So there they were last Saturday, two guys on a bench in Sequoyah Park on a lovely, lazy proto-summer afternoon. Two guys who were definitely not me and an old friend in town for the weekend, watching the river roll by and the herons dip and swoop and the dog people run their dogs and the volleyball guys grunt and strut and pretend they looked better with their shirts off than they actually did. These two guys I’m talking about, the ones who were not me or anyone I know, had wisely kept their shirts on and were not engaging in any particular activity at all except talking, and enjoying the scene, and occasionally passing back and forth a plastic jug concealed in a red thermal wine bag. The bag served the dual purpose of keeping the jug reasonably cold and concealing its contents—which would have, upon inspection, looked like a lot of limes and mint leaves floating in ice and liquid.
Among the things these two guys talked about, while drinking what—if we’re going to be really clear about it—we’ll just call a pitcher of mojitos, was the absurdity and hypocrisy of open-container laws. Both of these guys had lived in New York City, and had often enjoyed picnics in Central Park with open bottles of wine nonchalantly displayed on the blanket. This is not technically any more legal than chugging a Four Loko on Fifth Avenue, but as an NYPD officer once explained to me, writing tickets in Central Park is risky business—you don’t want to be accused of stifling tourism, and you never know which friend of the mayor’s you might end up offending.
Here in Knoxville, as we enter the season of outdoor imbibing, the rules can seem almost as arbitrary. The profusion of patios downtown and elsewhere attest to the popularity of the activity. On a sunny day or humid evening, the combination of warm air and cool cocktails feels like something concocted on high—what the weather was made for. This is equally true of the young women feeling sophisticated over martinis at Sapphire and the sweaty gal relaxing with a cold one on her porch after messing with the motor on the mower.
But there are lines you don’t cross. You cannot, as patrons of the Downtown Grill & Brewery are constantly relearning, stand outside a patio and hold your beer inside the fence. You can drink lots of places on Market Square, as long as those places are safely contained by thin metal railings. Except, of course, during Sundown in the City and a handful of other sanctioned events, when public space that is otherwise taboo for tippling is magically transformed into a boozy boulevard. If you drive down Gay Street while drinking a glass of wine, you are breaking a whole bunch of laws. But if you walk down the middle of the same street drinking the same glass of wine during the annual Rossini Festival, you are merely getting in the spirit of the affair. (The open-container allowance may be the most genuinely European aspect of the fest.)
We do also have our brown-bag exceptions, the don’t-ask-don’t-tell of the alcohol world. Like those spindly patio fences, the brown bags create a veil, a curtaining-off of the private world of debauchery and vice that alcohol is supposed to inhabit from the public world of rectitude and righteousness.
But in summertime, especially, the temptation to pierce that veil can be awfully strong. If alcohol is good for anything—and I wouldn’t write this column if I did not believe it to be so—it is as an enhancer of social moments and momentum, a sweetener of the atmosphere, and rarely more so than in an open field or alongside a cool, gurgling stream. Not that I’m advocating anything that’s going to get you hassled by an overly officious gendarme or park ranger. All I can tell you is that those two guys in Sequoyah Park seemed to be having a fine afternoon.