George Plimpton, illustrious patrician multi-hyphenate and long-time editor of The Paris Review, helped establish the genre of “Participatory Journalism.” In terms he almost certainly would have disapproved of, that means “doing stuff just to write about it.” Plimpton stepped into the ring with a professional boxer, played triangle for the New York Philharmonic, swung from a circus trapeze, and far more, resulting in essays that shaped the landscape of nonfiction for decades to come. In keeping with this legacy, we’ve invited contributors from our Spring 2019 issue to live the experiences they depicted in their fiction. In Nick Fuller Googins’s story “The Doors,” a city’s doormen go on strike. “We demand set schedules,” Googins writes. “Reimbursement for our protein powders our gym memberships. An emergency fund for those stabbed on the job. We are the doormen of the city. The guardians against Nightworld. Yet the nightclub owners they reject our demands every one of them.” For this assignment, Fuller Googins headed to the Venice Beach boardwalk to shadow a doorman for an evening.
It’s Friday evening on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, and we can hold three truths to be self-evident:
- The breeze shall be skunky with the scent of mostly legal cannabis.
- A stupidly gorgeous sunset shall band the horizon in pink.
- Tony shall be working the door at the Sidewalk Cafe.
For the past six years, Tony Wingo, age fifty-five, has worked at the Sidewalk, an indoor/outdoor spot where tourists eat and locals drink. Tonight I am working the door with Tony, which means I am standing next to Tony, shadowing Tony, and trying to stay out of Tony’s way. In case you cannot tell us apart, please allow me to help: Tony is the big guy wearing the Lakers hat and black hoodie. I am the not-big guy wearing the green thrift-store flannel and Dickie’s shorts. Tony, you may have guessed, is a professional bouncer. I am not.
But even a rookie bouncer recognizes a slow night when he sees one. By 8 P.M. the dinner rush has failed to materialize, and empty stools line the bar. Folks trickle in. Tony greets his regulars with fist-bumps, side-hugs, hey-there-mamas. He asks unfamiliar faces for ID. He tells a guy to drain his PBR before coming inside. He sings Motown to a woman. He handles questions from tourists who are either European or stoned, or both:
“Must I be a certain age to enter?”
“May my little sister use the restroom?”
“Is there pizza on the menu?”
Tony treats everyone with a blanket respect and gentle humor. He’s a genuinely respectful and funny man, but he’s also strategic—he’s worked almost every door in LA, from the House of Blues to the Palladium, from the punk-rock joints in Hermosa to the nightclubs in Hollywood, and if there’s one thing he’s learned from twenty-five years on the doors, it’s this: make the people laugh.
“If I can make them laugh at the door, I’ve got the battle halfway won. That way, later on, when it’s straight drunken debauchery at its finest, and there’s a problem, they’ll remember me.”
It’s a Jedi-bouncer mind trick that Tony calls “drunk whispering,” and it works: two summers ago at the Sidewalk, a young guy—fresh out of jail—grabbed for his gun. Everyone ran outside. Tony ran in. The guy was drunk and upset that his burger hadn’t been made to order. The situation could’ve gone wrong in so many ways, but Tony made it right by asking, in all earnestness, “Dude, you really want to go back to jail for a hamburger?”
A little drunk-whispering and the guy left. Two hours later the cops rolled up.
“Heard you got someone with a gun?”
“Did,” Tony said. “Motherfucker’s home cleaning his gun by now.”
By 9 P.M., the palm trees are silhouetted by LA’s eternal twilight, and the boardwalk is humming with e-scooters. Tony ducks inside every so often to check on the bar, but otherwise the night is in slow motion. Working the Sidewalk, Tony says, is “bouncing lite.” Yes, there’s the occasional gun, and yes, Venice has its gang violence, and no, the cops never come when you need them, but it’s all a matter of perspective: the Sidewalk is bouncing-lite compared to Hollywood, where Tony had to fight every night. It’s bouncing-lite compared to the “drunken insanity” of Hermosa. It’s bouncing-lite compared to Inglewood, where there were shootings inside and outside the club, and where Tony got his first taste of the doors.
Tony got his start as a bouncer not because he loved the nightclub scene, but because he was desperate to get out of the house: he was going through a nasty divorce, and, as luck would have it, his buddy had started a new reggae club and needed security. In Tony’s first months, he was a self-described jerk—“one of those hard-ass bouncers.” Angry about his divorce, he took out his aggression on the line. It did wonders for anger management but not for business; his buddy finally invited Tony on a walk. “You’re too uptight,” he said, passing Tony a blunt. “Loosen up.”
A few months later, working the same club, Tony was patting down a guy in line and felt a bulge under his shirt. “What’s this?”
“It’s my gun,” the guy said.
Instead of getting mad, Tony simply told the guy to lock the gun in his car and get back in line. The guy did, and all was good. Tony had officially loosened up. He began practicing what he calls psychological “defense”—meeting people with a calm, respectful energy to keep egos from getting heated. “You don’t have to be ra ra with everyone. If you know how to talk to someone you can get them to stand on their head.”
At 10 P.M. a waiter pops outside to ask Tony if they should start breaking down tables. An older lady cruises by on a bike outfitted in LED brilliance, Aretha Franklin blasting from a speaker. A scrawny guy wearing a satin eye patch skateboards up to the door: “Hey Big Tone!”
“What’s up brother?” Tony says. “What happened to your eye?”
“Oh, a girl stabbed me,” says the skater.
The Boardwalk, even on a slow night, buzzes with a ragged luminescence. It’s a weird, wild place, and Tony has had a front-row seat for six years. What has he seen?
“So much. So many crazy things. Sometimes I’ll catch myself telling people the latest crazy thing I saw and I have to stop, because I realize how insane I sound myself.”
I have to ask: “Like what?”
He thinks for exactly half a second, then nods to a grassy knoll. “Like the live sex show that happened there last summer.”
Tony has had a lot of fun on the doors. He’s made friends, he’s partied, he’s met celebrities (FYI: “Steven Seagal is a dick”). But he’s also had to fight more people than he can count. He’s gotten more than one beer bottle to the head. One night, working in Hollywood, he found a guy puking in the bathroom. Tony walked him outside, told him to sober up and come back. The guy did come back, but with a gun, and put three bullets in the chest of Mako, the bouncer at the door.
Tony has been, in his words, “very lucky.” Ten years ago he even took a stab at retirement, ready to move to Reno to be near his ex-wife, who was dying of kidney failure. To mark his retirement, he got a tattoo of a busted watch (the numbers stuck on 4:20). Why busted? Because working the doors is a thankless job, Tony explains. Like the night Mako got shot—the club simply covered his body, moved it out of sight. The music never even stopped. So yeah, they might give you a watch for your retirement, but no way the thing is going to tick.
Tony has never received any hazard pay as a bouncer. No overtime, no sick days. Now, for the first time in his career, his employer is finally offering health insurance. Over the years he’s heard rumblings of fellow bouncers wanting to organize a union, but the closest thing he’s seen so far is the loose brotherhood that looks out for itself. The brotherhood was there for him in Hollywood, for instance, when he made the mistake of laughing at a crew of Armenian gangbangers. Insulted, the Armenians left and returned with reinforcements. Bad news for Tony. But then the bouncers from the surrounding clubs came pouring onto Hollywood Boulevard—“an army of black.” Every one of them had his back.
Just after 11 P.M., the Sidewalk gets its first and only action of the night: a bartender runs outside, and she looks pissed. “Tony, can you kick someone out for me?”
Some asshole threw a glass of water on the floor, she explains. Tony is already off his stool, ready to model best practices:
Note how Tony does not put hands on the man, does not even say a word.
Note how Tony’s presence alone is enough to communicate that the man needs to leave, now, and no, he cannot take his beer with him.
Note how Tony patiently listens to the man rant outside, before asking, “You alright?”
Note how the man is alright.
Note how peace is restored.
Tony’s watch still says 4:20 but my phone says bedtime. Before I unlock my bike to pedal home, I ask if Tony can share any fundamental truths about humanity. He’s observed our species for a quarter century, after all, from our happiest highs to our drunkest lows.
Tony sits back on his stool, arms crossed, thinking.
“People want people to like them,” he says.
Read Nick Fuller Googins’s story “The Doors” in our Spring 2019 issue.
Nick Fuller Googins’s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, The Southern Review, Ecotone, Narrative, Zyzzyva, and elsewhere.