Heavy Duty

Are the Big Bend Ranch Longhorns part of our ranching heritage or a scourge?

DRESSED IN BLACK WITH a shaved head, the big guy standing outside the turquoise and red door at 4216 Washington is an eye-catcher for young Houstonians promenading past the avenue’s used-car lots, bars, and quick-loan companies on a Friday night. He is the hired peacekeeper at Pat and Pete’s Bon Ton Room music club, a visual deterrent to mischief and mayhem. At six feet and 330 pounds, Jesse Hernandez can certainly be intimidating, but the patrons who greet him with affectionate hugs and handshakes know that he’s more than a burly bouncer in a skull orchard enforcing the no fights, no strikes, no ins, no outs rules.

To them, Mr. Jesse is the guy who does it all—doorman, valet, sentinel, escort, host, security guard, street counselor, and protector. His task, he says, is to “keep things smooth.” That means he protects patrons and their property from thieves and vandals outside, from rowdy guests inside, and most of all, from themselves when they’ve had too much to drink. “It all boils down to the front door,” Hernandez says with characteristic aplomb. “And I am the front door.”

Having kept the peace at clubs, concerts, and discos for thirteen years, Hernandez really has seen it all. “I’ve worked in joints where they used to beat you up, then throw you out,” he says. And he’s heard it all, ranging from the classic line “What do you mean, I’m drunk?” to the unexpected “You can’t do this to me. I’m a dentist!”

Hernandez came to his calling after he joined a short-lived chapter of the Guardian Angels vigilante youth group. A fellow Angel took him to see local heroes Herschel Berry and Doctor Rocket perform at Fitzgerald’s one night. “When I saw all these people having a good time, I saw the light,” he recalls. Still, he couldn’t help noticing the inherent risks of working the door: The man he replaced at Fitzgerald’s had been shot to death by an irate customer who had been ejected from the club. But manning the door has become second nature. “I’ve worked real jobs before. I finally decided to do what I want,” he says. By eleven o’clock, so many casually dressed fans have come to hear Johnny Reno blow his saxophone that a reverse migration begins. “Take it easy. Thanks for coming out,” Mr. Jesse says to a sweat-stained, though thoroughly smitten couple walking out arm in arm.

He stops two preppie women and a man, all probably in their twenties, who are about to enter. One of the women, a fair-haired lady with a thick accent, doesn’t have a driver’s license because she’s from Moscow and doesn’t drive. “Honest,” the woman says. In a rare exception, Mr. Jesse buys her story and lets her slide through. Compared with the usual excuses—“I left it in the car”—hers sounds credible.

He then escorts a single lady in a black leather skirt and matching stiletto heels to her car. Back at his station, he welcomes another customer with “Hi, Frank.” The guy waves as he walks inside. After a moment or two, the door opens again. “Jesse, how did you remember my name after such a long time?”

“You have to pay attention,” Jesse says with a broad grin.

Hernandez does have a bit of the bon vivant in him. Marty Racine, the Houston Chronicle ’s popular- music critic, saunters by, and Mr. Jesse extends his hand. Moments later, he points out news reporter Wayne Dolcefino of KTRK, Channel 13. “He loves coming out to hear blues,” Jesse comments.

Suddenly, his security assistant shouts his name from across the street, and Jesse meets his compadre halfway for a brief conference. Moments later he signals a passing police car with his five-cell flashlight. “Can you take another PI [public intoxication] with you? I’ve got a case around the corner who is hassling my customers,” he yells, motioning to a distant figure in a white T-shirt who is staggering along the sidewalk. “I know you’re busy, man,” Jesse tells the officer, “but he’s trying to charge them a dollar to park on the street.” The patrolman promises to return once he has delivered his present load of drunks downtown.

Even on his nights off, Hernandez’s talents are put to good use—like when he went to see B. B. King down the block at Rockefeller’s a few months back. An obnoxious fan kept trying to offer the blues guitar legend champagne during the performance. Mr. Jesse tapped the fan on the shoulder and suggested that perhaps he should wait until after the show to demonstrate his appreciation. “I can’t stand to see a person disrupting a show, so I help out,” he explains.

“It’s up to the customers how they want to handle a situation. I prefer treating them in an adult manner. You always get those who want to fight, and you don’t have a choice. That’s all right, since I’m paid to get dirty. But as long as they do me right, I do them right,” he says.

It’s almost time to punch the clock. But he’s still on watch, scanning the streets. “Who’s playing?” shouts a cool dude with slicked-back hair from behind the wheel of a Camaro Z-28. “What’s the cover?” After Mr. Jesse gives out the info, he is thanked with a nod before the vehicle peels out down Washington in the wee hours between midnight and day. Jesse shrugs, “I know him. He’ll be back tomorrow night.” And so will the big guy with the shaved head, watching the world go by.

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