Summertime keeps D.C. alcoholic beverage control investigator on her toes

Erin Mathieson, a D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration investigator patrols the streets of Washington to ensure that restaurants and clubs are complying with necessary guidelines.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The two men sitting just inside the entrance to the S&M club look apprehensive as Erin Mathieson pulls out her badge and identifies herself as an investigator for the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. One of them fetches the manager, a short blonde in a hot-pink shirt and matching nail polish.

Mitzi, as the manager's nametag reads, leads Mathieson inside the warehouse-like space not far from Nationals Park. Mathieson tells Mitzi that she's gotten a complaint that the club, the Crucible, is selling alcohol without a license.

Mitzi assures the investigator that bondage and booze don't mix. "We don't want people to be drinking and hitting," she says.

In the 10 minutes Mathieson has been in the club, she has seen a woman dressed as a little girl with pigtails and a man getting a massage but not anyone drinking or serving alcohol. And according to her bible, Title 25 of the D.C. Code, she can't inspect further tonight unless she sees alcohol service. So she leaves, knowing she will probably return.

Summertime is high season for the booze police. Just as law enforcement officers field more calls when the mercury tops 80 degrees, the 40-person agency that polices the city's 1,600 establishments with liquor licenses has its hands full with noise complaints, fights and, in the case of Club 24, a go-go spot off Bladensburg Road NE, a stabbing and brawl that led to a 30-day suspension of its license.

Mathieson gets back into her white city-issued sedan for the next stop on her never-ending tour of Washington nightlife in all its drunken, staggering, fist-flying glory. She spends every other work week on the night side, visiting corner stores, strip clubs and restaurants to see whether they are abiding by Title 25, which covers matters including how many signs a liquor store can display in its windows and what constitutes nude dancing.

She's made the rounds often enough that when she goes out with friends on her own time, she'll frequently overhear bouncers mumbling into their earpieces, "ABC on the premises." She takes that as her cue to leave.

"They think you're watching them, so they're watching you," she says. "It's hard to enjoy yourself."

'This is how I dress'

In three years on the job, Mathieson, 28, has picked up skills that a master's degree in forensic psychology didn't prepare her for, such as telling how likely it is that a brawl will break out by glancing at a bar's parking lot or recognizing bad bouncers. (They get distracted by pretty girls.) She has been in a few hairy situations, learning that the only people worse than an angry drunk are an angry bouncer (one threatened her after she helped turn him in for hitting a patron) and an angry business owner (one followed her for several blocks after she caught him selling alcohol after-hours).

ABC investigators don't carry guns and are usually plainclothed, although Mathieson's attire is far from plain. She tries to blend in at the places she inspects. On a Friday night shift in early August, she wears a shiny lilac pencil skirt and a cream top cinched at the waist by a thin belt with an oversize faux flower on one side. She has long brown hair and a deep tan from a recent trip to the beach.

At one point, when she asks a police officer whether she can park behind his patrol car in Adams Morgan, he gives her a once-over.

"You on duty?" he asks, smiling. "You look like you're going out to have fun. This is how you dress when you go to work?"

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