Behind the counter of a liquor store

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 05:00 13/07/2014

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This is my first weekend off having my sons for like three months. So my parents were like: ‘Go out all weekend! And I'm like, whoa! So why not start drinking early, eh?"

It's 11.15 in the morning on a Friday, so yeah, that's an early start for a weekend session, but the young woman in ugg boots and a baggy sweatshirt is starting off gently: she's buying four 440ml cans of Big Dog premixed bourbon and cola - 6 per cent alcohol and a scowling bulldog on the front - from the fridges lining the back of the liquor store. As she waits for the eftpos transaction to go through she's bouncing on her toes in anticipation of her child-free drink. She looks quite young, but the cashier, Jas, doesn't need to check her ID. She's a regular, he says, and is actually in her 30s.

She is the 11th customer of the day at Super Liquor Manukau, since Jas pulled up the roller door at 10am. Before noon, says Jas, it's mainly older, retired people stocking up. Then it's quiet till about four, when you get people picking up supplies for Friday work drinks, or a bottle on the way home to dinner. After that it's quiet again till eight, when younger people get some drinks for a party or a night in - that's when you have to start turning away people who are underage or drunk, or trying to buy drinks for friends who are.

Over by the bourbon shelves, a short, near-spherical man wearing a high-visibility vest and a beanie is staring blankly at the rows of bottles. Jas goes to rescue him. "I lost a bet, so it's my buy," says the man.

Jas recommends the 1125ml Jim Beam, $39.99. The buyer meekly carries it to the till, but is still anxious about making the wrong choice and leaves empty-handed.

This is a large liquor store, one of the busiest in South Auckland, says Jas, with thousands of product lines. But they're not shifting a lot of Midori, Campari, ouzo, schnapps, Benedictine, Grand Marnier, Cointreau, Drambuie and absinthe (as drunk by Hemingway and Baudelaire, the label says), or that hazelnut liqueur which comes in a bottle the shape of a monk. No one is touching the ready-poured, foil-sealed shooters in disposable plastic glasses in the display near the till - Black Mambo, B52, Texas Ranger, Rattle Snake and Buttery Nipple.

There are tequila bottles in the shape of skulls, pistols and a rifle. You can buy gin in a quaintly medicinal-looking $125 bottle from the top shelf or in a plain $30 bottle from the bottom. There are single-malts from mysterious and unpronounceable Scottish distilleries, champagne and methode champenoise, craft beers and vodkas of many flavours. Mainly, though, everyone buys sweet, premixed cans of ready-to-drink bourbon and cola.

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"Yeah, it's mostly RTDs," says Jas. The biggest sellers are Woodstock and Diesel. After that it's beers - Ranfurly, Flame, Ice, Lion Red, Steinlager, Heineken. Jim Beam sells well too. And occasionally sherry.

Around 11am, an elderly silver sedan parks right at the door, and an even more elderly driver slowly emerges - a man with thinning hair and hearing aids and enormous old-man ears that make him

look like a kindly version of a Harry Potter Gringotts goblin. He's wearing a hand-knitted jersey of vivid green and walks with a stick, hunched almost double and inching across the threshold as Jas rushes to offer an arm.

Once inside, he stands still to direct operations, sending Jas to fetch one-and-a-half bottles of sherry from the shelf on the far wall and a couple of bottles of Teachers whisky from a display island. All up: $104. Jas puts the bottles in the back seat as the man shuffles to the driver's door, using the car as his guide rail. He's a regular, says Jas, as the car slowly rolls off. He comes in every few months and picks up his four bottles.

Sometimes customers tell you a little about their life, but usually you've only got about 30 seconds to chat, so you don't find out much. Does it get to the point where you can profile someone's age and sex and race and demeanour as they walk in, and guess exactly what they're going to buy?

"No," says Jas. "Not really."

Jas is 25. He came to New Zealand from India when he was 19. He studied business in Christchurch, was working as a duty manager at McDonald's during the first big earthquake, and came to Auckland and Super Liquor two years ago. "It's a good job."

The store radio is tuned to ZM and playing Ed Sheeran's A Team. It's been raining off and on and it's pretty cold, so Jas is expecting a quiet day. Still, the pace is picking up. A middle-aged woman in office clothes strides in, grabs two bottles of Smirnoff vodka, pays and exits, gone in 20 seconds. A chirpy young bloke in white gumboots grabs four cans of Maverick bourbon-and-cola from the fridges (another regular, says Jas, a butcher who's just finished his night shift).

A stubbly man with wild hair and wild eyes sidles just inside the door. Eyes darting, he softly asks for some rolling papers and offers a $20 note at arm's-length, then slips away. Shortly before noon, a man and woman, both around 50, pull up in a white tradesman's van, deep in animated conversation that consists of them both talking continuously. The man has bare feet and white hair, and is waving an unlit cigarette. They dance through the store and race to the RTD fridges, jiggling and whooping to each other like a couple of chimps that have found a cache of bananas. They buy three RTD singles then sit in the van cab, still talking and talking before finally driving off.

A smooth, young-looking guy with tattoos and a fashionable nick shaved into one of his eyebrows takes a bourbon RTD four-pack to the till, but Jas wants to see his ID. He's instantly affronted; his head tilts back and his shoulders roll a little.

"You know me. I've showed it before. Ask your boss."

"Sure," says Jas, "but the boss isn't here."

Turns out the guy is actually 26. He takes the cans and slouches back to his car, a low-slung grey sedan with two kids in the back and another young guy in the passenger seat who gives a f...-you glare.

"They think that because they've shown one staff member their ID, we all know," says Jas, but I suspect what he really means is that some of the customers think these Indian guys behind the counter all look the same.

Around noon, Jas's colleague Jack arrives. Apart from early morning there are always two or more staff on. That way you can have one person at the till and the other keeping an eye on what the customers are getting up to. There are CCTV cameras everywhere too - at the door, inside the walk-in chiller, pointed at the blind spots behind the displays. Jas has been trained in what to do if there's ever a holdup: say nothing, give them what they want, let them leave. But he's never had to deal with anything too serious. Once, a mentally unwell guy tried to take some vodka without paying, and left a dent in the stainless steel counter when he slammed the bottle down in anger, but the police came really fast and it turned out OK.

The day ticks along. A song by Broods plays for the second time. It's raining heavily and wet customers scuttle in to grab Corona, Steinlager, a bottle of Black Heart rum, a bottle of gin, a wooden crate of 745ml Lion Reds, a plastic bottle of cider, and lots of premixed bourbon and cola. By 4pm the work-drinks and bottle-of-wine-for-dinner crowd are coming in, and a third staff member, Kamal, has clocked in in case it gets busy.

Two paint-spattered men in their mid-20s can't find the box of beer they want. Their English is faltering and heavily accented: "Flame? Warm?" Kamal fetches a box of warm Flame from the storeroom. "Usually, if they want warm beer, they're from Fiji," Jas explains.

Smirnoff, box of Waikato draught, crate of Lion Red, four Jim Beam-and-cola RTDs.

"Busy day?" Jas asks most of his customers, or sometimes, "Long day?"

"Yeah, too busy," they say. Or: "Really busy. Can't wait to get home." And: "Nah bro. It's too wet to build mate. I charged the boss till five though."

A couple of guys come in. Mid-20s, shaven heads, falling-down sweatpants, so stoned their eyes are barely open. They roam the store in super-slow motion, and you can see Kamal and Jas quietly watching, like lifeguards who've just spotted a toddler too close to the edge of the pool. One of the guys has returned to the till but the other, who has a cast on one hand, is obscured by one of the booze islands, and seems to be fiddling with his clothes. But then Kamal is at his side, offering advice on the different strengths of Woodstock. Yeah, says Kamal, after the pair have left with three cans apiece, the guy with the cast may have been thinking about shoving a bottle down the front of his trousers, but he didn't get a chance.

It's definitely getting busy now. Two tills are running. Three men in their early 20s pile out of a tiny pimped car with white hubcaps, show their IDs, and take forever to decide on a few cans of Red Bull and raspberry-flavoured vodka RTDs.

A guy in his 40s with reddish skin and crazy eyes wants to swap the bottle of vodka he bought earlier in the day. It was the wrong brand - "I got it for her birthday, and she don't like it."

Just before 6pm, a young guy in camouflage greens comes in for a bottle of vodka. He's going to a "hipster or homeless" party - "and we were thinking, what's something that homeless people drink? Meths. So I'll mix this with some grape juice and put it in a meths bottle."

As partygoers pop in for supplies, a growing proportion are turned away for not having ID. One giggling young woman in a group of three has ID, but she's finding it suspiciously difficult to balance on her high heels, so Jas serves her friends but not her. She argues for a bit then leaves muttering. "F... this shit. We'll go somewhere else then." When one of them returns two minutes later with her drunk friend's $20 note in her hand, Jas won't serve her either.

"What if I buy something different? Ice beer instead of Heineken?" No. She argues for a bit then shrugs and leaves. Obviously, says Jas, they will just go somewhere else, but what can you do?

The cold and rain are keeping people away, and from 8pm the gaps between customers are longer and longer, but still they come, for beer, for Woodstocks, for a bottle of vodka, for something for the weekend. A skinny man in his 40s wearing white gumboots and a high-visibility vest has a question: do they stock the 8 per cent Woodstocks, or just the 7 per cent ones?

No, says Jas. "OK," he says. "I've just got to inquire with the old lady. You gotta keep them happy, eh?" He bounds back in a minute later. He's getting Cody's instead. It's still bourbon and coke. "William Cody, you know who he was?" the man asks Jas. "Buffalo Bill. The one that used to hunt, back in the day in America. Yeah mate." He giggles, and Jas nods.

"This is gonna be my first weekend off since last October. I'm f...en rapt."

He grabs his cans of bourbon and coke and steps out into the diagonal Manukau rain.

- Sunday Star Times

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