Last Friday night, the Washington State Liquor Control Board (WSLCB) took me for a ride-along through their regular rounds to catch scofflaw bars, inebriated patrons, and lewd behavior. The officer, Lt. Frank Gallegos, and WSLCB spokeswoman Anne Radford wanted to help me understand the processes and people behind the bureaucracy—and the bars they’re trying to bust.

To join Frank—technically a second responder—I first had to sign a waiver and put on a bullet-proof vest. (I quickly learned that wearing a bullet-proof vest makes me look like a pig in a girdle.)

The threat of gunfire aside, Frank and Anne (we used first names in the Ford sedan) were really nice. Anne brought water bottles and Clif bars for us to snack on. We soon arrived at the College Inn in the U-District (a full list of bars we visited is after the jump), where Frank zeroed in on a couple of tipsy college guys playing pool. Frank stood by, watching them and pointing out behaviors that made him suspect they were drunk (their eyes looked vacant, some liquid was spilled on a bench seat and Frank initially suspected it was their piss). After watching them for a few minutes, he went over to the bartender on duty and asked in a firm tone if they’d been cut off yet.

I don’t know how college students do it in Seattle, but by my Columbus, Oh. standards, these guys were barely drunk. I used to puke in garbage cans on my good nights and ruin bathroom floors on the bad ones. By comparison, these guys were sober as a Mormon funeral. (The bartender said the guys had paid and were on their final round, so we got back in the car.)

A few bars later, we hit the Frontier Room in Belltown, where a guy on the dance floor ground his crotch into a girl’s ass and grabbed her breasts just steps away from us. Would this qualify as lewd conduct, considering that the WSLCB hit The Eagle, a Capitol Hill gay bar, with a violation for a video? Nope. This expression of (straight) sexuality was no problem for Frank.

Legal "dick teasing" and illegal "spanking" after the jump.

I spent a lot of the night exploring the bounds of the WSLCB’s now-infamous lewd conduct laws, the lewd conduct laws that were used to “protect” consenting adult gay men at the Eagle from watching a gay spank show.* That was lewd by WSLCB standards. What is not lewd is the straight grinding at the Frontier Room. The choreographed dick-teasing (girls in hot pants dancing suggestively on a bar) at Cowgirls Inc. in Pioneer Square? Also not lewd.

I asked Frank and Anne to explain why these were not lewd conduct violations. Anne said it was important to decide if the act was “spontaneous.” Frank said it was key to make sure the act was not becoming a “show.” He mentioned the case of a bar promoter who did a contest encouraging people to simulate sex acts. One couple went too far, the WSLCB got miffed, and the promoter acted confused because she had been used to promoting far naughtier things in Las Vegas.

Frank closed the anecdote by saying, “The bottom line was, welcome to Washington state.”

Business owners and bouncers were extraordinarily polite to Frank. Of course, if he dings them for a penalty, they face warnings that lead to lost business, violations that lead to fines or temporary suspensions, and even outright closure. When asked if he thought bar owners feared him, Frank replied, “I don’t think they have any reason to be afraid of us.”

So while Frank is a swell cat and I do like Clif bars, the ride-along didn’t show me any virtues of the WSLCB. Frank patrols the city like a cop looking for people… playing pool after a few drinks? Busting a gay bar for a video, while giving tacit approval to straight people millimeters away from committing a public sex act? (Note: not that there is anything wrong with public sex acts). And this government function is tied in with the lumbering, inefficient agency that sells our liquor? This isn’t promoting public safety. It’s a broken system that couples arbitrary enforcement standards with the operations of a business it shouldn’t be in—and that it sucks at running. So, what can I say? The WSLCB, as I've long thought, should be put out of business.

*This violation was written up by Officer Lorn Richey, an ex-SPD cop who Frank called “one of our better officers” and also said of him, “I wish we had more like him.”

Bars visited (with mini-reviews!)

1. Tommy Gun (not yet open), Capitol Hill (there's a nice East African shopkeeper next door)
2. The College Inn, U-District (exactly the sort of dive bar I would have loved in my uni days)
3. Earl’s on the Ave, U-District (hey, brah!)
4. Finn MacCool’s, U-District (bouncer carded a WSLCB agent)
5. Tiki Bob’s Cantina, Pioneer Square (deafening, awful music)
6. Cowgirls Inc, Pioneer Square (people pay a cover for this experience)
7. Frontier Room, Belltown (replaying the Bulls-Lakers game on TV)
8. See Sound Lounge, Belltown (no sound left unseen)
9. Amber, Belltown (closed by the time we got there, but the bouncers were dapper)

Lt. Frank Gallegos and Anne Radford of the WSLCB
  • Lt. Frank Gallegos and Anne Radford of the WSLCB