Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Some You Win ... And Some You Lose ... And Some You Get Rained Out

Long, long ago I lived in a quiet city called Atlanta. I moved there in 1990 after landing a job with Turner Broadcasting. I lived in a cute, historic, in-town neighborhood and drove my car to work everyday. If I ran into traffic, it took thirty minutes (tops) to get from my driveway to the Turner offices in Midtown. At the time, there were just under three million people living in the metro area (including suburbs.) Today, there are more than five million Atlantans. Suffice to say, a lot of things have changed.

Turner Field in all its glory.
Back in the 90s, when I worked for Turner, I spent many a happy summer evening cheering on the Braves through regular season and championship games. I even attended a few World Series games. At a particularly close and emotional World Series game in 1993, I fondly recall hugging complete strangers when the Braves won in overtime. At age 12, my son Jack had yet to experience the joy of a live Atlanta Braves game, so this summer, we made plans to rectify the situation. 

Finally, the big day arrived. I imagined arriving at the game, finding our seats and looking out over the beautiful emerald field. We would sit in the stands and cheer the Braves on to victory over the Philadelphia Phillies. I thought about how much fun it would be to watch Jack chant the "Tomahawk Chop" along with thousands of fans. Of course, to attend a Braves game, you have to get to Turner Field, but I didn't understand the reality of what that meant in 2014.

Since we were staying with friends in the suburbs, I thought it best to drive to a nearby MARTA station and take the train downtown where a shuttle would carry us on to Turner Field. We could avoid the stress of gridlock traffic and hassle of event parking. Before we left the house, I studied the rail line and discovered that, like most metro transit systems, Atlanta changed over from using tokens to a refillable credit card. No big deal. I'd used these cards in NYC and LA and they were simple enough to purchase. All good.

When we arrived at the MARTA station, we marveled at how quiet it was. On Saturday afternoon in the suburbs, we seemed to be the only passengers in the station. We were standing in front of the kiosk that dispenses transit cards, reading through the instructions when a man appeared nearby.

"You know what you're doing?" he asked. "You need some cards?"

I looked at the man. He was probably in his late 50s and from his clothing and general demeanor, he looked as though he might have had a hard life. He had one lazy eye, which gave him a benign appearance. He smiled and held up some transit cards.

"Here, you can use these," he said.

Before we knew it Lazy Eye was shepherding us to the turnstiles, insisting we use his cards. I actually thought he was being generous. In hindsight, I'm not sure why I had that thought, but I promise you I did. He didn't strike me as a panhandler. We were in the middle of a very affluent suburb. It just never occurred to me that we might encounter subway scammers here. Before we knew what happened, the three of us were inside the station and the man was standing on the other side of the turnstiles with his hand out. He wanted cash for the cards.

"I just need to get some food," he said.

Too late, the reality of the situation hit me.  I had one dollar in my purse, and we were already inside the terminal. The man expected to be compensated. It was an awkward situation. We could have just walked away from the guy, turning the tables on him. But we had taken his cards now and we owed him some money. I asked Jack if he had any money and he produced three more dollar bills.

"So we have a round trip on each and can use these on the shuttle to the game?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," the man said. Of course he would have told us that the cards would take us to London and back if he thought that we would pay him.

I was dubious by now, and offered him the four dollars. Lazy Eye made a sour face.

"Aw, man!" he said. "C'mon! I got you three cards!"

Jack had more cash in his wallet, which he reluctantly handed over to me. In the end, we shelled over $15, which is what we would have paid for the cards if we had purchased them from the kiosk. The man thanked us for the cash and hurried away.

"How do we know that guy was telling us the truth?" Jack asked as we proceeded downstairs to catch the next train.

"We don't," I said. "But it's okay. We're safe and we're on our way now!"

Jack had never experienced anything like this before. On our trip to NY a few years ago, he saw panhandlers in the subway, but we had never been approached. I'd forgotten what an unsettling feeling it is when you realize you've been ripped off.

As we rode downtown, I tried to convince myself that the man had done us a service. The kiosk was confusing and he'd helped us, right? We got the passes we needed. But I had an uncomfortable feeling in my gut and as we exited the station at Five Points to catch the Braves Shuttle, my fears were confirmed. We'd paid a roundtrip fare for one-way tickets.

I wanted to believe the man was doing us a kindness, but he had taken advantage of us. Of course, I did try to barter him down, but let's face it, I was a pushover. I just felt crappy anyway I sliced it. A wave of "I shoulda known better" caught up with the sick feeling and began to wrestle with it. There would be no winner. How stupid and naive could I be?! This was Atlanta, not Candyland. In a city of five million, some people are desperate and do desperate things. Lazy Eye was probably getting high right now with the $15 we gave him. Ugh.

We found another kiosk and began the process of reloading the cards so we'd have the proper fare to get onto the shuttle and return after the game. While we stood there, the man at the next kiosk began to instruct us on how to reload the card. At first we tried to ignore him, but he gently walked us through the process. When we were done, he asked us if we could spare some change so he could buy a fare. Without hesitation, Jason swiped his credit card one more time and loaded one ride on the man's card. We thanked the man for his help and proceeded onto the game. 

It was only later that I began to wonder if Lazy Eye had started out like Kiosk Man. Had he helped a confused out-of-town-family load up their MARTA cards and received a free fare for his trouble—when he really wanted cash? Had we just started the cycle of deception again?  My head started to spin when I considered all the karma we were generating on this innocent trip the ballgame. I allowed myself to believe that Kiosk just wanted to ride MARTA home and left it at that.

We made our way through the terminal and out to the street to meet the shuttle, and after a brief ride, finally, we arrived at Turner Field. The glowing stadium lights cheered me, but it wasn't until we arrived at our seats and saw the bright green field and flashing Jumbotron and heard the nostalgic strains from the old ball field pipe organ, that I could shake off the residue of yucky feelings. Jack, who was also disturbed by Lazy-eye's rip off, perked up too. Jason bought us peanuts and popcorn and Cracker Jacks, and soon we were all enjoying the game.

I hated that Jack had a negative experience before his first Braves game. But then again, what we experienced was rather benign in the scheme of things. The lazy-eyed scammer may actually become one of Jack's most valuable teachers. Through him, my son learned that not everyone is well-intentioned and honest. He may be more alert when traveling in the city. (I still can't believe how naive I was about this situation!) And—thanks to Kiosk Man—Jack also saw that strangers could go out of their way to be kind. And—thanks to Jason—Jack learned that regardless of what has happened in the past, you can respond with generosity.

Although it wasn't exactly what I envisioned, Jack certainly had a memorable first major league game. It wasn't what I had in mind, but maybe, just maybe, it was what Jack needed and what Jason and I needed, too—or maybe it was about what Lazy Eye or the Kind Kiosk Man needed. I rather like it think we all given what we need.

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