Published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MJS) on Sunday, March 17, 2013. A link to the essay in the MJS Crossroads Section is provided below.
Charlie nailed it when he said, “I gotta move the liquor. To move the liquor I gotta fill the tables. It’s a matter of economics.” Charlie managed the Luau Lounge in the 1989 film, The Fabulous Baker Boys. The rules of economics that applied then to Seattle’s cinematic Luau Lounge apply today to the real world of Wisconsin’s bars
A neighborhood bar opens in 2012 near La Crosse and its owner tells the weekly paper that she wants her customers to be nice to each other. The website of a downtown Milwaukee bar that’s been around for a while asks, “Where Was I Last Night?” a question whose meaning depends largely on whether the emphasis falls on the second word.
While singularly tragic, Wisconsin’s alcohol related deaths are so numerous that they’re no more memorable than the second pitch to the third batter in the Brewers’ fourth 2009 road game. Names connected to them, like Neala Frye and Thomas (Tom) Hecht, may, but more probably may not, register with you.
Early on a Sunday in February, Frye stepped out of that neighborhood bar near La Crosse. The temperature was 5 degrees. She died of hypothermia. Her body was found that evening, three blocks away along railroad tracks. Her blood alcohol level was 0.21.
On a Saturday evening one year ago, Tom left that downtown Milwaukee bar to walk home. He’d been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day early. His body was found in the Milwaukee River almost two weeks later. His blood alcohol level was 0.22.
In Wisconsin, deaths like Neala’s and Tom’s bring a minor fever of grief, one that rises quickly aboard news items, candlelight vigils and resolutions then disappears as rapidly as the victims’ images leave our screens. We return to normal until the next short item appears on page 3 of the local newspaper.
We embrace this normalcy by continuing to revel in our No. 1 status in binge drinking, the percentage of the population that drinks and drivers who are out cruising under the influence ready to cross the center line to transport us from consciousness to the morgue.
If you’re in a bar here drinking and continue to stand without needing to hold onto anything or causing a problem, it’s assumed you’re drinking responsibly even if your blood alcohol level has risen to 0.21 or 0.22. You can leave the bar, then, without a word from anyone.
After all, who among us, statistically speaking, hasn’t asked a morning after, “Where was I last night?” The chances we’ve been there preclude the chances we’ll intervene.
On March 19, two days after St. Patrick’s Day, the Tavern League of Wisconsin (TLW) will hold its 29th Annual Legislative Day at the Inn on the Park in Madison. A statement at the bottom of the TLW sign displayed at many of its members’ establishments reads: “A Responsible Server.”
The fine print on the home page of the bar Tom left to head home tells us it cares about its customers, that it believes in drinking responsibly, that drinking responsibly means never driving home drunk. The Milwaukee and La Crosse bars are not unique in how they serve their patrons, nor are the tragedies linked to them.
Wisconsin, we have a problem. Where, finally, does responsibility rest? Depending on what, when or where a person drinks, if they keep at it their blood alcohol level will erase their ability to drink responsibly. At that point, as that drink departs the server’s hand for theirs, what happens to responsibility? Does it cross the bar to the server? Does it simply vanish? Or is it lost somewhere in that matter of Charlie’s economics?