I WAS A TEENAGE OLCC STOOGE!By Brandon Hartley
For some, summer brings mellow days of broiling in a sea of UV with their privileged fist wrapped around a Corona. For others it means working for the man every night and day, slaving over a mop or - egads - a telemarketing monitor while cursing the Earth's stubborn insistence on tilting its Northern Hemisphere towards the sun.
I myself fall into the latter category. Over the course of many a summer term I've worked for my fall tuition by carting urine and dismembered arms around a hospital and, even worse, by serving frozen yogurt to the yuppified masses of greater metropolitan Tigard. It was with great relief that I scored a gig at Plaid Pantry # 55 in my neighborhood last year.
How wrong I was. Like many a foolish twenty-something I had become convinced by Kevin Smith's "Clerks" into thinking that working in a convenience store would offer a summer filled with adventures including, but not limited to, playing hockey on the roof and spitting OK Soda on random customers. I now curse the chubby bearded schmuck for leading me so far astray. Instead of passing June through September with talk of blowjobs and the socio-economic fallacies of "Return of the Jedi," my time was spent cleaning up broken bottles of Red Dog and enforcing the ever-so whimful laws of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Before being allowed to sell forties to some of SW Portland's smelliest and most incoherent lifetime alcoholics, I was forced to delve into the belly of the beast: the heart of darkness, the bloated... well, I'm all out of literary cliches.
Regardless, prior to being allowed to legally sell High-Life to lowlifes I had to complete an Alcohol Server Education class. That meant a trip to OLCC headquarters on Portland's SE McLaughlin Boulevard. This little jaunt would be the first of several irritating hassles that the organization would dump into my lap during the course of the next few painful months.
On the exterior, this slightly massive but far from immense complex may seem unimposing and perhaps even harmless. However, behind its dull brick walls and tarnished state seal lies an elaborate and equally intricate series of corridors and offices that make the convoluted streets of Eugene look like Nanny's playroom from the "Muppet Babies."
When I arrived it was after-hours and I had to pass through a heavily secured side door. Above its six-inch glass fa ade sat a stone-cold camera. This door looked like it belonged attached to the Pentagon instead of some teensy-weensy bureaucracy in the middle of Oregon. The place looked like it was fully prepared for an invasion along the lines of "Red Dawn." A burly ex-high school linebacker eventually let me in and ushered me through a series of hallways and into a conference room where several apathetic bartenders were sitting around, staring blankly at one another. After a protracted wait, our instructor - an off-duty police officer named Robert - showed up and instigated the brainwashing session by coughing-up an anecdote about how he busted four kids at a nightclub the evening before.
Rob clearly believed in the OLCC's mission statement and expected the same from the rest of us. When a salty old tapster across from me dared inquire into the validity of sting operations, our teacher merely laughed and moved on, dodging the question artlessly. Clearly his faith in the organization's code was blind. During the course of the two hour class, Rob tried to instill in us a paranoid "us versus the underaged" mentality that would make our jobs easier.
Anyone under 21 was the enemy and any customer could be an undercover OLCC lackey. We were reminded numerous times that should any of us be caught selling alcohol to undercover officers, we would indeed be personally fined $500 and likely be fired by our employers. It was pretty obvious that Rob had never spent a summer working in a mini mart.
After a quiz we were given a cute little certificate of completion and sent out into the turbulent world of booze retail. I wasn't an hour into my first day as a booze retailer before I received my first tongue-lashing from a teenybopper hoping to purchase a couple dozen wine coolers.
Becoming a clerk is definitely not a job for those with low self-esteem or any other esteem-related emotional disorder. For $6.50 an hour a clerk serves as a scratching post for hundreds of surly pricks. What made my job even more difficult was the fact that this particular Plaid Pantry had been cited several times prior for selling alcohol to minors. After losing its right to sell beer for a month, the store had adopted a totalitarian "ID everyone" policy. Under this regulation anyone who attempted to purchase alcohol had to toss his or her driver's license on the counter, no matter how old. Varicose veins notwithstanding, I was required to ask for ID.
Under yet another threat of being caught by a group of undercover operatives, I was forced to comply, suffering the slings and arrows of every single middle-aged drunk that wandered into the store. Imagine being fifty, bald, hung-over and heading into a convenience store for your daily dose of what it will take to make you "normal" again - only to be carded by some pimple-faced clerk who may as well still be in junior high. What would be your reaction? You'd fly off the handle, just like the droves of alcoholics who flocked to this particular neighborhood mini mart. Directly due to this policy, Plaid Pantry #55 lost customers that had been frequenting the store for years, while infuriating their newer ones.
Did this reactionary policy prevent half-racks of Milwaukee's Best from falling into the hands of conspiratorial minors? Nope, especially since I usually sold the store's younger customers whatever their little hearts desired. It just made the jobs of my coworkers and I all the more difficult. Everyday marts across Oregon are forced to instill such in-house regulations, hire additional employees and withstand threats by the outside agencies who regulate your wares. It's a no-win situation. If a store loses its ability to sell beer, it loses customers. If a store finds itself stooping to the level of enforcing zealous "card every last one of 'em" policy, it loses customers. And trapped in the middle of all this is the clerk who bears the burdens of this Catch-22. If not for the smug impositions of the OLCC, my job at Plaid Pantry would have been 12,000 to 12,001 times easier. As my assistant manager, who honest to God looked like a cigarette butt that's been marinating in a stale bottle of Pepto Bismol since the Emancipation Proclamation, once put it eloquently, "the whole thing's a bunch a shit."
If you find yourself considering a job in this facet of the service industry, try phone surveys instead. Dante's little world of convenience is but a fairy tale.
Brandon R. Hartley, a sixty-four year old man defending his third doctoral thesis on information theory, is a contract agent of the Oregon Commentator Publishing Co., Inc