The View from the Other Side of the Liquor Counter

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

A couple of years ago, in between breaks from college, I came home to labor at a family-run wine and liquor store on a strip-mall in Westbury, New York. When I started first stocking and selling bottles behind the counter, I was 19—too young to buy the booze I was selling. And too young to know how widespread alcoholism is in middle America. Naively, I had assumed that the only alcoholics in the world were vagrants and panhandlers out on the street.

Prior to my stint as a liquor salesman, I was, as I say, ignorant. I never fathomed that so many ordinary-looking individuals rely on alcohol to get by on a daily basis. As the weeks turned to months, I began to catch on that the well-dressed, middle-aged woman who comes in for Sauvignon Blanc to complement her fish dinner one night, Cabernet Sauvignon with her steak the next night and a bottle of Pinnacle whipped-cream vodka for Friday night, may just be an alcoholic. It is no coincidence that her consumption runs according to pattern. And on the days that she didn't come into my store, she may well have stopped by another liquor store—there were upwards of-10 in a five-square-mile radius of our town.

At first, the customers were virtually indistinguishable from one another: mostly middle-aged, middle-class working people, they would bark out their order and run. The store was down the street from both a jail and a hospital, so we had a steady clientele of sheriffs (one bought a pint and a half of Hennessy cognac every day) and nurses (they favored wine) at odd hours. Between 3 and 5 p.m., a crush of schoolteachers would stop in.

Over the years, I undoubtedly came into contact with hundreds of alcoholics—some quite obvious, while others flew under my radar. A few customers were visibly intoxicated, especially on the weekends.

Holidays were naturally when the store was busiest—times for family gatherings and parties, and therefore times of heavy drinking. "Going off to the party," customers would mutter.

On a typical day about 25 percent of the customers who walked through our doors showed visible alcoholic tics. "Give me some of that medicine," the boldest ones would growl with a wink.

However, over the course of my breaks and summers, I did manage to build memorable relationships with certain customers, noticing their schedules, their quirks—and, of course, what they liked to drink. I began to think of these people as the regulars. Most turned up at the store like clockwork, anxiously scanning the counter until they discovered the bottle they were seeking. Others staggered the time of their arrival. But all of them showed up on a daily basis, with their faces emitting a magenta hue and their hands trembling ever so slightly.

As I hustled through the Christmas season and the extended weekends during the summer, my regulars were less noticeable. Among the circus of holiday-goers, they drifted into and our of the store like apparitions. Most of the regulars always purchased the same item, which happened to be low-cost brands, so they were in and out before I could even give them my recognition. The new faces during the holiday periods usually translated to the possibility of a lucrative sale, so less attention was devoted to the low-profits derived from the sale of a pint of Georgi.

During holidays, I was encouraged to offer up recommendations of high-cost products. Many of our customers were ill-informed about wine so I conjured up supposedly high-quality, expensive wines, but not once did any recommendation arise from taste-induced expertise. I simply quoted the descriptive labels on the bottles, along with gathering customer feedback, and I came off as a wine "aficionado."

I also became adept at identifying the peculiar little habits and patterns that many people exhibit when buying alcohol: the kid-in-a-candy-store exhilaration and relief when they first walk into the store, the nervous look around to see if there is anyone else they know, the excessive politeness and gratitude as they make the purchase. Many customers would offer unsolicited nervous explanations about why they were buying alcohol, particularly if they asked for one or more of the many brands of one-shot miniatures behind the counter: “I'm sneaking them into a concert," they would claim, or: "They're just stocking stuffers," "I only need one tablespoon for a recipe," “it's a gag gift.”

Even our most unceremonious clients were a bit abashed to reveal the full fury and breadth of their alcoholism to a stranger—even a floppy-haired college kid who came and went from season to season. In reality it was my duty as an employee to keep them swimming in booze. Although I thoroughly enjoyed working the holidays, it was the time surrounding them that shaped my tenure, the time when I was able to personally interact with the regulars and analyze their alcoholism-generated tactics.

On a typical day about 25 percent of the customers who walked through our doors displayed visible alcoholic tics. "Give me some of that medicine," the boldest ones would growl with a wink. But making light of their "problem"—and the frequency with which they came into the store—was the most common trick people used to hide their shame.

Quietly filling their orders with a smile, I came to see myself less like a salesman than a licensed pharmacist dispensing medication to ailing patients who were desperate to just get through the day.

I sold half-pints of Georgi vodka to an ice cream man on a weekly basis. There were the two mailmen who stopped in between their rounds, sometimes two or three times a day. And how can I forget the painter who needed an entire jug of wine each day to master his trade. I watched the condition, both mentally and physically, of one customer severely deteriorate in the span of about a year.

But the experience of being a liquor salesman, which I had given hardly any thought to when I took the job, also changed me in an unexpected way. By the end of my tenure, I had acquired a burgeoning sense of guilt for supplying so many apparent alcoholics with the substance that was destroying their lives. 

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.

But as it turned out, he drank even when he did have a job. His excessive indulgence was visibly hindering his health. His face developed a reddish hue—the tell-tale feature of many heavy drinkers. His dehydrated skin was dry and flaky. I can only imagine what effects his liver was enduring. He always seemed incensed about something. I was in no position to stage an intervention. I could only wish him the best of luck.

The Homeless Man

Late in my first summer on the job, this guy stumbled through the door before noon: the stereotypical "alkie." He had a nauseating odor. Once he finally made his way to me, he emptied his hand on my counter: a few rolled up singles and an array of coins. After counting it up, I told him that he did not have the proper amount for the pint of whiskey he had asked for. He settled on the infamous pint of $4 Georgi. But instead of exiting after I rang him up, he just stood there—lingering in a disoriented way.

Then he started talking. It turned out that he used to be a guitarist for a rock & roll band. Things got tough and he hit the bottle. He was once so polluted that he passed out on his front lawn, unable to manage just a few more steps. This was back when he still had his wife and kids. Now he was homeless and without family. During his rambling, he began to cry. After a few uneasy minutes passed, I was finally able to guide him towards the exit—immediately his stench dissipated.

A few hours later I noticed cops and paramedics in the parking lot. After inquiring with the local authority about the situation, I was told he would be taken to the local hospital (NCMC).  The bum was to be taken away in an ambulance—apparently after fortifying himself with the rut-gut vodka, he had been sitting outside the stores along the strip shouting lurid remarks at women passing by. Poor guy, at least he would receive a bath.

These are just five of the many real-life characters who confided in the kid at the liquor store. They are a just a small fraction of the regulars who I have come to remember, due in part to their unique methodical engagements when perpetually arriving to fetch their fix.

An eventful job it was, leaving behind vivid memories that will remain with me for a lifetime. I now know how habitual and dangerously excessive an indulgence alcohol can be. I have been enlightened to the jarring fact that ordinary people are in fact alcoholics: waitresses, teachers, bosses, pilots, accountants, doctors, lawyers. In my pre-liquor store days, the homeless man who greeted me on my first summer there sure fit the agenda of an alcoholic, not the charismatic high school teacher casually strolling in just after dismissal. I learned firsthand that I was wrong. The longer I was there, the higher the number I feared.

And although we're unlikely to ever have an accurate count of all the alcoholics co-existing with us in everyday life, I bet the true figure would be a shock to the world.

Kenneth Garger is an intern at The Fix. He also reports for the New York Post.

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