It’s only 9:20, but the line outside the main entrance of Toad’s Place already stretches 30 people deep down York Street. Girls in the required uniform of low-cut tank tops and tight jeans sway back and forth in the cold. They giggle as they huddle together and bump up against sturdy-looking boys, hair jelled, arms crossed over their popped-collar polos. When I glance up, I can see that I’m getting plenty of hostile stares, leaning against a lamppost in Harriet the Spy mode, notebook and pen out.
“Hey, what the hell you got there?” one guy calls. “What are you taking down on me?”
Mike and Angelo wait at the side entrance, the one used for private upstairs parties. They’ve been stationed to bounce there until the front doors open at 9:30, but there isn’t much action yet: the private party has no alcohol and all ages are admitted, even though hardly anyone has been going up. Leaning against the door frame, Mike scans the line and blows on his hands for warmth. A sophomore at Quinnipiac University with four midterms next week, he could be any guy in the line: clean-cut, tall and good-looking in an Abercrombie & Fitch kind of way. But instead of a patterned button-up shirt, he wears a green polo with the word “STAFF” printed on it in bold white letters. He’s been working as a Toad’s bouncer for about a month and a half, recruited through an e-mail sent to the entire Quinnipiac student body. When asked how the job is going, Mike shrugs.
“It pays for the stuff you need every day, you know, gas and things,” he says, rubbing his eyes. He only caught three hours of sleep the night before, he explains, after throwing a party at his house and spending the day cleaning it up. He still has about five hours left on his shift.
Angelo tells Mike about a new “VIP-type job” he might be up for at another establishment, perhaps working on security for a congressman or some other important official. Unlike Mike, Angelo — head shaved, arms crossed over his heavy chest — looks like a capital-B Bouncer, ready to lay down the law if the drinking and dancing turns violent.
“He’s an absolute monster,” Mike whispers to me later. “If I had a lead pipe, I wouldn’t mess with him.”
As Mike is called inside, Angelo and I chat about fake IDs; I tell him that New York City is cracking down on underage drinking by encouraging bars and clubs to scan all IDs for authenticity, and Angelo nods his agreement. The scanner at Toad’s only photographs IDs.
“It wouldn’t be hard to get one with all the technology [the United States has],” he tells me. “We’re supposed to be a superpower. But look what happened in Louisiana — a hurricane comes, and no one can get out.”
“Hey man, where’s Bob?” someone calls from inside. “I need some help over here; the doors are opening,” and suddenly the line stops shifting back and forth on its high heels and surges forward. Mike reappears, and he and Angelo push past the bodies, shoving their way through to the vestibule right behind the double front doors. I follow too, planting myself in between them, although a third bouncer outside juts his round chin out at me and warns me that the manager will need to approve me and my notebook. Angelo silently waves me over as he collects people’s admission tickets.
“There’s a microphone over there,” he tells me, nodding at my standing place. Apparently, all my words are being broadcast into the manager’s office. He tells me the manager might not let me stay. But a magic call to the vestibule’s red telephone gives me the go-ahead, as long as I press my body against a garbage can in a corner and stay out of the way. Toad’s won’t allow anything or anyone to interrupt the rhythm of entering, paying and partying.
As people stream into the vestibule, Angelo and Mike fall into a pre-established rhythm. IDs have already been checked outside; Mike’s job is to scan them into a machine and pass the partiers on to the money window, where they pay for a ticket and and it over to Angelo before passing into the heart of the thumping music inside. Although everything moves along smoothly, Angelo’s position by the main door is clearly strategic: his burly presence serves as a silent warning to those entering the club to behave and stay out of trouble. Blank-faced ID photographs flash over and over onto a little screen as Mike scans them, a security precaution in case a fight breaks out and the police need to be notified. Mike grins.
“Or in case a criminal comes in,” he says.
I learn that most of the people flowing in are regulars. It’s easy to spot the ones who come most often by the way they carry themselves, comfortably bopping along to the music and giggling, the guys giving out handshakes and high-fives all around. The newer ones defensively stare straight ahead, eyes glazed over as if they’re waiting to pass through airline security.
“Hi, how are you?” Mike asks a short-skirted, flip-flopped girl.
“Good, how are you?” She smiles up at him.
“Shitty. Fucking two hours of sleep,” he half-jokes. When another girl enters, wearing an open jacket over her tank top, Mike tells her, “You’re the first clothed person I’ve seen all night.”
A boy who has identified himself to me as the student head of communications at Quinnipiac thrusts through the door, hand on the shoulder of a taller guy in front of him to guide him in. “Hey, Angelo, let him in! This dude’s like 35,” he calls out, and the man passes right through, no ID necessary. Throughout the night, people file in small groups through the second door between me and Mike, the VIP entrance. The communications student, the clear leader of the Quinnipiac Toad’s contingent, stays outside with his black jacket collar popped up to his diamond stud earrings, joking with the outside bouncer and pushing more VIPs through.
At 10:55 p.m., there is a lull in the vestibule’s activity. Angelo silently hands me his business card with a smile. “Finishing Touch” it says above a picture of a large red luxury bus, “Professional Auto Detailing.” Mike leans over to me.
“Trouble,” he mutters. Huh? “That’s trouble. That guy in the black shirt, right in front of you.” I look over at the back of a man taking a long time to pay at the entrance window. When he goes in, I ask Mike how he knows.
“You can just tell,” he answers me. “Some guys, you can just tell from their faces.”
Two weeks ago, Mike was attacked by a bar stool-wielding partygoer. He identified the assailant as a football player and is not sure if he came from Quinnipiac or Yale, though the two groups generally stay clear of each other and hang out at different counters inside. It’s expected that fights will break out, especially as the hours go by and people drink more and more. To combat any rowdiness, several more bouncers are planted inconspicuously inside in strategic locations, and a New Haven police officer is stationed outside.
Angelo describes a recent fight that exploded on a concert night and grew so out of control that the band stopped playing and turned the crowd crazy with a chant of “Fight! Fight!” Someone kicked Angelo in the side, and someone else threw a chair at him. Could he kick them out?
“Oh, I grabbed them by the neck,” Angelo remembers with a half-smile.
Despite Angelo’s assurance to me of “You want to see a fight? You’re gonna see a fight,” the night remains pretty tame. Outside, the New Haven police officer is smiling and shaking his head as he confiscates the fake ID of a tall blonde boy. Yalies start to come in on the later side, just as Mike had said they would. As I begin to walk out, Mike checks his cell phone for the time and sighs, rubbing his hands together in the cold air for a few seconds. Then a group of girls bursts in, tottering and tripping over themselves, and the routine begins again.