If you make the trip to Havana, the Capitol Hill nightclub, your ID will surely be checked, likely by Eli Baroh, head of security, who's been perched on a bar stool out front nearly every night since Havana opened its doors just over a year ago.
Havana doesn't have bouncers; it has, as owner Quentin Ertel likes to call them, "hosts." Baroh, Robert Donnelan, and Brandon Cyprian are your hosts; thanks to them, there have been no fights inside the club—an impressive feat. Their approach to security—diffusing tension, talking conflict out of existence before it even begins—stems from a quote from Sun Tzu's The Art of War: "Change their colors, use them mixed in with your own." Baroh is committed to understanding the Chinese philosopher's ideas. (The first time I met him, he was reading Sun Pin's Military Methods of the Art of War, an elaboration and guide to Sun Tzu's earlier work.)
Baroh doesn't approach patrons looking for a confrontation; he looks to understand them and, if they decide to give him a hassle, to use that understanding to outsmart them and send them on their way. It's this innate curiosity and insight into human nature that makes him a kick-ass host.
You've probably seen Baroh—he's worked doors all around Seattle for years. He got his start at sports bars such as the Ram, Earl's on the Ave, and the All American in the University District, as well as clubs such as Belltown's Viceroy and the Showbox downtown. Chances are you've talked with him—he's not the kind of guy who robotically checks IDs like a stone-faced mute. He'll put down the book he's reading (currently the fantasy series Wheel of Time, about a reluctant hero, by Robert Jordan), greet you with a "Hey there, kid," and ask how you're doing. If you reciprocate, Baroh is likely to respond with, "I'm doing all right so far," those last two words an invitation for more exchange. Radiating from underneath his all-black security clothes are a warmth and self-possession that make a conversation with Baroh a destination in itself.
Baroh is a born-and-bred Seattleite, with deep roots in Rainier Valley, which he is proud to still call home. And he's a born storyteller. Over a long lunch of nachos (chicken for me, bean and cheese for him—Baroh keeps kosher), he proudly tells me his family history, which begins in Egypt.
Baroh's grandfather Jacques Blumenzweig was a prominent Jewish community member imprisoned after 1967's Six Days' War. After obtaining false passports from the U.S. government, he and his wife Sarah moved their family to France for a year before finally settling in Washington State. Soon after the family arrived in Seattle, their Rainier Valley apartment burned down, and they were generously taken in by well-known local community member Seymour Kaplan. The Blumenzweigs were able to get back on their feet and eventually established a successful kosher catering business, providing food for Jewish community events. When Baroh won the Seymour Kaplan Humanitarian Award—twice—in elementary school, it meant the world to his grandfather.
After graduating from Franklin High School (where he played saxophone in the band), Baroh worked for years as a manager at Kennelly Keys Music in Southcenter and Northgate. While between jobs, Baroh's sister, who was managing the sports bar the Ram in the University District, asked him to help out and work the back door. What started as a family favor led to a career keeping watch over people, from friends to strangers to celebrities (be sure to ask Baroh about his security stint touring with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony).
At the Ram, Baroh was nicknamed "the Godfather" because he could get anything he wanted, from anyone, anytime. And though he doesn't drink much, his drink of choice is the Godfather—two parts scotch, one part amaretto—which he likes to take with a cigar, these days a Cohiba, whose cherry-walnut flavor he clearly enjoys describing as much as savoring.
At one of Havana's recent outdoor movie screenings, Baroh's friend Dave stopped by to say hi. When I ask how they met, Dave thinks for a moment, then says, "Through our friend Spencer. Back when Eli worked at the Showbox, Spencer would always stop by to have a little dip with Eli, which was weird because Spencer never chewed. But Eli would always give him a pinch, and so we'd hang out and talk. That's how we became friends."
And so the Godfather gives back.
"What I like about security," says Baroh, "is that even though you have to live at bars and clubs, you get to know people, and it gives you a home."
Working the door isn't just a job for Baroh, it's where he makes friends and meets friends. The door might just as well be to his living room.