To Catch a Bartender

“Do you have anything that’s not expired?” asked the bartender on duty Thursday night at Karma, the candle-lit, hookah-lined lounge on First Avenue, between Third and Fourth streets.

She had just brandished a gun-shaped photo-I.D. scanner and fired a neon beam at the barcode on this 31-year-old reporter’s Washington, D.C.–issued driver’s license, which, as the electronic contraption promptly noted, had expired almost three months ago.

Over the weekend, Counter Espionage used the same ID to board two flights on Delta Airlines without so much as a peep from uniformed agents of the federal Transportation Security Administration.

Yet the old card didn’t carry enough cred to score a single pint of Brooklyn Lager at Karma last week.

“I’m sorry. We got in trouble a couple of times already,” the reluctant suds-slinger explained.

At least three times since March 2006, in fact, underage, undercover operatives with the city’s Multi-Agency Response to Community Hotspots (MARCH) task force have managed to fool Karma’s staff into making illegal alcohol sales—a series of mishaps that ultimately culminated in the city suing bar management and its landlord for permitting a “public nuisance” on the property.

This past February, Karma was forced to fire two managers, pay a $10,000 fine, and implement a new “electronic age-verification and recording system,” as part of a written settlement agreement with the city that allowed the rare smoking-permitted venue to keep pouring as well as puffing.

The hookah joint is certainly not alone in making tragic missteps along the regulatory minefield that is today’s happy-hour industry in New York City.

Authorities have lately embarked on a covert bar-busting rampage across the densely liquor-licensed East Village and Lower East Side, routinely slapping big, bright restraining orders on doors and threatening operators with hefty fines and closure for up to a year.

“It feels like war—you know, spies looking to infiltrate and bring you down,” said Ariel Palitz, owner of the swanky party spot Sutra.

To Catch a Bartender