A Night at the Door With Three Chicago Bouncers

The eyes and ears of three very different bars tell us about their normal—and not-so-normal—nights on the job.

Anybody who has spent even a little time in Chicago can confirm it’s a drinking town. It doesn’t matter the neighborhood: from hidden dives in Pilsen or the Ukrainian Village, to cocktail spots in Logan Square or a beer on a sunny afternoon at whatever the White Sox stadium is called this year, locals don’t need much of an excuse. Every part of the city has at least one place that sums up what the neighborhood is like.

And if you want to know the character of the bar, all you have to do is present your ID at the door. The men and women posted up around the entryways to the city’s speakeasies, lounges and nightclubs are as much a part of a watering hole’s lifeblood as the ambiance, menu or the regular you see sitting at the far end of the bar, nursing a single can of Hamm’s for hours. They are also often the most overlooked folks on the payroll, despite the fact that they act as the eyes and ears of the evening: clocking what people are doing, how they’re acting, taking stock of the ebb and flow.

PUNCH’s new “A Night at the Door” series explores what these gatekeepers experience nightly in cities across the country. And Chicago offers more than a few characters. With just room for three, we started with Kevin Johnson of The Violet Hour, the relaxed, debonair Wicker Park cocktail bar that helped guide some locals away from Old Style and shots of Malört and “put the cocktail on a pedestal, for better or worse.” Further north, Fatty keeps an eye on the door at East Room, a Logan Square speakeasy that hosts relaxed, all-vinyl DJ nights, concerts by upstart garage bands and hip-hop shows that Chance the Rapper has occasionally popped in on. Closer to the lake we spoke with Darryl Rowe of Kingston Mines, a long-running Lincoln Park blues club beloved by tourists, college students and diehard fans.

We asked each of them to tell us their craziest stories, go-to post-shift drink and what they love about their job. Here is what they had to say.

Fatty

Age: 35
Workplace: East Room


How long have you been working here?
“Three and a half years, almost.”

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the door?
“The weirdest thing for me is when the bartender sends someone to the door—one of their friends—and they be like, ‘Just ask for Fatty,’ and I see them and they’re like, ‘I’m not calling this guy that.’ I had that experience the other day. A bartender [at another bar], she came and she wanted to skip the line. She was with a friend, and she was like, ‘Hey Fatty, I want to get in,’ and I’m like, ‘Come on in, I know you from this bar.’ The lady that she was with heard her call me my name and she was like, ‘That was rude, why would you insult him like that? And he let you in?!’ My name kind of brings that out of people. But I like the name, ’cause my grandmother gave it to me.”

What makes this place special?
“We’re so diverse. We do a little bit of everything. You can come to East Room on a Monday and get all vinyl. You can come on a Tuesday and get a tattoo party. You can come on a Wednesday and hear rock bands. You can come on the weekend, and we turn into an actual club, without having to dress up. We cater to everybody: the trans community, the gay community, the backpackers, the hipsters. Whatever walk of life you come from, we cater to that. And it’s dope to see the room fill up with different people and everybody gets along.”

What’s your favorite post-shift drink?
“It used to be Jameson and ginger beer with a little lime. Right now I’m diggin’ the Moscow Mules with the Ketel One mint-cucumber.”

Kevin Johnson

Age: 48
Workplace: The Violet Hour


How long have you been working here?
“About seven years.”

What is the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the door?
“Wicker Park, you get a lot of crazy people walking up and down. Somebody just had a clown outfit, came in, and we didn’t let him in ’cause he was a little tipsy, but it wasn’t even Halloween. It was on a Friday night in October about three years ago. [He] didn’t have the shoes on but he had the suspenders, the hair, makeup and everything.”

What makes this place special?
“The curtains, the outside. When people come up and they’ve never been here, I always describe it as Alice in Wonderland. The outside looks so not what it is, but when you come inside, it’s just like, ‘Ahhh.’ You have to have a seat to sit down; it’s not a place where you can just stand around and be behind someone. I love that about this place.”

What’s your favorite post-shift drink?
“I like the Diablo. It’s got tequila, lime juice and there’s another ingredient in there [Editor’s note: It’s cassis]. It’s a little spicy, it’s delicious, it goes down great.”

Darryl Rowe

Age: 33
Workplace: Kingston Mines


How long have you been working here?
“A year and a month.”

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen at the door?
“I’ve seen some things I don’t really want to say because—I don’t know—but I’ve seen a guy go in the bathroom and shat all over the toilet. I didn’t see it; a customer came and told us, ‘I just seen shit all over the toilet, and I threw up on it.’ Of course, nobody wanted to clean it up and I was the closing guy, so I had to clean it up. So I had to smell it the whole entire time and then stay for three more extra hours.”

What do you like about working here?
“They pay me to watch the blues. I mean, don’t tell them that, but they pay me to watch shows, basically. I already like people, so it’s easy for me—that’s not even a job. That’s literally not a thing to me. But they pay me.”

What makes this place special?
“Family. I’m not blood, but I feel like I am. You kind of spread it around. Once somebody works here, they kind of get it, they become family. A lot of us hang out after work. If we’re not closing, we hang out. We sit in cars or go to the beach in the summers.”

What’s your favorite post-shift drink?
“We don’t get to drink here after hours, but when we do drink after hours it’s in a regular cup. Jameson. That’s a favorite around here. I can probably vouch for the rest of these guys. They drink Jameson, too. I’m not a big drinker, but when I do, it’s Jameson.”

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Leor Galil is a staff writer for the Chicago Reader and a freelance culture journalist elsewhere.