I’ve written about how I got into the alcohol business (see “My Last Job Interview” in the blog archives), but I haven’t described that gem of a first retail job.
It was a tiny liquor store on North New Circle Road across the road from the Flaming Embers Inn and next to Foxy’s Diner. It was a choice location…for something…but not for a liquor store. The store had been purchased by the owners of the new chain Shoppers Village Liquors to acquire the liquor license. They were building a large and fancy new wine shop on Reynolds Road and needed a license. At that time, buying an existing business was the accepted procedure for obtaining a liquor license. Obviously, if an existing business was willing to sell, it probably was not doing much existing business…at least not enough to continue existing.
But there’s the rub. In 1972, you couldn’t just buy the store, close the store, and idle the license until your new location was ready to go. The license had to be in use. Thus, a tiny shop with lousy access to a busy highway offered an employment opportunity to a theatre hippie who needed a summer job (aka; 40+ year career).
My first day on the job consisted of intense and grueling training; learning how to operate the cash register and the price gun (22 minutes), learning how to break down a cardboard box (30 passionate seconds), learning how to lock up and set the alarm (5 minutes), and learning how to pronounce “Spañada” (a heinous, cheap, and versatile jug wine concoction from Gallo – it was amazing, you could boil it like a toddy, freeze it into ice cubes, spike it with fruit and/or grain alcohol, wax your car, and pick up thirteen TV channels, three in color). After my onerous 30 minutes of apprenticeship, I was left on my own for that 4pm-12m shift and every other weekday night shift for the next seven months until the store closed in November.
The first night I finished my duties by 5:30 and the customer flow dwindled to practically none after 6:30. I was left with nothing to do until midnight except watch the small TV (three channels, none in color — coulda used some Spañada). I didn’t own a TV myself at that time so it was a novelty…for about an hour. At midnight I closed the store and vowed to not spend another night watching TV. It was another two years before I owned a TV of my own.
Instead, I brought books to work.
Until college, I read two or three books a week for curiosity and entertainment. In college, my reading was hijacked by the required reading. Now free from academic regimen, I reverted instantly to my pre-university habits. That summer, I averaged reading a book a night, and still sold my share of Spañada. If I finished my book early, I was left to contemplate the neon sign across the street and meditate on what kind of business plan would lead one to name their hotel “The Flaming Embers Inn.” It smacked of prophesying an insurance claim. Or perhaps there were too many tawdry crime novels in my literary buffet.
My typical day that summer consisted of an evening of voracious if indiscriminate reading, closing the shop at midnight, slipping next door to Foxy’s for an exquisite Foxy burger, and then home to work until about 3am on the musical extravaganza Chuck and I were writing . It was an immersive routine of consuming and producing art, consuming dubious but affordable food, and paying the rent.
Thanks to that summer, I don’t believe there’s anyone but me that understands and admires the opening scene of “La Boheme” as I do.
But even as I write that, my head tells me only about a million current and past theatre hippies have had the same experience. That fact represents a hope for the world.
My heart interrupts my head to shout; “You lie!”
My head and my heart; those two have never gotten along for any length of time, and with any luck they never will. To brutally paraphrase Nikos Kazantzakis; they are both made stronger by the tussle.
I’m thinkin’ neither was made stronger by Foxy’s burgers, nor Spañada.