Saturday, September 24, 2011

Saturdays in Iowa City: Inside the Belly of the Alcohol-Infused Beast

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(Ed. Note. The following is a dispatch from an Iowa City worker, who shall remain anonymous as he doesn't want to get on Ricky Stanzi's bad side.)

Last week Iowa beat Pitt in one of the biggest come-from-behind victories in school history. I didn’t go, because I had to work. I work at an off-site liquor retailer in downtown Iowa City and all home game days are all-hands-on-deck days.

Much of this blog post is relaying my experience working in the booze business in Iowa City on football gamedays. I supply numbers when I can, but much of the information is anecdotal. Iowa City is a small town, and its downtown service industry an even-smaller part of it. Hopefully, by the end, you are vomiting all over your black-and-gold overalls and “IOWA FUCKING CITY” t-shirts.

Last Saturday at work we followed the Iowa-Pitt game on the store radio. Sometime during the 3rd quarter, when Iowa was losing by more than 20 points, we had some Hawkeye-gear-clad fans who left the game early come in and get some beer before returning home. But Iowa won. When they did, the boss told all of the employees to clear the floors, get behind the counters, and make sure we took our cigarette breaks now. For the next four hours, right until I left, the line was at least three-people deep. Sometimes more. College kids, homeless people, rich out-of-town season-ticket holders, all coming to get the celebratory bottle or two or 24. It bears mention that the Hawkeye’s victory song is “In Heaven There Is No Beer.”

Iowa City is a drinker’s town (and Iowa is a drinker’s state, at least according to this map). Iowa City by the numbers: 887 public intoxication tickets and 529 possession under legal age tickets in 2010. Those tickets, combined with 163 tickets for those under 21 in bars after 10:00 PM, net the city roughly half a million dollars in revenue. Even assuming some repeat and out-of-town offenders, roughly one in 60 Iowa Citians receives an alcohol citation every year. There are approximately 30 bars in downtown Iowa City, which is right across the street from the heart of campus. The University of Iowa was 4th in last year’s Princeton Review party school rankings. As of 2009 Iowa had the Big Ten’s lowest freshman retention rate and highest acceptance rate.

More numbers: Iowa City has roughly 68,000 residents. Kinnick Stadium seats 70,585, and an estimated 30,000 extra people attend tailgates. One 2010 study estimated the fiscal impact of seven home games at $100 million a year. Hotels, restaurants, and, of course, liquor sales are at the center of that fiscal impact. Unsurprisingly, many of the ~100,000 people are drinking.

A liquor retailer has to prepare. Many bars and liquor stores (including us) open at the earliest legal time (7 A.M.), and there will be people waiting.

In the week prior we adjust orders to our distributors. Because Iowa is a control state, all hard liquor comes from a state-owned warehouse in Des Moines. They only send one shipment a week, so we need to get it right. Load up on cheap vodka. We also stock up on mixers, particularly bloody mary mix. We presumably would order more kegs, but the city banned kegs at tailgates roughly five years ago. Cans are now where it’s at. (In Iowa you can redeem cans for 5 cents, so another industry which accompanies football games is can-collecting. A familiar game-day site is homeless men riding bicycles with can-stacked trailers.) An acquaintance who was a stocker at another liquor retailer told me stories about how before Iowa City banned kegs at tailgates, he would often wheel out 100+ kegs (roughly 16,000 pounds of beer) in a single morning. Thankfully his employer provided a weight belt.

Iowa State is the biggest home game. Wisconsin has been the second-biggest in recent years (Madison is three hours away, their team has had a great decade, and both of us get a lot of students from the Chicago suburbs). I’m sure some Iowa City retailers were upset by Iowa and Wisconsin being placed in separate divisions.

Victories mean higher receipts than losses. There’s no truth to that “drinking away the pain” silliness. People have been drinking since 8 AM already, and if depressed they will sleep. A friend who’s a downtown bartender told me he earned $20 in tips on a closing shift the night after the Iowa State loss two weeks ago.

Being behind the counter on such days is essentially an assault. The line can be multiple-bodies-deep for hours, despite the store having a man on all registers. You need to be on your game, making sure change is right and checking IDs (failing a sting nets a fine greater than $1,000). You need to watch for shoplifters. People will bring in cans (all retailers in Iowa need to have can-redemption centers). You go home exhausted on these days, and are tempted to bring home a six pack or bottle for yourself.

The 2009 Homecoming was, as I learned in conversations with other booze merchants, a record-setting day for a lot of downtown bars (a combination of many factors: unexpectedly good Stanzi-led Hawkeye team, Homecoming weekend, afternoon game, beautiful weather, big-name opponent, and, of course, a Hawkeye victory).

This is all from the retailer’s point of view and ignores the effect of thousands of drunk people on the streets. The cops declare amnesty on open container laws, at least in public parking areas. Before and after the game, the streets are crowded with yellow-clad football fans.

My opinion is that the worst people on game days are not students. I expect a 19 year old to be drunk and stupid and maybe vomiting on the sidewalk. Rather it’s the 50-something dads escaping their loveless marriages, grabbing bar waitresses’ asses, talking to service employees as if they are dogs, and using their employer’s expense account to buy an expensive hotel room in Hotel Vetro downtown for him and his college buddy who’s ostensibly a “business forward” despite not having sent the company any business in 10 years. I remember one time I made the mistake of walking through downtown on gameday wearing a pink shirt and being called a “faggot” multiple times, mostly by men my father’s age.

Unfortunately these men also are responsible for part of my paycheck. Many downtown service employees are, like me, students or recent grads of the university who do not have the luxury of employer expense accounts. We take these jobs because they pay reasonably well by Iowa City standards and because better-paying jobs in specialized fields essentially don’t exist unless you’re a professor or a cog in the machine of big testing companies (i.e., ACT and Pearson, both of whom have huge local offices).

The recession-proofness of being a college-town liquor store employer isn’t lost on me, either. You can find recent JDs tending bar and working behind the counter in gas stations in town, fooled by misleading job-placement stats of law school grads.

Thus, we are the candymen and women, for whom football season is either a tiring godsend (if you earn tips) or just plain tiring (if you don’t). Iowa is a party school and Iowa City is a party town, a fact not lost on those aforementioned mid-life-crisisers. The school tries to do something about it, but how far can they go when some members of the school’s alumni network seem to prefer that Iowa City remain the staging point for the Hangover-styled middle-aged-man drunken getaway?

I am far from a teetotaler, and identify as a Hawkeye fan. I admit there’s a shitload of cognitive dissonance in working in liquor retail while simultaneously being critical of an excessive, stupid drinking culture. But the fact is we have a better understanding of this culture than any member of the college administration or press. I have heard the fucked-up comments men make when bragging about how their jungle juice is going to make the girls at their party “a bunch of whores,” and I have seen no shortage of people walk into the store with black eyes or open wounds. I won’t pretend to know what the solution is but in the meantime I know I am, in a small way, a part of the problem.

Go Hawks.

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