Being “buffer people”
There are two kinds of people in this world: The ones that get into nightclubs and parties for free — and the ones who…well, don’t.
At least, that’s what I always thought. But this weekend, I learned there’s a third category: The dedicated people who protect those sacred souls who get in for free. Falling somewhere in between the haves and the have-nots, they are never the life of the party, but they can always get in to the party. And let’s be real, for this group, that’s often good enough. That’s right, I’m talking of course about “buffer people.” And finally, at age 31, I realize my true purpose at nightclubs.
Let me explain.
Last week, my husband and I spent a week in Miami for Art Basel, a massive global art festival that takes the city by storm and entices art curators and collectors from all over the world to attend. And since this whole situation takes place in Miami (in December…), Art Basel also attracts an eclectic crew of electronic music lovers, YouTube stars, and all sorts of party people who just want to have a good time.
The result: A mash-up of humans analogous to what it might be like to combine a scrapbook artist’s convention with Comic Con. Very particular. Very fashionably daring. And very, very drunk.
You might say we went for the art. But let’s be real; we went for the people-watching. And on our very last night in town, we decided to push our limits and personal boundaries and do the thing we often dread and avoid: Crash the party scene.
Finding your place in the nightclub “food chain”
I’m normally pretty good at convincing people that I belong. Earlier in the week, I managed to sneak my way into two art parties and two hotel pool bars. When people asked for my name (even though I wasn’t on any list), I gave it in full: Bethany Crystal. Then waited patiently as they checked for me.
“Oh, that’s funny, I’m not seeing it here.”
“That’s weird,” I would reply and simply stare back at them, while my husband fidgeted behind me. One beat too long would pass. I’d hold my ground. Then finally, they’d finally say something like:
“It’s okay, I trust you. Go ahead in.”
Then I’d smile and walk in, tugging at my husband despite his moral compass pulling him the other direction. I know this isn’t fair. (And there’s a lot we can unpack here about white privilege and why this works, but let’s not go there for now, okay?)
But while this clever tactic may work at fancy art networking events where a name like Bethany Crystal feels very much like it should belong, let’s be perfectly clear: It gets me nowhere at night clubs.
The older I get, the more the whole “club scene” stresses me out. All I see in women masquerading belts as dresses — a visual that simultaneously gives me remorse about the state of feminism as well as a conflicted inner monologue about my own self-image. At 31, I know I can’t compete anymore. So rather than vacuum-pack myself into a dress I should have donated years ago, I decided to go another direction for this event: Artsy over sexy. I figured, where else could I go this route if not at Art Basel?
My outfit didn’t find any classic nightclub standards. I had no exposed cleavage, no shoulders or arms showing, no weird body parts cut out. I basically wore an artistic mesh smock embroidered with random Parisian images (think: baguettes, the Eiffel Tower, and and glasses of red wine) over a black dress. I bought it in Toronto on sale a year ago. (But of course, nobody else needed to know that.)
Needless to say, this didn’t impress the bouncers.
“Excuse me. Do you have tickets?”
“No…” I stubbornly stated. “Is that a problem?”
“Not for us. It’s $60.”
“Total?” I looked to Jason for confirmation that we could swing this. It was pricey, but I mean…last night in Miami, right?!
“No,” the bouncer stared me down. “$60 each.”
I gaped at him. Sixty dollars each?! Was he serious? Were people really paying a $60 cover charge at the Delano Hotel club just to be granted the privilege of paying $20/each for vodka cranberry well drinks in the basement below?
But he wouldn’t budge. I scoffed off. We could do better.
“What now?” asked my husband.
“I don’t know,” I responded. But in my head, I was thinking, “It’s time to make friends.”
I turned around and exclaimed loudly at a group of four people to our right: “Can you believe this? A $60 cover charge? That’s insane!”
“Seriously,” one guy responded. “Not going to happen.”
“Exactly. Who do they think they are, anyway?” I looked around to the group, attempting to rally the team and build solidarity.
“Hey, nice dress!” interjected the other guy.
“THANK YOU!” I replied emphatically. “It’s from Toronto.” (I turned to the girls beside me.) “They actually have a fantastic shopping scene there. Queens Street is full of adorable boutiques with unique items and bonus — it all feels like a 20% discount due to the exchange rate.”
“Wait, Canada! That’s where I’m from! Yes! They DO have great shopping!” exclaimed the second guy in the group. This sidebar eventually spun into a five-minute conversation about the U.S. vs. Canada.
At some point, the conversation switched gears back to the girls.
“You know, there are more places nearby,” suggested one of the girls in the group. “We were thinking of going to the Hyde next door. Want to come?”
I turned to Jason and gave him a smirk: Was this the intro we needed to enter the club scene?
Minutes later, we crossed the street and all four of us were admitted into the club next door — a very exclusive backyard party where we were certainly among the laggards of the group. Cover charge? Nada.
But wait — we were just four people now. Their guys were no longer with us. I turned back in confusion until I realized what had happened: Jason and I had inadvertently helped buffer our new lady friends away from those two guys. Apparently, my odd banter distracted them from their original targets, allowing the girls safe passage to leave for a new party.
This would be the start of a beautiful relationship.
Symbiotic relationships at nightclubs
You know how in nature shows, you learn about the little “helper fish” who help keep keep bigger fish clean? The helper fish gets nutrients from the plankton or other particles; the bigger fish gets a nice bath and all of that bad bacteria cleaned off them. In nature, these are referred to as symbiotic relationships.
For humans at a club, my husband and I entered into a similar symbiotic relationship with those two girls. Soon, the terms for each of us became crystal clear:
Their perk: Safety and protection from creepy guys
Our perk: Entry to nightclubs (with no cover charge)
As soon as we realized what we role we were playing (aka: the helper fish), we trailed behind our “big important fish” friends wherever they went and looked out for predators. When men arrived, we’d look to our new friends’ body language for subtle cues of distress — an errant look, an arm tug away, a call back to the other: “Come onnnn…I wanna go dance!”
That was our cue to step in. Playing the part of the “weird art one,” I’d insert myself into the conversation and feign immediate interest in their latest suitor. In lockstep, Jason would jump at the other guy with completely irrelevant “buddy-buddy” talk: “Hey, so what brings you to Miami? Where are you from?”
More times than not, this diversion was often enough to allow our friends time for a quick escape. I knew we’d won when I’d see the raised eyebrow of the guy partway into our conversation as he scanned the room and realized what happened. His body language would read: “Wait, who are you, anyway? You’re not the one I wanted to talk to. Where’d those girls go?” Then Jason and I would high-five and continue on our way.
Like moths to a flame, our two new friends attracted A LOT of attention. Within seconds of us fending off “male predators” and liberating our friends to be free and unattached, two more guys would appear by their sides, and the process would continue.
Somehow, we managed to fit into a perfect niche: Being “good enough” to pass as a friend in close-ish proximity, but not threatening enough to potentially jeopardize their interest from the opposite sex. It was the best of both worlds. Incidentally, being in such close proximity to two girls who constantly got propositioned by men wound up being a fascinating exercise in empathy-building for my husband to see. “Wow,” he’d remark. “All dudes are the same.”
Every once in awhile, we’d exchange small talk with our new “big fish” friends and check to see when it might be helpful for us to step in. A couple of times, they thanked us directly for our help. But our biggest clue that this relationship was working was when they decided it was time to move on.
“Okay, let’s go back next door now. Are you guys in?”
They wanted to take us with them! What an honor! We both nodded eagerly.
And less than 90 minutes after my first attempt to enter the Delano Hotel nightclub, we were back again. But this time, we left the bouncer talk to our two new “big fish” friends. After a quick conversation, they were immediately admitted. But once they crossed the threshold, they turned back to both of us and pointed.
“They’re with us too,” they gestured to the bouncer.
He obliged at once, and we entered without issue, completing bypassing both the line and the $60-a-person cover charge. Our hearts swelled. In celebration, we spent $24 on a gin-and-tonic well drink, which we split.
In the end, after a few more false starts and stops of “helper fish” duties, we started to get tired and decided it was time to go home. We scanned the room for our friends and found them in good company: They found new allies among a couple of gay guys who had scrounged up a table.
I gave Jason a look: Our work here is done. We went out for a slice of pizza in celebration.
The perks of being a “buffer”
Being a buffer person isn’t for everyone. It’s probably not even for me all of the time.
But in this context — an environment where I quite literally felt like a fish out of water — all we really wanted was to be a part of the scene as third-party observers, not be the center of attention. And stumbling upon this funny little relationship happened to be the perfect middle ground for us both.
Since this interaction, I’ve heard about “buffer people” existing in other areas of my friends lives as well. Maybe your sibling serves as a “buffer” between you and your mom during the holiday season. Maybe a close colleague helps “buffer” you from senior management in tense meetings.
Chances are, there plenty of instances where you might look around at the relationship dynamics around you and decide that, at least for here, for right now, my role would be best served as being a buffer. In the end, it’s not the worst way to gain access to something above your normal status. That is, if you’re willing to pay up for the drinks once you get inside the club.