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The Bar Bouncer: Student Journalism Part 1

I'm going to start posting some of the work produced by my Georgetown students. This first example, by Rebecca Regan-Sachs, shows a fine eye for detail and a good ear for dialogue. I'm going to trim it a little because it's quite long.

The Life of A Bar Bouncer

By Rebecca Regan-Sachs

It's almost 35 degrees on a Wednesday evening, and Ricardo W------ is standing outside a downtown bar. In baggy dark jeans and a black skullcap, he looks something like a panhandler, like someone you would brush past quickly on your way in the door.

Except at this establishment, no one gets inside unless Ricardo says so. He's the bouncer at Lucky Bar in Dupont Circle. The distance from his broad shoulders to the door of the bar is his unquestioned territory, and his word is law.

But he doesn't use many words. A well-dressed yuppie in a hurry breezes up, looking past Ricardo into the windows of the bar.

"See your ID?" Ricardo asks.

The man fumbles in his wallet and pulls out his card. Ricardo reaches a hand out the pocket of his oversize black jacket, glances at it, and hands it back. "Thanks," says the man, and he pulls open the door and ducks inside.

* * *

This is a part-time gig for Ricardo. He's been at it two years now, standing outside or sitting inside when it gets too cold, asking strangers, "See your ID?" over and over again.
One would think it would get boring, but Ricardo doesn't mind. "I stand out here, watching people out on the street...sometimes when it's slow I sit down and read the paper, to kill time."

Ricardo is over six feet tall, black, relatively taciturn. He makes eye contact only after finishing a sentence. He smiles as if smiling were painful.

Checking IDs is an easy job, he says. But the hours are rough. Five p.m. to two a.m., day after day. "You got to be a real soldier to do those hours," he says. He cracks a rare smile.

The other problem, at times, is the customers. From the underage to the undermedicated, it all comes his way. "I get people yelling at me, screaming, 'I don't want to show my ID, why do I have to show my ID?' Well, it's not on me, it's on the club," he says, eyebrows raised. "It's D.C. law you gotta show your ID. They wanna take it out on me-I'm the bad guy."

Then there are those who proffer obvious fakes, which Ricardo has to confiscate before turning away their underage owners. And on weekends, there are the crazies who can't take either their liquor or any imagined insult.

"You have to call the cops for that," he says. "We call the cops and then I take them outside."

The rest of Ricardo's time is spent with people expressly under the age of 21: schoolchildren in Prince George's County.

"I do peer mediation. Conflict management," he says. He used to be a group activities assistant, but he switched jobs because he wanted to get out of the classroom. The kids are all right, he says with a shrug. "I like [the job] because we get vacations off."

One gets the sense being a peer mediator is perhaps not too far a cry from being a bouncer.

* * *

[Trimmed here]

* * *

Ricardo was born in Washington, D.C. and raised several different places in the Midwest. That's about all he'll offer on the subject of his past life. "It was a crazy life," he says, and stops there, not unlike a presidential press secretary with orders not to reveal too much. The corners of his mouth turn up when he says this, but his eyes harden.

After a few years in Washington, Ricardo and his older brother moved to Chicago, then to South Bend, Indiana. They lived with their aunt for most of those years.
As for his parents-"I'd rather not talk about it."

Is he close with either of them?

"They a'ight," he says tightly.

Do they still live here?

"They a'ight," he repeats.

* * *

In a flash of motion, Ricardo's friend Terrence is here. He and his voice arrive simultaneously as he pulls up out of nowhere on a large gray bike. "Boy, you wish you could ride around the city like this, boy-ooh, yeah. How you been, man? How's it going?" He dismounts his bike and props it up against the bar window.

Terrence is a large, middle-aged man with mocha-colored skin and a smile that reveals a gap where his lower front two teeth should be. His knit cap says "Cowboys" and his jacket says "Washington Express."

He quickly envelops Ricardo in a blizzard of words-about people they know, places they've been, and what's going on at the clubs that weekend. He talks with a slight lisp, his tongue peeking out periodically between his lower teeth.

"You come Saturday night, it's gonna be packed, man. It's his first performance in D.C.-and we're gonna see it!" he sings. "And I be droppin' my flow, you know how I do."

"I can't come both nights," Ricardo edges in.

"Okay, Saturday night, Saturday night. How many you need?" Terrence asks, reaching inside his jacket.

"About five, man-I'm gonna bring my entourage."

Big laugh. Terrence hands him five passes. "And the ladies," he enunciates meaningfully. Then he pauses. "But you hurt your back-ohh, yeah." He breaks into a chuckle. "Oh man. You goin' home alone if your back's all messed up." He laughs again, and repeats it for the benefit of the seats in the back. "He's goin' home alone if his back's all messed up!"

It turns out that not too long ago, Ricardo was driving in Maryland when a car crashed into him from behind. The accident damaged his back, and Ricardo called Terrence to get him a lawyer. Ricardo knew that Terrence, a former cop, had to have connections. And he did.

"I got him a lawyer in Georgetown," Terrence says. "And he is something-something!"

Suddenly the conversation becomes an ode to the lawyer in Georgetown. Delivered by the bouncer and the bike messenger, it soon begins to sound like the plebeians mythologizing Caesar.

"...And he's got a great big house and eight kids-eight kids-but he can support them all, on what he makes-"

"And he went to get my money, and he called up the insurance company, and he says, 'Give me that money now!' and he got the money-"

"You should see all the pictures of stuff he's got in his office-"

"And he wears his pants all the way up to here." Ricardo rolls up the bottom of his own jeans until it reaches the top of his white cotton sock, midway up the calf.

As they're talking, two girls in long, pastel-colored coats and fuzzy hats approach hesitantly. Why isn't the bouncer standing there silently? Should they interrupt him? What should they do?

But Ricardo notices them quickly and reaches for their timidly tendered IDs. He nods briefly at each one and hands them back. One girl, with long blond hair flowing from a black hat, tucks her ID back into her wallet nervously and moves on.

Ricardo starts murmuring at her. Head down, she continues drifting towards the bar. He murmurs louder.

"This way, this way," he's saying.

She's heading to the wide left of the door, towards the window. "Oh!" She finally lifts her eyes-and corrects her course.

After they're gone, there's a short silence. Then Terrence says, "Did we tell you about his house?"

* * *

There was a time when Ricardo expected to make a great deal of money, too. Ever since he was little, he dreamed of becoming a professional football star. His crowning moment, the height of his career, would come when his team played the Dallas Cowboys, arch-nemesis of his Washington Redskins home team, and defeated them.

Ricardo played football all throughout high school, and then "I played semi-professional football for a while," he says. The team was called the Washington Chiefs.

The Chiefs' web site identifies it as "a non-profit organization that embraces community service as an integral part of its mission." It runs three programs: Youth Service for "at-risk" young people, unpaid internships for college students, and minor-league football for adults.

It wasn't exactly the Washington Redskins, but it was good enough.

"Then one day," says Ricardo, "We played this team from Fredericksburg. And you know who was the captain? Mark Moseley." As in, former kicker for the Redskins. As in, 1982 NFL MVP. And the damndest thing was, this team looked like the Cowboys, Ricardo says. It was almost the showdown he had been dreaming about his whole life.

But then in the actual game-well, his team lost. And shortly after that, Ricardo got injured. Not one of the minor injuries that had plagued him throughout his football career, but a real wake-up call, the kind where your body says, 'If you don't stop, dammit, I will.' And that was that.

He "worked with computers" a little bit after that. Then he got a job with the Prince George's school system. And now on the side, he checks IDs, framed by the Gaelic lettering of a place called "Lucky."

* * *

It's almost 6:00, and the Happy Hour crowd is picking up. A group of bright young office workers, one or two years out of college at the most, gathers before Ricardo and awaits his wordless nod.

Terrence congratulates the only guy in the bunch, a dark-haired young man with a knapsack slung across his chest. "Heyyyy-four women, alone with you-let me shake your hand!"

The man throws back, "And this is a slow night!"

Ricardo smiles faintly as they banter, but he doesn't say anything. His face is directed towards their birth dates, not their faces.

After they go inside, Ricardo bursts out, "He was born in 1981! I feel old." He starts to chuckle. "I was born in nineteen-seventy-one. I have tennis shoes older than these folks."

He's not that old, really. He's just got a bad back, a few old injuries, and a dead dream. But it can make you feel old real quick, looking all day at pictures of people with birth dates at least ten years before yours. People in bright colors and fine suits, people always moving past you, while your job is to stand still.

But if it bothers him, Ricardo doesn't let on. His past has played tricks on him, so he knows to be a little more cautious about the future. He's been working hard and saving up. "I can retire from the school system at about 40," he declares, nodding his head and gazing out across the street.

That's right-no more screaming kids, no more five-to-two cold nights, no more "See your ID?" "See your ID?" to distracted rich kids who look at him just as quickly as he looks at their driver's licenses.

Maybe this time, it will all work out. And then he can stop looking at other people's identities-and start concentrating on his own.

"Yeah," he says, nodding his head again. "I'll be all right." -- By Rebecca Regan-Sachs

By Joel Achenbach  |  February 24, 2005; 6:49 AM ET
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