Flame bouncer Irene Herrig
In 1987 I flew back to Chicago for Christmas with my family. We’re a musical family and I found myself playing guitar for days on end with my lesbian sister, who played bass, and her friend, Deborah, who had a great rock-and-roll voice. We had so much fun, we formed a band and were booked into a circuit of lesbian bars around the city. I stayed in Chicago until April.
At first I was wary of the lesbian-bar idea, assuming, like a lot of straight guys, that all lesbians hate men. Not only was this not the case, I discovered another pleasant phenomenon I couldn’t put my finger on for some time: there is a sense of ease in a room with a liquor license and a lower than usual testosterone count. The pleasant phenomenon I experienced was an absence of that tension involving a subliminal awareness of the maniac down the bar with a progressively exaggerated sense of his manliness about to do something antisocial. I could relax.
I discuss this on a Friday night with someone who understood what I am talking about.
Irene Herrig is 42 and a “bouncer” at The Flame, a lesbian bar on Park Boulevard near University Avenue in Hillcrest. She has worked the door for six years beneath the landmark neon sign and she approaches the job with a kind of maternal benevolence almost always missing from barroom muscle.
“Mostly I check IDs, but, yeah, I keep the peace,” she says on her Friday-night shift. Herrig has cut back her hours to Friday and Saturday nights only. Her day job is as a service representative at Mercy Hospital — she orders medical supplies.
“People get a little intoxicated, get a little boisterous after a while, so itV my job to make sure they’re okay, first of all. Also, see if they have a ride home. We offer ride services, we’ll even pay for a taxi if they’ve had way too much to drink. Now and then you get the little ones who get really mouthy with you. I just treat them like kids; they’re like children. They think the alcohol makes them powerful and they’ll stand up to you. I don’t have any really big problems. Maybe because my reputation precedes me.” She laughs and reminds me of a panda. It’s easy to forget a panda is still a bear.
“Is it preferred to say ladies’ bar or lesbian bar?” I thought I’d better ask. “To me it doesn’t matter,” she shrugs. “This is a people’s bar, though it is a lesbian bar run by a lesbian. We cater to every walk of life.”
“Do you have any difficulty with guys coming in here?”
“No. They’re usually warned right up front. Tuesday night is our Boy’s Night Out. But on a Friday or Saturday night, when a gentleman comes through the door and I’ve never seen him, I just want him to be aware of what kind of bar this is. A lot of times guys are sent here as a joke. They’re told by their buddies, ‘Hey, you want to meet a bunch of girls? Come here.’ When I tell them it’s a lesbian bar, they’re embarrassed, they feel stupid. They still have a few drinks usually after I tell them they’re more than welcome to stay. I just urge them to have courtesy to our clientele and if someone says ‘no,’ they mean ‘no,’ whether it’s a guy or a girl. For the most part, it’s no problem.”
Does Herrig have any specific methods for dealing with the rowdy or potentially rowdy? “Any martial arts skills?” I ask.
“No, I talk my way out of everything. I’ve got the gift of gab.”
“Is this your social life as well? Do your friends tend to work here or hang out here?”
“I try to keep my private life to myself. The bar staff is a close-knit family. We try to take care of each other, but I stay to myself as far as my private life and things I do outside of work. You’ve got to disassociate yourself from this.”
Herrig is the mother of two, a 23-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old son. “I have a girlfriend and we’ve been together for three years.”
“Were you married to a guy at one time?”
“Yeah, I was. I always knew I was gay, but if I came out when I wanted to, my family would disown me. My husband and I would be out to dinner and he’d be checking out women and so would I. Society told me to marry a man. I have no regrets. I’m happy; he’s happy. He’s in Minnesota and I’m here. After 12 years, we divorced in 1989.”
All is quiet on the bar front as we talk, but it is only 9 p.m. In an hour or two the volume level will rise, but it is unlikely that anyone will seriously act up. Not with Mom perched on her stool at the door with her really big flashlight.