In the life of a Chicago bar, there are three days that are worse than any others: New Year’s Eve, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as everyone gets tanked up enough to deal with their relatives the next day, and St. Patrick’s Day. Due to Chicago’s considerable Irish population, the city’s long tradition of drunkenness, and the bizarre spectacle of turning the river green, people are prone to losing their minds completely. And thanks to the city’s daytime parade, St. Patrick’s Day can be worse than those other two events, as you’ll see drunk shamrock-decked people on the train in the morning, and random people in green Dr. Seuss hats passed out on downtown street corners in the daytime. (On New Year’s Eve, at least people wait until sundown to get wasted.) On March 18, the smell of decaying vomit fills the entire city. It’s the only day when Chicago resembles New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
As a Chicago bouncer for several years in the ’90s, I witnessed this mania firsthand. The bar I worked at, The Lodge, was in the heart of Chicago’s saloon-heavy stretch of Division Street just west of State Street (picture those places where Rob Lowe and Jim Belushi hung out in About Last Night). It looked a lot like the name implied, exuding a kind of chalet-like charm; we liked to say that nobody ever went to The Lodge, but everybody wound up there. It was a bar that catered to a fairly large cross section of ages at the time, from early twenties through late forties. The jukebox was an actual jukebox that spun 45s and was stacked with oldies and myriad Frank Sinatra songs to choose from. Working there forced me to spend time with an unfathomable number of inebriated people. As a doorman at the front, it was my responsibility to deny them entry if they didn’t have ID or if they were too fucked up.
The reason bars won’t let you in if you’re too drunk is because Illinois has what is known as a Dram Shop law. In the event that a patron gets injured or injures others, every bar that served them is now in the liability crosshairs (I spent a lot of time trying to explain this to drunk people to no avail). Anyway, you hear and see a lot working in these places. I have met sports royalty, actual royalty, movie stars, and just generally interesting folks. I’ve also met some terrible people, dangerous people, and then people you just don’t want to be around.
Early in my career at The Lodge, the Bulls were favorites to win the NBA championship in 1991 (kicking off their eventual three-peat). Excitement was high and Bulls fever was everywhere. When the final game was won, Division Street went up for grabs. People flowed out of the bar, flooding the street, jubilant. Unfortunately the Chicago Police Department didn’t clear the street of vehicles before the end of the game. Revelers climbed on top of taxis, shouting their approval for the home team. Before long, the taxi cabs were flattened by repeating jumping and eventually rolled into the window of Mother’s Too—a Chicago bar institution. It got so bad, the cops closed down the bars, and emptied them at once. We closed up shop as the melee developed outside. All the doormen were assigned waitresses and bartenders to walk to their cars. While I was walking one of them home, the cops deployed tear gas and the excited crowd turned into a panicked, fleeing mass. I remember hiding in a doorway as dozens of people streamed past clutching their faces. But by year three of the championship run, the cops had all their ducks in a row and no major incidents occurred.
During the summer of ’94, Chicago hosted the World Cup. Literally no one I know was a fan of soccer back then, but the city wanted to put a good face on for the world, so into the fray we went. There were people brought in by FIFA or the city that wore purple blazers that were supposed to find translators and help with directing the multitude of foreigners expected. Well, the crowds on Division were large. The Lodge is a small place (about 800 square feet) and we would have to line people up that wanted to get in. On a Saturday night, we were running a very long line when this beautiful woman came up to my cohort and me and said, “Do you know who I’m with?” We’d heard this so many times, our eye roll can only be described as “around the world.”
We told her no. She replied, “That is Prince Albert from Monaco. Can we please get in right away?” My buddy happens to be a big royal watcher, so he craned his neck down the line and told me: “Holy shit. That is actually Albert Rainier”—son of American royalty Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III. “Okay, so let him in,” I said. Prince Albert went around the back door to our “VIP area” (really a small back room) with two gorgeous women. He seemed a little peeved that his cover was blown, but he stuck around. At one point he was in the bathroom and a regular said to me: “Did I hear correctly that Prince Albert is in the can?” After a while, the two women went to the bathroom and Albert made a beeline for the door. Didn’t even sign my sardine can.
There was a short period of time when John Cusack came in often enough that he knew my name. He was a decent guy and well-liked around town. One Saturday night he came in with Uma Thurman, hot on the heels of Pulp Fiction. I took them around to the back door, where Uma started bitching about how crowded the bar was right away. They stayed for a half-drink, then left. Later, I put up a sign in our promotion display that read: “If we’re good enough for Uma, we’re good enough for you-ma.”
In the five years I worked at The Lodge, I got punched maybe six times. There was one time where I just knew the guy was getting set to clock me. I tapped his shin with a steel toed shoe and down he went. That was my answer to the TV show Wild Chicago when they asked me the worst thing I ever did to someone. People would claim they wanted to fight you, but they didn’t really want to. How do I know? Because every single time I would tell them the same thing. “Sir, I’m not allowed to start a fight or hit first. I am only allowed to finish them and fill out the paperwork with the police.”
I kicked out a family of four for fighting once. The son started some static with a guy in the back. The next thing you know, the father is trying to wrestle a guy to the ground and the mother is just swinging wildly with her purse while the daughter is just shrieking for everyone to stop it. Everyone goes down to the floor and I’m picking them up one at a time and escorting them in arm bars out the back door. I guess the family that fights together, stays together.
One of the coolest things that happened at The Lodge was on a very sleepy Monday night in the mid-’90s. There were maybe 12 people in the bar when Troy Murray of hockey’s Colorado Avalanche walked in with some friends, a security guard, and the Stanley Cup. I cannot tell you how impressive the Stanley Cup is when you see it in person. 34 pounds of sterling silver just oozing history. One by one people ran to Walgreen’s to get disposable cameras (that’s how long ago this happened). At the end of the night, the cops closed down Division between State and Dearborn and we all just walked around the street with this massive silver trophy held aloft, being passed around so we could all just share in the triumph.
I learned a lot from my years at The Lodge. Not only did I make friends I’m still close to this day, I learned a lot about dealing with people. Basically about how to diplomatically handle them when your whole relationship is based on a disagreement (they would want to get into the bar immediately; I would not want them to get into the bar immediately, and sometimes not at all). It helped that I’m tall—6-foot-4—which enabled me to be intimidating without having to get shitty about it. But I also learned a lot about winning people over quickly, and welcoming tourists to Chicago. One time a guy showed me his I.D. and I couldn’t believe it: It was Jerry Harrison, keyboardist and guitarist for one of my favorite bands, Talking Heads. There were just so many crazy things that happened there that just wouldn’t have happened anywhere else.
It was hard to get over my hatred of St. Patrick’s Day for a long time though, due to my time at the Lodge. It was always the longest day of the year: We would have to work from 3 in the afternoon until closing at 4 a.m. The reason for the long shift was so that we could remember people that we had cut off from hours before: hangers-on from the parade, the green river, or just kicking off at another bar at 10 in the morning. And it happened. A lot. There would be people that were too drunk to come in at 4 p.m. that I would see again at 9, doubly inebriated. I had the conversation about why they couldn’t come in about a hundred times a night on St. Paddy’s, and I got really sick of it. I could have been more of a dick about it, but if you are they usually will want to fight, and I felt like if there was a fight, I wasn’t doing my job.
So for years afterward, I would just stay home. I didn’t make a big thing out of the holiday, despite my Irish roots. This year, though, some friends have introduced me to the glory of Irish rugby. So I will be watching the game around 8 a.m. (afternoon in Irish time), and then will eventually end up at the party at Chicago’s Irish Heritage Center. I may even have a Guinness or two. Time heals all wounds, I guess.