The Great Artists & Writers Game Heist of 1988

Oliver Peterson in 1987
11-year-old Oliver Peterson in 1987

Neither of us had ever held that much cash, and the fact that my best friend and I had conned it off dozens of well-meaning people wasn’t lost on us. We knew enough to be terrified when we heard Peachy’s voice across the parking lot shouting, “Get your butts over here right now!” She was a large woman, but she moved fast, weaving around cars and heading our way. Panicked and running toward Main Street, we agreed to spend the money posthaste…

Attempting to remember with perfect clarity the things I did and experienced 30 years ago is difficult, no matter how many times I’ve told a particular story. So it is with my recollection of the 1988 East Hampton Artists & Writers Game and a scheme I hatched to steal tickets and sell them for a discounted price in the Reutershan parking lot. After all, I was only 11 years old.

With just a few weeks left in the summer before seventh grade, my best friend (who we’ll call Torsten) and I were conscripted into service selling sodas at the charity softball game by his mother who worked for Head Start, a local daycare center for low-income families, which was a beneficiary of proceeds from that year’s contest. I had heard of the “Artists-Writers Game” and all the famous people who played in it, but guys like George Plimpton, Kurt Vonnegut and Ken Auletta meant little to me at that time. Chevy Chase, of Spies Like Us and Caddy Shack, was about the only player we would’ve cared about, though in researching this story I learned then–Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton showed up for his first time in 1988, as did Jaws star Roy Scheider. Does a future POTUS’s presence there somehow make my crime worse?

It was hot, it was August, and selling sodas wasn’t exactly how Torsten and I imagined spending one of our dwindling number of summer days. We got up to no good almost immediately. Well before the first pitch was thrown, as we were setting up in the grass behind a large cooler filled with ice and cans of off-brand cola, root beer, orange soda and the like, two boys from the Head Start program came over and attempted to take cans without paying for them. A small ruckus ensued, ending with Torsten and I pelting the boys with ice as they retreated.

That was all it took. We’d proven ourselves out of control and irresponsible. Torsten’s mother’s boss, the imposing Peachy, charged over and, yelling, ejected us unceremoniously from our position and the game. We were to leave Herrick Park immediately, before we caused Head Start and the other organizers any more embarrassment. But on our way out, I had an idea.

The Artists & Writers Game in Herrick Park
The Artists & Writers Game in Herrick Park, well after 1988, Photo: Daniel Gonzalez

Earlier, when we first arrived at Herrick Park, I’d noticed that the “tickets” for that year’s Artists & Writers Game were nothing but ¾-inch red dot stickers, like you might find marking a painting “sold” at a local art gallery. Each sticker came from a sheet of about 32, and there were stacks of them on a card table by the entrance of the park. As Torsten remembers it, I suggested we grab some stickers on our way out and try selling them to people in the parking lot before they reached the gate. Who would suspect 11-year-old kids of ripping off a charity softball game? And, really, what kind of devious, soulless 11-year-old would even do such a thing?

Sadly, this was hardly our first criminal enterprise. Earlier that year, Torsten and I had devised a ruse to get the newest 8-bit Nintendo games for free by simply replacing the chip with one from an older, worthless title. I specifically recall buying a game called Kid Niki: Radical Ninja, taking it home and unscrewing the cartridge’s plastic outer shell, and then switching in the chip from Gyromite, a robot-operated game no one played that came with the original Nintendo Entertainment System. First we took a screwdriver to the Gyromite chip, ripping apart the circuit board and its unseen components inside the cartridge so the game wouldn’t function when we returned it to Caldor, the Bridgehampton department store where we bought it. Voila! We’d get our money back at the small cost of a game we never played anyway. Eventually, Nintendo got hip to this and changed the screws so regular folks couldn’t open cartridges so easily. But I digress.

As Torsten and I left the park, I snatched a stack of sticker sheets. Once we’d put a little distance between us and the park’s entrance, we began approaching people in the Reutershan parking lot and offering admission for a discounted rate. If tickets were $10, we would charge people $6. We easily breezed through a bunch of tickets before one guy finally asked, suspicious, “Why are you selling them out here?” I quickly made up a story about the organizers trying to draw more people and fill the bleachers, and that seemed to satisfy the man. He bought stickers for him and his wife and headed toward the game.

By the time Peachy figured out what was going on—probably after noticing all these people she didn’t recognize coming in with red dot stickers, and finally asking someone where they got their ticket—Torsten and I had amassed an absolute fortune, to the tune of about $150 in cash. That could buy a ton of toys. With Peachy hot on our tail, like the Terminator hunting Sarah Connor, we went from store to store dropping cash on anything that caught our eye: COPS action figures—“Fighting Crime in a Future Time!”—and candy at Brooks Pharmacy, practical jokes and more candy at Penny Lane, a Dungeons & Dragons module at BookHampton and more assorted goodies, all the while looking desperately over our shoulders for Peachy’s looming figure.

Once the money was gone, we hoofed it out of town on the south side of Main Street, passing Davids Lane and the churches before ducking down Dayton Lane and cutting back via Toilsome and Railroad Avenue to my father’s rented home on Conklin Terrace, by Bucket’s Deli and the East Hampton LIRR station. We were safe, and despite our fear that reprisals and punishment awaited us in the days ahead, they never came. No lessons were learned. And I still have those action figures.

Oliver Peterson with COPS action figures
Oliver Peterson still has his COPS action figures, Photo: David Taylor

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