This is a really good question. On difficult nights I’ll ask myself this question repeatedly. Sometimes out loud.
I never had any aspirations of becoming a bouncer. As a kid I didn’t daydream about throwing aggressive drunk people out of a bar. Nor did I fantasize about breaking up fights. I don’t think many people do. It just happens. Hell, as a kid I was so scrawny and little and shy that this would have been the last possibility for me.
I did, at various points in my life, daydream about becoming an architect, a psychologist, a movie director, and a musician. I tried the first two, never tried the third option, and am honestly still trying to make that musician thing work.
A lot of huge guys are drawn to working security or being a bouncer. And I say guys because it is an inherently sexist field. Not as many women choose it, or continue at it long due to the sexist bullshit inherent within. I’m lucky in that I work at several venues that do employ women security guards. And they rock. I have so much respect for them. But let’s be honest, 9 out of 10 bouncers are dudes, and big ones at that.
I’m honestly not that big of a guy. I’m about 210 pounds and maybe 6 foot tall wearing my work boots. I am, however, what people would refer to as ‘stocky’. And I have muscular drummer arms from playing drums in numerous bands over the years. But when I’m working an event with other dudes that weigh in at 300 pounds and resemble a 7 foot tall Viking, I do sometimes feel like the Ewok to their Wookie.
I went to college for a Psychology degree and focused on abnormal psych and child development. All of my full-time jobs were working with youth. And they were all non-profit agencies that were trying to actually make a difference. I worked at numerous locked psychiatric residential treatment centers. There are the facilities that youth are placed in by the state to receive treatment, stabilize after a crime, await their trial date, learn skills to transition into a new home, etc. Most kids there had a dual diagnosis, which is both a mental illness and an alcohol/drug addiction. It’s very hard to separate the two and treat them effectively. I even worked in Juvenile Detention and other treatment centers where I staffed the sex offender unit. Working with sex offenders is a discrete skill that not everyone has. Or wants.
I started working in locked residential treatment for adolescents in 1992. Various job titles that I held over the years were Residential Treatment Counselor, Custody Services Specialist, Adolescent Mentor, Group Life Residential Advisor. And as you can imagine, a large part of working in these facilities is doing physical interventions and holds with aggressive or suicidal clients. Most of these places have ‘Quiet rooms’, which are padded rooms with nothing inside them. If a client is suicidal or assaultive they are physically restrained until calm enough to move into this quiet room, where they are then left to calm down. Or, in some extreme cases, if they continue to try credible self-harm in the room, the staff would re-enter and hold them to prevent serious injury. Lots of kids lose their shit even more during these holds. Often kids who were sexually abused or raped will actually re-live the rape during this hold. Having four adult men holding down a teenager is less than ideal for everyone’s mental health.
But to work in these places and do what they call therapeutic physical holds, you must be officially trained by the state. The two trainings that I received over and over again for all my different jobs were PART and OIS. This is along with the mandatory CPR/First Aid certification and the federal background check and fingerprinting. PART stands for Professional Assault Response Training. OIS stands for Oregon Intervention Systems. Both of these trainings are for safe hand-on methods of intervening with a violent person. These do not ever involve pain-compliance holds like law enforcement uses. It’s mainly immobilization of the joints. It also involve defensive techniques, verbal de-escalation techniques, and things like escorts, floor holds, wall holds, and quiet room holds. It’s intense and stressful. But responding to physically assaultive youth was sometimes a daily occurrence in these jobs. And I have to admit, I loved the adrenaline rush of it all. And the unpredictability and variety of each day. You never knew what the shift was going to offer you, and you truly never knew what was going to happen. While some of my friends complained of being bored working in a coffee shop, I would complain of wrestling two teenagers who were as big as I was to the ground.
In 2003 I started attending the Burning Man event in the desert. Over 80,000 people attend this bizarre art, music, dance, and counterculture event in Nevada every year. It’s extreme camping under harsh conditions, and the largest leave no trace event that I know of. And essentially no supplies are available there, so it’s pack it in pack it out. After a few years attending I started volunteering as a Black Rock Ranger. Those are volunteer non-confrontational community mediators. We try to solve all the problems without involving law enforcement if possible. If not we interface with law enforcement and assist.
At the end of the event there is a gargantuan effigy burn of ‘The Man’. This is a controlled burn of a massive wooden structure. The following night there is another burn of The Temple. This is the wooden art structure that you can interact with by leaving memorials or things you want to say goodbye to. The structure begins blank, but by the end of the week it is covered in memorials to people and pets who have passed away. People write letters to their abuser and nail them to the structure. People attach entire wedding albums from a marriage that ended in divorce. People make photo tributes to those who have died. Some just grab a sharpie and write something on the wood itself. You basically leave anything you want to say goodbye to. Pain, insecurity, guilt, regrets, past relationships, and the dead. It’s an amazing and very emotional experience to see this Temple burn with thousands of people watching silently and crying. Over the 14 years I attended Burning Man, the Sunday night Temple Burn became one of the main reasons I went. It is the spiritual keystone of the entire event.
I gave you the background on that so you would understand the need for a subdivision of Rangers called ‘Sandmen.’ This is a reference to the 1976 sci-fi film LOGAN’S RUN. “Sandmen catch runners.” I volunteered as a Sandman for many years out there. Our job was to patrol the inner perimeter of both of those burns and prevent anyone from running into the fire. This is the one scenario where we are allowed to put hands on a participant non-consensually. If someone is attempting to run into the fire they have already made it past several waves of rangers and other staff. So, in an effort to save their life, we will spot them and vector in on them. Then tackle them to the ground. We then speak with them and have them make a verbal contract to walk out with us to law enforcement. We release them to law enforcement and get back in the perimeter to stop further runners. People are often under the influence of lots of alcohol and/or drugs. So they truly don’t understand the dangers of running near the largest fire they’ve ever seen. They really can and will self-immolate if they get inside that fire. Or, in some cases, they understand that very well and they are actually trying to commit suicide. Especially on Sunday night for the emotional Temple Burn. Either way, this is the worst case scenario and we’re there to get them on the ground in any way possible to save their life. I’ve done it a few times. Sadly, even with our protocols in place, a runner has gotten through twice and died.
I never thought that I would be able to legitimately list anything from Burning Man on a resume. But I surely did for my first few security jobs and it worked. Anything where you’re responding to an urgent crisis situation and using physical force against someone is relevant. It’s like I was the bouncer at a burn perimeter in the desert. I’m trying to ensure that everybody has a good time until they’re not. Then I will make you leave. “You are showing visible signs of intoxication. You’re trespassing. And you’re behaving in a way that is a grave danger to yourself. That fire behind me will end your life. Your night has been concluded. Get the hell outta here.”
I don’t have any military experience, nor am I a martial arts competitor, boxer, or football player. That’s not necessarily what you need. In my case it’s a strong background in therapeutic physical holds, working with risky populations, a wee bit of Tai Kwon Do, tackling hippies at Burning Man, extensive verbal de-escalation skills, being comfortable with physicality, and the confidence to do it. Oh, and firm boundaries. I tell people ‘No’ all night long every night.
You take a two-day DPSST certification course where you learn legalities and how to spot fake IDs. You pay for the certification card, take a test, wait for your background check, and you’re in. Honestly it’s about people’s perceptions of you. Once you put on a shirt that says SECURITY on it, and wear a walkie-talkie and an earpiece, you have become that person of authority. You can put your hands on people and make them leave the establishment. That’s the way simplified version. But honestly that’s what that is.
There are several scenes in four of my favorite films that summarize my life as a bouncer.
First, the quick little scene from Michael Mann’s 1995 epic crime drama HEAT. During the opening credits Val Kilmer is purchasing explosives and he shows his ID to the seller. The guy looks at his ID very closely but passes inspection (Or he was paid off and knew full well it was a fake ID). He sells him the explosives.
Second, the scene in James Cameron’ 1984 film THE TERMINATOR. When Arnold goes inside the dance club Tech Noir hunting for Sarah Connor. The way he moves through the crowd looking for his prey is sometimes how I feel when looking for someone who we need to kick out. Sometimes we get a report of a person selling drugs or harassing someone on premises and we just have their basic physical description from the bartender.
Third is the 1995 Martin Scorsese film CASINO. Robert DeNiro’s character figures out that two customers are cheating. He notifies security and 5-6 security staff literally just emerge from the crowd to position themselves around the two customers. Scorsese keeps them in the darkness of the crowd and them brightens them up to highlight them as they get ready.
The fourth scene is from the 1993 Brian De Palma film CARLITO’S WAY. There is a scene where Al Pacino is eating dinner at the club and defends a female employee that John Leguizamo’s character is harassing. Threats are made and a fight breaks out. Within seconds a bunch of bouncers are involved, grabbing all of the thugs and hauling them away and out of the club. They were reading the body language and raised voice tones early on and made their way over to the table before anything had happened. When it did happen, they were already there to respond immediately.
I should put these four scenes on a loop. Checking IDs, searching for people in a crowd, coordinating proper placement when you have a situation, and busting up a fight and bouncing them out of the club. That’s my work life sometimes, over and over.
I do have to add that I had worked in the non-profit sector with at-risk kids for 25 years. I had been at the same job for 16 years as a youth mentor. As rewarding as those jobs were, I was definitely burned out. I needed a change. Sweet baby Jesus I needed a change. Some of those jobs were so emotionally and physically taxing. And those jobs never really ended. I took the work home with me. And I was always essentially on-call. I could get a crisis call at any time from families, counselors, therapists, police officers, correction workers, medical personnel, or the youth themselves. Then the endless detailed documentation and paperwork. I’m so relieved to now have a job that I clock in, clock out, and don’t think about it again. Except, of course, when writing a blog about it.
My friends tease me that even as a bouncer I am essentially still working with kids. Just bigger, older, drunk kids making terrible choices. I suppose they’re not wrong.
I do love music. I’ve been attending live concerts since 1986. I’ve performed in bands of my own off and on since about 1990. I love to listen to music and create music and write lyrics. And man do I love beating on my drums. Strangely, I had never seriously considered working in music venues until I started my career in security in 2016.
I’ve created a fun little niche for myself of working as security solely at music venues. The list includes Bossanova Ballroom, The Analog Theater, Doug Fir Lounge, Kell’s Irish Pub, Ash Street Saloon, The Crystal Ballroom, The White Eagle, and The Mission Theater. The road here was circuitous for sure. But here I am. Making up for lost time. Seeing all the concerts and ensuring people have fun and stay safe while they are with us. And I have a pocket full of earplugs. Rock on. And please be nice to your bouncers.