Security Guards Protect Ann Arbor Art Fair
(Originally appeared in The Ann Arbor News, July 22, 2010)
"Play some Donovan," the drunk bellows at a busker who, with his acoustic guitar and three-chord talent, tries his best to earn a buck playing in front of Good Time Charley’s.
The bars are letting out on South University Avenue and tipplers are discharging into the street where they confront ... tents. Rows and rows of tall, white, poorly secured tents. Ann Arbor Art Fair tents. Tents that scream, "Peek inside me!" Say, "I contain thoughtful gifts for your neglected girlfriend!" Nudge you and whisper, "Hey, pee on me; it’s cool.”
The boozy barflies wobble between the tents, only three things keeping Ann Arbor’s Art Fairs from turning into Black Hawk Down. Common decency, the immortal teachings of Dr. Drew and the security guards — mostly the security guards — who help Art Fair and its vendors sleep soundly at night.
While researching this piece — and by that I mean walking the streets of Ann Arbor from 1:30 a.m. to 4 a.m. on Tuesday night with a pen, a notebook and a camera — I received conflicting reports from security personnel working for the four separate companies guarding the Art Fairs. Security is a touchy subject, so in cases where I sensed I was cruising for a beatdown, I didn’t press for details. I didn’t ask everyone for their names. The headcount and duties I wrote about are those that were reported to me by the individuals. For all I know, the Comcast kid was in charge of the whole operation. SPOILER ALERT! Please enjoy.
"From dusk till dawn. That's when we go to work"
It’s just after 1:30 in the morning on Wednesday and Derek Humphrey has a Bluetooth clipped to his ear and a walkie talkie to his lips. He drags a barrier across the pavement with a single big hand, allowing a pick-up truck access to one of the food court areas at Art Fair. The pickup chugs up Liberty, loaded down with cooking supplies, cases of beverages and workers who look like they’d rather be at the bar or in a bed. Humphrey is operations manager for Prudential Protective Services LLC, serving the people in a crisp white shirt tucked into pressed black slacks. He’s the head of security for three-fourths of Art Fair and this is his third tour in a 15-year career. Humphrey is one cool customer.
“From dusk till dawn. That’s when we go to work.”
When the rest of Ann Arbor forgets about its Art Fair, Humphrey patrols his beat, supervising a crew of seven security guards protecting the fair. It’s logistically impossible for the vendors to load their wares in and out each day, so most tie down their canvas tents for the night and hope for the best. Most are secured with bungy cords, metal clips or just zippered closed. Kroger’s rewards program is harder to break into. That’s where Humphrey and his team come in.
“Our presence is more of a deterrent,” he says. “We haven’t had too many incidents. Tuesdays are easy, but Friday and Saturday nights can get hectic.” Most of Humphrey’s stories involve breaking up fights or shooing away sleepy drunks. Danny Ocean’s name doesn’t come up once.
Art Fair is creepy at night
Art Fair is creepy at night. Rows of near-identical buttoned-down white tents reflect streetlight, creating areas of intense glare and leaving patches of pitch blackness on the periphery. Shadows are everywhere. When I walk between the tents, sounds bounce off buildings and canvas disguising their origin; snippets of conversations or a cough in the dark. It’s not District 9 but I’m anxious walking alone down the middle of a dead street.
“You’re not fat,” whispers a man’s voice from somewhere in the dark. “I know,” comes a woman’s raspy reply. “You’re pleasantly proportioned,” the man adds. Their cackling, comes from somewhere deep in the shadows and I pick up my pace.
I spot security officer Jeff Wallace pacing his turf a block down the street. He’s been in the game three and half years but this is his first art fair.
“Did you know Derek was a sergeant in the Romulus Police Department?” he asks, referring to Mr. Humphrey down the way.
Out of a nearby Comcast-branded tent that resembles the geodesic sphere from Epcot Center steps a man in a red shirt and black pants. I assume he’s wearing a Comcast shirt, but he’s not; above his breast is stitched RSIG Security. Kiel Mackler isn’t sure what RSIG stands for but they employ him to guard the Comcast tent during the Art Fairs. He’s stepped out to get some fresh air after watching The Invention of Lying in the well-appointed tent. Jeff Wallace peeks in looking a little jealous. Mackler is also working his first art fair but he’s a pro at patrolling downtown Ann Arbor after working Top of the Park earlier in the year, ensuring the safety of the stage.
“I didn’t have any incidents ...” Mackler says, “but this Comcast gig is the best I’ve had it. There’s even wireless.”
Mackler and four other RSIG Security guards are scattered about Art Fair on private guard details. “My boss is around here somewhere,” he says. The count is now up to two on the number of security forces operating in theater. Wallace’s radio hisses and Humphrey’s voice crackles on the other end. He warns his that it’s nearly 2 a.m. and the bars will be letting out soon. The security guards check in one at a time until they are all accounted for. I’m pretty sure they each use the word “Roger” unironically. It appears as if no one has been garroted. Yet.
I move down Liberty to State Street and spot another Prudential guard on patrol. Even non-profit row has muscle. Any minute I expect to run into an idling Humvee full of pissed off Blackwater guys grinding their teeth to “get into the s---.” Tent after tent after shabby tent. Some aren’t even tied off. The only thing standing between a motivated thief with a box cutter and the 680th biggest art heist in U.S. history are these security guards. Â But larceny isn’t the only threat to tents and their contents.
The nexus of student drunk-auchery
“Play Donovan!” the drunk yells again, stumbling a bit and, dammit if he doesn’t look kind of like me. “That’s still not right, man. If I pull out my iPod and you hear 10 bars will that help?” The busker names other songs he can do. The drunk won’t have any of it. “People who tossed money in your box don’t have taste.” Eventually he staggers into the night. Do I really look like that?
Other than a few hoots and hollers and a loiterer or two, the crowd disperses quickly and by 2:30 a.m. the intersection of South University and Church, the nexus of Good Time Charley’s, the Brown Jug and the most of the rest of Ann Arbor’s student hangouts, is quiet and creepy again.
I travel up South U and spot another security guard, this one wearing a blue uniform. She works for Securitas, a third security company protecting Art Fair. Her objective, along with eight colleagues, is to secure the South University Art Fair. She doesn’t appear too threatened by my presence at such a late hour, but I keep our conversation brief and don’t ask her name.
I hit State and South University and spot Charles Crawley, part of Humphrey’s crew, perched like a majestic owl on a metal staircase. I’m compelled to take his picture before heading back into town, taking a left on William, and spotting a security vehicle parked near the First Congregational Church. Two people sit in the dark interior with the windows up; on the passenger door is stenciled Three-Star Security. The vehicle is parked near my two favorite booths — the ultra-realistic mannequin maker guy and the guy who paints ultra-realistic oil portraits of celebrities (they’ve had a giant portrait of John Travolta and Kelly Preston in their booth before, in a gaudy gold masterpiece ofÂ frame with filigree on top of filigree on top of infinity).
I’m nervous but approach the passenger window and start a conversation with the head of Three-Star Security and one of his associates. Four security teams at the Art Fairs! The man sitting in the driver’s seat commands seven guards at the fair and also claims to be the ultimate shot caller. Since he’s about as badass as Mr. Humphrey (so badass, I was too intimidated to ask his name) I don’t press the point.
It’s late and very quiet so I decide to call it a night. On my return walk to say goodnight to Humphrey, I pass two more security guards (Prudential), a guard walking between the tents twirling a bow staff (also Prudential), a near bum-fight and a hobo sleeping on the sidewalk off a side street. When I return to Humphrey’s corner, the pickup is still being unloaded. Humphrey sits at a laptop now, Bluetooth in place, walkie talkie on the table and his face illuminated in the blue glow of the screen. He’s taking an online course - staying one step ahead of the bad guys (assumption mine). We shake goodnight and I wish him well. He doesn’t mention Danny Ocean. Art Fair is safe for another night.