Sonny Barger, the founder of the Hells Angels motorcycle group, died today of cancer at age 83.
In my book "Rough Edges: My Unlikely Road from Welfare to Washington," there are a couple of chapters of my bartending years in various Hollywood dive bars and strip clubs--places I worked to pay my way through law school at UCLA. In that book I told this story of my unlikely encounter with Sonny over 40 years ago--and why I hope a very bad dude now rests in peace.
Here is an excerpt from that book:
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... I got the new bartending job at The Tarzana Inn, located near the intersection of Reseda and Ventura Boulevards in the San Fernando Valley. On my first night, I learned why the owner needed a bartender so badly—they always quit when they encountered the regulars. The owner had neglected to mention before I started that the Tarzana Inn was a hangout for the local chapter of the Hell's Angels and a couple other outlaw motorcycle gang. When their screaming bike engines roared into the parking lot, the neighborhood customers fled.
On my first night, about an hour into the shift, a dozen or more raucous bikers arrived. I called the owner at home and told him I might need help. "Throw them all out," he barked, "and then call me back when you've done it." As the now-off duty day shift bartender quickly gulped his drink and got up to leave, he asked me what the owner had said. When I repeated my orders, he advised me to ignore it. "Do you know why he told you to do it, and why he won't come down and help? It's because once he ordered the Hells Angels to get out. After they beat the shit out of him, they threw him on the ground and started bouncing the balls from the pool table off his head. He won't ever come down when the biker gangs are here."
I served the bikers their drink orders.
Since the Tarzana Inn operated as a one-man bar, I ended up as the only employee there each night. This made the shift more menacing if trouble started because I had no backup. With the biker gangs, I concentrated on getting through the night in one piece. I walked a fine line treating them respectfully yet still doing my job. It got hairy every time I tried to explain why I couldn't serve alcohol to some runaway teenage girl with a fake ID hanging out with them. Serving a minor would cost me my job (and possibly get me prosecuted for a crime). Refusing service risked a lethal response. I tried to avoid the latter, but a joke and a smile rarely assuaged some pride-stoked biker. Threatened many times, I started carrying a second gun in an ankle holster along with the one holstered under my left armpit. My pockets rattled with speed-loaders for both—just in case. If ever I shot one of them, I knew I'd have to shoot them all or they'd kill me.
I found it nearly impossible to study my law books while serving swarms of bikers. Still, I tried gamely to read my casebooks under the red sink lamps whenever there was a lull in the orders. One night I was pouring drinks while trying to absorb my Civil Procedure text. A big ugly biker asked me what I was reading. I told him it was a law book. "What the fuck are you reading a fuckin' law book for, you fuckhead?" he asked. (I found that many bikers had a universal vocabulary.)
"I'm in law school," I replied.
The biker next to him asked what I had just said. My inquisitive customer shared what he learned about me, and that guy passed along the information to the next, who passed it to the next, and so on down the line. When I went into the men's room a while later, three bikers followed me. One threw me against a wall while another pulled a knife. "So, we hear you're a fuckin' narc," my assailant said.
"What are you talking about?" I gasped. Somehow, through the Tarzana Inn version of the "telephone" parlor game, the bikers mutated the occupation of "law student" into "undercover narcotics cop" as they relayed my avocation down the bar. My assailant put away his knife only after I took out my student ID card to prove my claim.
"Hey," one of them suggested optimistically, "maybe when you finish law school you can defend bikers in court." I told him nothing would please me more than to see him and his friends in court someday.
"Yeah, that'd be pretty fuckin' cool," he said with a nod.
As scary as these marauders acted, they paled in comparison to some of their feminine sidekicks. Most of the biker chicks I saw were drop-dead gorgeous, but some looked like they belonged in the circus. One night, two in the latter category entered dressed in black leathers and chains. One woman (closing in on three hundred pounds) sat at the bar and shouted to me, "Hey, bartender, get your ass over here." She demanded to know my name, and then she told me hers. "I'm Faith," she said as she raised her upper lip toward her nose with her fingers to reveal a smattering of rotting teeth and a gum line bearing a homemade tattoo of her first name. "Listen," she said in a husky voice, "I know you bartenders get off work at 2:00, so that's when I'll be back to pick you up. You're coming home with me tonight."
Faith made it clear this wasn't a solicitation for sex. She sought a command performance. When I treated it like a joke, she grew angry and smashed a beer bottle on the floor. That got my attention. This two-ton bitch looked like she could mop the floor with me if riled. "Don't get me wrong, Faith. You're, uh, very attractive, and your offer is tempting, but I can't—you see, I'm, uh—I'm married." That one sentence contained no less than three separate lies.
"So what?" she blustered. "Hey, I got an old lady, too." With that Faith pointed to her fat lesbian girlfriend seated at a corner table, smiling at me through another mouthful of patina-green teeth. "You're coming home with me or I'm gonna have your skinny ass killed. Take your pick. I'll be waiting for you later tonight outside in the parking lot." With that pledge, Faith and her companions left.
Given a choice, I preferred the throes of death to the arms of Faith. Hoping to avoid both and not knowing what else to do, as my shift neared its end, I called the police. To describe the desk sergeant as unsympathetic is an understatement. When I finished explaining my predicament, he laughed. "Let me get this straight," he said. "You're reporting that you want LAPD to protect you from some fat biker chick with her name tattooed on her gums that wants to take you home and screw you?" He put me on the speakerphone and asked me to repeat the story. I heard his fellow officers guffawing on the other end as I repeated the details. I told him to forget it and hung up.
I closed the bar at 2:00 a.m. and locked the doors from the inside. I wasn't risking Faith and her friends waiting outside for her proposed lovefest. I spent the night curled up in a booth. When the morning bartender opened the tavern, I made him scout the parking lot to make sure it was Faithless. As I drove away at sunrise, I was grateful that Faith had given up hope on getting some charity.
Another night I heard a loud commotion coming from the men's room. "He's in there raping that bitch," one biker from a Valley club told his friend as he motioned with his head toward the noise. I rushed from behind the bar to investigate. Pushing open the bathroom door, I walked in and saw a pretty, petite blonde flat on her back on the filthy floor. Her jeans and panties were down below her knees. She cried and struggled underneath a large bearded hulk who had her pinned down by the wrists. He never looked up until I shoved the barrel of a cocked .38 into his forehead.
"Get off her. Now."
Unbelievably, the woman started screaming—at me: "Don't shoot him, you asshole! It's my father! Get the hell out of here! Leave us alone! What's your fuckin' problem? Get out!" With my gun still drawn, I tried making sense of the macabre scene. The biker got off her slowly and raised his hands while pleading for me to stay calm. The woman jumped from the floor, pulled up her pants, and screamed for me to get out. Shaking my head in disbelief, I backed out of the restroom. A few minutes later they emerged, still calling me names for pulling a gun and breaking up their toilet tryst. They collected their friends and left.
A week or so later I had a rare night with no customers in the bar. Toward midnight, a man and woman entered, ordered beers, and went to shoot a few games of pool. They looked like older bikers; they were quiet and kept to themselves. When the woman grew bored, the guy asked me to shoot a couple of games with him. While we played, we talked about my law school efforts and the continuing trouble I had from various biker gangs. "They won't bother you anymore," he said. "I'll take care of it." With an air of cynicism, I asked what he could do about it. He chugged on his beer bottle and then replied, "My name's Sonny Barger. I'm the founder of the Oakland chapter of the Hell's Angels."
For the rest of the time that I worked at the Tarzana Inn, no biker ever threatened me again.
... My last night at the Tarzana Inn was like so many others. A cluster of Hell's Angels arrived and started their usual ruckus. I poured drinks and in between tried to study my books, but it was so noisy that I didn't hear the first few rings of the telephone. The owner's voice sounded angry and drunk when I answered. "Goddamn you," he slurred. "I just drove by and saw all those motorcycles outside. Get those Hell's Angels out of my lounge. You throw them out or you're fired." I told him I wasn't going to 86 a dozen bikers all by myself. If he wanted them bounced out then he needed to come down and help me do it. "You're fired!" he screamed as he hung up in my ear.
Picking up my walking stick, I rapped on the bar for silence. With everyone's attention I announced, "Gentlemen, we're running the bar on the honor system tonight. The owner just fired me so I'm leaving. Be sure you leave the correct amount of money in the cash register for any drinks you pour for yourself after I'm gone."
I could hear the bikers still laughing as I drove away.
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