Chicago has always been known as a place where everything has its price, where a wink and a nod (and a little cash) can work wonders securing box seats at the ballgame or negotiating with tow-truck drivers. A few weekends ago, my best friend Demetrius and I, armed only with my brand-new American Express gold card and the leftovers of our Pell Grant checks, attempted to test that hypothesis. Specifically, we asked ourselves, what would it

cost to…

…order a bowl of Trix cereal in a hoity-toity restaurant?

At 8:30 on Friday morning Demetrius and I popped onto the 14th floor of Water Tower Place to breakfast with the idle rich in the Dining Room of the Ritz-Carlton. In order to spruce up the atmosphere a bit, we wore our best angry-postadolescent-black-man outfits–oversized, droopy Girbaud jeans, T-shirts with the face of Malcolm X, and Air Nikes with neon shoelaces. This, we thought, would complement the prevailing style of the other guests–elderly, white-haired socialites in Ann Landers coifs and Adolfo two-pieces and 30-ish men sporting dark suits and ponytails.

We were seated by a not-too-friendly, unsmiling waiter, also 30-ish and in a dark suit but with no ponytail. He offered us menus, which we waved off. “Just coffee and a bowl of Trix for us both,” we told him.

“What are these ‘tricks,'” he asked, showing us his smarmiest pseudo-friendly smile.

“No–‘Trix,’ T-R-I-X,” my friend corrected, producing a big four-color coupon from last Sunday’s paper. “Like this.”

“That item is not on our menu,” the waiter replied without hesitation, looking at the coupon critically. The pseudo-friendly smile was absent, and his tone suggested that we order something else.

We decided that subtlety would not work. “We’ll give you a $20 tip if you can get us some Trix with our coffee!” we whispered, waving a $20 bill fresh from the Cash Station. The waiter looked around, pocketed the bill and the coupon, and disappeared into the kitchen. Fifteen minutes later a box of the brightly colored cereal was on our table, along with a pair of bowls and a pitcher of milk.

Our cost:

Two coffees $ 2.50

Gratuity $ 20.00

Total: $ 22.50

…do something silly in a hush-hush environment?

Later that morning we went to the Art Institute, making a beeline for Grant Wood’s American Gothic (it’s on the first floor, all the way in the back, past the medieval armor exhibit). Predictably, swarms of children and suburban mothers were clustered about the painting, which is protected by a cordon and, on this day, a Marsha Warfield look-alike security guard. She smiled sweetly at both of us. Even after I leaned over the cordon–to get a “better look at the old lady,” I explained–she just smiled and asked me not to.

My friend Demetrius snuggled up next to her. “If I wanted to touch the pitchfork with only one finger from one hand, could I?” The reply was negative. We cut to the chase: “We’ll give you $10 if we can touch the pitchfork. Just one prong.” “Are you boys crazy?” she asked, telling us to go upstairs and “look at some Monet or something.”

We had better luck at the Marshall Field’s on State Street, in the L’Homme Shop, Wabash Middle Two. Trying to look like the worldly fashion victims that we were, we sat cross-legged on the floor next to a rack of $1,100 Thierry Mugler suits.

“Do you mind standing up?” asked the salesman, a Brooks Brothers type who reminded us of Miles on Murphy Brown. He crouched down in order to appear less confrontational. “It doesn’t really add to the…ambience.”

I whipped out the gold card and my companion displayed a wad of bills. “We’d feel a lot more comfortable down here, closer to the pieces,” we explained. “We’re in a buying mood today.”

The salesman was indeed a man skilled in the ways of the world. “Did you happen to see the new Montana that we have on the other side of the register?” he asked. “He has some fabulous jackets that are the color of your shoelaces!”

Our cost: Attitude $0

…get a city employee to bend the rules in your favor?

The next stop was the microfilm room in the new Harold Washington Library Center. There’s a 30-minute limit on use of the microfilm copier, but we were sure there was room for flexibility.

We took a number. After it was called, we asked the attendant to hold on to one of the machines while we went to a pay phone to call our instructor to find out which back issue of the New York Times he wanted us to look at. “We forgot,” I told him, looking sheepish and discreetly putting a fiver on the desk. “And I’m sure it won’t be any more than 15 minutes.”

After some hesitation, he tucked the bill next to the paper-clip holder. “Use my phone,” he suggested, after looking around the room. “And you can take an extra 15 minutes on the copier–it’s not too busy in here.”

Our cost:

Copies $ .75

Gratuity $ 5.00

Total: $ 5.75

…get someone to blatantly disregard a Supreme Court ruling?

After standing in line for close to ten minutes at the Kinko’s at Clark and Wellington (we forgot about the Great Friday Afternoon Photocopying Rush Hour), we presented the clerk at the counter with that day’s Wall Street Journal. “We’d like 20 copies of this article,” we told the young man, pointing randomly to something on the editorial page.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that,” he said. “Are you aware of the recent ruling from the Supreme Court that Kinko’s was a party to? The Wall Street Journal is copyrighted material. We can’t make mass copies of copyrighted material.”

“How about just one copy?” my friend asked.

The man shook his head slowly. “No, not even one copy. But you can go to a self-service copier and do it yourself.”

That wouldn’t do. “No,” we explained, leaning over the counter and lowering our voices, taking out a $10 bill. “This is for you. We want you to do it. We have to go somewhere. We’re in a hurry.”

He looked at the money long and hard. “I just can’t do it,” he replied sadly. “I might lose my job. You don’t want me to do that. Copy cards are available on the other end of the counter, though.”

Not to be daunted, we went down the street to a nearby Radio Shack. “I want to get something that’ll let me record a phone conversation without the person knowing it,” I told the man at the cash register. “As kind of a gag.”

“You do realize that’s illegal, of course,” he said, leading us through the aisles. With a friendly grin, he pointed to a small gadget in a plastic bag. “But this here suction-cup thing could attach to your phone and a tape recorder or Walkman. It’s less than $5, too. I couldn’t tell you what to do with it, of course, so I don’t know if it would help out in your gag.”

Our cost:

Salesman’s relaxed attitude toward privacy laws $ 0.

Suction-cup thing $ 4.95

Total: $ 4.95

…persuade a bus driver to make an unscheduled stop?

The number 14 South Lake Shore Express runs nonstop from downtown to 67th and Jeffrey via the Drive. Once on Jeffrey, it stops only at odd streets. Since we wanted to get off at 72nd Street, this rule seemed a bit of a problem. We approached the bus driver just as he exited Lake Shore Drive. “We need to get off at 72nd,” my friend told him.

“Get off at 71st or 73rd,” he told us, without taking his eyes off the road.

“No, no, we have to get off at 72nd Street; we’ll make it worth the stop,” I said, pulling out a $5 bill.


He stopped the bus at 69th to pick up and drop off a few passengers. We sweetened the deal by adding another fiver to the pot, folding the money carefully and sliding it to him. “We’re really pressed for time,” we added.

The bus driver heaved a sigh and checked his rearview mirror after 71st. “Watch out for the traffic,” he warned us as he pulled over at 72nd. “And have a good night!”

Our cost:

Fare, plus transfers and 20-cent surcharges $ 2.90

Gratuity $ 10.00

Total: $ 12.90

…get into a strict, “ID required” club with no identification?

We went to Avalon, at Belmont and Sheffield, which cards anyone anytime, on a Saturday night with no ID. We’d opted for a senior-in-high-school look: my companion wore jeans and a T-shirt, and I had on too-large Bermuda shorts, a sweatshirt from the Lab School, and a baseball cap. We passed time standing in the line outside by loudly discussing our “homerooms” and what “periods” we had gym.

A burly bouncer with beer on his breath came up to us. “Do you all have ID?”

We hemmed and hawed and gave a feeble excuse about leaving it at home. “I’ve heard that one a thousand times,” he laughed. “Why don’t you try Medusa’s up the street?”

I pressed a crisp $5 bill into his hand. “We’re really both 23,” I said, telling him the truth.

He slapped us on the back. “Yeah right,” he said, putting the bill in his pocket. “Beat it!” he snarled, menacingly waving a foot-long flashlight at me.

At Berlin, just across the street, we decided on a more direct approach. After the guy at the door asked us for identification, we slipped him an extra $5 with the cover charge and said nothing.

“What is that, a bribe?” he asked, raising his eyebrows.

“We forgot our ID,” my friend said. “But we brought enough money to have a good time tonight.”

“C’mon in, boys,” he said, looking us over with a slightly lascivious grin. “The more the merrier!”

Our cost:

Gratuities $ 10.00

Cover charges $ 6.00

Total: $ 16.00

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.