I BUILD UP THE NERVE to go to my first open-mic in the city at Spike’s, a hole in the Minna Street wall off 8th Street that tries to be a little bit of everything to everyone: breakfast recovery spot with complimentary underground comics, industrial caffeine refueling station, nightclub. It’s one of those rare magical joints standing squarely on the eco-tone of Soma and the ‘Loin.
In other words, I’m so not cool enough for this place. The truth is I’m so not cool enough for San Francisco. I’ve got no leather; I don’t wear makeup and don't have genital piercings. All I’ve got are sorry ass generic denim that I’m too uptight to mutilate, and wanna-be new-wave boy clothes that at ten years out of date, feel like twenty. The only way I’m getting through this exercise in humiliation is by getting completely smashed.
Another problem is that a mere six weeks in the city have turned me into a full-fledged beer snob. I couldn’t go back to Coors if you beat me with a pitchfork. Spike’s, being the kind of cutting edge place it is in 1993, has Budweiser, PBR and Olympia. They don’t have imported beer, either, but one very expensive domestic brew that goes by the handle of Red Hook. The bartender’s a petite little Goth girl named Stefanie, who informs me the “Hook” is actually pretty good. A bell starts to go off in my head and a deep, authoritative voice from my own inner ether rings low: I know this beer.
The name is dredged up from my first weekend in town when D got an invite for (according to her) the hippest party in all Potrero. The party was a kegger thrown by hipster college graduates who at the time were on the bleeding fucking edge of the commercial internet and who were about to get seriously stroked for their proximity to this scene (oh-yay.)
But the invitation came with a selling point…the keg was hyped as being Red Hook, which I had never heard of. I wound up going to this party and leaving really early for about a thousand good reasons (most relating to how many combinations of mutants Diana was planning to bring home after getting wired) but I had to admit Red Hook was one damned good beer. One of the computer hipsters explained to me that it was “all because of Nirvana, man.” Apparently due to the “Seattle Invasion,” the whole microbrew phenomenon was being driven by this strong concoction from the edges of the Olympic Rainforest. These people were well-rehearsed for their upcoming exercises in corporate propaganda.
One thing could not be denied however: these wonderful drinks didn't taste like what I had traditionally thought of as beer, which I now came to regard as tasteless, watered down swill that required excessive amounts to achieve a genuine buzz. These blessed, magical potions, which went by the names of Ale, Stout, Porter, Bock, and Extra Special Bitter, forged well-worn washes across my taste buds with exotic flavors and an extra kick of alcohol. I realized these concoctions were “true” beer; tastier and more decadent than Bud or Coors piss water, thus far cooler to be seen drinking, and a much healthier alternative to the pounding tequila hangover. I was unquestionably caught up in my own hype-scene, the micro-brew movement, about a year after it really happened, but even when you’re late getting to some parties, it doesn’t make them any less magical.
So with pints at Spike’s going for three fifty a pop (four fifty if I want Stefanie on my good side) the night just got a little more expensive…but nothing I can’t handle right? It’s Sunday night and the house looks empty, so I head for the ATM to drain my last sixty dollars, figuring I can hold out till the middle of the week when the telemarketing gig should set me up with my first paycheck.
I’m back fifteen minutes later and learn from Stef that the sign-up sheet is underway. I find twelve names signed up ahead of me even though I only see four other people in the bar. This evening I will learn that thirteenth on an open-mic list really means twenty third because open-mic hosts in the Bay Area don’t think of their events as a democratic passing of the talking stick but as a “set” so their friends can make guest appearances and sell their Lo-Fi demos (hey, it’s ’93) in front of all the other wannabes like me, who don’t have either friends or demos. This evening I will learn that twenty-third on an open-mic list means three and one half hours later.
However in this time span, I will learn all the basics I’ll need to get through SF Cultural Physics 101.
Getting close to the start of festivities, the seat to my right is filled by Michael, a singing/songwriting guitarist who came on as an ultra sensitive guy, but felt it necessary within five minutes to share with me how he had “bagged” Stefanie the night before. Five minutes later, as the host begins to invoke their opening acoustic ballad with its cycle of nineteen choruses, the seat to my left is, not so much filled as mauled by a sweat drenched, husky TG named Ginger Coyote who is the lead singer of The White Trash Debutantes, a local punk band. But Ginger wasn’t there to perform onstage. She was there to perform at the bar.
“Shot of tequila, with a Red Hook back.” I yelled, trying oh-so hard to impress everyone now, especially Michael, Stefanie and Ginger.
“Decided to go top shelf, Vegas?” the bartender asks. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have told her so much about myself.
“Just tryin’ to get my nerve up; this will be my first time reading here in S.F.” This might help me score points with Stef, who, while admittedly not that attractive on first impression, has suddenly become more enticing now that her lover from the previous evening keeps whispering replay highlights from last night’s gymnastics. Interestingly, he only does this when she’s delivering a drink at the other end of the bar. But none of this is going to get me a free drink or any play from her. Instead I get more of Michael.
“Oh yeah, man, you should definitely check out my set at the Café’ International next Friday night. There's so many musicians and righteous people at that open mic…” I nod along to be polite. He’s really making me wish I had some weed to smoke, but I think my perpetual nod becomes very transparent to him because he gets up and goes to talk to another couple sitting in one of the cramped booths.
Listening to the banter back and forth, I realize Stefanie is a backup singer who also plays in the Debs. She hands me a flier.
“You should really come check us out next week. We’re not that great in terms of musicianship…”
“Yeah, we fuckin’ suck the corn nuts out of assholes,” Ginger yells, out of her own gourd, but well into a gourd of Stoli and tonic.
“But we got great riffs and a lot of energy,” the singer/bartender goes on, ignoring Ginger. “We may not be the best band in town, but we’re the most fun you’ll have in the clubs. You wouldn’t believe what a drunken good time it is.”
“Sounds pretty good,” I say too sincerely, still trying not to laugh too hard at Ginger’s outburst. “Hopefully I’ll have the funds to go out.”
“This little wanna-be preppie boy ain’t coming to our show Stef. He’s already talking himself out of it.” Ginger apparently noticed that she got to me. “Hopefully? ‘Hopefully, I’ll have the funds?’ If you’re lucky you’ll have the guts just to walk by the place before the gig starts.”
“Cover’s only five bucks,” Stef cheerfully smiles at me before heading on down the counter to take another order.
Ginger grows suddenly silent with her band mate’s departure, pounds another full drink then turns on me like a startled cat. “So what the fuck is your story? Aspiring hippie or just another general acid freak?” I truly regret the coolest thing I had to wear tonight was a tie-dye shirt.
“My…story?” I’m caught between her comic anger and the fact that this relative local celebrity is riveting all her attention on me now. “Uh, I dunno. I guess: struggling young performance artist moves to Sodom to discover higher artistic calling?”
“You don’t sound so sure buddy.”
“Well, stick around and listen. I wrote a poem about it.”
Ginger harrumphs, “Oh yeah and who the fuck here hasn’t?”
So we go around like this for a while. She introduces me to a gay poet and his partner who is plainly an obnoxious business executive and a terminal schmoozer. He’s seen Ginger play with her band before and is really their biggest fan and really wants to go to the next show and really wants his poet boyfriend and me to go to the show, and the poet just kind of nods dumbly with a barely contained fury, blunted because he already knows his boyfriend is good as lost.
I unexpectedly catch the business boy’s attention. “Ooh, hello age of Aquarius, get me signed up for the Peace train!”
“You with the Log Cabin group over at the Holiday Inn?” I fire back. Ginger’s laughter bellows out like a top shelf enema. Business boy turns a very dark shade of red and stalks off, while the poet gives one of the kindest looks I’ve received since moving here and quietly mouths “thank you” before absconding to one of the booths.
So maybe I’ve won Ms. Coyote over temporarily, and she buys me a round, and as a result I am now scoring points with Stef, who is also now realizing that I tip really well, a habit I picked up in Vegas. I eventually get a free pass to a Deb’s show in the form of a password scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin. I make sure to get Ginger back with a round. That means getting another Red Hook, introduced by yet another shot of tequila.
I get it now. I’m involved in an absurdist sketch; exactly what I moved here for. Ginger has moved on to Bourbon. Watching her throw down shots is far more entertaining and impressive than most of the self indulgent musical collaborations on stage that keep cutting in front of performers who are actually on the sign in list. Ginger grills me about my age, my origins, and of course, what I’m into. She alternately flirts with, then insults me. The more she drinks, the more condescending the token white male hetero cracks fly. The more the cracks fly, the harder I laugh. The harder I laugh, the more she drinks.
Michael attempts to rejoin us from the girls he left at the booth, but quickly decides he doesn’t want to talk to either of us anymore because our drunken jabs are cramping his sensitive musician shtick. He has no clue Stef keeps telling Ginger and I how lousy he’d been the previous night.
“Three minutes of humping like water buffaloes and he turns into coma boy.” Stefanie refers to him as Paul McCartney, because that was all he could talk about after his orgasm, and well before Penelope had to take care of herself after he passed out.
All the money is gone. Ginger has bailed; I’m good fun she tells me, but there’s no way she’s going to stay and watch my bit ‘cause she wants to get fucked. She’s got better places to be. I can’t even buy another round, and with nothing to eat tonight…and probably nothing till tomorrow, well…finally it’s my turn.
Despite the fact that I want to hate the host, and say some fucked up shit about her, I chicken out because in fact I’m jealous of her. I’m jealous of her “set.” I’m jealous the place became packed full of the cool and attractive people on the list and the cool and attractive friends of the people on this list. I’m jealous of her guitarist boyfriend that she did a sickeningly touching and oh so hip country duet with, and I’m jealous he gets to be with her and I don’t. So I turn stoo-pid and act all sensitive, just like Michael, so I can impress the host, ‘cause Stefanie stopped paying attention to me when I stopped buying booze.
I turn stupid and instead go with my love ode to Las Vegas, which I recite from memory and finish on a strong note:
Every souvenir loves a transient town
… knickknacks on tour
Get epic myths built up around them.
This big bright city
shimmering in heat
cold in its love
You know I’ll always love you,
your arid vacant face,
beautiful homogenized platinum blonde
flesh baked golden brown
vapidly perverse in your sterility
Let me wash once more, absolve myself in your sin.
There is no clean like your clean.
There is no filth like your filth.
By the time my whole bit is over I’ve spent fifty eight of the sixty dollars to my name and don’t much care that I had performed to an audience of seven out of the original forty that packed this hole in the wall. It’s the other poet who points out to me that as all of them were either friends of the host and the featured performers, it doesn’t matter just so long as I left some blood on that stage. He tells me “good performance. Stick with it.” And he is gone into the night, maybe to try and track down his Republican boyfriend who had decided to try his luck at the Holiday Inn down the street after all, not really wanting to look for anything saucier than can be found over at the Sonoma Lounge.
Stefanie turns out to be righteous, spotting me one last Red Hook, her phone number scrawled on the back of my last cocktail napkin for the night. It’s been a good night for cocktail napkins. And though Stef and I will end our “relationship” one week after the Debs show in an epic screaming match, the fling turns out to be a nice band-aid, a nice way to help vanquish the ghosts back in the studio. And of course, the fridge has a wonderful new brand of beer inside.