INSECURITY GUARD

Corey works the door at a popular L.A. nightspot

 

 BY COREY LEVITAN

      Bouncers don't like smart-asses with a sense of entitlement, who try and weasel past their velvet ropes just because they're with the media.

      That's OK. This smart-ass doesn't like bouncers, either. That's precisely why I chose to become one on a Friday night at the busiest bar in the South Bay. Maybe there was something I could learn about their side of the velvet rope.

      A weekend night at Sharkeez on the Hermosa Beach Pier resembles an only slightly more supervised version of the frat party from "Animal House." Since 1997, the Hawaii-themed tavern is perennially packed with hormonal postgrads pounding Buds and (occasionally) buds until 2 a.m. That's when the Hermosa Beach Police perform a sweep of the pier resembling an Afghanistan cave hunt.

      I arrive at 6 p.m. to be prepped by Rachel Slater. A petit brunette of 26 who looks about 14, she would have trouble getting into Sharkeez if she wasn't its corporate trainer.

      She returns my observations in kind.

      "You're definitely gonna stand out," she says. "We have people that work the door during the day that are smaller. But at night, they're all big."

      Slater walks me through the dinner crowd to the back. We climb a rickety flight of stairs to an attic office dominated by a fire ladder, the only access to Sharkeez' roof marquee. Here she administers an abbreviated training session.

      My primary duty will be ensuring that people are neither too young nor too drunk to enter. So far, this job's for me, since I've already honed a talent for spotting the young and the drunk in my social life.

      I'm handed the guidelines issued by the Office of Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) for spotting fake IDs. FLAG is the operative acronym.

      F = Feel the license. Remove it from the wallet to inspect for bumps or cracks.

      L = Look closely. Make sure the picture matches the person. (Most fake IDs are real; they just don't belong to the holder.) Weight and hair can fluctuate, but not height (although I am still hoping for one final growth spurt).

      A = Ask whether people are over 21 if they look young. (Although undercover teenage ABC agents can use fake ID, they can't lie when questioned.)

      G = Give the license back. On the off chance that a confiscated fake ID is real, a nasty lawsuit could ensue.

      Out front, bouncer Adam Campbell is LAG-ing, not FLAG-ing. He is neglecting to F. I reorient him to the ABC guidelines and he begins separating licenses from wallets.

      "He's not a door host," Slater says. "He's a server."

      This is obvious. He is one of the "smaller" people, like myself. He gets replaced at 9:30 p.m.

       "Oh, thanks," Campbell says. "Are you gonna put that in your article?"

      Sharkeez calls its bouncers door hosts, by the way, although no one else does. If patrons start trouble, they will be bounced to the curb, not door-hosted there.

       Campbell's replacement is 26-year-old Tad Dexter, whose hands are each the size of my head. (In case you haven't noticed, that'sbig.) We will co-host the door together. Sharkeez employs two bouncers at night, so the entrance is never left unguarded when one walks away to ask the owner if you really know him like you're lying that you do.

      This policy is good for business, bad for adventure columns. I'm going to have about as big of a problem feeling secure tonight as Danny DeVito did standing next to Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie "Twins."

       A steady flow of people greet Dexter and place their arms around him -- well, as far around as they can get. These are the VIPs, Sharkeez' version of celebrities. They're called regulars, but they're not regular at all. They're the only ones allowed to cut the line, which can grow to more than 100 by midnight.

      "When can WE get in?" ask the sub-regulars, the line people, who rub their folded arms in exaggerated shiver.

       "As soon as possible," Dexter responds.

      I know the truth. It's past 9:30 p.m. and about 150 patrons are inside. (Every half hour, two managers count heads with a clicker resembling a tape measure. Then they average out their results.) While fire capacity is 213, those extra vacancies are all held for regulars, who get to mozy in at their leisure until 10:30.

       Line people seem to know their place, but each is allowed to plead a case for cutting. Bouncers give them 30 seconds before asking them to clear the entranceway. Virtually every attempt fails.

      "Can I just go in for a second to find my friend?" asks Rob Sneckenberg, 26, who says he drove 60 miles from Walnut.

      The most popular strategy, this is attempted at least 25 times per busy evening (the finding-my-friend part, not the driving-from-Walnut part).

      "Sorry, can't let you in," Dexter responds.

      "I'll leave you my wallet," Sneckenberg says (again, 25 times per busy evening).

      "Sorry, can't let you in," Dexter responds.

       I can tell you from experience, there are few walks more humiliating than the one back to one's former place on line after a failed attempt at cutting.

      "You thought you were better than us," the line people all say with their eyes. "But you're not, are you?"

      Let's face it: We live in a world based on connections, not fairness. And nowhere is this wrong more evident than at the front of a bar line.

      Here's the thing about regulars/VIPs that I never realized, however. At least at Sharkeez, they serve a valuable purpose (other than the profitability of their alcoholism).

       When the bar goes over capacity, it's the regulars who are called upon to leave first -- at least until the count diminishes. (Try asking someone who has waited an hour on line to exit just after they enter.) And the regulars always comply; otherwise, their line-cutting privileges would cease.

      Fire code has been enforced along the pier more strictly than ever in recent weeks. The men in yellow have visited almost nightly since the Great White concert tragedy. (And they've done a super job, since no washed-up '80s metal bands have attempted to use pyro inside Sharkeez.)

      "You're up!" bar manager Shane Davis tells me. The 26-year-old Hermosa Beach resident slaps me on the back and hands me a "Sharkeez Staff" T-shirt. As quickly as my head is through the hole, I can feel the eyes of the shivering line people shift toward me, now the weakest link in the fence they dream of busting open.

      "When can we get in?" they ask me.

       "As soon as possible," I respond.

      At about 10 p.m., Davis approaches Dexter for a secret confab. There is now an entirely other bar's worth of peopleon line -- only they're not holding sea breezes.

      "OK, let in the first six," Dexter tells me. I approach the velvet rope and ask for IDs.

      Let's see, being born 21 years ago means 1982. March... March...

      I don't know today's date. I usually don't, except when rent is due. I really should have given more thought to this.

      To my pleasant surprise, the first license I check boasts a bright red band announcing "Under 21 until July 2, 2001."

       Actually, they all have that band.

      Here I was, psyched for my only real-life application of third-grade math other than tax preparation, only to discover that the State of California assumes that bouncers are second-grade dropouts.

      After five girls get my FLAG treatment, I wave them through. The sixth looks awfully young. Her ID reads "Under 21 until December 4, 1992."

      "What sign are you?" I ask.

       "Sagitarius," she answers.

      I'm bluffing. I have no idea what sign she is. The point is to observe. If she hesitated, I would have known she was lying. A similar trick was once used on me, when I was underage.

      "What college do you go to?" the bouncer at a local watering hole asked.

      The fake ID I showed him said Boston University, and that's what I said, too, before spending the next hour in the parking lot, waiting for my friends to notice that I was no longer among them. (I suspect that they really did notice but just didn't care. Anyway, everyone who really goes to Boston University calls it B.U.)

      Tad Dexter has a similar trick up his sleeve tonight. Actually, it's between his sleeves. His nametag, which all Sharkeez employees must wear, says "Shane." He explains that he keeps losing his. But his secret reason is to fool wannabe regulars pretending to know him.

       Later, a blond Britney look-alike comes up and provides a perfect example.

      "Hi Shane, remember me from last time?" she says.

      Dexter stares directly through her.

       "Sorry," he says.

      I am significantly more corruptible. When the count approaches 200, Davis directs Dexter and me to stop allowing people in -- even regulars. An adorable Latino girl issues conflicting direction, however.

      "Come on, there's only two of us," she tells me. Her friend presents a finely manicured hand, a curtsy and the hungry eyes of a groupie about to get on the Sugar Ray tour bus.

      "Hi, I'm Nicole," she says.

      Why not? Besides, they've already waited on line. I wave them through.

      "Horrible, dude!" says Davis, who has been watching. "You just let them talk you into cutting the line!"

      He was right. The girls hadn't waited, and I hadn't noticed. Instead of a doorman, I am a doormat. Ridden with bouncer guilt, I resolve to change that "t" at the end back to an "n."

       The next 20 women who try sweet-talking me receive the same rejection they would give me if I tried striking up a conversation at the gym.

       "Can I ...?"

      "Sorry, can't help you," I cut them all off.

      "But..."

      "Sorry."

      I had no idea how easy it was to become that which you hate. Nor did I realize how much intoxifying power flows from rejecting a beautiful woman, since my life has never included that experience.

      Eventually, Davis and Dexter gain enough confidence in my newly blossomed arrogance to start pointing victims my way.

      "You'll have to ask Corey," they say.

      But women are only half my problem right now. I sense a preponderance of subsurface scowling among the men on line (subsurface only because they still need me to grant them access). Three wait until Dexter is called away before approaching the rope.

      "Just when are you gonna let us in?" the buffest one asks, flexing and glaring. I resist the urge to ask whether drinking is a violation of his parole.

       Sharkeez' double-bouncer policy doesn't sound like such a bad idea right now. Fortunately, Dexter returns in time to outbuff my new friend.

      "At night, they're all big," Slater's voice bangs around my brain.

      Suspecting that my significantly undoormanlike appearance might spell trouble, I brought along a quick fix. It's in my trunk, borrowed earlier in the day from El Segundo High School.

      Shoulder pads enhance the V shape of football players. They make me look like a giant T, since there's no diagonal line connecting them to my midsection. But they still help, I find -- not so much because the male line people are intimated, but because many keel over in hysterics, forgetting their intention to intimidateme.

      And walking around like the animated star of the Cartoon Network's Johnny Bravo pads my ego commensurately, especially during my occasional trips through the bar to keep the fire lane clear with a flashlight.

       During one trip, a striking young redhead named Stefanie sidles up and applies a bear hug, thanks me for letting her in and asks me to dance. Johnny Bravo's arm goes instinctively around her midsection and we take to the dancefloor.

      THWACK!

      The good news is that I am witnessing my first fight of the night. The bad news is that it appears to involve me. A stocky guy resembling the singer of Smash Mouth has just rammed into my shoulder pads. It was either an assault, or the first-ever case of slam-dancing to the 1982 Laura Branigan hit "Gloria."

      Although Branigan never had a follow-up hit, this bruiser is preparing for his. He backs up far enough to allow me to adopt a protective crouch.

      THWACK!

      "You were the (expletive) that wouldn't let me in!" he screams. I throw up a high five, attempting to convert the situation into a joke. But it isn't my hand he's interested in hitting.

      THWACK!

       My shoulder pads absorb the brunt of the force. Still, I feel like a balsa wood castle under attack from a battering ram.

      By this point, Stefanie has disappeared. I walk away, pretending to be genuinely concerned for her whereabouts, not the chicken I actually am. For some fortunate reason, Mr. Smash Body chooses not to pursue.

      Once back out front, I say nothing. I always felt like a wimp about narcing to my parents on Bryan Millman, the terror of my junior-high art class.

      "Oh, little bouncer boy can't fight his own battles," I can see my current bully saying as he's escorted outside Sharkeez, where he'll no doubt wait for me to exit without my big bouncer friends.

       Anyway, maybe I was asking for a beating with my shoulder-pad attitude and all.

       I relate the incident to Davis a half-hour later, as an offhand remark peppered with laughter. He goes nuts.

      "Show me the guy!" he insists. "You don't understand, it wasn't YOU who got assaulted. It was a Sharkeez staff member!"

      Funny, it felt like me.

       A cursory scan of the bar proves unsuccessful, with no matches for my description of "'Walking on the Sun' video star."

      Shortly before closing, I find Stefanie. She's kissing some tall guy whose name she forgets and needs to ask in between lip locks.

      "Oh, hi Corey!" she says. "Who was your friend before?"

      I believe she's referring to my assailant.

      "You guys looked like you were having fun, so I didn't want to disturb you," she says, trivializing my assault.

      That's OK. Earlier in the evening, I witnessed her kissyface friend stand over a recycling bin and vomit the remains of several Shark Attack cocktails.

      Someone taps me on the shoulder as I bid adew to Dexter.

       "Excuse me, when can we get in?" I'm asked. (I'm still wearing the shirt.)

      Even at 1:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the police sweep/cave hunt, people are waiting on line to get into Sharkeez.

       "As soon as possible," I respond.

 

 

 

 

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