort through the bread at the store, looki
ng for guys we needed. The trick was to shake the loaf a certain way so the card would slide down toward transparent spot on the package so you could see who was in there.
The cards some company put into granola bars created a bigger problem. Shaking the boxes didn’t help you figure out who was inside. Dad attacked the problem head on by buying cases of these things. I think the worst mistake I ever made in life was answering “yes” when Dad asked, “You like granola bars, don’t you?”
For about three years, the giant stand-up freezer in the basement was stocked with granola bars and bread. Since you can’t foist bread off on little kids, granola bars were a staple snack around the house. Whenever I had friends over to play, Dad was pumping them full of granola bars. It got so bad that no one wanted to come over and play Atari, for fear of my fiber-peddling father.
A guy in a Greg Jennings jersey comes up and picks through the 50-cent packages of NASCAR cards we have for sale. He disappears and returns a minute later with a friend sporting another jersey that I can’t identify.
The non-Jennings guy counts up the packs and comes up with 26 of them.
“How much if I bought them all,” he asks.
Dad ponders it for a minute. He’s not really pondering, though. I’ve seen this before. He’s going to say $10. It’s simple. It’s easy. It’s a cut but not too big of a cut. Plus it’ll put us about a quarter of the way to making table.
“How about $10?” Dad asks, feigning a slight look of pain.
The guy agrees to $10 for all of them. Dad piles them up and the guy asks for a bag.
We don’t have any. They’re somewhere in the basement.
“Hey, Howie,” Dad hollers. “Got a bag?”
“Jesus Christ,” Howie calls back. “The bags come free when you buy shit at, y’know, Walmart. Try doing that sometime.”
He hands over a bag and we bag up the stuff for the guy.
A good sale, but now the big problem is now evident: since we don’t have any bags, every person we sell something to is likely to ask for one.
Sure enough, the next guy at the table is looking at some plastic sports figures we’ve got, still in their boxes from 1988. The boxes are about a foot tall and the cellophane on them has yellowed. The tape holding the box shut is yellow as well. The players are a “who cares” from the 1980s. Wade Boggs, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis. Twice. We’ve got $2 each on them.
“How much if I take them all?” The guy asks.
Dad ponders it for a minute. The trick is to give the guy a sense that you’re really thinking about this. Dad’s a pro.
What he’s calculating isn’t just the money. He’s figuring, “If I sell these things, I don’t have to repack them, take them home and bring them back again.”
“How about $5 for all of them?”
“Hey, Howie! You got another bag?”
(Continues next week. Thanks for reading. Doc)