July 18, 2017

Puking on the Floor and the Unintended Consequences of Progress

Slumming it in the best Dive bar in the ValleyWhen I was in college, there was a bar a short distance from campus. Actually, I suppose it was a tavern instead of a bar because I don't think they sold anything stronger than beer. At least, I never saw anybody with anything stronger than beer there (with some specific exceptions I'll mention below). It was close enough that one could easily drive there, drink way too much to drive back, and still manage to stumble home safely. It was a dive. But for one night a week, it was our dive.

On Thursday nights, the place was always full of students from the college. There would be a handful of locals too, but it was mostly college kids. This would be reversed on any other night, with locals far outnumbering students. The owners always seemed to enjoy having the college kids there, and the locals - most of whom were middle-aged men - never seemed to mind the college women.

There was an odd tradition that those of us on campus took advantage of as often as possible. On someone's 21st birthday, their friends would take them to this bar and they would be given as many of one particular drink as they wanted with no charge. This drink was not on any menu, and it was not something one could get elsewhere. It was a special concoction the bartenders would make. It had a name, but I don't recall what it was all these years later. Its point was to induce vomiting. Based on what I observed one night, I am almost positive that one of the ingredients was the sort of cheap fortified wine homeless people (and broke college kids) sometimes drink. I saw the bartender send an assistant to a nearby grocery store one night, and I am fairly sure he returned with a bottle of the stuff.

While I did not personally experience the drink (I was out of town when I turned 21), I saw its effects on several people. They would throw back as many as 3-4 of them on top of lots of beer, often remarking how great they tasted right before throwing up in the restroom, parking lot, or all over the floor of the bar. It always puzzled me why the bartenders would want someone to throw up all over the floor, but they seemed to enjoy the tradition as much as anyone. It was an odd rite of passage but one in which many participated.

I found myself thinking about this recently after I was reminded about how much societal attitudes and laws around alcohol have changed over the course of my life. When I was a child, there was no such thing as a DUI. Everybody drove home after drinking and never seemed to give it a second thought. Driving with an open beer in one's hand was commonplace. There were no DUI checkpoints or anything of the sort. Adults drank openly in a variety of public settings where alcohol is banned today. Colleges had keg parties regularly, and binge drinking was considered a rite of passage on campus. And yes, even drinking to the point of puking on the floor was not unheard of as a way of celebrating one's 21st birthday.

Do the changes we've made represent real progress or do they suggest that some of us have forgotten how to have fun? In many ways, I do think they are evidence of progress. It isn't like drunk driving was ever not dangerous, and reducing the number of people killed by drunk drivers sure looks like progress to me. Excessive drinking isn't healthy, and learning that does seem to be a valuable life lesson. On the other hand, I do wonder if at least some of the changes aren't quite so positive. I'm not sure, for example, why it is a problem for an adult to openly drink a beer in a public park.

The thing about progress, even what we'd all consider undeniable progress, is that it often has unanticipated consequences. Smartphones are great until one considers what they do to some people. I sometimes wonder about this even with regard to atheism. Most of us would probably agree that the decline of religious belief would be a good thing, but I wonder whether it might have some unexpected consequences we might find less pleasing. I'm having a hard time imagining myself ever feeling nostalgic for the days where most of my neighbors believed in gods, but that might just be because of how far-fetched it seems that I'll see the day when most of them don't believe in gods.