A group of 20- and 30-somethings — plastic Solo cups in hand — was relaxing on the town beach in Hull last weekend when a couple of police officers descended on them like cormorants. Following a five-minute conversation with the officers, the entire group folded up their beach chairs, packed up their coolers, and trudged off dejectedly toward their rental property nearby.
Few sentences are more annoying than those starting with the phrase, “In Europe, they . . . ” But face it: It’s hard to imagine a similar scene taking place on a beach in Greece, Spain, or Italy.
No one in Massachusetts is advocating for drive-through daiquiri shacks. But there is something wrong when a group of well-behaved adults gets bounced from a public beach for sipping beer while watching the waves roll in. If anything, the group of about 10 men and two women should have been commended as a prime example of responsible drinking.
For starters, alcohol was not the major focus of their day. The guys weren’t throwing back drinks as proof of their virility. The women nursed their Twisted Tea. They had come to the beach — like everybody else — to relax, catch some sun, and swim in the surf. The drinks were just part — and a small part — of an atmosphere of conviviality. That’s how it works in cultures with low rates of alcohol abuse.
Next, the members of the group were drinking slowly, in moderation, and munching food that slowed down the rate of alcohol absorption — all signs of responsible drinking. And each member appeared to be adhering to ground rules about drinking that included no intoxication.
Counter this scene with the underage binge drinking that takes place every weekend in Massachusetts, where young people are rushed to emergency rooms for treatment of alcohol poisoning. Perhaps some of these binge drinkers wouldn’t be so quick to toss down five or more drinks in rapid succession had they observed more people in their 20s and 30s enjoying themselves while drinking responsibly. Even better had they been exposed to alcohol earlier in their lives through family or religious settings. A small quantity of diluted wine at a meal 10 years ago might have prevented the need for breathing support and intravenous fluids today.
The Hull police can’t be blamed for the overall failure of American society to foster healthy attitudes and habits around drinking. Officers from small towns to big cities generally don’t run around sniffing the contents of disposable plastic cups unless those holding them are behaving like jerks. But the police can’t flout the law, either. And in the beach case, the presence of an open can in the cup holder of a lounge chair was all the evidence they needed to cite the town ordinance against possession of an open container of alcohol on a public way.
The police, it further turns out, had been called to the scene by a citizen’s complaint. But who would possibly complain about a group of adults chatting amiably between dips in the ocean and tossing around a football at the water’s edge? It certainly wasn’t my family, which was sitting a lot closer to the group for several hours than any other beachgoers. When asked about the nature of the complaint, one of the officers curved his fingers into the shape of binocular lenses and held them up to his eyes, suggesting that a homeowner along the shoreline had been scanning the beach for signs of public drinking.
It’s tempting to pass off the complainant as a crank who needs to take up a hobby — say, metal detecting on the beach. But it is also possible that the person attaches great moral importance to drinking. That’s part of the problem, too. Drinking is neither a vice nor a virtue.
If Massachusetts were a giant classroom, it would be suffering from extremely low expectations regarding the ability of its residents to assimilate drinking sensibly into their daily lives. Maybe it’s time to raise those expectations on hot summer days, along with a red plastic cup.