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Underage undergrads under a watchful eye

Boston’s student army is back, and pub doormen are braced and ready

Jonathan Ubnoske (left) had his ID checked by Brian Sleasman at Mary Ann’s. Jonathan Ubnoske (left) had his ID checked by Brian Sleasman at Mary Ann’s. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / September 17, 2011

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The door is open and she’s standing in the light of the entryway. She is very pretty. Certainly he notices this.

When he gives her the signal, she steps up, smiles a nice smile, and hands him her ID.

It is the real driver’s license of a pretty 21-year-old girl, but the girl is not her. The doorman looks down at the ID closely and without looking up asks her for backup, which at Mary Ann’s means he wants to see her Boston College ID. As she reaches into her purse to get it, her posture shifts, ever so slightly, to a studied naturalness. It’s the tell that comes from trying to avoid a tell.

The doorman looks down at the IDs, then up at the girl, and now he gets nervous. He knows it’s not her. He takes a deep breath, puts the IDs in his right hand, and pushes them back toward the girl.

“I’m sorry,’’ he says, and he means it, too.

School is back in session in this college town, and the 2011-2012 edition of fake ID season has begun again at those bars that cater to undergrads. It is a cat-and-mouse game that has been going on for decades, and while technology has changed the playing field - bars have better detection methods, and forgers have better tools, too - the ultimate decision still rests with the doorman, and his gut. He can, both sides agree, still be fooled with a good fake, or a good smile.

At Mary Ann’s, the doorman is always a BC student, and his job is to card BC students, because Mary Ann’s is the most BC bar on the planet, and part of the social pecking order involves getting into “M.A.’s’’ early and often. The Brighton dive has been a fixture of campus life since the Nixon administration, back when an 18-year-old could drink and smoke in a bar. As that drinking age rose to 20 at the end of the ’70s before hitting its current number in 1985, the social dynamic at college bars - and the doorman’s job - changed dramatically.

Legally drinking at a college bar became the province of juniors and seniors. Getting around the law became the quest of everyone else.

Mary Ann’s has long been vigilant at the door. They have a scanner to read the strips and barcodes on IDs - which they rarely use - and make everyone sign their name, driver’s license number, and date of birth in ledgers right at the doorman’s stand. It’s a good way to spot nerves. “And it’s also a good sobriety test,’’ Chris Eld, the manager, said as he watched a girl put down her BlackBerry to pick up a pen.

“But the best tool is up here,’’ he said, pointing at his head. “Doormen have to have the confidence to say no to their friends.’’ He is constantly reminding his employees that they have “staff’’ on their shirts. A lot of them hate to work the door, hate having to be the bad guy in a game that many were on the other side of not too long ago.

On the first night of classes at the Heights, the bar was full by 10:30 and there were 80 people outside in a misting rain, waiting for people to come out. Throughout the night, everyone interviewed insisted that they were, in fact, 21, because that’s what you say to a reporter who asks if your ID is fake.

Still, most would talk about what it was like, way back when, when they had fake IDs (just as long as they didn’t have to give their names).

In 2011, well into the age of Photoshop, the days of being photographed standing in the corner of a giant cardboard license are long gone, and the students said it remains rare to hear of anyone making their own fake IDs. Most state IDs are more like credit cards now and, the students said, are tricky to master. New York’s license is printed on a weird bendy plastic, and the latest Massachusetts license has a large hologram over the date of birth that will become a black circle if photocopied. And they all have some sort of strip to be read by a scanner.

There are, of course, many places that sell fake IDs online, but the students say they are more often garbage than good, as the “Wall of Shame’’ at the liquor stores in Brighton attests.

Still, the students said, good IDs can be had. And as in generations past, they come from a guy who knows a guy, or from sketchy backrooms in places like East L.A. and Chinatown in New York. The process usually involves handing over your own ID and about $100 and getting back an age-appropriate replica. Some will even scan. There’s also a computer scientist who, for fun, figured out the algorithm that creates driver’s license numbers for many states, allowing for a fake person to get the actual number they would have if they were real.

Even with a solid fake that passes the scanner, the doormen at Mary Ann’s can and do say no. The doormen are almost always seniors, and they know who is in their class, and who is not.

But BC kids are crafty. Like Mary Ann’s, it’s not an easy place to get into. Some do sneak by, Eld admitted.

Boston Police make regular sweeps. In 2005, the Boston Licensing Board suspended Mary Ann’s liquor license for the sixth time after an officer fell down a stairwell chasing some underage drinkers. For a year after that, the bar only accepted Massachusetts-issued IDs, but business suffered so they had to go back to accepting all states’ IDs while becoming particularly vigilant.

During the course of a typical night, Eld said they’ll turn away anywhere from five to 15 people. For those who get sent back to the dorms, Eld will often tell them, quite simply: “It’s not your time.’’

Inevitably, though, it will be their time. They will turn 21, and then they will have full access to what all the fuss is about, get to experience the proud awfulness of Mary Ann’s.

The bathrooms smell historically bad and have oddly irregular geometry. Outside, all three windows are boarded up, and above them is the mustard yellow sign with “Mary Ann’s’’ in green script. Half of it used to be a laundromat.

But that’s Mary Ann’s, that’s how it has always been, and entering the society inside is quite simply a rite of passage at the Heights. So is trying to fool the doorman.

“The secret to using a fake ID is that you need multiple backups,’’ a female senior said as she waited in line to have her ID checked. “Health insurance cards. Old ATM cards. You have to just throw them at them, be like, ‘Are you serious? How dare you ask me?’ ’’

But that was a long time ago. She’s, like, old now, she said. She’s 22.

In fact, she said, she hoped that none of the underage kids got in. Her friends nodded. They didn’t want to have to socialize with sophomores.

At Mary Ann’s, this was their time. Everyone else just needed to wait their turn.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billybaker.