The Life of Harrisonburg's Bouncers

By Sara Brannan

Flashing strobe lights provide periodic glimpses of a sticky, once white floor, an infamous mechanical bull and a sweaty sea of 590 barely dressed college students. Backcountry bouncer Robert Kobilack, 18, soberly and methodically guides wobbling wanderers off the stage where the DJ blasts Drake’s “In My Feelings” for the umpteenth time.

For most James Madison University students, Backcountry’s Thursday night “College Night” is a familiar scene.

For only $3, anyone with a college ID can party in what was once a Mick-or-Mack grocery store. With its high capacity, low entrance fee, student-focused events and cheap beer, Backcountry seems ideal for chaos.

So, who is in charge of ensuring the safety of this crowd?

This falls into the hands of the owner’s 19-year-old son, Drew Glick.

His average height, baby face, Fulk’s Run accent and patient demeanor make him an unintimidating bouncer. He explains that his job mostly consists of supervising other bouncers and monitoring customers’ levels of intoxication. Out of 1,200 customers passing through a night, he estimates that he asks only about five to leave.

“Normally, they know their limits.”

For those who don’t, Glick takes it upon himself to arrange a ride home. This leaves his roommate and enlisted coworker, Robert Kobilack, to clean what’s left behind.

“The boy’s bathroom is cleaner than the women’s,” says Kobilack. “The women’s, you can imagine what they have in the toilets. Feminine products, of course. They puke on the floor. They don’t clean it up. For some reason they have a tendency to grab the whole toilet paper roll, put it in the toilet, and try to flush it. Every night, I swear,”

If it sounds unusual to have a couple of average-sized teenagers in charge of security of such a large establishment, it is. Other bouncers interviewed from other bars are at least 25-years-old and at least 6 feet tall.

At the popular downtown bar Finnigan’s Cove, D. Johnson, mid-thirties, watches through the window as customers walk to the entrance. Once they arrive, he makes some small talk with them to gauge whether their speech is slurred. He then looks at their facial features to see whether they match their ID.

Finnigan's Cove, Downtown, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

“Certain features — whether you gain weight, lose weight — are always going to be there. Things like your ears, your nose, your chin, your eyes,” he points out.

Johnson explains that while he can recognize almost any fake ID, it’s more common that college students use someone else’s ID to get in. He bends the ID to look for a crease in the laminate, a sign that it’s likely fake. He shines a flashlight to check for a holographic state seal.

Johnson has been working security, or as Finnigan’s calls it, “Public Relations,” off and on for the past seven years.

“Usually, I say security. When I think about a bouncer, I think of someone that’s going to be forceful and throw you out.”

His unwavering eye contact and quiet seriousness indicate experience and professionalism.

He explains that he tries to maintain order by talking things through before things get physical.

“It’s a last resort to actually get physical. I try to treat them with the same respect that I want to get treated with. That changes peoples’ mindset.”

Johnson has noticed that Finnigan’s, once a quiet “townie bar,” has become more popular with college students and the atmosphere has changed.

“More fakes, people trying to sneak drinks, more rowdy.”

He explains that college students tend to be more “disrespectful” than most Harrisonburg locals. He explains that “townies” carry a “mutual respect” for security workers than students.

“They’ve called me the n-word, called me worthless, a piece of trash, everything under the sun.”

He prioritizes safety over anything else. Having been a college student himself, he recognizes that young people make reckless choices, so he tries to act with empathy.

“Life lessons is what I like to call it. I try to sit them down and talk to them. If I’m flipping burgers at McDonald’s or I’m picking up trash on the street, I’m being productive. I could be out here robbing, killing, stealing, doing drugs, but instead I’m being a productive citizen, so no matter what the profession is, they should respect that.”

Most bouncers and bartenders have other professions and are doing this work as a side job. For Johnson, that means working late-night shifts in between his regular nine to five manufacturing job.

For Ben Nyce, 28, this is a familiar challenge. He manages to balance a special education job, obtaining his master’s certificate in autism spectrum disorder, training a group of high school athletes and power lifting with his 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift at The Golden Pony.

He noted a correlation between working with children with behavioral challenges at school and adults with behavior challenges at the Pony.

“I’m reading behaviors all day every day.”

The Golden Pony, Downtown, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

He wears a T-shirt depicting the Three Stooges in a ’90s hip-hop group. The sleeves are cut off. At  6-foot-1, he considers himself to be “not the biggest bouncer,” and like Johnson, he will do everything in his power not to get physical. While snacking on pretzels and peanut butter, he recalled an obnoxious patron.

“They needed to go and they were just downright refusing. I told them, ‘I’m going to pick you up and carry you out right now,’ and they obviously said something against that, so I picked him up.”

"He was trying to get back in after we were closed. Pounding on the doors, yanking the handles and stuff. I went out to try and talk him down. He threatened to call the police and I was like, ‘Go for it, man.’” He’s searching in his contacts for the police. He was like, googling 911.”

Eventually, I just picked him up and carried him down the steps out to the corner and that was that.”

Like Johnson, Nyce described college students as, at times, acting “entitled.”

“We’ve had kids say, ‘Oh, my dad could buy this place.’”

In contrast to Nyce is his coworker, Michael Thompson, a.k.a. Lyriq Luchiano. Standing at a towering 6 feet 5 inches, the aspiring rapper utilizes his intimidating size.

“I’m a boxer, so I could lay you on your ass, but at the same time, I try to restrain people,” he explains.

While he has six years of security experience, he’s only been at The Golden Pony for two months. Most of his work has been in Woodbridge, which tends to carry a different crowd.

“In Woodbridge, you’d have fights every night. I’m talking like prison fights. I used to wear a vest,” he says. Once someone entered the club in Woodbridge with a gun.

“I’ve been shot before, so I’m not scared of that. But it happens, man. The best thing you can do is get on the floor.”

Like the others, he sees this job as a temporary supplement to a different career. He sees working in a college town as a window into the music industry.  He passes out business cards.

Johnson, who also does hiring for security positions, notes that while size and intimidation can be helpful, this isn’t the key to being a good bouncer.

“You’ve got to have patience and empathy. You have to be little empathetic and understand the situation. That they’re not — you're hopeful they’re not — that way when they’re sober. Observant. Those are the main things. I tell people you don’t have to be a big guy, a body builder, anything like that. I’ve had some smaller bouncers that were able to do the job. They did it respectfully, they set the standard, they were firm.”

As for the best part of the job, almost every subject answered the same way:

“The people, man,” says Johnson. “Especially when it’s slower, I like talking to different people from different backgrounds.”

He wishes the public understood that “we’re just doing a job. It’s really not personal for us unless you really take it to that level.”

Photo Credit: Sara Brannan

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