A thunderstorm was brewing amidst the thick Friday afternoon heat, but the mail still had to be delivered. Listening to music through a single wireless earbud, Eric Hartman darted from door to door, pausing to let a man on his route know he had received a package.
Hartman is a seasoned mail carrier whose route covers part of the Berkeley neighborhood in Denver. He’s become familiar with lots of the dogs and faces on his route – many of them hail from Texas, where Hartman used to live – so he didn’t seem to be too bothered by the heat.
“Denver is a great place because the weather’s not that bad. It’s not like being in Texas where it’s 104 degrees every day, and 90% humidity, you know,” Hartman said. “But you just gotta find what you like to do.”
As Hartman has learned, what you like to do can change pretty drastically as time goes on. At first glance, if it weren’t for his impressive array of tattoos, you might not believe that he was the founder and owner of Emo’s – a famous punk rock club that used to have locations in both Houston and Austin, Texas.
Hartman’s interest in music began at a young age. He grew up in Chicago, where his neighbor just so happened to own Chicago’s first punk rock club.
“He’s like, as long as you don’t drink, I’ll let you come in and see shows,” he said.
After college, Hartman started working as a bartender and climbed the industry ladder to eventually become the manager of Chicago’s Vic Theater. He was later tasked with traveling to different cities to help open more theaters, and quite literally had the keys to the Vic’s Houston location fall into his lap when its general manager quit on the spot.
“So I call my boss, said hey, the general manager quit. He’s like, I guess you’re the general manager right now,” Hartman said.
Hartman went out and bought some more clothes – he had only brought enough for three days – and started to put down roots in Houston, where he would open the original Emo’s in 1988 at the impressive age of 26.
The club’s name is actually after Hartman himself. “Emo” became his “self-inflicted” nickname on a night when he was working at a bar and couldn’t get an obnoxious patron to leave him alone. She asked him what his name was, and he tried to think of the strangest one he could. Comedian Emo Philips came to mind.
“I go, my name is Emo. If you laugh, I’ll kill you,” Hartman said.
In 1992, Hartman opened a second Emo’s in Austin. While Emo’s Houston closed in 2001, Emo’s Austin is still around. Hartman sold the venue in 2000, and the new owners entered into a contract with Live Nation – a venue and ticketing company that’s currently being sued for monopolistic business practices that critics say are harmful to small, independent venues (but that’s another story.)
Under Hartman’s ownership, Emo’s was a thriving musical hub that hosted acts like Kid Rock, Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day, who slept in bookmobiles in Hartman’s driveway back in the day.
During the 1994 South by Southwest festival, Emo’s even hosted Johnny Cash as part of a mini tour meant to introduce him to the “hip cool crowd” after he was dropped by his longtime label, Capitol Records.
“He was so personable, he came in and shook all my employees’ hands, introduced himself,” Hartman said. “Like we all knew who he was.”
Hartman called his father to try to get him to come down to Texas for the show by telling him that The Man in Black was playing Emo’s.
“He said, ‘All those bands wear black!’” Hartman said.
Cash closed his set with “A Boy Named Sue” – a Shel Silverstein poem made famous by the version Cash recorded for his album, At San Quentin. The song ends with Cash listing all of the names he would consider giving his future son before he would ever name him Sue.
“He went, ‘If I have me another boy, I’m gonna name him Emo. Goodnight everybody,’” Hartman said.
At the beginning of his post-Emo’s life, Hartman started working for different restaurant brands, traveling the country opening new locations like he had for the Vic Theater way back when. He eventually got tired and was looking for a change.
“As much as I loved Emo’s, I got to live the rock and roll lifestyle for a long time,” he said. “I don’t think there’s the perfect job for anybody, you just gotta figure out what works for you.”
After chatting with his neighborhood mail carrier, he decided to apply for a position with the United States Postal Service with the intention of using the job as a temporary vacation from the stress of the restaurant industry.
Although delivering mail may not have all the flash and clout that comes with being a club owner, Hartman says that this is the happiest he’s been since his days running Emo’s.
“I ended up finding out I loved it,” he said. “I show up to work every day, I walk 10, 12, 15 miles, I listen to music all day.”
A true music lover, Hartman listens to almost every genre – except country – and has 4000 songs on his phone ranging from his tried and true punk rock to electronic. His dog, Iggy, is named after the punk rocker Iggy Pop, who’s credited as one of the pioneers of stage diving.
Although he doesn’t know the Denver punk scene as well, Hartman goes to as many shows as possible. When he’s in Denver, he’s just another face in the crowd. When he’s back in Austin, he still gets in for free.
“I don’t want to sound conceited, but I’m kind of, you know, kind of a legend there,” he said.
There are plenty of Texans living in Denver and, recently, a couple on Hartman’s route commented that he looked familiar.
“The guy goes, holy shit, my mailman’s Emo,” he said.