Afterthoughts: In Praise of the Red Cup

It’s more than a party essential, it’s a symbol of civic compromise.

Photo: Linny Morris

I realized recently that I love the red, plastic party cup. You know the one. Originally created by the Solo Cup Co. in 1972, the flexy, 16-ounce, plastic cup design has since been copied by countless manufacturers, making it a staple of tailgate and keg parties everywhere. It’s easy to see why. The red cup is cheap, practical, instantly recognizable. It’s also easy to take for granted. Who pays much attention to disposable dishes, after all?

But it’s the little things that make society function, and I’ve noticed that this little cup plays a big role in one particular civic compromise, in which law intersects with courtesy. This is because the red cup can—and often does—contain beer, where beer should not be had.

Officially, drinking in public spaces such as the street or the beach is illegal. In Honolulu, it’s an offense punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or even imprisonment, up to 30 days. The law isn’t completely terrible; we need something on the books with which to nail disruptive or dangerous drunks.

illustration: daniel fishel

But what would a beach park barbecue be without a cooler of beer (or sangria, for you classy types) tucked under the picnic table? The thought of washing down our kalbi and hot dogs with water is just dismal.

The police, for their part, have better things to do than bust harmless citizens relaxing on a Sunday, and probably enjoy a cold one themselves on their days off.

And so, somewhere along the way, we all reached an unspoken agreement: Take the small step of pouring your adult beverage into a red, plastic cup, and the police will look the other way.

As fig leafs go, it’s amazingly transparent. Or, rather, bright red. No one really thinks that’s Hawaiian Sun in there. But it’s just enough to put a little flex in the law, allowing the authorities to be reasonable. It even enables small acts of kindness.

On a recent weekend, for example, I biked out to Yokohama Bay with a crew of cycle friends. A few had packed beer, but, for whatever reason, no one thought to bring the all-important red cups.

We cracked the drinks open anyway. Out there at the end of the road, the beach mostly deserted, who would care? The lifeguard on duty, it turns out. His binoculars were good for more than just scanning the waves. After rolling up on a red ATV, he said, almost apologetically, “You know you cannot drink on the beach, right? Try keep ’em hidden.”

Grateful for the warning, we tucked our cans behind our backs, and the lifeguard continued on down the beach. Ten minutes later, he returned, bearing what we were sure was a ticket book. Instead, he tossed a package to us: a stack of red cups. Talk about a lifesaver.