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Mila Koumpilova, Published March 24 2007

Bouncing back

When revelers at Lauerman’s have a bit too much to drink on a Friday or Saturday night, it’s Jeannie Kempers’ job to send them on their way. A brawny woman with a gruff voice and dark short spiky ’do, she prefers to nudge the tipsy and rowdy gently out of the downtown Fargo bar. She leads them to the door with her arm around their shoulders, partly to steady wobbly patrons and partly to discourage those tempted to turn back.

“You get three chances of doing it nicely,” she says. “After that, I’m not so nice.”

Occasionally, she might pull somebody from a booth by the shirt. She might remind a feisty bachelor party member that getting roughed up by a sober gal in heels is a sure way to lose face in time for the wedding.

That happens rarely, though. Lauerman’s is a beer-only bar and besides, as owner Wally Lauerman puts it, “Guys won’t fight a lady.”

Jeannie knows sometimes guys will fight a lady. Five years ago, wobbly with baggage and insecurity, she walked away from a marriage filled with drinking and fighting.

Putting her life back together has been a tricky project, but recently she scored some victories: Two years ago, at 35, she became a college freshman and then discovered volunteer work.

But there’s more to do. Every Friday and Saturday night at Lauerman’s, Jeannie, a recovering alcoholic, dares the old demons to another standoff, hoping to escort them out for good.

Family history

It’s St. Patrick’s Day night at Lauerman’s. The hip-hop’s bass thumps in the jumble of voices; Wally hectically ladles out the chili; a line snakes out of the ladies’ room.

Jeannie stopped drinking her signature water with lemon at 5 to cut down on bathroom breaks. She’s a rarity, a female door person in Fargo. She likes to see herself as more of a hostess. In a tight tank top showing off a shoulder blade tattoo of a woman with bee wings, she scans at a stream of IDs, but also dispenses hugs to regulars and collects kisses from college kids by pointing to her cheek.

Her boss, who reluctantly hired her as his first-ever female door person more than a year ago, has noticed a spike in college patrons, who seek out Jeannie for romance advice and off-color jokes alike. She talks school, too, patiently explaining the difference between her old Minnesota State University Moorhead major (social work) and her new one (sociology).

But as a crowd of newcomers forms at the door that night and a couple of young men try to dash in around it, she blocks the way and bawls, “Step back, gentlemen, I’m serious.” A single-file line quickly forms, and college kids in green T-shirts dutifully hand out their IDs.

The Lauerman’s crowd is Jeannie’s family now, and she gets to be both the cool sister and the stern mom. This is not the first rowdy family Jeannie has navigated, though being in control is a new experience.

In 1997, her 8-year-old son called Moorhead police to report his drunk father was trying to kill his mom. At the family’s Moorhead apartment, officers found a door partly torn from the hinges and a bruise on Jeannie’s back. Three years later, police came again, this time because Jeannie was fighting loudly with her daughter, then 8. They found marks on the girl’s arm and beer on the coffee table.

Three months out of high school in ’87, Jeannie had married a man she’d met in substance abuse treatment in Ohio. Both relapsed, and their relationship worsened after they moved to this area in ’97.

She wanted out, but having a husband seemed the only edge she had on her own mother, an alcoholic single mom who raised her on welfare. She argued with police officers when they came to arrest her husband, and when they left, she stayed.

Doing the helping

The Saturday before St. Patrick’s Day, Jeannie shows up for an 8:30 a.m. breakfast at Perkins after closing the bar at 3 a.m. and fiddles with a school paper. She’s tucked away her expansive Lauerman’s persona in favor of a quieter, self-conscious self. Her tattoo is hiding under a crisp white T-shirt that reads “Best for Women.”

She’s having eggs and toast with fellow members of Fargo’s Soroptimist International, a group of business owners, bank clerks and other mostly professional ladies who raise money for local women’s causes – the sort of gathering that attracts glances when they call out to each other on their way out, “See you at the jail.”

In her rusty GMC truck out front, Jeannie has stacked up some 500 books – with titles such as “Women in a Man-Made World” and “The Professional Fence” – the ladies are donating to Cass County Jail inmates. For Jeannie, who was convicted of writing a bad check and of disorderly conduct in the ’90s, it’s her first Soroptimist project in charge.

She relisheshelping after years on the receiving end of charitable arrangements.

Jeannie separated from her husband in 2001 after he pleaded guilty to simple assault for grabbing her around the neck. She moved in with a new boyfriend and other drinking buddies, but fled to the Fargo YWCA a few months later and signed up for treatment. She had no job, no car, no money and no sober friends, and the urge to drink clawed at her as she rode the bus from the shelter to the Southeast Human Services Center.

Three months later and sober, she was ready to start over. Through a succession of low-paying jobs over the next couple of years, she worked her way from a one-bedroom apartment to one floor of a house to a three-bedroom house. But her old life kept clawing at her.

Soon, she was in a relationship with a nice, attentive man – who would occasionally lapse back into drinking and lash out at her. She’d kick him out and take him back in. “It’s really hard to break yourself from feeling you can’t do better,” she says.

Her children shuttled between her and her ex-husband. She struggled with parenting, clashing with her daughter and watching her son skip school and get into trouble. Her ex-husband, remarried and doing well at a new job in Washington state, won full custody.

(Jeannie’s ex-husband refused to be interviewed for this story.)

That’s when she enrolled at MSUM, a move that slowly strengthened her confidence.

‘That was me’

On slower nights at Lauerman’s, Jeannie sometimes does homework on her laptop with a poster behind her proclaiming, “A lovely day for a Guinness.” Patrons sometimes tip their bottles toward her glass and ask, “Water?” They buy her a pickled egg to toast with.

Most substance abuse counselors cringe at the idea of an alcoholic working at a bar. Jeannie herself once told a newly sober employee his best bet was avoiding situations in which people drink and have fun.

But she likes proving herself by the end of each shift. She says it strengthens her resolve: “I look at the drunk, belligerent people, and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that was me.’ ” When she recently faced off against a belligerent customer who didn’t want to leave, she talked tough and braced for a punch, scared. When he walked away, she sent a bit of her past out the door with him.

When Jeannie met with Cindy Ulland, volunteer coordinator at the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center, Ulland urged her to watch out. About one-third of would-be victim advocates drop out during the 48-hour training, some because they can’t handle the time commitment and others because they can’t handle the flashbacks to their own past.

“It’s amazing what she’s doing, all the change she’s trying to do – because it’s tough,” says Ulland, who tells volunteers that people leave unhealthy relationships eight times on average before making a permanent break.

Jeannie stuck with the training and turned into one of the center’s most active volunteers. Says her MSUM mentor, Deb White, “She doesn’t trust herself, but she’s constantly challenging herself.”

Jeannie gets to tell her 16-year-old daughter about her work in conference calls with a counselor as they tentatively tackle mending their relationship. Jeannie dreams of becoming a legislator or a lobbyist for women’s rights.

As St. Patrick’s Day winds down, Jeannie plops down at a table of Lauerman’s regulars. She wearily lights a cigarette. Her favorite song comes on – the hip-hop “Ms. New Booty” – and the regulars cheer; she doesn’t have the energy to dance tonight. But as closing time draws near, she pulls herself together. Soon, she’ll make her way through the place, telling patrons: “Thanks for coming. I love you. Now get out of my bar.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529