We were, it seems clear in retrospect, continually flirting with disaster. On many Thursday Nights, and every Event Night, we crammed far more bodies into the place than could possibly have been safe, and sometimes, as when we had a band playing, we must have been straining the electrical system of the old place something wicked, while the wooden bones of the house were tinder dry and liable to burn ferociously – a small electrical fire would probably have become a conflagration in short order. Imagine a fire in a house so densely packed with people that it was actually hard to move – no exaggeration. I remember we opened up on a day following an event and were mystified by a smudgy blue stain about a foot and a half wide that extended all the way around the room, at waist height, like a bathtub ring. What the…? I forget who figured out the rather frightening answer: this was the residue of hundreds of denim-clad backsides rubbing sweatily along the walls, against which they’d been compressed by the sheer biomass of the crowd.
At one point, a pair of bartenders – I’m not sure who it was, now, I think Mike was one – reported that the basement ceiling was flexing dangerously over their heads from the weight of the crowd upstairs. If memory serves, one of them donned the army surplus “Goose Green” helmet in the spirit of gallows humour, and waited fatalistically for whatever came next. Were we ever actually in danger of a collapse? Maybe, yeah. It was an old building.
Somebody should have sat us down and made us watch a documentary on what happened at the Cocoanut Grove.
Masses of well-lubricated, jam-packed, overheated college-age kids brought with them a whole set of risks that went far beyond those posed merely by their density and gross tonnage. Tempers frayed. Tussles would break out over nothing. People well into their cups would lose their balance, fall over, and find themselves in danger of being trampled, with nobody able to hear them over the din. They could trip and fall down the stairs – there was one tumble so epic that it knocked the guy unconscious, and I was terrified he was dead. He came to, apparently unharmed, another catastrophe somehow avoided, but I’m not sure it occurred to us that he might have had a slow internal cranial bleed beneath a slightly fractured skull after a fall like that. Memory is funny that way, I simply can’t recall if we called him an ambulance or just let him walk it off. All I can remember is the wave of relief that he hadn’t snapped his neck.
When Mike reads this, maybe he’ll remember. Mike – we had the sense to hand him off to some paramedics, right?
That incident occurred on an alumni night, an event for all the graduate Domophiles of years past to gather together to recapture their youths, if only for a moment, which I dubbed “The Return of the Creatures in the Blue Suits”. They were just as rowdy and undisciplined as they’d always been, albeit better dressed. Once Domus was in your blood, you were forever in its thrall. You could behave normally in the real world, but return to the basement, and you were back to what you were. Immediately.
Even the Blue Suits were thus a little scary, en masse.
I think the most frightening time, when we were most intensely aware of how close to the ragged edge we were operating, was on a band night, in the summer, featuring a group I’ll call The Rock-hoppers. We’d hosted them before without incident, they were good, and popular with the regulars. Their drummer was one of our own, a law student. We knew they’d draw a crowd, which was fine, they’d drawn crowds before. We had no idea, and I maintain no way to suspect, that this night’s crowd would be of an entirely different quality, rowdy and dangerous beyond anything for which our collective experience as unqualified event security staffers could possibly have prepared us.
The Rock-hoppers, you see, had not confined their advertising to the campus. They’d widely promoted the event with posters taped to lampposts all over the downtown, guaranteeing an influx of strangers, some students perhaps, but many not, some of legal drinking age, some whose mere presence within the building could cost us our liquor licence. We also didn’t appreciate that by now, the Rock-hoppers had a particular following, a crowd that trailed after them to all their concerts, the demographics of which skewed heavily towards the virtual cult of black-garbed, metal-studded skateboarders who’d lately become a kind of social movement embracing all sorts of disaffected youth. They fancied themselves as a sort of anarchic avant-garde, and spray-painted slogans on walls all over the downtown – the one that sticks with me is “Skate and Destroy!”, and I suspect they were also the ones behind “Too Much Law, Not Enough Justice”, a sentiment that never struck me as particularly anti-social, if that’s what they were going for. I’ve used that one myself, many times.
An army of skinheads, skate-boarders, and random members of the gen. pop. was thus poised to descend upon our little law school bar in our little old house. Of course this was categorically prohibited by our licence – we weren’t supposed to be operating as a public venue, it was just one of those things that we got away with in small doses. But this? Hundreds of people from off-campus? It would be a transgression of breathtaking scope. In the aftermath, they might shut us down and bulldoze the building.
Meanwhile, we sat there, oblivious, waiting for a fun evening to begin. Have you ever seen those horrifying videos of the tsunami that hit Thailand and Indonesia back in 2004? At the resorts, tourists stood there on the shoreline, marveling at the retreat of the ocean away from the beach, which exposed a broad stretch of what had been sea floor just a couple of minutes earlier. Amazing! They had no idea what it meant, that they had only minutes, now, to run for the highest ground they could reach before it hit.
That was us, at about 8:55 PM.
Kevin was on door for the evening. His role was more akin to a ticket taker than a security guard. He would be collecting a modest cover charge, and marking the hands of the payees with a rubber stamp, I assume meant originally for use by elementary school teachers, that created an image of a zebra with half of its stripes missing, beside the caption “Incomplete”. I was hanging around the entrance too, there to help Kev make change while he administered the zebra stamps.
Then they came. They arrived, they were just suddenly there, all at once, dozens upon dozens of Rock-hopper fans pouring down Seymour street and crushing on to the porch in front of our narrow entrance. Kev was wielding the zebra stamp with frantic haste, but it would have taken at least six of us, and a much wider door, to process them all smoothly. It wasn’t long before the crowd was grumbling and agitated, but with one till, one zebra stamp, and one small aperture of ingress, what were we going to do?
It got worse as more people made it inside, and began boozing immediately. They were having a good time in clear sight of the growing mob outside, who could watch them through the bay window at the front of the house. Why the delay?
A great many were obviously under-age, or borderline. They’d swear up and down that they were 20 or 21, and we’d make them fish around for IDs to prove it, which of course many didn’t have, and every time it was an argument that made the bottleneck just that much worse. There were a lot of young girls, pretty things who took a different tack and attempted to more or less pout their way in. That took time to mediate, too. Sometimes it even worked – what can I tell you, we were young males. You’d have expected us to be smart and prudent?
It was dawning on us that there was something funny about this crowd. More and more, the fans seeking entrance sported leather, Mohawks, studded belts and wristbands, piercings, hair coloured purple and orange, and wardrobes composed exclusively of items in jet black. Who were these menacing, surly guys? Should we be letting them in? More to the point, did we dare try to bar them? A few times, with the very young ones, we did, and they began making civil rights arguments, for Chrissakes, maybe thinking that was the way to bamboozle a bunch of baby lawyers. We tried arguing that Domus was a private club, members only and all that, but this tended rather to be undercut by the presence of so many non-members who’d already gained entrance. Besides, there’d been all that advertising downtown, obviously intended for the public.
Everywhere around us were faces punctured by safety-pins, yelling at us. I thought I was in the middle of an out-take from Road Warrior. It occurred to me that we’d seen a few members of this pale, leather-skinned crew at a previous Rock-hoppers event, but that had been on Hallowe’en, and it never crossed our minds that they weren’t just decked out for the costume party. This added to their list of grievances, actually – we’d let them in before, why not now? Many complained that we’d already let their girlfriends in which, let’s face it, was probably true. Should have thought of that.
The ones inside starting throwing beers over our shoulders to the crowd out front (I guess this meant somebody had a bottle opener out there – no twist-offs back then!). Many in the crowd, which was spreading up and down the street like a nattering ink blot, had brought their own booze with them. People were running around, yelling, climbing trees and lamp posts, tooling around on their skateboards, and drinking and drinking some more, while in the crush up front, the mood had officially turned ugly.
We’d already lost control, we just didn’t know it yet. The crowd kept getting bigger, and the band was loud enough that you could party to the music out there just about as well as inside. They still wanted in, though. That’s where the booze was. There were threats. We weren’t quite panicked yet, but we knew there was nothing we could do if they decided to force the door, and little chance of prevailing if they decided to beat the crap out of us. It hadn’t gone that far yet, but I’m sure Kev and I had resigned ourselves to the inevitable; meanwhile, groups of them began circling the building looking for other ways to get in.
1255 Seymour wasn’t exactly a secure building. It had a fire escape out back, to which all floors had exits, and a back door near the TV room that anyone could open from the inside. There were ground level windows without bars. There were of course more windows, probably unlocked, and certainly not Plexiglass, at the backs of the apartments upstairs, easily accessed from the fire escape. With so many obvious points of entry, there was no way we could keep them out, even if they didn’t tear Kev and me to pieces like rag dolls and simply come in the front.
Once inside, why wouldn’t they wreak all kinds of revenge upon us, perhaps unnoticed, even, amid the noise and the crowd? I started gaming out scenarios in my imagination. They could smash the toilets, or bust the TV. Or destroy the pinball machine and video games. Break every window in the joint. Throw our furniture out on to the parking lot out back. Steal anything of any value in the upstairs apartments. Hurl beer bottles at the bar staff. Storm the canteen and loot the fridges, having tossed the bar staff out the back door. Spray paint everything that wasn’t moving, these guys always had spray paint handy, didn’t they? Oh, shit – they could set the place on fire. No, no, calm down, that’d kill them too, they weren’t that stupid. Right? That was right – right?
Inside, the party was in full, dense-packed swing. Condensation was streaming down the glass on the insides of windows. The heat and the noise were oppressive. It was so dark and loud that nobody would have seen me waving frantically or heard me screaming as the skateboarders beat me with the legs of our former chairs. I strained from where I was to see who was in the crowd, and caught a glimpse of a little guy in full punk regalia who was maybe five feet tall, and, I guessed, about 14 years old. A homeless runaway who’d joined the tribe? At the risk of leaving Kev all alone up front, I decided I’d better go get the kid out of the house, but it was so crowded it took me almost five minutes to cross the floor, and I lost him amid the general chaos. He might even have left on his own, the same way he came in. I gave up. I was wasting time, and Kev had been alone up front for far too long. I struggled to make my way back.
Then – Jesus Sphincter-Clenching Christ! There was a girl attempting to run through the crowd towards the front, struggling against the crush. She seemed frantic to get out. She was frightened, really scared, the look on her face was completely unnerving. What was happening? She looked desperately over her shoulder, and I followed her line of sight to just about the worst thing I might ever have conjured up in my fevered, frightened imaginings. A huge guy, towering above the crushing mass of partiers, bald as a cue ball, big as a Sasquatch, was bulling through the crowd in a way most people couldn’t, just shunting everyone aside, knocking them over, in an obvious fit of rage. He was trying to catch the girl. She clearly believed he’d kill her if he did. Surreally, I couldn’t hear him, but I could see he was screaming. God, how was he moving so fast through that sea of bodies? He was going to reach her – he’d be on her in seconds, she just couldn’t flee as fast as he could chase.
There was nothing else for it, was there? As the girl kept forging towards the entrance, close to escape but not close enough, I made the inevitable, and inevitably disastrous choice: as the monster passed me, I jumped on him. Literally, I jumped on him like you might jump on to the back of a black bear, and my outcome seemed likely to be just about as happy as if I had. Yet, others around me had seen what was happening, and their reaction time was fantastic; in just a couple of seconds Kev, and I think three other Domus regulars, had sized up the situation, and they all jumped on him with me. We slowed him down, enough, thank God, that the girl made her escape and vanished up the street, but we sure didn’t stop him. Not even close. He kept right on chugging towards the entrance, and scraped most of us off on the door frame as he charged through.
Most of us. All but Kev. Kev, all 135 pounds of him, was still clinging to the guy’s back.
Wait! I just remembered something! Recall, from a prior chapter, that I had a mental image of Kev in a stand-off with a big angry guy, holding him at bay by clutching his glasses and threatening to break them. Right memory, wrong incident. This was when that happened. It’s playing like a movie in my head, all of a sudden. As the monster writhed and tossed Kev off his back, Kev managed to grab the glasses off his face, and landed on the ground clutching them in his fist. This gave the massive skinhead pause. He couldn’t see all that well without them, and Kevin swore he’d snap them in two – or, how about it big guy, this could just end, he could give the glasses back, and the skinhead could leave peaceably. The rest of us had regained our feet by now, and we surrounded him – again, I’m reminded of a bear, this time circled by yapping dogs. A circle of kids in black, in turn, surrounded all of us.
It was one of those times when you almost feel like a spectator to your own actions, as the scene remained static for an agonizing length of time. Thankfully, wholly unexpectedly, a couple of the skateboarders came forward to talk him down. They spoke to him in soothing tones. They asked Kev to reiterate his promise to give the glasses back if everyone just walked away.
One second, we were sure we were on the verge of a brawl we’d surely lose, and the next, it was all over. The skinhead said “O.K.”. As promised, Kev handed him his glasses. The guy put them on, looked around, blinking for a second, and perfectly calm, now, held up his end of the bargain. “All right then?”. “Yeah, OK”, and off he walked, about as agitated as a kid coming home from the library. I wonder to this day what had happened that made him, however briefly, so homicidally enraged with that girl.
I can report, proudly, that I didn’t soil my drawers, though I wouldn’t take any shit from any of you about it if I had. In my mind’s eye, I kept seeing how the incident could easily have turned out. I saw myself beaten senseless, on the ground being kicked. I saw the headlines in tomorrow’s paper: Young Girl Beaten, Killed, Students Fail To Intervene. Undergraduate Dies At Law Student Function. Campus Party Jumps The Rails – Lives Lost. Police Make Arrests, Begin Interrogations In Law Party Homicide.
So that was over. The worst was avoided. But it was still early, and we were outside, surrounded by a crowd full of punks and skateboarders, most of whom weren’t as sympathetic as the ones that had helped us out of the jam. Time to get back indoors. We formed a sort of flying wedge and forced our way back inside, as they hooted and hollered at us. I heard glass breaking. I heard thrown objects hitting the side of the house.
The punks were taking over the neighbourhood. Right in the middle of campus, the Visigoths had seized control, and I was starting to wonder where the cops were.
Before long, a couple of them broke in upstairs. Kevin caught them coming down the staircase and chased them back up. I saw he had the bat from behind the bar in his hand.
No! Jesus! Kevin! Come back!
I was all alone on door. Kevin wasn’t coming back, the minutes passed, and I started to freak out, until I couldn’t hold fast any longer. I had to go looking for him. I couldn’t possibly abandon the door – but I had to. For all I knew he was upstairs bleeding out on his kitchen floor. I had a little luck at that point, as one of our bona fide members strayed to within arm’s length, and I pulled him towards me, and screamed over the racket that he had to take my place, but that I’d be right back – likely not true, but what was I going to say, “if you don’t see me again, maintain your post, and make sure everybody knows I went down swinging”? My new deputy made no objections, just gave me a curt nod – God bless him always – and I ran upstairs figuring that’s where Kev would be. But he wasn’t. His apartment was empty. The back door was open, and I rushed on to the fire escape.
When I spotted him, Kev was way below in the parking lot. Evidently, he’d chased them out of his place and all the way back to ground level, and now he was standing, bat upraised like he was waiting for the next fastball, in the middle of a ring of punks in the parking lot. They were circling him, a couple had picked up rocks, as if they might club Kev to death caveman-style, but they weren’t sure. That Louisville Slugger looked like it meant business, and so did Kevin. I arrived, running and shouting, and after a little more wary circling they decided to break it off and rejoin the crowd out front, cussing us out as they walked away. Kevin told me he’d pursued the first intruders up to his own apartment on the third floor, and a bunch more of them were just breaking in when he chased them all off, but they stopped running when they reached the ground, so there he was, just as I found him, for a couple of tense minutes. He told me he’d have gladly caved in the skull of the first guy who made a move, and I believed him.
So now we were talking about manslaughter, and it didn’t seem implausible.
Well, that was fun, but the world hadn’t stopped while we were on pause, and by now it was even worse. Bedlam outside. It was madness. It had to end. There were too many close shaves, too many things that could end in cops and casualties and criminal charges. We were dodging bullets right, left and center. What to do? We were afraid there’d be a riot if we just silenced the band and tried to throw everybody out, and anyway we simply didn’t have the muscle to toss everybody out, that would have made for confrontations in which we’d have been decidedly overmatched – but look, this was nuts. It was hard to believe the police hadn’t already been called by somebody. It was easy to imagine how that would go, too, when it finally happened (and surely it had to happen), with all the skateboarders blocking the street and drinking out in public, and God knows how many under-age drinkers, inside and out. We would have broken the unwritten compact, failed to keep it indoors, and likely failed to make sure nobody got hurt, and that would have brought them down on us like the wrath of God. Actually, it was a miracle we weren’t hip deep in cops with night sticks already, and while it would almost certainly have ended with our licence being yanked and the place boarded up – if not worse – I was starting to wish it would just happen, let’s just get it over with. At least that would put an end to this fiasco, and it might pre-empt something truly awful.
I tried to take sober stock of the situation. The skateboard brigade had started ripping shingles off the Domus exterior. They sat and laid down on the hoods and rooves of parked cars. They perched in trees. They rolled around on the grass, wrestling. Some of them seemed genuinely angry at each other – was that going to turn into something? They screamed at the top of their lungs, like howling wolves, letting out these piercing wails you could hear echoing off the many monolithic concrete buildings scattered around our frail little bastion. It looked to me like it was never going to end.
So the night wore on; in memory it plays back as a jumpy recording made during a weird delirium, experienced as if in the middle of a river rapids, the roar of rushing water in my ears, while on screen a myriad of isolated images flash by that freeze moments from the endless stream of little emergencies. Many more infiltrations, confrontations, brushes with outright violence, all of it played out amidst the almost annihilating noise and disorder of the party, which kept surging along on its own momentum inside the house. We faced down antagonists. We chased intruders. We struggled to secure the building. Punches were thrown. The skateboarders did more damage, inside and out. The band played on, the sweat poured, the ears rang, the floors flexed, the odd person fainted, the odd window was broken, somebody here, and then somebody there, got past us with more liquor for the mob, beer was being spilled and thrown everywhere, the scene outside grew ever more riotous, and I guess we were getting close to some sort of defining moment. Whatever was going to happen would happen. Nothing was yet set in stone, but nothing was going to change it. This night could be a blip, or it could end up being far, far too much more than a blip. Really. At the drop of a hat some rash decision, some drunk impulsive outburst, could lead us all down a road that ended at a place that didn’t bear thinking about. I thought so, anyway. We seemed helpless.
But no. It was Domus, so it just ended. Remember those Bugs Bunny cartoons, when the wolf and the sheepdog were just about to slice and dice each other but then the whistle blew, and they stopped, punched the clock, and bid each other a cordial good evening? Kind of like that.
The Rock-hoppers finished their set, the crowd outside got bored, and they dispersed. Just like that. In a few minutes they were all gone. The ones who’d made it inside left and went with them. They had somewhere better to be, I guess. After all that stress, adrenaline, and fright, there was now only this lingering anti-climax, that stretched until dawn as the band packed up, people went home, and we had a few Domus Doubles in the blessed quiet down in the vacant basement to calm our nerves. My hands were shaking for a while.
Here’s the thing: I was actually pretty sure, when I made my way upstairs to look for Kevin, that I’d find him beaten half to death, or maybe not just half. They might have taken that bat away from him, and everybody was drunk enough, angry enough, adrenalized enough, to have crossed that line between bullshit and actually doing something that couldn’t be taken back. If they hadn’t killed Kev, Kev might have killed or grievously injured one of them – both, actually, seemed likely. Words of my father suddenly resonated: Don’t start something you aren’t prepared to finish. A corollary occurred to me: there are some things you shouldn’t start that you are prepared to finish.
How on Earth had we sailed through all of that and come out almost completely unscathed? We had a few things smashed, but that was trivial, considering all the laws we’d broken – dozens, if you counted things like unauthorized street parties, drinking in public, noise past midnight, fire code violations, and so on. No consequences! Nobody even got hurt, not seriously. It seemed impossible, even then, let alone looking back, but hey, that was Domus. Nothing ever seemed to go as wrong as it could.