‘Backstage Heroes’ is a series spotlighting the many movers and shakers working behind the arts scenes to make magic happen in the Bay Area. Guiding us is Hiya Swanhuyser, a veteran fan and all-around culture vulture who for nearly a decade helmed calendar duties for the SF Weekly — where her ‘Music Heroes’ series inspired this broader look at the arts — giving her rare personal insight into those toiling in the wings, but rarely in the spotlight.
Plenty has been written about the significance of gay bar space in the wake of the unthinkable attack on Pulse Orlando Night Club and Ultra Lounge, and I hope to see a lot more. This Facebook post from San Francisco drag legend Monique Jenkinson, aka Fauxnique, is a start: “Feeling particular love for friends & family who have lived lives, made art, danced our asses off, talked over the music on the dance floor, watched shows, cried, eaten birthday cake & made everyone feel welcome to come together in difference in GAY BARS.”
As I tried to process the facts last week, I wondered about the unsung characters who were at work while it happened. What about the feet on the ground, the employees at Pulse, like those at every other cavernous, anarchic gay club? A recent article surfaced: Imran Yousuf, a Pulse bouncer, saved 60 or 70 lives that night.
I decided to talk to Eric Mueller, a local gay bar employee. A former college football player, he moved across the country to join USF’s MFA in writing program in 2014, when he “won the apartment lottery,” and moved into a place at 18th and Castro streets. A week and a half later, he saw a sign in a window, and was quickly hired by a pair of large, popular gay bars to do barback and security work. To my mind, although these places are located in San Francisco's iconic, center-of-the-gay-universe district, in many ways, they could be, and are, everywhere. Suffice it to say they're big, industrial-grade dancehalls, the kind you find all over the world.
Although he's a writer by calling, Mueller’s six-foot-tall, offensive-lineman physique gives him solid qualifications for intense bar duty; the Allegheny Gators’ loss of a strongman was 18th Street hitting the bouncer jackpot. Tall, broad, blond, and muscular he may be, but Mueller is surprisingly soft-spoken and waits a full, unhurried beat after questions; it’s unnerving at first, but I soon realize the calm pace of conversation springs from the unusual care he takes with language and ideas. He also worked at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson library.
Mueller actually no longer works at bars -- he’d like to find work at a bookstore — and his last shift was a recent Saturday night. But for the past two years, he’s been one of the people who cleaned up messes, stopped fights, enforced 86s, got yelled at by drunks on the sidewalk, and kept your glassware sanitized.
If Yousuf was paid anything close to what Mueller was, the money’s as heartbreaking as the work is hard -- and dangerous even on a good night.
Following Mueller’s byzantine description of his salary rituals, for example: “If you work the door, you make $16 an hour, and the tipout you get is $5 per bartender, and then a payout from the owner, so weeknights that tipout would be $25, because there were usually three bartenders, and the millionaire in charge thought ten was good,” I calculate his net hourly rate to be between $21 and $32.
We talk about community, about whether huge party-bars like those in the Castro can really provide a sense of home. Although I should know better, I question whether they can; maybe I just don’t like the constant deafening music, sticky surfaces, and aim-head-for-floor drinking style that define big gay bars.
Mueller surprises me: His bars have regulars, he says, people who live nearby and come through nearly every day, knowing their friends will be there. The places he worked for have had well-known problems with racial profiling -- asking for multiple forms of ID from black patrons, that kind of thing -- but he notes that "the regulars at at happy hour are people of color, surprisingly.”
"For a few months they were having Latin night on Wednesdays, which I thought was awesome," Mueller adds. He’s tougher than I am; I tear up when he says the name of the same event that had been in progress during the attack in Orlando. What went through your head when you heard about it? I ask. Mueller waits that beat before answering, but not to think about what he’s going to say. When he responds, he speaks quickly.
“My first thought was, how did the person get in with a gun like that? When you work the door, I was taught you check the IDs first and then check bags if they have them. You’re supposed to make sure that outside food or beverages don’t come in. Safety hazards like knives or stuff,” he says, emphasizing, maybe marveling at, the contrast between those items and the ones the shooter carried into Pulse. “And then I learned that he was sort of involved in the security of the club, which made me think, you know, it could have happened anywhere.”
Homophobia was a regular part of his job, along with those unexpected moments of community, and he tells a story that’s apparently extremely common, one that could have been taken out of yesterday’s headlines. When Mueller told a straight man he couldn’t cut to the front of a long line on the Sunday of Pride weekend, just because he’d “brought a lot of business,” the man instantly became verbally abusive, “dropping f-bombs.” A police officer happened to be nearby, and the man was arrested.
Another, very different, but according to Mueller extremely plaguing day-to-day problem is the dehumanizing treatment bar workers receive at the hands of a group that would never suspect itself: bachelorette parties. “When a bachelorette party comes in, everyone working inside just looks at each other, and gets mentally prepared.” Prepared for trash to be thrown everywhere, prepared for entitlement to be turned up to 11. Pretty princesses’ “little crowns, and penis-shaped things, because that’s what consumerized bachelorette parties all have,” it seems, are often left behind in a wave of what Mueller thinks of as “indirect homophobia." Guess who has to clean it up.
"There are thousands of establishments that are quote-unquote straight bars. Straight people can be straight almost anywhere they want," Mueller observes. What’s his advice for the gaggles of girls, for the homophobia-enraged toxic masculines, for the non-bar-going public? “Remember why gay bars exist, and remember who they exist for," he says simply. In return, that door guy, barback, floater, bouncer, or busboy will mop the floor, stop the fights, pick up the trash -- and, hopefully, never have to save your life.