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COLUMN

The Great Divide

Ken Nesmith

This year’s Fourth of July, summer’s trademark holiday, came and went calmly enough. The patriotism amassed over the last months found a supportive and appropriate outlet, and the terrorists were kind enough to let us celebrate without interruption. The fireworks were all of the planned variety, and revelers were apparently as mesmerized as ever by the flashes of light and loud noises, myself completely included. The massive crowds indicated that no one was afraid to walk the streets and join the celebration. Everyone -- families, teens, old folks, the stylishly young -- staked out their traditional spots and performed the customary rites of patriotic merriment, be they barbecues, picnics, bar crawls, or some other summery mainstay.

This nation’s laws regarding the point in a citizen’s life in which it becomes permissible to purchase alcohol mean that at the somewhat random age of 21 the nature of celebration shifts completely. Massive national parties such as the Fourth of July divide the party-going public neatly into two categories, the underage who wish they weren’t and the old people who either wish they weren’t or will wish they weren’t after a few more years and just a few more hours to sober up.

Both groups envy the green grass on the other side of the legal fence. For the underage, there is nothing worse than the feelings of disempowerment, irrelevance, immaturity, and exclusion that accompany the curtailment of freedom to partake in activities society and culture grant an unassailable aura of “in”-ness. Like the early teen barred from the R-rated movie who has watched the advertisements, read the reviews, and been told by all his friends how damned cool it is, the underage just know that what awaits on the other side of those velvet ropes and very large men is the place they want to be.

Perhaps they’ve even been there a few times, after a dramatic, adrenaline-filled maneuver into a party of age. The very act of getting in and slipping underneath the radar of the authorities brings a rush that suffices as an evening’s entertainment. A good fake ID, a friend who knows this guy who knows the bouncer, or an establishment with occasionally lax age enforcement all provide passage across the mysterious boundary to the mystical region of dim lighting, loud music, and crowds whose import, derived purely from their numbers, would appear depressingly impotent and laughably silly stripped of the various numbings of the senses that generally characterize nightlife.

Yet the powerful mystique of the forbidden and unknown is not easily disarmed. If there’s one nearly universal human trait, it’s the need to know and experience for ourselves; even the biblical first people, Adam and Eve, abandoned paradise and munched their forbidden apples, an action said to be a cultural codeword for “had a drink”, simply for the sake of experience, despite divine admonition not to.

Adam and Eve, having gone from heavenly paradise to worldly strife, regretted their decision after a few hours of fun with apples. They wished more than anything to return to their innocent paradise. After birthday number 21 falls irretrievably into history along with every other passing day of ever shortening lives, it’s only a matter of time before the newly christened non-minors (shouldn’t they be called “majors”?) realize that they’ve passed the final point for some time at which they’re granted new societal privilege, having been given in the last five years the right to drive, vote, and now drink. The next time the government grants them new privileges thanks to their age will find them collecting social security checks. I imagine it’s not quite as exciting a transition as gaining the right to drink.

It doesn’t take long until the majors begin to envy the minors for their youth and would gladly trade their drinking privileges just to jump back a few years to more youthful days, before more of the life’s magic rubbed off into cold realities. The circle of envy is complete, but for the minors, the object of their envy is obtainable with merely a bit of patience. The majors don’t have it so easy: watching the nervous minors stammer at the doorway reciting their false birth date and address for skeptical bouncers and longing for the good old days of doing the same, the only salve for their envy is yet another drink to stunt thoughts of their lost youth.

At some point in grade school, I made New Year’s resolution to believe in Santa Claus again. The attempt at self-deception didn’t quite work out as well as I’d hoped, but it was worth a shot. Don’t worry; I am by now quite comfortable with Santa Claus’ failure to exist, and I’m sure I’ll become quite comfortable with losing minor status as well. We minors, though, can make a purposeful effort to replace our envy and resentment with cherishment of our impermanent youth while we have it. Soon, instead of wishing time forward, we’ll be wishing it back.

Also, if anyone can make a good fake ID, drop me an e-mail.