The night before a highly anticipated six-game Yankee home stand, Steve Lazarus is already thinking of the aftermath, when his body will be beaten to a pulp. ‘I’m a little out of shape,’ the 39-year-old Bayside resident explains. ‘I’ll wake up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and almost collapse.’
This season and for 24 seasons preceding it, Lazarus has suited up at Yankee Stadium as a vendor. “It’s good money,” he says. Working off an 18 percent commission, beer vendors make as much as $300 a game (before tips). But it’s more than the cash.
Lazarus, a stand-up comic who has a catcher’s build, a Gere-esque gaze, and a grayish crewcut, loves a crowd. “I almost feel like I’m onstage,” he says. In fact, Lazarus is already a regular at Governor’s comedy club on Long Island and is taking his vendor act on the comedy circuit. But he knows that his biggest audience is in the Bronx.
He and his fellow top-gun vendors have paid their dues to get to this high level. “The only way you move up is through death,” says Lazarus in his signature deadpan. The man is only partly kidding. Of the thousand or so in the Bomber vendor crew, about a hundred sell beer, the top concession item. To get to the zenith of the concessions ladder, Lazarus and many of his other brethren had to vend for at least a couple of decades.
These blue-collar boys of summer sold ice cream when the Yanks were relatively ice cold. In his pre-beer days, Lazarus recalls balancing a cotton candy stick in the rain. “I started yelling, ‘Kool Aid! Who wants Kool Aid?!’ ” he not so fondly remembers. Once, when he was working for peanuts, a woman with “dragon nails” who was seated in the first row of the upper deck ordered him to chuck a bag of them to her. Lazarus was skeptical but granted her wish—during orientation, vendors are told that the customer is always right. “She hit the bag with her nails, and they went all over the place,” he recalls. The next day, vendors were banned from throwing peanuts, or any item for that matter. Hence, the no-throwing-of-peanuts is known as the Lazarus Rule. There are a lot of other rules: no running or selling in the corridors. Vendors must stand at attention during the national anthem. Hawkers must never assume that change is their tip.
A Lehman College graduate, Lazarus was introduced to those rules in 1977, when he sold soda in the Himalaya-like upper deck during the All-Star Game. That first night, he pocketed 70 bucks selling drippy 75-cent cups of soda. At that time, beer cost about $2.75 in the same aforementioned drippy cups. Working at the stadium, however, made Lazarus feel like anything but a drip. “I thought this was the best job,” he recalls. The next game, Lazarus showed up ready to go, but with the stadium half-empty, vendor brass told him to go home. Lazarus, though, kept showing up at the stadium. “I stuck it out,” he recalls.
Many vendors have other jobs—as cabbies, cops, actors, and teachers, to name a few. Lazarus got work as a payroll manager, and later as an accountant. His good friend Sandy Grossman, who turned him on to the vending gig, taught middle-school English. Lazarus sucked it up and did a nine to five before heading off to the ballpark. He never did tell his other employers that he was a vendor. Most of the time, the gigs did not conflict. Once in while, though, there was a day game during the week and Lazarus found himself in a bind. “I’d skip out a lot to work the games,” he admits now.
Lazarus would pretend that he was conducting an audit at a client’s office. “I’d call my office at 2:20 from my cell phone in the [stadium] bathroom—’Yeah, I’m almost done.’ I did that a lot,” he recalls.
Grossman was more direct in his other job: He preached to his students the significance of Salinger and of starting to work at Yankee Stadium once they turned 16, not necessarily in that order.
He enjoyed the stadium experience so much that he started working at Shea Stadium and Madison Square Garden. Shea and the Garden, however, did not excite Grossman like the Bronx; the Mets stunk and Shea Stadium ran its concession like a “boot camp,” he says. While at the perpetually sold-out Garden, Grossman waited on celebrities like Tom Cruise (“I sold him a hot dog”), Maury Povich (“Sport he was, he gave me a quarter tip”), Barry Slotnick (“He’s a good tipper”), Mike Francesa (“For a $2.50 soda, he gave me $2 and said, ‘Keep it’ “), and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo (“He was totally discombobulated. He gave me no tip”). But the self-proclaimed World’s Most Famous Arena was stale, grouses Grossman. “People don’t buy there.”
Some vendors wind up switching to hot dogs, saying it’s less stressful. And some vendors turn into hot dogs. Rick Goldfarb can’t help being known at the stadium as “Cousin Brewski.” The sultan of suds used to pass out buttons with his moniker and yell, “Get a Buzz From the Cuz!” At one point, Brewski was doing stand-up comedy and getting airtime on radio. About five years ago, management ordered him, without explanation, to stop passing out the buttons. One vendor speculates that Brewski’s celebrity status created jealousy within the vendor ranks. Brewski no longer sells the buttons, but he notes that the last time he looked, one of his buttons was offered on eBay for $11.
Always the promoter, Goldfarb pitched his product in Japanese, with a decidedly Bronx accent, when Hideki Irabu was with the Yanks. Grossman, however, is wearing down. He claims he’s leaving to start his own advertising business: a fleet of 1950s ambulances fitted with billboards. Brewski, on the other hand, says he’ll never quit. “It’s like being a kid forever,” he adds.
And then some vendors don’t get to choose when to leave. One guy got the ax when he held a can opener to a customer’s neck after tripping over the guy’s laptop. “He lost his mind,” notes Brewski.
The good ones, though, have been known to work into their eighties, spending their last days selling programs outside the gate. Fading with them are drippy cups. Soda and beer are now sold in plastic bottles. A roped-off VIP section offers waiter service, admitting only a select number of vendors. (Just mentioning the section gets vendors upset. “It’s too crowded,” grumbles Lazarus.)
But there’s always a new generation working its way up. And some of them are doing it fast. Mark Samtur is only 23, but he’s been working at the stadium since he was 15. Well before that, Samtur, who works as a graphics coordinator at the MSG Network, was privy to stadium stories. His father was a vendor at Yankee Stadium, and his mother worked in the commissary. Samtur, a diminutive Nicolas Cage look-alike with a goatee, takes pride in hustling, schmoozing with players (David Wells offered to buy him a round), and getting girls’ phone numbers. “It’s a good way to meet women,” says Samtur, who aspires to be a sports broadcaster. “Once they have a couple, they act so friendly and they tip so well. It’s definitely a turn-on.”