The man had lines around his eyes as deep as irrigation ditches. Even from a few paces back, I'd have bet he hadn't been 21 in at least as many years. He set a bottle of Chianti on the counter.
"May I see your ID, please?"
The man stared at the clerk here at the Gold Standard & Chalet Wine Shops on Chicago's Near North Side as if she'd asked to see a private body part. With a sullen look he plucked his wallet from the back pocket of his Dockers, fished out his driver's license and tossed it on the counter.
"Thank you," the clerk said cheerfully. He rolled his eyes.
I peered at his face as he walked out, wondering how this man, whose forehead looked as if a tractor had plowed through it, could be mistaken for a frat boy.
I was busy pondering the mystery when her cheerful voice repeated, "May I see your ID, please?"
I looked around. That was my bottle sitting next to the register. So what phantom was she talking to?
"Me?" I mouthed.
She nodded. I felt a surge of surliness, then suspicion, then giddy incredulity.
When you're 21, being carded is an insult. Any moron ought to see how old you are.
When you're 31, being carded is pure flattery. Wow! You still look 17!
But when you're my age? When you're my age, being carded is a "Saturday Night Live" skit, a scene from "The Twilight Zone." You might wish you could still pass as a high school homecoming queen buying liquor on the sly, but it couldn't happen even in the dark.
"You're kidding, right?" I said.
The clerk had obviously seen this little tap dance of disbelief too many times. She smiled wearily and pointed to a sign.
"If you appear under 40," the sign said, "you must present a picture ID before purchasing alcoholic beverages."
Carded at 40?
I'd been caught in a trend, I soon discovered, the move to decrease underage drinking by increasing the age at which IDs are required for buying alcohol. As cities and states crack down on stores, stores crack down on buyers.
Once upon a time, anyone who looked under 21 was expected to show ID. Then many stores bounced it up to 30. But 40?
"There are a few cases where you can look someone in the eye and think they're 30 and they turn out to be 20," explained Jim Herbert, a district manager for Gold Standard Enterprises, which runs 14 Chalet, Gold Standard and Binny's wine and liquor stores in the Chicago area. But, he added, a 20-year-old never looks 42.
That's why Gold Standard upped its ID age to 40. It's the reason that Walgreens, which generally requires ID for anyone under 30, has moved the age to 40 in its southwest suburban stores. Other stores are likely to follow.
Anything that makes it harder for 17-year-olds to get plastered, rev up Dad's Jeep Cherokee and wrap it around a tree, is good. So tougher ID rules are good.
And yet being carded past the time-honored age for carding is disconcerting. It's akin to the irrational fear that flickers through you each time you notice a cop car on your tail: You're driving the speed limit, you're safely in your lane, your blinker is behaving, but you feel the cop beaming an X-ray straight through your soul. Does he know you didn't call your mother Sunday?
It was a similar uneasiness I felt as the Chalet clerk scanned my driver's license.
Hours ticked by–or was it only seconds?–as as she studied my face, my name, my height. As I waited, I scoured my life for the sin that would be revealed on that laminated paper.
She looked at me, back at the license.
I would have sworn I heard her say, "OK, you're over 21, sweetheart. But 110 pounds? I don't think so. I'll have to turn you in."
What she really said, this charming lass, was "You really do look under 40."
Herbert says he gets letters protesting the under-40 ID policy, typically from someone in his 20s who didn't have an ID on him.
But however inconvenient or intrusive it may be for alcohol shoppers, the tougher attitude from governments and stores seems to make a difference. The city claims that in 1993 when it started its undercover program to ferret out stores that sold alcohol to minors, 55 percent of those tested were guilty. Now it's under 15 percent.
So even if being carded at an advanced age rankles you a little, look at it this way: Wouldn't you rather look falsely young than too old to be asked?