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.


  1. #1 DuWayne
    June 3, 2007

    Such sting are becoming a mid-west phenomenon. They’ve been doing that for more than ten years in Michigan. I remember the police using students from my high school, who were in the law enforcement career booster, to take part in them. When they first started doing them, only the store or bar would get cited, then about eight or nine years ago they started fining the clerk or server too. By the time I moved out to Portland, two years ago, the fine was up to $500 for the employee and $500 to the store, for the first offense. I believe that they also waived the requirement that the sale actually be made to a minor. I also heard they passed similar laws in Missouri too, so it really doesn’t surprise me to hear Illinois jumping on the wagon.

    I too, have mixed feelings about it. Mainly because I think the legal drinking age should at least be up to the state. I certainly believe that if one is old enough to go off and get killed in war, they should be able to drink. At the same time, I remember being able to buy booze at a number of places and cigarettes everywhere else, when I was fourteen, so I am not totally averse. In fact, I find myself hoping that this catches on out here, before my kids become teenagers.

    This story does have me reminiscing on the last party I attended in Wicker Park. I ended up playing music with a very interesting group of musicians from around eleven pm, until nearly seven am. Stopping only because the couple hosting the party were flying out that morning, for vacation. Lovely people, one of them had picked me up hitch-hiking that afternoon. They gave me a key to their loft, admonishing me to feel free to crash there whenever I happened to be in Chicago. Try as I might, I never did manage to find their place again, which was a shame as I really wanted to find the keyboard player that I played with that night, when my band in Lansing recorded.

  2. #2 William the Coroner
    June 3, 2007

    Maine had that problem when I was there as an undergrad, with drinking being the top indoor winter sport (the other two were sex and gossip) That was the only time I’ve ever been carded, a 6’3″ guy with a full, grey beard does tend to get left alone.

    I agree, though, if we’ll give 18 year olds the keys to a hummer and a firearms, we’ll deny them the right to have a beer. America is very puritianical still.

  3. #3 Mike Saelim
    June 3, 2007

    I agree. Age doesn’t correlate with maturity that well. I’m glad I’ll be in Geneva this summer, where I’ll finally be above the drinking age.

  4. #4 Greying Euro Guy
    June 3, 2007

    Orac is right that this always strikes Europeans visiting the States as bizarre. Especially when people can get a full driving licence at 17 (as I remember it) in some states without even a test on an actual road with other cars.

    Recall being in Ohio almost exactly 20 yrs ago when they had just raised the drinking age from 18 to 21… of course, people “already legal” were grandfathered in, so the guys on the door at bars were checking exact dates of birth v. carefully.

    Are there any actual stats to show if the raised drinking age (when I first came to the States as an adult it was 18 most places) has had any effect? I suspect it doesn’t have much. A buddy of mine who worked at Dartmouth U in the 90s bears out what William the Coroner says.. the drinking age might have been 21, and the “restaurants” in the town may have only been only to sell 3% beer with a meal, but down in the Frat House cellars (complete with “piss trench” in the floor) they were luge-ing vodka down ice blocks straight down their gullets til dawn.

    In Europe the consensus is that age restrictions on drinking are largely ineffective; the only ways to reduce consumption are: (i) higher pricing; (ii) restricting adverts targetted at younger drinkers and (iii) sensible alcohol education for 11-14 yr olds in schools (talk about effects, not just “just say no”)

  5. #5 coz
    June 3, 2007

    I’m 34 and find it bizzare I still get carded. I’m told I look young than than but not that young. Working and going to bars in Australia, if you looked 18ish then you probably are old enough.I now work in a bar in Arizona, every one looks young to me and I have to remember to card people cause it’s not good enough to look 18.
    I met a 19 year US exchange student who stayed a year in Sydney going to bars and drinking, he was about to go back to the US where he had another 2 years before he could do that again.
    Its weird the drinking age is 21 here, I don’t get that at all. I tell people I think the US is the only country with such a high drinking age just to make them jealous 😉

  6. #6 PhysioProf
    June 3, 2007

    re: Looking Young

    I was at a scientific conference recently and was asked by one attendee whose lab I work in. I answered, “My own”. Another attendee asked me if I am a grad student or a post-doc. I answered, “Neither”.

  7. #7 G. Shelley
    June 3, 2007

    I thought the policy was if someone looks under 35 (no idea how they judge that), then they are asked for ID.

  8. #8 HCN
    June 3, 2007

    I’ve seen your picture, and you DO look young.

    Also, my siblings started to get gray hair early… for my brother it started when he was in college. He was totally gray by time he was 30, and had white hair by 50 (my sister has a special bottle in her shower).

    Could be worse… At the public pool I had to remind the replacement cashiers more than once that I did not qualify for the senior discount (the regular cashier knows me very well). I then asked if the discount started at 55, but was told it was 65… I then told her I was only 49!

    Oh, and since I have red hair, it does not yet show the gray (it just looks blonder). The one perk of being the only sibling to get all the recessive genes… blue eyes and red curly hair versus my siblings’ light brown straight hair and hazel eyes.

  9. #9 Carlie
    June 3, 2007

    I got carded at a liquor store at 27 years old and 7 months’ pregnant (no, I wasn’t buying for myself). I thought that was a bit much, but I’m now 34 with gray creeping in, and at the library last week I asked about a book on hold and the librarian said “Oh, it’s in, I just called your house this morning and left a message with your … (pauses, looks at me closely)… father.”

  10. #10 Voice O'Reason
    June 3, 2007

    A friend of mine once suggested that we should let kids start drinking at 16, and not let them drive until they’re 21. Heck, it sounds sensible to me (though, being over 40, I’m starting to think we should raise the driving age to at least 25!).

  11. #11 Tony P
    June 3, 2007

    As it stands now I look about ten years younger than I actually am. That’s with the beard and the greying hair.

    If I shaved off the beard and colored the hair it’d probably wind the clock back another 5 to 7 years. That’d put me at around 25.

    Even my MD was shocked when I told him my age. I still get carded occasionally.

  12. #12 Scott Simmons
    June 3, 2007

    My wife was getting carded when I took her to R-rated movies when she was 25. She was thrilled that people thought she was so much younger than she was. I, personally, was concerned that people who saw me walking around holding her hand thought I must be some sort of pervert …

  13. #13 Pennybright
    June 3, 2007

    Grey hair isn’t a reliable indicator when you’re looking at hefty fines and/or jail time for serving an underaged person.

    My hair started going grey when I was 17. Now, 31, I’m totally salt and pepper, and regularly get asked about what kind of “great skin care program” I use, and if I’ve “had a lift done.” I keep waiting for the day when someone assumes my daughter is my granddaughter.

    All that aside, I agree that it’s absurd for us refuse to let 18 year olds drink, when we’re willing to let them drive, vote, and die in military service.

  14. #14 Mongrel
    June 4, 2007

    Some places will have a “Card Everyone” policy. It stops the “Why did I get carded and he didn’t” arguments (Have a look at some of the stories over at customers suck for examples) and makes it such a part of the servers routine that it’ll always get done.

  15. #15 Luna_the_cat
    June 4, 2007

    Could be worse….

    I have two surviving brothers; the younger one is thin, dark and reasonably tall, and the older one is shorter and chubby. I remember when they were 16 and 17, respectively, and trying to buy beer illegally (this was about 30 years ago). The older one had acquired fake id, but given his chubby shortness, the guy at the liquor store wasn’t having it, and eventually told him just to shove off. At that point, younger brother stepped confidently up and said, “Oh, I’ll buy it,” and the guy didn’t even card him…leaving older brother steaming, of course, but he wasn’t going to say anything….

    Just to add insult to injury, though — about three months after he hit 18, older brother actually started to go bald, and within a few more months looked like he was 40. “Worst possible timing!” he said, “If I was going to start looking old why couldn’t it have been a couple of years ago, when I could have gotten some good out of it?!”

  16. #16 Larry Moran
    June 4, 2007

    I understand why you’re annoyed. It seems ridiculous to card someone your age.

    However, things could be worse. I’m constantly being asked whether I would like the senior’s discount! I always say yes. There are advantages to looking older than you actually are! (I’m only 28 but I look 61!)

  17. #17 jotetamu
    June 4, 2007

    Orac: Please take the g out of reign in “… want to reign in underage …”. Please do it, then delete this comment – I don’t want just to look like a totally anal pedant.

  18. #18 Jurjen S.
    June 6, 2007

    Orac wrote:

    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.

    Voice O’Reason wrote:

    A friend of mine once suggested that we should let kids start drinking at 16, and not let them drive until they’re 21.

    Make perfect sense to me; if your problem is that the kids can operate a motor vehicle before they become fully familiar with the ill-effects of alcohol, the obvious option to try is to give them a chance to experience those ill-effects well before they ever get behind the wheel of a car. I’m a European immigrant to the US, and yes, I do think the age requirement on alcohol consumption is strange. It seems to me that, if at any given age you are deemed to be sufficiently mature to vote, and to kill and be killed in the course of military service, you’re old enough to drink. I’m not sold on that given age being 18; reportedly, there’s some evidence that when the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 in certain states, alcohol-related driving deaths declined significantly, but to my mind, it then follows that if 18 year-olds are evidently not sufficiently mature to be trusted not to mix their freedoms to drink and to drive, they’re not sufficiently mature to be accepted into military service. How can you place the burden of defending democracy on a person whom you deem to be insufficiently mature to be entrusted with all the freedoms of that democracy?

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