The three kids stood in front of me, not exactly trembling, but pretty clearly concerned. I can't say they were shaking, but they were ... wary.
"I ... I think I'm on the list," one of the girls said. The other two shook their head in response to my questioning look. A quick check showed that the first girl was, indeed, on the list. She heaved a sigh of relief while her friends held their hands out, clutching identical ten dollar bills.
Welcome to the all-powerful world of Doorman at Shank Hall.
As part of the OnMilwaukee.com series called "Shift Switch," I took over for doorman Dave Edwards at Shank on a night when four bands were playing: Magic Black Pumas, The Vega Star, The Maze and the Ragadors.
As Edwards pointed out, there's a lot more to being the doorman at Shank than just checking IDs, taking money and making change. You've got to know how to change the towels in the bathroom, make sure the bands know how long their sets are, what time they are scheduled to play and ensure that the gear from the band doesn't block the emergency exit path backstage.
But the real juice on this job is being the guy in the booth with the power of admittance or banishment over everyone who walks through the door in search of a drink, a date or song.
Shank Hall has been a special place in Milwaukee for two decades. Owner Peter Jest admits that he can't make a living from Shank, so he has outside interests from which he makes his living. But he's withstood competition, fire, jealousy and maybe even pestilence to provide the best place in the city to both play live music and see live music. Countless musicians are indebted to Shank for providing an unmatched place to play. Countless music fans are indebted to Shank as a place to see both local and national live music acts play.
Working the door brought up all kind of imagined benefits. People slipping you a $20 to get inside. Girls willing to trade favors to get in the back room in order to meet the band. Carefully brushing the dust of the street from the lapels of your velvet jacket.
I don't think so.
The first thing to know if you were going to be the doorman this night was that EVERYBODY SMOKES. And not just an occasional cigarette. More like incessant chain smoking. Most of the band guys, the sound guy (the wonderful Paul Biemann, who can make anybody sound good), the bartenders, the waitress and most of the customers. I used to smoke and it doesn't bother me, but there were moments when I couldn't see the cash register only two feet in front of me.
The two big jobs that you have as the doorman are to check IDs and to grant admission, either through collecting the cover charge or seeing if the patron is on the guest list. The guest list is something provided by bands for people who can be admitted without paying the cover charge. Since almost all bands play for a portion of the money collected at the door, I can't for the life of me figure out why bands want to put a lot of people on their list. I've got a friend who runs a gas station, for example, and I don't routinely ask him to let me have free gas for coming to his station.
Anyhow, both jobs provide long moments of tedium and an occasional spot of bright entertainment. Most of the time while you are a doorman at Shank you can lean over the counter and watch the band, stare at Tracy, one of the nicest and prettiest bartenders in town and who has been at Shank since it opened, or sit on a stool an stare off into space.
Sometimes, something interesting happens.
The poor girl had ridden her bike to Shank and, being the good-natured friend to all that I was this night, I asked the father of one of the band members if he'd give her a ride home in his truck to get her ID and then bring her back. He eagerly said sure, and off they went. I, of course, wondered if he was too eager and was really a slasher or something, and whether I'd ever see the girl again.
I did. They came back, she showed me her ID and I let her sneak in without paying the $8 cover charge. Call me a sucker for a ceramic arts student from UWM. I also have sent Peter Jest a check for $8 so he and the bands don't get screwed.
After her, we had a girl who stopped in briefly to claim that she knew a guy in one of the bands. She couldn't name the guy or the band, so I figured she had the wrong bar and she went on her way.
The job, mainly, is what you'd expect. Lots of nice people coming in to see some live music, have a cocktail or two and see what happens on a Saturday night. I've always loved saloons. I've especially loved saloons where there's live music.
Being a part of the operation for one night left a couple of indelible impressions.
Almost everything that you do as a doorman is routine, something you've done again and again and again. But if you like having the chance to listen to lots of live music, it's a great job. And if you like being around people who are generally pretty happy (sitting down, drinking, flirting, listening to music, having a cellophane-wrapped snack, being anchored to their cell phone and seeing friends from work or school or somewhere) then the job is, as the credit card guys say, priceless.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.