Articles,  Radio Hour

Drinking While Essential

by Mackenzie Filson


Mackenzie’s essay appears in episode 26 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.


While everyone was hiding their feelings in yeasty sourdough, I’m still doing the less socially acceptable thing mid-pandemic: guzzling wine. I call it “product knowledge” in that way your aunt has a “I’m outdoorsy in that I like to drink wine on patios,” TJ-Maxx-wall-hanging sort of way. It is my hobby and my vice, my way to un-stick the barnacles attached to me throughout a day of customer service and mask-wearing while working at a Trader Joe’s in very suburban North Carolina.

I have a rule that I can’t repeat the drinking of wines at work: each time it must be new and expansive to my taste encyclopedia, so I tell myself. Each wine feels like I’m doing one of those match-a-card games, turning over each one to see if it goes with me, my mood for the evening, my tastebuds’ need for dirt, oak, stone-fruit. The wine section at our store composes a solid quarter of our shelf-space. We’ve even relegated the beer section to an abridged dusty corner; Trader Joe’s still upholds its inherent Californian-ness, wanting to always appear to be a cozy neighborhood wine shop at all costs.

Over time, I’ve realized that my taste in wine is as shifting as my taste in a lot of things – men and how they treat me, living situations, cities, a whole life mantra in bottles. Each time I have one, I realize a wine I adored before was just okay, this one dethroning it completely.

 

Over time, I’ve realized that my taste in wine is as shifting as my taste in a lot of things – men and how they treat me, living situations, cities, a whole life mantra in bottles.

 

I no longer drink bold-for-the-sake-of-bold Robitussin-y Californian Cabernets, reminding me of the two-drink minimums while watching improv shows of a man I dated who was a bit too passionate about his intramural kickball team and needing to be the funniest person in the room. If a New Zealand Sauv Blanc doesn’t make me feel like a petite woodland nymph drinking gooseberry juice out of a flower cup, it gets relegated to the “just okay” pile.

Wine drinking while working at Trader Joe’s has sharpened my observation skills. You can tell a lot by a cart full of groceries. Six (or more) butter chicken frozen Indian meals? Going through a divorce. Mandarin orange chicken, veggie fried rice, dark chocolate peanut butter cups?

First-time shoppers. Two cases of Three Buck Chuck Chardonnay? The geriatric relegated to fixed incomes. $18 Meiomi Pinot Noir (a bit top-shelf for the wine section) is code for “Are you in trouble in your relationship?”

Whenever a customer asks me about what I think about the infamous ‘Three Buck Chuck’, I counter it with neither praise nor critique: “It’s three dollars”, I say with a neutral tone. I let them take this information where they will, whatever interpretation suits them like the mass market choose-your-own-adventure novel in a bottle it is.

 

***

 

Wine is a way to never be wrong, something to moor myself to, that my taste is my own and infallible.

Sure, I took my philosophy course requirement online in college, but knowing that taste is relative (my cinnamon will never be your experience of cinnamon) brings me a rare level of mid-pandemic hope for the democratizing power of wine. And then there’s the issue of varietals — that everything can change every year, forever, especially as we find ourselves grappling with what feels like an infinite present. What bowled me over in 2017 might not impress me in 2021: it might taste too saccharine, the skins trapping too much wildfire smoke, clouding over the taste-memory of bell pepper, lemons, sunshine, bug spray.

I struggled with anorexia as a teen, requiring three hospitalizations that saved my life, but also built up a distrust in myself and my hunger cues and taste. Wine requires a level of intuition and forthright knowledge of the self. I mean, it’s $9.99 and I work at a Trader Joe’s, it better be good, and I better be great at describing why and what I like. Eating and thus, living, for taste makes me feel like I have direction and a foothold, something that was hard to locate in the amorphous, silent chokehold of anorexia, where taste could often be a source of punishment.

 

Wine requires a level of intuition and forthright knowledge of the self.

 

The variables of taste and memory blur the possibility of snobbishness. Portuguese vinho verdes are now afternoons spent in the neighborhood loquat tree, eating the little fruits and raining pits down to the ground. Gluhwein in tiny paper cups shuffled through Christkindlmarkt in Prague, the cherries, cinnamon and cardboard muddling together in unison. Sweet-tart candy-coated Moscatos smuggled into Hydroflasks to be drunk in secret at the local lake, laced with smeared-on sunscreen sweating downwards from my upper lip. New Zealand Sauv Blanc (my wine Enneagram type if such a thing exists) is the feeling of running through sprinklers during a humid Floridian magic hour.

In a time where racial and social inequalities are at the forefront of my mind, tasting and suggesting wine has become this tiny democratizing pebble I can grip tightly. Oftentimes the $12 Bogle at Total Wine is masquerading around in plain clothes as a $5 Phigment red blend at Trader Joe’s, something inaccessible becoming easily affordable to anyone from the college student to the country club mom. It’s an open-access program we can all plug into. No one is wrong, there are no sides to take. Whether it’s ‘Three Buck Chuck’ or $56 Stag’s Leap, both those wines will always scream to me “Who hurt you?” in their own specific ways.

When caught in the wine section at work, I have to suss out a customer’s need for something off-dry but not too sweet, maybe bubbly? Are all your rieslings sweet? No! What wine do I drink when I don’t drink wine? Moscato! The mother-daughter duos who try not to let me know they are having an illicit wedding in the age of Corona, who somehow “need” six cases of Cava and Brut.

 

In a time where racial and social inequalities are at the forefront of my mind, tasting and suggesting wine has become this tiny democratizing pebble I can grip tightly.

 

My wife bought it last week, it has a ‘moon’ in the title! they say. But they all have ‘moon’ in the title, Gary! I love challenges. I’ve never not been an overachiever, so to be an authority on anything gives me a sliver of control on this godforsaken, haunted merry-go-round of a year.

People often subtly look down at me for my place of work, not knowing I’ve been schooled in ivy-covered buildings, but actively chose this job because I get to leave with a clear mind and a loose schedule a 9-5 couldn’t promise me.

Upon writing this, we are six months into the pandemic, where grocery store workers have gone from being “heroes” to mere furniture fixtures putting cookie butter on shelves. I get to remind others, through wine, that I have some semblance of authority and a knowledge they do not possess, as well as no reason to see me as someone of lesser importance. The slow detective work of wine restores some of my personhood, and it’s the only aspect of my job that’s not laced with anxiety, or with feeling like the lowest head on the essential worker totem pole.

 

The slow detective work of wine restores some of my personhood, and it’s the only aspect of my job that’s not laced with anxiety, or with feeling like the lowest head on the essential worker totem pole.

 

My knowledge makes me feel of use, a loose tether to why I loved this job before COVID-19 made it one of anxiety, hoarding, and customers telling us we’re “brainwashed” for taking basic precautions. Wine is a way I learn about myself, knowing now that I crave chardonnays so oaky it’s like I’ve been hit upside the head with a two-by-four. Lingering in the wine section after close, I ask my bosses what to drink next (“I want to taste dirt, Sam!” is a recent admission), believing their wine choices could be their bottled essence, these very human people who have the same unsure immunity that I do, never showing the same fear I have.

 

***

 

I’ve long had an obsession with hobbies – I acquire them like a hobby itself. And if it has gear? Even better! My wine hobby has cut to the chase, no gear required – after each shift at the store, we are allowed five minutes to shop for our own essentials, and that is a wine in the sub-$6.99 variety for me to taste test, swish, enjoy over Bachelor Presents: Listen to Your Heart hate-watching sessions. All I need is a wine key and my Target nightgown and I am ready to imbibe.

Let me also state what I know to be true: that within reason, drinking alone is not all that bad. Keeping in mind, my tolerance is quite low, after three glasses of anything I am hopping off to make-out with the nearest street lamp. Especially when dining solo, drinking alone helps me distill the experience down to the bite sized moments it ought to be, rather than the impulse to scroll my phone while waiting on my fish tacos to arrive. When sipping a South African Sauv blanc, laced with smoke-char and gooseberries, I smell and hear things. I eavesdrop into the little spats held between old couples arguing over how they couldn’t find the spice mix they wanted at the specialty grocery next door. I hear the “behind yous” of the waitstaff, see the steam rising from freshly cleaned glasses from a dish rack. I stretch the muscles that often don’t get worked when with other people.

 

When sipping a South African Sauv blanc, laced with smoke-char and gooseberries, I smell and hear things.

 

Australian Cab-Shiraz summons the warm, cozy girl-scout-camp feeling of being amongst my favorite gal pals who live thousands of miles away.. With cigar-char and cherry notes, I’m drinking my own witches’ brew, I’m under my own spell, my body and mind slackened by the glass. I start to feel like that version of Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, where he uses his hands to wash waves up inside his flooding cottage, but for me, it’s ushering feelings of power, warmth, artificial confidence. I’m not an easily sensual person, in that I do find it hard to immediately tap into the part of alter ego me who looks and acts like Nigella Lawson — licking her fingers after dipping them in chocolate, wearing coquettish wrap dresses, winged eyeliner, a cheekiness I have to fight hard to summon. I can be too organized, fussy with details, things have to be right, little silences between myself and another filled with noise and distraction. Wine absolves all of that for me in a half-glass. I linger, I grow quiet, I mull.

 

***

 

There’s a new game I enjoy playing, one that calms me: it involves imagining a re-opened, yet very different world. A world where sexual attractiveness might be lent to men who smell faintly of rubbing alcohol and distillery sanitizer, who have a respectable amount of toilet paper at home (not too much.) Restaurants and bars with less seating that feels more intimate, a dim sum conveyor belt of dishes waiting to be grabbed individually. Wondering if the red marks on my nose are from my work facemask, or if it’s from my nose becoming perpetually sunburnt from drinking spicy Spanish garnachas on my front stoop after work.


artwork by Corinne Pease

About The Author

Mackenzie Filson is a writer living in North Carolina by way of Florida. After working in commercials and book publishing out in LA and NYC, she decided to move to sleepy Greensboro, where she writes and hawks books and wine by the armful as an independent bookseller and Trader Joe’s crew-member. To read more of her work, you can check out her newsletter here: funatparties.substack.com

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