News & Features » Miscellany

Saturday night in Shockoe Bottom is no place to cross Sa'ad El-Amin

Mr. Bouncer, to You

by

comment
He blends in remarkably well for a man used to squabbling over City Council business, not curfews, ecstasy or Napster. The hip red rayon shirt and black pants help.

Sa'ad El-Amin is barely visible at the end of the bar. The glint from his glasses darts up and down, flickering against an army of lights. Again and again he scans the crowd as if replaying a video to catch whatever action there is in fine detail.

At 11 p.m. a sloppy line of late-night revelers forms in front of Fahrenheit Club and Restaurant like bumper cars at a theme park. In an hour, those in line will be desperate to get inside. But for now the queue is short. That's the advantage of showing up early. One by one, clubbers creep past windows filled with bubbling water. By 11: 30 the line wraps around the corner. The wait is expected. So are the three sheriff's deputies at the door, asking for IDs and checking attitudes.

El-Amin is there, too, a city councilman working the night shift.

A few months ago Ted Kastanos, owner of Fahrenheit in Shockoe Bottom, turned to El-Amin for help when he learned that his business could be shut down because of allegations of drug activity there. Last month a hearing officer for the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control recommended suspension of the club's license because of reports of drug activity there.

In February, as a result of an undercover drug operation called Operation Ex-Clubs, a handful of the club-goers were arrested for possession and distribution of cocaine and ecstasy. Kastanos maintained that the security he already had in place, while costly and extensive, still wasn't enough to police everyone at the club. But Kastanos says Fahrenheit is now drug-free, and he vows to fight to keep his license.

As part of that effort, Kastanos hired El-Amin, whose 6th District encompasses Shockoe Bottom, to head up Fahrenheit's security on weekends.

In a city where El-Amin's every move and remark go noticed, his presence at the club hasn't provoked much attention. The 500 revelers inside don't appear to know or care that there is a councilman in the house. DJ's spin hip-hop and techno music to a constant light and smoke show. Heat radiates from the dance floor.

"It'll be wall to wall by midnight," says El-Amin. "Most of us are in bed by 11:30, 12 o'clock. That's just when things start happening here."

Think of America's coolest, most exciting neighborhoods. No place in Richmond comes to mind. That's a mistake, says the 6th District city councilman. There is no reason why Richmond can't be a Dallas or a Greenwich Village, he says: What is needed is a focus on Richmond after dark. "The Bottom is our premiere good-time place," El-Amin says. "It's part of our culture and economic activity and we have to nurture it."

He nudges through a cluster of bare-shouldered girls to reach one of the nine bouncers who wear polo shirts with "security" spelled on the back in big black letters. Four others float around unmarked, undercover. At intervals, El-Amin checks in with each one.

Just off the dance floor a girl grabs her date and kisses him long and hard. El-Amin shrugs.

"This is really not a meat market at all," he says. "This is a very youthful crowd. They have their own culture and morals but they're really good kids."

They're kids he's trying to understand, hoping, he says, to keep them safe. Despite his reputation for pugnacity, it's hard to imagine him breaking up a brawl. He says he hasn't had to.

The councilman doesn't exactly groove to the music though at times he seems to like it. He says the job not only keeps him out past 3 a.m., it also has him tuning in to hip-hop on the radio. "I guess I have a younger attitude now," he says. "I'm not a stick-in-the-mud."

El-Amin draws his arms in and drops his head to make his way back again through the thicket of people who stand, dance and drink on the dance floor. He spies Kastanos and Q94's Billy Surf seated in the short row of seats next to the bar.

Kastanos yells over the music to El-Amin: "Sometimes it seems they're all on the dance floor." El-Amin nods and smiles.

Two girls climb and enter the cage and begin gyrating. El-Amin doesn't look up at them, but the girl next to him does. She comes here every Saturday night, she says. She met her husband here. "There's nothing going on down here except a lot of dancing and crotch grinding," she says cheerily.

A little after 1 a.m. the crowd is grower tighter still. The line outside makes the folks inside feel lucky. Many who wait won't even get in.

On the floor one of the bouncers appears to have a problem. El-Amin pushes his way through. A young blond woman is protesting taking a sip from her friend's drink. Her hand isn't stamped which means she's over 18 but not 21. El-Amin consorts ear to mouth with the bouncer. He then taps the girl on the shoulder and points toward the exit. He follows her outside.

"I swear on my mamma's grave I didn't touch that drink," she says. El-Amin smiles, disbelieving. "I'm sorry," he says. "You broke the rules and you must leave."

Still she protests. She gets emotional, and louder. El-Amin is calm as more and more people turn toward them and stare. A deputy comes over. El-Amin opens a black-and-white composition book and draws a pen from his pocket. In the book is a list of names, young people he's had to ask to leave for one reason or another. He asks the girl for hers. Reluctantly, she obliges.

"Have a good night," he tells her. He turns to go back inside the club. "We're not friendly and accommodating to our young people," he says, shaking his head. "All they want is bright lights and each other and a sense of

Add a comment