“Reservations only, reservations only. I can’t, sorry man, we’re packed inside. Guys, we are packed. We have no more tables. We’re done. Two of you guys I can take care of, but not the whole group. Sir, good to see you!”
It was late Friday night outside Bungalow 8, the super-exclusive nightclub where New York’s most glamorous and beautiful young people enjoy conversation, flirting and something stronger than soda pop. Located on a bleak stretch of West 27th Street between 10th and 11th avenues, the club can hold at most about 150 people and turns away the great majority of the people who wish to enter.
Armin, the dashing 33-year-old Iranian doorman, was wearing a fur hat and a blue cashmere coat over a $1,800 suit. He was standing behind the velvet rope he’s manned since the club opened in 2001. He let in an elegant, rich looking fellow, got on his walkie-talkie, then turned his attention to a former regular who had been 86’d by Bungalow 8’s owner, the tall, glamorous and sophisticated Amy Sacco, for his habit of rolling in with eight people, promising to spend a lot of money, then ordering Corona beers.
“Listen, Pete,” Armin said, “we’re starting a new phase. Don’t go in there acting like you’re going to buy Cristal and you’re gonna be the man. Just go in there and have your beer and chill.”
“All right,” Pete peeped.
Armin parted the rope but still blocked the steel door with the “8” on it.
“If Amy sees you, she might crack a bottle on your head,” he added.
A black S.U.V. pulled up and one of the mangy Olsen twins hopped out and didn’t slow down as she scurried past the rope. “How are you? Come on in,” Armin said.
At 3:15 a.m., a fight broke out across the street: A falafel guy got sucker-punched, then beaten up by no-neck steroid goons. The victim, wiping away blood, called the police. Armin shook his head and turned his attention back to a drunk guy at the rope who wouldn’t give it up.
“Have a good night-you need a reservation, bro,” Armin told him. “I have nothing to talk to you about.”
“But my friends are in there already!”
“I don’t care if your momma’s in there, don’t touch me.”
“I’m not touching you!”
“Don’t get too close to me. I hear you from right here. I hear you, so have a good night.”
“You’re a fucking prick, you’re a fucking prick!”
“Thank you! Fuck you, too!” Armin said, laughing.
Although it’s stressful to be out there for five hours making and breaking peoples’ nights, he’s not complaining. The money’s good, he gets free designer clothes. Plus: “You really see people’s true faces.”
“I think it’s funner outside the club, because you get to see a lot of different characters,” said Armin, who’s an aspiring actor. “This is a great acting school. I actually turn into a different character.”
More desperate people lined up to plead their case.
“Can you take care of me? I’m just by myself.”
“I can’t take care of anybody right now,” Armin said. “You gotta make a reservation.”
(What he doesn’t tell people is, not just anyone can make a reservation; it helps to know Ms. Sacco.)
One recent evening, he parted the rope for the Bush twins (Barbara and Jenna), Chelsea Clinton and John Kerry’s stepson, Chris Heinz. “They were two tables apart,” he said. “We’re living in a harmony in America-here is the refugee boy handling these people!”
(“I find Bush very funny,” Armin said later. “I laugh when I see him on TV, he’s got this sort of confidence. I even told his daughter, ‘I think your dad has this amazing confidence. He looks like he doesn’t really care what people think,’ and she says, ‘He doesn’t.'” But he added: “My boy is Clinton. I love that man. He came to Bungalow twice.”)
More hopeful, pleading looks Armin’s way.
“Sorry, Amy has shut the door down, we’re done for the night.”
“This place has given me a power more than I could ever imagine in my life,” he admitted. “I’ve had Congressmen’s offices giving me a call trying to get people in. Then you have President Bush’s daughters coming in: sweethearts. I don’t care what people say about Bush, here comes his daughters and I’m this refugee boy. I wasn’t letting them in the first couple of times, until I got a call from Fabian Basabe saying ‘There’s two girls in the front, Barbara and Jenna, could you take care of them?’ This was me telling no to the daughters! I kept them waiting. I have kept the son of the Shah of Iran for an hour-his dad would have cut my head back in the day. That’s the beauty of America, do you know?
“I’m really good at what I do,” he continued. “That’s scary. I have no explanation, I have quite strong instincts about people, and I sense right away whether you’re right to come in or not. And it has nothing to do with what you wear and what shoes you have or who you are.
“Women are the worst in this scenario, women really are,” he said. “Because women in a lot of ways feel entitled. My worst comment is, ‘Are you going to take care of two beautiful women or what?'”
He lets people hang themselves first: “I never say anything. You come to the rope and I let you talk first, and most people fail that test right away. Most rejected women call me ‘faggot’ right away, because I’m not giving them the attention. ‘What-do you like cock?’ they say. It happens every night.
“Saying no to people is never fun, because I’m a generous person, I like to give,” he said. “It’s not personal. We have five categories of how you can get into Bungalow: You have a reservation? Are you a member? Are you on the house list? Do you want to get a bottle, a table? How many guys are you with? And if you come to the rope and act up, or with bad energy, you can forget it.”
Armin, who didn’t want to give his last name for fear it might have repercussions for his parents back in Iran, grew up a privileged only child in Tehran. He said his Persian mother was a film star; his father was “new Iran” and became a successful makeup artist and hairdresser. Armin was there for the revolution in 1979 (his maternal grandfather was a general in the Shah’s army) and the early part of the war with Iraq. He was two blocks away when a bomb killed 45 kids.
“I was ready to get out,” he said. “As a little kid, I couldn’t understand Islam whatsoever. Islam is not for today. Fifteen hundred years ago? Great.”
By 1982, his parents had lost everything. His father was in jail because of his ties to the Shah, and his mother arranged for a Kurdish con man to take Armin through the mountains into Turkey. The donkey ride lasted 13 days through the snow.
His mother showed up in Istanbul and stayed with him for six months, but then had to leave. He wouldn’t see her for 18 years.
He said he entered Bulgaria with a fake passport, but the authorities caught up with him. He had 7,000 marks on him, 4,000 of which had been sewn into his underwear. A bus driver said for 7,000 marks he’d take him to Austria, so he hopped on. At around 3 a.m., the guy next to him showed him the porno mag he was checking out, then whipped out his penis.
Armin slammed the man’s head into seat in front of him, ran to tell the bus driver, who didn’t believe his story and ordered him out. Now Armin was in the middle of Yugoslavia with no money. A Hungarian family helped him out with a ride, and he soon found another con man who took him to a refugee camp outside Vienna.
First he was held for eight weeks in quarantine. The bathrooms were so disgusting that he held it in until he broke out in a fever, then was taken to a hospital, where he stayed for a week. Armin did a lot of jump rope and pushups, wrote letters to his mom and cried a lot. “This was the lowest point,” he said. “I wanted to come to America.” Days, he bummed around Vienna, stealing food. He was 13.
“When you’re a refugee and you don’t have any money, you will do anything to survive,” he said. “There are things I’ve done that I’m ashamed of, but it was just a part of my life.”
He started dipping into Vienna nightlife. He found work at a nightclub and hooked up with older women who helped him move out of the refugee camp, providing him with money, clothes and weekends in Salzburg. “They made me feel great and they were really kind to me, so God bless ‘em,” he said.
He started bartending at a gay bar called Why Not? (“I saw things there I’ve never seen in my life.”) At 17, he dated a rich American girl who married him and brought him home to Grosse Pointe, Mich. Her father, unaware of the betrothal, got him a $12-an-hour job at Ford Motors, but said if he had any intention of ever marrying his daughter to forget it. He decided to leave.
A friend from the refugee camp, who was now living in San Francisco, offered him a crash pad. He quickly met a Russian-American girl who invited him to stay with her in Sausalito. “Next thing you know, I’m living with this girl and her mother, and they have this swimming pool overlooking the whole city,” he said. “I’m having a great time with the daughter, and the mother is cooking for me.” But the father came back and Armin was homeless again. He ran into a Persian friend, and they became roommates. “It was me and him and the world was wide open,” he said. He acquired a taste for LSD. “It was really about going out there and finding sort of God within music,” he said.
After a while, however, he found he couldn’t finish his sentences. He quit the acid and decided to try his hand at acting. So in 1992, he moved to New York with his Japanese girlfriend, a model who supported him as he got fired from several waiter jobs. Things picked up when he got hired as a host at the nightclubs Chaos and Lotus. Ms. Sacco, owner of Lot 61, told him she was opening a new nightclub; it would have room for about 150 people but just 11 tables, and each table would be expected to spend $500 and up as a “bottle fee.” She wanted Armin as the door maestro.
He still likes it, but the downside’s been getting to him. He estimates that he’s been in 10 fights. One night, a son of the discount brokerage millionaire Charles Schwab showed up and, according to newspaper reports, attacked Armin. The guy was charged with assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Another time, a rejected guy said his uncle was “a very important guy” and that the next time he came, Armin would not only let him in but perform fellatio on him. “I think he was well deserved to get a slap,” Armin said. “I gave him a slap. Then he ran away like a little girl.”
The most serious threat came from some henchmen of a supposed “connected” guy. Armin was going home on his bike when a car pulled up next to him. The thugs told him that if he didn’t let their boss in next time, Armin wouldn’t look the same anymore. The connected guy showed up at the door of Bungalow 8 a few nights later. Armin took him aside and told him know that he had survived war, revolution and a refugee camp.
“Now I have a lot to lose,” he told the man. “I want to go where I want to go in life, but when it comes down to it, I’m not really afraid of anybody.”
The gangster tried to make friends, but Armin still wouldn’t let him in. But, over time, they worked something out, and now the guy comes in once in a while with no more than one person.
As far as celebrities go, Armin likes actors Kevin Costner (“gracious”) and Benicio Del Toro, but not many others. He doesn’t get on with Puff Daddy or Paris Hilton. The celebrity he most dislikes might be actor John Corbett, who played the tall slacker Aidan on Sex and the City. Mr. Corbett showed up one night; Armin had no idea who he was.
“He was acting quite cocky, and he came with nine people on a busy night,” Armin said. “I said, ‘Let me see what I can do for you.’ I go inside, clear off a table, and I came out and said, ‘O.K.’ I’m about to open the rope and he grabs my face and slaps it, Italian-style. I hate people when they touch me. And he says, ‘I’ll tell you something. You just fucked up, right? You will never fucking see me here again.’
“I had to push him back to let him know to never, ever put his hand on me,” he continued. “And I’m glad that he didn’t step up, because I would definitely have cracked his jaw.”
Armin said his back-up guys at Bungalow, who are African-American, are regularly called the N-word by those denied entry.
“It’s amazing-I didn’t think there’s that much racism that goes on in America,” he continued. “In New York, there’s a lot of racism.”
On his three days off, he spends time with his current girlfriend, an Australian model with whom he owns an apartment in the East Village. But “as soon as I put my face back at the door, it just feels like this whole drama starts again,” he said. “And most of it comes from the insanity of people being on drugs and alcohol. I’m more a loner now than I’ve ever been in my life. Besides seeing my girlfriend, I really just want to be left alone. Just sit somewhere and read and not have one word with anybody.”
Lately he’s been thinking about focusing on acting. He’s done some independent movies and plays, auditioned for Alexander and Miami Vice. One problem is, he keeps getting typecast.
“Drug dealer or terrorist, drug dealer and terrorist,” he said. “The biggest racist organization I’ve ever come across is Hollywood, as liberal as they like to sound.”
If acting doesn’t work out, he’s had offers to run his own club.
“I feel like once I say yes to that, it’s going to take me away from art,” he said.
“I really learn a lot about greed and all that stuff at Bungalow,” he continued. “Celebrity plays a major role in people’s lives. We look up to them, we want to be their friends, and we get part of our identity through them, and it’s sad.”
He said he’s learned a lot about the mating habits of Americans.
“Sex in Europe, I feel like it’s almost like having a coffee,” he said. “In America, people talk about and fantasize about sex more than they do it. I’ve always been attracted to non-American women. Where I come from, when the women get older, your respect for them grows more and more and more. You celebrate as people get older. In Europe, it’s sort of sexy-the line around your eyes makes you very sexy and interesting. In America, we always find things wrong with ourselves. As women get older here, they lose their power. We’re living in a culture where we’re looking up to Paris Hilton.”
It was 3:15 a.m. Armin was ignoring a dozen people outside Bungalow. There were two young women who didn’t fit in: too denim, too New Jersey, too Bleecker Street. “We already went through this an hour ago. There’s nothing I can do, sorry,” Armin told them. “What it takes is a reservation; that’s what it takes.”
By 3:30 a.m. they were in full masochistic meltdown.
“But everyone’s leaving right now,” the redheaded woman reasoned.
“Sweetheart, I’m trying to just be as polite as possible,” Armin said. “We don’t have any room, sorry.”
“For two girls? We’re not guys.”
“Even for half a girl.”
Disco, a 6-foot-7, 300-pound bouncer, stepped forward.
“Even for two midgets,” he said.
Just then, three fancy blondes were let in.
“This is bullshit,” the redhead said to her friend. “I wish I was in the meatpacking district right now.”
They asked to be let in again.
Armin took over. “Let me explain to you one thing,” he said. “When you wake up in the morning tomorrow, and you’re having your brunch, and you and your friend are going to talk about your night before-is it going to feel good to say you stood in front of a club for hour and a half?”
At 3:50 a.m., two sexy girls who had been waiting patiently and quietly were allowed in. At 4 a.m., Armin went inside to ask people to leave. At 4:10 a.m., he got on his bicycle and rode home.