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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Jul 15 1998
SOMA Cowboys
A small, unruly crowd sits on barstools in the parking lot behind Slim's, cursing the sun for sliding around the corner and the French for having won the World Cup.

"No one likes the fucking French," says a disgruntled blond. "Now, instead of whoopin' it up at the Bahia with a bunch of naked Brazilian babes, I'm here, waiting for the chance to put this black man down."

The "black man" is Robert Johnson, a career doorman who has been working at Slim's since the club opened 10 years ago. He is arguably the toughest doorman in San Francisco, not because of unnecessary physical displays of dominance, but because of his complete immunity to the plight of his fellow man.

"No one gets past Bob Johnson," says a former doorperson from the Paradise Lounge. "He doesn't care who you are, who you know, or how much you beg. He is the meanest motherfucker around."

"Yes," says Johnson with a satisfied air, "I've made a lot of friends over the last 30 years [in the business]."

Johnson's "friendships" have made him one of the primary attractions at Slim's three-day Rock 'n' Roll Rodeo, where the notorious doorway intimidator is scheduled to do a 60-minute stint in the Dunk Tank. Preferably in the shade. In very cold water.

A number of folks -- mostly former security staffers who worked under Johnson at one time or another -- show up a good hour beforehand to fortify themselves with pints of beer and loudmouthed vindication. They boast of wads of cash marked with Johnson's name and take warm-up shots at the small red target that will finally drop him. Johnson is unimpressed; at most, he is touched by their fervor. Wearing bluejeans and a long-sleeve shirt, he climbs out onto his precarious seat and lets his legs dangle in the icy water. As relaxed as if he were in his own living room, he balances a pint glass on the edge of the platform and lights a cigarette, eying his antagonists through a cloud of smoke.

"The first couple times I worked for Johnson," says Irish Greg, one of the few radio employees to survive the horrendous Live 105 debacle, "I went home and cried. I am terrified of that man."

Overly eager to see Johnson drenched, the first few pitchers throw wild. Johnson laughs, taunting his former employees. He suggests the men cut their losses and step up to the girl's line, and he suggests the women sit down. He drenches anyone reckless enough to come within range. Even when Slim's house manager Dennis Juarez finally drops him into the tank, Johnson looks as if he is in control of the situation. Not a shiver or a goose bump to be seen. The crowd is robbed: Johnson has a wet suit hidden beneath his street clothes. He is smug, and his opponents are broke.

"He's like a dad to me," says Trent Mocany, who worked under Johnson for two years, "but if I had another dollar ...."

Inside, Blazing Saddles flickers across a large screen in front of the Slim's stage; red and white balloons flutter from every column; and in the middle of the floor, a tremendous, air-filled mattress surrounds an authentic mechanical bull from Gilley's in Texas. Two dour-faced cowboys from Deer Creek, Texas, stand near the controls, requesting that everyone sign a disclaimer before riding the contraption. The Slim's staff -- decked out in "wife-beater" undershirts, cowboy boots, hats, and Levi's -- are among the first to line up. The Deer Creek boys put the bull through its paces -- not too high, but high enough to convince some of the first-time riders they are better off behind the bar than in the saddle.

Christina Neville, a 29-year-old multimedia producer from Russian Hill, is among the first women in the crowd to mount the bull. The control setting is three -- a slow, easy grind that catches the attention of a few rodeo skeptics.

"I didn't think it would be sexy," says 27-year-old Cam Michalski.
"You musta been a city boy all your life," says Jesse Jeram, a heavily tattooed 27-year-old originally from South Dakota. "That's a shame."

Michalski couldn't agree more and buys several tickets for bull rides, which he offers to nearby ladies.

Lane Shorkey, a 23-year-old vixen with a cowgirl tattooed on one arm and a mermaid on the other, challenges bar manager Paul Kelly to a contest of skill. Although Shorkey's experience in the saddle is limited, she takes to the bucking bull like a redneck to Coors, and soon both she and Kelly are riding at a setting of eight, Shorkey barefoot and Kelly waving his hat in the air to the crowd shouting, "Yee-haw!" It's a Hollywood moment.

"I've always wanted to do two things," says Shorkey, who is originally from North Carolina. "Jump out of an airplane, and ride a mechanical bull. Being in that saddle really felt like home. I want to get up to 10."

Clifton Cryer -- one of the Gilley's cowboys in charge -- explains taking the bull up to 10 in Slim's is impossible. When he rode the bull early at high settings it nearly jumped clear across the floor. I suggest the Saddlerack in San Jose. Shorkey is sated.

Mark Mikofski -- a 26-year-old teacher who came out only to see Liar, one of the three bands performing tonight -- is enticed.

"It's not that hard," says Mikofski. "It's all timing. You just have to move with the bull."

Mikofski is thrown. "It got hard," he explains.
"Mechanical bulls are a lot harder than real ones," says 25-year-old Patrick Fitzgerald, a former ranch hand whose physique belies his experience. He is speaking literally -- suggesting that he should have worn a jock strap -- but his backflip off the bull's back proves that he is not really suffering.

Watching him, Delaney du Sante says, "It's not quite as good as sex, but it's very, very close."

"Sure, I like seeing people have a good time," says Eddie Billingham, a mechanical bull operator at Gilley's for over 25 years. "These people aren't so bad. We get a lot of city people from Houston."

Eight-year-old Harley Abbin makes us proud with a perfectly executed ride and an oversized cowboy hat. Billingham is clearly pleased; we don't tell him Abbin's visiting from New Mexico.

Despite all the enthusiasm for mechanical bull riding South of Market, Bob Johnson stays clear of the beast. He's convinced the Gilley's men have been paid off to crank the machine up to 10 should he ever mount it. Bob Johnson is entirely correct.

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By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor


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