All of the Lights: A Night in the Life of a Toad’s Bouncer
Most people don’t associate Toad’s Place with police lights. What first comes to mind are the strobes and the multicolored patterns of light that float across the dance floor. I am bathed in this wash when I get my first taste of Toad’s: the fire doors fly open and a drunk man comes hurdling out, landing at my feet with a sickening crunch. In its wake follow several large men in their classic green uniforms: the Toad’s bouncers.
Inside, the strobes keep flashing, but for the bouncers who keep Toad’s secure, it is the police cruisers that light up the night, turning York Street into an ocean of red and blue. These men and women face difficult, ever changing conditions. But every night, they open and run a nightclub that is only one of thousands across the country.
It is a side of entertainment that few people see, in a popular industry where the clients are tipsy college students and the bosses are bands like U2, Waka Flocka, and The Plain White T’s. To find out more about the life and times of running a nightclub, The Politic took to the streets – literally. Spending several nights in the nooks and crannies of Toad’s Place, I became familiar with the people, faces, and staff members who make the nightclub bounce. One of the most visible jobs at Toad’s is that of the bouncers. These men have perhaps the toughest job of all: ensuring the night not only runs smoothly, but safely.
The New Haven Police Department patrols Toad’s regularly. Six officers were stationed on York Street the night before Halloween. The large crowds, the alcohol-induced fits of rage, and the loud, pumping music all combine to create a situation that can easily spin out of control. It is a testament to the bouncers that so few accidents occur.
The Politic spoke with several bouncers at Toad’s Place, all of whom revealed a remarkable charisma and love for their job. The bouncers, who asked to have their names changed in this article for fear of repercussions at work, stated that their job was extremely difficult because no one realizes the bouncers are there to create a positive atmosphere.
“It’s our job to make sure people have fun, safely” said “Dave,” the head bouncer at Toad’s, his beefy figure matching the prominent caricature of a bouncer. “In that respect, it is one of the best jobs in the world. Unfortunately, not everyone who goes to Toad’s wants to have fun in a safe manner, and that’s where things can get a little dicey,” For Dave and his second in command, both college graduates, Toad’s gives them a mental workout that they could not get anywhere else.
It is easy to see what he means by “dicey,” though. The nights are usually dicey, to say the least. Several police officers who patrol Toad’s recounted occasional violent brawls, but noted these have become noticeably less frequent. On Halloween night, several brawls occurred. It took four police officers and several Toad’s personnel to break up one particularly nasty fight, but only after blows had been traded and blood splattered the sidewalk and several of the bystanders.
I was exhausted after a night observing the bouncers. The Politic spoke with renowned security consultant Chris E. McGoey. He is a legend in the security industry, having served as an expert witness in hundreds of depositions and trials, and as a security consultant for high profile clients. He is “guy to call” when one needs security advice. In an interview, McGoey clarified what bouncers actually do.
“A bouncer should not be a big burly guy who throws people out of a club,” McGoey stated. “A bouncer is a professional observer.” This echoes what Toad’s Place staff said – they are on constant patrol, watching carefully for the first signs of trouble.
This sort of patrolling, McGoey stressed, really “makes or breaks” a night club. No one wants to attend a nightclub where they feel threatened by the crowd or the employees. Bouncers must locate and extinguish potential threats without attracting the attention of the crowd. Nothing ruins fun like watching someone be escorted out, so it is in the club’s best interests to do this discretely.
A good nightclub also has to attract the right crowd. This varies, however, depending on the venue’s location and with the ability of the staff. If a nightclub wants to attract a college crowd, they need more staff to keep people in line.
If the crowd is too violent, McGoey explained, “the club dies.” In McGoey’s experience, he said, bouncers avoid letting members of the public who would cause problems into the club in the first place. It is the bouncer’s first priority to determine exactly who gains entry into a club and who does not. They strive to let in people who they think would have the most fun.
Nightclubs exist in legal limbo, an ill-regulated area of the law where club owners have the ultimate responsibility for the safety of the crowd. Yet they can obtain it in almost any way that they see fit. There is no national safety standard since legislation enforcing this varies state to state, which leads to clubs in certain states being much less safe than in others. This lawlessness further emphasizes the need for competent and daring bouncers, as they are, for all intents and purposes, the judge, jury, and prosecutor all rolled into one.
Photo by Joey Ye
Being a bouncer is not a job that reflects the stereotype of beating people up and forcibly removing them from the premises. Bouncers do not have to be large men looking to bash heads. Some of the best industry bouncers are women, a fact that many nightclub patrons might find surprising. A bouncer must first be an advocate of the people at the club, protecting them from future dangers. It is not a job that rests on throwing people out of fire doors, but one that relies on a careful analysis of the club’s liability. If the wrong person enters and drinks excessively, they become a danger to themselves and to others.
In between scanning the crowd for possible troublemakers, and manning the door, a bouncer has time to reflect on the crowd.
Their unique viewpoint would make it very easy for them to become disillusioned with young people. But, Dave said, they don’t. He continued “I really enjoy letting other people have fun. That is one of my favorite things about this job.” For him, the interaction with people makes the job worth the hours and hours of preparation, the loud music, and the unruly customers. McGoey touched on this too, that nightclubs are places where people go for entertainment, and the actions that people do there should not be taken seriously. It is this almost intangible aspect that makes the bouncers return to the club after a long day at a full-time job, usually an office job or working in construction. It is worth it to them, many with young children and wives at home, to put in a few extra hours in a job that is both entertaining and mentally fulfilling. It is an exhilarating job, one where the flashing lights and pumping music in the club combine to create something truly greater than the sum of its parts.
In an interview with The Politic, Sargent Rich Miller of the New Haven Police Department remarked that while nightclubs are fun, they have to be safe. “I really don’t pass judgement on the attendees of nightclubs, they are just people having fun. It is my job and the job of the Toad’s staff to ensure that everyone is safe while doing so,” Miller said, chuckling.
Miller and his five officers almost immediately had to break up an altercation between a group of 4-5 college age males, who were freakishly dressed as clowns and head-butting and exchanging blows, their white costumes polka-dotted with blood, sweat, and the grime found on the dance floor. As the officers jogged over, the men stopped fighting. Though each of the participants declined to comment, it was clear that, as McGoey stated, “An overdose of alcohol coupled with the excited atmosphere of the club” led to the altercation. This is not surprising; these sorts of drunken brawls are common. What is surprising, however, is that it was up to the police, not the bouncers, to break up the argument–the bouncers only stood by and watched.
This, too, is likely due to liability issues. If a bouncer happens to hurt someone while breaking up a fight, the nightclub could be sued for assault. Legally speaking, McGoey stated, “The club should use police to remove customers.” The police are trained to do so, and exempt from more significant civil and criminal charges than a security officer or a bouncer. A bouncer’s primary job is one of analysis, not of patron removal. This both limits liability and makes the club a safer place. Patrons are much more likely to listen to a uniformed officer than a bouncer, so fewer fights become dangerous.
Always on patrol, the bouncers survey the dancing throng, reaching out and removing members that could negatively impact the experience of others. It is hard, Dave said, to “easily identify potential troublemakers given the dark atmosphere of the club, especially when it is overcapacity, like it is on many weekends.”
Wednesday nights are the safest nights in the club, due to the large population of Yale students there for “Woads”–Wednesday Toad’s. According to the bouncers, Yalies are both better behaved than a regular dance crowd, and smaller in proportion with the amount of staff on hand. Sargent Miller echoed this, stating, “Wednesday nights are quieter. It is most likely due to the fact that it is a fairly monogamous crowd.” Miller, who only dispatches one or two officers on Wednesday, was surrounded by a group of five other police officers who were all engaged multiple times during my Woad’s visit, dealing with rowdy students, locals, and passers-by.
We don’t have to look far to see examples of nightclubs gone wrong. On October 30, 2015, a nightclub in Bucharest hosted a charity concert that quickly spiraled out of control. A band’s use of pyrotechnics in close proximity to the crowd caused a panic, and a stampede formed, killing 32 and wounding dozens more. Situations like these are why bouncers are employed in the United States – to protect a nightclub’s patrons from out of control partiers.
A nightclub is often portrayed as being inhabited by large men who are quick to roughhouse customers and patrons for little reason. This could not be further from the truth. A night club is the domain of incredibly talented and analytic minds who are determined to preserve both fun and safety.
The lights of Toad’s flash brightly, the ground shakes with the bass, and the treble shrieks through the air as the crowd inside jumps to the rhythm of the music. On the perimeter, incredibly calculating men and women scan and listen as the red and blue lights wash over them again and again. These men and women are the judges, and the nightclub is their court. They are the enforcers of the law and the resolute guardians of responsibility in a place where little can be found. Their reign is sometimes less-than-perfect, but it gets the job done.