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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Grace Donnalley holds all the power.

At least that’s what students think when they crowd her ticket window every week before Florida football games and prostrate themselves for good seats.

“Please,” they beg. “It’s my first game. I’m graduating soon. Please, please, please.”

Power in Gainesville means the 50-yard line. Power means Row 1, an achievement worthy of bragging rights and hero worship.

In the days leading up to Saturday, Grace is more popular than the head cheerleader.

“If you give me good seats, you can come to my birthday party,” students promise.

They tell Grace she looks nice. They smile their best smiles and lean on the counter and flirt for all they’re worth. Grace, 21, is a speech therapy major from Lynn Haven. After class, she walks to the ticket office in the stadium. 

She clocks in online at noon with a University Athletic Association login and receives a bag of 100 to 200 randomly assigned tickets, which will be replenished throughout the day.

She only looks at the tickets to count them, and then she keeps them facedown.

“When I give out tickets with bad seats, I still feel bad, but I don’t feel responsible.”

This will be the fourth year Grace has worked at the ticket office for minimum wage. This will be the fourth year she has tried to get the 21,000-strong student section to understand she has no control if the seats in her bag are terrible. She has no control if students’ Gator 1 Cards won’t scan, if they forget to wait for their friends or if they are late to pick up their tickets. Of course, no one believes her.

So the law block brings donuts.

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Students pick Window 3 because it’s their favorite number or Window 5 because they’re superstitious.

Some walk by all the windows like shoppers at a farmers market searching for the perfect cantaloupe — if cantaloupes could smile and hand out 10th row seats to the game.

When they approach, students make desperate eye contact — a last, tacit plea.

Grace counts and swipes their IDs. She picks up a stack of upside-down tickets, rubber-banded to designate rows and aisle breaks. She tosses the empty band, crinkled, on the countertop. She fans out the tickets to count them and firmly rips off the stubs.

“Thank you!” she says.

If they get good seats, ecstasy reigns. The lucky recipients call their friends and synchronize Gator cheers. For the less fortunate, those  with financial holds, faulty Gator 1s or bad seats, the charm wears off. Curses blast.

Grace’s boss, Doug Sutherland, admires her nerve.

“Grace is very personable,” he said, “and she doesn’t get frazzled.”

A guy with a short goatee rushes to the window and scoots his card through the slot. When Grace tries to swipe, the computer pulls up a screen that says “Custom Report.”

“You might need to get a new ID.”

“You can’t just type my number in?”

“Sorry, we can’t do that.” Her voice slides up an octave when she’s uncomfortable.

“Wow,” he says, “that is a dagger.”

On her days off, Grace stops by Shands Pediatric Unit 42. She plays with kids with compromised immune systems who stay there. But students don’t know about Unit 42, so when they miss the 5 p.m. deadline for ticket pickup on Thursday, they bang on the aluminum siding and scream at her.

Usually, Grace keeps her window open until 5:01 p.m., if she sees stragglers running up the concourse. After that, she’s the bad cop.

“I hate it,” she said. “People get mad if you close, but where do I draw the line?”

Two years ago, Grace had to be escorted out of the office. A group of people who missed the deadline by 15 minutes started banging on the windows and yelling. Her old boss told her not to leave by herself and ordered a co-worker to walk her down the ramp.

At 4:15 p.m., a group arrives at the window to pick up tickets for their friends. Grace pauses halfway through the stack of IDs.

“Are you going to see Monica today?”

“Probably, why?”

“Are you going to see Monica in the next 45 minutes?”

Like dozens before her, Monica’s ID won’t swipe. This begins a flurry of cell phone calls and texts to Monica, who is sitting in class.

Grace swipes up. Swipes down. Nothing.

“You can’t just type it in?

“No, she has to get her ID remagnetized,” Grace says.

More texts. The line at the window starts to clog.

“I’m sorry to be a pain in the ass—”

“Oh! It worked,” Grace says. “Here you go.”

Fifteenth time’s the charm.

Grace has season tickets, —she insists she had to enter the student ticket lottery.

Sometimes she works at the stadium on Saturdays, but she normally gets out by the end of the first quarter. When she climbs to her seat, no one yells at her or bangs on the bleachers. Students shuffle their knees when she squeezes by to get a drink at halftime, and when the Gators go up by seven, they slap her a high-five.

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