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A Night at the Door With Three Portland Bouncers

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

Contrary to popular opinion, there’s more to drinking in Portland, Oregon, than brewpubs. The city boasts the most strip clubs per capita in the country and is home to countless beloved dives and pioneering cocktail bars. Unlike the city’s notoriously low-key breweries, these are the types of places where you’ll likely have to present your I.D. at the door, especially on the weekends. And many of the bouncers here have been around for years (if not decades) and know what it takes to keep watch at a Rose City bar.

For this installment of PUNCH’s “A Night at the Door,” which explores what these gatekeepers experience nightly in cities across the country, we started with Anthony Smith, better known as Tony, who’s posted outside Jackknife, a cocktail bar in the Sentinel Hotel that draws anything but a cocktail crowd. Further downtown, in Old Town, we visited Chuck Miller outside the Kit Kat Club, a well-known strip club and burlesque hall once attached to the Pink ‘n’ Black Waffle Shack. The brick-and-mortar shack’s gone, sadly, but the club is still there. And finally, we ended the night a few blocks south, where we spoke with the affable Roger Vialva at Kelly’s Olympian, a dive established in 1902 that’s now a live music venue.

We asked each bouncer to share their craziest stories on the job, favorite after-work beverages and their takes on what makes the place they work at worth a pit stop—or seven. Here is what they had to say.

Portland Bouncers

Anthony Smith

Age: 30
Workplace: Jackknife

How long have you been working at Jackknife?
“Since January, so about seven months now.”

What do you like about working there?
“It’s one of those things. The spot was opened by a buddy of mine about five years ago… and I’m just appreciative of being back in the fold and working for my buddies. Doing this type of work is just a good way to meet people.”

What makes Jackknife special?
“We’re not necessarily a hotel bar… I feel like hotel bars are add ons, whereas this was fundamentally built to be something different. And I think a lot of that has to do with the aesthetic, the staff, the way the place is laid out. A lot of people have their weddings here and big events in their life. That can happen at a lot of different places in the service industry, but I think Jackknife is an important place to a lot of different people.”

What is the most challenging part about this job?
“Just being fun police. Most of the time I personally think there’s really only a small segment of the population that has ever tried to cause ill towards folks. Everybody’s just out trying to have a good time, and everyone has a different opinion about what a good time is… there’s been times that I’ve had to walk people out, being like, ‘That was literally me yesterday.’ It sucks it be a wet blanket, but somebody needs to do it.”

What’s your favorite post-work drink?
“A shot of Espolon and a Coors, generally.”

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the door?
“Not at Jackknife but I was working at a different place at a neighborhood north of here. It’s a quieter spot. There was one night, I had my book out and I remember looking up because I heard a scratching. I looked up and saw this gentleman, just full wife beater, just his underwear and a pair of untied tennis shoes just dragging an aluminum kid’s baseball bat in his hand, going around, Fight Clubbing the mirrors off cars. I ran in and I talked to the bartender and I was like, ‘Dude, you gotta come out here and check this out. Should I call somebody about this?’ and all he told me was, ‘I didn’t park down that street,’ and walked inside.”

Portland Bouncers

Chuck Miller

Age: 50
Workplace: The Kit Kat Club

How long have you been working here?
“Five years.”

What is the most interesting thing you’ve seen since you’ve been working here?
“The people that come in and out, mostly. The club itself is already an anomaly, it’s kind of a circus. This club especially because there’s a lot of burlesque stuff that goes on. It’s not just a strip club, it’s a little more than that. I’ve known the owner for 26 years. I think I stay here for that reason more than anything.”

Is there any one incident in particular that jogs your memory?
“There’s so many. Twenty-five years of bouncing. I’ll give you an example. A guy came in and he was upset because he thought he heard our emcee say, ‘F men.’ And that’s not what she was saying. He completely got it out of context, but he was very upset, and I said, ‘How can I help you?’ and he said, ‘I need to talk to somebody who’s going to listen.’ And I said, ‘I’m listening to you.’ Essentially, he was saying that the club wasn’t man friendly enough for him. And I said, ‘The strip club, where the girls are naked, for a $1, is not man-friendly enough for you?’ I was gonna throw him out, but I didn’t. But I had never heard in 25 years that a strip club wasn’t man-friendly enough. He said, ‘Listen I’m a man. I have balls.’ And I was like, ‘K. Maybe you’re in the wrong club.’”

Have you ever had to kick anyone out?
“Often. Here, all the time.”

What have people done to get kicked out?
“Touching the girls. We try to keep the peace. We’re here to keep the peace with everybody and watch the club and the girls. If you touch the girls. If you’re overly drunk. If you’re loud. If you’re doing things like running up on stage, those kinds of things get you kicked out.”

What is your favorite post-shift drink?
“Mac and Jack’s. It’s a beer. It’s an I.P.A.”

What do you like about working here?
“The people I work with. I met [the owner] when I started bouncing in ’94. I grew up in Seattle but moved here in ’93. I married a dancer, got divorced and stayed in Portland. I left for a while. I do private security for people. I worked for Journey all of 2008. I was the new singer’s personal security guard. That was a great year.”

What have you learned over the years?
“Don’t take things personal and keep your ego in check. I’ve done Kenpo karate for 19 years and that’s how I started in bouncing because I was good at that. I have the skill set to handle myself which I have to do a lot and you need to have a skill set beside being calm because things do turn sideways sometimes. Having that knowledge and that ability plus choking on your ego makes you a good bouncer.”

Portland Bouncers

Roger Vialva

Age: 47
Workplace: Kelly’s Olympian

How long have you worked here?
“I just came back from a three-month hiatus, but I’ve been here total about two and a half years.”

Why did you take that hiatus?
“I just wanted to do something different for a while. I started working for myself doing investing in Forex market, foreign exchange, which I’m still doing.”

What is the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the door?
“A homeless lady laying in the middle of the street as the light turns green. And a bunch of people rushed out in the street to try to help her, thinking something was wrong. They get her to the curb and then she jumps up and sits on this guy who was in a wheelchair’s lap and starts kissing all over him and then jumps up and starts running around. Really strange. I let that one play out.”

Have you had to intervene with anything here?
“Oh yeah. There was a couple that started arguing and all of a sudden, the lady started slapping the back of the guy and he turned around and he almost hit her but he kind of caught himself and it just kept on escalating. And there was another guy who had left the bar and was going across the street when it all started, and he tried to intervene, and he got hit and fell to the curb. Me and one of our customers ran over there and broke it up and ended up getting the police out here.”

What do you like about working here?
“The friendships I’ve built. The majority of regulars here are actual friends. We hang out when I’m not at work. My birthday was two weeks ago, and I hung out with the regulars from here. They took me out for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bought me a bunch of drinks. It was a great time.”

What makes this place special?
“When I left I had no plans on coming back but some of the bar staff started calling me and asking me to come back—and the customers. I worked the shift for one of the guys here that needed a break and it was like a homecoming. Everybody embraced me and was like, ‘Yeah Roger great to see you. Glad to have you back.’ It’s not really work, it’s more having fun with my friends.”

What are the challenges of the job?
“Dealing with transients coming around or customers that get drunk. A lot of people that are drunk don’t believe that they’re drunk and want to argue the fact that they’re not drunk. So, dealing with that and getting them to understand and realize I can’t have them in when they’re in that condition.”

What have you learned here?
“That I’m usually never alone. Most of our regulars will be quick to jump on something if it starts to get a little sketchy. I’ve always got someone here that’s got my back.”

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Britta Lokting is a journalist based in New York. She has written for the New York Times, New York, The Baffler and elsewhere.