Trouble Man

Bouncer Mark Ehr is the six-foot-seven-inch reason you don’t ever want to step out of line at the toughest bar in Texas.

SEVEN YEARS AGO, before he was a bouncer, Mark Ehr got into a bar fight and messed up a guy so badly that he drove home and shaved his head bald. “I didn’t want to be recognized,” Ehr says, taking is slow on his night off at the Elm Street Bar in Dallas. He drains a Bud, drinking in the memory, as red and green lights puddle in the dents of his tilting dome. The hair hasn’t made a comeback.

Good thing, ’cause bouncers in the sketchy warehouse district known as Deep Ellum need to inspire as much dread as possible. Ehr, 30, does alright, standing six foot seven with a full sleeve of tattoos. But in this neighborhood, that’s just fitting in.

Deep Ellum is for the freaks—the bikers, punks, skinheads, and drunks who couldn’t care less about Troy Aikman and oil and urban sprawl. Toss in a few visiting yuppies and cowboys, plenty of ennui and $2 beers, and it turns into a nightly contest to see who’s the meanest, drunkest bunch in the bar. Standing amid it all, Ehr needs both the mediation skills of Jesse Jackson and the subtle persuasion techniques of Walker, Texas Ranger. Elm is the street where JFK got caught in the crossfire, and 15 blocks east of Dealey Plaza, it’s bound to go off at any minute.

Tonight’s spark materializes out of the bar’s blackness. A short punk with greasy hair and crossed-up trailer park eyes claims that Ehr (pronounced “Air”) stole his seat. He’s jabbering about how he just got out of jail. Ehr’s not impressed—and he’s not giving up the stool. Then the smaller man baits the hook.

“An hour in the joint,” he says, “and I’d have you on your knees.”

This does make Ehr leave his chair, and he stretches to his full height. “You’re in the free world now,” he says, towering over his insulter. “You got to chill.”

The man yanks a false tooth out of his head and yells. “Come on!”

Ehr just levels his gaze, letting the smaller man fall from his view. “I’m not working tonight,” he snorts. Now that bar brawls are his business, Ehr has nothing left to prove. There’s no hair left to shave.

IT’S 10 P.M., AND LAST NIGHT’S toothless con is a distant memory. The sidewalks are just starting to move, and Ehr’s on a stool outside checking IDs. Harleys crackle down the street. Guys with two-foot mohawks amble past, screaming about the band they’re on their way to see. A trio of skinheads clomps into the tattoo parlor across the street.

They’re running out of ink in Deep Ellum ’cause the full sleeve is high fashion. Ehr’s right arm is a car crash of color, and you must look closely to appreciate the detail. It took about a year and a half to finish. “That’s a knight fighting a seven-headed dragon,” Ehr says, offering the inside of his elbow. “That’s my gargirl. And that’s my garguy.” He twists his shoulder to show two gargoyles in the throes of mutual love.

A roar erupts from inside the bar and Ehr bolts to check it out. Eyes adjusting to the inner blackness reveal a dank hangar and danker denizens. Three pool tables see action under low-watt red lights. A cockroach skitters through the traffic of moving balls on one table and nestles in the scum that’s collected under a bumper’s bevel. Murals of dark, sad faces line the black walls. A shabby copy of a self-portrait of Mr. Sad himself, Vincent Van Gogh, hangs in the back. Rob Zombie howls from the jukebox.

But something here elicits cheers. It’s a hockey fight that a bunch of regulars are watching on a TV by the edge of the bar. Their black boots are stomping, their wallet chains are rustling, and the lights glisten off their slick hair. The Elm Street crowd has an Outsiders glaze about it—minus the romantic idealism. Every night it’s the same crew. “Everybody knows each other in here,” says Ehr. “They get drunk and remember why they hate each other.”

EHR IS THE KIND OF GUY who could get in a fight with a friend one night just for the hell of it and drink a few beers with him the next, not a word spoken in between. Nothing much makes him say Wow, and the only time his face gets animated is when a pretty girl strolls by or you get him talking about punk music. If you didn’t know him well enough—and only two, three people do—you’d think he didn’t care much about anything.

Ehr walks back outside where Jim Hughes, Elm Street’s owner, stands checking out the Friday night scene. Hughes, 32, has sandy hair in a ponytail and he wears a tan knit vest that showcases the biceps that he maintains with singular devotion. Hughes has owned Elm Street for three years and he used to run security by himself. It’s always been kind of rough.

“This bar was a dangerous place to even walk by,” says Hughes. “You could get hit by a body being thrown out.”

The fights were generally manageable, mostly two guys tumbling into the street, rolling around a bit, and heading home with a busted lip or a bloody nose. But one night about a year ago things got ugly. Toward closing time, a couple of guys no one had seen before at the Elm Street got pissed off about an offhand comment and started busting up the regulars with pool cues. Pretty soon the whole bar was swinging away. Ehr happened to be there that night. He wasn’t working at Elm Street then, but he whacked a few guys and the brawl petered out. He’s been on the payroll ever since.

“I figured, if he’s willing to jump into a pool stick brawl,” Hughes says with a laugh, “well, that’s good enough for me.”

Ehr might have been consciously applying for the job. He was looking for something to do back then. He’d bounced at another bar for a couple of years, but the place had just shut its doors. And the punk band he plays in hadn’t booked a show in a while. But he knew something would materialize.

Enough people knew him in Deep Ellum. His band, Pump’n Ethyl, had been around since 1990. They played all the big clubs in Dallas, and Ehr was hard to miss—big and bald, dropping bass lines for songs like “Lonestar Police State,” “Hippies Suck,” and “What a Ho.” (“What a ho/Janet Reno,” goes the chorus.)

Ehr figured he has been in 40 fights since he was 20, and he wins more often at pool than he loses. As for bouncing as a career, nothing else made much sense.

“From drinking and playing bands, I’ve spent half my life in bars,” he says. “If I’m gonna hang out, I might as well get paid for it.”

There’s no 401(k), but there are perks just the same. And they’re written all over the boys’ faces tonight. Ehr and Hughes are feeling good, talking loud ’cause it’s their bar and it’s Friday night and the girls are checking them out. A bouquet of lip-gloss and cleavage approaches the door and Ehr halts the women shy of the threshold.

“I make sure to ID the pretty ones,” he says. “That way I get to see their names—their real names, not the ones they give out in the bar. And I get to see what city they’re from, whether they’re upper class or lower class.” He scrutinizes one woman’s driver’s license while her friends shuffle nervously on chunky heels. Ehr holds the woman there for maybe a second too long. Then he sees something over her shoulder that prompts him to wave them all inside.

It’s his girlfriend come running.

Jennifer hurtles between cars from across the street. Her shoulder-length white-blonde hair is pulled back, allowing the cars’ headlights to bounce off the dozen piercings in her head. She’s wearing a plaid Catholic schoolgirl’s skirt and fishnet stockings. She and Ehr have been together a week, and there’s something aw-shucks about them as she wraps her arms around his neck, swinging off him like a kid on a jungle gym.

But this is Deep Ellum, after all, and Jennifer’s not to be underestimated, even at a slight 110 pounds. She broke her hand a month ago against the face of a woman who insulted her. The fracture didn’t stop her from beating up a punk rock guy in a dress last week—she elbowed him into submission. They call her Tank Girl.

She has her own full sleeve, too, full of WWII bomber plane art. Raising her hands in the air, she reveals armpits blanketed in blue and yellow tattooed stars, a mind-numbing application of the needle. “I like a woman who can take more pain than me,” says Ehr, then he covers her face in kisses.

A COUPLE OF NEWCOMERS walk into Elm Street, squeaky-clean types in Southern Methodist University sweatshirts. A few regulars turn on their elbows at the bar, baring sets of snaggleteeth. It’s Ehr’s job to hop between these opposites when they inevitably attract. Mostly he tries to figure out who’s in the wrong, who’s the rowdy one, or who he knows to be a chronic troublemaker, and toss that guy into the street. But he always has some leeway—the bouncer’s prerogative. “Sometimes I’ll have to tell a guy, ‘Come back tomorrow night, because the bar doesn’t like you,’” he says. “The regulars, this is their bar. I just work here. A lot of times I don’t try to mediate. I try to get it outside. Once it leaves the threshold of the bar, it’s the Dallas Police Department’s problem. They’re much more equipped to deal with it. They got guns, badges, authority. I got a T-shirt.”

He also has his sobriety, which may be as much for professional efficacy as for comic relief. Ehr doesn’t drink on the job, and he’s reminded why just now as a couple of women stumble outside.

“Okay. Okay. Okay,” says one of the women, chopping at the air like a samurai, as she and her friend begin a sloppy discussion about a particular stud inside the bar—and which one of them he’s after. There’s a lot of burping, slurring, and vigorous hand-motioning that nearly topples them both.

“There’s nothing funnier than watching two people who are totally out of it trying to reason with each other,” Ehr says.

It’s getting toward closing time and a final few people cram into the bar, looking up at Ehr and hoping to be recognized. They call him Mark, they call him brother, they slap him five. “I’m everybody’s brother and everybody’s friend,” Ehr says, “and I’ve never seen ’em before in my life.”

Soon enough, it’s 2 a.m., closing time in Dallas, and it’s Ehr’s job to kindly persuade everyone in the bar to down their beers and head for the exit.

“If you don’t work at the bar,” he bellows, standing tall in the middle of the room, “if you’re not sleeping with someone who works at the bar—it’s time to get the hell out!” They meander, they crawl, they wrestle each other toward the door. There’re always a few hangers-on who won’t buy the fact that it’s gotten so late so soon, and they say they’re staying forever.

But they look up at Ehr’s unsmiling face and decide to get on their way. Finally it’s just the bartenders, counting their take on top of a pool table. There’s a game going on at another table, and Jennifer’s running every ball. She calls out to Ehr, who’s rounding up empties down the end of the bar.

“Honey, where we going tonight?” Jennifer asks.

“Home, darlin’,” comes his booming reply.

She winks at her opponent and says, “I like being the girl every once in a while,” bringing the cue stick to rest just above the felt. Then she slams the eight ball with a pop into the corner pocket and her lips curl into a smile.

At the end, it’s Tank Girl and her bald bouncer trudging down the sidewalk in overlapping embraces, leaning on each other after another long night. He opens the passenger-side door of his Mazda for her and then slides in behind the wheel. They kiss a long kiss, visible through the haze of the back windshield. Then Ehr fires up the engine and aims toward home, where they’ll sleep the night off till it’s dark again tomorrow.