It wasn’t so many years ago the owners of the Zebra Lounge on Dauphin Island Parkway found themselves putting pasties over the nipples of tribeswomen painted on the wall of their bar.

For those who have led a more pious life, pasties are what exotic dancers, or “strippers” as they are called by less well-bred individuals, place over their nipples in order to adhere to certain “blue” laws governing what may and may not take place in an establishment where alcohol is served. And nearly 100 percent of the time a particular portion of that law addresses the state of undress of real live women with actual nipples.

But in the case of the Zebra Lounge, art met bureaucracy, and art lost. Officers of the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board — or ABC — felt the decades-old mural depicting a tribal scene that fits the Zebra’s safari theme violated state law. So pasties were added to the mural.

I won’t go through the lurid descriptions of things that can’t be shown anywhere a liquor license is required. But suffice it to say naked tribal murals are not mentioned specifically. Rather, things are open to interpretation.

And there’s the problem with laws — often they are generally open to interpretation. And, at least in Alabama, they are often enforced in haphazard ways that sometimes leave me dizzy.

Over the past few days Mobilians have been outraged by the Health Department cracking down on the local rite of passage that is crawfish boiled and served up for free at area bars. Apparently it’s been a front-burner issue for some time, with the Health Department and downtown bar owners and crawfish chefs coming to some agreement about how it would be handled. But after a particular establishment continued pouring used crawdad water down storm drains, the Health Department moved in.

There has been much gnashing of teeth over this, with some patrons opining that it is akin to losing Mardi Gras. Perhaps that’s a little bit of hyperbole, but you get the drift. Mobilians LOVE crawfish boils, and many bars have found serving free mudbugs a great way to draw a crowd of people who like to pinch the tails and suck the heads, then wash them down with adult beverages.

So while it’s easy to understand the Health Department’s duty to protect people from eating in nasty, filthy restaurants, it’s kind of hard to envision a boiling pot of crawfish serving as a major conductor of foodborne illness. Frankly the bathrooms in some of these places appear to be a more likely health concern.

In fact, when we asked, there hasn’t been a complaint that someone became sick from eating bar-boiled crawdads. But from now on things are going to be a little different, and some of those establishments without a proper kitchen may be back to serving free peanuts.

I’m not saying bars and restaurants should be allowed to pour crawfish water all over the streets of downtown or to serve the tiny ditch lobsters in a dirty ashtray, but it seems like a situation in which a longstanding state law was suddenly enforced to stop a behavior rather than to protect people.  

Slight change in topic …

Speaking of state laws being enforced in a haphazard way, the plot continues to grow thicker concerning the 2014 expungement law passed in Montgomery. Regular readers may be familiar with reporter Eric Mann’s coverage of the arrest of investigative reporter John Caylor in Daphne two months ago for publishing the expunged arrest record of a local attorney working as a clerk for U.S. District Court Judge Ginny Granade.

We’ve reported pretty extensively about Caylor being jailed once and then having another warrant for his arrest issued even though he removed the records. I won’t go back over all the details other than to say he is still on the run and the law is still — I believe — a wholly unconstitutional prior restraint that runs the risk of having the state government dictating what newspapers can or cannot write.

But another exciting angle to the story is that the very state government that passed this dumb law also isn’t living up to its end of the deal. In addition to criminalizing the publication of actual legal records, the law also requires the Alabama Office of Courts to collect and maintain data about expungements, in case the Legislature should ever ask for such info.

When we called asking for information such as what types of crimes have been expunged, what types have been denied and how many overall expungements there’ve been, AOC just basically said, “Oopsie.” Seems they’ve been keeping none of that info — at least that’s what they told us.

And if that’s not crazy enough, the only information they said they could possibly get us was a simple raw number of overall expungements since the law passed, but they wanted us to pay them $500 to do it, in order to cover their research costs — research that BY LAW they should have already done!

So here are the ironies so far:

A lawyer has a reporter arrested for publishing his expunged records on a website because he doesn’t want people to see them, thus igniting a First Amendment battle in which coverage of the story brings far more attention to his arrest record than it ever would have had he just left it alone. And now the fact that no one has been keeping track of how many expungements there have been, or what exactly is being expunged, creates a situation in which the media should be investigating just exactly whose criminal records are being wiped clean. Which is exactly the opposite of what the people who passed this law wanted.

How is anyone supposed to know whether only the prescribed infractions are being expunged if the state isn’t keeping records? I guess we’re just supposed to trust that people with money and influence aren’t taking advantage?

Keeping up with the ways state laws are often manipulated — or ignored when it’s convenient — is a full-time job in Alabama, but it’s one worth doing if you don’t want pasties on your crawfish and censorship in your newspapers.