Notes From the Liquor Store…
Thought I was finished working here.
But I remembered, I do like the liquor store.
Been coming in and chatting with Norm at night. He’s helping with my studies in Arabic philosophy. So I thought I’d give him a night off so he can run errands and cook dinner for his family. Norm says he has no knowledge of Arabic philosophy, but over time, he has showed me a little– books, poetry, music, history. He’s real agnostic, or so it seems (born and raised in a small Christian village in rural Syria), and has become quite American in many ways I think. But anytime an ethnographer asks someone about what they know best, they tell the ethnographer they don’t know anything.
Tonight, the old homeless guy from Alabama, who’s been living in Chico for 53 days, just played me a song on a guitar– “Amazing Grace.” This is his second beer tonight. He’s holding the guitar as collateral for another homeless gal who needed to borrow his bicycle. Ed, we’ll call him Ed, just got a job working in Paradise, or what was the town in which the November 8th ‘Camp Fire’ destroyed 19,000 buildings. He found a job now, cleaning up debris after the fire. He’s still sleeping outside in Chico, but in the morning, he freshens up somehow and meets his employers at the gas station, and they give him a lift to Paradise… Ed has two children, and grandchildren too, he tells me. I remember when he first got to town, and he kept coming in several times a night, to space out the beers, I guess. I told him he was annoying me. “Here in California, we don’t say ‘yes m’am.’” “Yes m’am,” he replied anyway.
Rita, we call her Rita, came back around sunset, because she spotted me through the glass from the street. She was so excited to see me, she danced at the counter, then flitted around the liquor store like a hummingbird in a flower garden. The liquor store, with its array of wine, liquor, beer, tobacco, and sweet, sour and salty vices are gaudily on display. Plastic packages of every color catch the afternoon sunlight like stained glass en carnival. Rita has cut the gray hairs out of her hair, got a stylish haircut, and has been applying for work around town. She said she asked Norm if he was hiring, but he said, “No” (even though he’s working every day for 14 hours). I don’t think Rita and Norm would get along anyway, “Isn’t he from Iran?” she asks. “I don’t know,” I reply.
Rita arranges on the glass counter: a beer, asks for a “nipper” of Irish whisky, and couple of her “usual,” red licorice sticks. And she played a couple of rounds of $1 Sweet Cash lotto scratchers, because the last lotto scratchers I sold her…she won. She wants to know if, later, she can come back and play me a song with her guitar, too. “I’d like that,” but I joke straight faced, “but live music isn’t permitted at this store because of the liquor license…” Rita is in awe, that I’m moving to Tanzania. “Guess I’m a badass,” I said. “You’re a member of the Badass Bitch Club, like me,” she quips. When she’s walking out the door with the little brown paper bag, she looks down at the ice-cream freezer. “I’d like some ice-cream too, but,” she adds, “I’m trying to quit.”
Julian’s dad once came in and asked me to cut Julian off for the rest of the night. Last call for Julian. When Jim found out I liked poetry, he lent me a book of poems that his lover of 60 years gave him on his 70th birthday. Some folks use the liquor store like it’s a pharmacy. Paul, whom Norm refers to as my ‘secret admirer,’ left me a bag of walnuts for being his angel when he was so ill he couldn’t use the buttons on the credit card machine. Paul regularly came in for bitters, but never bought alcohol.
Not everyone buys alcohol at the liquor store. One night, when I was so down and out living out of my car, a griot from the West African country of Mali came in for rolling papers and a package of organic, loose leaf rolling tobacco. Karamo Susso plays the kora, and now makes his home in Chico, California. “Why do you live here?” I asked Karamo, and he replied, “So I can go out and do my thing, and come home, where it’s quiet.” Now, as I leave California for my new home in the East African country of Tanzania, how is it possible I’m leaving behind a bard of a royal court of Mali?
At the end of the evening, I sweep the floors, clean the glass on the front door, and shake out the rugs. The street is dark, like a river. There’s a warmer wind today, and the Open sign twinkles, and the neon beer signs shine like stars in the dark. I sort of love this place, the store smell, I love the weird people, the gross people, the alcoholics, and Norm. I will miss Norm. I can hear Ed picking on his collateral guitar between the jewelry store and the dentist’s office. There’s a dark place there where my friend Dan and his German lady friend spend some nights. Last week, Dan brought this newfound boombox into the store, and we plugged it in to see if it works. Dan, who used to live in Texas, reports that the boom box plays the radio so loud you can’t even talk to people when it’s on. But tonight, it’s just Ed, finger picking Alabama folk songs on his collateral guitar. Tomorrow, I will cheat time and space and sail on the clouds in a big metal bird to Africa.
Christina Lauren Quigley is a vlogger at Laurelin the Other and review editor and web developer of Ethnography.com. Christina is a 2019-2020 Fulbright Research Alumna and Ethnography.com’s latest author. She began working and writing as an ethnographer–anthropologist in the mountains of northern California as an activist alongside Native American Mountain Maidu communities. Christina has also been known to work for minimum wage in America, selling booze to ordinary Americans at a neighborhood liquor store to further study cultural transmission of Americans’ methods of coping and wellness through alcohol and illegal drugs.
Christina has since fallen under the influence of Congolese rumba music, and lives at the shores of Lake Tanganyika in East Africa to research the ways that music and song traditions diffuse from eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to Tanzania. As modern Congolese music traditions move across the Tanzania-Congo border, refugees and migrants from DR Congo are charismatic masters of their own musical heritage within the African continent. In-country and abroad, Congolese rely on nightlife music transfigured into religious settings. Christina is a Swahili speaker and postgraduate (MA) in music and anthropology at the University of Dar es Salaam.