Gas station mini-marts and convenience stores are not really my favorite businesses to patronize. They are bright, tiny, oxygen-deprived tableaux of everything that is impersonal, awkward and irrefutably tragic about America.
But, sometimes, you just want a beer and, well, "convenience" is no accidental moniker.
I parked somewhere in the hot expanse of asphalt that inevitably surrounds these places, avoided, for shame, looking at myself in the rearview mirror and marched determinedly toward one of those big Foster's "oilcans," or whatever. When you are buying convenience store beer, you relinquish the pretense of connoisseurship. I found the cold, aluminum-enveloped thing, set it on the counter and paid an amount approximately equivalent to the average daily wage in many countries south of here. It seemed like a good deal.
"Let me get you a bag," the clerk offered.
"I'll skip it," I said.
He then explained he wasn't actually offering; he was getting me a bag because it's the law.
"State law," he assured me with the casual air of the expert explaining things (again) to the layman.
But because I am the kind of fun guy who, once armed with a nice cold beer, might sit down and leisurely read through the New Mexico Liquor Control Act of 1978 and all its subsequent updates—I have done so before, on more than one occasion—I asked, "Exactly what state law?"
This only earned me that look: the one that says, "We have the right to refuse service to anyone."
On balance, I wanted a beer more than I wanted to be the good, mindful liberal who never wastes a paper bag and considers plastic bags with outright disdain—the mindful liberal I hope all the other members of the grocery co-op know me to be. So I let the clerk bag up my beer and confined my resistance to imagining the dog shit I would eventually pick up with the plastic sack.
Since this episode, I have noticed a number of liquor stores (I mean, not a great number) adhering to the same claim: They have to put bottles into bags because…it’s the law.
But because I am the kind of fun guy who, once pissed off by claims of vague legal necessity, will sit down with his newly purchased cold beer and read the liquor laws (again), I can tell you there is no law on the books that requires retailers bag any kind of liquor at all. To confirm my suspicions, I visited the Alcohol and Gaming Division office. If you’ve never been, it’s worth a visit as it’s (ironically?) decorated to look like an old-fashioned saloon.
Staff there was able to confirm to me that there has been no such law for "a really, really long time."
Santa Fe City Councilor Chris Calvert's 2008 effort to encourage people, by levying a fee for taking new ones, to bring their own bags to grocery stores went down in unfortunate flames. Bag wasting is a problem the private sector is, apparently, going to have to solve for us, one store at a time (Vitamin Cottage stopped offering bags in Santa Fe early last year). But now we have a situation in which some businesses actually believe they're mandated to force useless bags upon customers—even as the waste from frivolous-use sacks and bags mows down huge swaths of forest and blankets the earth in plastic waste.
The notion of bagging liquor purchases, especially single bottles or cans, comes—as does Santa Fe's new indecent exposure ordinance—from Victorian notions of morality. A respectable person can't be seen walking down the street with a bottle of booze! So, for decades, we hypocritically hid our liquor from judgmental eyes…though never very successfully.
After all, it didn't really take people very long to figure out the significance of the brown bag. I can promise you, when I'm walking between the liquor store and my car or my house, the sack that's been forced upon me by ill-informed retailers does not contain pork rinds or Slim Jims or edible panties or lottery tickets or any of the other exciting non-liquor products available at the liquor store.
So, I suppose this is the beginning of an informal public information and education campaign, aimed primarily at my favorite liquor stores. If I refuse a bag because I want to save a tree or do what I can to avoid the sight of fences packed with plastic bags, you have to let me.
Of course, there's little point in arguing with liquor sellers who have a (righteous) fear of doing the wrong thing. New Mexico's liquor laws put the onus of any missteps on sellers rather than purchasers. So, in the interest of not stressing retailers by arguing the law with them, I've been trying to bring along my own cute little tote bag when I go liquor shopping. An unscientific survey has revealed that this, too, makes retailers vaguely uncomfortable.
For starters, you look like a shoplifter from the get-go. On top of that, the civic-minded reusable bag is, apparently, a somewhat foreign concept among vice-peddlers. Three out of five stores that I visited refused to humor me and bagged the liquor before placing it in my tote. The other two reluctantly humored me.
But the campaign is young.
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