Get up at the crack of dawn. Wait in a very long line. Stand too close to your fellow American. This is the way your country intends for you to see the White House.
So anyone with the outrageously unpatriotic idea of sleeping in and slipping $10 to a scalper in the hopes of taking the tour of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue might as well just keep dreaming. The National Park Service doesn’t like your brand of tourist.
Cheating on the White House tour ticket line is a time-honored tradition, upheld by generations of scalpers. But that doesn’t matter anymore. Rules are rules, and the authorities who oversee the tour operation are tired of ignoring them. So now they are cracking down.
Word from the rangers: Under absolutely no circumstances should anyone pay decent money for that free 23-minute government-approved tour. “We want the visitors who wait in line to get their fair chance at a ticket,” says Park Service ranger Tom Peyton. “That’s the system, that’s the way it works.”
In the past, scalpers have sold the free tickets for as much as $50 a pop - particularly to tourists who don’t quite speak the language of U.S. currency.
Not surprisingly, scalpers are annoyed at the recent developments.
After all, they say, they are just trying to make a living, and what could be more American than that?
But Peyton, who oversees the ticket operation at the White House Visitor Center, is tired of watching tourists get ripped off.
Actually the scalping business was not that great. Peyton calculated the illegal scheme nets only about $5,000 a year for a core of 15 regular scalpers - most of whom are homeless people who leave the shelters by 6 a.m. and go straight to the ticket line for their four-ticket-per-person allotment.
The real scammers, he says, are the tour van operators and hotel concierges who buy the tickets from scalpers for $5 each and then resell them to tourists for about $20. Peyton cannot do much about these behind-the-scenes players, who get away with the scheme by disguising the ticket price as a service fee.
Folks waiting in line outside the White House ticket office - the ones who never got advance passes from their congressional offices - simply want more tickets. On the average summer day, at least 500 people are turned away, including folks who line up as early as 6:30 a.m.
“Ma’am, I get people coming up to me all the time, telling me they’re from Singapore, and they’re only in town for a day, but I still can’t help them,” ranger Pocohantas Shuck told a woman from Bombay, India, who begged for a ticket and swore that her plane was leaving that afternoon.
On that morning, 2,500 color-coded passes disappeared in all of 15 minutes. The scalpers still worked the crowd, albeit less obviously. Still, some tourists wouldn’t be swayed.
“Why would I pay for something that’s free?” boomed Vince Rosati, 43, a tourist from New Castle, Pa. Even so, he couldn’t help grousing a few minutes later. “God, I hate lines,” he said. “This is worse than Disney World.”
The die-hards in spots No. 1 and 2 on the line - who arrived before 4:30 a.m. - agree that anyone who gives in to a scalper’s charms is not waiting the American way. Still, even they couldn’t resist a little scheme of their own.
Doug Stufflebeam, standing at the very front of the line, needed one more ticket than he was allowed. So he brokered a deal with Russell Grim and his son, Dan, 11, standing right behind him.
Stufflebeam, a world traveler and adventure consultant who lives in Washington state, would give Dan a set of piranha teeth from his backpack if the youngster from Wisconsin walked to the window as though he were alone and claimed a set of tickets for himself. It was just a friendly barter (the teeth were not, after all, attached to any fish), and it meant that Stufflebeam’s whole family could see the White House. Dan happily agreed.
Who knows, the barter might have even been legal. After all, the rangers said they were cracking down on the trade of money for tickets.
Nobody said anything about piranhas.