Somebody will have to be brave enough to listen first.
I'm not kidding. Someone - or a whole lot of someones - will have to find the strength and courage to stop talking and start listening. I mean, really listening. Because change starts with trust, and trust starts when somebody feels as though they have actually been heard; that what is in their hearts, that they speak out loud, matters. Fuck all the memes and posturing (and downright ugliness, defended under the banner of free speech) on social media. That shit not only doesn't help, and doesn't heal, it actually makes things worse. It makes you and me worse. Please, let's stop being worse.
Alright. Anyway, time for the next installment of Making Sh*t Up: An Improvised Life, which is a very short period in my life, but has a decidedly long chapter. I almost didn't publish this one, because it definitely has some embarrassing shit in it, and then I remembered that I have pretty much already dumped my purse out here on this space, so giving it a good shake to see what else falls out isn't really going to make much difference. Except you might get a kick out of it. Enjoy.
The Wisdom of the Dalton
It's nothing personal.
The year 1989 produced what is quite possibly the greatest cinematic achievement in the history of the medium. I’m speaking, of course, of the film Roadhouse, starring Patrick Swayze as Dalton, the greatest bouncer who ever lived. There’s a scene early in the film where he takes charge of a crappy little dive in Kansas, and he’s teaching the other bouncers his rules for operating:
1) Take it outside. Never start anything in the club unless it’s absolutely necessary.
2) It’s a job. It’s nothing personal.
3) Be nice.
And I thought, I can do that. So the next day I went into Houston and applied at club that a girl I knew frequented. I’d never, ever gone to clubs, partly because I didn’t drink, partly because I’ve never been fond of crowds, and mostly because I was broke all the time. But working in a club seemed okay to me. I wish I could remember the name of the place, but all club names sound the same after a while. Though I had no previous experience as a bouncer (the polite term was “doorman,” like I was a fucking guy in a bellhop’s uniform on 5th Avenue in New York), the management was impressed enough with my martial arts background to hire me. That, and I didn’t come across as playing the badass. Charming usually gets one out of more potential trouble than trying to be tough.
I learned from the guys who’d been at the trade for a while. I learned how to spot a fake ID, and what tricks under age kids would use to try and scam their way into the club. I learned which bartenders would actually do the right thing and cut patrons off when they felt like they were drunk, and which ones didn’t give a shit, figuring it was the bouncer’s problem. I learned that most people, when you politely told them it was time to leave the club, went without a hassle. Some occasionally got belligerent, and of these women were the worst.
I didn’t work at that first club for very long, because it went out of business, as clubs are wont to do. But I distinctly remember one episode that had nothing to do with a bar fight, or any kind of Roadhouse antics. I was walking the floor of the club on a Saturday night, smiling and generally being friendly, when one of the bartenders I’d become friends with waved me over. I figured there was somebody who needed escorting from the club, so I was surprised when he said, “Dude! Are you gonna talk to that blonde or not?” I followed his gaze down the end of the bar and, sure enough, a stunningly beautiful woman was looking at me. I mean, looking at me. I have never been a guy who believed himself to be attractive to the opposite sex, and so have never carried myself with that particular kind of confidence. You know, that Hey, how you doin’? kind of confidence.
I walked over to this incredibly beautiful woman, and her friend, an obvious wingman. Trying to put on a professional face, I simply asked, “Are you ladies enjoying yourselves this evening?” To which the beautiful blonde replied, “My name is Julie (not her actual name), and my evening would be great if you would give me your number.”
I had never – ever – had a woman come on to me before. And certainly not one this hot. I pretended as though the bartender was calling me over, and temporarily excused myself. His name was Josh (not really), and I told him my predicament. After he finished staring at me for a punch line that wasn’t coming, and realized I was quite serious about asking him what I should do, he leaned toward me conspiratorially, got right in my ear, and said, “Give her your fucking number.”
I carried a pager at the time, gave her that number, and told her I would be off on Sunday. She said she would call – and she did. She gave me an address, told me to pick her up at 7:30pm, and said to dress casual. I rolled up in a friend’s borrowed car to a really nice, really big house. Before I could ring the doorbell, she came walking out the front door in a pair of Daisy Dukes and a tight white tank top. She paused long enough on the front porch to give me a nice, lingering kiss, then walked past me to my car (not really mine), and announced over her shoulder that she was taking me to play mini-putt golf. At that point she could have said we were going to the retirement home to give sponge-baths to old people. I would have been great with it.
We stopped and had a quick bite at some hole-in-the-wall, then went and played mini-putt. I couldn’t help thinking it was an odd choice for a first date, but I just as quickly dismissed the thought, because she was so damn hot. She was sweet and flirty, and we made small talk, which she was much better at than me. I didn’t want to blow up the evening by getting all deep and existential, so if she wanted to talk about how Miami Vice was her favorite show ever, that was just fine with me. Eventually, though, the evening ended and I had to drive her home.
I walked her to the front door (like a gentleman), and before I could open my mouth, she asked, “Would you like to come inside?”
What followed was one of the most memorable make-out sessions I ever experienced. I thought we were going to break her sofa, and I had such a raging hard-on that at one point I really thought I was going to pass out. That was when she asked me if I wanted to join her in the hot tub. Like an idiot, I replied that I didn’t have a bathing suit, to which she responded, “You know, you don’t really need one.” Totally focused on not jizzing my pants, I said, “Sure. Okay.” She excused herself and went to the bathroom, and told me to meet her out back.
I was dehydrated from the sofa action, so I wandered into the kitchen to get a drink of water, visions of this blonde beauty, sinking slowly into a hot tub, swimming in my head. This was going to be ten kinds of awesome. This was the kind of stuff movies were made about. She was hot, she was obviously doing well financially, and she dug me. At 24, I was not above being a kept man to an independent hot chick.
These were the things I was thinking about as I passed her fridge on the way to search her cabinets for a glass. And then I stopped, and backed up. That was when I noticed the pictures on her fridge. The cheerleading pictures. Of her. And then I paid closer attention to some greeting cards that were propped up on the bar area in the kitchen. They were birthday cards. I picked one up at random:
Julie: Happy 17th Birthday to the Sweetest Niece EVER!!! XOXO Aunt Diane
The next conscious thought I had was being in my car, speeding away as though I were fleeing a murder scene. When I got back to my shitty apartment, I slammed the deadbolt home, turned off my pager, took my phone off the hook (I’d never given her my phone number), and turned off all the lights. I seriously considered having my name legally changed. About 1AM, I went outside and threw my pager as hard as I could against the side of the building, busting it all to hell. First thing next morning I got a new pager, with a new number. And then, the very next day, the club went out of business.
I uttered a silent prayer of thanks to the universe, and started looking for a new job.
Fortunately, a new club was opening up just down the street. Back Alley was the first club I ever worked that had real money put into it. It wasn’t some retail space in a shopping center, with the interior draped with black cloth and a couple of strobe lights for ambiance. This was a stand-alone structure, and inside it was themed to look like a back alley out of a cartoon. They’d bought a 1950’s New York City taxi cab, and set it up in the main bar area. The stage had fire escapes flanking the sides, with platforms for dancers. The mezzanine upstairs overlooked the huge dance floor, and they’d spent a ton of money on the lighting and audio systems. I was hired a week before they opened, and they’d done a pretty good job of building buzz around Houston with radio ads and word of mouth.
This was to be a class joint. In other words, a dress code. No guys walking in with baggy gym pants and muscle shirts. Of course, if you were a woman, you could dress as slutty as you liked. But classy slutty. The idea was to create an environment where people would want to have a good time drinking, dancing, and being seen. Just like Dalton said! I was applying the lessons of the wisest bouncer in cinema to my new gig. I also applied a little of my military training, and told management that all the doormen needed the ability to communicate with each other. So we got walkies and head-sets. By the night the club officially opened for business, we had a line out the door that was an hour and a half long.
This presented both an opportunity and a problem. The longer people wait, the less excited and the more frustrated they get. We didn’t want people walking into the club after waiting 90 minutes, being all pissed about the wait, and then power drinking to take the edge off. I suggested to management that they let me work the line. I literally walked up and down the line of patrons, introducing myself, telling jokes, complimenting them on their choice of dress, etc. This was more like political glad-handing than stand-up comedy, but it worked. (And it proved to be very good experience when, just a few years later, I’d be walking lines of parents and children, entertaining them while they waited to catch a glimpse of their favorite television canine.) I was entertaining people (sort of), and I was getting paid for it.
I was also getting laid for it.
When I first started working clubs as a bouncer, my very first manager offered this incentive, which was also a warning: You will get laid. A lot. The catch, he said, was the old line from Robert Heinlein: TANSTAAFL. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. If you’re going to have sex with a girl that walks into the club, make damn sure that’s all she wants from you. She doesn’t want free drinks all night. She doesn’t want you to let her under age friends into the club. She doesn’t want free valet parking. Etcetera.
I did get laid. A lot. A few times with club patrons, but mostly with other employees of the nightclub service industry. Which translates into cocktail servers, and dancers.
In the early Nineties, you didn’t call dancers “strippers.” They treated that word the way black people treat the n-word. In other words, it was okay for them to call themselves that, but no one else better use the term. There’s a reason for the stereotyped dancer that claims she’s only doing it to pay her way through college. The fact is, a lot of them said that. But just as many would tell you proudly that they made between $800 to $1200 a night, and all they had to do was take off their clothes and dance, and show me another job where you can make that kind of scratch, asshole. Most strip clubs had a strict hands-off policy, the customers bought the dancers drinks all night long, they walked away with good cash, and they never dated or slept with anyone who came into their club.
Which is exactly why I never went to strip clubs. With the help of a couple other doormen, I quickly identified the dancers that began to frequent Back Alley when we opened. I made sure they got at least a couple of drinks on the house, and I made sure they were not bothered, unless they wanted to be. Dancers would often come to the club in packs, and all they wanted was to drink and dance with each other, and be left alone. I did my best to make that happen, and what I got in return was sex. There was always a mutual understanding that it was what it was, and that it might happen again, or it might not. And that was it. The only time it ever went sideways on me was when a particularly lovely dancer, after a crazy night in her bedroom, sent me a thank-you card to my apartment address – which I didn’t know she had, or how she got it. (When the fuck have you ever sent a thank-you card after a one-night stand?) The problem with that was, I was living with a girl at the time. Actually, we might have been engaged at the time. Remember the vegan? Yeah.
As a young man, I never lived simply. When things were going well, I had a habit of unconsciously (or semi-consciously) fucking them up, in order to make a change that I was too chicken-shit to initiate. I enjoyed being a bouncer; I was good at it, and the job itself was relatively simple (thank you again, Roadhouse). I certainly enjoyed the sex, with dancers, and cocktail servers, and the occasional single mom (or married one) that wanted to take me home. I kind of thought maybe I’d found my niche. Then I took a promotion and everything went to hell.
One Saturday night toward closing, the co-owner of the club called me back to his office. Sitting with him was the general manager, a guy he’d recently hired from Michigan, I think. They’d been buddies back in the day. They wanted to know if I’d be interested in the Day Manager position at the club. This was not hourly work; it was salary. Responsibilities included ordering alcohol from suppliers, hiring and firing staff, scheduling repairs to the club, paying the bills, and setting up the cash tills every night for the bartenders. There was a lot more shit I had to do, but at the time all I was thinking was, This is my way in with these guys. There was some scuttlebutt running around the staff that the owners planned to open a second club – in Dallas. I imagined creating a new position for myself: Senior Door Supervisor / Trainer. I accepted the Day Manager job, and continued to work regular shifts as a bouncer. I didn’t like the day job, because it was all the unsexy work that went into operating a club. But I had plans. Big plans.
In his brilliant book on the restaurant industry, Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, has this to say about restaurant owners who sense that their place is losing money, and the public is losing interest:
He thrashes around in an escalating state of agitation, tinkering with concept, menu, various marketing schemes. As the end draws near, these ideas are replaced by more immediately practical ones: close on Sundays . . . cut back staff . . . shut down lunch. Naturally, as the operation becomes more schizophrenic-one week French, one week Italian-as the poor schmuck tries one thing after another like a rat trying to escape a burning building, the already elusive dining public begins to detect the unmistakable odor of uncertainty, fear and approaching death. And once that distinctive reek begins to waft into the dining room, he may as well lay out petri-dishes of anthrax spores as bar snacks, because there is no way the joint is gonna bounce back.
The same should be said of nightclub owners.
The first thing I began to notice was that we weren’t as packed during mid-week as we used to be. Ladies’ Night was thinning out, and if there were no ladies, there certainly wouldn’t be any dudes, except the ones we didn’t want in the club, anyway: the power drinkers and the looking-for-a-fight crowd. The next thing that happened was, management told us they were “relaxing” the dress code policy. I should have seen the end right there. But I liked my job, and I wanted to keep it.
Then they announced we were going to start serving food. They spent thousands of dollars they didn’t have and bought fryers, grills, and broilers. They built an entire commercial kitchen - and didn’t hire anybody to run it. I actually think they made a couple of the bar-backs go in there, and learn how to operate that shit, since the manuals were in Spanish as well as English. When you begin serving food in your nightclub, you’re not a nightclub anymore.
When the kitchen failed to add customers, they started the concerts. It actually wasn’t a bad idea, but it marked the death of Back Alley as a hip club where people went to see and be seen. Now we were just a fucking concert venue. We hosted The Smithereens, The Stray Cats, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Peter Frampton, Cheap Trick, and Eddie Money, to name a few. We also had a concert by an up-and-coming singer songwriter named Chris Whitley, who was completely jacked on heroin, but nevertheless put on a great performance.
Management tried to have it both ways. They thought they could be a popular nightclub AND a concert venue, though how they ever thought they would be able to segregate those two very different consumers was beyond me. Once you let a guy in your place for a concert wearing shit-kicker boots, ripped up jeans (before they were cool), and an old flannel shirt over a wife-beater, you can’t really tell him to fuck off next Friday night when he comes back – in that same outfit – to buy a couple of drinks and stare at the ladies.
Sunday nights at our club had been Industry Night. Most folks who work in restaurants or clubs usually have Sunday evenings off, and if they came to our club with a pay-stub showing they were in the business, it was free cover and discounted drinks. Management put the knife to that idea, and announced that Sundays would now be a rave party, and the actual club name would change (only on Sundays) from Back Alley to The Warsaw Ballroom. I have no fucking idea what drove that decision, except pure desperation.
Of course, the guys that came up with this brilliant, cutting-edge idea didn’t do their homework. If they had, they would have realized that the age of the average raver was between 17 and 20, which meant almost no alcohol sales. These kids preferred Ecstasy, which we definitely couldn’t sell from the bar – though I suspect some of the bartenders were making cash on the side doing exactly that. The other note-worthy truth that went completely unheeded by the club owners was that raves were a counter-culture thing. They were underground. The way you got into a cool rave was, you heard about it from somebody else. And here we were, buying radio time to advertise one. We couldn’t have been more lame if we started up a Library Party, or a Bingo Night.
The death-knell came during a Crowded House concert. They put on a great show, and part of the mezzanine was blocked off after it was over for the band and some of their friends to have a private party. I usually oversaw band security, if they didn’t have any of their own. I was mingling among the band and their groupies, making sure everyone was having fun, and keeping out folks who weren’t invited, when I looked over the bannister at the dance floor, and saw some kind of commotion in the rear of the club. Before I could key my walkie and alert the guys downstairs, I heard a gunshot, and saw the muzzle flash. Without really thinking about it, I drew out my Maglite – a giant, lead pipe-sized flashlight – and lit up the spot on the floor where I saw the flash. I illuminated a diminutive Asian guy in an expensive suit, and he instinctively raised his hand to his eyes, and his gun in my general direction. Which was when he was tackled and choked out by three very large officers from Houston PD.
I hustled the band toward the Green Room, which was fortunately accessible near where the party was taking place. When one of them protested, I reminded him that some asshole had just fired a gun in my club, and I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t meant for him. They didn’t protest after that. We pushed through the party invitees, and I locked the door of the Green Room behind me. A few minutes later I got the all clear from downstairs, and let the band back out into the club. And what was fucking crazy was, the club was still mostly packed.
Eventually I found out that the whole episode had been, as it so often was in nightclubs, a domestic dispute. The Asian guy – who was rumored to be involved with a Vietnamese gang operating in Houston – had come to the club because he heard his girlfriend was at the concert without him, and was possibly with somebody else. He confronted her near the back of the club, they argued, and then, I guess to make his point, he pulled out a 9mm and fired it into the concrete floor. I never found where the bullet wound up, and I looked for it for a fucking week. But a shard of concrete blasted out of the floor with enough force to embed itself in a female guest’s leg. She was treated and released at a local hospital, and we were damn lucky that no one died.
I wound up firing the guy who was in charge of the door that evening. We never did pat-downs on regular club nights, but with concerts it was required. Too many people tried to smuggle in their own alcohol – or weapons – to a show. The guy at the door figured that, since the concert was over, he didn’t need to pat down anybody else coming in. I felt bad for him, because he had a point. But the gun got inside on his watch, and that was that.
Back Alley was radioactive after that. The only people who came in any more were the barflies and the desperate. People with money tended to shy away from establishments where there had been gunfire. Staff started getting the boot, and I got fired as Day Manager, for two reasons. First, they could no longer afford to pay me. Second, because they knew I’d been lifting petty cash out of the safe. I won’t attempt to justify it. It was never much; just twenty dollars here and there. But it was stealing, and I’m not proud of it. The GM said I could come in on Saturdays (the only night the club was still open), and work the lighting board for $75 for the evening. I’d expected cash, but he said they’d continue to cut me a check, which I should have known was bullshit. The next payday, I went to the club, and saw what few staff members remained standing outside the employee entrance, reading a notice posted on the door. It said that the U.S. Marshall Service had taken the place over, as the property had been forfeited.
I don’t know what the owners of the club were doing with the money I know they were making when Back Alley was new, and hip, and the biggest thing in town. But I do know what they weren’t doing with the money; namely, paying their creditors, or most of their vendors. Or their taxes. With chains on the doors, there was literally nothing for any of us to do except walk away, promising to keep in touch.
We never did.
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