Early one evening, about a year ago, the Burning Question crew encountered a suburban couple venturing into the wilds of Lower Greenville for the first time in years. It was fascinating to observe them as they watched, with a kind of "people still do that?" amazement on their faces, the antics of young inebriates at Whisky Bar.
It occurred to us that we all have about seven years to experience nightlife properly: slamming back drinks, shouting "whooooo," dancing like sloshed white guys, closing down bars and waking up the following afternoon in a chunky pool of vomit. Whether it was yours or someone else's, who knew? After seven years, however, a deadly combination of responsibility and wisdom forces us to close out tabs in time for Seinfeld reruns.
It makes a certain amount of sense, then, to extend those years a bit.
Underage drinking is often discussed in sociological terms, with the usual set of interest groups blaming a decline of parental control, a failure in our educational system or some other specious cause for the growing--sociological problems are always growing--problem. In reality, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse study, drinking by high school seniors peaked in the late 1970s and remained relatively steady after a slow decline through the 1980s.
Curiously enough, many members of the Burning Question crew attended high school in the late 1970s.
This week's column--How do bartenders spot underage drinkers? (which, we presume, was submitted by some damn kid hoping to trick us into providing a few pointers)--takes on the issue at ground level. (Editor's note: Dave ends up seeing things from ground level most nights. )
It's surprisingly common for those under the legal drinking age to saunter into bars and order up a few. "It's very easy," claims Lochland Cook, who just turned 21. He laughs as he recalls the various methods employed to sneak past bouncers and score drinks from unwitting servers.
Few of those behind the bar share in his merriment. "It's a no-win situation for us because we rely on the door person, but we're the ones who get caught," explains Adam Salazar, bartender at Republic, Passport, Nikita and Seven. "Then it's a night in jail and a stiff fine." Actually, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission can request up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine for a bartender or waitperson caught serving alcohol to a minor unless a parent or legal guardian accompanies the kid and permits them to tip back a brew or two. To further complicate matters, it is entirely legal under state law for minors to enter a bar or nightclub.
"The violation is if they are served or sold alcohol," confirms David Alexander, captain of TABC's Dallas-Fort Worth region. Because minors may enter any establishment (unless the bar or restaurant requests otherwise), the state does not penalize bouncers. "Most bartenders are working under good faith that the person at the door is checking thoroughly," he adds, "but it's up to the server to be 100 percent certain."
So how do bartenders tell?
"The first thing that gives you a big red flag is the drink," Salazar says, and other bartenders agree. In fact, every bartender we spoke with carries a list in his or her head of the cocktails preferred by underage drinkers. "They order cherry vodka sours, Long Island iced teas, amaretto sours," reports Brian McCullough, bartender at Republic. "It's the drinks where they can't taste the alcohol."
Bartenders also notice the mannerisms of suspect patrons. "They're too exact, as if they've been coached," observes Bruce Bauman of the Green Room. Rookies often appear uncomfortable as they place an order, huddling with their buddies before approaching the bar, asking about price, reversing ingredients ("Coke and Jack"), that sort of thing.
"They show a lot of the same characteristics as when a guy's sloshed," Salazar says with a laugh, "the kind of nervousness where you try to act real proper."
When Chris Michael, bartender at Nikita and other establishments, encounters a questionable patron, he's quick to request identification. "As soon as you ask for an ID, the underage people will immediately scoff," he says. "It always works that way." At the Green Room, Bauman prefers a moderately cruel trap, allowing them to order, grabbing their credit cards and then calling for drivers licenses.
"When it doesn't match," he says with a certain amount of pride, "they turn totally white."
Despite the occasional setback, minors still manage to infiltrate Dallas nightlife. Indeed, the Burning Question crew sat down with two underage drinkers at an undisclosed establishmen...saaaamba! Sorry, had to clear my throa...rrrrooomm! There, that's better.
Now, we've seen a number of prison movies. The very idea of Richard Gere tapping his way down a corridor or Tim Robbins becoming an object of lust is enough to scare us straight, so we refused to buy drinks for the two young women, ages 19 and 20. We did, however, take note of their strategy: Avoid places with a strict door policy, order from the waitstaff rather than a bartender, reveal as much cleavage as possible and...um...what were we saying?
Oh, yeah. Something about cleavage.
Of course, bartenders understand this method as well. "You see them walk in and head away from the bar into the farthest corner," says Ian Green, bartender at The Londoner. "There are dead giveaways."
So they've seen it all and heard it all, yet underage drinkers still manage the occasional night on the town. "There are a few question marks every night you work," Bauman says. "You have to really watch."
Officers with TABC also run sting operations, so only bartenders who truly enjoy the group shower experience treat underage drinking lightly.
"The more you do this, the more it moves to the back of your head," Salazar admits. "But it's still there, and you still think about it. Something about the drink or the way they act will catch your attention, and it'll click."
Yet even Alexander understands that minors will always beat the system. "It requires a lot of diligent effort," he says, "but I'm not sure any of the methods are foolproof."
But just to be safe, ask her age before you buy her a drink. That'll go over well.