A 21st birthday that changed my life

I can remember it as if it had happened only yesterday. In fact it was 20 years ago yesterday. They had come in just after midnight, a small group of friends. Things were different in those days; I was different in those days. Even though I was just a few years older than the little group, after three years working behind the bar I certainly felt a lot older. Maybe it was because of the place that I worked at. It was all disco balls and black lights back then. That, and walls and walls of people. I served literally thousands of drinks a day. Partly because the drinks were cheaper and a lot easier to make and partly because people were less concerned with the ramifications of their drinking

Billy was the youngest of the group, a fact that became apparent after I I.D.’ed him. It was his 21st birthday and by the looks of things he had already been to a few places that had made the slight miscalculation on his age. Miscalculations that actually amounted to misdemeanors on their part, because Billy had only just turned 21, legally, at midnight.

I took one look at Billy and shook my head.

“What’s the problem?” asked one of Billy’s friends.

“The problem is that I am not going to serve him,” I said.

“Why not?” asked another friend.

“Because I said so, that’s why.”

Like I said, I was different back then.

One thing that wasn’t different was the law regarding serving intoxicated people.

California’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Act Section 25602, states that: “Every person who sells furnishes, gives, or causes to be sold, furnished or given away, any alcoholic beverage to any habitual drunkard or to any obviously intoxicated person is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

The habitual drunkard part is a bit unclear, but the “obviously intoxicated” part is crystalline. People often believe that if they are not driving that they are then given free license to drink as much as they want. This is simply not so. In fact allowing them to do so is a criminal offense.

Clearly Billy’s friends didn’t know this, or didn’t care because they began to supply him with drinks. We had furnished Billy with water and one of the cocktail waitresses was keeping an eye on him. The first time it happened we warned his friends and took the drink away. The second time we asked them to leave.

Billy staggered out to his car and tried to open the door. I had followed him outside fearing that he might do just that.

“Hey,” I said. “You can’t drive.”

“I’m fine,” he said losing his balance and falling down.

“What’s your problem man?” said one of his friends.

“He’s not driving,” I said.

Billy dropped his keys on the ground which made it easy for me to pick them up.

“Give those back,” said another of Billy’s friends.

“None of you guys can drive,” I said.

“You can’t keep those,” said another friend. “Those are his personal property.”

Ironically that friend was actually right. It is illegal to deprive a person of their own personal property. But in this instance I felt reasonably sure that they weren’t going call the police.

“Look,” I said. “You have two choices. You can leave here in a yellow car, or in a black and white one.”

I was far more aggressive when I was younger, but then the times and the circumstances called for it back then.

They all left in cab some 15 minutes later and I went back inside to finish up the actual job that I was being paid for. The job of making drinks.

Hours later, after the bar had closed, the rest of the bar staff and I headed out to our own cars.

I noticed that Billy’s car was gone.

Billy died at 3:15 a.m. when his car crashed head-on into a freeway divider.

It was his 21st birthday.

Billy’s friends had taken him back to his home and retrieved his spare car keys and then brought him back to his car.


Three things changed for me that night.

  1. I have thought of Billy every single day since, especially on days that I go to work.
  2. I fully comprehended the awesome responsibility that bartenders have.
  3. I have never since abdicated the responsibility for my own actions by counting on others to take care of me. Because sometimes “drinking buddies” are not true friends

this story originally appeared in the Marin Independent Journal and online at the San Jose Mercury News