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Leisure drinking, a 21st birthdays and the loss of innocence

By James Steinbauer, Opinion Editor

"Look, I'm not turning 21 for less than two hours," I said, putting extra emphasis on the two. "But my friend is back there celebrating his 21st birthday and it would mean the world if I could give him this card."

It was just after 10 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 16 and I was standing in O'Pub's threshold, attempting to get in to celebrate a friend's 21st birthday, my way blocked by a human Chewbacca. His shaggy, unkempt hair, 5 o'clock shadow and the general lackadaisical look on his face gave me hope. I knew it was a 21-and-up bar, but I thought, hey, here was someone I could at least try to reason with.

He looked at me, mouth open, thinking for a good 10 seconds before letting out a long-winded, "no."

"Well, not for another two hours, man," he said.

All right, "man," I thought to myself. Where, in your anomaly of a moral compass, did you come to find the difference between two hours and the blatantly obvious underage drinkers getting in with fake IDs?

I'd always thought of my inability to purchase alcohol as less of a hurdle to jump over and more of a nuisance, but it wasn't until this point in my [almost] 21 years of existence that I had been so irritated with the drinking laws in the United States.

Shouldn't there be some kind of grace period or something? In the grand scheme of things, how is two hours really going to make a difference?

Feeling aggravated and a little silly, I turned away and walked back into the crisp, fall night.

Alcohol has never been a taboo in my family. Some of the earliest memories I have of my great grandfather - scratch that, the only memories I have of my great grandfather - a once high-class banker accustomed to three-martini lunches (back when banking was the thing), were of him sitting in his big leather arm chair, now in his 90s, drinking his Crown Royal and smoking his cigar.

My brother and I, then three and four, would play on orange '70s carpet at his feet, smelling the tobacco and eating mini Mr. Goodbars, while he and my mom or grandparents talked.

Leave it to 90-year-olds to have nothing but Mr. Goodbars.

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My grandpa instilled a passion for fine wine in me at an early age and I've been drinking with him in a relaxed atmosphere since my sophomore year of high school. To this day, our favorite moments together are the nights we're alone, my grandma at her monthly bunco party, with a bottle of the Grand Cru Bordeaux or Chianti Classico he'd collected over the years - the type of wine I'll never be able to buy for myself.

By the time I got to college I'd built a healthy respect for how to drink it. While other students and housemates were accosted by the sensory overload of freshman year, chasing shots of Kamchatka or Jägermeister with Natty Light and letting their testosterone get the better of them, I was kind of over it.

Until a few weeks ago, that is. For the first time of my college career I woke up with the stomach dropping, humiliating feeling that I had done something I would regret. And I had no idea what it was.

Oct. 17 was my 21st birthday. I didn't plan on it being an occasion, but due to a surprise visit by my father and a couple friends' ambitious overestimation of how much beer I could drink, it turned into one.

What is in a name? I had been drinking underage my whole college career and I had been doing it in a relaxed, mature atmosphere. But stamp "21st birthday" on a night and suddenly three liters of beer and countless shots of mystery whiskey just isn't enough to "have a good time."

The thing is, there are students who do this on a weekly basis. And while I will most certainly have more nights like this one, at the moment, I'm happy with a few craft beers and a good book.

This Friday, I walked into Kroger and picked up a bottle of red wine - a good single vineyard blend from Argentina - plopped in bed and started Casablanca. I could hear hoards of students outside my window. The great migration to Uptown that after three years, one would think I'd detest. And if I gave it any thought, I probably would.