Do I really look that young? Do I?

I haven’t yet mentioned it, but since Friday evening I’ve been in Chicago for the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting. (If anyone happens to be attending the meeting and is interested in a meetup, let me know. My time’s pretty well booked until I leave on Tuesday afternoon, but we might be able to squeeze something in.)

Since my sisters live in Chicago, Friday night I met up with them and we decided to go out to a bar to get some beer and burgers. The bar, on West Division Street in Wicker Park, was Smallbar. I’d never been there before, mainly because the bar didn’t exist when I lived in Chicago. However, it was recommended based on its extensive beer collection (always a major factor in my choice of a bar to go to), and I was told that its pub food was just fine. It turns out that that whole stretch of Division around N. Damen has changed considerably in the eight years since I used to live in Chicago, turning considerably (and annoyingly) more hip, with the requisite invasion of white urban hipsters, but that’s a story for another day.

To set up this story, I need to point out that my sisters, my brother-in-law, and I are all between the ages of 34 and 45. Also, although my sisters and I all seem blessed with appearances “younger than our stated age” (to use the medical jargon), by no means would anyone mistake me for being under 21. The extensive gray in my hair, which, fortunately, I still have in abundance, would preclude that. As we walked in the door, we were all, of course, carded. My brother-in-law, who is about a year older than I am, profusely thanked the guy checking IDs. I did my usual pointing to my gray hair, but none of us really thought anything of it because they were carding everyone who came through the door. I bet they’d have probably carded my parents, too, had they been in town to come with us. We sat down an open table and waited for the server to show up.

When the server showed up to take our order, much to my astonishment, all of us were carded again when we all ordered various alcoholic libations of which to partake!

I have to admit that I was mildly annoyed, not because I honestly thought that the server thought I was underage, but rather because I had just put my drivers license back into my wallet, after having had it out. The compartment that it happens to sit in in my wallet is a bit tight, and it’s a bit of a pain to extract the license when I need to show it to someone. Dutifully, I got it out again, and my sampling of a nice Belgian brew went ahead unhindered. However, it got me to wondering why on earth the bar was so paranoid about checking IDs twice.

It turns out that, apparently, the City of Chicago is frequently running sting operations in which underage “customers” who look considerably older than 21 enter various bars and try to be served alcohol. Apparently the fines and penalties with regard to an establishment’s liquor license can be quite steep, and, worse, the “little guy,” so to speak, the server can be held personally liable for serving alcohol to someone under 21 and even go to jail.

I’m of two minds on this. I understand the need to enforce the law, and I understand that the residents around strips where there are a lot of bars want to reign in underage drinking, because people under 21 tend to be less experienced at holding their liquor. Having also seen first hand the carnage that drunk driving can cause, I’m all for harsh penalties for DUI, particularly repeat offenders. However, this sting program seems a bit Draconian, as do our current drinking age laws. Having the drinking age at 21, enforced by the federal government’s threat to withhold highway funds from states that do not have a drinking age of 21, is just plain ridiculous these days, anyway. After all, we have 18-year-olds in Iraq fighting and dying for their country. It may be a cliche to say so, but, shades of the Vietnam War era, that doesn’t make it any less true: If 18-year-olds are considered adults in every other way, so much so that they can be sent by our country to fight and die, then it’s just plain dumb not to let them have all the rights of an adult. This certainly appears to be one area where European nations have a much more reasonable approach than we in the U.S. do.

The only advantage of these laws is that, for one brief instant in a bar, I can imagine that someone actually thinks I look young enough that I might be under 21.