It’s Internationally Trademarked Professional Nationwide American Football League Championship Bowl Game Day, and I’m in the city of Atlanta, just a few blocks away from the stadium. I grab a jacket, put some cash in my wallet, and hit the streets.
Outside, the only thing denser than the traffic is the air of excitement. People are coming from every direction, side streets spilling out onto the throughways, everyone heading to ground zero for the big game. They are all talking and singing and shouting and laughing. I join in tentatively, and shortly am buoyed along by the teeming crowd. Most have their cell phones recording every moment, and they are dressed in every conceivable way, the thinner they are, the tighter their clothing. Big guys in loose jerseys, small girls in tight dresses or leggings. Sequins are plentiful on the ladies.
“Need tickets?,” I’m asked. I decide to haggle a little to see what the going rate is to get into the game. At the first offer of $2800, I say “I don’t want to waste your time. That’s not in my price range.” What it is, is the price range of a Yugo.
As we teem on towards CNN Center, I see a protest taking place. Colin Kaepernick has been big news this week, and so I assume it’s political in nature. Wrong. The first sign I see reads “It’s Not Your Mother’s Penis.” I have no idea what that means. The group is protesting circumcision, and they claim that the barbaric process removes 16 functions. Now I am baffled and a little self-conscious, because I can only think of two functions for a penis. “What am I missing?,” I wonder. I have a Swiss Army knife with fewer functions.
Onward we teem, and I’m getting a little more comfortable with my teeming technique in this human wave of anticipation, just a few minutes before kickoff. “There aren’t this many seats in that stadium,” I think. All of these people can’t possibly have tickets.
“Need tickets?,” I’m asked again. This time, the price is down to $2000. I assume that the closer we get to game time, the lower the price will go. $2000 is still too much. Ten times.
A megaphone is blaring. “… and all of you drug addicts, and you perverts, and you alcoholics, you’re going to be surprised on that day when the Lord tells you ‘I never knew you.” There are a couple of groups of street preachers here.
“Wailing and gnashing of teeth await you, unless you repent,” another megaphone blasts.
It’s almost a competition to outdo one another with their condemnation, two teams in the Super Damnation Bowl. Clearly, they believe that Jesus went from town to town with a microphone, criticizing everyone. I watch for a little while as an older man first debates with one of them and then curses at them. The preacher will only respond through his loud megaphone. It reminds me of the dunking tank at the fair, where a clown taunts the public with amplified insults, but the only response he hears is the rubes who pay $5 for another three balls to throw. He wants to be heard — not necessarily listened to — and he again condemns the old man, this time for his language. It is a middle-school playground argument.
There’s a young man here too with a piece of cardboard covered with black velvet. On it, he has three soda bottle caps. He is running a shell game with the crowd of young men circled around him. There’s a lot of shouting and jeering as the latest victim ends up getting fooled. Again. Some things never change. I can’t help but notice that both the sheep who can’t find the pea and the wolf who is fleecing them are having a lot more fun than the preachers.
The media says that Internationally Trademarked Professional Nationwide American Football League Quarterback Tom Brady is the polarizing figure of this event, and there are merchants on both sides of the street to prove it. “TOM F’ING BRADY” appears on the T-shirts being sold on one side of the street. On the other side, in the same font and in the same colors, guys are selling “TOM BRADY SUCKS” T-shirts. Entrepreneurship at its finest.
“Tickets?,” I’m asked yet again. This time, the price is down to $1750. I figure if I can wait until after the kickoff, I might be a buyer for something south of $200.
The stadium rises up in front of us, as we reach the end of the street. It is brilliant and blue and beautiful, and through its windows the crowd can see Gladys Knight singing the national anthem on the big screen. Suddenly, the air shakes and the crowd collectively looks up as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds scream by, right to left, leaving long contrails behind. The crowd cheers! This is fun!
We stand there in the middle of the street, 20,000 of us without tickets and about a dozen who have too many. To get inside, it currently takes both $1750 and a willingness to part with that much cold, hard cash. As far as I can tell, none of us here has both. The kickoff happens, and after seeing the first couple of plays on the big screen through the windows, the crowd, now without a purpose, begins to break up slowly.
I watch the street preachers a little more, and then begin to be drawn away slowly with the crowd. The wave, having crashed against the rock, is now receding.
I come upon another circle of shouting men in the middle of the sidewalk. This time, it’s the three card monty going on, same scam, same sheep, different wolf. He notices me and asks me to find the red card.
“Nah, I’m okay,” I say. “I’m just watching.” He tells the man next to me to find the red card. He picks the center one and is wrong.
“Come on, my man. You pick the card,” he says to me. The odds are 50/50.
“It’s the left one,” I say confidently, and he flips over the red card.
“You got a good eye; let’s try that again,” he says. I have no idea how he controls the cards, but I’m not interested in being fleeced.
“I can’t play, but I like watching.” Then I bluff, “I do have a good eye. And you’ve got a pretty good technique.”
“Yeah, you right. You can’t play,” he says. I smile and move along.
I pass a man heading back toward the stadium. “You got tickets?,” he asks. “No, no tickets.”
“How many you need?”
“Just one,” I say. It’s $1000. Still too rich for my blood.
“I’m looking for a cheap one,” I admit. “No more than $200.”
“Shhhh,” he hisses, and spins on his heels as he strides away.
“Yo, you need a ticket?,” I’m asked immediately afterward. Most ticket scalpers have a look about them. They’re hustlers. They look a little slick and a little untrustworthy, sort of like used car salesmen. By contrast, this one looks disheveled and a little nervous. “Only $500.”
I’ve looked at half a dozen tickets tonight, felt the raised lettering, seen the Vince Lombardi trophy towering over the Mercedes Benz stadium in the background, the bright blue and red inks crisp and sharp. This scalper holds his ticket low, showing me only the front. The picture on the ticket’s image looks like a high school field lit up at night. “Super Bowl” it says in murky black letters. I’m confused, wondering if this guy was foolish enough to buy the fake ticket he is now trying to pass off to me, or if he’s foolish enough to make a fake ticket this bad, thinking someone will pay for it. As I chuckle, I decline his offer and move on again, headed back towards home.
In front of me, I see a set of the street preachers. As I walk along behind them, I strike up a conversation.
“What I’m wondering,” I ask, “is why you want people to fear God?”
He stops. “Proverbs 1:7 says ‘Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,'” he quotes. “Do you know the Lord?,” he challenges me.
“I’m just thinking that if God made each of us as unique people, and He wants to know us, and He loves us so much that He sent his only son to die for us, that maybe he doesn’t want us to fear him so much as love him,” I say.
He doesn’t wait for me to finish. He quotes Paul in Phillipians, saying we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. He moves on to Luke, quoting that God’s mercy is on those who fear him. After about five verse quotes, he asks, “Now isn’t all of that true?”
“It is,” I respond. “But it’s only half of the picture. In most of those verses you quote, ‘fear’ is used in a form that connotes respect. You’re not quoting anything about Jesus and his love of people, or his message that God loves us all.”
He doesn’t let me finish before he’s off again, drawing closer to me, quoting scripture right through my body.
“Now wait a second,” I ask. “You keep interrupting me …”
“We’re having a dialogue here, a back and forth,” he interrupts yet again.
“Yes, we are,” I respond. “But you have to let me forth before you come back.”
His companion enters the discussion. “Let him make his point, Jack,” he says.
“I know his point already,” preacherman says. “You just want to tickle the ears,” he tells me.
“I guess we are done here then,” I say. “Good luck to you, brother.” I’m tempted to shake the dirt off of my shoes as I move on with a smile.
I pass CNN center, where the earlier protest was happening. There’s an iconic 10-foot high CNN logo sign in front of the building. About four feet up, there’s a new hole in the sign, the shape of a fist. Someone must have taken the protest personally.
I cut through Centennial Park, and run into another T-Shirt vendor. This shirt lacks profanities, and shows the two teams playing the game. Yes, I’ll take one for $20.
“I need an extra-large,” I say. He has maybe four shirts with him.
“Okay, I got you covered,” he says. He holds the shirt up in front of my chest, the way a mom does to test fit something on a boy who’s eight. “That looks good,” he says. He folds it in half and tosses it over my shoulder, looking for his payment.
I pull the shirt off my shoulder and look at its tag. It doesn’t say XL. “This is a medium.”
“Oh, my bad,” he lies. “I guess I don’t have an extra large. How about a medium?”
Yeah, that won’t fit. He wants me to follow him up the street for the extra large shirts. I do. At his stash, he still has only mediums, but he tries to convince me that they run large and they will fit. Suspicious, I wonder if there’s a box of medium t-shirts that fell off of a truck somewhere this afternoon. I grin and move on again.
A homeless man sees me put my $20 back in my pocket, and suddenly is very interested in talking to me. He walks along with me, telling me about his troubles. “I’ve been volunteering at the homeless shelter,” I tell him. “Have you been there?” Yes, but he doesn’t like the way the place is run. The homeless run the place he says; this is largely true, but it’s part of the program of building discipline and accountability.
He tells me he can get off of the street and have a garage apartment, but he’s coincidentally just $17 short of the $480 he needs for the rent, and an employer will give him a job when he rents the apartment, he says. He’s a nice enough guy, but his story is fishy. When we stop at a crosswalk, he steps behind me so the police officer directing traffic can’t see him. His voice drops to a whisper. Too late. The officer shoos him off. “Didn’t I tell you to stop panhandling here?” The cop tells me that Atlanta has a lot of resources for the homeless, and the biggest problem is that people give them money, which keeps them on the streets and gives them cash to stay drug addicted.
I walk on alone now, the crowd around me having dispersed. I take a back walkway past the aquarium and the Coca-Cola museum, and as I cross the street to my building, I look back over my shoulder towards the glow of the lights and the orbiting helicopters.
The most-watched show in the world was held here tonight.
The best show was the one outside, that everyone else missed.