I needed beer. It was a long day, 14 hours of tending to all the quells of highly educated sleep doctors at a conference in downtown Seattle. I was disoriented, never having been to the city. But I needed beer. Something local, just a taste of Washington state. The drive into Seattle was lush, something I was so not used to, coming from Chicago, where the air tastes like car fumes and the rain’s acidity turns red bikes salmon.
All the liquor stores were closed by 9 p.m. I figured it was probably just a weird state law. There were tons of weird state laws in Seattle. No jaywalking, no throwing recyclables into the trash, and apparently, no alcohol after 9. But there was a Walgreens down the street. If memory served, they usually had beer. They also usually had all the lights working on their signs. I never ended up finding the ‘Walgreens.’
I was in a much more foreign place, a homeless mecca deemed ‘Wagrens.’
Shrines of graffiti painted the outside, with a royal carpet of piss leading straight into the building.
The Wagreens had a threshold that looked like the gateway to the DMV. The walls were tinted yellow, but they definitely didn’t start out that way. Cracks routed the eye to the broken trimming on the floor, gnawed through by rats or whatever it was living in the walls. The cashiers were lined up just to the right of the entrance, defeated and struggling with outdated registers from the late ’90s.
The security system at the entrance had apparently given up too. A man with a black moth-eaten suit jacket and long johns peeking out from the rest of his outfit slipped through doors with a 40 oz. bottle of Steel Reserve popping out of his waist band. Not a single beep.
A small Asian woman was organizing a shelf of generic cereal boxes two feet too tall for her to reach. She pointed me to the direction of the beer fridge, which was really just an unlit storage box without working refrigeration hardware.
Most of the folks didn’t seem to mind. The beer fridge was looted through and the only types of beer that were left were the good stuff, so in that regard, I lucked out.
The line was really the only part that I considered moderately alarming. The man in front of me was teetering on the balls of his feet, swinging his black and gold duffle into the candy counter while he hummed the beginning of “Kashmir.” The guy behind me looked like Andre the Giant, but had the appetite of a 7-year-old: his bloated fingers were cradling a trove of sugared cereals, candy bars, snack bars, individual Coke cans and a single styrofoam Dixie bowl that he took out of a package. He was also breathing right down my neck. The air smelled like cheap whiskey.
When it was my turn to check out, an 18-year-old cashier gave me an apologetic look, like “Yeah, sorry it smells like piss and whiskey here.” I wasn’t going to take a bag for the 6-pack I bought, but she gave me one anyway. “They’ll take the beer right out of the holder if you don’t.”
Seattle has the 7th largest homeless population in the United States. Most of them are kids my age. I don’t have a redemptive story about how I went to the Walgreens and saw how rundown it was and that it changed me, because it didn’t. It was commonplace. And when I walked out, I walked with my head tilted to the ground and my eyes hawking my beer.
The only part that shattered was my illusion of Seattle, covered up by trees and ocean and a really stellar selection of overpriced seafood.