Monday, June 12, 2017

False Impressions

People from other states think Pennsylvanians are drunks.

This isn't necessarily so, at least not exceptionally so.  Trust me.  I live in Wisconsin, home of 12 of the top 20 drunkest cities in America (and 7 of the top 10) according to one news story that made the rounds not far back.  I know what a state full of drunks looks like, and it isn't the one I grew up in.

Perhaps it should be, but it isn't.

Prohibition has never really come to an end in Pennsylvania.  I'm not sure why this is so.  It can't be the residual Quaker influence, since the number of Quakers in Pennsylvania is smaller than the number of university professors and we all know how influential those are.  I know the alt-white thinks we professors are Svengali-like figures indoctrinating the youth of America into liberal politics against their will with machine-like efficiency, but I can't even get my students to read the textbook half the time, even when I specifically point out which parts of it will be on the exam, so I'm not sure where this impression comes from.  Probably written on the walls of their lower intestines, as with so much of their worldview.  So I'm guessing the Prohibition thing in Pennsylvania is not due to the Quakers, is what I'm saying here.

Whatever the reason, the simple fact is that Pennsylvania has perhaps the most Byzantine and useless system of regulating alcohol in the entire civilized world.

When I lived in Pittsburgh I knew a guy named Larry who had a side-gig as a stand-up comedian.  He had an entire fifteen-minute long routine that was nothing but a question-and-answer session on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control laws.  ("Can I get a beer?"  "Well...")  It was hysterically funny and 100% factually accurate and that pretty much sums up Pennsylvania's legal attitude toward alcohol.

When I was a kid, most alcohol in Pennsylvania was sold in State Stores.  Beer you could get from a distributorship, in quantities of no less than a hogshead or thereabouts, but if you wanted a bottle of wine with your dinner - or merciful heavens, anything stronger - you had to go the State Store.  And the State Store experience was designed to make you feel like a criminal, or at least some kind of social deviant, in the fond hopes that you would take the hint and not buy the alcohol that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania felt legally obligated to provide some avenue to sell to you now that the Eighteenth Amendment had been repealed.

Why these weren't Commonwealth Stores is an interesting question, I suppose.  I'm guessing the word "alliteration" figures into the answer somewhere.

It was truly a Soviet-style experience, going to a State Store back in the day.  I can remember heading over with my dad to the one closest to us when I was about ten or so.  We were seeking a bottle of wine for Christmas dinner, I believe.  We walked into the store and were met with a room that managed to be both spartan and dingy at the same time - a tiny little waiting area, devoid of furniture or decoration, and a counter on which there were several immense books that listed the products for sale in agate type.  We found what we wanted in the book, told the clerk, and then waited while he slowly disappeared through a doorway into the gloomy room behind the counter - a room we could not see into, let alone enter.  At some point in the indefinite future from that moment he just as slowly re-emerged with our wine, and, triumphant, we headed home.  We may have paid in rubles.

It's all a bit more consumer friendly, now that the Commonwealth has figured out that they can make money off this.  They put everything out there for you to see and buy on your own, like any other store.  And they've spruced things up to make you feel like it's an actual retail experience.  But you still have to buy most of your alcohol from the State Store in Pennsylvania even now.

Unless you're buying beer, in which case you can actually get beer in a select few regular retail establishments that have gone through the arduous and politically charged process of getting a license to sell it to you.

Moving to Wisconsin, where alcohol sales are conducted in supermarkets, convenience stores, parking lots, toy shops, churches, police stations, farmer's markets, real estate offices, antique shops, flower stores, courtrooms, middle schools, and pretty much anywhere you can put a table and a cash box up to and including funeral parlors, was a bit of a shock but I'm used to it now.  It gets cold in the winter.  And hot in the summer.  And temperate in the spring, which was a Thursday this year.  Don't even get me started on the fall, when the Packers are playing.  People in Wisconsin need to drink.

So.  State Stores.  Still got 'em in Pennsylvania.  Right.

If there is one shining bright spot to the State Store system in Pennsylvania it is that they are an endless supply of cardboard boxes.  Any time anyone in Pennsylvania needs a cardboard box, you go to the State Store.  You don't even have to ask these days.  They stack them up in the entryways of the State Stores, free for the taking.  All you have to do is agree to take the little cardboard inserts with you, which are recyclable with the rest of your newspapers and paper goods.

And if there is a moment in the life of the average American when they truly need cardboard boxes in quantity, it is when that American is preparing to move.  Americans have lots of Stuff, and we like to haul it with us from place to place at intervals that strike the rest of the non-refugee world as ludicrously short.  Most Pennsylvanians, not surprisingly therefore, have basements full of cardboard boxes advertising the many varieties of wine and liquor available across the Commonwealth, boxes full of any number of things that are not actually alcoholic beverages.

Hey, they're good sturdy boxes.

Pennsylvanians understand this system and think nothing of it.  But when you move from Pennsylvania to another state and the neighbors stroll by while you're unpacking the truck, all they see is box after box after box after box that at one time contained alcohol (and may still, for all they know) and they think, "Man, these people are drunks."

Sometimes they're disappointed to find out the truth and sometimes not, but that's how it goes.


LucyInDisguise said...

Ahhhh, Memories of an ill-spent youth in the land of Zion. I, too, still have some self-same boxes floating around the ol' homestead here from when we moved out of Utah, some 16 years ago.

Sixteen? Wow. How time flies when you discover a place where adulthood is actually legal.

I've heard there are more draconian places, but when tourists from Arkansas complain about the liquor laws, you know you've really got something goin'!


David said...

For all the legal claptrap that Americans employ to enforce whatever mindless moral blizzard of the week is the theoretical root cause of all that anti-alcohol legislation, I've noticed that nobody in this country ever seems to have all that much trouble finding something to drink.

Morality Theater - that's us.