07/18/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Scalped Tickets: My Introduction

Here in New York, this Saturday's Bon Jovi concert in Central Park is triggering more anxiety than the time Jon Bon Jovi chopped off part of his mane. The reason: tickets for the concert, which is technically free, are being scalped for as much as $1,500. Mathematically, that comes to about $30 just to hear Richie Sambora shout "Wan-TED!" in "Wanted Dead or Alive."

While I sympathize with those who may be forced to fork over that kind of money -- especially for Bon Jovi -- I'm also divided, since my first experience with an illicit ticket sale changed my life.

Flipping through the New York Times in the '70s, I came upon an advertisement for a Paul Simon concert at Carnegie Hall. Since the concert was close to my 13th birthday, I asked my parents if we could go to the show. My older sister had introduced me to the music of Simon & Garfunkel, and now I was equally obsessed with Simon's music. His first post-S&G album, Paul Simon, was among the first LPs in my collection.

Sure, my parents said; just let us know when it is. I cut the ad out of the paper and counted the days. On the night of the show, my parents, my mother's sister, and I piled into the family car and drove the hour and a half from Hazlet, N.J. to Manhattan.

The natty, cosmopolitan crowd mingling outside Carnegie Hall was unlike anything I'd seen before; it felt like the week's big night out for grad school intellectuals. The buzz was understandable, since the concert was part of Simon's first tour without Art Garfunkel, with whom he had split up three years before. We walked up to the box office and asked to buy four tickets, please.

The clerk shot us a puzzled look and explained to us that the show had been sold out for some time. We were such suburban rubes that it hadn't occurred to us that anyone who wants to go to a concert should buy seats in advance. Unsure of what to do, we retreated to a diner down the street from Carnegie Hall. I was disconsolate.

Then my aunt had an idea: We should march back to the box office and see if anyone who'd ordered tickets by phone hadn't bothered to pick them up. She'd heard about such things, you know. But when we arrived back at the venue, the same box-office clerk told us no -- no one had forgotten to pick up their tickets to the big Paul Simon concert.

As we stood on the sidewalk and contemplated the long drive back to Hazlet, a man in a three-piece suit approached us. Did we want tickets to the show? he asked. He said he worked for Simon's record company, had four tickets he couldn't use, and would be willing to sell us all four for $20. (As hard as it may be to imagine, concert tickets at the time were $5 a pop.) He seemed in a particular rush to ditch the seats, and for reasons even I could understand: Standing nearby was equally lavishly dressed woman, clearly his companion, who had a look on her face that essentially screamed, "Let's get out of here... now."

My father was skeptical, as he often was of salespeople, but he asked a ticket taker standing nearby if the seats were legit. When the employee nodded yes, my father slipped the mysterious man a $20 bill, and in a dizzying few moments, we were swept inside Carnegie Hall, being escorted to our seats.

I'd never been to Carnegie Hall -- I'm not sure I'd even visited New York City before, in fact -- and I was instantly in awe of my surroundings. Gazing up at the hall's towering ceiling and white walls, I felt like I had entered the hippest church on the planet.

The real stunner, though, was yet to come. We followed the usher into the hall, and then to the orchestra level. We walked. And walked. And walked. Finally we arrived at our seats -- in the center of the second row. The mystery man wasn't lying about his job at Columbia Records. Sitting next to us was Paul Simon's brother, whose face I recognized from inside Simon's then-new album, There Goes Rhymin' Simon.

The concert itself was enthralling: Simon wearing a white suit and holding a big guitar, performing songs from his own records and the Simon and Garfunkel catalogue. When he was joined by the Jessy Dixon Singers for several songs, I was essentially introduced to gospel; when the Peruvian ensemble Urubamba accompanied him on "El Condor Pasa" and other numbers, I had my first taste of world music. My father, who was already in the process of losing his hearing, talked for years about how beautiful Urubamba's South American flutes were.

In the years since, I've bought scalped tickets a few more times, like to that sold-out Pavement show in the early '90s. But none of those experiences have quite matched that long-ago evening at Carnegie Hall. The city never seemed more luminous to me than it did that night, and in some way the experience led me to enroll in New York University (after that evening, the city didn't seem so daunting) and become a music journalist.

Yes, scalping can be criminal, in more ways than one, but I have to agree with Mayor Mike Bloomberg's essentially laissez-faire attitude toward it: If the result is a magical night in Manhattan, what's wrong with a little profit sharing between non-friends?