Portrait by Kelly Bjork
“I’m not the bouncer. I’m the doorman. The bouncer is part of a security staff. That’s a vast difference. My goal is always to deescalate the situation,” says Joe. “I would rather nip something in the bud. Believe me, I’ve upset people before by telling them it’s time to go. ‘What did we do wrong?’ ‘Nothing. You did everything right. But now you’re at a point where we cannot serve you anymore and we cannot have you anymore.’ You have to be cool and regal and righteous about it. That’s what I’ve learned over time. I’ve been at the door on and off for 20 years, and the fact that I’m still doing it said a lot,” he said. “I’m a lot older. I just turned 52 last month. I just like being in charge. I’m not gonna say I like being in control, but I guess that’s part of it as well. I’m twenty years older than the average person I card. Sometimes they just want to be told what to do. They want to be guided, whether they know it or not.”
Joe exudes a studied tranquility. We’re seated in a particularly dark corner of a windowless basement bar. It isn’t hard to keep him talking. “Being a door guy is a huge thing. I’m protecting the business. I’m looking out for the staff and for everybody,” he says. “I’ve worked hard in my life, and I’ve made my living because of my diplomacy and because of my professionalism. Not trying to brag, but that’s what it is. I’m being compensated very well and respected very well. My coworkers trust every decision I make. They see me as a leader. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah. Joe knows what the fuck’s going on.’ Even the door guys at other places are like, ‘Joe’s pretty bad-ass.’”
“It’s like I’m on camera—my demeanor at the door. These people crack up because of my comic timing. You can make somebody really happy on their way in, and they’re gonna have a good time, and they’re gonna tip well, and it’s gonna be awesome. Or you can intimidate the fuck out of somebody, and they’re not gonna give a shit, and they’re not gonna tip well, and you’re just a big asshole,” Joe says, and he describes the many intricate components to the job. “When you ask for someone’s ID, you’re not just checking their age, you’re checking their movements, you’re checking their demeanor. Door people judge the book by its cover. We get to do that. We have to do that,” he says. “I’m not six feet tall or anything, but I know when to turn the intimidation on. I’ve had it work for me before. I keep my hands up like this. It’s a self-defense move, because you can block and you can protect. It’s like this force field. I’ve taken this pose to people when they were coming up on me. They’re like, ‘Look man, easy.’ I’m like, ‘You’re the one that’s instigating this, man.’” He goes on. “I’ve slugged people. I’ve drawn blood, and I’ve had my blood drawn. There’s only so much diplomacy you can do. If they’re not gonna leave you can’t always wait for the cops to show up. Sometimes you just have to take action. I’ve socked a few people really good. They deserved it. They had plenty of warnings.”
“I’ve made wrong calls here and there, sure. Maybe cutting somebody off too early or misjudging a situation. But better safe than sorry. This is just an illustration, totally off the point. There’s a group of blind people that came in. It happened a couple days ago. They’re not a 100% blind, but they’re challenged. They have canes and glasses, but they can see a little bit I think, because they’re walking to the bar and ordering drinks and pulling out their money. Apparently, they party like there’s no fucking tomorrow. They’re nuts. I remember the first time they came in. It was, like, ‘Holy hell.’ One of them ends up barfing in like four different places. Of course I had to tactfully tell them it’s time to close out. ‘You guys gotta go. It’s time to go.’ They’d been there for like four hours. They’re not shy. I saw them again, and I decided I’m gonna say something. I didn’t kick ‘em out, I didn’t cut ‘em off, I just gave ‘em a warning. I said, ‘I don’t want it to get to that point again.’ I might’ve made an error on this side of correctness, but nobody was telling me I was wrong, because I wasn’t wrong.”
Before Joe’s door-guy career, “I was doing the roadie thing for 15 years. I started in Los Angeles with a band called Mary’s Danish,” he said. (They did “Don’t Crash the Car Tonight.”) “I worked for tons of different bands. The Posies mainly, and that led to so many other things. It’s why I came to Seattle. I kind of became a bigger fish in a smaller pond out here. I wasn’t really living anywhere, I was just gonna couch-surf around. I couldn’t go more than a month without getting a tour. We worked for Hole for a while and lots of international bands. It was 1993, and it was the crest of the grunge wave,” he said. Eventually, Joe found an apartment and began assembling a collection of front-door positions in various bars. He’s been at the Twilight Exit a decade now. “I anchored down. I love it there. People know me. I’m a fixture of the place. It means a lot to me. I get dinner, I get paid, I get tip-outs as well. On Sundays, I get to sing karaoke, and I get to sing the first song.” (His usual pick is Morrissey’s “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”) “That Sunday night takes care of my mom for me,” he adds. “She’s saving for retirement. I’ve been sending her $125 a month. My brothers and I have been chipping in.” Joe pulls up a picture of a woman surrounded by her six adult sons, all of them neatly posed and wearing business-casual attire. The background contains a white gate, a cobblestone wall, a wooded meadow. The photograph is several years old, and Joe points himself out.
We return to the Twilight Exit, going back to the months before the shooting. When Joe was working, he’d see James and Whitney now and again. “I knew that couple. He was a striking dude. The first time I saw him, I never forgot him. He was half black. He had that thin little beard and thin pencil moustache. And then she was like this really strikingly amazingly beautiful woman, where you’re almost like, ‘Woah. Wow. What’s going on!’ But then I’d talked to her, and I don’t think there was a lot going on upstairs. I don’t know what she even did for a living or if she ever had a job. I hate to be an ass, I don’t know, but I think she skated through her life on her good looks. I literally just do,” he said.
“They were this couple that was always really wasted when I’d get to work. I’m showing up at eight. If you’re already that far, and you’ve been here for a couple three hours and you’re drunk, then I’m not gonna let it go any further. I said to the bartender, ‘Look, let’s blow this tab up.’ And then I’d said to them, ‘It’s time for you to go. You know, you’ve been here the whole afternoon, and that’s totally fine, but it’s just been a little too long now.’ I didn’t want to deal with them in the next hour, and we were totally within our rights to refuse service. We didn’t have to explain why. Even if the sign isn’t posted, it’s a given,” Joe said. “I definitely remember James and Whitney. The fact of the matter is, over time, I’d made them leave. It happened at least twice, and they were always cool with it. They weren’t horrible. They’d be like, ‘Oh. OK.’”
As Joe understood from the night of the shooting, they’d been arguing in the lounge in the moments before James returned with a gun. “It was a huge flare up, and [the doorman] Greg did the right thing. He made James leave, and he kept Whitney inside to wait for her taxi. That was the perfect textbook thing to do. I’ve trained a lot of door people. I’ve gone to bars, and I’ve consulted, and I’ve taught classes. It’s one of the things I preach. You never just kick them both out at the same time,” said Joe. “But then again, who knows what would’ve happened. Maybe James would’ve just shot her at home, and we would’ve never heard anything about it.”
“I thought long and hard about what I would’ve done that night,” said Joe. He’d originally been scheduled to work. “The Sunday before, I asked Greg to fill in, but he had a date, so he said, ‘I got you next week,’ and that’s when it happened,” Joe said. “I didn’t have anything going on. I just wanted to stay home and have a simple night off. Up to that point, I’d been working at the Twilight 90% of the Sundays for the past six or seven years. I wanted to cook some food, take a bath, have a shave—I only shave once or twice a week. I always have a bath before I shave. It opens up the pores,” he said. “I’m just gonna watch TV, watch a little Downton Abbey. I’m gonna chill, and just kick it, and not have to worry about anything.”
“I had a little bit of survivor’s guilt. I really did feel bad for a long time. It’s the single worst doorman experience that I know of. It happened at the Twilight Exit. I was like, ‘That was my shift. I should’ve been there for that.’ And also the fact that something like that fully went down. A gun at the door. I’d envisioned that in my head so many times. Going over, like—how am I gonna react, what am I gonna do. That was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that will never ever happen again. I wasn’t there for it,” said Joe. “It made me think, ‘OK. Well, I still gotta be vigilant. I have to be ready for whatever’s gonna come up next.’ I ramped up my diligence. I don’t care how much of an asshole you think I’m being to you right now. I’m a doorman, and I’m here for a reason, and I’m doing my job. If you need examples of how things could go wrong, I’ve got a few of them. Otherwise, this is just how it works,” he said. “It makes everything even more important for me, really. The odds of something like this happening again are so small, but that’s not to say that it won’t. If it does, I want to be the one that makes or breaks a situation. I feel like I’d be able to handle it.”
We back up, returning to the night of the shooting. As Joe was in his apartment, preparing for a languid night in, "Steve-O stopped over. The connection is super huge. We’d worked together for a bit, and we got to be super bros, super homies. He was kinda going through a rough patch. He’d just got a new job, and he wanted to borrow some money so he could get through the next week until his paycheck. He wasn’t destitute or anything. He was living with his wife. He just wanted some pocket money. I’m like, yeah sure we’re brothers, we’re friends. So he comes over, and I lend him some money, and we talk.” Steve split shortly after, heading to the Twilight by scooter. Steve arrived just as James shot Greg in the alleyway outside the bar. “Greg’s femoral artery was severed, but Steve-O did the right thing. He just reefed down on that wound and stemmed the bleeding enough before the paramedics got there,” said Joe. “One of the things that freaks me out is: I would’ve died. If I was shot in the same spot, I would’ve bled out in a matter of minutes. I don’t know how much pressure could’ve saved me. It’s all been going through my head for a long time. I’m on a blood-thinning medicine. I’ve had blood clots in my body before, so now I’m like an induced hemophiliac. There would’ve been no stopping the tide.”
We back up again, returning to Joe’s apartment in the moments just after Steve headed out from his visit. “Here I am, laying in the bathtub. Just soaking. Going, ‘OK. Cool man. I’ve got nothing tonight.’ Then I get a text from Steve-O. I’m like whatever, you know. I’m having a bath. And then the phone rings. Oh my god. I get a text from Ezra. He’s like, ‘What’s going on at the Twilight?’ I’m like, ‘I’m off tonight, call Greg. Leave me alone.’ But then it’s just texts and phone calls. I got a phone call from a girl that I hadn’t seen in over a year because she’d heard something just went down. Jimmy all of a sudden is right there. I’m like literally standing on my living room floor with a towel wrapped around me. Jimmy’s there, and he’s like, ‘Let’s go man. We gotta go.’ I’ll never forget it. Obviously you can’t forget something like that. We were really freaked out,’” he said. News of the night spread quickly. Someone designated a gathering spot at a different bar, and dozens of people with strong ties to the Twilight eventually showed up to give their respects. “We had one of the most epic, debaucherous, out-of-control after-hours parties that has ever happened there. It really was. One of our good friends almost is dead. We didn’t even know what was up with Greg at the time. We were, like, shirtless, dancing on the bar. Cranking music. Getting shit-housed. We just like hit it even harder. We were like celebrating the fact that we were all still living.”