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Black Velvet Rope 

You may be 21, but that doesn't mean you're old enough to imbibe

Contrary to popular sentiment, driving and drinking -- taken separately -- are not inalienable rights in this country. They're privileges. Such semantic mumbo jumbo is nearly always moot, however; one's sixteenth and twenty-first birthdays are perceived as veritable rites of passage, with the first solo auto voyage and legal drink ranking among a young person's most liberating life experiences. In theory, the privileges of drinking and driving are created equal.

Consider, then, the following hypothetical plight of a sixteen-year-old St. Louisan who has just earned his driver's license. Wheeling eastbound on Lindell Boulevard in Daddy's sport ute, our teen passes Forest Park and reaches Kingshighway, where he's met by a peculiar road sign that, instead of "Left Only on Left Arrow," reads: "All motorists under age twenty must turn right and use West Pine. Lindell from Kingshighway to Vandeventer reserved exclusively for mature drivers."

A cockamamie scenario, to be sure. Well, yeah -- for drivers. But young drinkers in St. Louis are faced with an equivalent enigma at least a dozen local establishments that set arbitrary age minimums above the legal drinking age. All of these businesses cater to a predominantly African-American clientele.

Some black club owners, like 83-year-old Club 54 proprietor Bob Riggins, make no bones about the primary reason for their policy: Black youngsters are more prone to the sort of thuggish behavior that could put their liquor licenses at risk.

"Once you have to call the police, they don't care who it is, and you're going to get arrested. They threaten to have your license taken away from you and close you up," says Riggins, explaining the 25-and-over door policy at his bar on North Grand Boulevard, just south of St. Louis Avenue. "You have some crazy people in St. Louis now, and once they get a taste of alcohol, they go bad. The way I got it at 25-and-up, it's all right. They ain't gonna give you no trouble."

Don Martin, 47-year-old co-owner of II St. Louis Brothers Smooth Jazz Club on Natural Bridge Road near Interstate 170, concurs. "It keeps the riffraff down and mature adults entertained," Martin says of his 30-and-over policy. "Not all youngsters are bad kids. But even though it may not be trouble, it's a mindset. They don't have respect for adults. You tell them they can't do anything, they'll come up here and put their feet up on the chairs. That's not just in African-American clubs, but when we [in the black community] have a new club, a lot of the population will just come.

"A lot of black-owned nightclubs and businesses, all you hear about is two dudes fightin', stabbin', shootin' and killin'," Martin goes on. "When alcohol occurs, trust me, trouble's gonna happen."

This point of view isn't limited to club proprietors of middle age and older. St. Louis Nites, insurance broker Damon Patterson's lounge in the near-north suburb of Bellefontaine Neighbors, enforces an age minimum of 30. Patterson is black, affluent, likes to dress sharp and is into the Isley Brothers and the Temptations. He's 34.

"The main thing is, people feel more secure," Patterson explains. "Older folks know how to hold their drinks better. Younger folks, it's like, 'MF [Motherfuck] this' and 'MF that' -- and then they want to hang around in your parking lot afterwards."

Then there's the way the younger folks dress. "No baggy jeans and tennis shoes in my club on Friday night," says Patterson. "Older adults feel comfortable when they don't see people with baggy jeans."

The practice of setting age minimums -- or, for that matter, age maximums -- in private drinking establishments is perfectly legal in Missouri. If a St. Louisan wanted to open a club exclusively for 38-year-olds, he could do so without fear of legal repercussions. Federal and state discrimination statutes generally list age as a factor only in employment law -- and that typically protects persons over 40.

Michael Harrelson, editor of the trade publication Nightclub & Bar Magazine, advocates the "velvet rope" strategy to weed out perceived undesirables. "There are other ways to deal with it rather than set some arbitrary age limit that could be challenged," Harrelson contends. "I can see what the person would be trying to do there -- he wants a certain kind of person in his club -- but the way you do that is through how people are admitted and security within the club."

Of course, piecemeal policies like dress codes can be perilous, as the Cheshire Inn on Clayton Road discovered this past spring when it cited a no-dreadlocks policy in denying admission to two black men. The aftermath of that episode saw the resignation of the bar's manager and a sheepish 180 on the dreadlock decree.

Harrelson points to another oft-cited reason for age restrictions: the danger of getting nailed for serving underage drinkers. According to that line of logic, for example, an eighteen-year-old with a fake ID stating he's 22 could not gain admission to a club with a 25-plus door policy. But punishing legal drinkers age 21 to 25 doesn't wash with Harrelson. "Let me put it this way," the editor says. "If I was 21 and I went to a club and someone said, 'You have to be 25,' I would have difficulty with that."

On the other hand, National Restaurant Association spokesman Tom Foulkes has no problem with club owners setting age barriers to admission. "They're trying to create a certain atmosphere and bring in a certain clientele," Foulkes says matter-of-factly. "If it's convenient for them to keep ages up, then that's what works best for them. There's no legal reason why they can't do that."

Starsky Wilson is black, tactful and holds down a prestigious job as a major gifts officer for the United Way of Greater St. Louis, in addition to his volunteer role as president of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis' Young Professionals Chapter. By all appearances, he's exactly the sort of patron that II Brothers' Martin -- who cards anyone who looks younger than 30 -- would want in his establishment. Except Wilson is 27.

While he could quite credibly cry foul when faced with this sort of restriction, Wilson, a Dallas native, is diplomatic. "I'd have to respect that," Wilson says of Martin's door policy. "There'd be other places where I can entertain myself. I don't think a club owner is responsible for letting people in at a certain age any more than he or she is obligated to play a certain style of music."

Here Wilson touches on a significant undercurrent of what Nightclub & Bar's Harrelson says is a mild spike in arbitrary age minimums around the nation: musical taste. Rap is the new punk -- a divisive aural wall and between young and old, primarily in the black community.

"I like Nelly, I like 50 Cent, and people come in here and ask, 'Why don't you play that?'" Martin observes. "But then you turn your whole format around. We just don't play it. Those people who say we're being judgmental about youngsters -- activist types -- those are the same people who are in here."

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