86’d Stories: Interview with bouncer Frankie Clinton
Frankie is the reason I began to move these interviews from transcript form to audio – he has the last of the Bronx accents. It’s more than an accent, it’s a poetic way of using words to actually communicate, rather than mask. It’s a way of thinking while you’re talking. When I met him, at Surf Reality in the mid 90s, he had just hit my acquaintance, Billy Syndrome. It was because he couldn’t hit my friend, Mary, who was on acid and had switched from talking about Louis Farrakhan nonstop to comparing every performer favorably or unfavorably to the middling good looks of Jerry Seinfeld. Mary was blowing up the spot, but Frankie’s code would not let him hit a girl, EVER. He’s a handsome mountain of a guy, wise and calm, and he talks about the fine art of the kick out. It reminds me of the Sufi method of encircling a whirling dervish until their fugue state passes –– a much better method than a bullet.
86ed: How did you get your start as a bouncer?
Frankie: I guess the first time that I started doing security work was in the Bronx, where I’m originally from. And as a kid, I was big, so I was always noticed by people, and I was always approached by people to do favors. People always wanted me to fight for them, or fight their battles ––
86ed: Can you fight? I have some big friends who can’t fight because they don’t usually have to.
Frankie: I grew up in an area where you needed to have skills, otherwise you would get abused. So I grew up fighting. Starting when I was a real little kid, fist fighting became second nature to me. I grew up around a lot of violence, so it wasn’t unusual for me to know how to handle those kinds of situations. I started working the doors of a couple of gambling places and shit like that, a lot of organized crime type of shit. When I was a little older, I had an opportunity to work in clubs. This was in the 80s, I was married and I had a kid and one on the way. I didn’t want to be stuck in the corner of hot smoky places like I had been working at. A friend worked at the Palladium and he gave me a chance to start working in clubs.
In 1990, I started working at this place called the Café Society. At the time it was the hottest place in city. Some nights of the week there was celebrities, other nights it would be blue collar type of people from the outer boroughs. In the late 80s and early 90s, in the club business, crowds started to get real specific. One night it would be all one kind of crowd, ethnically or economically. A promoter would throw a party –– in the club scene it’s all about promoters, the people who actually put the party together –– and that’s who determines the crowds, what kind of crowd you’re going to have.
So, most of my time working in Manhattan was in the night club business. I got stabbed working in the Café Society as a matter of fact. I got stabbed in the chest 7 inches deep, a half inch away from my pulmonary artery. It would’ve killed me if it would’ve been over a little more.
86ed: How did it happen?
Frankie: At this place we never really had enough security people for the amount of people who were going there. We’d get a thousand people there on a Saturday night. So I was working the door with one other guy –– like I said, there was only two of us. This is a place that at the high point of the night might have several hundred people standing outside trying to get in. This was November 11th, 1990, and it was a Saturday night about two o’clock in the morning and it was unusually cold that night. My partner went inside to go to the bathroom or something so I’m out there by myself now. It was kind of crowded in there so we were holding up on letting people in because sometimes you gotta wait until people start leaving. Also, a lot of times the club wants you to keep a crowd at the door anyway, just because it looks good. So, I wasn’t letting anybody in and these two kids come to the door. They had suits and ties on but no coats. They must have had their coat in the car or something because it was cold that night. The kid throws the name of one of the promoters at me and on the strength of that expected that I was going to just let him right in. Meanwhile, there’s a line of people going around the corner.
So I told him, "Listen, right now we’re not letting anybody in. You’re going to have to wait a little while. I really can’t help you right now." And he took offense to that. Right off the bat, he took offense to it. This was a kid maybe in his early 20s, you know a wannabe gangster, little tiny kid. That movie Goodfellas had just come out, so all these kids were like trying to be Joe Pesci, so I told him, "Listen, I can’t help you." Right from the jump he’s got attitude and I usually just ignore that. About two or three minutes later he comes back and says, "Let me in, I know so and so." And I says, "Look, I can’t help you. I told you before, you have to wait."
So, I’m talking to somebody else and I’m also letting people out, opening the rope so they can get out. As I’m in the process of that, the kid almost yells, real forcefully, "Can’t you just get so and so? I gotta get in there. I know so and so!" There wasn’t any confrontation with him. I just put my hand up and I says, ‘I told you, I can’t help you right now.’ As I’m doing that, he just reaches over the rope and stabbed me right in the chest.
86ed: I’m sorry.
Frankie: Now, if there had been more of a confrontational vibe to the thing I would have been more on my toes and I wouldn’t have even let that happen, and I was kind of mad at myself for letting that happen. But there wasn’t even a confrontation, so that shows you how crazy some people are. This kid tried to kill me; he stabbed me in the chest with a seven-inch-long blade. I mean, this is the scar, right there. That was in there, man. As soon as he stuck me with the knife, he and the other guy ran. When he pulled it out of me, I knew how serious it was but I opened the rope up and I started to run after him. The blood shot outta my chest like a hose, right? The people standing on the sidewalk didn’t even realize what was happening because it was so fast. I went to breathe and that’s when my lung collapsed. The air went through a hole in my chest instead of in through my mouth. It actually made a noise like ‘brrrrr’ and I thought to myself, ‘You know, I might die out here,’ so I stopped in my tracks. He got away and the other guy got away so I turned around and I walked back into the club.
People started to realize what had happened. People started panicking and stuff. I walked into the doorway. We had a revolving door and there was a hostess table as soon as you walk in. I sat down at the table and one of the bartenders that was there used to be a medic in the army so he pressed a stack of napkins into the wound.
I was getting panicky because I’ve had friends who died in similar situations. All sorts of things are going through my mind. I’m thinking about my kids. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, this is how I’m gonna end.’ I’m waiting for the ambulance and it seems like it’s taking a long time. I get up and go back outside. By now there’s cops and everything standing on the sidewalk, so I said to the cop, "Put me in the police car and take me to the hospital. This fucking ambulance ain’t coming." I can see by the look on his face that he was scared, like he didn’t know what to do. He points up the block and he goes, "There’s the ambulance, over there," and I look up the block and the ambulance is stuck in traffic like four blocks up. I’m thinking, "Imagine I die while I’m watching my ambulance," but the ambulance comes.
I’m so big they can’t even pick me up to put me in the back of it. I gotta climb in there myself. They got these things they call ‘shock pants’ they put you in when you get a traumatic upper body injury. It squeezes the blood up into your organs but they can’t get ‘em on me because I’m so big they don’t fit. So I’m like half-naked in the back of the ambulance and it’s freezing out. One of the paramedics, it was his first day on the job, and he’s dropping shit on me. It was crazy. I got to the hospital and they had to put in a chest tube, which is really painful. They actually stabbed me with this thing: it was like a garden hose with this arrow point on it. They stick it into your chest cavity because when your lung collapses it’s not the wound that collapses your lung, it’s the water pressure from the blood.
86ed: Do you feel like the club took care of you after the incident?
Frankie: Nah, nah. I had to sue them. They didn’t do shit for me. Those guys got away. The dudes that I worked with came out and tried to chase them up the block but by the time anybody knew what happened they were gone. If they woulda caught them they woulda murdered these kids, man, because I worked with a lot of nutty dudes –
86ed: What do you think about the recent spate of bouncers murdering people? Should there be a police background check?
Frankie: Anybody working in security is supposed to be state-certified, like a certificate that says that you took this course. And nobody ever really enforces it because its bullshit. It’s this eight-hour course and it doesn’t really accomplish anything. I think that there’s been a lot of overreaction. These are horrible incidents but considering the scale of how many nightclubs there are in the city, how many alcohol drinking establishments there are, those particular incidents –– I mean they’re horrible incidents –– but the only reason they got such big press is because of the racism of the media. At the same time as that John Jay student was murdered by a bouncer, there was also a trial of these guys who had taken this girl that they snatched off the street in Brooklyn a few blocks from my house. Her name was Ramona Moore. They chained her to a bed and raped her repeatedly for two weeks, burned her with cigarettes, and then they finally got caught but that case got very little press because she was black and it happened in Brooklyn. Anytime something happens with a yuppie or some transplanted person of affluent background, its front page news. Like when we were talking about the girl that got smashed by the brick that one time, if that woulda happened in Brooklyn or the Bronx, it would never have been on the front page. Giuliani had a press conference when that happened, remember?
86ed: What about some of the nutty guys that you worked with?
There’s definitely guys that are sociopaths that take that job. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with maybe requiring some degree of background check, however, I wouldn’t wanna see them exclude guys just because they got a prison record. Now, if it was for sex crimes, I can understand that, but when they do things like that –– make it so a guy with a record can’t get a job there –– they make it impossible for people to turn their life around. They did that at the Fulton Fish Market. How are people who go to prison supposed to work when they get out of jail? They gotta do something.
Some people suggested letting off-duty cops moonlight as bouncers. It’s illegal but a lot of cops do anyway. You know what? They’re the first ones to run home when something happens because they don’t want to be involved. They don’t want their name to come up, so they cut out. I’ve been in incidents where big fights broke out, people got hurt, and the guys that were off-duty cops were nowhere to be found. It can jeopardize their job at the station, this and that.
Uniformed cops outside the clubs is a bad idea, too, for the same reason that a lot of places don’t search people at the door for weapons. If you got a nice place, a nice clientele that comes there, you know, affluent people, if you start searching them, they’re not gonna come. They don’t wanna be treated like that. If you convey the image that this is the type of crowd that you expect, that’s what you’re gonna get. If people start thinking ‘Wow, this is the kind of place where people with weapons come!’ then that’s what’s gonna happen. A place like The Tunnel was known as a violent place. The bouncers that worked there used to have to check these kids’ mouths because they were covered with razor blades.
But, yeah, some bouncers are goons who escalate situations, whereas a person could very easily be placated and talked out of the club. When people are drinking, it’s easy to challenge their manhood and their ego. So if I’m working at a club, and a guy is acting up and he’s drunk, what I try to do is show him some degree of dignity. What I try to do is show I’m respecting him, as a man, and I give him the opportunity to maybe leave without making a scene. I’ll say something like "Hey, listen, buddy, you’re a little out of line right now. You might not realize it yourself, but you know, everybody has their moments, I’ve had mine." I try to identify. More often than not, they’re grateful that I’m taking that approach, not embarrassing them, not overreacting, escalating or getting physical.
A lot of times people get thrown out because they think they’re being funny. One of those guys that gets too festive. You got different kind of drunks: you got your festive drunk, you got your nasty drunk, you got your weird psycho Twilight Zone drunk. When it’s time for a festive goofball drunk to get thrown out, it’s because they’re doing something stupid, or they get too friendly. They’re just bothering everybody around them. They’re uncontrollable, they’re over-celebratory. They’re standing on furniture, stepping on people or whatever. Like let’s say they’re standing next to a total stranger, and they get too familiar too fast. They start joking, and let’s say the stranger takes offense, then right away you’ve nearly got a fight. When that kind of thing happens, I’ll pull the guy aside and I’ll say "Man, you know, you gotta understand, not everybody has the same sense of humor. What you might think is hilarious, this guy might think is an insult. And gotta keep that in mind when you’re in a situation where you got all different people coming together – everybody sees things differently, you know." It’s all a question of breaking things down in a way that people can understand.
The best bouncers are the ones that really watch the people, interact with them, let them know they’re there. Especially in these clubs that got a lot of little nooks and crannies. That’s usually the places where people get up to no good, you know. They start doing drugs, having sex. They vandalize shit. People do the stupidest shit when they’re drunk.
There’s times when I’ve been the head of security in a place, so I always tell the guys, "Just pass around. Let them see you watching them. Don’t go out of your way to intimidate them or make them nervous, do it in more of a friendly way, like you’re looking out for them. Let them know that you’re there for their sake too. Ask ‘Are you all right? How’s everything going?"
86ed: How about if there’s a woman out of control? I know you could never hit a woman.
Frankie: There’s been times I’ve had to grab a woman and restrain her.
86ed: Come up from behind?
Frankie: I try not to come up from behind somebody unless it’s an emergency –– somebody has a knife or is about to cut somebody up with a bottle or something –– because when you get somebody from behind, they go into fight mode. If you grab somebody from behind, anything can happen. If there’s a woman out of control, I try to talk to her. If she’s not gonna listen, then I have to try to bear hug her, and physically carry her out because I’m not gonna hit her. I try not to hit anybody.
86ed: Do you find that also because you’re a big guy, people might have something to prove by challenging you?
Frankie: The Napoleon complex. Totally. I’ve had guys working with me that are huge. I’m big but those guys were a lot bigger than me. There was a guy working with me that was a professional wrestler. He must have weighed close to 500 pounds. He was tremendous. All muscle. I remember one night there was this guy that was about 5’6", who actually wanted to fight this guy. It was hysterical because you see that a lot in this business – "beer balls."
86ed: It took a long time for me to understand that about men. Saying something to a man in front of somebody, they feel you disrespected them in public, even if the person watching was totally worthless. It’s different. Even there is one bum watching, they care.
Frankie: A guy won’t be able to look himself in the mirror if he knows some guy gave him disrespect and he let it slide.
86ed: You have an attitude that’s kind of removed. There’s some kind of immediacy you see in other people that’s not there. I’m wondering if it’s like an older sex worker. So many years of seeing how people really are. You’re charming, but there’s a distance –
Frankie: I think it’s a result of having gone through a lot of things in life, not having to prove anything –– feeling secure enough within yourself that you don’t have the need to impress yourself or others. When you’re young you’re full of hot piss and vinegar, you always gotta show somebody who they’re fucking with, what you’re made of or whatever, because really you’re showing yourself. I think when people exhibit characteristics of trying to prove something, they’re really proving it to themselves.
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Learn more about Jennifer Blowdryer’s 86’d Stories project here.