The “Ike Turner” (September 5, 2013)

I have lived in the Rogers Park neighborhood along Chicago’s far North lakefront for nearly four years. In that time I have patronized a number of the vibrant community’s watering holes, theaters and restaurants. It’s hard to keep up with the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood’s latest offerings, but in the effort, I try to stay familiar with the old vanguards of the RP as well. These are the small business staples that have persisted through the locale’s long-running artistic community versus gang turf war tensions, and remained for this decade’s infrastructure rebuilding and beautification efforts. A truly democratic process of public line item budget voting buttresses the feeling of personal ownership that has accompanied the area’s evolution. And the hardy businesses that have served customers for multiple generations are like the links between the neighborhood’s turbulent past and promising future. Pockets of living history.

The Red Line tap, situated along a sparsely trafficked section of Glenwood Avenue, looks like a total dive from the outside, perhaps not the sort of place where a single lady could enjoy a cocktail unharassed. I admit to a certain amount of prejudice and caution which played a role in overlooking the joint for so long.According to the venue’s website:

“How far back the tavern goes has yet to be established, but we’ve had personal reports of people visiting the ‘7006 Club’ and the ‘Rogers Park Boating Club’ since the early 1900′s…in 1996, the long popular tap was expanded, refurbished, cleaned, overhauled, painted and reenergized as the The Red Line Tap, so named because of its proximity to the Red Line train, its track, and its route name.”

Upon crossing the threshold for the first time last Sunday, I immediately noticed four amazing things:

1.Advertisements for live music almost every night of the week.

2.A vintage pool table tucked away in the back room, and classic 1980s video game machines near the entry.

3.An eclectic assortment of patrons ranging from hipsters to old men, wearing basically the same clothes.

4.An above-bar advertisement for an $8 shot called “The Ike Turner.”

I am no fan of domestic violence but my curiosity was officially piqued. So I asked the bartender for details. Turns out that $8 buys customers a slap in the face from the barkeep, followed immediately by a generous shot of Hennessey. As the conversation progressed, I noticed a tally board next to the cash register behind the gentleman. To make things more interesting, staff members have sort of an ongoing contest, keeping track of who has doled out the most “Ike Turners.” The current two leaders are several hundred ahead of the rest of the pack. My new friend explained that these folks usually work “primetime” hours – Friday and Saturday nights when the bar is full of drunk, rowdy patrons hopped up on alcohol and rock and roll, looking for a new challenge.

My favorite vignette from the conversation was the story of a victorious local softball team that celebrated with an assembly line of “Ike Turner” shots, each member patiently waiting his turn while the dude in front of him was smacked, then downed his cognac. Apparently the female bartender on duty was really into her work that day, winding up before each face presented itself. The effort to give the men their money’s worth resorted in happy smiles and a stinging palm.

I had one more question for my educator: had any women ever ordered the shot? Nope. Never. Personally I enjoyed the novelty and the backstory of the drink but I was not the least interested in the experience. Mind you I only minored in psychology but I think the reasons for female avoidance of “The Ike” would be fairly obvious. Most women live in a world where threats of violence are a daily consideration. In fact, that was the reason I had avoided The Red Line Tap in the first place. We’re not about to pay for something so ugly, commonplace and psychologically damaging.

But why do the men line up to be slapped? What is it about identification with the victims of a high-profile 1960s and 1970s wife beater that makes otherwise normal men belly up to the bar for subjugation and humiliation? And what of the grotesque underbelly of a section of my gender that takes mercenary pleasure in the idea of oh-so-ironic hipsters and over privileged frat boys paying to be treated like garbage?

As I considered these questions, my laughter died away. True the men who undergo this Red Line Tap ritual are willing participants in the spectacle, not innocent, helpless victims dragged out of cages into the gladiator arena. It’s not meant to be taken seriously. But I can’t help earnestly reflecting upon the ease and comfort with which I slipped into bloodthirsty mob mentality, wishing for a moment that one of the grabby college losers who caused me to prefer the company of my living room to keggers, would show up and order a shot.