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Eighteen Candles

A newly minted adult tries to play his card

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February 7: Four days and I would be considered a legal adult. Four days and I wouldn't get my license taken away if I was caught speeding. Four days and I could get a tattoo or purchase pornography, tobacco products, lottery tickets, pipes, rolling papers, glass and weapons. I could drink in Canada. In four days, I would turn 18.

I'd waited a long time for this. On my 15th birthday, I celebrated by getting my learner's permit. By the following summer, I had my license. At 17, I moved up to R-rated movies and "mature" video games. Now, a whole new bunch of benefits awaited me.

Voting, for one, but Town Meeting Day was still more than a month away. And Bush wouldn't be on the ballot. Grown-up as it is, voting held less appeal for me than signing myself out of school or gambling in Canada.

I had the day planned down to the minute. First, I'd go to school. Once there, I'd sign my own early dismissal and leave by 12. My friend, who also gets out at noon, would drive us home. After a quick lunch at his house, we'd drive downtown, where I'd enter a tobacco shop. There, I would buy the cheapest cigar available and smoke it while strolling down Church Street. I'd eventually make my way home, reeking from my purchase.

It didn't go quite like that. We parked in the Filene's parking garage and walked up to Garcia's. My friend waited outside while I stepped in.

The woman behind the counter glanced at me, sizing me up -- guessing my age, whether I was going to buy anything, and if I'd have an ID. "Can I help you?" she asked.

I looked around. The walls and counters were covered with cigarettes, chewing tobacco, pipes, papers, lighters, flasks and cigars. The case of fancy-looking lighters caught my eye. I pointed.

"How much is a Zippo?"

"Anywhere from 15 to 30 dollars," she said. "They have price tags on them."

I only had $5 on me. I gave up on the Zippos and turned to the case of cigarettes, cigars, blunt wraps and rolling papers. Suddenly, the idea of smoking a cigar left me cold -- I didn't even like the taste.

Slightly less expensive were the Zig- Zag rolling papers, at $1.29.

I pointed at the white box labeled "1 1/2 Size." "Can I get a pack of these?" I asked.

"One-and-a-half-size Zig-Zag papers? Sure." She unlocked the cabinet and reached in, removing the slim, pale package. She placed it on the counter.

"One twenty-nine."

I fished two bills from my wallet and placed them in her hand, keeping the wallet and ID at the ready. I began to smile.

"Seventy-one cents is your change. Thanks."

I looked at her uncomprehendingly as the smile melted from my face. She gave the Zig-Zags a little push, inching them toward me. Numbly, I picked them up and let them fall into my pocket.

"Thanks." I turned, stumbling from the store, wallet in hand, ID still at the ready. I hadn't been carded. I could have gone in yesterday and bought a cigar, or two weeks ago and purchased a carton of cigarettes, or last month and bought multiple tins of chewing tobacco. My age didn't matter; it was just another passing year of life.

My friend caught my arm as I passed.

"What's up, man? She not sell to you?"

I took the papers from my pocket. "She didn't card me."

"Really? That's awesome! I could probably get stuff there."

"That's not the point. I wanted to be carded."

"Why? What's the point of wanting to be carded?"

He didn't understand. My other friends didn't understand, either. When I had first voiced my desire to buy tobacco products on my 18th birthday, they had been critical. "You can probably just buy the stuff. Or get someone else to get it for you. Hell, I'll get you some cigs. They're really lax at some places."

But I didn't want cigs. I didn't want them to be lax. And I didn't want someone else to get me the stuff. I wanted to walk into a store and legitimately buy something that legally required the purchaser to be at least 18 years old.

My friend suggested, "If you wanna get carded, why don't we just go to Good Stuff or something?"

I looked at him. He was right. Why hadn't I thought of that?

*****

It was cold out. On the way over, we stopped at Muddy's for coffee.

"Hey, man." I turned, seeing a friend who's in college.

"Oh, hey, man. What are you doing here?"

"Cup o' joe and a good book. You?"

"We're actually just getting coffee to go."

"Nice. Hey, today's your birthday, right?"

What? "Yeah."

"I don't know how I remembered. You're 18, right?"

"Yeah." I smiled.

"Yeah, that sucks."

I frowned. "What?"

He laughed. "You can't do anything when you're 18."

*****

Good Stuff is a second-floor establishment. The stenciled door at the top of the stairs reads, "You must be 18 or older to enter. Please have ID ready."

"I'll go in first, all right?" I proposed. "If they card me, you can just leave."

"All right, go." He gestured at the door.

I pulled it open and saw three shady-looking guys hovering over the selection of glass. Behind the counter, a twentysomething female sales clerk was eying me. Also in my field of vision, I noticed a busty woman attempting to perform fellatio on three men -- on the cover of a magazine.

"Hey," the sales clerk said.

"Hey."

"Can I help you?"

"Yeah. Do you have any, uh, nudie playing cards?"

"Maybe." She emerged from behind the counter. "If we did, they'd be here." She searched the back wall, passing over floating phalluses chained to bathtub plugs, light-up bobbing-boobie headbands and straws and stirrers shaped like penises. "I don't see any, so I guess not. Sorry."

"All right," I said with a sigh. "Thanks, anyway."

I turned to look at my friend. His nervous grin mirrored my own discomfort. "Do you want anything?" I asked him.

"I'm set," he assured. "You done?"

"Yeah, I guess. I don't really want to get something and then have to either hide it or explain it to my parents . . . "

"Yeah. Let's go." He pulled open the door and held it for me.

"Thanks, man." I shook my head. "I can't believe this."

"Yeah."

We didn't talk much on the way to the garage. Driving back to my house, though, I remembered I had two Lez Zeppelin tickets -- an 18th birthday gift from my parents. I had to find someone to go with and he seemed a good bet. Although it was an 18-plus show, I offered him the ticket. If he got carded, he would either try to bribe the bouncer, use his school ID that doesn't have his birth date on it, or try to get one of the bouncers we knew from school to let us in.

*****

Fourteen days, six hours

and 43 minutes later, I pulled up to his house at 8:50, 10 minutes before showtime. A rush of cold air followed him into the car.

"Hey, man. You're early." Then, thumbing through his pockets, he asked, "You think a 10 would cut it?"

I glanced at him. "What are you talking about?"

"Bribewise. Do you think that 10 would get me in?"

"I dunno. I've never bribed anyone."

"Because 20 dollars is a lot of money, you know?"

Was he even listening to me? "I don't know, man. It's Higher Ground. I've actually never been there."

"Really? I've been a couple of times. I think I'll try 20. It's safer."

"Yeah."

We arrived at 9:05. The parking lot was packed -- a good sign.

"It's this way, right?" I pointed to the doors beyond the entrance to the Silver Palace.

"Yeah."

The lobby was crowded, too. My friend gestured to a door. "Is it in there?"

I looked, finding a "Lez Zeppelin" poster above the door. "I would assume so."

"You go in first, because you have your ID. I'll be in behind you. Wait for me once you're clear. If we get separated, I'll call your cell."

It was like the briefings before video-game missions. I stepped forward, our quest resounding in my ears, and approached the bouncer.

He peered up at me from under heavy lids. "Hey."

"Hi." My right arm extended my ticket while my left hand dove into my back pocket, preparing to whip out my wallet.

"Under 21 or over?" he asked, while the ticket was plucked from my hand, the end ripped off and discarded. He handed the stub back to me.

"Uh, under," I stammered.

"Gimmie your left hand?"

I obeyed.

He took my hand and slashed a wide "X" on the back with a black marker. "Have a good time, enjoy the show. Hey -- "

He was already talking to my 17-year-old friend. I stepped forward and turned, watching with disappointment as the same wet "X" was painted onto his hand.

*****

My ears were still ringing the next afternoon when I padded downstairs for aspirin, coffee and a shower. At my place at the table, there was a letter addressed to me. I tore it from the envelope. The text was blurry. I hadn't put in my contacts yet.

Squinting, I read, "Dear Registrant." But this wasn't a college letter. Nor was it a credit-card offer. My SAT scores had come in months ago, and progress reports from school weren't due until next week. I read on. "Use the top half of this form to update and/or correct your information. Please review it carefully."

What had I registered for? Confused, I skipped to the bottom of the page, where an eagle illustrated this quote: "First explore your interests, then decide which career path is right for you." I searched the document for the sender's identity.

"Mom?" I called. "Who's the Selective Service?"

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