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Salt Lake City Weekly Liquor Store Blues

Robbing dignity and taking profits at the state alcohol dispensary.

By John Harrington

AUGUST 4, 1997:  It's Saturday night.

At 8:45, maybe 100 people are trying to beat the 10 p.m. and Sunday closure deadline at the Utah State Liquor Store "Number One" on 200 W. 400 South, in Salt Lake City.

One of them is a scraggly, skinny, friendly black man wearing a golf cap over his unkempt Afro.

I've been up the street at Blockbuster renting videos for the kids. Now, I'm in line to pay for a medium-priced, large bottle of Chilean Merlot to go with Sunday's barbecue, something one ought to be able to do in a grocery store. Instead, I am forced, with many others, to visit our state-owned dump.

The patrons are a melange of society: Tourists mix freely with the locals, some of whom, including the black man, are obvious practitioners of street life.

Everything seems pretty cool. But, in "Store One," looks are deceiving. The black man steps up to the register with a pint of vodka. For the uninformed, pints of booze are a preferred size for cash-poor street folk who usually grift for the nickels and dimes they use to pay for these small bottles of temporary addiction-relief.

Now, the clerk is a guy I have seen in operation before. So, what happens next is no real surprise: The black guy puts a dollar bill and a lot of small change on the counter to pay for his little bottle. The black man is smiling, not hassling anyone. And he's a dime short — one thin dime.

"You're short!" the surly, bearded clerk loudly snarls at the man, shoving the money back toward him.

"Oh, please ..." the black guy starts to say when the customer in line next to him quickly covers the 10-cent shortage. I notice that at least three other patrons — well-groomed, white people — are also offering change.

The clerk's plan is ruined — he has to sell the guy his bottle and it ticks him off.

The black guy thanks the person who helped as the clerk lets it fly: "Don't you ever come in here and pull that crap again!" he screams at the black man. "I mean it," he shouts again. "Get out."

"I was just a little short ... I thought I had it," the black man says.

"Get out," the clerk snaps. "Don't come back ..."

The other clerk on duty is watching this and he's smiling. The surly clerk has brought most of the entire store to a standstill, while gleefully ripping off whatever dignity the black guy had left.

Two tourist-types, a white guy and a woman, are standing next to me uneasily watching the surly clerk tear into the black man.

"That's life on the other side of the tracks, I guess," I say to them to break the hateful tension. "It makes you thankful for the things you do have in life ..."

"Hey!" the surly clerk suddenly turns and snaps at me. "Why don't you bring one of them home with you," he barks.

"It's pretty obvious I don't hate them the way you do," I say to the guy.

The other clerk starts on me. "Hey, you don't have to deal with them like we do."

It's pointless to carry out the dialogue any further, but let's just say the two clerks, the bearded one in particular, hate "them" and clearly enjoy venting their miserable, misplaced anger on "them."

Well, since I had to leave, or stay and get arrested for sticking up for people who can't do it for themselves, I'll finish the point right here:

You, booze boys, are state employees. You act like bigoted, foul burnt-outs and should be fired from your jobs. You stood a whole store still the other night with your rotten, mean diatribe, and it wasn't about a dime.

You have taken a group of people and decided you will treat them like unmitigated scum because you feel like it and you can get away with it.

I have a little suggestion: Quit and get a job where you don't have to deal with any living creature.

You stand behind your filthy counters selling alcohol, a drug, to alcohol-addicted people, who you then degrade in front of people you have judged to be better than them.

Here's a little fact: "Store Number One," your store sold $5,887,826.40 in booze from June 1996 through May 1997 — a figure your administration at the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control was kind enough to supply me. That's almost $6 million, and some of your best customers are the very people you hate so much.

Hey, booze boys, if you don't like the job or the location, put in for a transfer. Or, better still, why don't you ask the question everybody should be asking: "Why is the State of Utah even in the retail booze business?"

In Utah, we have a state that not only wants to collect the considerable taxes it charges on booze, but our pious "leaders" want to make the retail profit, too.

If that's your business, supplying the demand, then the state better get something straight: You people selling the booze are public employees, and the drunken dregs of society, as you seem to view them, are members of the public — exactly the same in the eyes of the law as the wealthiest tourist or downtown lawyer who has ever strolled through the doors of your usually dirty, disorganized, smelly, pit-of-a-store.

You're such hypocrites.

You operate a monopoly. You keep these down-and-out folks well-liquored-up until they finally move on or die and your store rakes in nearly $6 million a year. You have your state health and retirement benefits, paid vacations and numerous paid holidays while you poison and verbally abuse some of your steadiest customers.

You're pathetic. Your behavior proves it and, yes, given the choice, I'd dine with any of "them" anytime, anyplace ... before I'd even give you a second look.

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