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America’s Craziest Club: Detroit’s St. Andrew’s Hall

By: Chris NorrisAndrew Schuster is a very good worker: responsible, efficient,attentive to detail. He even does well on surprise job tests. Hegot one about three years ago, when he was patting down patrons atSt. Andrew’s Hall, a storied Detroit nightclub that is surroundedby possibly the worst slums in America. The club hosts some of thecountry’s more thug-oriented hip-hop nights and mosh-intensive rocknights. Weapons checks are, shall we say, an important part of theprocess. Staffers rely on frisking rather than metal detectors,which miss plastic shivs, fiberglass knuckles, and other popularaccessories.

“I mean, you don’t cup their junk or anything,” Schuster says of crotch detail. “You just kinda put your forearm up there.”

This night, he felt a telltale rigidness–“The guy had jocked his gun.” So Schuster responded accordingly: He punched the guy inthe face. “I was swingin’ on him, and he was like, ‘I work here! I work here!'” Turns out the guy was a former head of security, checkingto see if new staffers were following procedure. They were.

“Any time there’s a gun or a knife, we start swingin’.”

There’s no macho bluster in Schuster’s voice. In fact, he sounds like a machinist explaining the drill press. A robust 6’1″, the 25-year-old Air fan and amateur photographer is far from the bouncer ideal (typically, a steroid-amped linebacker with ties to motorcycle gangs).He’s more like a hip camp counselor, earrings and tattoos offset by short brown hair and a dimpled smile. Schuster was raised the onlychild of a special-education teacher mom and Vietnam vet/credit union CEO dad in the cluster of Detroit suburbs called Downriver. But likemost of his friends, he really grew up at St. Andrew’s punk rock shows. Over time, the place became a home away from home. By 1999, it hadalso become his job.

Schuster didn’t get into fights as a kid. He’s not a football player, boxer, or martial artist. Says coworker Eric Leidlein: “Dude, Andywas so passive.” Then he laughs. “Until he worked at the Hall.”

THE TRIP TO DETROIT along I-75 takes you between the dense gray spires of an oil refinery and the old petrochemical facility ZugIsland, a lump of toxins that ranks among the most polluted spots in the U.S. Downtown, the train station on Michigan Avenue is a giantshell of concrete and broken glass. The clock on the CPA Building has been stuck at 10:55 for years. Fifteen hundred properties areofficially designated for destruction, with nearly 10,000 more abandoned and deemed “dangerous,” looming ruins from the most notoriouswhite flight of the last century. It’s as close to a ghost town as any American city gets. In other words, it’s fucking cool.

“I love it down here,” says Schuster, driving the streets one night. “My friends and I used to walk around all the time, meet people,hang out. You see the best shit.” A recent sighting was the “wheelchair gang”–a group of wheelchair-bound homeless men towed by a leaderin a motorized chair. “It was like a little train!” he marvels. “So good.”

On one corner of this surreal landscape stands the brick-faced former home of the Scottish St. Andrew’s Society. Built in 1907, thebuilding is now a 1,400-capacity, three-story nightclub institution. It has been Detroit’s hottest music space for years, presenting actslike Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers, along with thousands of local bands. It has also hosted the club night Three Floors of Fun, with amixed crowd dancing to rock, techno, and hip-hop. As an integrated center in a crumbling, segregated city, the club has been a strangesocial experiment, offering melting pots or floating ghettos, depending on the night. Yet the bouncers were mostly from one side of the tracks.

“We all grew up hardcore punk kids,” says Chris Holland, 24, another St. Andrew’s bouncer. At 6’2″ and a weight-lifter-buff 230 pounds,Holland has short dark hair, a pierced lower lip, and nickel-size plugs in his earlobes. His upright bearing and black-eyed stare give himthe look of a Delta Force member gone goth. Like Schuster, he first saw the light at St. Andrew’s, obsessing on early-’90s bands GorillaBiscuits, Civ, and Quicksand. “That shit made my skin crawl,” he says.

Holland wanted to be an EMS worker or firefighter, but bouncing seems more in line with his experience. The all-ages shows he attendedat small Detroit clubs were full of flying elbows, ass-kicking Dr. Martens, and that Michigan specialty, genuine racist skinheads–whichinspired a pastime the kids called “Nazi boxing.” It’s a simple game, really. You stand near a skinhead and wait to see if he gives theSieg heil! arm salute. If he does, you punch him in the face.

This is how Holland met 17-year-old punk (and future St. Andrew’s bouncer) Jeremy Nadolsky. Six feet two and 400 pounds, Nadolsky,now 21, looks like a shaved-head, overgrown version of Jack Osbourne–horn-rimmed glasses, pierced lower lip, and tattoos running uphis neck. He has a giddy, nervous energy, gesturing with fleshy, tattooed forearms. He goes by the childhood nickname Worm and, likemany Detroit punks, has a vaguely sallow, mutt ethnicity that he wears with attitude. “I’m a Po’billy [i.e. Polish hillbilly], dude,”says Worm, sitting on a threadbare sofa in Schuster’s suburban Wyandotte walk-up. “My ma’s straight out the sticks. Summertown, Tennessee.”

Worm dropped out of high school his junior year to take a job in the post office. “They put me on this 3 a.m. shift and worked uslike slaves,” he says, cradling a pellet gun shaped like a Tek-9 handgun. “I so understand why people go crazy from working there.”Literally a disgruntled postal employee, he found himself well-suited for bouncing. “I won’t lie. I love it,” he says. “You get to seeshows for free. You get to fight and not get in trouble. There’s just a lot of benefits.”

There are also a few drawbacks. Pay is low, turnover is high, and the job carries no prestige. Far from the glitzy, VIP clubland ofvelvet ropes and tiny earpieces, security here is an entry-level position, one rung down from barback. While many venues requirepolice-approved training courses, the education at St. Andrew’s is informal. “After a couple of nights, you understand that if you bendan arm this way, it hurts,” says Schuster. “If you rake the side of your foot down a person’s shin, they’ll go down. If you cut offsomebody’s windpipe, they’ll go unconscious.”

Physically and temperamentally, the effective St. Andrew’s bouncer often resembles the Trainspotting character Begbie, a smallish,wiry sort who happens to have a screw loose. Schuster points to Eric Leidlein, a bony, 5’10”, 140-pound punk standing by the bar. “Ericcan toss guys out as fast as anyone,” says Schuster. “He just knows what to do.” He’s also pretty demonstrably nuts. With spiky hair anda pierced lip, Leidlein recalls one of the nights he was knocked out–this time by five skinheads from the bands Hatebreed and Madball.

“I was pulling a guy away from a fight, and I turned my back for a second,” he says. Leidlein caught a fist in what doctors refer toas the occipital region (the back of the skull) and collapsed. He started convulsing on his way to the emergency room. “I got a CAT scan,an MRI,” he says, twirling a lollipop in his mouth. “I had bruised ribs, concussion, broken nose.” He was back at work in a week.

The physical activity at St. Andrew’s is both unpredictable and orchestrated. As the lights fall on a recent May night, patrons trickleinto the main room: eyes alight, fists clenched, arms raised, yelling “Whooo!” Soon, nü metal heroes Papa Roach take the stage. Dressedin the dark work clothes of a NASCAR pit crew, they run through their set efficiently. Midway, singer Jacoby Shaddix stops to instructthe crowd. “You guys take five steps that way,” he huffs, pointing at the right side of the pit. Then, shouting to the left andgesturing wildly: “You guys take five steps that way. This shit’s called ‘the Braveheart.’ When I say ‘Go,’ fuckin’ Braveheart-style,lunatic–the biggest pit ever!” When the band begins its next song, “Born With Nothing, Die With Everything,” Shaddix yells “Go!” Bodiesfly and faces contort as both sides crash into each other.

Two bouncers stand at barriers enclosing the pit, charged with catching bodies and depositing them safely to the side. Relativelyspeaking, it’s light work. On other nights, security is more like infantry duty–with a correspondingly high casualty rate. “Lots ofpeople get fired quick or quit,” says Schuster. “They get scared.”

IF AMERICAN YOUTH CULTURE has entered a crazier, more violent phase, Detroit is the logical vanguard. An urban economic failure, the cityhas, in a sense, a tradition to uphold–a legacy of working-class toughness, drunken sick kicks, and black humor. St. Andrew’s is atemple to that tradition. The main floor still feels like an old men’s club, with burnished blond molding and a cigarette machine thatlooks like it’s left over from the ’40s. Rimmed by a beaux arts balcony, the central hardwood floor forms a dramatic rotunda straightout of the famous battle royal scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man–in which cigar-chomping fat cats throw bills at blindfoldedvictims beating each other senseless.

“There’s something about Detroit, man,” says Darius Gordon, 31, a St. Andrew’s bouncer who grew up in various low-income sectorsof the city. “Out in the street, there’s all these gangs and stuff around you. Detroit feels like it’s gotta put its chest out.”

“Detroit has to fight harder,” says Sergeant Marcus Harper, a police officer at the First Precinct downtown. “It’s like, ‘I’m the damnunderdog. I take two steps up, you kick me three down.'”

Even if you’re courageous, even if you possess the skills to disable large, angry, wasted patrons, even if you’re dedicated topreserving order, there are situations that even the most capable bouncer cannot handle. And recently, St. Andrew’s–a focal pointfor Detroit’s long-ignored, now notorious rap scene–has specialized in them.

“When I started working the Three Floors [of Fun], the main floor was hip-hop, downstairs was rock’n’roll or industrial, and the topfloor was techno,” says Schuster. “If a fight broke out, you could stop it pretty quick.” Then, in 2000, St. Andrew’s started all hip-hopFridays, which were advertised across the entire region via live broadcasts on a local rap radio station. “The first night we got,like, 1,600 people,” says Holland. “Ninety-eight percent black.” Around this time, security at St. Andrew’s became less like a job and morelike a war.

Now, a young black crowd isn’t all that different from a young white crowd. Both want to hang out, hear music, get laid, have fun. Butthere are complicating factors for the mostly white bouncers at St. Andrew’s. “For some reason, everybody in Detroit thinks they’re harderthan the next person,” says Darius Gordon. “They felt like they had to let [staff] know ‘I ain’t no sucker.'”

According to Sergeant Harper, violence at the club has been constant ever since. “There’s always a fight going on,” he says. “I hateworking down here [downtown], because the only people we deal with are the [ones with] negative attitudes from the clubs.”

On hip-hop nights, haggling over ticket prices is common. There is no tipping at the bar. A tap or nudge is likely to provoke afight, especially if the bouncer is white. “You ask someone to move, and they’re like, ‘You ain’t got shit to say to me, white boy,'”says Holland. Worm gets similar treatment on the front steps. “When I’m checking IDs, they rag on me all night,” he says. “‘Look at thiswhite boy out here; he ain’t shit.’ They see white and think I’m a punk-ass.” Schuster has learned to laugh off such epithets. “When you’rekicking somebody out and they’re calling you ‘white devil,’ it’s just funny. If you take it any other way, it’ll make you bitter and angry.”

To be fair, primarily white rave crowds often pose bigger security threats, due to the lucrative, cutthroat drug trade involved. “It’sjust a ton of kids hopped up on the drug of the week, in an abandoned warehouse,” says Schuster. “This one guy [a bouncer] who worked atthe Hall, he got shot, like, three times in the chest at a rave.” And racial tension at St. Andrew’s has diminished drastically as thebouncer crew has become fully integrated–largely due to changes in hiring practices by Detroit scenester Mike “Mike D” Danner, whostarted managing the club’s hip-hop night in June 2000.

The real problems at St. Andrew’s began when club altercations started to take on a professional edge. At first it was little things,like party promoters showing up in flak jackets. “When it’s known that they have [bulletproof] vests, but we don’t, it kinda sends thewrong message,” says Schuster. Then rap groups started bringing their own security–leg-breakers willing to fight the house staff toimpose their posse’s will. By 1999, it was obvious that the mafia-enthralled muscle of big-time hip-hop had finally reached Detroit.

“The whole rap mentality is they wanna be gangstas,” says Sergeant Harper, who is African-American and distinguishes between rapand hip-hop. “Hip-hop is just an urban crowd. But rappers want to live out the persona that ‘You have to fear me; I’m a gangsta.'”

Explains Schuster: “Some guy will be like, ‘I’m ballin’ this week. I’m gonna rent out St. Andrew’s for my boys.’ And there’ll be amob of 500 people out front–everybody’s on the list, and there is no list.” Disagreements get dire fast. “Let’s say some guy keeps comingup to the bar, ordering shitloads of drinks, and he doesn’t have enough money to pay–every time. When I refuse to serve him, he’s like,’I’m gonna get my boys to shoot you.’ It’s that style of crowd, customers saying that they’re going to their cars to get their guns.”

AS IT HAPPENS, it was a marginalized Detroit white boy from the other side of the bouncer line who ushered in Detroit hip-hop’s crazier,more high-profile era. With his weapons charges and inflammatory lyrics, Eminem brought the extremity of his hometown into an alreadyextreme rap culture. Slim Shady and his crew, D12, put the city on the map; money and attention flowed toward the Midwest. St. Andrew’sbenefited mightily. The club’s bouncers did not.

Says Gordon, “Suddenly, everybody [at the club] wanted to battle Eminem. I’d see him in the middle of the dance floor with eight guysaround him waiting for their chance. I think that’s why he started to bring security.” In any case, massive rent-a-terminators soonbecame a consistent presence at St. Andrew’s–and not just with Eminem. “The people who should be patted down get in without it,” saysHolland. “‘Cause they’re a performer or famous. Like D12 and their entourage. They blatantly walk through the pat-down. And they makesure everyone sees them.”

On one Friday night in 1999, revered hip-hop elder Afrika Bambaataa was booked at the Hall, but as he started to take the stage,Eminem jumped up and had the DJ throw on his skyrocketing hit “My Name Is.” Upset when the event’s promoter asked him to leave thestage, Eminem tussled with the promoter, sparking a near-riot. “All of a sudden, beer bottles started getting thrown, and the wholeplace was fighting,” Schuster recalls. “It was straight out of a movie.”

The verbal feud between Eminem and former House of Pain rapper Everlast had been going on for several months by the time Everlast tookhis show to St. Andrew’s in February of 2001, challenging his rival to step forward. News organizations reported the ensuing incident as analtercation led by several D12 fans. But according to the bouncers, the aggressors were not typical fans.

“It was about 14 gigantic guys,” recalls Schuster. “Dressed in black–sweatshirts, boots, jackets, everything. At first, I thought theywere part of the act, because it was so professional, you know? It was like [Public Enemy’s drill team] the S1Ws.” But after assaultingtwo security guards at the front door, the ninjalike posse rushed the stage. Nathan Keeler, 24, the band’s house-assigned gofer for theday, quickly evacuated Everlast to a walk-in freezer downstairs. The intruders formed a circle around two staff members and began beatingthem into oblivion. Schuster, who was tending bar, grabbed a fellow bartender and breached the circle. “We got Brandon out, but we couldn’tget Arrick Lanier,” Schuster says. “He was unconscious.” Lanier had been bashed in the skull with the iron base of a mic stand; he wascarried out on a blood-soaked stretcher. When staffer Ryan Murphy entered the fray, one of the assailants revealed a pistol in hiswaistband, warning him off. Then, at some invisible signal, the goons stopped, turned, and left.

Detroit police finally showed up and took statements from the woozy bouncers. But no one could directly implicate D12, who were on tourin Europe at the time. St. Andrew’s general manager Mike Danner, who arranged a police escort out of town for Everlast, says he knowsthe assailants’ identities but will refer to them only as “diehard fans of D12, the people they grew up with.” He adds: “When you talkshit about them, they will come and get you. It could be a year later, in your own town; they will get you.” D12 were unavailable for comment.

ON A RECENT FRIDAY NIGHT out on Congress Street, a parked truck bears a Rémy Martin-sponsored ad for a local rap radio station:WJLB–Get With the Cru. The front stairs of St. Andrew’s are mobbed with young black men chatting, calling out to cruising cars.”Yo, yo, yo, yo, yo,” one yells, tugging the elbow of a large, fleshy white bouncer checking IDs. Inside, Schuster greets an enormousblack bouncer in a staff T-shirt who wears his nickname (and height), “Six Eight,” on a platinum chain. They exchange a hip-hop-ish bearhug. Schuster walks on and steps into the main room. The place is utterly transformed from the Papa Roach moshfest of two nights ago;it’s now a ghetto-fabulous soiree shimmering with disco lights and hormones. The main floor is shoulder-to-shoulder with people dancing,mingling, and drinking–the most popular beverages are the “Blue Motherfucker” (a Long Island iced tea plus blue Curaao liqueur) andMoët ($100 a bottle at the bar; $37.50 at the corner store).

Downstairs in the section of the club called Shelter, things are rawer. A DJ in a barred cage spins DJ Assault’s underground hit”Hoes Get Naked” (Assault developed the fast and filthy Detroit style of booty rap called “ghetto tech”). A bleached-blonde womangyrates suggestively in skintight, acid-washed shorts, copious flesh spilling out above and below. A petite black girl sipping acocktail wears a turquoise shirt that reads Fuck Moby.

Female patrons like these are also frisked–surrendering the occasional switchblade or even kitchen knife–by one of the club’s fivewomen bouncers. “I’ve been a fighter all my life,” says Violet Edwards, a devout Christian white girl who is 5’4″ and 127 pounds. “I’mnot too much afraid of nothin’.” Raised in a mostly male family in southwest Detroit, she got into her first fight in elementary school.A boy pulled her hair and she broke his nose. She became a St. Andrew’s bouncer after her talents were discovered in a spectacularclash with a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend in the club’s lobby.

As a new Ludacris joint drops, the crowd roars and jumps up. Opening verse: “The fight’s out / I’ma ’bout to punch yo’ lights out.”Later, there’s a promise to “beat up security for stopping a fight.” A few songs later, the DJ mixes into Eminem’s “Without Me,” andthe crowd again erupts. Just miles away, the angry blond himself shot the loosely autobiographical 8 Mile, with L.A. Confidentialdirector Curtis Hanson. The set featured a full-scale reproduction of St. Andrew’s, called “Shelter” in the film.

Outside, Holland guards the rear entrance alone, standing below graffiti that reads Assmunch and Disembowelmovement. He sips bottledwater and looks down a dark alley. “I get a gun pulled on me every Friday,” he says. “It’s fucked.” Shortly after he says this, alow-riding Cougar with tinted windows rolls down the alley for its third pass. The driver gives a cold stare, while Holland muses aboutwhy he keeps his job. “I guess the only reason I stay is because I’ve been here so long,” he says. “Because I fuckin’ love this place,and I don’t know why.”

It’s not too hard to imagine the addiction of being a St. Andrew’s bouncer, of being a member of a real fight club–withits own rules, fellowship, and mainline doses of adrenaline. But there’s obviously some other primal instinct at work here that keepspeople like Holland, Worm, Gordon, and Schuster in the fray.

“This place is our house,” says Gordon. “It’s a camaraderie–punks, hip-hop heads. There’s so many different culture blends here; it’scrazy. But it’s a good thing.”

“I’ve never seen a work environment where there’s such a bond,” adds Edwards.

With the patrons gone, the bouncers gather in a circle on the trash-strewn, alcohol-soaked main floor. Co-security head John MonierII leads them in a prayer of thanks–for having survived another night. Schuster watches from the doorway leading to the main floor. Hehas moved on from security head to the higher-paying post of bartender but still jumps the bar to break up fights. “The point is just toget everybody out,” he says. “Who cares if they’re fighting on the street? It’s not in our club. Nobody that we know is getting hurt.”

It was at this very dividing line, right here in the entryway, that Schuster performed his first act as a bouncer. He instinctivelyjumped into a tussle between two large thugs and a staffer. “I saw one of my coworkers getting hurt,” he says. “So I broke it up.” Healso popped a thug’s head through some drywall. This may have been the moment when Schuster discovered what his law-student girlfriendMarcy calls “a love and aptitude” for fighting.

I ask Schuster how he felt after that first time, after his first successful bounce. “I don’t know,” he says, rubbing his neck andthinking. “It was weird, I guess. My adrenaline was pumping, and I was really worked up.” He looks out the doors into the desolate night.”Mostly, I just remember feeling like everyone was safe.”