The other day, while I was walking through a bottle shop looking for something suitable to drink with our dinner, I had a flashback. It wasn’t a horrible flashback like one brought on by too much LSD or the “horrors of ‘nam” but one brought on by the familiarity of my surroundings. I don’t mean that I feel super comfortable in a bottle shop because the staff at my local know me by name and just nod when I say “the usual thanks, Terry.” It was different. I had a flashback to when I worked in that industry. Actually now that I think about it, an acid or a ‘nam flashback would have been more enjoyable. I’m not suggesting that working in a bottle shop is worse than visions of slaughtered Vietcong soldiers but I certainly had some experience working there that would make a grizzled war veteran shudder.
I started working in a bottle shop in 1997. I won’t name the bottle shop or the hotel it is attached to because they are still trading and I don’t want to ruin what meager business they get. Not that anyone who reads this will actually go there. The clientele generally just read either Zoo Magazine or New Idea, depending on the gender. This shop was in a shed. I’m not saying this in an off-hand manner. It was a bloody shed. Drive-thru at the front and liquor barn out the back. The drive-thru mainly sold cartons of XXXX Gold and the liquor barn sold cask wine. Just loads and loads of cask wine. Sure, they stocked some lovely bottles of wine but the patrons generally shuffled past them to get to the casks stored at the back.
“Wine in a bottle? I don’t care if it tastes better. This one has 4L in it for the same price. Got anything sweet? I like wine that tastes like bourbon and coke. Got any of that?”
Working in this place in summer was like working in a furnace. The workers positively leaked. Bottles of sparkling wine would randomly explode on the shelf showering anyone nearby with shards of glass and tepid fizzy cat urine. The casks were the worst. Secondary fermentation brought on by the heat and the small amounts of air that casks let in would cause them to expand. Some would only bulge slightly. Others resembled garish balloons that made faint “weeeeeeeee” noises if you were game enough to put your ear to them. Some afternoons we’d have a cull. The boss would choose some poor lackey (read: me) to gently place the casks outside and pop them with a stick. Generally a long stick. Let me tell you, I know exactly what a bomb disposal expert in Afghanistan feels like. The trembling touch, the fact that everything goes quiet and all you can hear are the hushed voices of people nearby and perhaps a dog barking down the street. I’d put a cask on the ground and get my ‘poking tool’ which was a broom handle with a nail on the end. Most of the time the end result was anti-climactic. Other times these things would explode, covering me with half-rotten Fruity Lexia. I still gag when I smell cask wine. I hated this task so much. That was until a member of the public told me he’d buy them off us for a dollar a cask. Given these were ullages and we’d get reimbursed by the company rep we didn’t mind. Every week he’d come in and take away our rotten wine. You could smell this guy coming a mile away. To this day I have no idea what he did with it.
After graduating from the Liquor Barn I was moved into a small detached bottle shop in a major shopping centre. It was here that I was exposed to the general public in a big way. I didn’t mind working in retail. Sure, you meet some weirdos but generally people are nice. They like to tell you things about their day and how little Cathy is doing at school. I used to pride myself on my ‘attentive listening face’ and my ability to nod in all the right places despite not even knowing what the conversation was about. Sometimes I’d laugh. “Ah! Ha ha ha” I’d chortle and they’d laugh too and I was known as “that nice young chap at the bottle-o.” My, if only they could read minds. Some of the old dears would bring me cake to eat because they felt sorry for me being left on my own for long periods of time. I would reluctantly chew a piece of cake which had the flavor and consistency of a piece of linoleum and listen to them drone on as I mentally counted the bottles of wine on the shelf behind them. Some days would drone on by and I’d swear that the clock would tick backwards. Sometimes having customers coming in would be a welcome interruption to my day. There are only so many times you can read the back label of the bottle of Penfold’s Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet.
One particular incident involved a pile of cheap wine we had stacked at the front of the store. This stuff was horrid. We had a tasting once with it as the feature wine. It was a real la-dee-dah affair. We had a large oak barrel rolled into the store, white table cloths and even real glasses made of glass. It was a pity the stuff we tasted resembled battery acid with red colouring. People were swilling it down and loving it. To this day I have no idea why. I’m no wine snob and I’ll try anything once regardless of price but this stuff was vile. We sold it for $2.99 a bottle and still made a handsome profit.
A lady came in one day and was transfixed by the pile of cheap wine stacked at the front. I had done a great job with some tinsel and it almost looked classy. She said to me, “excuse me, can you tell me something about this wine?”
“It’s $2.99,” I said.
“I see” she replied. “But what’s it like?”
“It’s $2.99” I repeated.
“Oooh a bargain. Does it have a nice taste?”
“It’s $2.99” I said again.
“I see” she said, completely oblivious to the fact that I couldn’t describe the taste to her without swearing. “Would you drink it?”
“I would probably use it to clean my driveway” I replied.
“Okay. It is a cheap price isn’t it?
“Yes, ma’am, it certainly is cheaper than most other driveway cleaners. A bargain, in fact.”
“Would it go well with lamb?
“Well, you could use the bottle to bludgeon a lamb to death…so yes!”
“I will buy 4 cartons please”
“Excellent choice!” A sale is a sale, even if I am selling radioactive coolant.
One of the more harrowing experiences occurred one busy Saturday afternoon. Saturday afternoons were chaotic. Just hordes of people lining up for cheap cask wine, generic beer and disgustingly sweet pre-mixed cocktail drinks. This Saturday was particularly busy and the line of customers stretched back from the counter where I worked on my lonesome. A lady approached the counter and placed her chosen wines on the bench. I looked up and noticed that she was shaking and appeared visibly upset.
“Are you okay, ma’am” I said.
“I don’t want to ruin you day but…um…a man in the line behind me is urinating in your store”
Right. I looked down the line and sure enough there is a degenerate middle-aged man wearing a vintage 1982 ‘Life Be in It’ t-shirt and short light blue Stubbies. I could see a dark wet patch on the front of his shorts and a puddle at his feet. He was looking up at the ceiling in that nonchalant manner we all do when we piss our pants. I served the next 2 people and he moseyed up to the counter. He had a hair-lip scar and the rheumy eyes that all the seasoned professional alcoholics seem to have. If there was an Olympics for alcoholics this guy would have been a medal chance.
“Can I help you mate?” I said in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Uh yeah mate. Do you have any casks of Stanley Moselle?”
“We have heaps of them up the back, sir” I replied.
“Can I have a cold one?”
“No. No you can’t”
“Oh. Can I have a hot one then?”
“No. No you can’t have a hot one either”
“Why not?” he asked.
“You can’t have one because you are blind drunk” I said.
“I’m not drunk”
“Can you explain why you pissed in my store then?”
“I couldn’t hold it in. I’ve been at the pub all day”
“So, can I have a cask?”
“No. Get out of the store now you filthy scumbag”
I served the next customer who was a middle-aged man wearing a suit. He said, with an extremely stiff-upper lip English accent, “Andrew, I must commend you on your composure. If that was me serving that wretch, I would have kicked the fucking shit out of him.”
There was never a dull moment working there. I spent the next hour after the doors closed cleaning drunk hobo-piss off the store’s carpet. Lucky I had a near endless supply of caustic cleaning product.
$2.99 a bottle.