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A man with thick black eyebrows and a white-gray goatee takes to the stage and plays a countrified version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.”

“We love Big Al,” Lacee says, leaning over the counter on her elbows.

Justin explains that the coffeehouse is undergoing major changes at the moment. New owners took over the place two weeks ago, and they’re trying to bring in a younger crowd. Friday and Saturday nights they’ll have bands, he tells me. But Thursdays remain reserved for the Wood ’n’ Lips crowd.

A young skinny kid with a hairdo flopped over one eye comes sliding over on his feet while jerking his arms and shoulders like a break-dancer. He wears skinny jeans, pointy shoes, and a smirk on his face. He’s waiting for Justin. These guys are the same small-town rebels I grew up with in Boise. I love them for it.

Big Al moves on to Eric Clapton and then Lynyrd Skynyrd. The audience claps heartily after every song. The knitters keep knitting.

Tim leaves his station at the computer by the door and introduces himself to me. “We’re the open-mic Energizer Bunny,” he says of Wood ’n’ Lips. “If a coffee shop closes down, we’ll look around and find another place to go.”

Jerry approaches with an open tin full of Halloween-sized chocolates. I take a tiny Milky Way bar. I won’t eat it until tomorrow. The two sips of oversweet iced vanilla latte have put me over the edge. Jerry circulates, offering the chocolate to everyone in the room.

Tim returns to his microphone to introduce his cohost Greg. Greg hands the point-and-shoot camera to Tim and climbs up on the stage with his guitar. Among the songs he sings tonight are Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Patti Page’s “The Tennessee Waltz.” When he sings “This Land Is Your Land,” three-fourths of the audience whistles or sings along.

Normal Heights
Monday, February 21
6:35 p.m.

I have to drive around the neighborhood for 15 minutes and make an illegal U-turn before I find a parking space two unlit blocks away from Lestat’s. By the time I arrive, it’s 6:35 p.m., and the open-mic drawing is already under way. I push my way in past the door-standers and take up a spot in the back of the dim room. The only lights are the spotlights onstage, the track lights illuminating tapestries and rugs on the wall to my left, and a row of flashing white Christmas lights behind me. The rest of the room is dark. A 12-panel piece of ironic Jesus art hangs on the wall to my right. About 80 plastic and fold-up chairs, most occupied, are arranged in rows facing a low stage where Jimmie Lunsford, the bald and bouncy host, goes over the rules.

Ten-minute time slots. Five for comedians. Keep it clean. Have your guitar out of the case and tuned before it’s your turn. For $10, Lou the sound guy will record your set. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget, no Neil Diamond. No Bob Dylan. (Jimmie will later tell me this rule is due to these artists’ association with a publishing company that requires a fee for public performances of their work.)

Jimmie Lunsford picks names out of a jar for Lestat’s open mic. As soon as the drawing is over, half of the audience picks up their guitars and heads outside.

As Jimmie draws names and calls them out, performers shout the time they want to perform. Chris Carpenter, the official “lovely assistant,” sits behind a keyboard to Jimmie’s left and writes the names on a clipboard. All time slots are ten minutes long, but comedians get only five, so performers can also choose to be an “alternate,” to fill in during extra time between acts.

“If we run fast, we’ll pull alternates,” Jimmie tells the crowd. “Sometimes we go through the whole list of alternates, and sometimes we don’t touch them.”

By 7:00, every ten-minute time slot until 11:00 p.m. has been filled, and 13 alternates (A through M) have to decide if they want to wait around. A guy named Happy Ron lands the Alternate M spot. “I call it Alternate F U,” he tells me.

Happy Ron has played at 1350 open mics around San Diego. “You’re pretty much guaranteed a spot everywhere but here,” he says. “I’m going to leave and curse their name.” He smiles at his own humor and then says he might go around the corner to see if Club Kadan has room for him at its open mic.

As soon as the drawing is over, half the audience heads outside. Apparently, there’s no rule about watching the acts that come before your own.

A comedian named Stan is the first guy up. He’s an older gentleman, about the size and age of Woody Allen. He wears a tan coat zipped all the way up, bone-colored cargo pants, and a black beret.

“Ladies,” Stan says, “it’s all right to clap for me. Just don’t give me the clap.”

One or two people laugh. Someone groans.

“People ask me if I’m bisexual,” Stan says. “I tell them if it’s sexual, I buy it.”

A black dog enters the room. He walks past the rows of chairs and nuzzles up to a man leaning against a wall near the front. The man looks down at the dog but doesn’t pet it. Someone has turned the track lights off, and the room is darker. No one but the man seems to notice the dog. Stan isn’t making people laugh. Conversations of smokers and coffee drinkers standing on the sidewalk drift into the room.

Outside, I find Jimmie and his lovely assistant Chris. Jimmie wears a pair of sunglasses on top of his shiny head. He tells me that although Lestat’s is mostly a musician’s venue, comedians come in to test out their new material. Then he excuses himself and runs back inside to let Stan know his time is up.

Chris empathizes with Stan. “I’ve bombed many nights,” he tells me.

Alternate A takes up the last five minutes in Stan’s time slot. Her name is Carmen. When she begins to sing, some of the people standing outside go back in.

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Comments

bohemianopus May 25, 2011 @ 2:58 p.m.

I really enjoyed this story! Read it from beginning to end. Makes me want to visit each and every place you described.

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Mark4934 June 4, 2011 @ 12:39 p.m.

"And not just because my husband calls this town Klantee, either." I am angered and deeply offended by the inclusion of this comment in this article. First of all, it is an aside that has nothing to do with the story and nothing to do with the description of the girl behind the counter. It is simply a gratuitous slur that apparently the author thought was such a clever comment by her husband that she included it. I have lived in Santee for many years and find this label as offensive to me and my community as the "N" word is to others. I guess it's OK to use offensive terms when they are directed at caucasians. Just remember equality and equal treatment and respect mean exactly that. An apology and retraction are in order here. "We prohibit profanity, libel, spam, racial epithets, and the harassment and abuse of others." Live by own rules, Reader.

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