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Nightclub Bouncers Tell All

Tales from behind the velvet rope

Courtesy of The Boston Phoenix  Written By JAMES PARKER

A young man of my acquaintance, a callow pube of a London club-goer, got himself bounced not long ago from an establishment on the King’s Road. Nothing remarkable there: he’s always getting thrown out of places, his manners being of the sort that seem to require continuous correction by the cosmos. The remarkable thing was what happened next. A bantamweight with no fighting skills whatsoever, he stared up at the spiffy Goliath who had just ejected him, trailed a limp hand across the man’s tuxedo’d pectorals, and drawled, “Pretty nice jacket, man — you wouldn’t want me to fuck it up for you, now, would you?” And then he went home. In one piece.

That’s the thing about bouncers: for all their density and predictability, their routine enforcements and worn-smooth one-liners, they are not quite of this world. Reality tilts around them. Disproportions occur. Tiny bouncers are to be feared, while extra-large ones — presenting as they do the affronting spectacle of indomitability — find themselves constantly challenged by smaller men. In ethnographic terms, the bouncer is the big daddy of the liminal realm, the place of thresholds, through which participants in the rite are conducted — moved along, if you like — as they pass from one state of being to another. Jittery clubbers at the door, agitating for entry; the gyre of an out-of-control pit, slewing toward carnage; a drugged or boozed patron sprouting invisible tusks of hostility; the bouncer is there, filling the space, negotiating the transition. Not always skillfully, and not always nicely, but then heavy-handedness is part of his job description. To make something bounce, you have to smack it from time to time.

What, though, of his interior life? Is there an interior life? Or will we find, if we go behind that gum-chewing grimace, only a flickery Terminator-world of threat assessment, one-word commands, and thermal readings of girls’ asses? This is an area not much explored. We have Rowdy Herrington’s Road House (1989), of course: a movie, it turns out, that all bouncers love — a totemic item of bouncer culture. Patrick Swayze, playing the taut minimalist Dalton, struts lethally about under his moussed mantle of ’80s hair. Bullies leer at him and are flattened — in some cases killed. No chucker-out of drunks can watch these scenes without a hot surge of pride. At rest up in his loft, Dalton frowns austerely over a Jim Harrison novel and beds Kelly Lynch: bouncing in its epic aspect.

More nuanced, Martin Amis’s 1996 short story “State of England” gave us Big Mal, “five-feet-nine in all directions,” a pensive lump caught between two women and reconsidering his vocation: “Bouncing was a mop-up operation made necessary by faulty bouncing. The best bouncers never did any bouncing. Only bad bouncers bounced.”

But Herrington and Amis are among the very few who have illuminated the bouncer’s plight. Until now. Thanks to a mini-wave of bouncer/brawler memoirs, we are at last being made privy to the many moods of bouncing. Welcome, gentle reader, to Bouncer Lit.

Beyond the velvet ropes
If Chick Lit is for chicks, and Lad Lit is for lads, then Bouncer Lit is for . . . big lads? Certainly much of it is written for the appreciation, the delectation, of the brotherhood. War stories, tall tales, tips on fighting: the prime texts of Bouncer Lit share that sallow end-of-the-shift feeling captured by London doorman Bill Carson in his 2005 memoir Show No Fear: A Bouncer’s Diary (Athena Press), the feeling of bouncers in the dawn, stale with secondhand smoke and glandular backwash: “John drops Pete and me back at my place. Wife and kids were in bed hours ago, the fridge was stocked before I left that evening, so we chill out with an ice-cold beer and listen to Pink Floyd whilst mulling over the night’s shenanigans.” And in the US, particularly, Bouncer Lit has an instructional bent. Books like Peyton Quinn’s A Bouncer’s Guide to Barroom Brawling and Marc “Animal” MacYoung’s A Professional’s Guide to Ending Violence Quickly (both published by Paladin) give you the grips and the angles, while Mark J. Gadsden’s Memoirs of a Bouncer (Authorhouse) fills you in on the etiquette. “Vulgarity,” writes Gadsden, with the looming primness of a true bouncer, “isn’t a positive behavior pattern.”

The latest and paciest of these books is Rob Fitzgerald’s Clublife: Thugs, Drugs, and Chaos at New York City’s Premier Nightclubs (HarperCollins), which details the author’s three years bouncing in the Red-Bull-and-Grey-Goose-fueled clubs of West Chelsea. Fitzgerald, who built an online following blogging as “Rob the Bouncer” for his Clublife site, is the Jay McInerney of Bouncer Lit. Clublife charts both the rise and fall of a club called Axis (“an amalgam,” he writes in an Author’s Note, “of my experiences and observations in clubs”) and the disenchantment of an apprentice doorman.

he two processes are interdependent: as Axis “goes cold,” losing its celebrity cachet and being obliged thereby to let in more bridge-and-tunnel fake-chinchilla-wearing riff-raff just to keep the lights on (or flashing), Rob the Bouncer is exposed to ever-tawdrier scenes, until he is forced to acknowledge that his club has become a “guido paradise.” “The center of the main room would be teeming with juicehead guidos, with women — vastly outnumbered, most times — floating around the periphery, afraid to venture into the hive. . . .”

The guidos get intoxicated; they want to fight. Or, in Bill Carson’s formula from Show No Fear: “Muppets + drink + drugs = ag.” It gets poor Rob down terribly, moving him to outbursts of passionate misanthropy. Even respect turns sour. “The questions persisted, lobbed by the trolls. Tossed at me nonstop by the no-shame brigade — those desperate little fuckers who’d come into the club to ask me questions about everything from workout tips to real estate to auto repair. To them, we were bouncer-kings.” Helpfully, Clublife has a section called “The Rules”: How to Talk to a Bouncer, Leaving a Club Without Getting Hurt, and so on.

Bouncer Lit has its origins over the pond, where it began as a subgenre of the “hard man” memoir. The English are very indulgent of their old-school psychopaths, every one of whom — by the mid ’90s — seemed to have a volume of wistful, self-absolving reminiscences displayed face-out at airport bookstores. Gangland torturer “Mad” Frankie Fraser and permanent Category “A” prisoner Charles Bronson were just two of the old lags helping to form the new authorial class. These men were storied head cases, embedded deep in their country’s criminal lore, but less-known faces, too, soon got in the game. Bouncer Lit was inaugurated in 1997 with the publication of Jamie O’Keefe’s Old School–New School (New Breed) and triumphed a year later with the success of Lenny McLean’s The Guv’nor (Blake). McLean, a leg-breaker, bare-knuckle boxer, and mega-doorman with a face like the front of a truck, scored himself (posthumously) a bestseller: now the velvet rope was lifted, and the bouncer invaded the halls of the printed word.

Carlton Leach’s Muscle (Blake) arrived in 2002, the literary apogee of UK bouncer criminality. “I’m the Deadliest Bastard You’ll Ever Meet,” runs the type on the front cover. “If You Cross Me, I’ll Track You to the Ends of the Earth and Destroy You.” Ex–football hooligan, debt collector, steroid abuser, and bodyguard — “a compassionate man,” as it says in the preface, “who cried unashamedly when his dog died” — nothing in Leach’s portfolio of heaviness comprehends him like the single word bouncer. “I said, ‘I don’t give a fuck who you are. You’re not welcome.’ A fight kicked off, and I grabbed him by the throat, pulled out a knife, and said, ‘Look, mate, we don’t want this grief. You’ve caused the fucking problem. If you don’t fuck off, I’m going to drag you behind that tree and cut your fucking throat. How do you want it?’ All the boys were on steroids those days and were pumped up and growling at everybody like animals.’ ” US Bouncer Lit has not, so far, produced a work of comparable viciousness. One suspects that it won’t be long.

There’s the bouncer-as-muscle, and then there’s the VIP area. Of all his duties, none more cruelly burlesques the bouncer’s role as interdimensional gatekeeper than his post outside the VIP area. Here the big man endures for hours between wobbling stanchions, flecked with moon-dust dandruff under the UV light, sourly clinking and un-clinking the velveteen sausage of the rope. The glamorous and the entitled breeze by him; he tangles only with the no-hopers. Within the cordon of privilege, there is nothing special: it’s a place where you can spend your money faster — that’s all. But the pull of the rope is powerful. As Rob the Bouncer puts it: “Throw down a set of stanchions in the middle of the Gobi desert, with a velvet rope clipped between them, and you’ll eventually see a guido wander out of the dunes and step over it.”

Common to all works of Bouncer Lit, fixed in the genre’s DNA, is a severe professional interest in the moment — the now — the ravening second in which it becomes clear that a large man is going to have a swing at you, or a small man is about to go mad as a mongoose. To a professional, this moment is luminous with possibility — not a crisis at all. Chin strike? Knee in the balls? Or is it time to de-escalate, time to become, like Rob the Bouncer, “the Guido Whisperer”? The options rotate in a slow-motion sphere-dance. “A major difference between a pro and an amateur,” writes “Animal” MacYoung, trenchant in the authentic Bouncer Lit manner, “is what the pro has cued up and waiting on the other side of the decision to become violent.”

The standout guide to this “other side” is Fight: Or, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking, due this fall from HarperCollins, by the extraordinary Eugene S. Robinson — ex-bouncer, frontman for the bronto-blues/art-metal outfit Oxbow, journalist, street fighter, and all-round swinging dick. Sort of a unified theory of unarmed combat, Fight pulls off the nifty trick of being thorough to the point of compendiousness while maintaining a core of bristling idiosyncrasy. Robinson quizzes gangsters (including South Boston’s own Kevin Weeks), wrestlers, and Ultimate Fighters, but the real story is the author’s bruising quest for his own limits, which are discovered at the hands (and feet) of the fighters he periodically challenges. A bout with the kickboxer Cung Le, for example, puts him in the hospital with a ruptured quadriceps tendon. (“The last guy I saw with an injury like this,” murmurs the doctor, “had been kicked by a horse.”) Wrestler Rico Chiapparelli smilingly forces him into submission with an ankle lock. Brazilian arch-grappler Daniel Gracie takes him to pieces: “I was watching the world’s smallest horror movie AND I was starring in it.” Robinson is Bouncer Lit’s Norman Mailer. And occasionally, in the time-warped, Finnegans Wake seconds before someone chokes him out, its James Joyce.

Lights out. Or lights on. If you’re still standing at clearing-out time, the bouncer will supervise a different kind of mental shift: the reverse transmutation of the end of the night. “At the flick of a switch,” reflects Big Mal in “State of England,” “you went from opulence to poverty — all the lacquer, glamour, sex, privilege, empire, wiped out, in a rush of electricity.” Outside, cold terraces of morning oppress the clubber’s brain. The drugs don’t work. His ears are ringing. Take him home. But the bouncer. . . The bouncer abides. He’s not going anywhere. Poke him and prod him, vain creatures of the dawn. Expend yourself upon his iron breast. If you’re lucky, he might write you up.

More Stories from two of New York's Finest Bouncers

An online journal of the nightly nonsense endured by a bouncer at two of New York's most popular nightclubs.   More Stories...

Doing a smattering of bouncing work in some new places – summer favors for friends in the business – has made me think about a few things I hadn’t really taken the time to consider in quite a while. In a while refers to the three-plus years I just spent as a member of a nightclub bouncing staff’s so-called “in” crowd. Sometimes, when you’re “in,” you tend to forget what it was like to be “out.”

Since I’ve been writing this blog, I have, without fail, stood up for bouncers at damned near every possible occasion. I’ve tried to let you see the “profession” through my eyes: as a second job taken by decent people for the purpose of making more money than we would by relying solely on our primary incomes.

I started bouncing strictly for the money. A little over four years ago, I needed more of it, so I returned to the business after a fairly long absence. As much as I’ve complained about everything since coming back, I don’t regret doing so because bouncing, if you will, has been very, very good to me. I’ve made some friends I’ll be keeping for life, socked away more than my share of shakedown cash, and learned a shitload about myself, and about the world, in the process.

As things in my nightclub life have started to shift recently, however, I’ve figured a few things out, and one particular thing I’ve figured out may surprise those of you who’ve been reading this site for a while. Here it is:

Some bouncers are assholes.

So, yeah, I said it. Some of us are assholes. Not every bouncer is a nice guy. I’m not a particularly nice guy to the customers, but I’m always, to a fault, a nice guy to my fellow bouncers. I don’t posture, I don’t walk around the club flexing, and I don’t put anyone on the staff through any sort of “test” in order to win my respect – which, when you consider what we’re actually at the nightclub for in the first place, is just about as meaningless as it gets. Too many people in this profession don’t understand this, and it’s a shame. It gives the rest of us – the ones who simply want to take home an envelope filled with cash at the end of a peaceful night – a bad name.

The problem with me is that I sometimes fail to realize how good I have things until it’s too late. Or, maybe I realize how good I have it, but I don’t realize just how good “good” really was until “good” is gone and I’m stuck with whatever’s left. I can introduce you to about two dozen people who’d happily tell you that this is the story of my life.

See, some guys have never done anything in their miserable motherfucking lives. They’ve never done shit and they’ve never been shit, so they hit up some guy at the gym for a few vials of God-knows-what, stick a needle in their ass for half a year, and then go out looking for problems because they know they’ve been nothings since the day they were born and they’re stuck with something stupid to prove. Something they should’ve proven when they had the chance, but didn’t. The hard part for me comes when these dicks become bouncers, because they’re the ones with whom I’d rather not work.

I’ve had it made all this time – without really knowing it, of course - because the people I’ve worked for have historically avoided hiring bouncers who fit this description. When a juicehead would come down to the club looking for a job, management’s wheels would immediately begin to turn. Instead of hiring him immediately because of his size, they would, thankfully, put some thought into the matter:

Now, let’s look at this rationally. This gentleman has injected himself with steroids for an extended period of time in order to make himself look like a freak. Why has he done this? What are the underlying reasons behind this choice of his? Is a person who’d do this to himself really the sort of bouncer with whom we’d like to work?

The answer to this, invariably, was a resounding no. We didn’t need complexes and syndromes on our staff. What we needed were people who could get along with each other, so that’s what we hired: good, solid guys you wouldn’t think twice about inviting over your house to watch the Super Bowl. Guys you’d go out drinking with. Guys who’d help you carry a sofabed up a flight of stairs or give you an extra ticket to a playoff game. Guys you’d risk your own health to protect because you sincerely didn’t want anything to happen to them.

What I’ve evidently failed to realize all this time is that not every establishment thinks along these lines. They don’t stop to consider whether a new guy “fits in,” and after a while, as the good people bail out, what you’re left with is a staff full of asswipes who’d rather fight each other than protect the club owner’s investment, which is the only reason they were hired in the first place.

I’ve been spoiled. I’m willing to admit that now. I’ve been spoiled by the quality of the crews on which I’ve worked, and this, essentially, has soured me on working for anyone other than the people who originally hired me.


Because some bouncers, much as it pains me to admit it, really are assholes.

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