The Lady On the Line (And Some Hot Tips About the TKTS Booth)

It was late July, after the heat wave had broken, and I was on a mission – to obtain half-price tickets to The Explorer’s Club. The show would be closing soon, and the better-half – who wanted to see it – was about to take off on one of his work-related do-gooding missions.

I got on the Play Express line at 2:00, an hour before it opened. The Play Express line, for those unfamiliar with the Times Square discount tickets booth, sells tickets only to non-musical plays. It’s located on the west side of the kiosks. Not only is this line much shorter than the two other general lines on either side of the kiosks, but the odds of getting to see the show you want to see are high, as most people who come to TKTS want musicals. I knew arriving early would get me one of the first spots.I’d be out quickly once the booths opened.

(Hot Tip #1 – Always check online for what time they open as it’s different on different days.)

I was the fourth person on the Play Express line, and was having a lovely chat with the woman in front of me. She was from South Carolina by way of Ohio, had retired there with her husband to be near her daughter and the grandkids. Wasn’t sure she particularly liked it, missed her friends and the feeling of being in a real city. It was her first time in New York City, a big anniversary trip, and she and her better half were having a ball. She’d seen Motown – The Musical the night before, paying full price. She was hoping  to score tickets to The Trip to Bountiful. We talked about the awesomeness of Cicely Tyson. She asked me what she thought her chances were of getting that show. I told her given where she was, the chances were excellent. We discussed many things including where to find the best Ethiopian food in New York. (She was planning a trip to Awash. I mentioned that Massawa was my favorite.)

She was afraid she might not have enough cash and she’d read somewhere that some shows didn’t take credit cards. I told her not to worry about it. All the Broadway shows take credit, and only a handful of the off-Broadway shows are cash only.

(Hot tip #2 – If you have any off-Broadway show on your list, ALWAYS check first in the online TKTS profile to see if it’s “cash only.”)

She asked if the many people coming around to the line were trying to sell us anything. I explained that the young people in the red uniforms worked there. They were just trying to be helpful. The rest might be hawking particular shows, but they weren’t selling tickets, just advising that those shows were available for discount. Kind of like commercials except interactive and live. Actual ticket scalpers are rare near the line, though one man was within shouting distance calling out he had Book of Mormon, to no takers.

Around 2:30, the people on the general line pulled up alongside us. They had been in a kind of pre-line line further back, but  were rounded up and brought forward. The woman in front on the general line had a problem. She’d been there since 1:00 and didn’t understand why we latecomers were ahead of her. The man who works on the west side of the booth, whose name I don’t know, but it’s always the same guy, so I’ll call him Mard which is Urdu for ‘guy,’ was trying to explain that she was still the first on her line and would be getting to a cashier at the same time as the first person on the Play Express line. But she wasn’t getting it, still convinced that somehow the Big Bad Apple was ripping her off.

Eddie comes along with his clip-board and patter asking people how many are in their party like he’s there on official business. He’s always there, touting some restaurant (I don’t know which one, but it’s always the same one, which he insists is ‘the best in the City’ and ‘where all the Broadway and movie stars go.’) He chats folks up and and gives them a coupon for a free drink with dinner if they show their ticket stub, and reminds them, “Make sure you tell them Eddie sent you.”

I’m  tempted after he’s gone to warn people that they’d do better heading a couple of blocks west and exploring the many fine and inexpensive eateries on Ninth Avenue, but I keep my mouth shut.

At about five to three, Mard moves those of us in front to a roped off area by the Play Express box office which opens at exactly three. The nice tourist-lady ahead of me gets her Bountiful tickets. As she walks away, we exchange smiles and thumbs ups, and it’s a beautiful day, and I’m thinking about how much I love New York, and how good it feels to act as an ambassador for my home town.

Then I ask for tickets to The Explorer’s Club, which I don’t see on the board, but per the website, they frequently have tickets for, so I’m pretty confident. The cashier gets up from his stool and has to go somewhere to check on this. He comes back and tells me they have tickets, but it’s cash only.

Me, a native New Yorker and frequent flyer at the booth, but this is the first time I’ve run into this. Given that The Explorer’s Club is only a block east of the Broadway theaters at historic City Center, it didn’t occur to me I wouldn’t be able to use a card.

He can read my expression and knows I don’t have cash.

He tells me he’ll hold the tickets, and I can come back. No wait. Mard will let me through the rope.

I go in search of a cash machine, which you’d think would be easy to find in Times Square but somehow not at that moment. I go into a hotel lobby where a friendly employee informs me that they don’t have an ATM. She asks what bank I have. I tell her Chase. She smiles and tells me there’s a Duane Reade down the block. Then I smile and thank her because we are both New Yorkers, and we know that Duane Reade has Chase ATMs and I won’t get charged a fee. Score!

So I get my cash and skip back to the line. It took a while because I had to find a machine and when I did someone was using it, so maybe twelve minutes have passed. Mard recognizes me and lets me through the rope.

The cashier is with a customer. So I speak to the next customer waiting, asking if she’ll let me ahead of her as I was just there and it turned out my show was cash only, and the cashier is holding my tickets because I just went to get cash.

She says, “I’ve been waiting over an hour.”

I explain that I had been the fourth person on that line and got there at two. I don’t bother to explain the unwritten rule of lines which is that if someone gets up to the clerk whether at TKTS, the Post Office, a bank or the DMV and it turns out there is some form they need to fill out or other issue for which they need to leave the line after waiting a considerable amount of time, they do not have to start from the beginning and wait the rest of the day. They are allowed back in. This is line etiquette. This is how you treat others in the hopes that when in a similar circumstances, this is how they’ll treat you. I’m wondering why this lady doesn’t understand that. Maybe they do things differently where she’s from.

But that’s not it.

“I didn’t see you here before,” she says.

“That’s because I was ahead of you. I was the fourth person on this line. I had to look for a cash machine. I can show you my receipt.”

“I don’t believe you,” she says.

It takes me a second to grasp this. This is a new one. “You don’t believe me?”

“You’re lying. You are a con artist. This is a typical scam.”

“I can’t believe you’re saying this,” I said.

She stares at me. She looks like she’s almost shaking with rage. I’m wondering if she’s afraid I’ll deck her or if she’s putting out vibes that she’ll deck me. I’m glad that New York City has strict gun laws and stand your ground is no defense.

She’s a tiny thing. We’d both officially be little people if we were men, but I probably outweigh her by a good twenty pounds. She has neatly coifed short blond hair. She looks about fifty, but it’s hard to tell because she looks like she’s had work. She’s certainly dressed better than I am. She’s looks like an older version of Angela from The Office – if things had gone differently and she’d hadn’t married Dwight, but instead wound up a bitter single mom with cats.

She goes on with the name calling.

I’m still not sure if she’s serious or if she just really doesn’t want to wait an extra three minutes.

I should have gotten Mard to help me, or maybe just asked the next person on the line, but this was a different experience for me. I’m not a member of a minority group normally profiled in this fashion. The more I tried to convince her I wasn’t some kind of Times Square-type from a Damon Runyon story, the more hostile she became.

“Look,” I said, “Honest, I’m telling you the truth. I’m not trying to get ahead of you to grab the last two tickets to the show you want to see. You don’t want to see the show I’m getting tickets for.”

This was a guess, but most people want tickets to Broadway shows, and besides The Explorer’s Club had been running awhile, and the biggest name in it was Mrs. Jon Hamm, so it seemed probable she wanted something else.

She was not reassured. In fact it freaked her out more.

“How do you know what I want to see?” She asked. She didn’t ask like she thought I was being presumptuous. She asked like she was sure I had some unscrupulous means of knowing what she wanted to see.

I don’t know if it was out of exasperation or because sarcasm is my go-to means of relieving tension, but I answered, “Because this is a con. That’s how I know.”

She apparently has no sarcasm-detector. “I knew it,” she said as though through her toughness she had just elicited a confession.

“I was joking,” I tried to explain to no avail.

She then told me in a voice whose volume was rising that she was a New Yorker so I couldn’t put things over on her.

She certainly wasn’t a native New Yorker, as we are born with sarcasm-detectors.

At that moment, I did want to slap her, as she is the kind of New Yorker who gives all of us a bad name, and I didn’t like her going on that way in front of the tourists, but I didn’t slap her because I don’t do that kind of thing, except once on an airplane and that was to my husband after he got spontaneously upgraded and made a crack about the little people in steerage. Besides she looked like she might have been packing a nail file or maybe some pepper spray.

I said, “I’m also from the City, and I don’t understand your att….”

She continued to call me a crook. Then she asked me why I didn’t cut in front of the person behind her.

I thought about it a moment and should have, but then she decided she would let me go ahead of her. In retrospect it could only be because she wanted to continue to engage with me though she told me it was because she wanted to see what I’d say when it turned out the cashier had never seen me before.

“And when it turns out he has seen me? When it turns out he knows exactly who I am and has my tickets?”

“He won’t….”

“So when it turns out he does, are you going to apologize? Or are you going to assume he was in on the ‘con’? Yeah, that’s it. It’s all a big conspiracy against you.” Now I was the one raising my voice.

“You are so typical,” she screamed. The way she said typical she made it sound like the worst possible thing you could call a person, but also like it was a word she used a lot, like maybe every time someone accused her of thinking she was the victim of a vast plot.

The people at the box office had finally finished their transaction, and I was up.

I don’t know how much the cashier had heard. He was behind bullet proof glass and speaking through a microphone. In any case, he did say a few things which she should have been able to hear, all of which indicated that I had been there earlier and he had my tickets waiting.

So after I had my tickets in hand, I said to the lady, “Now are you going to….”

Her expression was even harder than it had been before, and somehow she looked victorious despite reality. She slowly clapped her hands and said, “Kudos. Kudos to you.”

“You do understand that he remembered me? That everything I said was true?”

She said nothing. I was still in front of her blocking her way to the cashier and I continued, “You know…”

“Shut up,” she told me. “I don’t care what you know. It’s over.”

“You are really something,” I said as I walked away.

I’m not sure what I would have said to her after “You know.” I don’t generally use the word I’d like to have to called her. Maybe I would have said that if someone was taping us, she was about to be famous, bigger than The Very Educated Lady.

Or I might have found my voice and gone all Julia Sugarbaker on her, and let forth with the perfect little speech:

“You know you made a lot of assumptions about me, none of which were true, but you’re much easier to read. People like you, who live with that amount of vitriol and distrust wind up alienating even those most inclined to love them. If you have kids, they stopped speaking to you years ago. If you are still married, which I very much doubt, your husband is going to leave, and when he does, people will feel sorry for him for staying as long as he did. People like you thankfully aren’t typical but they are a type – the type who eventually drown in their own bile and die with no one by their side, unmourned, unloved and soon forgotten.”

But I didn’t say that. And I’m glad I didn’t, and sorry that my little brain is even capable of coming up with all that. It’s something I need to work on. I’m sorry I didn’t  ask the woman behind her to let me on line as soon as she said she didn’t believe me because that was my fist clue that the lady had problems. I’m sorry I egged on Old-Mean-Angela Martin.

Even if my reading of her is correct, so what? When a mentally-ill homeless person on the subway starts ranting that I am the devil, I don’t argue. I don’t take it personally. Why is it different when the free-floating anger comes from someone who looks better put together?

I don’t know what in life brought her to where I found her, but surely even she deserves compassion. Maybe she was once trusting and got massively screwed over. Maybe she was a Madoff victim who used to get front seats to shows, but is now reduced to waiting with the plebes and tourists for discounts. Maybe things never worked out for her and she’s paid to wait on line for wealthier types to shows she’ll never get to see – a fifty-something errand girl, in a consignment shop ensemble. Maybe the collection agencies are after her for her unpaid botox bill? Or her only son is on his fifth visit to rehab?

I wish I were a better human being and actually gave a shit.

(Hot tip #3 – New Yorkers are generally a gregarious and helpful bunch, really. We like tourists – as long as they don’t slow walk or start talking about 911 as though it were a tourist destination and not a still open wound. There are some touts and scammers for sure, but probably fewer than you’ve been led to expect, and the TKTS booth, even in the bad old days, was always a safe haven.)

(UPDATE Hot tip #4 – Lines are shorter and you can get matinees a day in advance at the downtown, South Street Seaport TKTS.)

(Marion Stein is not a scam artist, but would really appreciate it if you’d at least take a look at some books she’s written.)