How come you can drink a glass of wine at some sidewalk cafés and not others?
Scene One: You don’t even want to know when this is. But I was a student, in Wellington, New Zealand. A Friday.
“Five o’clock!” says my friend Mitch.
There’s a crash as we all upend our desks, grab our bags, and head for the door.
“Thistle! They know us!”
And six of us run like hell, heading for the red cable car. Five minutes later we leap on the side seats just as it starts jerking down the hill. Ten minutes later we’re haring along Lambton Quay and into the Thistle Inn. Just like sinners have been doing since it opened in 1840.
“Line ’em up,” says Mitch.
Merv the barman knows the drill. He starts filling pitchers, one, two, three, six pitchers of DB Lager, till they’re standing in front of us like little stained-glass windows.
“Go!” says Mitch.
We each grab our pitcher and start pouring into our glasses, glugging, pouring, glugging, pouring — till every swallow becomes torture for all of us except Mitch. He’s the golden boy because he has learned to pour the stuff down without swallowing. He slams the last glass down on the bar. Checks his watch. Hauls up his shirt front to wipe his mouth and chin.
“One-57, gentlemen. The 2-minute barrier! Broken! A new world record.”
“Fluke!” says George. He turns to Merv. “Again!”
So, yeah, this was drinking, back in the day. And it wasn’t our fault. Okay, only partly. But the fact was, us wild colonial boys lived under a regime that was unforgiving. In the name of Puritanical Family Values, all bars in the nation had to stop serving booze at 6 p.m. That’s right. By 6:15, guys (no sheilas — they weren’t allowed in public bars) had to be out. On the street. We guys spewed onto the sidewalk, hanging on to lamp posts, some losing it all into the gutter, while barmen hosed it down like we were cows in a cowshed.
A couple of years and many Friday nights later, some of us had gained a little OE (overseas experience), had seen how the French did it, and realized there was a better way. We started, if you can believe, the “Campaign for Civilized Drinking,” which had this vision of turning Wellington into a kinda scene from Gigi: cafés, boulevards, the whole package. But what we basically fought for (and it was a vicious fight) was just to extend pub hours to — Shock! Horror! — ten o’clock at night.
And even when we won, and the Kiwi family didn’t collapse, we felt something was still missing. We were still drinking behind frosted glass like people committing a shameful act, walled away from “regular people,” so they didn’t have to see us sinning away, even if it was sipping wine and not guzzling DB Lager by the pitcher. The law was changed, but the perception remained. Drinking, like all the other mortal sins, could be tolerated, but never fully integrated into public life. The idea of sitting at a table out on the sidewalk of a street with a glass of vino was unthinkable. Mothers might have to shield their kids’ eyes as they walked by! And even if the hours were extended, you still had red-blooded Kiwi males socking it back like real men, not sipping it like some stem-spinning wimp from France. We could see: this was going to be a lo-o-ong metamorphosis.
Coronado, California, 2014. I’m standing at the counter in Café 1134 in Coronado, thinking about this.
The thing I had gotten to love about Café 1134, on Orange Avenue, next to Lamb’s Players Theater, was Michelle, the barista who had turned herself into an expert on San Diego beers. They always had good deals on their house wines.
So, Friday nights, at the end of a hard day straining the little gray cells and ranging the fingers over the vast Serengeti of my Logitech keyboard, nothing could be more pleasant than seeking solace in the sunset on the sidewalk outside Café 1134 and watching the theater crowd start to clump up excitedly outside Lamb’s.
Then, some idiot in Sacramento apparently decided to give the ABC — the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control — more money to hire more inspectors.
Disaster! Suddenly, they had enough extra staff to regularly inspect Coronado cafés for license compliance. Liquor licenses. Licenses for sidewalk patio drinking.
That was the word on the street, anyway. So, that first, shocking Friday night, when Michelle the barista comes up, I ask about her beers. They have a rack of interesting-looking 22-ouncers on the baroque backboard that anchors the split-level space. I see they have a Modern Times “Black House,” their “coffee-roasty stout.” Love that stuff. So she pours it, hands it over, and I’m starting toward the front door, to go sit at one of the tables on Orange Avenue, the island’s main drag.
“Uh, no. You have to drink it here, inside,” says Michelle. “ABC came ’round. Said we had to have special fences to protect the public from your drinking outside. But you can drink out the back if you like.”
“Michelle-san. We come here to sip and watch the world go by. Not count garbage cans out back.”
“Nothing we can do without a way-expensive redo out front, with fences and permits,” she says. “Because Orange Avenue is a state highway, 75. That means the tables are on state land. We’d have to deal with the city, and the state, and ABC.”
It seems I’m just going to have to sit and watch the world go by from inside the window.
Sigh. Not the same. If I was drinking that other stimulant, coffee, no problem. Yet, I can’t drink a Modern Times stout on the sidewalk. Feel petulance rising to dangerous levels. You just get the feeling that this is ridiculous. Are we children? What will be the societal consequences if we sip our wine outside?