Fake IDs and the Milwaukee bar scene, then and now
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You don't have to be very old to remember a time when anyone with access to a laminating machine could make a convincing-looking fake ID. Until fairly recently in Milwaukee, actually, a lot of reputable bars didn't care much if you were slightly underage. It wasn't that long ago when the drinking age in our state was 18 -- back then, entrance into bars was free and easy, a Wild West era of Wisconsin, if you will.
But that was a different time. Drivers licenses have become increasingly difficult to forge, and bars have cracked down on underage drinking. In other words, if you're not of age and you think you can sneak into a bar these days, forget it.
"We mostly see people with someone else's ID," says Jason Growel, owner of The Eastsider, 1732 E. North Ave. "Not too often do you see someone who tried to tamper with their own ID because they are really easy to spot."
Of course, certain bars are more likely than others to see underage patrons attempt to gain entry. The Eastsider is close to UW-Milwaukee, and Growl says he turns away three or four students a week.
"Most bars now have an ID checker," says Growel. "It's a tool for our bouncers to do their jobs better. It takes a photo so we always know who is in our bar and checks for the Wisconsin hologram in the background."
"Growing up in the industry, many establishments simply go through the motions of checking IDs and letting people in, regardless if they are of age. But as a bar owner, you've got to be more careful. It's in your best interest to keep underagers out of your bar because trouble generally follows close behind. Not just legal implications, but also they way they carry themselves and interact with others can disrupt the vibe of a good bar."
"Almost 90 percent of the fake IDs we see are from out of state IDs," says Brian Babbler from Fire on Water, 518 N. Water St. "People think they can simply copy and paste images from online with a little Photoshop editing. But our bouncers do a great job of spotting them."
Milwaukee Police Capt. Stephen Basting says that while it's true that IDs are harder to fake "for the average guy," the business of creating false drivers license has gone high-tech.
"We're looking now at a company that for $60, they put you and an ID together, complete with magnetic tape for the scanner," says Basting. "For the average bouncer at the bar, it's very difficult to tell."
Basting says that MPD issues citations to the holder of the underage drinker, but uses its discretion as to whether to ticket the bar. If the fake ID is so convincing, officers won't typically hold a bouncer responsible for being duped.
It's all part of a comprehensive approach to managing nightlife, says Basting. "An unmanaged nightlife (district) just leads to crime," he says.
When you get away from the college scene, fewer underage drinkers are flashing their fakes, according to Dave Mikolajek, a longtime bartender and nightlife contributor to OnMilwaukee.com.
"The last two women I carded were both 41," says Mikolajek, who tends bar at Balistreri's Bluemound Inn, 6501 W. Bluemound Rd. " I haven't seen a fake ID while bartending in years, actually ... if ever."
Paul Kennedy, who has tended bar all over Milwaukee and currently works at Tonic Tavern, agrees that he just doesn't see fakes anymore.
Says Kennedy, "The whole fake ID thing is so far in the past with the new IDs. The only bartenders that ever dealt with them are dead or senile."
It wasn't always this way in Milwaukee, though.
Says Kennedy, "Back in the day when I was a doorman at Shooters we would take every confiscated ID and throw them into a giant jar. It needed to be emptied every few days because it resembled the 'Win a free lunch' business card collection at Applebee's."
Matt Olson remembers a cold evening about 10 years ago, working the door at The Nomad World Pub, when he carded a group of younger patrons, including a "big jock guy" and a girl who appeared to be several years younger than 21.
"I look over the 17-year-old's ID, and it was definitely not her," recalls Olson. "She gave me these puppy eyes and big smile trying to look like whoever was on the ID. I told her that that was obviously not her and I am taking the ID."
Olson, who now bartends at The Highbury, says he took her ID, only to have the big jock guy get confrontational.
"So while he is yelling at me and basically threatening me, he is not noticing the large group of regulars that are congregating behind him. He eventually turns around and notices about five guys the same size if not bigger than he standing right behind him waiting for him to do something. He then turns to me and says, 'You're Lucky!' and leaves."
Joseph Gagliano, who worked at Fitzgibbons Pub in 2001, recalls another case of mistaken identity.
"A young lady tried to get a drink using my sister's ID," he says. "My sister had given her the ID when she turned 21. I explained to the young lady my sister is 5'11" and she was no more than 5'3". She still tried to talk her way in."
Going father back, the stories get even more ridiculous.
Kelly Allen remembers working at L.A. Freeway in the '80s when a patron left his wallet on the bar before heading back to his table. "When I checked the wallet for identification I found his real ID. When I called out his real name he was terrified, grabbed his wallet and ran.
"Also, when working at Henry's on Downer, a young man handed me an ID that was his older brother's, who was one of my best friends in high school," says Allen. "He was shocked when I called him by his real name ... I actually let him stay."
And bartender Chip Bush's favorite Wisconsin fake ID story actually happened when working in college in Ohio. He had come to expect underage patrons at his pub, and when carding two guys at the corner of the bar, he noticed something fishy.
"The first guy hands me his ID, and it passes muster," recalls Bush. "The second guy though, hands me an abomination that apparently was supposed to be a Wisconsin driver's license. I guess he thought it would be safe to use, as Wisconsin was four states away, and 90 percent of the students at this school were from Ohio. And the last thing he counted on was that the person serving him would actually be from Wisconsin and would know what a Wisconsin ID was supposed to look like."
Bush pulled out his own ID for comparison. "Finally accepting defeat, he admitted that it was a fake. In the end though, I let him hang on to it since he and his friend were quiet and polite, and not a couple of obnoxious fraternity types. I just told him that I had better not ever see that ID again, because the next time I would be confiscating it."
I don't quite understand the out of town id concept. Do these bartenders give extra scrutiny to out of towners trying to drink? Doesn't seem to friendly to me.
Back in the late '70's I was bartending for my neighbor Dave Pump at the Road House in Tosa and guy came in for a sixer of Miller to go. I asked for his ID and and he pulled out that little cardboard card you get when when you buy a new wallet... with "Name" "Address" "Date of Birth" etc., each followed by a blank line for you to write in your info. I laughed so hard I almost let him have the beer. Almost.
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