Dirty Jobs: Watching the door and keeping the peace
Peter Ryan has the Healdsburg cops on speed dial.
He doesn’t call them often, but when he does, they know to take him seriously. Ryan, 31, has been the doorman at the legendary John & Zeke’s Bar in Healdsburg for the past six years. Sweet-natured and personable, he’s charged with being the bad guy when it comes to patrolling who gets to go in — and sometimes who gets kicked out — of the bar. And then there are the bodily fluids.
“I definitely shower before I go to bed,” he says. “Sometimes you have to wash the stink off.”
Ryan’s main job is check I.D.’s because no one under 21 years of age is allowed inside bars in California. On busy weekends, when the bar is routinely packed with revelers, the bartenders rely on Ryan to be extra vigilant.
But he’s also the guy who makes sure everybody is, well, behaving themselves. This can be a tricky and sometimes delicate task. But, over the years, Ryan has learned how to spot trouble before it starts. It’s a long way from the time when he first had to call for help and the police showed up thinking he was the problem.
“There was this huge guy, an ex-Marine who was causing trouble and I called for help. But when the [officer] showed up, he came right up to me and I noticed he had one hand on his mace,” recalls Ryan who at 6-f00t-5 is a commanding presence himself. “I told him, “No, I’m not the guy. I called you.”"
That was in his earliest days working the door at the Healdsburg plaza bar, where he is become a popular — and constant — fixture on Friday and Saturday nights and locals will walk or drive by and wave or stop for a chat.
“All the cops know me now,” he says. “We have a very warm relationship.”
Ryan, who’s parents Gail and Steve moved to Healdsburg from Vallejo when he was five years old, was working in the kitchen at Bear Republic Brewery six years ago, when he and a friend decided to have a drink at John & Zeke’s. The bar’s owner, Neal Cronin, was serving drinks that night and took one look at Ryan and demanded to know why he wasn’t working for him.
“Then he asked me if I could start on Friday,” says Ryan, who at that point had zero experience being a doorman.That Friday happened to be Ryan’s 25th birthday so he didn’t begin working until the following week. He’s been there ever since.
“I didn’t know what I was really doing or even what I was getting into,” he says, adding he has relied on advice from Cronin and other John & Zeke’s employees, including longtime bartender Tony Deunas. “I went to Tony for a lot of stuff. But really, there’s a lot of common sense to this.”
On weekend nights, you cannot get into John & Zeke’s without stopping to show Ryan your I.D. It’s taken some practice and diligence but Ryan has learned how to spot a fake, which these days, he says, often means someone is trying to use a friend or a relative’s I.D. as their own. He’ll scrutinize the I.D. and compare it to the person showing it — does the photo match? The height and eye color? Is the expiration date passed? He’ll run through his mental checklist carefully and quickly, and never hesitates to deny someone entrance if the I.D. doesn’t look right.
Tougher is understanding the subtleties of the weekend bar scene. It’s one thing letting people have fun but when the partying goes overboard, Ryan’s the one who usually has to step in.
“You learn what to look for, how to spot certain types of behaviors,” he says, describing how he’s always on alert for signs of a dust-up. “On a busy night when people are having fun, they often turn their heads to listen to each other. I look for the guys who are staring each other down — eye to eye. That’s where a fight might be about to happen.”
Ryan’s goal is to diffuse the situation before it becomes a problem, gauging for the right moment to step in. His biggest weapon, he says, is his calm attitude.
“I just keep everything easy,” he says. “Most of the time it works. If a guy wants to be a problem, I’ll threaten to call the cops. It’s very rare but if they dare me, I’ll just take out my phone. Usually, that’s when they leave. Nobody really wants to deal with the cops.”
And while he’s only had one or two people actually swing at him, it’s not the fighting or the threat of violence that’s his biggest headache. It’s the people who have had way too much to drink.
“The worst is during the barrel tasting weekends,” says Ryan, who calls the wine tasters who overdo the wine drinking, “Wine Zombies.”
“I remember this one couple tried to come in late one night and I wouldn’t let the guy’s girlfriend in because she was too drunk,” Ryan says. “So he goes inside and leaves her out front, which I couldn’t believe. She was actually wobbling. When she started throwing up into my flower boxes, I had to go in and get the guy.”
Ryan’s experiences haven’t turned him into a teetotaler, but he says he tends to drink in moderation and on days he’s not working the front door or serving drinks behind the bar, which he does two days a week, he likes to stay home and cook for himself and friends.
From his vantage as the Big Man at the door of Healdsburg’s most popular drinking hole, Ryan has been witness to all sorts of bad behavior brought on by too much partying. But, he’s also developed a keen sense of how people work and with it, a true appreciation for what he does.
“I definitely love doing it,” he says. “It can be a dirty job I guess but I do enjoy it. Most of the time.”
You can reach Healdsburg Towns Correspondent Elizabeth M. Cosin at firstname.lastname@example.org