The Boys in Booze

The speakeasy is alive and kicking.

By Mara Zepeda
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 21, 2007

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Classic Rock-ola: Roger Hamilton (right) imbibes a brewski with a friend.

Roger Hamilton paid $1,200 for a vintage Rock-ola vending machine, thinking it'd be the perfect way to keep his beer cold.

"I was sick of buying ice and having it melt. And I've got a 16-year-old daughter in the house and don't like keeping beer in the fridge," Hamilton says.

He hauled the machine home, installed it in his backyard, stocked it with brewskies and set a stack of dollar bills on a nearby table. Friends and relatives would come over, insert one of Hamilton's dollars into the Rock-ola, grab a cold one and hang out by the pond Hamilton built with found stones--and which is now home to frogs, turtles and koi.

Last August the Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement (BLCE) received complaints about neighborhood minors frequenting the machine and imbibing to the point of illness. Officers were dispatched to the scene while Hamilton was away playing golf. They seized the machine and confiscated $44.35, as well as cans of Rolling Rock, Yuengling Lager and Michelob Ultra. In the police report the investigating officer noted that a local resident described Hamilton as "Roger the Beer Man."

Hamilton denies he was selling beer. "If I wanted to make money, I'd charge $2 to $3 for a can of beer. Can you tell me anywhere in this great city you can find beer for a dollar?"

He claims that during the raid officers took a sledgehammer to his beloved appliance. "If there was a problem, all they had to do was say, 'You can't have this machine here.' But destroy it? That's like the Gestapo. I thought this was America."

Lt. John Comerer, the BLCE's Eastern Section commander, investigated Hamilton for allegedly selling alcohol without a license. And it's not a unique or particularly unusual case. "We've arrested plenty of old ladies for selling single cans from their stoop," he says.

But many of the BLCE's efforts focus on unlicensed establishments or "speakeasies," a term I hadn't heard since eighth-grade history. Visions of flappers and gravelly voiced chanteuses danced through my head. Not so much, says Comerer: "Speakeasies run the gamut from skanky to sophisticated." He remembers a "really classy place" on Chestnut Street.

Speakeasies can also be culturally exclusive. Comerer describes many joints--Korean, Russian, Greek--his agents have had a hard time penetrating. But for the most part, it's "dark, grungy mattresses, makeshift bars, used condoms, drugs, gambling machines, all kinds of junk"--much of which ends up in evidence rooms. Private row houses, renovated garages and VFWs are all perfect places to set up a side business and make some extra cash selling cheap booze.

Neighbors complain, Comerer's officers investigate, the speakeasies are shut down and the booze is confiscated, submitted as evidence and ultimately destroyed (really). Comerer says they raid two to three locations a month.

So what's so bad about speakeasies? "First, it's against the law. Second, it's a nuisance and it destroys communities and neighborhoods. It has a tremendous impact on the quality of life," says Comerer.

Roger Hamilton has a lot to say about the BLCE and the decrease in the quality of his own life. "You know how hard it is coming home from work and not having a cold beer?" he asks. "I'm an average guy, a good guy. Anything that anybody has that seems so good in life, they just want to take it from you." As of our last conversation he's still waiting to hear if official charges of distributing liquor without a license will be filed against him.

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