At 6’5” and 290 pounds, junior Matt Johnson is an intimidating figure for anyone walking into Benchwarmers Restaurant and Sports Bar on a Friday night. What customers might not realize, though, is 20-year-old Johnson is not old enough to get into the bar himself.
While this is Johnson’s first semester working at Benchwarmers on The Commons, he has been a bouncer for three years, working for Moonshadow Tavern his freshman year. He works every Friday and Saturday night, guarding the entryway into the bar.
“I’d prefer not to work both Friday and Saturday night,” he said. “But the job is worth it. I got over going to house parties where I didn’t know anyone. Now I just want to enjoy my senior year [next year].”
Johnson usually arrives at work at 9 p.m. and stays past 1 a.m. closing, helping sort empty bottles and cans from the bar. He said he usually has to be more vigilant once the kitchen closes at 11 p.m. and people only arrive for the bar service.
“People will try to bring in their own booze,” he said. “You’d think it would be the guys, but girls are always the worst with their big purses.”
It was a slow first hour, mostly only older couples came in, until a group of college students entered. Unfortunately, one of the girls is under 21 and didn’t realize the bar’s policy — she is not allowed in after 10 p.m.
“It’s really awkward when I have to turn away people who I know are underage, and there’s just one odd person left out of the group,” he said.
He said the most important part of being a bouncer is to not necessarily be intimidating, but to not be intimidated by people.
“There’s a very specific interaction setup,” he said. “I am the doorman; you are the customer. I wear the pants in the relationship.”
Joe Rundle, a manager at Benchwarmers, said a great thing about having Johnson is he recognizes students from campus, especially those who are underage. Rundle also said his intimidating size helps to prevent altercations.
“It helps when you have a lot of college kids in here and [Johnson can] step in and separate people or remove them from a harmful situation,” he said.
The job might be a bit of a power trip, but he said he likes working in such a busy environment. Friends have tried to get him to ignore their age, but Johnson said doing his job always comes first.
“I don’t pull strings for my friends,” he said. “This is my job, and I’m not going to half-ass it. I’ve had to turn away friends, which is definitely awkward.”
An older couple enters and passes Johnson as the husband asks, “What, don’t you want to see ours?” in a joking manner. Johnson said that despite checking IDs for three years, he knows he has missed some.
“I have been duped,” he said. “I catch most. I know pretty much every state because Ithaca is such a diverse college town.”
Senior Annie McNally, a waitress at Benchwarmers, said though Johnson has only been working there for a short time, he definitely fits the bill of a bouncer.
“It helps having a giant guy around,” she said. “He is certainly intimidating. But he really is just a big teddy bear.”
Benchwarmers is different than the typical bar because it’s a restaurant too. The lights are on, and the place has the reputation of being strict when it comes to IDs.
“People can be mean when they get their fakes taken away,” Johnson said. “But we really only want people who are legit.”
As another group comes in, Johnson has to check with his manager about a customer with a temporary ID because there is no picture.
“There’s just a lot more liability than people think,” he said. “One time I took [what I thought was] a fake and it turned out to be real. But I’d rather err on the side of caution.”
At 11 p.m., more people start to arrive, forming a line in front of Johnson as he checks the IDs of an already drunk birthday group.
At 11:30 p.m. two men enter and approach Johnson, who looks at the first ID, then the second, and then asks to see the first one again.
Johnson: “This isn’t you.”
Guy: “Are you serious? Of course it is.”
Johnson: “OK, well, do you have another ID, even a credit card or something?”
Guy: “I carry a money clip.”
Johnson: “Convenient. Want me to tell you why this isn’t you? The eyebrows are a different shape than yours. The earlobes stick out in a different place, and the bottom of the nose is different.”
As the two panic and speed-walk out the door, Johnson stares after them with an amused look, pockets the ID and goes back to leaning casually against the side wall.
“You know the saying about how the customer is always right?” he said. “Well with me, it’s usually not the case. They’re usually wrong.”