If you've been to more than a few bars, you've seen him on a stool in the corner, circulating in his black T-shirt, or ferreting out fake IDs at the door: the bouncer, that unsung and little-appreciated hero of public libation.
Bars and nightclubs are where people go to cut loose, but there's a limit to a good time. Cross that line — let things turn argumentative or edge toward violent — and you can expect to get the attention of maybe the biggest (but surely the most sober) guy there.
John Freshour has worked security at several Little Rock bars and clubs the past four years, including Juanita's, Stickyz and Rev Room. Like a lot of those who wind up working bar security, Freshour picked it up as a part-time gig while in grad school. (Freshour shies away from the term "bouncer" because of the bad connotations of the word, which he said implies "a 6'4", 400-pound meathead who is going to hurt you." Freshour is 6'1" and 240.) Now an archivist for the Arkansas State Library ("As far as I can tell, I'm the only security guy in town with a master's degree," he said), he still works security at night and on weekends.
Freshour said he learned most of what he needed to know just by doing the job and listening to the more seasoned guys. He recalls an old prof in grad school who had a Hungarian proverb that fits: The work will teach you how to do it.
"Bouncing is like that," Freshour said. "I've always worked in all-ages clubs, and you'll recognize when a kid is having that thought that they're going to try and get away with drinking underage. ... You can see a fight coming. You can see the signs of: Oh, this guy is going to be a problem later on."
After working the job for awhile, he learned the other tips he needed to know to keep him safe, as in: In a fight, put your back up against an object so you don't get jumped from behind. He said none of the bouncers he knows will use a urinal in a men's bathroom, just because of how vulnerable you are with your face to the wall and hands occupied elsewhere. He only puts on his "security" shirt when he gets inside the bar. Depending on the place, it can be a fairly dangerous job.
"I've been very close to stabbings," he said. "I've been there when there were shootings. ... I've seen guns pulled, I've had people threaten to shoot me, I've had people threaten to wait for me after work and jump me in the parking lot. There's a certain amount of risk."
All that said, Freshour has only been involved in a few physical altercations over the years, including an incident in which a drunk sucker-punched him in the head in a parking lot after he saw Freshour talking to the drunk's girlfriend (Freshour said he was telling her to get the guy off the street before the cops took him in for public intox). While he takes a lot of precautions, Freshour said that most of the bouncer's job is just talking people out of the urge to take things in a violent direction. He said that's one of the only things the 1989 movie "Roadhouse" — Patrick Swayze's mullets-and-kickboxing epic about a bouncer cleaning up a rough and tumble Missouri nightclub — got right.
"Patrick Swayze's character talked about trying to talk people out of a bar and 'don't hit 'em until I tell you to,' " Freshour said. "That's pretty accurate. Bouncers, they kind of put problems out and take care of the bar's interests, so going in there bullheaded and picking fights just isn't going to work."
Leland Tucker has worked security at Rev Room, Midtown, Stifft Station's Pizza D'Action and other local bars, clubs and shows for the past eight years. As with many in bar security, he got into it because he knows people who work as bouncers — not to mention that "it's nice to get paid to watch shows I'd be going to anyway." He's had his nose broken twice while accosting panhandlers outside the bars he worked, but said he's rarely felt threatened while on the job. He admits that working bar security has drained some of the joy out of visiting bars in his off-hours.
"Even when you're off work, if you go to a bar where you know people, you're still almost in bouncer mode all the time," he said. "You can tell when people are going to be an issue even before it happens, so you're constantly looking around the room, making sure that everything is kosher, even if you're not working for the place you're at. It can get to you."
Above all, Tucker said, he wants people to know that the bouncer is not the enemy of a good time. If you think a bar is too strict on checking IDs and policing the behavior of patrons, keep in mind that one incident — an especially violent altercation or an underage person caught drinking, for example — can close a favorite watering hole for weeks or even forever.
"We're more there to make sure people are having a good time, not to be the downer in the corner," Tucker said. "I don't want people to think that we're there to be the buzzkill. We're there basically to make sure one person doesn't ruin the night for everybody else."
Maggie Hinson, the owner of Midtown Billiards on Main Street in Little Rock, agrees. She said that while a bouncer can be "the slowest job in the place," he's really there to make sure everybody stays happy.
"The bouncer has to be always mindful that people are drinking, I'm not," Hinson said. "A lot of customers might want to get a little sideways, especially if they think somebody with a security shirt might be trying to, for lack of a better word, bully them a little bit."
Hinson said that she has instructed her staff that their job is inside the bar, and to never get involved in anything going on outside. Too, she tells the security people to avoid getting even remotely physical with a person causing trouble unless absolutely necessary. "You really don't want to put a hand on anyone, even patting them on the back as a gesture of taking them into your confidence, until you see what the situation is," she said. "That's just a short fuse for some people. It just escalates from there."
Though Hinson said they rarely have problems at Midtown, she adds that it helps that her current bouncer, Mel Jones, "looks like a freight train." Jones has worked as a bouncer at Midtown for the past two and a half years, and has worked security in bars and clubs from Central Arkansas to Houston, Texas. The job should only rarely be about force, he said.
A lot of his job, Jones said, consists of just walking through the bar and talking to everybody — that, and keeping "a calm mind" no matter what a patron says or does.
"You have to be all over the bar," he said. "You can't be stationary. As you go all over the bar, you're speaking to everybody, and everybody knows your name. So, if something happens to the front of the bar while you're at the back, they'll say 'Hey, Mel!' and I'll shoot back there and deal with it." While patrons' personalities, attitudes and aggressiveness can change as the liquor flows and the night wears on, Jones said that if you've made people see you as a friend from the moment they walk in the door, they'll be less likely to see you as an adversary if trouble begins to brew.
"You should never look at the security as an adversary," Jones said. "These guys are here to make sure you enjoy yourself. If there's anything that's deterring you from enjoying yourself, that's what we need to know about. That's the part a lot of people miss. I've walked into a bar before and seen the 6-foot-5 guy standing in the corner growling at me ... but that's not what it really is. We're here to make sure you have a good time, and to have a good time, just like you are."