Drunken Nanny State

Once again, the busybodies have stormed the Barricades of Fun, and managed to pass a 21-only ordinance for bars. While I respect the sincerity of their good intentions, I think it’s a really dumb idea that will hurt local businesses, without significantly curtailing underage drinking.

My personal reason for hating 21-only relate to how it has affected the live music scene in Iowa City. Back in 1997-2002 I was involved with dance music events under the name Rotation, which, for a brief time, were the biggest club draw in town. We had our rise and fall before the 19-plus law, and were actually able to run all-ages events until 2 a.m. Since a large contingent of high school students were loyal attendees, I’m not sure we’d have done nearly as well with 19-plus rules. And the paucity of all-ages venues in Iowa City implies that there’s no sustainable business model for live venues without liquor sales.

I graduated from high school in 1975, when the legal drinking age was 18. The drinking age was 18 for a five-year period from 1973 to 1978, when it was raised to 19, primarily to keep high school seniors from legally drinking. Being 6’4″ at the beginning of seventh grade, I could shop the Iowa State Liquor store without getting carded from the time I was 16, and pretty much anyone who looked like they were out of middle school could get served in bars. My wife, whose November birthday made her legal for most of her senior year, used to have a beer with her favorite teachers. There was scarcely a party during my years at Cedar Rapids Washington that didn’t feature a keg, often supplied by parents.

When I came to the UI in the fall of 1976, virtually every student here was of legal drinking age. I had more than one class as an undergraduate that had lab sections in local drinking establishments. The Pabst truck would be parked in the middle of Dubuque Street on Friday afternoons, and roll free kegs into all the bars for happy hour. At Pizza Villa we drank beer while we made pies, which, after all, is pretty thirsty work. The Resident Advisors in the dorms had a party budget, and I remember such Burge basement debauches as Strip-and-Go-Naked parties, where they’d mix up the eponymous punch of Everclear, gin and lemonade in trash cans. This was, of course, during the brief interregnum between the Nixonian war on young people and Ronald Reagan’s abstemious “Just Say No” regime, so alcohol had plenty of competition from other intoxicants. There were door-to-door weed salesmen in the dorms, for crying out loud.

So given the current nanny-state, hand-wringing culture, you’d imagine that the streets were awash in puke and blood, that no one graduated because they were too hungover to take their finals, that no work of any significance was ever accomplished by anyone under the age of 30. But that’s not how I remember it.

It seems that then, as now, the hoary rule of thirds applies: For one third of people, alcohol and other substances were a tragedy; for another third, they were consumed as part of a more or less functional lifestyle; and the final third had little or no use for them. The real difference between then and now, at least as I perceive it, is that some students now don’t know any way to drink other than to excess. It’s a lifestyle imperative.

I have a few ideas why this might be, but the primary one is that the kids coming into their majority these days have grown up in a more fearful, circumscribed and controlled environment. We were the last generation of free-range kids, who could get on the bus and go downtown before we were 10 years old, whose mothers would kick us out of the house every afternoon until dinner time. When Demon Rum lurched into our world, we experimented, puked our guts out, and made our own peace with it, all before we entered college. A lot of people I grew up with are alcoholics or drug addicts, reformed or still raging, but I can’t think that we were any worse than the current generation. In some respects we may have been better behaved than the fools I see at closing time on the Ped Mall.

So congratulations to the City Council, and Sally Mason, our Nanny-in-Chief. You got what you wanted. It will do fuck-all to control alcohol abuse, but sometimes you just have to do something so you can feel like you did something.

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