Sometimes Baltimore seems like the city that can’t catch a break. At its best, people picture the eccentric territory of John Waters; at worst, the bleak urban dysfunction of The Wire or the harrowing racial unrest unleashed in the wake of Freddie Gray’s 2015 death in police custody. Even the president has added the city to his long list of Twitter targets.
So many of Baltimore’s woes stem from long decades of racial and economic segregation, a dynamic borne out within the city’s nightlife. The crescent of white neighborhoods edging the harbor—Federal Hill to Fells Point to Canton—are dominated by frat culture and jumbo TV–filled sports bars where the “Crush,” a saccharine combination of juice, lemon-lime soda and flavored vodka, is ordered not-infrequently. Meanwhile, the city’s African American population drinks in members-only clubs (sometimes operated out of private homes), hip-hop clubs throughout East and West Baltimore and, for the over-30 crowd, sophisticated lounges with dress codes.
And although it may not be apparent on the surface, Baltimore has a diverse, bohemian side, exemplified by venues like John Waters’ favorite dive, the pseudo-swanky Club Charles, where locals of all persuasions mingle with art students over well Martinis and an astonishingly eclectic jukebox. Here, Thomas Yewell stands at the thick glass door (which during bouncer-less hours is locked, requiring patrons to buzz in) not only guarding his establishment, but keeping a careful eye on the block and its denizens.
At The Crown, a gritty party palace with a Korean fast-food fusion restaurant, a wide range of performances is always on offer; on any given night, you might encounter a Yom Kippur karaoke affair, a Baltimore Club music (the native fusion of hip-hop and house popularized in the ’90s) party and a post-punk noise show—all playing in rooms adjacent to one another. Presiding over the graffiti-filled hallways is Tony MacDonald, upholding the club’s reputation for inclusivity and its hard-line stance against harassment of any kind.
And at the monthly Save Your Soul party, held in the basement of a Lithuanian church and community center, tourists, locals, jocks, punks, queers, students, professionals, squares and weirdos of every gender, race and age dance to classic soul and R&B 45s until the early hours of the morning. Here, Peter Spencer charms attendees with his preternatural patience and kindly attitude—even allowing past offenders to return if they’ve shown true remorse for their drunken antics.
PUNCH dropped into each of these venues to talk about drunk people, Halloween costumes and what it means to work private security in a city with Baltimore’s policing history.
Workplace: Club Charles (aka “Club Chuck”)
How long have you been working as a bouncer?
Maybe 10 years. I was at Mt. Royal Tavern [a dive bar near the Maryland Institute College of Art] for six or seven years. And I’ve been going to Club Chuck since I was 21. Because I worked at the Tavern they were like, “Well, Tom works at the Tavern, he hangs out here, he knows what he’s doing. We can trust him.”
What makes Club Chuck so special?
It’s a hub with a lot of different kinds of interesting minds. The topics of conversation would probably be a little different from what you’d see at a lot of other bars. There’s a lot more talk about art and film, rather than your basic pop culture gab that might be at a normal bar. It’s famous as John Waters’ home bar. That’s attaching it to celebrity, but it is a big part of the allure of that place. And it kind of exists in this cusp between a dive bar and a cocktail bar. Because it’s not quite a dive, because it has these great classic cocktails and it has a nicer vibe, but it’s not clean enough or expensive enough to be a cocktail bar.
Why does Club Charles have such a diverse crowd?
I think part of it is the location, where it is geographically in the city. If you look at a map of the city, Club Chuck is a pin right in the middle. It exists in a nexus of neighborhoods in the middle of the “L.” A lot of cities, the way they’re segregated, is a little more half and half. Baltimore has a really unique shape. There’s a white L in the middle and then there’s the butterfly—the people of color, the African Americans, they live on the edge around the city. Which is different. In most cities the middle is occupied by the people of color and is surrounded by white. Baltimore is different. You also get a diverse group from the colleges all around. So you get a group of young people and then you get the older artists who’ve been coming forever. So that’s where you get a lot of your age diversity. The neighborhood it’s in, Station North, they’re always talking about it gentrifying. When you talk to people that have lived there forever, it’s always been in this transition that they’re talking about. So it has always been this neighborhood that seems it’s going either down or up and it’s really just kind of always been the same. It’s a nexus of the city.
Do you have any John Waters stories?
I did have a conversation once with him about Christmas movies. John Waters loves Christmas, and if you’re looking to find him in Baltimore, Club Charles around Christmastime is a good time to find him and he’s in good spirits. He’s a friendly guy. If you have something interesting to say, he will talk to you. We talked about this old Claymation movie, The Year Without a Santa Claus, and we both sang the Heat Miser song. That’s my John Waters encounter.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen at the door?
I had a guy show up in a full spacesuit that had air-conditioning inside. He was hooked up to an IV that was keeping him hydrated. That was the weirdest thing I’ve seen at the door. It was Artscape, [a midsummer street festival]. It was really hot out, so I couldn’t believe this guy was in a full NASA suit.
How did you check his ID?
He had it on a badge on his chest. He was prepared. I had another guy on Halloween once who came to the bar before things really started out and he was in plain clothes and he said, “Look, later I’m gonna show up and I’m gonna be the Predator and you’re not going to be able to check my ID so here’s my ID now and when the Predator shows up that’s me.” And this guy had a spot-on Predator outfit. And there was no way he was going to be able to dig his ID up out of it.
Baltimore is famous for problems with its policing. Does some of that work fall on bouncers and security guards?
Yeah, it does. It feels like I’m more responsible for what happens on my block and the block that the bar is on and keeping that safe. I don’t feel like I can rely on police. I don’t like to call them because I feel like either it’s going to be a huge waste of everyone’s time and they’re going to do nothing, or they’re going to escalate the situation. There are homeless members of the community that have been here forever. And when you work there, you learn their idiosyncrasies and their quirks and stuff, so you sort of learn how to communicate with them to keep things calm. But sometimes you’ll get someone who’s on a bipolar swing and they’re swinging from violent to sweet in a conversation.
I have this guy Leroy, who I have to deal with constantly. And he’ll push me. He’ll get up in my face and then two hours later come back and apologize about it. There’s another guy, Gibreel, we have to deal with a lot. He’s a convicted sex offender. Sometimes Gibreel is walking down the street and he’s totally fine. You don’t have to worry about him; he’s not going to hurt anybody. But it can be hard. He recently had an issue down the street where he stood outside and pointed a gun at the front of a building. We get on the ground level where we get to know them by name and we get to know people’s stories. The police in the area have no idea who Leroy is or what his name is.
What are some dangerous situations you’ve been in at the bar?
The most aggressive men will get is when they’re being told they need to leave a woman they don’t know alone. Those guys will smash a glass or act like they want to hurt someone. Guy harasses girl, I have to go tell him to fuck off and he gets in my face because he’s over-testosteroned and over-alcoholed. Usually I can count on regulars and people I know to support me, and typically the situations simmer down with no violence. Because they see not only is it just me in the bar, there’s a whole community behind all of that that’s going to put a stop to it. That is helpful, working at Chuck. I have a lot of people just around all the time I can rely on if I really get into trouble.
What’s your post-shift drink?
My cocktail is tequila—usually Dolce Vita—and ginger beer with a little bit of bitters. It’s pretty strong. And then once I’m getting a little too soft to do work I’ll switch down to PBR.
Anything else you’d like to add?
You really have to come to Club Chuck to understand it. Just like Baltimore the city. You can talk about it, try to tell people, but you don’t understand until you’ve been here a week and seen what’s really going on.
Workplace: The Crown
How did you get this job?
I was walking past one day and I asked if they were hiring. I’ve been there ever since.
Do you like it?
It’s OK. You hear a lot of interesting things. You hear a lot of different lies they tell about why they don’t have an ID. They say, “Come on, you can let me in. I’ll be 21 in three months! Ain’t nobody going to know.” And I tell them, “First of all, I’m gonna know. And second of all, if the liquor board come in here and they check everybody’s ID and you’re not 21 then we’re going to get charged $2,500. So the only way I’m gonna let you in is if you give me $2,500.”
Did you ever try any of those tricks when you were younger?
Yes, I did. I tried them all. I tried everything. That’s why I look at them and I say, “Come on. Really? You really expect me to believe that?”
What’s special about The Crown?
The crowd of people that comes through there. We don’t discriminate. I don’t care if you straight, if you gay, if you bisexual, or anything. I treat everybody the same way. And basically I tell people I don’t have no picks. I don’t care if you black, white, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanic—it doesn’t matter. I don’t ask for a lot. All I ask is that you act like you got respect, and have your ID. If you can’t do those two little things, then something’s wrong. It’s a really artistic place. We got graffiti on the wall. People tag all our walls. We can paint over it today and tomorrow it’ll be halfway filled up again from people tagging it.
Are you supposed to throw people out for tagging?
It’s [at] the discretion of security officers. I have thrown people out for tagging the walls. But if I don’t see you, then it’s fine. There’s nothing I can do about it. But if I catch you and I tell you to stop and you continue to write? Then I’m throwing you out because I told you to stop. And you disobeyed a direct order. And that means you don’t want to be in there.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen working there?
The weirdest thing I’ve seen was a girl that took her underwear off without taking her pants off. She just came downstairs and she said, “Hey, you wanna see something?” And I’m like, “Sure.” So she sat down in the middle of the floor and she just took her fucking underwear off without taking her shorts off. I said, “Wow. I’ve never seen nothing like that.”
Have you ever had to call the police?
One time. This guy, he refused to leave the establishment. He wanted his money back from the restaurant because he said they didn’t fix his wings right or they gave him the wrong wings or whatever, so he wanted his money back. And then he started throwing stuff around. So to avoid me putting my hands on him I just went and called the police and let them deal with him.
Have you ever experienced racism at the door?
There was a comedy show going on and this guy was in there heckling people. So I pulled him to the side and I asked him not to do that. I said, “They are not professionals, they amateurs, so please don’t heckle them. Let them do their set and get it over with.” And he called me the N- word: “Nigger, you don’t tell me what to do, I do what the fuck I want to do.” And I said, “You got me fucked up and I’ll beat your motherfucking ass.” And I put him out. And then he tried to come back in, so I stood in front of the door and when he tried to come past me, I bumped him. He called the police on me and told the police that I assaulted him. And the police asked him, “Well, how did he assault you?” And he said, “He bumped me with his belly.” So the police said, “That’s not assault, sir.” When the police left, he was out front just calling me a whole bunch of niggers. Nigger this, nigger that. So I told him, “That’s why you got a fucking black eye now, because you called somebody a nigger one time too many. And you lucky I’m working because if I wasn’t, I’d be knee-deep in your ass.”
Do you have a post-shift drink?
I don’t drink. I used to be an alcoholic years ago. I had a birthday party down at The Crown and I got drunk. I had 14 shots and that was everything that I had. After that, I said I will never drink again.
Does being sober and a former alcoholic help you deal with drunk people?
Yeah. I understand how drunk people are. I understand that they say things that they really don’t mean. They say things just because they’re drunk. And nine times out of 10 they ain’t gonna remember what they said tomorrow.
Workplace: Lithuanian Hall
How did you start working at Lithuanian Hall?
The security company I was working for had me assigned down there. There were a couple of issues that I personally dealt with and they liked the way I performed my job because I tried not to be overzealous, but I got the job done. In other words, I like to treat people in the way I feel they deserve to be treated and the way I like to be treated. I’ve been doing security for about 18 years. I started out of necessity to try to find a way to feed myself and my family.
What are some of your standards for behavior? How do you judge situations and know what tactics to use?
One of my key solutions is, if an individual is holding conversation with [me] and is constantly getting louder, it’s necessary for me to start talking softer to them. That forces them to listen to what I’m saying. It also lowers down the temperature of their attitude. That’s one thing.
Of course, I hate to take it to the most drastic result, but occasionally it might be necessary. I try to stay away from actually having anybody locked up. But sometimes reason don’t work. I look at it this way: In a place such as Lithuanian Hall, the individuals basically come out to enjoy themselves. They can’t say they enjoy themselves after they wake up in jail. I want it to be a situation that—although you got out of hand at one point in time, you’re gonna come back and you’re gonna humble yourself and you may even be an ally if something else happens in the place where you land.
What makes Lithuanian Hall special?
Lithuanian Hall to me is what America should have been originally. Everybody’s coming together to have a good time without causing a whole lot of drama. Just to have a nice time and try to interact with each other and if possible learn something. Every time you speak to an individual that’s not about caca you got an opportunity to learn something. I have the opportunity to meet different cultures of people in one location, working on my mentality and my understanding and my growth at the same time. It feels good to me. It’s a positive situation for myself because as I live I’m always trying to learn something new. I’m trying to get involved in other cultures, to get a better understanding of things. A lot of times people give you information as far as other cultures but you really don’t know. If you get an opportunity to be around them you can at least have a little bit more to bite off of, so you know what’s going on. As far as myself and Lithuanian Hall, it’s been a very beautiful situation.
What’s something you learned at the door that surprised you?
We have a major racial issue in the United States, and I have come to learn that everybody ain’t on the same page. Human beings are simply that. But if you treat a person the way you want to be treated, then everything will be well. Come with respect and as long as you give it, you can get it. I also find a lot of women there are beautiful, but I restrain myself from going any farther than my job’s duties, although my heart makes me want to reach out and talk to them. But I got to stay professional.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen?
I have seen some strange things, but where you might say strange, I say humorous. You understand what I’m saying? Because for real—if they like it, I love it. That’s how I say. As long as there’s no harm come to anybody. I hope I’m not sounding arrogant. Everything as of late has been smooth. And I think that’s due to the fact that people now know who I am and know what the rules are down there.
Have you ever felt in danger at Lithuanian Hall?
When I first started working there it was off the wall. One time the party was at full blast, and because of the crowd, I didn’t recognize for two or three minutes that somebody was about to start a ruckus up in there, which I had to step in and deflate. There was also a situation where individuals was caught in certain areas doing certain things that they shouldn’t be doing in a public place. Once again, you go at ’em at a certain way and you let ’em know this ain’t acceptable. If I was to say, “I’m gonna throw your ass out!” or use certain language, or “You come back in here and I’m gonna lock you up!”—that’s not necessary. I know that any time that alcohol is involved in a situation anything and everything can happen. The way that it is dealt with is what makes a difference. If you want to go in there and be Godzilla Gorilla you’re gonna get a negative type of attitude. But if you go in there being a human being like the other individual and appeal to reason, then a lot of time, although the alcohol is involved, [the issue] can be resolved.
Do you have a shift drink?
I like 1800 [tequila] myself. But I’m talking about after the job is done, I might have a relaxing drink before I make my travels towards my home.
Did you ever have viryta [the sweet Lithuanian honey liqueur]?
They offered it to me once, but it’s not my flavor. I like to stick to what I’m familiar with, and therefore I can always monitor my reaction to things. You know, alcohol does have various ways of messing with you so you’re not on top of it.