233 Dead In Overcrowded Night Club Fire: Will We Ever Learn?

Last weekend’s tragic fire in a overpacked night club in Santa Maria, Brazil, which killed more than 230 young revelers out for a fun Saturday night, indicates both the limitations of the Darwinian so-called “free market,” and the moderating, regulatory duty of a functioning government. It takes two to Tango.

Dead in overcrowded nightclub fire in Brazil

Still image of Station Nightclub Catastrophe in West Warwick, RI

I was part of the hospitality industry for many years.  Far from being some guilt-filled 12-Stepper swearing off the fun of more youthful years for everyone, I had been on both sides of the long wooden bar, and had lived the business side of the trade. It was fun, exciting, and sometimes downright scary, all rolled into one. It was, and is, very hard work, not just bartenders and servers tossing beer-sodden twenty-dollar bills from the tip jar for some 4am Szechuan to wind down.

“Busy is good.” The night club enterprise is ruled by the fickleness of the market. If you worked in the trade, you knew too well there is a perilously fleeting gap between being “hot” and the commercial road kill of “not.”  When one felt the laudatory hand of success, the nagging fear of the many joints which didn’t make it never let you feel invincible. Some of us have worn the stage smiles of the last nights before insolvency. Once was more than enough.

Owners overwhelmingly are not a bunch of pompous rich guys living as if they were members of the Columbian Cali drug cartel. For most, it is their entire nest egg, as banks were fair weather “friends,” and private capital “angels” were often greedy hangers-on who never left, but expected to drink off the house complimentary check, treated as if they were visiting royalty.

Your friendly bank manager who once cheerily greeted you walking in with last night’s receipts all too quickly became the gloomy voice on the telephone when business went sour. It was never “if” you got sued, but an all too frequent “when.” You knew the banker would be wringing his hands on the establishment’s demise, as he or she was eyeing your few remaining assets.

For staff, it was simply bad Ju Ju to stare at the tip jar. If you did, it was not a good indicator of eking the rent out before the late fees came due. Your future was all too often hitched to that of the business.  It’s the way it is. For all the union-busting “Right To Work” [For Less] whining, trade workers had a visceral feel for what side of the toast the butter is on.

Governments and their regulatory agencies are  bipolar. Oh, they love the fees and sales tax receipts with the attachment of a crack cocaine addict. On the other hand, one could swear they were the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union whose Carrie Nation hatchet was off being resharpened. Local fire marshals eyed your building capacity limits as if they wanted to drive a fire truck between tables, while you might remark on a good Friday late night that, “It’s not busy yet, I can still see the floor.” The safe, practical limit was somewhere in the middle.

“Neighbors” liked the increased traffic in their businesses and your fat property tax checks, but were wannabe friars in a cloistered monastery sworn to your silence in the wee hours.

A fickle, demanding patronage expects to have fun and, in your twenties, that’s usually an exercise in crowdsourcing. There’s a big difference between flaming shots of Green Chartreuse, the blue whoosh of flame from a freshly emptied Grand Marnier bottle, and pyrotechnics recreating the atmosphere of Armageddon. There’s a safe, fun, profitable, and moderated middle ground between “dour” and “destruction.”

This tragic fire is not the first, but one of several of late worldwide. In case Norte Americanos hadn’t noticed, Brazil left Third World membership in its past as a booming economy raises both standards of living and growing pains. Brazil soon hosts the upcoming World’s Cup and the Olympics. We are not as different as you might think.

Saturday’s mass tragedy in Brazil teaches us there is a mutual role for “free enterprise” and sensible government regulation. If the conservatives and Libertarians can stop getting heartburn over words such as “collective” and “society.” I’ll try to say the words “freedom” and “liberty” with less of a sneer.