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Editor's Pick: Memoirs of a short bouncer

paddy molloy The Globe and Mail

All week, to celebrate Facts & Arguments' 20th anniversary, we'll be publishing past editors' favourite essays. Printed Feb. 24, 1993, this piece was selected by the first F&A editor, Philip Jackman, who says of it now: "I loved this article because it was so damn funny. Here's an unemployed actor telling us his experiences as a nightclub bouncer. He wasn't ideally suited to the job, however, being 5 feet 6 and weighing 135 pounds, and being more accustomed to treading the boards in tights and spouting Elizabethan English than dealing with large, obnoxious drunks."

My early amatory pursuits were often cut short when the object of my desires would roll her eyes skyward and squeak, "Buzz off, creep. Like, I'm a real good friend of the bouncer." Whereupon, with negligent hauteur, she would indicate a homicidal troglodyte balefully observing my incompetent attempts at courtship, a sight that invariably caused me to beat a quick retreat.

I hasten to add that I was never rude or suggestive, just short, which ranks right up there with child murder and leaving the toilet seat up in the feminine catalogue of the unforgivable.

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But those experiences left me with a profound respect for the enormous men who acted as doormen and security guards in bars: their size, their self-confidence, the casual ease with which they tore malefactors limb from limb. The thought that I would join this violent pantheon never entered my mind.

Read Philip's other two favourites: 'A grandfather's tree of life' and 'Shedding tears and shedding a uniform.'

Read other former editors' favourites: Constance's picks, Katherine's picks and Moira's picks.

Yet I did. I am 5 feet 6 and weigh 135 pounds. I am also a nightclub bouncer. Oddly, I'm still alive. And underemployed. Having trained at England's prestigious Bristol Old Vic school, and having worked in mainstream British theatre for almost 10 years ( sans visa) before being deported, means that my job skills are limited to an excellent command of Elizabethan English, an awesome facility with rapier and dagger, and the ability to cut a fine figure in tights. Oddly enough, after years of applications, I've never been invited to audition for either the Stratford or Shaw Festivals, but one must make do. So, I'm a bouncer.

Aside from my build, I do look the part. My head is shaved, my eyes are deep-set, my brows black and jutting. This conceals my natural cowardice splendidly when I need to switch into Menacing Mode.

My mentor in the profession was Jamie, 6 feet 2 and 280 pounds of steroided hostility complicated by a degree in art history. We worked together for several months at a gothic alternative bar on Toronto's Queen Street West called Club Noir, which was intensely fashionable for about two weeks and is now defunct.

What's your favourite Facts & Arguments essay? As the section celebrates its 20th year, share your memories of great F&A submissions.

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Jamie's instructions in the art and science of being "pacification consultants," as we dubbed ourselves, were lucid and sensible. I learned to ignore verbal abuse, to keep calm and to kick kneecaps. I learned how to cajole a troublemaker's friends into calming him down for me, and to always double up when a man had to be ejected, politely explaining to him that he was outnumbered and need not feel any shame for backing down and not fighting us. A good doorman, Jamie told me, should never have to throw a punch.

"Of course, sometimes you do have a fight," said Jamie, with a faraway expression suggesting a mystic having a vision of paradise. "There's a painting in the National Gallery of Britain called A Dragon Devouring Two of Cadmus's Followers. It's sort of like that." Indeed, once I saw him bashing some troublesome drunk's head against the wall in underemployed frustration, screaming, "You probably don't even know the difference between Manet and Monet, you Philistine!"

But "alternative" bar patrons, for all their panoply of chains and black leather, are essentially non-violent. This is because their ghoulish appearance conceals a basically timorous nature. When ejected for disagreeable behaviour, these self-conscious, insecure, vampire wannabes do not return with large friends and walk about on your face. No, they dash off to their next class at the Ontario College of Art and make you the subject of a terribly unflattering sculpture. I find this bearable.

Nevertheless, although a bouncer's job is 95-per-cent boredom, consisting of a slow patrol of dance floor and washrooms, wearing an impassive expression and walking in a slow, purposeful manner that evokes the implacable progress of a glacier, altercations do occur.

And wading into a melee, fists, boots, elbows and stomach churning, is pure adrenalin intoxication with no thought of consequence. There's simply no time to think or feel. Hair is grabbed, groins are kicked, fingers bitten. There is no such thing as winning unfairly; you just do the job as quickly as possible. You and your partner work as a team and you are sober; thus, the advantage is yours. A roll of quarters held in the fist is also a great help. And having neutralized the opposition, the combatants must then be removed - as a last resort, by pinching the upper lip and hauling them out.

Violence, however, was only used as a last resort, and I always felt more satisfied (and a hell of a lot safer) when I dealt with a situation by combining tact, craft and guile. If diplomacy can be defined as the art of warfare by every other means, I was the Henry Kissinger of Queen Street West.

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One particularly hairy example concerned four sizable gentlemen from a motorcycle gang called the Bucket of Blood, who were slightly intoxicated, unstable and collectively attaining critical mass. Customers were frightened. Waitresses were quailing. Cataclysm was imminent. And I was told to deal with it.

Well, muttering the usual imprecations against the casting directors who have forced this profession upon me, I swaggered up to the main side of beef, an edifice whose muscular development would have shamed a gorilla. Peering up beneath his pendulous brow ridge, I made eye contact, stood tall, and jokingly head-butted his shoulder. The group turned in unison to regard me, their jackets creaking like a leather lounge suite.

"Look," I improvised, "I got trouble. There's about five guys over there and they're getting nasty. When it comes time to throw them out, I gotta know you men are gonna help me. Right?"

They all smiled, resembling a squad of Visigoths offered the chance of pillage with an option to incinerate. Whenever I passed them on my rounds for the rest of the evening they'd look at me hopefully, beseeching my permission to mangle. It made me feel quite paternal. And they all shook my hand when they left.

In a way, though, that situation had one redeeming element that helped me deal with it. I was a man talking to other men. And although those men were drunken, testosterone-racked imbeciles, I could empathize because, like all males, I've been one myself on occasion.

But an angry female drunk is a horse of a different choler (sorry). Two are worse. Two angry at one another are a real problem. And breaking up what used to be referred to in less liberated times as a cat fight requires tact, delicacy and a suit of armour.

Women almost never fight, but when they do, it's for keeps. Believe me, the sight of two maddened beauties, keening like maenads, vermilion claws extended, rending one another, face and bosom, is not easily forgotten. And interposing oneself between them, joking to effect a reconciliation, as one can sometimes do with males, is definitely not recommended.

My professional advice to people finding themselves on the fringes of such a situation is, working with a trusted partner, to seize the Amazons in simultaneous full nelsons and rotate them a half turn (avoiding the flailing spike heels) so they are separated and unable to see one another. Then race them out different exits. Having done this, you will appreciate why bouncers usually wear long sleeves and gloves.

At age 35, I find that one of the strangest things in life is how we often play different roles in the same recurring situations, like actors switching parts in mid-scene. This was proved to me yet again when, patrolling one evening, I noticed a large patron in drunken, animated conversation with a bored female regular. And as I passed by, the old, chilling phrase was on her lips. "Buzz off, creep," she squeaked. "Like, I'm a real good friend of the bouncer." And with negligent hauteur she indicated me.

Geez, he was big. Still, duty called. I squared my shoulders, marched up to him, and assumed The Expression. I couldn't hope to look like a homicidal troglodyte, so with acknowledgment to Wagner, I glared upward, transfixing the unwelcome Romeo with what I hoped was the basilisk gaze of a rabid Nibelung, and, wondrous to relate, he beat a quick and strategic retreat.

The wheel of my life had come full circle, I thought, as she smiled at me admiringly and kissed my cheek. But I was wrong. It came full circle shortly thereafter, when she went home with someone else.

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