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A Night at the Door With Three Austin Bouncers

The eyes and ears of three very different bars tell us about their normal—and not-so-normal—nights on the job.

As a general rule, tourist shop T-shirt slogans aren’t peddling the most sage of wisdom. In Austin, “Live Music Capital of the World” shirts warrant eye rolls from local musicians who are all too familiar with the increasingly strict noise ordinances that have sobered the city’s soundscape. And these days, the iconic “Keep Austin Weird” tie-dye is a darkly comedic plea in a city where luxury high-rises supplant the record shops and food trucks that earned the capital of Texas its reputation in the first place.

But if you find yourself on Dirty Sixth Street (every visitor will, and even we locals end up there occasionally, despite our better judgment), make your way through the cacophony of dollar-shot offers and into one of those tacky tourist shops for the one T-shirt that accurately sums up the city. It reads “Austin, Texas: A Sleepy Little Drinking Town With a Live Music Problem.” Sure, we now have a population of 1 million, but we all fit inside this place that manages to maintain its small-town vibe, and not a single ordinance could ever extinguish our musical lifeblood (or the multimedia mothership known as South by Southwest).

Austinites know how to drink with the best of them, and our expertise ranges far beyond the collegiate inebriation of Sixth Street. Here, you’ll find cocktail bars hidden in parking garages, time capsule dive bars, and honky-tonks where bikers and hipsters find common ground in tattoos and whiskey. As if workers in the hospitality industry didn’t have their work cut out for them with locals alone, lately the city has become a destination for bachelor and bachelorette parties that arrive in droves and take to the streets by electric scooter– and pedal-powered pub crawls.

For this installment of PUNCH’s “A Night at the Door,” we talked with bouncers who keep the peace at three very different establishments in what can, at times, feel like an adult playground of a city. At Nickel City, a Rust Belt–inspired eastside dive bar serving Detroit-style sliders and pouring some of the best whiskey in town, bar veteran Billy Milano can be found outside the door playing music on his portable speaker, passing out treats to neighborhood dogs and laughing with a friend on FaceTime as he greets regulars in his thick New York accent.

Due south on East Sixth Street, martial artist Moe Martin keeps revelers in check at the raucous Volstead Lounge with his kind smile and Zen presence, while a mile west at the iconic venue Mohawk, the leather-clad and studded Marina Lebedeva holds her own with humor, but quickly turns fierce as needed. Other nights she can be found down Red River Street at the door of fog-filled ’80s haunt Elysium or quipping with a cast of characters outside Rain, one of the Warehouse District’s vibrant gay clubs.

Each of these bars and their gatekeepers shows a side of Austin that is still quite boisterous, and yes, sometimes even weird.

Bouncers Austin

Billy Milano

Age: 55

Workplace: Nickel City

How did you get into this line of work?
I did front of house, mixing for 30 years. I’ve produced a ton of records and I mean for record labels, not for people’s fuckin’ demos. I am a platinum-selling musician myself and a platinum record manager as well, and I still play. I’m going to Russia and Greece with my band M.O.D. in December. My band has been touring for 32 years and I played my 50th birthday five years ago in France to 90,000 people and we opened for bands like Iron Maiden and Slayer. I’m the singer, if you can believe it.

I’m one of the founding fathers of New York hardcore punk. So in 1980, I was hanging out in a bar called A7 where the New York hardcore movement began. We started gravitating toward Sundays at CBGB’s when hardcore matinees started to get popular. I played in a band called The Psychos; I was the bass player. We played huge shows, we were big, even back then.

So did you start working at bars back then?
I bounced at CBGB’s for six years on Sundays. Some of the shows I did were Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Channel Nine, Necros, The Faith, Void, Flipper, Hüsker Dü. I did a lot of shows back in the day. Every fuckin’ hardcore punk band back in the day. They were great. They weren’t bands that said, ‘I don’t like my guitar tone.’ They were like, “Fuck it, let’s play.”

I did that ’til ’87, when I started really getting out and doing national tours. More than 20 shows, DIY, 60 to 80 shows a run. And then in Austin I worked at Headhunters for six years, where I did sound and helped co-manage as one of the mods. Then I went to Bull McCabe’s for two years and ran the Atomic Honky Tonk, built their PA [system], built their stage and all that stuff. And then for six years I worked at Key Bar and ran all their sound and all their shows for SXSW, built all their staging and PA. I crush live sound. I love music and when someone shows up with game, meaning they can play, they have great songs and performance skills, they’re going to sound like a million bucks.

How did you end up in Austin from the New York area?
Life is a series of events. I left New Jersey 15 years ago to come to Austin because I’ve always felt very relaxed when I toured through Austin. It took me a whole year to decompress after being Mr. Hoboken for nine years. But now I’ve been here for almost 16 years and there’s no going back.

How has your perspective changed from working the door?
I feed three homeless guys on this street every week. Once in a while, I buy them a shitty bottle of shitty stuff just because they need something. But if you don’t participate, how do you expect to evolve as a person? I’m 55 years old, I have grandkids and I have a job and I still help people. And ultimately, it’s the culmination of being here that gives me my ground. I’ve been on these streets and I know what it’s like to live on the streets and these people got it tough. But you know, sitting out here is humbling and yet it’s also cathartic. I like to read, I don’t drink. I smoke a little weed. I like to cook—I’m a fuckin’ rippin’ cook. I cook better than most of these fuckin’ restaurants!

It’s interesting, where I’ve gone and where I’ve been, that I’m still like this. A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is to be humble and real. And when you understand it, you just become it rather than trying to be. But the door has always been the catalyst for me being—I don’t want to say dignified, or even humble. How about this: kind. That’s always been the aspect of my job that I enjoy the most about being in a bar, that I get to talk to people. There’s no agenda, at least for me. Believe me, I get plenty of agenda when they want to get in and they don’t have an ID. But that’s just part of life.

Have you ever had to kick anyone out?
Yeah, I’ve always had to do that. I try to do things respectfully. I never try to throw somebody out physically. I have been sucker-punched and hurt and I’ve had to punch people and beat people down. It happens sometimes. It’s a fuckin’ dangerous job. But at 55—again, a grandfather of two—I’d rather sit out here and relax.

You really do want people to get home safe and come back another day—at least I do. That’s why I always tell everybody, “Look, let’s just call it a day, come back tomorrow and we’ll laugh at it!”

Do you have a favorite after-work drink or snack you like to enjoy?
I bring home all the fruit from the bar that they [would] throw out. I grew up with 11 kids in my family, so we didn’t waste food. So I bring them home and freeze them. I got like 40 pounds of chopped fruit in my freezer. Basically I take ’em home and blend ’em up like a smoothie, that’s it.

Bouncers Austin

Maurice (“Moe”) Martin

Age: 32

Workplace: The Volstead Lounge

How did you get into this line of work?
I’ve been a kickboxer for about nine years, and a buddy of mine that I spar with on the regular to get ready for fights, he was a doorman and I was looking to make some money on the side. I was just getting into personal training and I didn’t have a client yet so he recommended this place and they hired me on a year ago and it’s been great. Now I do personal training as my day job and then I come here.

How would you describe Volstead?
I think it’s true to Austin. Whereas downtown is a little more touristy—you get a lot more foot traffic, you get a lot more out-of-towners—here on the east side we get folks who’ve been coming to this bar for 30, 40 years.

What do you think makes you good at your job?
I think the time that I spend studying the job. When I first got this job, it was so new to me and I didn’t really understand it. I’d done customer service before—I’d worked in telemarketing and at H-E-B—but there’s kind of a stigma about bouncers from movies and just what you see online, where you just see bouncers doing their job poorly. But really, if a night goes well, I can walk out 13, 14 people and no one at the bar will know about it and it will just be calm and quiet with no altercations. In fact, I usually have a conversation with people at the door before they leave and they end up shaking my hand and going, “Thank you, man, have a good night.”

You do seem to have a very calm demeanor.
Right! But I also have a shirt on with a skull on it and a knife through it (laughs). What’s the saying? “Speak softly and carry a big stick”? I’m not new to martial arts or fighting, but that’s not the job. The job is to take care of the customer. I know we’re throwing a party, but if you’ve had a little too much to drink, it’s time to go home. 

So you have to kick people out pretty regularly?
Oh, yeah. And if it comes to the point where I have to do that, you’ve definitely earned it. But I’ve got to keep myself and my customers and the rest of my co-workers safe.

What’s the craziest or weirdest thing you can recall seeing?
Oh, you see it all. I’ve had people run across tables, having too much fun. Every once in a while we get parades through here. Sometimes people forget to bring clothes with them to the bar and I have to tell them they can’t come in like that. Just whatever you would imagine people doing at a big party, you’ll see that here. Lampshade on the head, all of it.

How has your perspective changed from working the door?
It’s made me better at talking to people. I’m actually quite the introvert. I enjoy keeping to myself, not speaking much and just kinda hanging out in my head. But with this job, I have a lot of customer interaction. I don’t go out to bars and clubs a lot. I’ll go to this one occasionally because I know it! It’s helped me get better at talking to people.

Do you have a hard time turning off the doorman in you in your everyday life?
I come from a military family, so since I was a kid I’ve been taught to be aware of my surroundings. And then getting into martial arts and learning to read people—I like to be aware of what’s going on around me. I think that’s one of the reasons I do well here, because it’s already built into my DNA.

Do you have a favorite after-work drink or snack you like to enjoy?
Ginger beer. My dad’s Panamanian and I grew up drinking it. They have the Maine Root brand here so when I finish my shift, I grab one of those.

Marina Lebedeva

Age: 29

Workplaces: Mohawk, Rain, Elysium

What makes you good at your job?
When I work, I try to be cheeky with people. You see a lot of bouncers who have this jaded, angry look on their face and they’re assholes, but you have to have fun with your job or else you’re going to fucking hate it. Because it’s repetitive: “Don’t take your water outside. Yes, you have to be 21 to enter. No, you can’t come in. No, I’m not kidding.” The usual.

How did you get into this line of work?
Back home in Athens, Georgia, I started working the door at a strip club called Toppers. I was 19 and I couldn’t drink, but under the table I could work for them. That was honestly so much fun because, as a female lesbian, it’s not very threatening at the door and all the strippers felt comfortable around me. But I learned quickly that my size and stature is something to factor in, so I took four years of Krav Maga (Israeli military fighting) and then knife fighting as well because I don’t believe in carrying a weapon you don’t know how to utilize properly or that can be taken from you easily. So once I did that, that changed everything. That’s why I like Krav Maga, because you’re using somebody’s body—their weight and muscles—against them. So it’s not so much dependent on my strength at all—it’s them.

So has that come in handy for you in this job?
Oh, yeah. South-by… That’s always cute. I tend to walk home or take a scooter and I had one guy actually follow me. And I knew what he was doing and I was like, “Goddamnit.” And he rounds the corner but I guess he’d gone through an alleyway to cut me off because I didn’t hear him for a few minutes. Next thing I know, he tries to fight me. He’s like, “Remember me, bitch?” And I’m like, “Yes I do, pumpkin,” because I had kicked him out and I think I embarrassed him in front of his girlfriend. He took it personally and tried to fight me.

So what happened?
Well, I won [laughs]. He comes in, fists swinging, and I could see he didn’t have a weapon, so that was good. I duck down a few times and he tries to punch me straight on, but has no form. Like no form at all, so I grabbed his wrists and he wasn’t very balanced so I just threw him behind me where there was a brick ledge and I could just hear his knuckles break. His knuckles are all bloody and he’s pissed as hell. And then I grab that wrist and do this one move, where if they move at all, their wrists just snap in half. And I said, “Yes, I remember you. Are you going to calm down?” And after a few seconds he was like “Fuck you!” and ran away. Again, Krav Maga lending itself useful.

I saw on your Instagram you were recently attacked and you whipped the guy! What happened there? And you make your own whips?
I used to train horses back in the day and I would go prepare saddles, so that gave me a love of working with leather and that just escalated into making belts. And I used to crack fire whips and I now braid my own whips. They’re kerosene-soaked whips, very long—18 footers—and you do tricks with them. I started doing that when I was 14 and when I moved up here, I’d just play with lassos and bullwhips and stuff like that.

So I recently got clotheslined on a scooter at 3:30 a.m. I hit the ground and I am pissed. I am so tired, it’s the end of my five-day stretch of doubles. I grabbed the dude by the ankles and pulled him back to me and then popped him on the back of the head with my whip, which I’d brought to work to show my co-workers. Honestly, I was like, this is the most alarming and disarming thing I could be carrying. I’ve never seen a more shocked and scared look on someone’s face. I thought his eyes were going to explode. It’s probably the last thing he expected from a skinny little white girl with a backpack who looked like an easy target to rob. It was Indiana Jones–style. And you’re damn right he’s probably not going to try this again. He’s wondering what’s gonna happen next—she going to summon a Mayan god or something?

I’ve been jumped a lot. I’m an easy target and I like to wander around in the wee hours of the night. But nine times out of 10 nothing bad really happens. I mean, lately, obviously guns are a factor.

Have you had to deal with guns here in Texas?
I’ve had too many guns pointed at me to care about them anymore. I was a little street urchin—a little punk—surprise! So I would end up in places that weren’t very savory. Now I think it’s a benefit, but I’ve had guns pointed at me quite a bit in my youth so the fear of it [has been] taken right out of me.

I think last Wednesday I spotted seven. It’s Texas—everyone’s going to have a gun, but should they and is the gun legal? That’s all I care about. Now, it can’t come inside and nobody has ever tried as long as I’ve worked here, but if they were to do that, that’s absolutely not allowed. I can do pat-downs if I need to. I really kind of want us to, but we haven’t implemented a system yet where that’s a thing. I really kind of want us to, the way things are going, but you don’t want it to come off as profiling if it’s random and, if you do everybody, then your line’s going to take forever, so monitoring is the best thing you can do.

What is the biggest challenge of your job?
Patience, definitely patience. Reminding yourself that you’re the one that’s sober and they’re not.

Do you have a favorite after-work drink or snack you like to enjoy?
I have a weakness for Jimmy John’s sandwiches. I always order one as late to closing as they’ll go, so tonight it was 10 p.m., but some nights they’ll stay open ’til 3 a.m., so I’ll have it delivered at 2 a.m. so it’s nice and fresh. It’s always the same one—the veggie—because I’m a vegetarian. And I get extra onions, less cheese, less lettuce and extra cucumbers and tomatoes. I actually don’t really drink. The last time I was drunk was accidentally a year and a half ago. I’m not sober, I just don’t really drink that often. So I just eat my sandwich like a wholesome little lesbian, and walk the same stretch home each night or take a scooter part of the way and then stop halfway across the bridge and decompress while I eat my sandwich and listen to Fleetwood Mac or Lady Gaga.

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