Features & Columns

The Formative Years of a Liquor Store Clerk Just Passing Time

Cask n Flask Liquors on the southside of San Jose served as an angsty launchpad for the anti-man-about-town. Photo by Gary Singh

When someone asks me which part of San Jose I grew up in, I usually say the Cambrian area. But during a recent exchange, in one of those laugh-out-loud moments, I said the Cambrian era by accident. This was not a Freudian slip. It was a Jungian slip, instructing me to reinvestigate the locality and conjure up my shadow, to confront the darkness and rise above it.

That said, I recently prowled around Cambrian last week and wound up at Cask n Flask Liquors at Leigh and Camden, a bastion of darkness, a place that employed yours truly, off and on, back when I was 17 and 18 years old. This was a therapeutic experience.

Cask n Flask wasn't the first place that fired me. It was probably the second or third. The duties were stocking shelves, sweeping, dusting and other tedious drudgery. I'd show up for a four-hour shift and finish all the work in 30 minutes, after which nauseating boredom would ensue. In my admittedly fuzzy memories, I'd guess every stock boy who worked there for $3.78 an hour stole booze at one time or another, including me, but I think the statute of limitations is long gone, so I will confess my dastardly deeds right here and now. Bar managers often speak of similar scenarios, in that one has to allow for employees sneaking a few nips on the clock, so a manager just figures this into the overall finances. Write it off as spillage, they say.

Now, I've never hesitated to admit that my teenage years were characterized by a careless lack of direction, a blatant disregard for authority, or habitual attempts to satisfy cravings. In this case, the dump in question fired me out of the blue one day, only to call me back five months later because they couldn't find anyone else to come in and stock the shelves. No one wanted to work there. That's how miserable it was.

I'll give you an example. One part of the job was delivering a liter bottle of Canadian Mist to an old man that lived in a house down the street. Every other day I'd carry the booze to his house and sometimes he'd even give me a $20 tip. I think he had the whole place to himself, because whenever I'd bring over the bottle, he'd invite me in to sit down, after which he'd talk to me for 20 minutes. I don't think he had anyone else to talk to. That's right—at 17, I was running booze to a drunk down the street for $3.78 an hour. I always wondered what happened to that dude.

These days, especially when the sun starts to set, there's an apocalyptic bleakness to the corner of Leigh and Camden. To me, as an '80s miscreant, every strip mall in that neighborhood already feels like a scene from Repo Man and the ancient corner strip featuring Cask n Flask is a prime example. Pieces of the sign have been missing for at least 20 years. At the opposite end, Swiss Cleaners, which was there for decades, is now abandoned and boarded up. I think there was once a computer store in there somewhere, back when retail was still necessary. Plus, it's a very congested intersection, so about a dozen cars run the red light in each direction, every cycle. You can smell the rancid burger stench from McDonald's across the street. There are no pedestrians for a mile in any direction.

Last week, when I patronized the liquor store, it didn't look any different than it did 30 years ago. I could remember exactly which shelf in 1987 featured dusty half-gallons of I. W. Harper left over from a decade earlier. After meandering around for five minutes, I bought a Twix bar. It was $1.29. And it was completely stale.

Nevertheless, I confronted my shadow, as Jung would say. Thankfully my life this week is not as aimless as it was back in those days. And I'm much less abusive of privileges. I have learned to accept my darker side and develop a much more integral outlook on life. I still sometimes feel as old as the Cambrian era, but it no longer ruins my day. Happy New Year.