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How Dry We Ain't

Love it, hate it, use it. A lot.
Stephen P. Karlisch

Sure, Texas leads the nation in alcohol-related traffic deaths--1,734 in 1999--and the state's leniency toward drunk drivers costs it close to $100 million in highway funding. But when it comes to drinking, nothing arouses the ire of North Texas like a harmless blue-and-white card. Just ask. "The Unicard is a pain in the ass," Brandy Bray growls from a table at The Flying Saucer in Addison.

If you drink in Dallas, you know what Bray is talking about. Wet and dry areas lay scattered across the landcsape in a seemingly random pattern. Within dry areas, private clubs may serve alcohol to members, and the Unicards serve as membership cards to many of these so-called clubs, which to the naked eye look suspiciously like the bars and restaurants serving hooch in wet areas--mainly because that's exactly what they are. Becoming a member of a club that uses the Unicard is only slightly easier than getting into a community college.

So the question is, Why bother? If dry isn't exactly dry, what's the point of the card?

"It's stupid," T.J. Marquez says while sitting at Frankie's on McKinney Avenue, a wet, non-Unicard venue. "It's some sort of faux religious conspiracy," Chris O'Hagan asserts while ordering at Fox and Hound on Midway Road in a dry neighborhood. The Unicard may be all of those things, with the possible exception of the religious conspiracy. Its purpose lurks in the shadows of the unknown, where conspiracies, bureaucracies, authorities, and other such evil forces crouch. Or, more mundanely, the Unicard is a simple, harmless, electronic bookkeeping system.

"We do records management," explains David M. Ivy Sr., founder and chief executive officer of Dallas' Unicard Systems Inc. "There's nothing glamorous about it at all." Or devious.

Unicard Systems Inc. takes advantage of convoluted regulations while providing large clubs with a necessary bookkeeping service. According to the Texas Alcoholic Beverages Commission, private clubs must gather the name, address, and date of birth of each applicant and assign a membership number before serving the applicant any alcoholic beverage. The commission approved the Unicard software because it fulfills TABC requirements for maintaining private club membership records, but otherwise no relationship exists between the company and the state. Ivy insists his little card creates a "win-win-win situation" for the state, clubs, and patrons, serving the needs of each reasonably well. Club managers agree.

"Thank god for Unicard," says Fox and Hound managing partner John Tanski, perhaps confirming for O'Hagan the religious conspiracy theory. "They make all of this business possible."

Some 75,000 "members" stream through Tanski's establishment each month, and TABC requires a complete set of records. In the old, pre-Unicard days, new members would be tracked manually in ledger books. Tanski pays $291.55 a month for the Unicard system, which "saves labor costs because it accumulates records, tracks membership, and checks IDs instantly," Tanski says. "There are other systems with cool features, but for the money, Unicard is the best deal." Simply by filling out a Unicard form, the applicant becomes a provisional club member. Unicard, which has some 500 clients, compiles the paperwork and forwards all new membership information to the club, in accordance with TABC rules. After three days, a committee of club officers--Tanski chairs the committee at Fox and Hound--votes upon the applicant's full membership to the club and forwards the information to TABC.

Yes, in some darkened back room, officers at private clubs across the area actually vote on membership every few days--an easy task, since few people of drinking age are ever denied. TABC auditors spend many valuable minutes each year inspecting the minutes of these meetings, poring over details, circling misspellings, weighing their literary merit, or simply ascertaining that meetings did indeed occur.

The entire system represents a straightforward approach to laws that seem archaic to just about everyone else. Few patrons ever realize this little sidestep dance occurs. Yet the Unicard bears the brunt of popular frustration, in part because of the state's chaotic wet/dry system. To compound the confusion, some clubs levy a charge before issuing a card, others provide it for free (a management decision, Ivy says). Beyond such surface concerns, the Unicard serves as a symbol of the twisted and obtuse relationship between Texas, alcohol, and the law. The simple blue-and-white card, the object of all that disdain, masks a confusing and at times hypocritical mess.

"Private clubs are a strange thing," admits Lt. David Alexander of TABC. TABC issues a private club permit to an organization, not an establishment. The restaurant or bar and club exist as separate entities, though the bar's owner often serves as club president. The club sells alcohol service, rather than the alcohol itself, because all beer, wine, and liquor in a private club belong to club members. Yes, you officially own the stuff. (Just don't try to claim your share of the booze without paying.) Clubs may serve only members and their guests, but only club members are allowed to pay. Thus a wise and frugal person out for a night with friends might consider leaving his card at home. Don't bother; it's simple, if irritating, to get another card, and Unicard offers many options. Members can stick with the fragile paper version--useful, but not exactly impressive. Or they may opt for fancy laminated cards. Settling in for the long haul? Unicard offers a lifetime card for $50, the priciest item in the line. The card does not convey membership to every private club in dry areas--an individual must belong to each and every club, from Houston's in Dallas to Hooters in Plano. But the application process is seamless. When the club enters a new patron's card number into the computer, the system automatically enrolls that person as a provisional member, then returns the information to the club for that all-important vote. Without realizing it, the patron joins another club. The card simply automates the enrollment process.

In practice, of course, rules bend or break frequently. Lt. Alexander settles several violation cases each week. Fox and Hound personnel failed to ask for the Unicards of at least two patrons on one recent night, and many people report paying for alcohol as a guest at private clubs on a regular basis. "Unfortunately, violations still occur, so we send agents in undercover," Lt. Alexander says.

These undercover operations generate some animosity. "TABC will do everything to try to set you up," Tanski complains. His club has received two violations in the past four years. TABC undercover agents occasionally attempt to purchase alcohol at clubs where they don't hold a membership. If served, they file an "open saloon" violation. According to Lt. Alexander, the dreaded "open saloon" violation nets the first-time offender a $750 fine or a five-day suspension.

But investigators never target the Unicard itself. It's an innocent piece of paper, a records management system device somehow caught up in all of this. "It's maddening," says Ivy of the notoriety sometimes attached to his little card. "Some clubs just don't respect the fact that they must comply with the law in order to operate in a dry area."

To an outsider, the fact that bars exist in dry areas at all seems odd. But a private club doesn't require a vote by the population, and more than 1,000 clubs operate in the 16 counties in and around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. "Being wet or dry is a misnomer," says University of North Texas economics professor Todd Jewell. "In reality it's dry, kind of dry, wet/dry, almost dry, wet, mostly wet, etc." Plano, for example, is wet for the sale of beer and wine to go, but dry for on-premises sales and off-premises liquor--all within dry Collin County.

And the Unicard rides on top of this fractured, senseless, hypocritical system, a symbol and target of misplaced frustration and arcane laws at the same time. But everyone gets used to it. Or, as Jewell says, "Actually, after a while it feels like this is all completely normal."

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