December 1, 2008

Farewell to Fakes

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At long last, the fateful day has arrived. Yours truly is 21.
Yes, this is a big moment for all of us. But before you start clogging the phone lines offering me free drinks, let’s take a moment to reflect on what this once-in-a-lifetime event really means.
First of all, turning 21 is not, contrary to the law’s intent, a rite of passage to newfound adult pleasure. You’d be hard-pressed to find an American youth who’s abstained from the firewater until they were of legal age — such a person, in fact, would be a bizarre and confusing specimen. The ready availability of alcohol from the early teenage years and its prevalence on college campuses ensure that drinking underage is both easy and affordable, and the thrill of breaking the law in such a socially acceptable way guarantees even the most faint-hearted of youths a little excitement. Reaching this golden milestone is really more of a farce than anything else, a wink and a nudge to those teetotaling legislators who thought they could reverse our youthful desires. I am not, it is safe to say, embarking on anything new.
But given that our society’s drinking habits don’t conform very closely to our drinking laws, the 21st birthday still grants a sense of entitlement to the drinker. No longer will I feel a tingle of naughtiness as I walk through the beer section in Wegman’s, no more will I hold my breath after asking the waitress for a margarita. My first foray into the world of legal liquor will be a trip to North Side Liquor and Wine, that ID Nazi of the spirits-selling community by Route 13 that requires a family tree and a contract signed in blood to get a bottle of whiskey. The liquor is mine now, and there’s nothing they can do about it. I can hold my beer high and my head higher.
The bad news today, of course, is that I’m losing the thrill of breaking the law. I’ve always had a problem with authority and a fear of punishment, so anytime I could stick it to the man in a relatively non-risky way I was all for it. But now that the allure of being a badass has disappeared, alcohol is no longer so exciting. What with the recent decriminalization of marijuana in my home state of Massachusetts, the powers-that-be have taken away all the little rebellious pleasures that made being a teenager so fun. Soon I’ll be turning to arson to get my kicks.
But all this raises the question — why is the legal drinking age 21 in the first place? Sure, there’s the MADD-inspired agitation over drunk driving and the legitimate concerns about health, but does anyone really believe that setting the drinking age so ridiculously high is changing kids’ behavior? Our venerable President Skorton recently sided with the head-in-the-sand temperance folks in opposing the Amethyst Initiative, an effort put forth by 134 college chancellors and presidents to address the patent absurdity of the law. Dear Skorty: It’s not news that if you tell teenagers not to do something, they’ll do it. And given that they’re doing it anyway, why make them feel so sketchy? Keeping the drinking age so high that wounded veterans, mothers of elementary-school children and even Greg Oden (who looks like a 45-year-old Neanderthal) can’t partake is just silly.
Another oddness of this historic day is that I work at a bar. I get paid to make and serve drinks, but I’m judged not mature enough to taste one —makes sense. Or consider the scene a few weeks ago just after Obama’s election, when I was with a group of Democratic volunteers in Pittsburgh. After having voted in our first presidential election and convincing others to do likewise, we were reduced to the ignominy of sneaking beers at the election returns party (which, given that we were surrounded by legislators and cops, was surprisingly easy). Ah, the irony of youth.
But as of 12 a.m. this morning, these considerations are all a part of the past. I’m a man now, at least in the eyes of the law. Sure, there’s something to be said for nostalgia in all this, because, in a way, turning 21 is a cause for sadness — the death of fun, the compromise with the Man, etc. But luckily I now have the (legal) means to drown my sorrow. So, Chapter House tonight at midnight — drinks on you.