It's about 11 p.m. and I'm about to enter a popular club in downtown Calgary. Outfitted in a leopard-print dress and four-inch stilettos, it's safe to say that I'm not dressed to head to MacHall for a sub sandwich. After some almost playful obligatory hassling about arriving later than our pre-arranged guest list spot requires, a bouncer at the door lets my female friend and I through the VIP entrance, addressing us both as "babe."
Tonight I'm on a journalistic mission, so I absent-mindedly hand my ID to another bouncer waiting inside the door. "People don't say 'Hi' anymore," the bouncer half-flirts, half-laments, with a twinge of loneliness in his voice. Smiling, I say hello, take my ID back, and make my way to the dance floor.
Nightclubs in Calgary operate primarily from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., and within those four hours a series of transactions-- both social and economic-- occur that most of its patrons are unaware of. Bars in Calgary are, like all businesses, primarily looking to make a profit, but by exploiting emotional needs. They are institutions of human interaction, but they can end up making their patrons feel lonelier than ever.
That bouncer wasn't wrong. Hundreds of people walk right by him every night with certain goals in mind. Although those goals may vary, they all come down to finding a connection.
As I walk towards the flashing lights and pulsing beat of top-40 music, my head swivels toward a shout coming from a familiar, smartly-dressed frame. I roll my eyes and laugh as I see Trevor*, 20, and he flashes me a knowing smile-- Trevor and I have met here before.
Tonight, however, he's working, not partying. Trevor now coaches with Kingpin Social, a local enterprise that teaches customers, mostly male, to be at ease in social situations, mostly involving females. He's here tonight with a student, who's paid several hundred dollars for this evening's tutoring session and apparently Trevor's taught him well-- the 'student,' a man about the same age as Trevor, has already made a beeline for my petite friend. Smooth.
Like most, Trevor first set foot in a bar at the age of 18, something he viewed as a sort of graduation from the high school house parties he used to frequent. Before long, Trevor was going out to clubs four nights a week, which got him noticed by club management. He spent six months bartending at the Roadhouse before rising to the position of manager at downtown club Mansion.
"[Nightclubs] see value in networks. That's what they want. So I guest-bartended for the first time, and I think I brought 40 people down, so I was hired on the spot. As soon as I was hired, I was 19 years old and I was hooked. I loved it."
About a year and a half ago, I met Trevor at the Roadhouse after he aggressively attempted to hit on me. Ironically enough, Trevor and I are now friends. He eventually admitted to me that when he met me, it was at a time in his life when he struggled with extreme insecurity.
"Back then, I was dealing with a lot of internal issues," says Trevor. "I wasn't aware of it at the time, but what I liked most about the nightclub was external validation. I was validated by reactions. I would go and dress up and look good, and I would approach [girls] and I would get reactions.
"You actually become dependent on it, which I was for a very, very long time-- I would say about a year," he adds.
Trevor decided to pursue a passion for writing, which helped him leave his former lifestyle. After quitting his bartending job at the Roadhouse, Trevor completed work on his third book.
"I was getting so many management opportunities for nightclubs that I had to get out, because if I didn't get out, then I was going to be addicted to external validation for the rest of my life. It was about finding an internal form of validation so that I didn't have to go to the bar to feel good about my identity."
Bars were where Trevor avoided his inner struggles-- and he believes that he was not alone.
"To a large degree, people are addicted to the nightclub because the nightclub is a representation of where they can escape reality," explains Trevor.
On my way to the dance floor, I caught sight of a blonde-haired girl in a hot pink bra and a short white skirt dancing over a metal tub full of bottled drinks for sale. Every so often she leans down to talk to someone-- usually male-- who approaches her. Immediately, I feel a sort of disgust. How can she so blatantly objectify her sexuality, a sacred part of any human being, to make money? But I'm then reminded of a time in my life when I paid an entrance fee to a club at least once a week for the privilege of dancing on an elevated platform in scant clothing in the name of fun. Maybe she's the smarter one here, I think, glancing down at my own attire for the evening. However flawed this thought may be, I still entertain it-- she gets paid for what she does, while the rest of us do it for the cost of bar cover.
Megan* is a 23 year-old 'tub girl' at Mansion. Depending on the night, her job might be to sell drinks from a tub, to walk with a tray of shooters through the crowd, or to serve drinks in the club's VIP section.
Whereas Trevor found himself too connected to nightlife to be able to reconcile his nightclub personality with his everyday identity, Megan is able to continue her job at the club by maintaining a distance between who she is and what she does-- and finding her identity outside the confines of downtown at midnight.
A graduate of ACAD's Fibre Art program, most of Megan's time is split between fashion modeling jobs, hand-making fibre art pieces, and designing and showing her own clothing line. She occasionally picks up shifts at Mansion to supplement the income she earns from her day jobs. In a typical night, Megan will make around $200 in tips on top of an hourly wage, performing what her managers refer to as a 'hospitality job.'
"It's very much about helping other people have a good time," she says.
Although Megan isn't told explicitly how to dress or act, she has a direct economic incentive to serve customers in a certain way.
"It's about flirting with people and being that personality while you're at work," she says, matter-of-factly. "You don't have to be like that, but you probably won't make as much money. On nights where I'm more covered up, I don't make as many tips. You dress hot so that someone will want to buy from you instead of someone else.
"It can be good money. With most people, it's just talk, so you're like, 'Yeah, yeah, whatever,' and you just walk away."
Sometimes there isn't the option to walk away, though. Megan endures sexual harassment every time she goes into work, ranging from being groped while carrying a tray of drinks around the dance floor, to having drunk men demand that she come home with them. She recalled one particularly frightening experience when a customer grabbed her and tried to force her to kiss him. She's not the only one to experience behaviour like this.
"I know there was one instance where everyone was pretty sure that one of the tub girls was drugged, but we don't know for sure," she says. "To be honest, I don't know if [the managers] even found out. I think everybody just kind of knows that sometimes stuff like that happens."
This kind of disturbing violence would be unacceptable anywhere else, but it is normalized in the nightclub environment. It's also a place where bodies are commodified to such an extent that others may feel a sense of unwarranted entitlement over them. But this isn't something that only happens to female employees.
"I think [the guys] are just as sexualized as the girls are," explains Megan. "There are the female bartenders to attract the guys, and the male bartenders to attract the girls. On Tuesdays when it's Ladies' Night, some guys go shirtless. It's pretty much the same. The whole industry's pretty objectifying."
Fast-forward about three LMFAO songs and a few dances later into the night and I'm pretty sure that my bandage-tight dress is altering the shape of my pancreas. It's time for a bathroom break. Evaluating my appearance in the mirror, I spot the same blonde tub girl I saw earlier at the sink next to me. To start a conversation, I march straight into safe straight-girl territory and sweetly ask her where she got her bra.
"Victoria's Secret," she chirps as she turns to me with a smile. As girls in bar bathrooms at 1 a.m. are wont to do, another chimes in, complimenting her skirt. I ask her how her night is going, and the bubbly girl-- who can't be more than 19-- contorts her face into a sour expression.
"Ugh. There are just so many creepy brown guys here tonight, and they just stare at me, without even buying anything!"
"Oh, my God. I know what you mean," another says. The girls around her nod sympathetically.
Racism in Calgary nightclubs isn't limited to bathroom banter stereotypes. Trevor, who is half black, is very open about the fact that racial profiling occurs at the Roadhouse on a regular basis.
"There's definitely racism," he reiterates several times. According to Trevor, Roadhouse bouncers are known to refuse entry to groups of minorities to reduce violence, for the purpose of preventing bouncers from getting needlessly hurt and, as Trevor says, "protect[ing] the well-being of the bar," even though he admits that "they're not going about it in the best way." Regardless, he says he understands why it happens.
"I've seen a lot more group fights with [ethnic] people than I have with white people," he says. "That's not right or wrong, it just is. There have been a lot of gang-related incidents that have involved coloured people. I'm coloured myself, and that's just the way I've seen it."
Jeremy*, a bouncer at local mega-bar Flames Central, takes a firmer stance on the issue. Of racism in nightclubs, the Nigerian-American says that "it shouldn't happen. It's not good, it's not cool, because you cut a lot of people's nights short."
He isn't completely discouraged by it when does happen, though.
"Racist stuff don't affect me, first of all," Jeremy says. "I could care less-- I drive a car, I live in a house, I do everything you do, I go to school-- what do you do that's better than me?"
Jeremy, a defensive lineman for the Dinos football team, recalls an instance where he encountered racial profiling at nightclub West.
"It was a team player's birthday and the first couple of guys got there-- it was four white guys and a black guy and they looked at me, no questions asked. The second group of my friends got there and there were five black guys and one white guy, and they said no. It's like, we booked reservations-- what are you doing?"
Bouncers then called Jeremy's teammate, who made the reservations, and informed him that they weren't letting his friends in because they weren't over 25. Jeremy was 18 at the time and was given entry.
Trevor can list the 'type' of people who are turned away at bars with disconcerting ease: "Not dressed well enough, not externally valuable enough, [or] doesn't look like he has money; maybe freshly 18 year-old kids; really, really, really big guys; groups of really, really, really big guys; groups of coloured individuals who look super athletic or super ripped; guys who just have a creepy look."
And girls? "As long as she has her ID, she gets in."
Trevor and Jeremy both believe that a nightclub depends heavily on female presence and the money that it attracts from men who will buy them drinks, an interest that it strives to protect by refusing entry to certain individuals.
It's finally 2 a.m. and I'm a funny sight in a down parka with bare legs sticking out-- a haphazard, strange research uniform. By christening myself a guerrilla anthropologist, I have been prompted to view this world through a fresh lens tonight, and what I saw wasn't completely harmless. As my stilettos crunch into the snow, I ask myself, "If this environment is so socially toxic, why do so many people our age keep going back?"
I will be the first to admit that I went through an embarrassing stage where I had multiple gold stars on my figurative bar-star badge, and I still enjoy the occasional crazy night out-- I am 21, after all. But after too many nights of going out in search of connection and coming back with an empty wallet and an empty heart, I, like Trevor, became unsettled.
"This isn't the way that humanity is supposed to operate. This is a very fake, very pretentious version of us," Trevor remarks.
What's important to be aware of is not only that social transactions may not yield their promised returns in this micro-universe of highballs and coloured lights, but also that this universe is made purposefully inaccessible to people based on their gender, race and physical desirability. Before you make the decision to support certain establishments with your money and time, know that a nightclub presents an alternative reality that can be a fun distraction, but can be harmful when made into a lifestyle. Ultimately, bar nights should be used like credit cards-- sparingly and dealt with responsibly, so you won't have to pay a greater price later.
*Names have been changed.