The Gatekeeper

By Oliver Putnam

Two friends gather what sense they could after fighting outside of Cassidy’s Bar and Grill.  They try and get back in after just getting kicked out, but the bouncer, Matt Mariano, standing tall and immoveable, confronts them.

The goofball friends, on this particular Wednesday night, are a breeze compared to people Mariano has dealt with in the past.  They stepped out of the bar with beers in hand, thinking they are as clever as they are intoxicated. But because of the professional buddy system that’s in place among the staff at Cassidy’s, they are spotted easily. After fighting and arguing out back, they tried coming around again, claiming they had left a jacket inside.  Mariano, a veteran in the bar game, could read people’s facial expressions no matter how sober they are. These two, however, can obviously not.  The worse of the two stood back, convincing himself he wasn’t that drunk.  He had a guilty look on his face, like a puppy that just chewed up furniture.  The other was allowed in to retrieve the jacket, and then Mariano told them to scram.

“Things could always go worse,” he says of the two kids, “but the worst fights that I’ve seen are the ones that don’t happen.”

He’s seen large men, some who could easily take him on, get very drunk and belligerent.  But most of the time, they back down.  He’s made the conclusion that men lose their masculinity when intoxicated, and women are the ones who get more aggressive. He’s been hit more times by women than men.

This situation was mild and not physical.  Most of the time, a difficult drunk will chew his ear off with insults. He sticks with his motto, “don’t take things personally.” He says you need to have thick skin to last as a doorman (they don’t like the term “bouncer”), because you see a lot of ugly things in this profession.

He stands outside of Cassidy’s most nights of the week, accompanied by a bucket ashtray and a traffic cone to hold the door open.  The regulars call him “Door Matt” because he welcomes them just as a doormat should.  He’s not a smoker. He says he only lights up when he’s working and after a good surf.

The door itself is so smothered with skateboard and apparel brand stickers that its original color can’t be discerned.  There is no ornate architectural design or sign of modernity on the exterior walls of Cassidy’s.  The neon beer signs and the grids on the windows make “dive bar” the first thing that comes to mind.  Mariano started out working the bar scene in his twenties, back in his native downtown Chicago.  He joined the Marines at the age of 17 and was stationed at Camp Pendleton, San Diego.  It was there where he jumped in the ocean for the first time and described it as “life-changing.”

When his four years were up, he went back to Chicago to work the bar jobs.  But he was depressed; his life was in a downward slope at 17 years old.  He did not want to live a conventional life, just to make enough to surf.

“I didn’t want to be imprisoned,” Mariano said.  “I know not all lives are like this, but I had enough of the broken household, making bad friends, cheating girlfriends.  I found a comfortable relationship in surfing.  It also helps get aggression out.”

Mariano moved to California for the surf, mainly, but a big part was getting out of that area.  When talking about Chicago, his expression changes from cheery to somber. There is an unstable balance between a mortified look and a disgusted one and his words are limited.  Each terse sentence ends with a shrug, as if he should end the story now lest disturb anyone listening.

At six-foot-four, the well-groomed, chiseled-faced Mariano looks well under his 41 years. The only sign of aging is a small grey goatee, which only makes his jaw line appear more angular. Mariano, who lives a block from the beach, says the Newport lifestyle keeps him healthy and feeling good. His biggest passion is surfing.

He will surf early in the morning or late at night.  He’s surfed in Hawaii, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean.

Although wearing three layers and a furry jean jacket, his elongated tree trunk neck gives him an extra height and mass advantage over the patrons coming in and out. The sole white light hanging over the door reflects off of his short blond hair and blue bug eyes.  The large coffee he treats himself to every night shift bulges his eyes and focuses his gaze. The left side of his neck is inked with a pirate ship crashing through waves; the phrase “Lost At Sea” is just visible under his collar.  The tattoo makes sense because of his addiction to surfing; it is also what prevented him from joining the Marine Corps his second time around.  It is too large to be covered up with a popped collar.

The night is slow, but Mariano gets plenty of company from customers drifting outside for a smoke.  Conversation comes easy the longer they stay in Cassidy’s.  A young, healthy-looking man and woman step outside for a smoke and immediately start up conversation.  The man switched expressions from silly to restless; he had her ask if either of us were cops.

“Whatever it is you want to do, don’t get caught,” said Mariano.

The staff at Cassidy’s treats their customers like adults even when they don’t act like adults sometimes.  They serve strong drinks, stay loose with certain behavior and try and make sure everyone is having a good experience. Mostly, it involves a simple hello and goodbye from a grinning Mariano.