The following is an excerpt from comedian Sean Bair-Flannery’s forthcoming book, Places I Can’t Return To, a collection of true stories about the places he’s been banished from, including, as he details below, a local bar in Cleveland as well as an Ohio DMV, both of which made the list because of his dogged pursuit of a fake ID when he was an under-drinking-age teen. Places I Can’t Return To can be purchased from Bair-Flannery’s website starting on June 27th.
Our first attempts to get beer underage were indelicate: We would wait outside the most white trash gas stations in town and ask any guy who drove a car with a bird, wolf or flaming-arrow painted on the hood if they’d buy us beer.
“Hey man, you getting beer?” we’d inquire.
“Hell yeah!” would come the inevitable reply.
“We forgot our IDs. Yep, all five of us. If we gave you this twenty-dollar bill, could you buy us a case of beer?”
There are two ages when kids are indisputably hilarious: When they’re toddlers — they stumble into walls constantly; never wear pants; claim they’re going to marry the family dog — and when they’re in their late teens, talking to adults and believing they don’t sound like total shitheads.
Back then a case of cheap beer was about $3, which made our proposal sound even more ludicrous. We were paying for Busch Light like it had a street value above cocaine, and we were all wearing ties outside a gas station in an effort to make ourselves look older.
The main reason teenagers in this phase are so hilarious is because adults do nothing to correct their behavior. No one tells them: “Kid, people don’t fly to Copley, Ohio ‘for business,’” or that “Five grown men don’t split a case of beer.” When five grown men enter a liquor store together — and I contend that the correct plural noun for five men in a liquor store is an “escalation” — they buy enough booze to submerge a basement because, each time they hesitate about needing one more bottle, someone in the escalation says, “Just buy it; we can always finish it tomorrow if we don’t get to it tonight.” But that never works, for the same reason you can’t go on vacation and just leave a week’s supply of food out for the dog; it all disappears in the first eight hours, and your house gets destroyed in the process.
No, these adults never provided practical feedback. Instead, each stranger listened to our pitch, visibly held back laughter — almost convulsing, like a heron fighting back a fish trying to swim up its neck — and answered, “Oh, sorry honey, no, I can’t tonight.”
Then they’d presumably drive to their friend’s party with their beer and enter the party laughing hysterically: “Wait till you hear what happened to me at the gas station! Ha. Five teenagers — in ties, mind you — tell me they’ve left their wallets back at ‘corporate’! At ‘corporate’! They didn’t provide any more information on the company or their line of work! Then these five corporate professionals asked me to buy one case of Busch Light — for five grown men to share — at three times its normal price! Hahaha! I asked if they were under 21, just as a joke to see how stupid it could get.”
“What did they do?”
“They did this fake, dad laugh — ‘OOOH HOO HOO!’ — then said, ‘You flatter us, ma’am.’ Ma’am! ‘I’m 22 years old!’”
Even on the rare occasion that the plan worked, we received no instructive feedback, so our gambit was destined to never improve. We’d approach customers for about an hour, explaining our situation as business people without wallets, but each declined to help. Until, eventually, a guy (it was always a guy) usually covered in white paint would say, “Yeah, I got ya.”
We’d hand him a 20, and he’d emerge with an impossible amount of beer, go directly to his car and load it in — “Is he stealing it from us?” we’d wonder — but eventually he’d roll over to us, hand us just one of the cases through his window, saying: “Thanks! Don’t do anything too stupid with that!” He’d then peel out, keeping both the extra beer and the change. This last part was always unspoken and uncontested.
We rapidly learned this plan wasn’t sustainable. A few of us got arrested, plus we couldn’t afford to keep paying for beers at a price that wouldn’t be fair inside Yankee Stadium, so we vowed to develop a more sophisticated scheme: “Let’s eliminate the middleman and buy our own fake ID!”
We heard a T-shirt shop at The Arcade, an old art-deco mall in Cleveland that was semi-abandoned at the time, would print fake IDs. We went there and, like all failing malls at the time, there were seven T-shirt shops, but we eventually found the one that did print fake IDs. The place and the conversation were amazing, in its dubious flirtations with what is and what isn’t legal.
“We’re looking to buy fake IDs,” I told the guy behind the counter, in as clandestine a tone as I could manage.
“No one can sell fake IDs, kids. I’d get arrested tomorrow if I sold you a fake ID,” came the prompt reply.
There was then a slight pause, just enough for him to see if our look of disappointment was genuine enough or not. “But what we do sell here,” he continued, “is novelty tourism photos and those can be very specific.”
“What do you mean by that?” we asked.
“Well, ya know how when you go to the Grand Canyon and, for a memory, maybe you stand behind one of those wooden cowboy cutouts, where you stick your head out onto the body of a cowboy and someone takes a photo for $10? Well, we do something similar, but instead of sticking your head out of a cowboy cutout, the state of Montana’s official ID background, with random personal information, is behind you! Ya know, for the memories!”
We contemplated this for a second, then asked: “Do you have any, um, ‘memories’ that you have done for other customers that we can see, just to see how much we would, ah, ‘remember’ this event?”
The owner showed us a few examples, and to our untrained eyes, they looked exactly like out-of-state licenses. In fact, they looked perfect.
“Great. Let’s get Ohio ones.”
“I don’t do Ohio,” the owner said. “Makes it harder to argue it’s a tourism venture.”
“Makes perfect sense,” we said in reply to something that actually made no sense.
“Okay, then, I guess… Pennsylvania?” I proposed.
“Yeah and maybe, Indiana?” another friend suggested.
“And Michigan?” came a third.
“Gentleman,” the store owner interjected, “may I suggest that all five of you get Wyoming.”
“See, Wyoming is the last state in the union to not use holograms,” the owner explained. “You likely didn’t notice when viewing the ‘memories’ I made for other people, but I’m not capable of printing holograms. So while I could print memories from Pennsylvania or Indiana and Michigan, they’d lack the aforementioned holograms, and depending on who you’re sharing these memories with — say it’s someone who looks at a lot of different ‘memories’ each night, at say his job at, oh I don’t know, a bar? — that kind of person might notice the missing holograms.”
“On our memories?”
“Yes, on your memories.”
“I don’t know,” I replied, speculating out loud. “I think five guys entering a bar in Cleveland, all from Wyoming, is more suspicious than missing holograms. I mean, if we go to dive bars, they just want to see something passable, but five guys from the least-populated state in the U.S. entering together — t’s like we are daring them.”
“But,” the owner interjected, “this memory is indistinguishable from an official Wyoming license. No technology on earth could differentiate it!”
“What would we say?” I asked the group.
“We could say we’re all at Case Western, like we got some group scholarship?” someone suggested.
“We could say we’re on the hockey team. We could look like hockey players,” another offered.
“Say you’re in town for the rodeo!” the owner pitched in.
“I don’t know,” I demurred, “as I said before, it’s the least-populated state in the U.S. so, to have five Wyomingian… Wyoman…”
“Wyomingite,” corrected the owner.
“To have five Wyomingites walking into the same bar in Cleveland? Statistically, it’s like having five Oscar winners walk in. It’s just as unlikely.”
“Well, let’s hope bouncers don’t know as much about geography or statistics as you do,” one of my friends reasoned.
And with that, we plunked down the cash for five Wyoming “memories.” The first time we used them as a group, we were all arrested.
Thus, we decided that these half measures — strangers at a gas station, out-of-state ‘memories’ — weren’t sufficient for a group of truly dedicated underage drinkers such as ourselves. We decided we must have real IDs; we decided to trick the state of Ohio into giving us real licenses.
Our idea was very bold, but also very simple: We’d pay a 21-year-old who matched our general physical description to give us their birth certificate and social security card for a few hours; then we’d use those documents to get a new license with our photo on it. Straightforward enough, but very risky. Back then, one did not walk out of the DMV with your new license. You received it about a week later in the mail.
We had researched our plan a bit and been informed by someone that the reason for the delay was because every new photograph was sent down to Columbus where a human compared the new photo to your last picture to prevent fraud; if the pictures looked too different, they wouldn’t issue the license and begin legal proceedings against every party involved.
Looking back at it, this claim is laughable: that a staff of — what, a dozen people? — was looking at every new license (in the seventh most populous state in the union) and asking themselves, “Can a person really lose this much weight or change their hair that much in five years?”
Nevertheless we, being teenagers, found the whole scenario highly credible. So much so that we decided to test the integrity of the system. We wanted to see just how different someone could look between licenses and still receive a new one. We had a buddy who was 21, and we asked if he’d be willing to get a new license looking very different; so different, in fact, that if the state of Ohio was really scrutinizing these pictures, there was no way he’d receive the new license.
“Can I get in trouble?” he asked.
“I don’t see how. At the end of the day, you’re just choosing a radically different new look for yourself,” I argued.
You may ask: How do teenagers with no experience in cosmetics, makeovers or general aesthetics make a man look vastly different for his photograph? Well, we bought a werewolf costume. We used the costume paint to make his skin look considerably darker then glued the beard on him and dyed his hair. My buddy also borrowed his grandmother’s impossibly large eyeglasses, each lens shaped like a giant hexagon. Our test subject looked absolutely nothing like himself as he went off to apply for his replacement ID.
He received his new license a week later. We had to pay him an extra $150 because he failed his eye exam due to being disoriented by the strong prescription on the glasses: His license had a vision restriction on it for a whole year. But overall, we had proved our plan would work.
Later that week we were at a Bob Evans, eating breakfast, and one of the waitresses called me by the wrong name and asked why I was eating “out here.” Only after squinting at me a bit closer did she realize she had mistaken me for someone else. “I’m sorry,” she explained, “it’s just that you look exactly like one of our cooks!”
“Is he 21?” my friend asked instantly. “And if so, could we talk to him?”
And that’s how we met the person that would rent his social security card and birth certificate to me, to get what we were now calling “a misrepresentative ID,” rather than a fake ID, since it was a genuine Ohio state ID; it just had the wrong driver on it.
The plan was an abysmal failure, and we were very lucky to not get arrested. I entered the DMV with the cook’s papers, explained I needed a license and sat down for my picture and, as I was preparing to smile with all the jubilation of a person about to finalize a Mission Impossible-esque heist, they asked me, “And, Geoff” — that was the name of the cook — “can you tell me your mother’s maiden name?”
I wish they’d taken the photo of me right as I was reacting to that question. Even more, I wish there was some way for me to get a copy of that picture, because I don’t think anyone — not in vaudeville, in silent movies, in opera — made a face more visibly and comically aghast as I did when they when asked me to verify the name of my misappropriated grandmother.
“You mean, the name my mom had before marriage,” I asked.
Panicked, I scanned my eyes around the office and noticed that behind the person asking this question was a billboard detailing the fees for each DMV service. A license renewal was listed as $7.
“WHOA!,” I exclaimed. “Hold on. Is this $7?”
“What? Yes, a license replacement is $7.”
“I thought it would be free, ya know, off my taxes!” I knew enough about impersonating adults to bring up that you pay taxes and expect that that entitles you to a vast array of unrealistic benefits.
“Of course there’s a fee.”
“Well, because I don’t have a license, I didn’t even bring my wallet; I didn’t see a point. I need to go get my wallet.”
“All right, well, that shouldn’t take long. I will just keep all your papers right here.”
Something inside of me sank as I realized I was now going to have to pay that cook at Bob Evans a lot more money given that I’d lost his identity papers at a DMV in Fairlawn, Ohio. Oh, and potentially implicated him in a federal crime. But I managed to conceal my alarm and responded, with relative calm, “Given that I don’t have a wallet, I appreciate you keeping the papers here.”
I rose from my chair and headed out of the DMV. I had to pay that cook at Bob Evans $300. “What am I going to do?!” he screamed at me, justifiably.
“Just go to the DMV and follow through with the plan,” I explained. “Say you need a new license; they have your papers; you look enough like me, they won’t notice you’re a different person.”
He did so, and it worked. The DMV clerk even joked with him (thinking he was me), “I thought you were trying to scam us. Sorry.”
“I appreciate you being so careful,” he replied, in an artificial voice. “Think of what would happen to me, if it was a scammer! My identity gone? No thank you. Good to see my tax dollars at work here!”