n. pl. ser•en•dip•i•tus
1. The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.
2. The fact or occurrence of such discoveries.
3. An instance of making such a discovery.
There were only a few times in my life when I felt truly free. I think I can count them on one hand: learning to ride a bike without training wheels, going to summer camp for the first time, getting a driver’s license, moving out of my parent’s house and into my first apartment. The memories of each of those moments are so clear, I can easily play them back in my mind and relive every detail as if it was yesterday. Each of those events had a profound impact on my life, but none quite as grand as the day I received my fake I.D.
When I was in high school, I was envious of my friends with older siblings who would let them use their I.D.s for a night of drinking. In some cases, older friends who looked similar to my underage classmates would share their I.D.s from time to time. I only had an older sister, and couldn’t seem to find anyone who either looked like me or who was willing to hand over their ID. So I was stuck with having to wait outside the liquor store playing “hey mister” while my more fortunate friends enjoyed the inner sanctum of a bar; drinking, playing pool and eating free pretzels.
The summer after high school, a couple of buddies and I spent a week in Santa Cruz for one last adventure before we headed off to college. We spent our time wandering around the boardwalk, hanging out on the beach, and listening to street musicians.
That was when my life changed. Forever.
One particularly warm afternoon, my friends and I were sitting on a bench on Pacific Avenue listening to an old hippie play guitar and sing a pretty good rendition of Proud Mary, when a stranger approached us. He had an open wallet in his hand that he was inspecting. He kept looking at me, then back at the wallet. I really didn’t pay any mind to the guy. This was, after all, Santa Cruz. Weirdo capital of the world. It wasn't uncommon for lunatics to carry on a conversation with themselves, with nobody at all, or with anyone who would listen. What I didn't yet recognize was this guy wasn't a weird lunatic. He was a true good Samaritan, trying to do a true good Samaritan deed.
Finally, he spoke to me. “James?” The only word he said.
Being a little curious, I answered him. “Yes, but it’s pronounced Jaahms.” First of all, that's not my name. Second, to this day, I have no idea why I answered him in such a way.
“Err.. okay, Jaahms, I found your wallet.”
The stranger now had my full attention. "You did?" I asked with staged excitement. "I've been looking everywhere. Where did you find it?"
"Over there by that payphone," he replied as he pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. He held the wallet out and I took it.
I swear to God, the clouds parted, I heard angels sing and a golden glow appeared as I opened the wallet to take a peek inside. The first thing I saw was a brand new one hundred dollar bill, a concert ticket for Bob Dylan and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and then, the Holy Grail: a valid California Driver's License.
Looking at the photo, I could understand why the stranger thought it belonged to me. I strongly resembled James Darren Lascot from Felton, California.
James was of drinking age. This will work, I thought. Fuck yes, this will work.
From that very moment, nothing was the same again.
My friends and I headed straight to the nearest grocery store to see what it felt like to buy $100 worth of booze, beer, and wine coolers without having to ask someone to buy it for us.
I remember feeling a little scared when the clerk asked to see my ID. What if she doesn’t believe it’s me? What if she calls the cops? What if she knows the real James Darren Lascot? But she casually glanced at it and continued placing the bottles in a paper bag. No questions asked.
For the next two and a half years while buying alcohol and drinking under my new assumed name, only one person questioned the validity of the ID. It happened very late at night at a 7-Eleven in Van Nuys, California. The clerk said loudly “THIS ISN’T YOU!” But the store manager quickly intervened, snatching the ID from her hand, looking at it, then at me, and saying: “It’s him,” as he placed it back in my unsteady hand.
I quickly became a valuable friend to many people. I was the guy who could supply a party with a case of cheap beer. I was the guy who could buy Absolut Vodka to replace the bottle from Jenny Smitcamp’s father’s liquor cabinet after she and her friends took it to the drive-in movie theater; I was the guy who could purchase a bottle of Rootbeer Schnapps for Robbie Greenwood, so he could take it with him to his older sister’s wedding; and I was the guy who could buy a four-pack of wine coolers for Danny Adams so he could impress his date as he lured her to the 16th fairway of a local country club at 3:00 AM.
I was the guy to know.
Within a couple of months, however, I felt as though I wasn’t using my new I.D. to its fullest potential. I had grown bored with my peers and knew it was time to move on. That little card was more than James Darren Lascot’s California Driver’s license. It was a passport to a different world. A beautifully dark and dank underworld with distinct, almost edible smells. That’s when I became a student of bars. I began to learn about drinks, studied the dusty bottles sitting on the dimly-lit back bar, and discovered people with colorful nicknames like “Lefty,” “Slick,” “Big Rick,” and “Bird.”
I stayed away from popular nightclubs because of the bouncers. I always felt that they were better trained to examine an ID. I favored dive bars and neighborhood pubs. Sure, the salty old bartenders would look at my I.D., but these places were always dark and smoky, so I stood a better chance. Plus, I doubted if they truly gave a shit as long as I behaved myself and tipped well.
I selected a quiet, unassuming neighborhood bar as my home base. This would become the place where I could start the night, end the night, or even spend the afternoon. The Stardust Room was a logical choice for several reasons. First, it opened at 6:00 AM and closed at 2:00 AM, so I could show up at any time the law allowed bars to be open in California. Second, it was a simple blue collar dive bar. There were never any bouncers, door men, or cover charges. Finally, once the bartenders remembered my face, I wouldn’t have to show my I.D. again. This greatly reduced the chance of somebody figuring out my game.
I began to spend most of my free time playing a variety of dice games with a group of old codgers as I listened to their stories. Their words were poetic and prophetic. I felt as though I gained an education every time they spoke, imbibing their wisdom. In print, their words would be red.
At first, I answered only to the name Jimmy. But a few months after becoming a regular at The Stardust Room, some friends from one of my college classes showed up and called me by my real name. After that, the other regulars and the bartenders started calling me by my real name too. I was a little disappointed I never got one of those cool nicknames.
I studied for midterms and finals at that bar, forged long-term friendships with other customers, charmed girls by taking them there and introducing them to the seedy side of life, solved all my problems and created many more. All at the Stardust Room.
Then, I turned 21-years-old. I became the age to legally buy and consume booze. And I celebrated at the Stardust Room.
The bartender, Kingfish, even gave me a special shot glass to commemorate the milestone. As I had long suspected, he knew what I was up to all along.
It’s been many years since that afternoon in Santa Cruz, but I can still remember every detail as if it was yesterday. I’m still a faithful drinker. I still love a dark bar. I drink to old friends, and always drink to James Darren Lascot.
Colin Deal spends his free time exploring the bar culture of cities throughout North America and believes the unique culture of any region in the world can be discovered over a few drinks with the locals. His drunken musings can be found on Twitter here.