By Conrad Codder
In a small town a liquor store is more than a place to get booze, cigarettes and lottery tickets. It becomes that impromptu place where locals gather to catch up on news, engage in more than a little gossip and commiserate about their lives. In some cases this may be their only human interaction of the day.
Summer on Cape Cod begins on Memorial Day weekend. The solitude of the Outer Cape evaporates with a 100,000 tourist explosion. These Summer people all arrive hell-bent for their annual gratification, while the locals scramble from their off-season hibernation to try to make as much money as possible.
The economy of the Outer Cape is a playground for tourists, supported by a workforce of locals and seasonal immigrants and commanded by mostly itinerant business owners. They arrive tanned from their winter homes to reclaim their positions as pillars and benefactors of the communities they abandon during the off-season. They have spent their winters vacuuming up tourist dollars down South and now begin the process again here, amongst us. It is upon the beneficence of these vultures that most locals depend to make enough money to survive the coming winter.
One summer I worked at a liquor store in another town nearby. Every town on the Cape is a bit insular with its own cast of characters, local lore and culture. Locals are largely uninterested in what goes on elsewhere and so I entered this town as a stranger from another world.
The average wage of retail workers on the Outer Cape is under $700 a week. Most local workers persist by working multiple jobs. These meager wages do not attract sufficient help, so businesses turn to the J1 Visa Summer Work Travel Program to import seasonal workers mostly from the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.
On my first shift, which was Memorial Day weekend, I was introduced to my new best friend Alice with whom I would share shifts throughout the summer. She showed me the ins and outs of how to use the cash register, run the credit card and the lottery machines. She taught me where all the stock was and where to shelve it. Most importantly, she introduced me to every character in town, told me their secrets and whether they could be trusted or not. I liked Alice very much; she would do anything she could for me. I could always count on her support.
There was a regular routine at the store. I worked nights and would always show up around 5pm to start my shift. There were usually two clerks each night. The store manager might float in every once in a while just to check up on us. Our top agenda items were to make sure there was sufficient cold beer in the cooler and that the counter display was full of nips. When necessary, the lottery ticket and cigarette dispensers would also need to be filled.
Almost on the strike of 6pm an elderly woman would always come in to purchase her single bottle of Guinness. I would patiently listen to her tell me all about her grandchildren and how much she missed them. The conversation was always the same and its content didn’t really matter. The surfers would show up around 8pm to purchase their thirty pack of Miller High Life and trot off to their beach parties before sunset. The local underage hooligans would always be trying to sneak into the store to steal a bottle of something only to be chased out by one of us. A stained glass artist whose shop was a few doors down would punctuate the evening by popping in and exclaiming that he “needed a nip!” as he took a break from creating his latest bauble. Such was the cavalcade of characters that enlivened our shift.
There was always a steady stream of Lottery players as well. They had their own angles on how to best play: some were quick pickers, some played their children’s birthdays, and others had more secret numerologies. There were also a variety of rules for the scratch tickets. Luck sometimes varied depending on the position of the ticket in the roll and for each game the day of the week had some effect. It was all inscrutable to me.
Occasionally I would have to work a shift with Butch. Butch was a brutish man who worked construction and loved to dispense his rules to the local kids or anyone else he thought he could bully. I hated working with Butch. Butch would be all smiles and compliments at the beginning of the shift when the manager and her husband were there. Always willing to help when in front of them: he would show off his prowess with putting beer cans into 6-Pack ring holders using his massive mitts. But when they were gone the self-appointed tyrant would emerge.
Shifts with Butch were punctuated by calls from his co-conspirator with updates on the latest conspiracy theories. When the identity of “Deep Throat” was exposed during one shift he spent the rest of the night on the phone denouncing that traitor. When things got slow Butch would decide that there was only need for one clerk and would tell me to go home. I never protested; to be rid of Butch was a pleasure.
We also had the unpleasant responsibility of enforcing the rules of the shop. Certain feral kids were banned and not allowed in. It was a constant task of kicking the little devils out. One evening when filling up the nips display I was shocked to look up and find a poodle staring back at me. At the counter was a tall slim woman with black curly hair (much like the poodle’s) glaring impatiently at me. “Would you please ring this up!” she snapped. “Ma’am is that your dog?” I responded. “Of course this is my dog! Did you think it was a turtle?”. “Ma’am you’re not allowed to have dogs in this store; the Board of Health does not allow it.” ”Why?” she retorted “Do they think my dog is less sanitary than someone like you?” “Ma’am the dog needs to leave now.” In a huff she grabbed the dog’s leash and stormed out of the store, leaving her bottle of “Belle de Brillet” on the counter. Happily, she never returned.
When things became really slow we needed to resort to amusements to keep our sanity. Alice standing behind the counter exclaimed one night: “Jesus Christ can it get any slower!” At which point she took off her shoes and placed them on the counter, pulled her shirt up just below her bra, pulled her arms out of her sleeves and replaced them with two gloves from under the counter, and then placed her hands into her shoes. She then proceeded to tap dance across the counter with her diminished body belting out a rousing rendition of “Mr Bojangles”. I have never experienced something more hilarious and I roared with uncontrollable laughter. These are the things that kept us going.
At the end of our night at 11 I would usually give Alice a ride home unless she wanted to walk. Her housing was always precarious at best and a constant traveling adventure. At the time she was living in a friend’s basement. Luckily she was well liked and always found a spot to land.
Rents on the Outer Cape are high, averaging over $1200 per month and remain high in the offseason, even as over 60% of homes remain empty. Second home ownership has devastated the real estate market on the Outer Cape with wealthy “Off Cape” buyers inflating housing prices and contributing to an average home price of over $400,000 which is far beyond the means of most locals. The seasonal cottages and motels rented to summer people become the rental stock in the offseason for locals. These rental opportunities typically disappear during the summer as the owners evict their off-season tenants to rent to tourists at substantially higher rates. (Many locals find housing in the summer by renting campsites.)
My adventures at the store ended on Labor Day when I was informed that my services were no longer needed during the offseason. This is when most workers here would file for unemployment and attempt to survive off it through the winter. Fortunately, I still had a day job to keep me afloat and so I faded from the collective consciousness of that place, leaving with a slightly fatter bank account and an abundance of wonderful memories.
Around 9% of Outer Cape residents live below the poverty line and it is a hard life for most. Nevertheless, they choose to live here because it is home: a place of beauty, community and inspiration.
Conrad Codder is a member of Cape Cod DSA.