I am now, and have always been an obnoxiously law-abiding person. In fact it goes even further; I am squeaky clean in really anything that involves record keeping. I never once got a detention, I’ve never had a cavity, and I waited to be 21 years old to have my first sip of beer. Because of this flawless record, you can imagine how annoyed I am that my name exists on one, singular blacklist. The saddest thing is that it’s not even an impressive or controversial blacklist: I’ve been banned from a chain of rural, Southeastern Wisconsin grocery stores.
To make the entire situation even less impressive, I did nothing wrong, in fact the manager of the Woodman’s Grocery in Oak Creek, Wisconsin even admitted that. I am blacklisted from this grocery stores of reasons of sheer prejudice and stubbornness. About two years ago I was having a party at my apartment to welcome all of the new graduate students to town, and I had been told by multiple people I needed to go to Woodman’s because their prices were unbelievable. I had heard of this grocery chain through a smattering of miserably produced late night commercials on cable TV. The commercials were of that genre that they were so bad they ended up being engaging and moderately hilarious. Their formula was simple: a scrappy old man named Phil Woodman was followed around his store by a hand-held camera, excitedly fondling items that were on sale that week. He would always end the commercial by explaining his prices were low because “we’re employee owned!”. This didn’t make any sense to me but I was too distracted by the poor lighting, shaky camera work, and awful background music to think much of it. I could just picture the old, bony, Phil Woodman, meticulously producing these awful commercials, like a rural Martin Scorsese. His camera crew was probably made up of oily, pimply, 16-year old deli counter workers looking for an extra 15 bucks and “resume material”.
My first and last trip to Woodman’s turned into quite an event, my car loaded up with my best friends and an empty trunk to fill with discounted beer and liquor. Pulling up to Woodman’s had a certain Disney World feel to it. The parking lot’s lanes had themes to help you remember where you parked, and Phil Woodman greeted you on every sign, like a wrinkled Mickey Mouse. At a first glance, this massive grocery store was quite impressive. They had ever kind of booze you could dream up, and the prices were so cheap that you could develop a booze habit for less than drinking soda pop. Woodman’s also rewarded your alcoholism by giving you free pint glasses and bottle openers if you bought enough. I packed up my shopping cart like a frat boy preparing to get the whole town wasted: beer, cheap liquor, and a bottle of wine for the elitists that felt cooler for drinking pinot while everyone else feasts on High Life. I had a wad of cash burning hole in my pocket. Earlier in the week I had pulled up tree stumps in an elderly woman’s back yard, and had no desire to let this hard-earned money pay any legitimate bills. After making sure we had secured enough alcohol for maximum frivolity, we headed towards the cashier, a high school kid named Raul. I remember wondering in that moment who names a kid in small-town Wisconsin Raul. Perhaps his parents were Spanish impresarios, or his mother wanted her son to be the token Mexican in a soap opera one day. Raul scanned all of my bottles and six-packs, and then said the words that would be my downfall: “Can I see some ID?”. I pulled out my Texas driver’s licence, which caused him to do a long double take and pause awkwardly. He then went on to study my ID like a fat kid gazing at taffy; bending it, flicking it, and holding it up to the light. After he did this for what felt like 20 minutes he cleared his throat and looked at me resolutely: “This is a fake ID”. I gave him a puzzled look, and replied, “no, it’s not”. Raul smirked at me, with a look of “gotcha” in his brow, “Then where is the hologram?”. I understood his issue now; Wisconsin IDs have a massive hologram on them, and he was looking for this on my Texas ID. I suddenly pondered that Raul had never seen a Texas driver’s licence before, which made me feel wonderfully exotic. I contemplated picking up a sudden southern drawl to heighten his experience but I then remembered he was questioning my age and character at the moment. As calmly as I could I informed Raul that Texas IDs don’t have holograms. Without even listening to me he looked to the next person in line, deliberately ignoring me and asking the next person “Can I help you?”. I couldn’t believe this, even though Raul’s behavior didn’t surprise me. He was obviously an overly religious high school kid, just dying to prove something. By standing up to me he was being a hero, sparing me from Satan in the form of Schlitz and Malibu. He would go to church the next Sunday and get a pat on the back from his minister for putting an end to underage drinking and debauchery.
Since the next person in line was my friend Melissa I cut back into the conversation, “My ID isn’t a fake, who is your manager?”. He again ignored me, until the situation got worse when he asked to see Melissa’s ID. Melissa is from New York, and if you’ve ever seen a New York driver’s licence you know where this is going. New York IDs naturally look like fakes. They are flimsy and cardboard-like, grainy, and look like they were designed by a high school kid in a desktop publishing class. With this background, and the fact that Melissa looks to be about 14 years old, you can only imagine what Raul did. He denied Melissa her six-pack of hard lemonade, and again, looked to the next customer, shunning us. I eventually gave up on Raul and walked into the main part of the store.
I desperately wanted to talk to some upper management, and quickly spotted a large, bearded man wearing a tie. I assumed the tie meant he had more influence and authority than Raul, so this seemed like a start. I explained the situation to him, with Melissa adding details for dramatic effect. I reached to show him my ID when he finally spoke, saying “I don’t need to see that”. I was so relieved, he obviously believed me and trusted me. He then finished his sentence, “I don’t need to see that because I don’t have to sell you anything I don’t want to”. I paused and breathed deeply through my nose, attempting to stay collected as I realized that this manager was as dense and inbred as Raul was. Trying to sound self-righteous I blurted out, “what gives YOU that right?”. The manager then took a deep breath like I had moments before, and pulled up his pants and stretched his neck like district attorneys do on television when they are about to lay down the law: “I have that right because we are employee owned!”
I paused. Did he really pull out that slogan? The same slogan that Phil uses on the commercials to explain his unbeatable prices? I stormed out of the store, causing a scene shamelessly, yelling at him, Raul, and other cashiers we passed. As I left the manager informed me that I was no longer welcome at Woodman’s, to which I replied “your mom is employee owned!”
As we drove back to the city, it wasn’t the lack of alcohol in my trunk that angered me, it was the principal of all of the events that had just transpired. Do we really still live in a world where somebody can choose who and who not to sell to? Last time I checked this was called prejudice in most states, and I had been denied service not for being a certain gender, creed, or color, but for being a Texan. If being “employee owned” is basically a mantra for “we can do whatever the hell we want”, then I’m not sure that is a grocery store I would want to visit anyway. By specifically not being corporate, Raul and the bearded man were even worse to a customer, not because of any issues of fake IDs but because of their urge to defend their right to do what they please. This is the same inflated sense of pride that has caused regime changes in Europe, religious extremism, and much of George Bush’s logic.
On the way home we passed a really dank and depressing liquor store across the block from Woodman’s. We went in and were greeted by two brothers, who smiled upon our entrance and warmly asked us how they could assist. We ended up having a long conversation with the two men, telling them the whole story of what happened. They couldn’t believe it, and told us that they were glad we had found our way to their store. Their alcohol may have cost a few more dollars, but every additional penny was worth it to help 2 men that wanted nothing more than to assist people, not feed their own egos. No matter what we do with our days, as musicians, astronauts, or grocers, it is our foremost job to be good to people. We are the spark in each other’s lives, the catalysts that push each other to where we belong, and we are each other’s reason for living. So often we put on a name tag and an authority role and forget that. If we were good to each other in the first place, there would be nothing to prove. It would be about living, laughing, and selling affordable alcohol to Texans and New Yorkers.