Last week I went to Brudder’s, the Old Irving Park sports bar, to cover a shooting. The bar was quiet—it was early in the afternoon on a Monday, and the shooting had happened the Saturday before—as the owner walked me through how a bullet pierced the front window that night and struck the bouncer, Angel Ortiz Jr., in his head, killing him. I took a photo of the bullet hole in the window before walking across the street near the alley where police said the shot originated. Looking back at the bar from the alley, I thought the shooter must have been pretty reckless to fire a shot from so far away. And I said to myself, “Damn, that could’ve been me.”
As a freelance crime reporter in Chicago, I’ve seen plenty of makeshift street corner memorials and rest-in-peace T-shirts. But before that, I spent 10 years as a bouncer in Chicago—which made this shooting hit home hard.
In the past two weeks, three bouncers and door guys at bars from Irving Park to Calumet Heights have been shot. Two of them didn’t make it home. Though some witness accounts vary, the guy involved allegedly refused entry to a patron, broke up a fight, and was trying to keep the peace: standard stuff for a bouncer. Since I started writing this column, three more bouncers were wounded in a shooting early Sunday at a New York hookah bar—again, just for doing their jobs.
In the ten years I was a bouncer in Chicago, I was threatened, I got into fights, I was on the receiving end of racial slurs. I was even followed home by an angry patron. I dodged my fair share of incidents that could’ve landed me in a media outlet’s shooting roundup. A guy once told me that he was coming back to “shoot this bitch up.” Depending on the venue, bouncers can be the least respected staffer while having the most responsibility—keeping everyone safe.
I understand why someone would react negatively to being denied entry into a bar. We’re basically telling you that we don’t want you here. Once, at a bar in the Viagra Triangle, a bouncer told me that he wouldn’t let me in because I was dressed “too urban.” I knew what that meant. Now, if I refuse entry to someone who’s black, they’d say I’m an Uncle Tom doing the white man’s bidding. If I throw out someone who’s white, the n-word is often used. Someone being a jerk isn’t exclusive to a particular gender, race, or social circle. At 3:30 in the morning, everyone’s an asshole.
Bouncers get a bad reputation, either from movies (Road House and Knocked Up come to mind) or personal experience. Admittedly, we have some guys in our ranks who just want to beat people up. And the intimidating reputation—and physical size—can help keep things from going sideways. But in many cases, calming down a situation takes brains over brawn. We like to call them Jedi mind tricks—like when the bouncer singles you out as the most reasonable-looking person in a rowdy crowd to coax you into taking care of your group. Or when they say, “It’s too loud in here, let’s talk outside,” to try to get you to cool down a bit. Those are the things you learn, formally or informally, when you work the door.
Ortiz was standing at the front of the bar, like most bouncers do, when he was killed. That shook me. I talked to at least a dozen current and former bouncers about recent events, and many of them recalled near misses and dangerous confrontations on the job. Some are even calling for a union and more protections for bouncers. In 2010, I was working at a bar nearby my apartment in Ukrainian Village when I left early because I was feeling sick. The next day, I got word that a disgruntled patron came back to the bar and fired shots into the front windows—right where I would have been standing. You could say I dodged a bullet literally and figuratively.
People don’t realize how dangerous yet essential the job can be. After all, who’s the person you go to when that guy who keeps hitting on you won’t take no for an answer? Who’s the person who just stopped you from getting beat up over a perceived slight? Who screened out the guy who’s started fights in the bar previously?
When someone passes away, we try to put together a fundraiser to help out with funeral expenses, along with assisting the bouncer’s family, just like the staff at Brudder’s is doing for Ortiz. We’re a brotherhood, and I’ve seen that generosity firsthand. After I got engaged in 2011, I tried to work every shift humanly possible. One day after work, the manager handed me an envelope with money inside. Everyone pitched in—and I know how much people make in our line of work, so their sacrifice meant a lot to me.
My time as a bouncer came to an end not long ago. My wife has always had a habit of sending me texts telling me to be careful. About a year ago, when she was pregnant, a certain text stood out to me: “We love you.” She was referring to herself and our unborn daughter. That’s when I said to myself Danny Glover’s classic line from the Lethal Weapon movies, “I’m too old for this shit.”
I’m now a full-time journalist, but that doesn’t stop me from remembering my time in front of the door, or from feeling a pang when I hear about guys like Ortiz. The frustrations of the job bring us all together. Ethnic backgrounds, Chicago baseball allegiances, neighborhood beefs go out of the window. We have each other’s backs.