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South Park
Wednesday, February 16
8:45 p.m.

The sign painted on the building reads Delicious Food, Great Beer, Philanthropy, but I won’t notice this until I leave. For now, I dart from my car into South Park Abbey, too cool — but wishing I weren’t — to hold a newspaper over my head. The rain is going to deflate my carefully picked-out Afro.

It’s quiet inside: two sweatshirt-clad guys (watching an Aztecs game) and a cozy couple at the bar (all but rubbing noses, these two), a lady fiddling with a microphone near the door. She’s on me before I can settle onto the barstool. “Are you here for the open mic?” Her face is eager. I tell her yes but not to perform. “Oh,” she says. “I thought maybe you were a singer.”

Sindi Somers is a comedienne and former host of Open Mic Night at South Park Abbey.

Sindi Somers is a comedienne and former host of Open Mic Night at South Park Abbey.

The woman is Sindi Somers, comedienne and current host of the weekly open mic. The rain, she tells me, seems to be keeping people at home. Though the sign-up began at 8:30, only one person has signed up so far.

On the wall to my left, just past the cozy couple, a large chalkboard lists 16 Belgian and craft beers on tap. It also lists the brewery, alcohol content, price, and style for each beer. I’m lost, don’t know where to begin. Amanda (to whom Somers will later refer as “our bad-ass bartender”) suggests the Saison De Lente. I find it on the list, see that it’s made at the Bruery, has a 6.5 percent alcohol content, and is considered a farmhouse ale. I’ll take it.

The lighting is warm and intimate. A string of tiny white lights adds a festive note over the front windows. Even though the room is a large open space, with no separation between the bar and the restaurant — currently crowded with 20 to 25 empty tables — the dim lighting and the glossy wood tabletops give the place a comfy, homey feel.

Into this scene walks a tall, bowlegged gentleman in a Blues Brothers hat and a dark tweed jacket. His wavy red hair hangs in a long, loose ponytail down his back, and he carries a guitar and wheels a suitcase. After Amanda takes his order for a Crown and Coke, he introduces himself to me as Reverend Stickman. His large front teeth are slightly gapped.

By the time Somers steps up to the mic, a handful of people have been seated at tables in the restaurant, and the bar has filled up with three or four more people. Because of the low turnout, Somers offers 20 minutes (instead of the usual 15) to all performers. The Rev is up first. He dedicates the first song to his ex-wives. It’s called, “Thanks to You,” and he says, “When I write songs about my ex-wives, they’re blues songs.” A couple of people snicker.

The sweatshirt-clad guys keep watching the Aztecs game on the TV above the bar. The snuggly couple snuggles, and everyone else watches the Rev.

Amanda brings my beer in a glass with a stem. “Because you’re a lady,” she says. SmilesThen tells me that serious beer drinkers don’t want the heat of their hands to affect the temperature of the beer. Hence, the stem.

The Rev keeps singing. Some people keep talking anyway. Because the Rev and I have exchanged names, I feel as if I should be looking at him, but Amanda brings a plate of wings to the man on the stool next to me, and they look good. “You ordered the hot?” she asks him, setting down the plate. He nods. “Good luck with that.”

The wing-eater’s name is David. He, too, has a long ponytail. And he knows exactly how hot the wings are, thank you very much. He once tried the “Tough Guy” wings (for which you must sign a waiver before eating), and though he “ate them and smiled, it was a little too much.” David drinks a White Russian.

My head is a little swimmy from the beer. I order the sweet and spicy wings on Amanda’s recommendation.

Somers is the first to clap and hoot when Reverend Stickman finishes his set. Others follow with a couple of hoots of their own. When the Rev comes back to the bar, I ask what he thinks about the fact that some people talked during his performance. He says, “People are here to have a good time. Every once in a while they really love you, but when they don’t, you can’t take it personally.”

The people at the tables aren’t eating. Some of them aren’t even drinking. Two young guys at separate tables sit up straight, bearing the nervous looks of pre-performance anxiety.

South Park Abbey

South Park Abbey

A tall blonde named Celia is up next. She wears black jeans and Converse sneakers, and she informs us that she’s arrived by way of another open mic at Mueller College. She sings lines like “I wanna get inside your head” and “My heart’s always racing but nobody knows.” The Rev calls her sound “mellow acoustic.” I find it sad-sounding.

Next to me, David sucks his wing bones clean. The Rev tells me he always stays to hear at least one person after him. “To be nice,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Amanda leans over the bar and says the establishment puts 3 percent of every sale toward the charity of the customer’s choice. We have four to choose from. The Rev and I chat about the charities. Huntington’s disease? Animals? Environment? Cancer? I choose Huntington’s. He picks the environmental cause and says, “If we took care of it, maybe the rest would take care of itself.”

Somers is always the first to clap after a song. Then the people at the tables. Amanda only stops wiping down the bar long enough to clap on every other song or so. David doesn’t clap once.

Amanda puts a plate of wings down in front of me.

“Leave her alone,” she says to the Rev. “She’s gotta eat her wings.”

A kid in a Joy Division T-shirt follows after Celia. His name is Carlos, and he starts with a White Stripes cover. When I ask the Rev what he thinks, he looks up from his second Crown and Coke and says, “I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking about beer.”

Carlos moves on to an original song called “Is She Gonna Flake Again?”

“Great title,” David laughs.

“Speaks volumes,” the Rev responds. And then, “I hear a little Violent Femmes in there.”

Adam, a guy with a full beard and a tie-dyed T-shirt, sings Neil Young and David Bowie covers. David goes home. Stickman says good-bye too.

A couple takes the stage. He with a guitar, a goatee, and superstraight bangs. She in wellies. His name is Robin. She’s Kate. They remind me of Zooey Deschanel and Matt Ward from She & Him, the quiet way their voices complement each other.

“Aw, she has a ukulele,” Amanda says, “and cute little rain boots too.”

They’re the first I’d-buy-your-CD performance of the night.

When Robin says, “One more song because I have to catch the bus,” Amanda yells out from behind the bar, “Hey, somebody take him home!”

No one does.

Santee
Thursday, February 17
6:30 p.m.

Friendly Grounds Coffeehouse

Friendly Grounds Coffeehouse

The girl at the counter wears her bangs pulled back in a poof. She greets me with a giant smile, which I appreciate, and tells me her name is Lacee (“two e’s,” she says). She hands me a way-too-sweet iced vanilla latte in a plastic cup, and though she doesn’t quite ask “What brings you round to these parts?” she might as well have. And not just because my husband calls this town Klantee, either.

The scene at Friendly Grounds Coffeehouse (located in a strip mall) is a strange amalgamation of senior center, coffee shop culture, and the truck-stop diners of my childhood in Idaho.

The brown–cream-blue color scheme and seating areas defined by couch, chairs, and area rugs give the place a coffee shop feel. A clean-cut man in a striped button-up shirt and olive khaki pants strums and sings on a low stage in the front corner. The songs he’s chosen (“Sloop John B” by the Kingston Trio and Jimmie Rodgers’s “Peach Pickin’ Time in Georgia”) are folksy and include lines like “The constable had to come take him away” and “When it’s roundup time in Texas, the cowboys make whoopee.” The median age of his audience is between 55 and 60.

A young guy with wooden plugs in his earlobes leans against the counter where I stand and smiles at me. “Interesting scene, huh?” I smile back and nod my head.

The scene at Friendly Grounds Coffehouse in Santee is a strange amalgamation of senior center, coffee-shop culture, and truck-stop diner.

The scene at Friendly Grounds Coffehouse in Santee is a strange amalgamation of senior center, coffee-shop culture, and truck-stop diner.

At a table in the middle of the room, one woman knits and one crochets. Another woman knits on a couch to the right of the door. Up front, at a table near the stage, a woman with hair twice as big as mine turns around to look at me after her male companion says something to her. He wears a trucker hat and a Bluetooth in his ear. His beard is of the chin-strap sort but long and scraggly. I’m a little bit afraid of him. She gives me a weak smile.

The man onstage steps down, grabs an offstage microphone, and says, “Hello, nice people.” He introduces himself as Tim, cohost of tonight’s open mic. “Next up we have Ralph and Sandy.”

The audience applauds.

Ralph wears a black Hawaiian shirt patterned with green vines and brown guitars. His hair is long and black. His glasses are wire-rimmed, and he carries a guitar. Sandy carries a large trapezoid of wood and strings, which she sets on a stand and begins to play while Ralph plays his guitar.

“What is that?” I ask Ear Plugs.

“I don’t know,” he says. “You should ask Justin. He’s the music guy.” He points to my left as a big guy in skinny jeans approaches. His black, blond, and red Mohawk lies flat to the right side of his head, and he wears a ring in his nose.

He smiles, introduces himself as the manger, and offers a handshake. “That’s a hammered dulcimer,” he tells me. “It’s a whole bunch of strings. She’s hitting them with little hammers. Isn’t it cool?”

We stand and watch Ralph and Sandy for a minute or two. And then because I wasn’t really listening the first time, I say, “What is she hitting it with again?”

“They’re like little sticks,” Justin says.

An older man in slacks and a sweater comes from behind Justin and says, “Those aren’t sticks, you ninny.” He shakes his head and rolls his eyes. “They’re hammers. It’s a hammered dulcimer.”

Justin sighs.

“Oh, who cares?” the man says to Ear Plugs. “It’s time for chocolate.”

Then he leans over the counter to order a frozen mocha.

The man’s name is Jerry. He and his wife have been following this Wood ’n’ Lips open mic (named after its founders Tim Woods and Walt Lipski and their band of the same name) since it began ten years ago at a Borders bookstore in El Cajon.

“Every time they move, we go with ’em,” he tells me.

Sandy steps off the stage with her hammered dulcimer. Ralph stays to play alone. He sings Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candy Man.” A man in a tucked-in T-shirt and khakis snaps pictures with a point-and-shoot.

Jerry cuts a rug in front of the counter while he waits for Lacee to make his drink. A woman in a red sweater comes up while he dances and tugs on the hem of his sweater.

“Okay, you,” she says. “Cut it out and buy me a drink.”

Ear Plugs smiles at me. The woman is Jerry’s wife.

The audience members are good, strong clappers. When Ralph finishes his set, they hoot and holler. When Tim asks for another round of applause, they hoot and holler again. They do it one more time when Tim introduces the next act.

“Let’s welcome Big Al!”

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.

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.

A woman named Kat shakes her head at the end of Carmen’s performance. “I may be tone-deaf,” she says, “but I didn’t like it.”

Another comedian takes the stage. Michael. He’s even less funny than Stan. After every joke that causes zero laughter, he mumbles, “Jeez. Okay,” before moving on.

“Some jokes didn’t hit like I wanted them to hit,” he tells me after his set.

After Michael, a first-timer named Ben once again draws the outsiders in. His voice is manly sweet and scratchy, and the song is a sad story. Chris and I stand together in the back, leaning against a glass display counter covered with stickers.

“You were there, but he was too. I only had eyes and bullets for you,” Ben sings. “You were killing me long before I ever did this to you.”

Chris taps me on the arm. “This guy is good, eh?”

Somewhere in the middle of Ben’s second song, a kid in a trench coat stands up from the audience and shouts, “Hello?” He squeezes by the others seated in his row and heads past us with his phone to one ear and a finger plugging the other. “Hang on a second. Let me go outside!”

By the time his ten minutes are up, Ben has filled the room and caused lots of hooting, whistling, and clapping. The best reception so far tonight.

A middle time slot is usually reserved for a special guest. Tonight, it’s Robin Henkel at 7:30. Jimmie introduces the stocky guy in the red plaid shirt and floppy hat and says, “Robin is phenomenal.” Then he turns to Robin and says, “In fact, next time I introduce you, I think I’ll call you Robin ‘Guaranteed-Good-Time’ Henkel.”

Henkel has this bluesy twang thing going with his guitar, and he has one of those voices that goes high-pitched and then down low into a grumble — within seconds. My favorite is a piece called “Take Me for a Ride in Your Mustang, Rita!” He wrote it about his girlfriend and her car. In it, he references San Diego streets and highways. The crowd loves him. They hoot and yodel after each song. The chairs are all filled, and the doorway is packed with people who have put down their cigarettes and come in to watch.

Chris turns to me and says, “There are some bombs, but there’s also some amazing talent. This guy opened for B.B. King last week.”

A young girl still in high school named Raelee Nikole has the unfortunate after-the-special-guest time slot.

Happy Ron hasn’t left yet. He stands next to me, watching as half the audience follows Robin and Rita (yes, Rita!) outside. Some go to smoke, some to say, “Hey, remember me?” to Robin. On the sidewalk, one girl pulls out her guitar and starts strumming and singing to the guy in bare feet who stands beside her.

When I remark on the comings and goings of the audience, Happy Ron says, “The fun thing is when a bunch of people walk out when you’re going up.”

North Park
Tuesday, February 22
8:30 p.m.

I follow the sounds of heavy beats, loud hoots, and clapping down Ohio Street and to the door of Queen Bee’s Art and Cultural Center. The Train of Thought open mic sounds less like an open mic than a party.

Last night at Lestat’s, Happy Ron promised me Queen Bee’s is the place to be on a Tuesday night.

“It’s usually a bunch of uplifting black poets and me,” he said.

At the door, a tiny roundish woman in a red knit beret asks me for $5. The space is ballroom-big. Two sparkly crystal chandeliers hang from a black ceiling. Their bulbs are dim. Paintings lit by track lights cover the walls.

Up front on a stage that’s five or six steps high, a guy in an open blazer and a golf cap shouts, “When I say ‘DJ Red Light,’ you say ‘No Game!’”

In the corner at stage right, the DJ laughs from behind his turntables. People in the audience laugh too. They’re probably 30 in number, a mix of black and white, mostly young, college age, though a few look to be in their 50s. They sit in rows of cushy chairs on wheels. People seated at three tall bar tables against one wall sip from paper coffee cups. Everyone faces the stage.

The guy onstage calls himself Gill. He explains to the audience that DJ Red Light lacks confidence when it comes to women and that this little call-and-response will help motivate him to man up.

Then Gill shouts, “DJ Red Light!”

And the audience responds, “No Game!”

“DJ Red Light!”

“No Game!”

One girl’s high-pitched laughter rises above all the cheers.

Gill explains the rules. Six minutes per person. Stay positive. Clap like you mean it. And if it’s someone’s first time, clap your hands (like this: clap, pause, clap, pause) in time with Red Light’s beats and yell, “We got you!”

Gill says tonight is his official birthday show and requests that whenever he gets up on stage, if he tells a joke, everyone please “laugh hysterically and make it look like it’s the best shit you’ve ever heard.”

The high-pitched laughter rises again.

Then he invites a skinny guy in a Lionel Richie shirt and an orange-striped beanie to join him onstage. They banter for a moment or two, and then Gill leaves the stage. Beanie Guy’s voice is deep and kind of sexy. He recites a poem that references Full House, Family Matters, and Viagra.

When he’s done, he emphasizes Gill’s clap-like-you-mean-it rule. “When someone leaves the stage, clap louder and harder than the person next to you,” he says.

Then Gill comes back onstage and gets the audience clapping to DJ Red Light’s beats. He shouts, “When I say ‘Train of,’ you say ‘Thought!’”

And so we do. The rhythmic call-and-response of our shouting joins forces with the thumping music, and the volume in the dark room rises. People aren’t quite out of their seats with enthusiasm, but some pump their fists as they shout. I imagine before long, the fist-pumpers will be on their feet.

More people trickle in. Two guys add a couple more rows of fold-up chairs.

I stand in the back looking at the art on the walls. A tall, dark-skinned kid in a Hollister sweatshirt stands beside me. He tells me his name is Richard.

“Are you a poet?” I ask.

“Uh, you can call it that,” he says.

“What do you call it?”

“Um, I don’t really call it anything.”

Pause.

“But you’re going to perform?” I ask.

“Yeah.”

A woman who calls herself Granny Deep Sea takes to the stage. She wears a multicolored tiger-stripe sweatshirt, and her hair hangs to her elbows in two blonde braids. She sings original lyrics to the tune of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.”

“Open up your mouths and sing with me and the Train of Thought family,” she sings.

The audience claps at regular beats along with her.

Curious about the art on the walls and who runs this place, I ask around. A girl in the back directs me to the woman in the red beret. Turns out she’s Alma Rodriquez, the Queen Bee herself.

Alma tells me that this 8000-square-foot place serves as a gallery, concert and party venue, and hangout for teens and young artists. While a young man shouts into the microphone (“I’m simply a man!”), Alma walks me down a hallway, past young people who greet her with smiles, more walls hung with art, and around a corner into what she calls “the middle room.” Two people stand in line behind a counter where a young woman steams milk. This is the concession stand, Alma tells me. She also sells juice and water, chips and such. The espresso machine sits on a cart shaped and painted like a racecar.

Alma hands me a battered pair of 3-D glasses so I can see the full effect of the multicolored circles that an artist named Eyemax painted on the walls and ceiling. He was one of the young men who greeted her in the hall.

“This is the 3-D art gallery,” she says. 
Back around the corner and down the hall, a first-timer has just walked onstage. I hear the audience applaud and shout, “We got you!”

We head back to the main gallery. A woman named Faith plays guitar and sings. I recognize her from Lestat’s last night, when she’d shown up too late to make the list. Faith is visiting from Connecticut, and she describes her genre as “gospel, blues, folk, recovery-based music.”

Right now, she belts out, “Oh, Lord, I’m falling down on my knees.”

Alma leaves me standing next to a woman in a long Indian-print skirt who sways back and forth holding a fat baby in green pajamas. On my other side, Happy Ron approaches. He holds a white binder close to his chest. The front of it reads “The (New) Official HappyRon Songbook.”

“I guess there’s one more than me,” he says, indicating Faith and her whiteness.

The audience claps and hoots as though it means it when Faith is done.

Then it’s Happy Ron’s turn. Onstage, he explains that he’s going to start with a song called “If You’re Bored in San Diego, It’s Your Fault.”

“When I sing ‘If you’re bored in San Diego,’ you say ‘It’s your fault!’” he says.

Throughout the song, the audience claps along, but If-You-Want-to-Call-Me-a-Poet-Then-Go-Ahead-Richard stares at the stage without changing his blank expression.

When I ask how he feels about Happy Ron’s music, he says, “He’s hilarious. He makes me laugh. I embrace what he’s doing.”

His face doesn’t change.

Maybe he’s nervous.

“If you’re bored in San Diego,” Happy Ron sings.

The audience shouts, “It’s your fault!”

The high-pitched laugher squeals with joy.

Pacific Beach
Thursday, February 24
7:45 p.m.

Black Pearl

Black Pearl

According to the list on openmicsandiego.com, 8:00 p.m. is the official start time for the Australian Pub open mic in Pacific Beach. When I call to confirm, the guy on the phone tells me the pub’s new name is Black Pearl. Yes, they still have open mic on Thursdays, and it begins at 7:30 or so.

Although I’m 15 minutes late, I hear no music, see no guitars or microphones when I arrive. The place is noisy with the sounds of people drinking. Guys in backward-facing baseball caps and girls in T-shirts and sneakers crowd around tall bar tables. A couple of guys sit at the bar, watching college basketball on two flatscreens overhead. They, too, wear their baseball caps backward.

The redheaded bartender wears a tank top and woolly arm warmers. She tells me her name is Sarah and that the open mic will probably start around 9:00 or 9:30.

“But this is the guy who would know for sure,” she says, chin-pointing over my shoulder.

I turn around. Behind me, two guys stand holding pints of beer. The shorter one in the (forward-facing) baseball cap shakes my hand. He’s Jesse, unpaid host and organizer who claims to have a boy crush on James Taylor.

“We’ll probably get started around 8:30,” he says.

The start time shifts, Jesse tells me, depending on which slots are prebooked.

“Prebooked?” I ask. “Isn’t this an open mic?”

It is, but most performers email Jesse to prebook their 25-minute time slots. For walk-ins, Jesse says, “there’s usually a little bit of time in the beginning and a little bit at the end.”

I order a Stella. It comes in a lady glass with a stem. I hold it by the bowl. This is not the kind of place where it matters. The place is dingy and bar-dark, except for the fluorescent beer signs (Fat Tire, Blue Moon, Coors Light) and the bright Miller and Bud lamps hanging over two pool tables. It smells of meat loaf (the Thursday special) and beer. A bicycle hangs from a wood-beamed ceiling. A raffle prize on display.

Josh, the fast-talking manager whose left arm is covered in tats, tells me this crowd is mostly members of a bar-sponsored softball team.

“Hello? Hello?” says a voice through a speaker next to the electronic dart game. “This is a sound check. Jason’s gonna play, and I’m gonna test it out a little bit.”

I look around but don’t see the source of the voice. Josh leads me to a rectangular bar table at the edge of the crowd of softball players and pulls up a rickety vinyl-topped stool for my seating pleasure. The space has been divided into three distinct areas separated by half-walls: right inside the entrance, the space in front of the bathroom doors has been set up with two pool tables; the bar and the tall bar-tables stand in the area to the right of the entrance; and to the left, a third area, unlit at the moment, hides behind a half-wall and a 60-inch television screen. Here, booths provide more intimate seating, but the doorless opening between this and the space with the pool tables also serves as the open-mic stage.

My new location affords me a prime view of the “stage,” where Jesse stands with a microphone in his hand. On one side of him, the low-hung TV screen shows 60 inches of golf — lots of bright green manicured grass. On his other side, Jesse’s tall friend Jason begins to strum a guitar and sing “Pink Houses.”

The softballers talk louder to hear each other over the music. Sarah carries a sandwich to a couple at the pool tables. They finish their game and bring the food to a table in the bar area.

Josh comes by my little table-for-one and says he swears by the garlic spicy wings. I say sure, why not?

Jason finishes the song. One person claps twice.

“Want me to rock another one, dude?” Jason asks into the mic. Jesse, who’s still messing around with the soundboard, gives him the okay. Jason launches into an original song called “Six-String Fingers.” It’s heavy on the guitar, very heavy. Jesse comes over and tells me I’m in “the blast zone.”

Indeed, I’m right in front of a speaker.

Once the sound check is complete, Jesse takes up his guitar and joins Jason onstage. Apparently, the first act has signed up for a 9:00 time slot.

“If you’re not tipping your bartender, that’s bad. Sarah’s making you happy. Make her happy.”

“If you’re not tipping your bartender, that’s bad. Sarah’s making you happy. Make her happy.”

“If you’re not tipping your bartender, that’s bad,” Jesse says into the mic. “Sarah’s making you happy. Make her happy.”

Then the two of them play James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain.” Jason sings.

A sporty guy in high socks and athletic shorts leaves the bar area and stands in front of the two guitar players, watching. He holds a beer in one hand and strums his thigh with the other. After a minute or two, he heads back to his buddies.

“I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,” Jason sings.

Two guys rack the balls at one of the pool tables. People come and go from the bathrooms. Sarah brings my wings in a red plastic basket that makes me think of fish and chips. She brings a second basket for bones. The wings are spicy and garlicky. They turn my fingers orange. A far cry from the Abbey’s.

A short man comes in the front door, waits for Jason and Jesse to finish their song, and then greets them. From a distance, the man looks like a heavyset Stanley Tucci, but he’s really the unpaid Thursday-night house drummer. He goes by “Swats.” During the day, he’s a veterinarian.

Swats sets up his drums in the unlit room behind the stage. He’s barely visible back in the corner while he plays for a barefoot-and-dreadlocked white guy named Brendan who perches on the open-mic chair playing his guitar and singing.

Jason and Jesse get drinks at the bar and pull up stools next to me. Josh stops by for a second and says, “This guy’s pretty solid.”

Jason describes Brendan’s sound as “Kinda indie, maybe. Jack Johnson-y, kinda. Something like that.”

After the first song, four people clap. Among them, Jesse, Jason, and me. The softball team starts to trickle out. Jason tells me he’s played at a ton of open mics before. I ask him how this one ranks. He tells me he loves it. It’s his favorite by far, his “cornerstone.”

It wasn’t the answer I’d expected. This place seems lonely to me. The musicians are separated from their audience by two pool tables, a 60-inch TV, and some bathroom doors. Around 11:00, Jason says, it usually turns into a jam session.

After Brendan, Jesse and Jason pick up their guitars and head back onstage. They sing James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” and “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis. Two softballers sing along to the latter while they zip up their hoodies and guide their girlfriends out the door. Then, Jesse and Jason sing Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love.”

I’m starting to get why this is Jason’s favorite open mic.

Next up, two young guys who call themselves “Sticky Buds.”

They’re regulars, a bearded guy named Chris tells me. “They basically write about weed,” he says. “At least they have a theme. They’re consistent.”

The Sticky Buds are still playing 20 minutes later when I ask Sarah for my check. It’s a few minutes to 10:00. Josh comes by and apologizes for the slow night. When I tell him he’s lucky to have Jesse and Jason to fill in the gaps, he informs me that he does his best to take good care of Jesse.

“All his needs are met,” Josh says. “He gets an open tab.”

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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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