From The Jug With Love

On the hairy business of home booze delivery

Not that anyone keeps track of such things, but it is a good bet that the intersection of West Broadway and Washington Avenue North is the single most besotted district in all of Minneapolis. There are five bars within a block's distance--hard-drinking establishments filled with patrons who look like they were born with grease under their fingernails. People here pound drinks in double time as they perpetually wait for their luck to change.

But nobody's luck is changing. If it were, they would be somewhere else.

On the northeast corner of the intersection sits the nexus of this boozy little universe, the Jug liquor store. From the outside, it is unremarkable--a tiny, squat cinderblock building with just enough neon to attract customers. The merchandise is typical of any 'hood liquor store. Its prime display racks are loaded with beverages designed to get you drunk fast and cheap: MD 20/20 in an assortment of eye-popping candy colors, Camo High Gravity Lager, Night Train, Thunderbird. In other words, everything this side of store-brand mouthwash and Sterno.

For an inner-city establishment, however, the interior decor is incongruously Up North. Fishing lures, animal pelts, and an impressive collection of vintage beer cans adorn wood-paneled walls. The Jug is unusual in one other regard: For a seven-dollar charge, customers can enjoy the convenience of having whatever beer, liquor, or wine they choose delivered directly to their doorstep.

In recent years, most Minneapolis liquor stores have gotten out of the delivery business. In some of the city's rougher north side precincts--neighborhoods such as Hawthorne and Jordan--the Jug is the only remaining store that will deliver to residential customers. "We used to have 50 runs a day," says Paul Robinson, the Jug's owner for the past seven years. "It's dropped off pretty bad in the last year. It should get better soon with winter coming. Should get better." He is at a loss to explain the decline in delivery orders, though he seems to accept it as one might accept a sudden change in weather. What are you going to do?

Robinson is middle-aged, white, and rural (a former farmer, he still makes his home in Cannon Falls), yet he enjoys an easy rapport with most of his customers. The homeless alcoholics who constitute a significant percentage of his clientele all seem to greet him by name. He knows their names, too. Often, customers stick around for a chat after making their purchases. Robinson speaks in quick, hushed tones, like he's letting you in on a big secret. As a result, it's sometimes difficult to make out what he's saying. His quirks and obsessions are legendary. He constantly washes his hands. Some days, he says, he goes through three rolls of paper towels in the endless cycle of washing and drying. His forearms are chafed and red.

There is no telling how many delivery drivers Robinson has gone through since buying the Jug. Turnover is high. The reasons are hardly mysterious. His drivers routinely venture into some of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods. While robbery is hardly a daily occurrence, fear of robbery is. Customers are often already loaded by the time their orders arrive--that's why they call for delivery. Yet it is against the law to serve an obviously intoxicated person, which puts drivers in a tough spot. Serve a drunk, you break the law. Adhere to the law, you lose your earnings: seven dollars per delivery plus tips and minus gas.

Sometimes, it's the prospect of viewing up-close somebody's beat-up life that seems daunting. "I only did it for a few months, and I saw lots of things I wish hadn't," recalls Matt Hadden, a new-age musician who is one of Jug's more recently retired delivery guys. "People not taking care of their kids. People going through two bottles of vodka in a day. Garbage houses. Clutter houses. I just choose not to do that anymore." These days, Hadden restricts his work at the Jug to an occasional shift at the counter.

For the past half-year, deliveries have been handled by a neighborhood couple, Bob and Laura (who preferred that City Pages not use their last names). Bob, a north side native who rents an apartment above a nearby bar, also works as a shade tree mechanic. Laura is originally from Sioux City, Iowa, and last worked as a roofer. Before that, she operated her own house cleaning business, and for about five years in her early 20s, worked as an exotic dancer. "That's where I got my people skills," she says. "It taught me how to talk my way out of situations."

In the delivery business, a sharp radar and quick tongue are helpful. When Bob and Laura took the job, both knew it could be dangerous work. But they figured that if they delivered in tandem, the risk would be reduced. Bob, who is 42, says he has something else going for him. "Most people can't last out here more than a couple of nights," he says, "but we know half the people on the north side. That's why we're good at this."

Still, they've had scares. While making a delivery a few months back, Bob got into a scrape with five guys on the street. ("And he was the one who got arrested!" complains Laura.) Another time, Bob was accosted by neighborhood toughs on Lyndale Avenue as he returned from a store where he'd gone to break a large bill. Robbery was only averted, Laura explains, when she grabbed a claw hammer from her car and took a run at the thieves. Afterward, she and Bob theorized that a customer offered up the big bill as part of a trap, the goal of which was to get Bob into the street where he'd be vulnerable to ambush.

As she climbs into her battered Ford F-150 for the first true "'hood delivery" of the night (minus Bob, who has gone to his apartment to wash up), Laura seems anything but happy about the coming evening. She is an attractive woman with long dark brown hair, high cheekbones, and a throaty laugh. But her eyes look tired and her gait is a little unsteady. A few years back, she says, she was diagnosed with MS. "I ain't even supposed to be alive," she says, noting that the job doesn't make things any easier. "This work is frustrating. It's nerve-wracking."

The first destination is on an ill-lit stretch of North Fourth Street. Five teenage boys are meandering down the sidewalk. They look like trouble. Laura decides to wait in the truck for them to pass. Once they've made their way to the corner, Laura hustles up to a duplex and rings the bell. She waits for someone to come downstairs and walks them to the truck. As a general rule she doesn't go inside homes. The exchange is quick--too quick it turns out, because Laura has mistakenly given them a package containing a bottle of schnapps intended for the next delivery. She realizes her mistake only after driving away. She doesn't want to return to the duplex, not because of the customer there ("Gangbangers--last night they tipped me 10 bucks!"), but because of the kids on the corner.

No problem. Laura knows her next customer personally, the one who ordered the schnapps. At this point in his night, she thinks a case of Natural Ice should more than meet his alcohol needs. "He was at my house partying earlier," she explains. "He didn't want to go home because he didn't want to deal with his old lady, which I understand. But he was already drunk enough." When she drops off the incomplete order, her friend only speaks a few words to her. "All he could say was, 'Bring back the schnapps! There must be schnapps!' Well, there will be no schnapps."

On the way back to the Jug, Laura tells her saddest story from the delivery road. "This old man used to order once a week from the liquor store," she says. "Some beer. Some whiskey. He was a good old man. Then his son found out he was getting stuff delivered. He beat him up, put him in the fucking nursing home and took his house. Ain't that fucked up? He was a nice old man. A good old man." After a month or so, she heard that the man had died.

"You know, I'm tired and I'm stressed," she says. "I'm looking for a different line of work."

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