Steve Silver swaggers down Wells Street dressed for work: monstrous scruffy black boots, blue jeans, tank top, a red scarf wrapped around his head and trailing behind. He is six foot three, and his 210 pounds command the sidewalk. Tattoos expand across his huge upper arms; black-rimmed glasses rest on his nose.
Outside the club Exit, he sets himself up on a cushioned bar stool and settles down for a night on the job. He's the weekend doorman. Several young girls in short black leather skirts and high heels approach him.
"IDs and three bucks tonight," Steve says in a soft, businesslike tone.
The girls step past him into the vestibule, where they are surrounded by four tall black doors marked 1, 2, 3, and 4 in huge numerals that glow orange and green in the black-light dimness. They open the door directly in front of them and pass into the loud crunch of thrashing punk rock coming from the CD jukebox. The room glows orange, and tangled masses of sprayed-black machine parts hang between the floor and ceiling.
The girls pass through a black corridor into the back room, where dozens of people are leaping on the dark and crowded dance floor. A constant stream of people flows back and forth through the hallway. A tiny brunette carrying a tray of beers walks by. She's dressed in black and her dark nylons are torn into lines of runs. Her pale face is made paler by the lines of black makeup around her eyes and lips. A metal pendant—a bat and a spider web—flops against her chest.
Out on the sidewalk, Steve holds court with a group of acquaintances. Half the passersby seem to know him and demonstrate it with a smile and a wave. "Naturally," he says, "you get to know everybody in a job like this."
"Hi, Steve," two dainty, blushing blonds chime together.
"Hello, ladies," he says.
The two slip past without paying the cover.
A big girl in black pants and a pullover wanders over, obviously drunk. "I haven't got the three bucks," she mumbles, handing over her driver's license. "Will this do?" She pulls up her shirt, exposing enormous breasts held in black lace. A moment later she is inside.
"I've been here for six years—since I was 20—paying my rent this way," Steve says nonchalantly. "There have been times when we've gotten 700 people in here on a Saturday night—every space packed with humanity, an absolute circus, complete madness. Once a few years ago, when everyone still wore leather and mohawks, I saw a girl give head to some guy right in that hallway, surrounded by talking, drinking people. Those were still the original hard-core punk days.
"There used to be risers in front of the DJ booth. Once I saw a couple do it right on the third riser, in front of everyone. In those days people would fix in the toilets. We'd have to break up girl orgies in the ladies' john. Of course, all that has changed now."
It's a warm summer night, and people arrive continuously. "IDs and three bucks tonight," Steve says. He looks at one ID and hands it back. "The date's been changed. You can't come in." He is already scrutinizing the next one as the rejected youngster shuffles away.
"A couple of weeks ago we got a strip act on the dance floor," he says. "Some girl, a stripper from Texas I believe, came in here on a Sunday night with some friends. After a few drinks, she sort of took over the dance floor. Of course there were only a few people in here, being a Sunday night, but after starting an extremely sexual dance, she began stripping under the lights. She got down to just her shoes."
Back inside there's a mixed crowd of black and white men and women—lots of students, punk rockers, and yuppies. A young man with a huge fin of bleached blond hair stands on the edge of the sunken dance floor, bobbing his head with the music. Next to him a couple straight from the Mercantile Exchange sip mixed drinks.
The black brick walls around the dance room are covered with paintings of Reagan, Gorbachev, and nuclear explosions. Multicolored lights shoot across the dance floor; the perimeter sinks away in darkness. Plastic mummies hang horizontally above the sweating crowd of dancers. A white screen that's been pulled down from the ceiling serves as the rear border to the dance floor; Female Trouble pops across it, accompanied in turns by the Ramones, U2, and Iggy Pop.
Occasionally a particularly hard-driving song inspires the dancers to slam. Big young men take heavy, skipping strides across the floor, scattering the timid. Two lumbering bodies collide, and their sweat bursts in arrested motion under the strobe lights. There seems to be camaraderie and affection among the slam dancers, even at their most ferocious.
Seated on the wide wooden ledge that runs along the back bar is a tall blond with long hair and strawberry lips. She is smiling and yelling above the roar of the sound system to a young college guy seated beside her. A moment later she swings her leg around and straddles him, kneeling before his torso on the wooden ledge, kissing him ravenously. Outside, a muscular young man in a T-shirt and army boots approaches the door, smiling at the sight of Steve. He is carrying a foil package. He walks up and unwraps the fat, steaming burrito. "Hey Steve," he says. "Just the way you like it: a nice big chicken one."
"Thanks, man," Steve says, and tears off a huge bite. "People always bring me lots of free food," he says. "It's kind of an Exit tradition."
It's true. Throughout the night people bring him a pizza, salads, popcorn, french fries, Gatorade—all of which he spreads out on a folding table beside him.
"We get quite a few rock stars in here," Steve says. "The drummer and bassist for U2 came in and requested their own music. Pete Townshend came in with a date once, around the time of his 'Empty Glass' record. We've seen Robert Plant here, Ron Wood, Johnny Rotten. Just hangin' out."
A Chicago squad car pulls up in front of the club. A short, stout policewoman approaches Steve and his entourage. She's beaming, and says she's retrieved an item stolen from one of the club's waitresses. Steve offers her anything she wants from his buffet. She declines. They exchange jokes as she walks back to her car.
A breeze has come up and Steve puts on his black leather jacket. Then he takes off his scarf to scratch his short blond hair. "Sure, we get a lot of colorful characters," he says, "but we get a lot of everyday, banal things too. Beyond anything else, I just check IDs and collect money: the quintessential bouncer's pastime. People walk by from the neighborhood, which has become very affluent, and they think Exit is some kind of freak den where anything goes. But a large part of my job is to keep peace in the immediate neighborhood, to ensure everyone's good time. The most obnoxious people, the real troublemakers, are the sports fans who wander over stone drunk from Division Street. There's no shortage of obnoxious punkers, but the sports fans who come to gawk at the freaks are usually the most obnoxious and belligerent. I abhor violence, but if somebody starts something it's my job to stop them.
"We've got one real obnoxious regular, a guy called Willy. People come in here and they are freaked out at the sight of this guy. He's got a fin, and he's dancing and sweating like a maniac in the front bar where you're not even supposed to dance, screaming and throwing his leather around. People think to themselves, 'Now, here's a real scumbag.' But the truth is, he's a real nice guy. And after a while, people start to enjoy watching him.
"And he gets the prettiest girls out of here too," a front-door regular adds.
"Oh. yeah," Steve agrees, "girls mother him like crazy. People come here to see guys like him—like whites rushing to the Cotton Club in Harlem during the 20s to see the black musicians they thought were so novel.
"We don't get any skinheads in here. They're a totally different breed. The only Nazi type I see come through here is a heroin addict—can barely walk straight, rarely bathes. A jerk."
Though Steve is a familiar fixture on Wells Street, he still frightens some strangers. "To the rednecks who hassle me on the el I'm an anomaly," he says. "But I deal with guys like them every day."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.