The man looked rather seedy. I cannot put it more politely than that.

His trousers were baggy and rumpled, his hands tobacco stained. Cigarette burns made his sweater resemble Swiss cheese, and his teeth were the color of Swiss chard.

In another time and place, as I saw him siding up, I would have expect him to offer me dirty pictures.

But this was just outside the main gate of the all England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club at the start of the second week of the Wimbledon tennis championships, so he had a different proposition.

"Got any ticket to sell?" he asked. "I'm paying 100 pounds ( $200) for Centre Court seats for Saturday."

I told him that, alas, I not only had no spare tickets for the men's final, but was trying to buy one myself.

"I'll give you a single for 150 quid ( $300)," he said, producing a fistful of the precious ducats, "or a pair for 400 quid."

The man was a professional ticket scalper -- a "tout," or "spiv", as the British call him.

"I prefer to call myself a ticket broker -- I don't know where "touts' came from, but 'spivis' came from a member of Parliament," one veteran, named Spence, told me proudly. "He called us 'spivs and drones' in a speech in the Commons. You know: layabouts, sharpies.

Wasn't very nice of him, was it? After, all, we've got to make a living too."

For hordes of scalpers who work sporting events, concerts, royal balls, any event where tickets are in demand, the Wimbledon fortnight is the most lucrative of the year. They rely on their profits from two weeks as merchants of tennis to get them through what they call "the kipper months" of winter.

The face value of a Centre Court seat is six pounds, but they are sold out in January, by public lottery. So if you're looking for one now, you deal with the touts -- most of whom bought their supplies long ago from "debenture holders," the season ticket buyers of Wimbledon, who forker out 5,200 pounds for two seats every day for the five-year period, 1976-1980.

Most of the time, the police watch benignly as the touts -- "the bedraggled last bastion of free enterprise," as one London newspaper called them -- transact their business on sidewalks or behind bushes.

Occasionally, however, there is a crackdown, and the touts are hauled en masse into court and fined 30 pounds for "obstructing the footpath." Scalping tickets is not against the law in Britain, but police occasionally use "obstruction" as a technical offense to harass the touts. "I fully expect to be nicked two or three times during the fortnight," said Spence. "Let's just say it's their way of taking a bit of ground rent off us."

"There's no bad feeling. I just go to the station and pay my fine."

Naturally, as befits the last bastion of free enterprise, the extra cost is passed along to the consumer.