Monday, May 24, 2010

It's Not What It Seems

I am surrounded by liquor boxes.

It’s not that I am a heavy drinker. There are times when I’d like to be, but I’ve just never made that leap – not even in college, when I was supposed to be doing such things. Most of my visits to bars back then were because I was with the band (a handy way to get around being carded, I found), and at parties I was usually the other sober guy next to my roommate.

Beware of two smart-alec sober guys in a room full of drunks. That’s all that needs to be said about that.

No, this week is when I try to get my office cleaned out for the big carpet switch. There’s a lot of stuff in that office, and it has to get packed up somehow. And being from Pennsylvania, my first thought was: “Boxes? Liquor store.”

The rest of the country thinks we’re all lushes. We roll up in our moving vans, throw open the back doors of the truck, and start unloading boxes with proof content clearly stamped on them. This impressed my neighbors in Iowa no end, when I showed up there.

But it’s not that.

Pennsylvania has some of the most bass-ackward liquor laws in the United States, which is saying something. I once had a friend in Pittsburgh who moonlighted as a stand-up comic, and he had an entire 20-minute routine that was a 100% factual question-and-answer session on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Laws. It was side-splittingly funny – “I want to buy a beer.” “Well, you can go to the bar.” “But I want to buy a six-pack.” “Then you have to wait until closing time and buy them one at a time, unless they serve food.” “Can I go to the store and buy one?” “No.” “But that store sells beer!” “That’s a distributorship, not a store. You can buy a keg there.” “Not a six-pack?” “No.” “A case?” “Maybe...” And on and on.

The key thing to remember is that all alcohol except beer is sold by the state (or was – it’s been a while since I lived there). Beer is sold at distributorships and some convenience stores. You go to the State Store (really – that’s what they’re called) for everything else. The Stalinist overtones of that are not coincidental – when I was a kid, the way it worked if you wanted a bottle of wine was you would go into the store – a grim, grey, soulless place with fading posters of wines being held by heroic workers tacked on the wall – walk up to the counter and look through a book. You’d point to the one you wanted, and the clerk would disappear into the back and return with your wine. It was part of the Commonwealth’s plan to curb drinking by making the experience unpleasant. It was about as effective as you'd imagine, and eventually they decided that making money from sales was a better way to go. When they set up a State Store as a regular store – with aisles full of merchandise that you could select from yourself – it was front page news.

When I got to Iowa in 1993 I went to the grocery store and there, on the shelves, were bottles of wine. I found this deliriously exciting and bought some just because I could. I may have still had it when I moved out in 1995, but the important thing is that I could buy more if I wanted to. One must have one’s victories in life.

The one nice thing about Pennsylvania’s system was that you could go to the State Store and get all the empty boxes you wanted, any time you wanted. Really, I had paid for them with my tax dollars (not that I paid many taxes as a college student or younger) and they were mine anyway. So every time I need boxes, I think liquor. It makes my stuff just that much more interesting.

My boxes will be filled with paper and gadgets rather than wine or whiskey, but I can dream.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for reminding me of the State Store.
On this side of the pond, McDo's serves wine and beer.