21 means 21 … except for that time

There’s no better time to take stock of your life than your birthday.

It’s one of the few occasions when you can look backward, forward and at the present simultaneously. It’s also one of the few occasions when you are rewarded and celebrated just for being there. Just for existing. Few moments in life are like that, and even fewer of them are celebrated as often as once every 365 days.

In my case, it’s been exactly that long since my birthday.

I’ve never been big on celebrating it. That’s probably due in large part to how I was raised, and in part to the fact that I’ve never been good at celebrating myself. (“Learn how to take a compliment,” Kacey has admonished on multiple occasions.)

Thus, not many of my birthdays stand out in my mind. For some reason, I remember turning 10; it was a nice round number and I was finally old enough to appreciate an age milestone. Before that, my memories of birthdays are an indistinguishable mix of mine and other people’s. Back then, in rural New Jersey, it was a big deal to have your birthday party at McDonald’s. This was before studies revealed that children were vulnerable to getting hooked on McDonald’s, and before it became clear that a long-term fast-food habit might shorten your life span by a few birthdays.

After age 10, the arrival of March 10 became an annual reminder that I wasn’t old enough. Not old enough for high school. Not old enough to drive. Not old enough to drink.

Even when I turned 21, I wasn’t old enough to drink. At least that’s what I found out at a small convenience store in Arlington, Virginia. That’s where I spent my junior semester in college while getting my first big-city journalism experience in Washington.

I shared a rooftop suite there with three roommates at a complex called River Place. All of the students in the program — 40 or so total — had internships that were four days a week and began in the morning, but it was still common for people who were turning 21 to venture out to celebrate the occasion after the minute hand crawled past midnight and they were officially of age to imbibe. This kind of get-together typically required advance notice and planning.

In my usual way, I didn’t tell anyone ahead of time about my birthday, nor did I suggest we go out drinking. But somehow, after nightfall had arrived on March 9, which was a Tuesday, and my roommates were home from their shifts, word got out that I was on the cusp of turning 21. So they decided we had to do something. It was a Tuesday night, and we all needed to get up early (or somewhat early) the next morning, and the general consensus was that nobody wanted to go out and drink. And back then, as I recall, subway service stopped around midnight on weeknights.

There was a Ruby Tuesday a block over, but we were all poor college students. (I remember going out to eat once or twice all semester.)

So we settled on the fall-back option: a small convenience store on the ground floor of the condo complex. Like other mini markets in Virginia, it had a wide selection of alcohol. This was highly unusual to me because in New Jersey, where I’m from, and Pennsylvania, where I was going to school, mini marts couldn’t sell it.

The plan was to go down to the store, get a few bottles and take ’em back to the suite. That way everyone could have an early night and we’d still get to mark the occasion.

We walked in and more or less had the run of the place, given the late hour. Cedric, who would on to become a lawyer, went straight for the refrigerated section and plucked out some Smirnoff Ices. David, who is now a Lutheran pastor, perused the wine aisle, looking for a good sauvignon blanc. Tim, who went on to law school and a career in  the Wisconsin state government, grabbed a few cans of Iron City beer, which he was perpetually extolling.

I tried to look around as if I knew what I was doing. But I was mostly clueless about alcohol, other than knowing that light beer was not something I wanted to pay for. I didn’t even know what Smirnoff Ice, really. The semester was more than halfway over, and I’d had little more than beer — mostly from kegs that were sneaked into, then out of, River Place for student parties.

I grabbed a four-pack of beer — Heineken, I think — and headed for the register. Even though it was my birthday, we were all males and I was going to pay for own drinks, thank you.

Cedric and Tim had checked out already. David wasn’t 21 yet, so he had one of the other guys get the wine.  I set the Heinekens on the counter and fished my wallet out of my Weatherproof coat. I expected to be carded, so I had my license ready.

The clerk said something I didn’t understand at first, but then he gestured toward me and it was clear he wanted to see my ID. It was a New Jersey driver’s license, the first one I’d ever received. I handed it over the counter to him.

Amid the faint fluorescent glow, he held it up in the air. He tilted it this way and that. He peered at it as if it were the Rosetta Stone. What he was looking for? I’d never been officially carded before (I never had a fake ID), so I didn’t know how long this process would take.

I then remembered that it was a New Jersey license, and I reasoned to myself that he probably didn’t see many of those. Maybe he thought it was a fake. Even though it had holograms on it, maybe a watermark, too.

Sociological studies show that people get uncomfortable after only a few seconds of silence. We were well past that barrier.

The clerk motioned for the only other worker in the store to come over. They began to talk to each other quickly and sharply, in a foreign language.

“Howurd uh-yuh?” the first clerk asked me.

“Excuse me?” I said. I tried to be calm, but my patience was slipping.

He repeated himself, and as I tried to process the accent it dawned on me what he was asking.

“I’m 21,” I said, with about as much pride as someone could muster given the circumstances. I figured that this was all just a mix-up and that for some reason he hadn’t noticed the “D.O.B. 3 – 10 – 1983” line on the card.

“No,” he said. Certainly not the reply I expected.

“Yes, I am,” I was incredulous, starting to border on indignant.

“No, no. So sorry. … So sorry.”

He extended his hand with my ID back toward me. I was dumbfounded.

There’s nothing quite as emasculating as being told, while trying to buy beer on your 21st birthday, that you are not, in fact, 21 years old. I had not prepared for this.

“But I am 21,” I protested, holding up the card and pointing to the date of birth so he could see. “It says right here, see …”

He cut me off. “So sorry, so sorry. You no 21. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe tomorrow you 21.”

Maybe tomorrow? What the hell? There was no maybe about it.

I was humiliated and couldn’t think of a response. It didn’t appear the clerk was going to back down. And I could see the language barrier was a formidable obstacle. Not only that, but there might be an intelligence barrier, too.

I looked at my roommates. They were keeping straight faces, but nobody said a word. I could almost hear the suppressed laughter and snickering.

Well, what could I do? I’ve never been the kind of person who would make a scene. I didn’t want the drinks anymore. I definitely didn’t want to put any money in the shopkeeper’s pocket. I just wanted to get out of there. So we did.

I heard about that night from those guys for the rest of the semester. I definitely hadn’t been counting down the days until my 21st birthday, but it was a milestone I was looking forward to in a quiet way, sure. It’s one of the last great official milestones of growing up — you could argue that it is the last big milestone, at least on the calendar.

And just when I thought I had achieved it and could celebrate it in the most understated of ways, a man who couldn’t read the dates on a driver’s license said no, even though he was “so sorry.” I hated him at the time, but with the wisdom of experience I can treasure that night for its unique weirdness. I’ve never heard of anything like that happening to anyone else — and I can say now that it’s a much better story than saying I celebrated my 21st birthday by buying beer from a store that made a Baltimore County 7-Eleven look like a classy joint.

That wouldn’t have made for a story worth anything.

I don’t remember whether I had anything to drink that night. But after 11 years and many retellings of what happened, I still remember how I wasn’t officially 21, even when the calendar said I was.


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