Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Nightlife: Taking a Stand

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Making your way from one area of a busy nightclub to another has always been a challenge, even for veteran clubgoers accustomed to maneuvering through the tightest of spaces. Nightclubs have historically been more than willing to skirt occupancy laws in order to get as many customers through their doors as possible. In the nightlife industry, it’s all about numbers, and the amount of money collected at the front door, in the form of lucrative “cover charges,” is the most important number of all.

Here in New York’s Meatpacking District, however, nightclubs and their patrons have taken the art of egress blockage to an entirely different level – and if you ask the people who work there, the problem has nothing to do with overcrowding.

“You can’t get there from here,” said bouncer Stephen Walsh. “I say it every night, to a hundred different people, but they never listen. You just can’t get from one place to another the way some of these people want to go.”

According to Mr. Walsh, 32, this isn’t because his nightclub is too crowded. “It’s all about the bottlenecks and the choke points,” he said. “I still can’t figure it out, exactly. They just don’t let each other move. Either people have no fucking idea what’s going on around them, or they do it on purpose. Sometimes I’d like to carry a chainsaw to work and just start hacking away.”

Customer Jonathan Cervic disagrees with Mr. Walsh’s sentiments. Mr. Cervic, 26, is an unemployed mortgage broker from Atlantic Beach who said he’s often disappointed with the “disrespect” shown to him by club employees. “These clubs cost a lot of money to come to,” he said, “and I think that if I’m paying a fifty dollar cover at the door, plus a tip to the guy to let us in, I should be allowed to stand wherever the fuck I want. I’m sick of people telling me to move all the time.”

“I told him to move,” said Mr. Walsh, “because the fucking slapdick was standing in a doorway and nobody could get through because he was in the fucking way. I mean, how stupid can you fucking be? Then, when I tell the guy to move, he starts yelling at me, and he takes out a money clip and starts waving it around. Is that normal? Is that fucking normal?”

Ever since childhood, Mr. Cervic has enjoyed forming bottlenecks, taking immense pleasure in knowing that people’s forward progress – or lack thereof – could be regulated by his actions. “Every time I go anywhere,” he said, “the first thing I do is take a look at the layout and see where people have to go single file in order to squeeze through. When I find those spots, I make a point of standing there and making people run into me. There’s a certain rush to it. You don’t know what it’s like to be the guy who started the traffic jam until you’ve done it, but once you’ve done it, you’ll always find yourself wanting to go out and do it again.”

Finding strength in numbers, Mr. Cervic said he’s not alone in his affinity for standing in inconvenient places. “There’s a lot of us out here,” he said, “and we need to be heard. Just like the rest of you think you have the right to go places and get things done, this is a free fucking country, and I’m well within my rights to stand wherever I want to fucking stand. People block my way all the time. Sometimes even I have to go take a leak, and there’s some guy in the way. You know what I do? I go around him.”

While Mr. Cervic may, in fact, have every right to occupy whichever square foot of space he likes, there are some who disagree with his methods. John Arsenault, director of the New York Protest Reaction Monitoring Organization (NYPRMO), a watchdog group dedicated to tracking annoyance complaints resulting from public demonstrations and protests, said Mr. Cervic’s energies would be best applied elsewhere. “I think it’s a complete waste of his time to be this passionate about being a pain in the ass,” said Mr. Arsenault. “There’s a time and place for everything, but if you’re going to sit there and argue for your right to make everyone else’s life miserable, you’re not some kind of pioneer. You’re not Rosa Parks. In my book, you’re just a fucking prick.”

Mr. Walsh concurred with this assessment, but said there’s little he can do, as a nightclub bouncer, to curtail the behavior of customers like Mr. Cervic. “My hands are tied,” he said. “The guy comes in, he meets the dress code and he spends money. Even when people push him out of the way, he doesn’t get in fights and he’s never been violent here. I mean, I think he’s a fucking pussy, but if we didn’t let pussies in the door we’d be empty every night and I’d be out of a job.”

As for Mr. Cervic, he said he plans to continue the fight. “You’re damned right I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing,” he said. “If you’re walking behind me, you bet your ass I’m going to stop suddenly. I’m going to stop my car on all the parkway merges so you’ll have to wait, and I’ll stand in every doorway and at the bottom of every flight of stairs. You know why? Because I can.”

“That,” said Mr. Walsh, “is why people get shot.”