Infectious Fascism and Someone Else’s Beer

Our local liquor store had been in business since the early 1980s, when the shopping center was built. The original owner passed it along to his 3 sons when he died, many years ago. There was nothing special or fancy about the shop, which had long, wide shelves stocked full of not-too-high-priced wines and liquor that tended to come in the Handle Size. They did a brisk trade in beer, $1 shooters sold out of an empty fish tank on the counter, and “Oh, jeeze! We’re all out of vodka/wine and I’m almost home!” purchases.

It had a coveted corner location on a major intersection with high visibility, and was next to a busy grocery store. The long floor-to-ceiling windows faced due west, which meant high cooling bills as the high altitude sunshine blasted in year round, roasting  the products on the front shelf and raising the temperature unbearably during the summer. A few years ago the Brothers balked at the raising utility prices from keeping the store cold enough to properly store their inventory, and slowly adjusted the thermostat upwards. The heat coupled with storing the wine upright – as one would store a fine vintage Yoo-Hoo – served to spoil their wares.

As if wine bottles that were warm to the touch weren’t enough, over the years the shop developed a nose-curling funk stank from their dogged insistence upon carpet, which served as a 1-way booze sponge when a bottle or case was inevitably broken, and because one of the brothers smoked indoors while doing the books afterhours.  Mmmm… the cheeky bouquet of nicotine braised in sour carpet wine!

We began shopping elsewhere, save for the times we emerged from the adjacent King Soopers, arms full of groceries (yes, we brought our own bags), and too tired or lazy to drive 6 miles round trip for a bottle of wine to go with dinner. Don’t judge me! The cork that crumbles like The Mummy is punishment enough.

Just before Valentine’s Day we found ourselves lacking the fortitude of an additional errand, the grueling 15 minute drive more than either of us could possibly handle, and so found ourselves choosing from wine bottles with dust on them.  I noticed a marked lack of champagne and other bubbly beverages appropriate for a manufactured holiday. “This is weird,” I told my husband, “Why aren’t there cases of cheap champagne stacked 5 high and 2 deep in here? In fact, there’s almost no champagne at all,” I gestured to the picked over front shelf, which was normally full of the boxed wine and cheap champagne that the Brothers counted on their clientele not being able to suss out were treated to daily solar pasteurization. It was a minor curiosity, one I chalked up to a screw up in ordering and went on with my evening.

A few weeks later, before St. Patrick’s Day, it was obvious something was up. The store was still very busy, but their stock had visibly dwindled – the shelves were no longer full, with empty spaces behind the wine and spirits.

“What’s going on?” I asked the young woman who worked there. “Not much,” she replied absentmindedly. “No – I mean ‘What’s going on here?’” She stopped and looked at me in confusion. She really had no idea what I was talking about. I gestured with my arm, “The shelves aren’t fully stocked…” She had a blank look on her face. “Are you guys remodeling? Selling?” Again, the clerk had a blank look, “No…” I left it at that, but told my husband changes were coming.

I wondered if they were going to finally move the stock out of the beating summer sun in the front window… Maybe they were going to set up a Growler station, or a tasting counter – moving forward  with the upwardly mobile neighborhood and appealing to the higher income residents who were replacing the middle income folks that had been a staple of the area when it was built 35 years ago. I had mentally moved the first row of shelves, replaced the nasty carpet with some easy-to-clean wood flooring that would brighten the space up, and show off the better selection of wine they would carry. I couldn’t wait.

At the end of March the only vodka left was bubblegum or peach flavored, the Bourbon shelves were flat-out empty, and most of the decent wine was gone. The Smoking Brother told me they were having distribution problems, but they would be getting a shipment in the following week. What he was telling me didn’t feel right – but I had been doing business with him for 16 years and gave him the benefit of the doubt by allowing him to assure me I wasn’t seeing what I was looking at.

We were gone most of April and upon returning we immediately noticed the barren shelves. Most telling is there was not a whiff of the upcoming drinking holiday Cinco De Mayo: No cut-outs of busty Latinas shucking gag inducing Lime-a-Rita beer, no garish plastic Papel Picado banners stamped with ‘Corona’, or posters of a Sombrero-sporting mustachioed stereotype peddling rot-gut tequila. You know – The Free Crap distributors beg store owners to take and give a price break for the best placement. But, there was still lots of beer – a good deal of it craft beer from start-up breweries & local brew pubs.

Several customers walked in and stopped dead, looking around at the long, mostly-empty shelves. They would do a 180 or full 360 to take it in; most left empty handed. It was clear the store was closing, but no sign indicated a last day or what was going on. I asked the only employee (someone I’d never seen before) what was going on and was answered with ‘Dunno’.

I suddenly realized: They must have sold the liquor license to King Soopers, the grocery store in the same complex. A recent change in the law allowed grocery stores to sell liquor, but only if they buy an existing license. I was happy for them in the distant way you can be when you hear good news from a stranger you’ve known for 15 years: It doesn’t change your life, but it gives you a pleasant feeling.

A few weeks later they were still open – somehow defying retail gravity. Richard walked the empty aisles with a curious expression on his face as he passed islands of bottles neatly arranged – 6 Rieslings here, 4 Moscatos half an aisle later, a lone bottle of gin in the next aisle. What stock was left would have neatly fit in 12 or 15 feet of shelf space, but instead was spread around the empty shop with the fastidious denial of a screamingly bad comb-over.

“When’s the last day?” I asked Morose Brother who spent a decade and a half demanding I show my ID every time I used a credit card. “Before the end of the month,” he answered with his usual dourness. Looking into my eyes he said “We sold the business,” and then spit into his dip cup.  “I… did you sell the license or the business?” “We sold the business and we’ll be closing sometime before the end of the month,” he repeated with a finality that forbade further discussion.

“How could they be selling the business?” I asked Richard when we were in the car, “When there’s no business to sell? I mean… there’s no inventory – and they lease the space. The only thing of value in that store is the license on the wall.” I chalked it up to him being contractually prohibited from discussing the details of the sale.

The very next day the City seized the store for failure to pay Sales & Use Taxes.

A quick call to City Hall revealed that they hadn’t paid a dime of the taxes they’d been collecting since January, and they’d been sending in partial payments for months before that.

It suddenly became clear that the inventory sell down was really them stiffing their suppliers – everyone from Coors to small craft brew companies struggling to make ends meet – and pocketing the money.

They stole not only from their liquor distributors and the city, but from their customers as well, by not submitting tax revenue that keeps schools open, roads paved and a live voice when you dial 911.

In retrospect it was quite obvious what was happening, but I didn’t want to accept the grand theft in front of me, so I provided pretty stories about Growler Stations and wood floors that morphed into them cashing out big by selling the license for a keen profit. None of it made sense to the scene in front of my eyes, but I held on to the fable rather than accept the felony.

I had been performing Olympic-quality mental gymnastics trying to explain away the obvious because the obvious made me uncomfortable.

It was a personal microcosm of what’s happening around the country: How we’re all staring in disbelief at the emerging Fascism around us, willing it to be something else.

We’ve watched fanaticism morph into a Fascist Cult of Personality, yet refuse to name it as such because then we have a REAL problem on our hands.

We’ve heard friends, family and colleagues embrace a man whose beastly policies call for banning Muslims, gutting the EPA, drilling for oil in National Parks and Monuments, building a useless Wall, disenfranchising women, and simultaneously cancelling the insurance policies of 23 million Americans while making it unaffordable for tens of millions more.

These aren’t policy differences on things like how to best fund infrastructure improvements or whether schools should focus more on science and less on the arts. This is the fundamental rejection of the invisible frame of our Social Contract by an alarming number of Americans.

They *like* the idea that ICE officers ate lunch in a café before arresting the kitchen staff.

They’re THRILLED journalists are finally getting the beat down that’s coming to them.

They’re relieved they can stop acting tolerant and want LGBTQ folks to climb back in the closet and for anyone darker than a flat white to know their place.

These people who benefit so much from the Public Commons of Society honestly don’t care if you lose your job, house or insurance – they don’t give a tinker’s damn for anyone who loses their disability, Medicare, Social Security or any other safety net program.

“I DON’T OWE YOU ANYTHING” they shriek like a misunderstood teen, unironically running the Social Contract through Mom & Dad’s shredder after they’ve slammed the office door.

The toughest thing about watching acquaintances and those we love support such heartlessness is when we finally realize they understand fully what they’re doing. It’s much easier to deal with people when we convince ourselves they are ignorantly supporting evil policies, and that if it was properly explained they would be enlightened. Otherwise, we have to accept that an uncomfortably large chunk of America is okay with a semi-literate bully dragging us backwards 6 months for every day he is in office.

Accepting that this is actually happening is a real hurdle. None of wants to stare into *that* abyss and it’s ever so much easier not to court discord and just let sleeping dogs lie.

Please don’t be like me, though, when I watched the local liquor store go under and cheat its vendors, and I chose not to see it because I couldn’t accept the Brothers could do that. Don’t imagine people are constrained by your sense of decency, however well or little you know them.

Once we see the hard truth of Trumpers actions, we have to either accept this Fascist Cult of Personality or fight it. There is no middle ground. When you stop selling yourself on proverbial Growler Stations and wood floors to brighten the place up, you can’t unsee the unsavory and uncomfortable truth that 45’s followers heartily approve of a stratified society that plays out like Lord of the Flies – only, in this story line there are no adults to step in to save the day when things are at their bleakest. There is no higher authority to appeal to, because our current POTUS thinks laws are impractical to follow (his words, not mine).

Make no mistake that we are in dangerous territory with 45’s spreading Fascism, and we ignore it at our own peril.

During the election 45 promised the state sponsored murder of children, he promised to crack down on Freedom of the Press, and he promised to violate the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and 14th amendments, as well as end abortion, civil rights, voting rights, marriage equality and the EPA.

When you look at it this way 45 had a spectacularly successful first 100 days, now didn’t he?

Trumpers voted for him *precisely* because he promised to abuse other people and break things. They are the groupies that enable a bully to prevail, and who become emboldened by their support of him.

Trumpers like the chaos, the angst and the destruction they were promised when they voted.

It’s hard to see friends and family infected by Fascism. Worse – when they demand our tolerance while spreading this virulent disease of hate.

But, it is no longer possible to separate the Message from Man or the Masses – they own who they support and his policies, and anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you someone else’s beer.

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