If the past is a foreign country, the person you were when you lived there is a stranger.
It’s been more than 10 years since I was a teenager, and the older I get, the more incomprehensible I find my younger self. I look back on the period between puberty and legal drinking age not nostalgic or remorseful, but baffled. Who is this guy? What the fuck is he doing?
The most arcane episode in my teenage years is the two off-and-on years I spent as a ‘liquor operative’ for the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Starting at 16, I was employed to go into convenience stores and try to buy cigarettes or booze. If I was successful, I handed the contraband over to a cop, who would re-enter the convenience store and issue a fine.
Basically, I was a narc.
If you were writing this up as fiction, you’d devise some sort of backstory for why I took this job. Maybe my dad was an alcoholic, or I had an uncle who died in a drunk-driving accident. Maybe I was driven by a religious or moral crusade, a Mormon or something. Or maybe I was simply a pedantic teetotaler, eager to inflict abstinence on teenagers I suspected were poisoning themselves.
No, no and no. My mom and dad were a preacher and a dentist, respectively, and their alcohol consumption consisted of a biannual glass of wine. At 16 I was a militant atheist (which might as well be a synonym for ‘preacher’s kid’), avid shoplifter (soon to be arrested—twice!) and former pothead (I loved being stoned, but got a weeklong hangover afterward) who disliked authority all the way from parental to municipal.
Perhaps more relevantly, I was sharing Kool-Aid made with $7 gin instead of water with my friends a few weekends a month. I was the only one among us who had the moral vacuousness to stand outside liquor stores, asking college students and young couples if they would buy us booze. We called this ‘bootlegging’, which made us feel rustic and badass, neither of which we were.
Which is why now, almost 15 years later, the following events make no sense to me:
- Shortly after my 16th birthday, I participate in a conversation (or possibly overhear one) in which I’m informed by fellow students that the cops use teenagers to bust stores selling to the underage.
- The next day, I call the Seattle Police Department to ask if this is true.
- A few please holds later, I tell the director of the Washington State Liquor Control Board the following things:
- I am a teenager (true),
- I look older than I am (true), and
- I have a dedication to preventing underage drinking (lie)
- I am invited to an interview. I arrive wearing a button-up shirt, Dockers and dress shoes borrowed from the Sunday end of my dad’s closet.
- I am hired on the spot, and told to come back a week later for my first shift.
If you edited these memories into a movie and showed it to me, I would walk out. Where is this character’s motivation? What actions foreshadow this phone call to the police? What gain does he see in this illicit, possibly socially ruinous employment?
Yet there I was. My first day at the WSLCB I met Kelly, the agent with whom I would work the most over the next two years. Other than the receptionist, she was the only woman in the office and my arrival rendered her the second youngest, second shortest and second newest.
Kelly always wore a suit jacket, usually with jeans and a flannel shirt, her long, frizzy hair pulled reluctantly into a ponytail. Before she was an enforcement officer, she was a teacher at a public middle school. She quit, she said, because she couldn’t handle the kids.
‘I just wasn’t strong enough’, she later told me.
Now Kelly was in charge of tobacco enforcement for the entire city of Seattle. Across the street from the WSLCB’s squat, stucco office, she bought me a coffee and told me how this would work.
First, we pick a neighbourhood. Then, starting at one end and working our way to the other, we ‘inspect’ every convenience store that sells cigarettes. This means Kelly parks in a Chevy Caprice 100 yards away and sends me into the store to ask for a pack of cigarettes.
‘Does it matter which brand?’ I asked.
‘No, just act like you’ve done this before,’ she said.
If asked for my ID, I should say these exact words: ‘I don’t have it with me.’
‘Don’t tell them you’re 18, or say anything like ‘C’mon, just this once’ or ‘Give me a break’ in there,’ Kelly told me. ‘Then they can claim entrapment if the case goes to court.’
If I was turned down, we logged the inspection as ‘compliant’.
If the buy was successful, I should come back to the Caprice, give Kelly the pack, the receipt and a description of the clerk, then wait while she went inside and issued a $500 fine to the clerk, plus another $500 to the owner of the store.
Like all jobs I’ve had since, I was bad at it when I started. The first time a clerk asked ‘hard or soft pack?’ I didn’t know what those were. My first successful buy, I couldn’t give Kelly a description of the clerk beyond ‘the guy behind the counter’.
Eventually, though, Kelly and I developed a sweet science. At each store, I made a confident entrance, walked straight to the counter and requested a Marlboro soft pack. I said my stock phrase and exited immediately if turned down. When successful, I thanked the clerk, went back to the Caprice and said ‘got one’ as I handed Kelly the pack and the receipt.
I often waited over an hour for Kelly to return. I like to think her teacherly instincts made her stay with the clerks until she could form some kind of connection. Sometimes she came back flustered: ‘Boy, that guy was animated,’ she’d say, or ‘He started crying as soon as I showed my badge.’
In one day we could check more than 50 stores, and I think our record was 75. We started early, usually around 7am. We spent eight hours driving, then another four filling out paperwork.
‘Why don’t we just do this tomorrow?’ I asked Kelly at 10pm once, filling in bubbles on an inspection form.
‘If we do this now, we get overtime,’ she said.
I may not have any idea why I started the job, but once I started, I know why I stayed. The pay was $8.50 an hour, with time and a half for any shifts past eight hours. I was being paid more than my lifeguarding and baristing friends to essentially sit in a car all day. After my first summer working with Kelly, I bought new speakers for my Civic and, among other things, the Chemical Brothers CD that would blow them out two years later.
The job changed when I turned 17. I couldn’t do cigarette inspections anymore because I was too close to legal age, so I shifted to alcohol checks.
Liquor inspections were the same procedure as cigarette inspections: Enter store, buy age-restricted substance, fill out paperwork. The only change in the actual job was the higher compliance rate. Buying cigarettes, I had successful buys about 40 percent of the time, but with liquor it was more like 10 to 20 percent, depending on the bourgieness of the neighborhood.
The other difference was that I would be working with all the WSLCB agents, not just Kelly.
Most of the agents were in their 40s, and had worked in various other departments before landing in liquor. Robert, for example, used to be a sniper, and spoke guiltlessly and frequently about the four people he had killed.
Steve used to work in vice, and considered it his duty to teach me how to identify prostitutes. ‘Her!’ … ‘Her!’ … he would say as we drove up Stone Way. ‘You gotta watch the bus stops, they’re always at the bus stops.’
Tom was such an embodiment cop clichés (brown suit, moustache, two packs a day) that he was practically in black and white. The first day we worked together, both windows down in March, he gave me his card.
‘If you ever get pulled over for anything. Speeding, DUI, doesn’t matter. You show him that card, and tell him you know me. I guarantee you’ll get off with a warning.’
I kept that card in my wallet until I was 23.
The liquor agent I worked with the most was Raj. I don’t know what Raj did before the WSLCB, but he worked liquor enforcement with a reluctance bordering on neglect. Agents were obligated to work 160 hours per month, but were allowed to distribute those hours however they wanted. Raj worked his full 160 in the first 15 days of the month, then flew to India for three weeks, then came back and worked the next month’s 160, all year round.
Raj disliked me immediately. I don’t know if it was my suggestion of overtime-reducing productivity enhancements (‘Why don’t I start filling out the paperwork while we drive?’) or my lack of enthusiasm for the cacophonous, humid Indian restaurants Raj chose for lunch. Small talk tapered off after the first hour of each 16-hour shift, and between inspections I sat in the back seat and read graphic novels or did homework.
One night, 12 hours into one of our endless workdays, we checked a Safeway. Inspecting big stores was the same as inspecting little stores: I walked in, got a beer, carried it to the counter and tried to buy it. The only difference was that supermarkets had more than one checkout lane, so it was up to me to decide which clerk I would inspect.
In supermarkets I usually went to the clerk who looked the least likely to sell. Someone older, better at gauging my age, more likely to expel me for not having an ID. Compliant checks meant less paperwork and, on Raj days, the potential of getting home before midnight.
I chose the line of a woman in her mid-30s, plump and tired-looking. She seemed like the kind of working-her-way-up-to-manager type who wouldn’t sell to me.
But she did. She barely looked at me, just rung up the beer and turned to the next customer. I almost said ‘Are you sure?’ when she gave me the receipt.
I walked to the far end of the parking lot and handed the beer and receipt to Raj. I told him her name and what she looked like. He got out of the Caprice with a long breath. It was our first noncompliant check in hours.
He came back more than 45 minutes later.
‘Oh man, you really fucked up in there,’ Raj said. ‘That woman had kids.’
‘What?’ I said.
‘Her manager fired her on the spot. She said without this job, she can’t take care of them. It’s going to be impossible for her to find another job with this on her record.’
I didn’t know what to say.
‘She said she doesn’t have the money to pay this fine,’ Raj said.
I was still silent.
‘If the state takes away her kids, that’s your fault.’
I looked at him, expecting this to be the part where he said ‘just kidding’.
‘What do you mean, if the state takes away her kids?’ I finally said.
‘If she can’t pay the fine, she could go to jail, and those kids will be up for adoption. Will you step up and take care of her kids if that happens? Will you take responsibility for that?’
In the 18 months I had been doing this job, I hadn’t told any of my friends about it. They knew I had a job at the WSLCB, but I told them I was answering the phone, making coffee, doing intern stuff. The best thing about having a secret is that you never have to defend it.
The next day I finally told my friends about my job, starting with the Safeway incident. They said all the things I wish I’d said to Raj.
‘If it’s such a fucking tragedy, why did he give her the fine instead of a warning?’
‘Why is it suddenly your responsibility to look after her kids?’
‘He just feels guilty, and he’s putting that on you.’
‘What a dick.’
After that, I started applying prosecutorial discretion. If a clerk looked friendly, well-meaning, or in any way maternal, I just walked back to the Caprice and told the agent ‘compliant’.
A few times, a clerk was nice enough that, mid-purchase, I asked for my money back. ‘Oops, wrong brand,’ I said, grabbed my $10 bill and left.
Only a bubble-wrapped suburban teenager could come up with an approach this morally incoherent. I was still performing a task that was costing people their jobs, but now I was only applying it to clerks who ‘deserved it’ because they hadn’t smiled at me or asked me how my day was going.
The day of the death threat was my last time working with Kelly. She didn’t do much alcohol enforcement, so it was like a reunion from our cigarette days.
The convenience store was on a suburban street in West Seattle. Kelly parked in the front, in view of the counter, instead of around the corner like she usually did. I went inside, where a clerk who didn’t look much older than I was sold me a Bud Light. I walked back to the car, gave it to Kelly and waited in the car for her to return.
I could see her through the window, showing the clerk her badge. As they spoke, a man in his mid-40s came out of the store’s back room, walked past Kelly and came, furious, toward the car.
I checked to make sure the windows were rolled up and the doors were locked. He clawed at the door handle.
‘Get out of the car!’ he shouted.
‘I said, get the fuck out of the car!’ He kicked the window. I scrambled for the driver’s seat.
‘If I ever see you again I’ll fucking kill you!’ he shouted, finally loud enough for Kelly to hear. ‘You better never come here again!’
I don’t remember exactly what happened next, whether Kelly radioed for backup or if the guy just calmed down and walked away. I remember that he owned the convenience store, and was pissed that the clerk, his son, would have the fine on his record.
Kelly and I drove back downtown. I was still shaking.
‘My briefcase is in the back seat, with my gun in it,’ she said. ‘Sorry, I should have told you that before.’
‘You think I should have shot that guy?’ I said.
‘Well, you could have waved it in his face.’
In the end, it wasn’t the moral qualms or the attempted assault that pushed me out of the job. I was literally made redundant. Just after I turned 18, the WSLCB found some kid named Tiger. He was black and only 15 years old.
‘That means no one sells to this kid,’ Tom told me. ‘I’m never gonna do paperwork again.’
Two years after my shifts dried up and I moved to Bellingham for college, I got a subpoena. One of the clerks I busted had appealed his fine, and I had to appear in court to testify against him. I was hoping it would be one of the busts I made with Kelly, so we could catch up, but it was Robert, the former sniper. He told me Kelly had left the agency just after I had.
‘She filed a sexual harassment suit. Apparently we called her ‘baby’ too much’, he said. ‘She transferred down to Olympia.’
The courtroom wasn’t anything like on TV. There was no wood panelling, no jury, no robes. It looked like a high school debate.
Testifying, however, was pure theatre:
‘So you were 17 at the time you purchased alcohol from the defendant, is that correct?’
‘Just one more question: Do you, sir, possess the ability to travel forward in time, become 21, then travel back in time in order to purchase this alcohol?’
‘No I do not.’
‘No further questions, your honor.’
The prosecutor gave me a sort of ‘booya!’ face, like he had really twisted the knife in the defendant. The judge called the defendant’s lawyer for cross-examination. He stayed seated, like this was a job interview.
‘How long were you a liquor operative?’
‘’Were you performing this role to gain any kind of immunity from prosecution or as part of a plea agreement?
‘So you weren’t in any way being forced or coerced into performing this role, is that correct?’
He looked down at his papers.
‘… So why were you doing it?’
I don’t even remember what I answered.
Looking back now, I see a stranger leaving the stand. He looks a little like me, this college student walking out of the courtroom, getting in his car, driving north. If he could look forward like I’m looking back, I’d be as foreign to him as he is to me. Neither of us, however, recognize the teenager sitting in the Caprice.