From bar fights to brunch etiquette, what it’s like to be a bouncer in NYC
In the latest installment of our anonymous interview series, we spoke with three bouncers who check IDs and keep the peace at local city hotspots.
Author, as told to
Bouncer A did security at a hip and busy restaurant on the Lower East Side during their in-demand brunch shift on weekends and, occasionally, evenings between 2011 and 2012.
Bouncer B works night hours at an upscale East Village bar and lounge, where he’s been for just shy of a year.
Bouncer C has held down the fort at a neighborhood bar in Brooklyn for almost two years.
Bouncer A: I needed something to do part-time while I was in school. It had to be flexible so I could still focus on my studies. I had a friend who was doing security for different events and he set me up with a meeting with this service that supplied the personnel.
I interviewed with them and they began sending me out to different gigs. I worked a couple banquets. I worked a popular hotel bar a few times. It was just checking IDs, mostly. Then, I started working at this restaurant and it got to be a steady gig. It was just weekends, so it worked out for me.
Bouncer B: I took a security class. It was a three-week course, and at the end of it you had to take an exam, which I passed. Then, I started applying to different places. This place was the first one to hire me. I’m older. I served in the army. I'm retired. I do this because it’s easy and not too much trouble. Plus, the money is good.
Bouncer C: I’m from the neighborhood so I knew this place was opening up because I used to walk past it. I had worked a couple jobs here and there helping out friends who work security, so I had some experience. I just applied on a whim and they hired me pretty much on the spot. A lot of people who work here are from the neighborhood. Most of the other service people—the cooks, the bartenders—got hired the same way. Some were customers who got hired because they were familiar with the business and wanted to make extra money.
Bouncer A: People assume being a bouncer involves breaking up fights and kicking people out, but to be honest, that’s a tiny element of it. There were maybe four or five incidents the entire time I worked there. People never really got too crazy if I asked them politely to lower the volume. And, they’d leave on their own, naturally, when brunch was over. Sometimes some people would be jerks and say things like, “I’m a grown man! You can’t talk down to me like that!” But it rarely escalated. The bartenders did a good job of cutting people off if they were overdoing it. That’s part of a bartender’s job.
Bouncer B: It’s not often that situations escalate. It happens maybe once a week, which is not too bad. If someone is acting up and being loud, usually they’re there with their friends, who will take care of it. Occasionally, you’ll have someone who is by themselves and acting a little more erratic than your usual party drunk, for example, heckling the bartender or making female patrons uncomfortable. In that scenario, the manager asks me to take it outside. And I do. Once they’re out, they can’t come back in. Period. I’ve never had to call the police or anything like that. I just send them on their way. They have to go. Most of the time, they do it willingly. No one tries to pick a fight, really. Once you get someone through the door, they know they’re not coming back in anyway. Being threatening or violent only worsens the situation, and most people get that even in a drunken state. They give up because they know it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
Bouncer C: Sometimes, I have to kick people out. It just comes with the territory of the job. But it’s rare, maybe like once a month someone might get a little too drunk and the bartender will tell me to escort them to the door. It almost never gets physical. I tell them it’s time to go and they understand. A little liquid courage goes a long way, but when it comes down to it, most people get shut down and feel embarrassed. It’s not so much that people want to fight. More often, they just want to pass out. It’s like, “You can’t sleep here, buddy. You got to go.”
Bouncer A: Sometimes I worked at night, but mostly it was from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm on Saturday and Sunday. It was a very short shift. They had outdoor seating, so my main responsibility was quieting people who were being too loud. The neighbors would complain about the noise, so I had to just walk back and forth telling people to dial the volume down. There were a lot of large parties and a lot of day drinking. I worked that alone.
Bouncer B: Well, it’s not a nine-to-five, that’s for sure. I work from 6:30-7:00 pm to 4:00-4:30 am. If there are some people still at the bar at closing time, I make sure they leave. Sometimes you have to be stern. They don’t want to leave. That’s why they’re still there. If it’s a slow night, I can leave when the bar closes. But I’m outside the whole time. I stand in front of the door, checking IDs. If there’s an issue inside, the bartender or the manager will come get me, and I’ll go in and handle it. If someone needs to be taken outside, that’s my job. But usually, it’s pretty mundane and repetitive. I’m just out here making sure everyone is over 21 and not already too drunk to come in.
Bouncer C: I work bar hours. In New York City, that means 4:30 am. This is the kind of place that, especially on weekends and in the summer, there are always people who don’t want to leave at last call. The whole neighborhood is here, drinking and hanging out. So I have to make sure the place clears out. I make sure the bartenders are okay too. I’ll pop in and out. I take a couple of smoke breaks. But I’m always by the entrance anyway. I’m either standing right out front, or I’m sitting on my stool immediately inside.
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Bouncer A: This place attracts a varied clientele, but there’s definitely an average type. “Business bro” is the best way to put it. You know, your typical finance guy with money.
That said, it was a cool spot. It was a need-to-know spot. A lot of celebrities would go there. I got to talk to Mike Myers for a bit once. He was just smoking outside. He introduced himself as “Mike” as if I didn’t know who he was. We shot the shit. I recommended some cool spots he should check out nearby. He offered me a cigarette. It was cool.
Bouncer B: It’s all over the place. Every kind of customer has walked through the door. Every type of person you can find in New York is represented here. We have themed nights different days of the week. We have a salsa night. We have an Arabic night. We have American night. We also host private parties. Sometimes, we’ll have a private party in the back and a theme night in the front, and the people will come out and mix in with the rest of the crowd. It really depends on the night.
Bouncer C: The area is diverse, so all types of people come in. I can honestly say we don’t have an “average” customer. Every day it seems like more places are popping up on the surrounding block, and yet we seem to be getting even busier. This place hasn’t been around that long, but it does feel like a real neighborhood spot. Everyone comes here.
If we get listed in a magazine or a blog or something, that’ll bring in more traffic. We also get a lot of people that are new to the neighborhood, which includes a lot of college kids, recent graduates and other transplants. But people that have been in the neighborhood for a while come here too. You can bring food from other establishments inside, which is a big perk that you don’t see very often. So, a lot of people who work at nearby restaurants and other bars, like waiters and bartenders who don’t want to drink at their place, come here after their shifts. Even people who work here sometimes go here. It’s cool like that.
Bouncer A: Like I said, you don’t see a lot of these incidents. Sometimes people would get too drunk too fast, and I literally had to push them out into the alley or the street. One time there were these two guys who were doing blow in the bathroom, and they were being conspicuous with it, so I asked them to leave. When I opened the door, they were trashed, like barely standing up. One guy took a swing at me. I casually stepped out of the way and he almost fell over. They went more or less willingly after that. I walked them out and they were on their way. It was like noon. One of them was totally out of it, the other one was yelling at me: “Who do you think you are?” He was this finance bro type. I was like, “You’re a gross human being. You’re doing blow off the toilet. Go somewhere else and do that shit.”
Bouncer B: Sometimes a patron will want to take a run at the bouncer. I’m big and they’re drunk, or they think they’re joking, or they’re just stupid. I don’t know. It’s never been a fair fight. It’s never even been a fight, honestly. It’s always a lot of posturing. Most of the time, I have to quiet the customers before they get outside because otherwise the neighbors start complaining. One time, the neighbor upstairs poured a bucket of water out of his window. It was ridiculous. He was a cranky middle-aged dude.
Bouncer C: I don’t have to get physical very often. At first, you think the job is going to be serious and dangerous, but I’m not worried about anything really. I know the customers now. We have a lot of regulars: I can recognize their faces and sometimes even remember them on a first-name basis. The main downside isn’t what people would expect. Honestly, I’m bored a lot of the time. It’s essentially a boring job. Especially when it’s slow. Especially when it’s cold. You’re just sitting there for what seems like eternity.
Be your own boss
Bouncer A: I’ve worked since I was 14, so I’ve had a whole lot of jobs in the retail, food and service industries. Compared to those other jobs, being a bouncer is much more independent and much more relaxed. You’re kind of your own boss. As long as you’re doing your job onsite, you don’t really have to report to anyone. I used to just get a paycheck in the mail. I didn’t have to pick it up or anything like that. It’s much more flexible in terms of not having direct supervision.
Bouncer jobs themselves run the gamut. Usually, you’re working with a whole crew, and some people over radio. On the other hand, my job was solo, maybe with one other guy. But generally, you’ll have a whole team and everyone reports to one another. They even handle situations as a group.
Bouncer B: The hours are late, but you have days open. Working security is a lot of waiting around and standing up. You don’t have to do too much. On weekends, there are a lot of people coming in so you have to check IDs very quickly and move people in and out so the bar can make money. It’s really not like any other job.
Bouncer C: I worked retail very briefly. And there, you always have to make sure the customer is being helped. This job, the less you and the customers interact, the better. Not that I’m mean or an introvert or anything, but if I don’t have to deal with you, that means you’re not doing anything wrong. If I say, “Is everything okay?” that means we’ve got a problem. Whereas with retail you, you have to lay on the customer service the minute they walk through the door.
Other security jobs vary a great deal. If it’s a concert or a club, that’s a whole other thing. There’s a list and a dress code, dumb shit like that. Here, it’s just me checking IDs and clearing people out after last call. It’s not very complicated.
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Bouncer A: If I was working with anyone else, it was usually someone who was a little bit older, someone pretty levelheaded. The manager was really laid back. The cooks were hilarious. They were standard hipster guys trying to make it in the food industry. They would give me free dinner at the end of my shift because they knew I was standing out in the cold those days I was working nights. The manager had me stay till 2:00 in the morning, so they could count all the bills and put everything away in the safe. So the cooks did a good job looking out. They were good people.
On the other end of that spectrum, there were one or two guys in the kitchen that weren’t as chill. They thought they were Gordon Ramsay. One time this dude was shouting out orders, and a guy accidentally bumped him on the way to the bathroom so they got into a yelling match. I had to step in and calm it down.
Bouncer B: Most of my colleagues were very professional. It’s a difficult job being a bartender or a manager. You’re standing on your feet all day and serving everybody. You’re handling money. You’re making drinks. People are screaming at you. If anything happens they make sure to call me right away. There’s not a lot of time to shoot the shit or horse around, but we always find a way. They laugh with customers or dance a little. It’s an aggressive and stressful industry.
Bouncer C: My coworkers and I all live in the same neighborhood, so we have a nice neighborly vibe towards each other. No complaints.
Bouncer A: The job has definitely changed me. I don’t understand the whole “going out until last call and getting all belligerent” thing anymore. I still go to bars occasionally, but mostly I’ll just have a couple drinks with dinner. I kind of slowed down. I started only drinking at home with friends. I didn’t really drink a ton at bars after that.
It definitely gives you an insight into the bouncer mentality. A lot of them are high-strung because they have to be. Some are just high-strung by nature. On one occasion, my friend was drinking a beer during last call, and instead of asking him to finish it the bouncer just slapped it out of his hand. They got into a pushing match. You can tell when someone’s just being trigger-happy or hot-headed. I was on my friend’s side in that instance. I told the bouncer, “Hey, I used to work security too. I understand where you’re coming from, but you don’t have to slap a drink out of somebody’s hand.” That’s really rude and aggressive. The rule of thumb is you can’t physically touch somebody unless they came at you first. It’s never okay.
Bouncer B: I don’t go out to bars, but I’m older. Going out to bars is for young people. I have wine with dinner. I don’t drink a lot. When I was younger I would go out more. But it’s not fun when you’re older. It’s loud. It’s expensive. If I go out, it’s to a quiet restaurant. I work at a loud bar so it’s changed me in that way.
Bouncer C: I was never really much of a drinker, so I don’t really go out. I used to drink a little when I was a kid, but I was never one of those “let’s do shots” guys or whatever. I get it. People want to let loose on weekends. But that’s not me.
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