29 Apr Obtaining A One-Day Liquor License

I need a one-day liquor license for a fund-raiser I’m doing in Baltimore next week (Baltimore’s Literary Cabaret). Someone told me it’s easy to get: “Just go downtown and pay fifty bucks. It’ll take an hour, tops.”¬† He didn’t say where downtown, though I assumed it’d be at or near Baltimore City Hall.

I approach City Hall and its environs with great hesitation, if not fear. Civil servants — those underpaid, under-appreciated form-scribblers and data-shovelers who have seen too much of the public and, as a result, don’t really want to hear about your problems, no matter how special you think your case may be — these people scare me. They seem like weary participants of a psychology lab experiment gone wrong. You know, like that experiment that proved anybody could be a tyrant and torturer if given the chance? This is an unfair generalization, I know, but it’s how I feel.

So: despite my best intentions to keep a good attitude, I had a sinking feeling as I approached the crowded counter at the Liquor Board yesterday. My first misgiving came when I saw an announcement taped to the wall: “As of May 1, all one-day licenses must be obtained 10 days in advance of the event. No exceptions.” When I’d phoned the Liquor Board earlier, a man told me that I had to come in today because of this rule. But he’d said nothing about it being a new rule that would start on May 1. It was only April 28. “You come in today you just made it in time,” he said. But he was wrong, wasn’t he? It wasn’t May 1 yet, so the rule didn’t apply, did it? But I wasn’t about to argue.

I’ve noticed that most civilians are ingratingly self-effacing, even shy, when interacting with clerks at city offices for fear of incurring the wrath of the bureaucracy. We submit ourselves to these clerks as a lost five-year-old would submit himself to a store manager or a police officer, our opened hands outstretched, palms up, our eyes begging for mercy.

I didn’t have very long to wait until I was escorted to the desk of a Ms. Robinson, a middle-aged woman with close-cut hair and big eyeglasses. I’m sure she’s somebody’s happy grandma. She looked at my yellow form and said, “I can’t do anything with this.” Before I could reply, she looked at my other piece of paper. It was the official stationery I’d brought with the tax exempt number of the non-profit I serve.

Ms. Robinson said, “What’s this number?”

“That’s my tax exempt number,” I said.

“I don’t know that,” she said.

“But that’s what it is,’ I said. “The man said that’s all I needed.”

“What man?” she asked.

“The man I talked to on the phone.” Why hadn’t I thought to ask his name?

Ms. Robinson said: “No, sir, you need a letter from the IRS.”

“A letter from the IRS?”

“That says you are tax exempt.”

“Where would I get such a letter?” I asked. “My event is in 10 days.”

Ms. Robinson shook her head in dismay. “You should have that letter already if you are tax exempt.”

It occurred to me that I could call AWP headquarters and have them fax me the IRS letter right away. So I asked Ms. Robinson to write down her fax number.

“This sheet,” she said of my yellow form, “I can’t do anything with because you don’t have a zoning permit.”

“Zoning permit?” I hated that all I could do was echo everything she said.

“All you got on this form is an address.” She pointed. “I don’t know how it’s zoned.”

I thought: Holy shit, what have I gotten into? I’m renting an art gallery for the event. Is the place even zoned for public use? Does the place have to be inspected? Am I going to get the place shut down?

“You got to go over to the Zoning Board and get a permit,” Ms. Robinson instructed. She wrote down the address. I drew a deep breath, glanced at the clock: I had two hours before closing.

I stepped away from the desk and opened my phone to find the number of AWP headquarters. I hate my phone because the screen is the size of a saltine cracker and the download time is interminable and I can never find anything on the screen once I’ve downloaded a web page anyway. The phone numbers I needed were contained in emails, not in my “contacts” folder — that’s the way I run my messy life, never anything where it should be. I couldn’t get my email client to open. Then I realized I had AWP stationery in my hand–and there was the phone number I needed as part of the letterhead. Ah, serendipity! Or was it synchronicity? I phoned AWP but nobody was in, so I left a message.

The Zoning Board was two blocks away. When I arrived I was relieved to see that there was no line. A pleasant Admin. Assistant gave me a form to fill out. I decided that I could spend the afternoon collecting forms. This one asked for all kinds of information I didn’t have. As I tried again to access my email via my phone, the AA told me I couldn’t do phone work in the office. This seemed to be the case in every city office: cell phone use prohibited in this office! I wondered why. It wasn’t like an airplane. The AA said I had to get another office to stamp the form anyway before I could hand it back to her.

So I went to that other office, which looked like a DMV waiting area, with its cordoned lines and clerk stalls. I borrowed a pen from a clerk at the nearest counter. She and her co-worker were chatting about their mutual friend’s amazing cupcakes, which¬† look like miniature wedding cakes.

I stared at my Zoning form. It asked for the name of the building’s owner. I couldn’t remember his last name. It asked for the square footage. I had overheard somebody saying that the Zoning Board will charge your event according to square footage you’re using. This gave me pause. The form asked for more phone numbers I didn’t have.There’s phone email and there’s regular email. I needed regular but it takes up so much bandwidth I couldn’t pull it in. Did I mention that I hate my phone?

I filled in a few lines of my form in a gesure of wishful thinking then handed it to one of the cupcake clerks. She said, “You’ve still got to fill out these lines. And then this section that describes your event.” Then she turned to her co-worker, “The description with the square footage is all that counts, right?” I returned to the end of the counter and made up names and phone numbers for all of the lines, anything to complete the form. I figured all the city wanted was my money, not accurate information. Was I wrong? When I handed the completed form back to the cupcake clerk, she glanced at it, then stamped it. Then I returned to the other Zoning office, where an assessor took my form and directed me to return to the DMV room again, where I sat at a clerk’s stall and received my Zoning Permit bill: $25. A note in her stall said: “No curbing permits will be issued in Baltimore City. Basements may continue to be lowered using the underpinning method.” Perfect, I thought.

After paying my Zoning bill, I returned to the Liquor Board two blocks away. My detour had taken less than an hour. At this point, I asked myself, When did governments start regulating the consumption of alcohol? Is it unreasonable? Is it a scam? Later, a little research told me that governments big and small, local and national, have been regulating or attempting to regulate alcohol for as long as there has been alcohol — for millennia — because humans are determined to get high on the stuff. So, asking the question, “Who says the government can tell me what to serve and where?” will get you nowhere. If your local government can tell you where to park, it can tell you where you can and cannot drink.

When I inquired after my fax at the Liquor Board front desk, the clerk (another middle-aged woman, not Ms. Robinson) said, “Why’d you need something faxed?” After I explained that I needed the official IRS tax-exempt corporation verification letter, she said, “You didn’t need that.” I shrugged whatever. The crackerjack AWP staff had indeed fired the fax over. As I waited for the clerk to process the paper, the other clerk behind the counter — a guy with sly humor — said, “You still here?” I nodded and he chuckled.

Ten minutes later, the other clerk said my documents we in order. Then I handed her my Zoning Permit receipt. She said, “That’s not a Zoning Permit.”

“I know,” I said, “it’s a receipt for the permit — which has been approved. They say the permit will be ready in a day or two.”

“I can’t issue you a liquor license without a zoning permit,” she said.

I looked at her over the tops of my eyeglasses, one of those Come-on-now-let’s-work-together looks. I said, “If I don’t get my liquor permit today, you people aren’t going to give it to me later.” I pointed to the new May 1 regulation.

She raised one eyebrow, nodded her head in agreement, then pulled over a date/time stamp and gave my form the mark. “There you go,” she said. “Now you’re on record. You can bring this back the day OF your event and you’ll still get your permit.”

I thanked her and was grateful to get away. When I returned to my car and its expired meter, I expected to find a ticket on the windshield, but there was none.