The View from the Other Side of the Liquor Counter - Page 2

By Kenneth Garger 06/08/11

What do alcoholics look like from the other side of the counter? A young man who worked at a liquor store during college describes the peculiar habits and patterns of life inside a liquor store.

The author at his post, plying bottles of self-medication. photo via Kenneth Garger

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The Middle-Class Mom

One of the suburban housewives who regularly frequented the store deteriorated before my own eyes. I first encountered her during my second summer on the job. Initially, she bought vodka miniatures in the typical middle-class-mom fashion. Pretty lady, but she immediately gave off a depressed vibe. She was very social with me; in other words, she was lonely. She would spill her family strife at every visit: recently divorced, laid off from her job, daughters staying at their father’s house. Distraught, she had turned to the consolation of alcohol.

Like many others, her timid early indulgence gradually morphed into an all-out alcoholic blitz. When I returned to work the following winter break, I couldn't believe the physical state she had descended to. She had put on a considerable amount of weight, ditched her fashion sense, and upped her dosage: now she was resorting to a magnum (1.75 ml) of the cheapest vodka on the shelves (Popov or Nikolai). Every time she came in, she would begin to repeat everything she had dropped on me at her preceding visit. Many days, she was already half in the bag

When a day or two would pass without her making an appearance, I would find myself almost worrying about her, wondering if she had had an accident or something worse. Now I wonder if she had ever “hit bottom," or ever will.

The Ice Cream Man

During all the three summers I worked at the store, I grew obsessed with this fastidious, nervous-looking guy. He came in on a weekly basis, usually Saturdays. It took me a while before I realized that he was the ice cream man whose little white truck sometimes occupied a parking space in the far corner of the lot spouting its generic musical jingle. He was a short guy, always dressed funny, sporting a large white T-shirt tucked into long jeans shorts. Once I uncovered his true identity, I was in awe.

The cash register was located at the front of the store a few feet across from the windows. More often than not, I would be lazily gazing out the window, awaiting the next customer to arrive. Then I would see the ice cream man, speed-walking his way toward the store, attempting to look inconspicuous—and failing miserably. Upon entering, he would grab a bag of our $0.99 ice (that deal only applied to customers making another purchase), dart to the counter and demand his pint of Georgi vodka. In the same nimble fashion, he would pocket the booze and dash out the door.

The mailman and I shared an interest in sports, and as we talked about, say, the New York Rangers, he would discreetly transfer the contents of his purchase into the Gatorade bottle. I would pretend not to notice.

To the average spectator, it would seem he was simply buying a bag of ice for his ice cream, no visible sign of an alcoholic purchase. All I could do was shake my head in disbelief. The local ice cream man was sucking down vodka-based cocktails while meandering through the neighborhood. What a shame!

The Mailmen

I had two regulars. Mailman no. 1 was the epitome of your hard-working blue-collar dad in the ‘burbs. He showed up like clockwork every day. His purchases ranged from two pints up to a fifth (.750 ml) of Georgi when he was feeling festive. Some days he would be in multiple times.

When I first started serving him, I naively suggested that he would save money if he'd simply buy larger quantities. This was before he enlightened me to the conundrum that many alcoholics face: How much alcohol should they buy? Because the more you buy, the more you drink. Purchasing smaller quantities may lead to less drinking—that seemed to be this gentleman's logic. Had he simply listened to yours truly, he would have saved more than a few bucks. Instead he just kept coming back for the same diminutive bottles every day after day.

Though clearly an alcoholic, he was an admirable man. He had a son around my age, whom he was putting through college—and frequently derided as a “lazy son of a bitch.” He would always compliment me on my work ethic—putting in 40-plus hours a week. His wife did not approve of his drinking. He often confided that she would kill him if she knew he was out for more liquor. But despite all of his distress, he was always in bright spirits. If there ever was a functioning alcoholic, he was the guy.

Mailman no. 2 was another nice fellow. He would always arrive with a knapsack containing a big empty bottle of Gatorade and then make a bee-line for the vodka section, grab a fifth of Nikolai and retrace his steps to the counter. We shared a mutual interest in sports, and as we talked about, say, the New York Rangers, he would discreetly transfer the contents of his purchase into the Gatorade bottle. I would pretend not to notice. His moniker for me was “good buddy.” He would exit, his “Gatorade” in hand, saying, “Next time, good-buddy.”

The Painter

The painter bewildered me. He always left with a jug of White Zinfandel Carlo Rossi—four liters of piss-poor wine. Soon he was showing up almost every morning, sometimes watching me open the store at 9 a.m. He complained that the recession had been very hard on his business. Instead of painting, he spent a large part of his day downing cheap wine.

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Ken Garger is a reporter for the New York Post. You can follow him on Twitter.