'16th & Mission' gatherings offer raw performances and rowdy audiences
By Theresa Seiger
During the day, this is one of the best places to score drugs in the city. Transients—drunk, sober, on drugs, mentally retarded or just hanging out—scatter themselves across the benches and the gum-speckled concrete. Boom boxes blare music while peddlers sell sausages and food from Guadalajara to BART riders.
At night, the scene changes.
A man plays a stand-up bass while a drunk man stands to his side, watching with interest. A semi-circle of listeners envelopes them along the BART railing. The bass player finishes his song, the crowd claps and the second man continues to stare as he sits down.
This is Thursday nights on the corner of 16th and Mission streets.
Often referred to simply as “16th and Mission,” these gatherings have attracted artists who want to test their talent out on the crowds for the past five years.
“It’s raw,” says Guinevere Newman. Newman has been frequenting the corner since the fall of 2005. She’s been a performing poet since attending an open mic in high school six years ago. She’s drawn to the event because of the honesty of the audience and the variety of the performances.
“I've seen an angry woman throw a sandwich at a comedian, a French girl playing accordion, a junkie with holes in his arms the size of peanuts begging for a hug, a woman nursing a sick pigeon in her coat,” she says. “I've seen honest and heartfelt, playful, melodramatic, dour, ‘I'm just here to impress the ladies,’ confessional, humorous, sing-songy, surreal, tragic, kitchen-sinky realist-drama, love-struck, experimental, uncertain, meditative, and, ‘fuck everybody else, I'm a genius, and my brilliance is too good for this BART station.’”
“It’s sort of a mixed bag,” says J. Brandon Loberg. “There are a lot of people doing different things, unclassifiable things.”
Loberg has been a regular at 16th and Mission for the past three years. He stumbled onto the event while making his way to the BART station.
“That was kind of what I expected to find when I moved to the city,” he says. He had been living in San Francisco on and off for two years before finding 16th and Mission. Originally from Grass Valley, he had settled down in North Beach in hopes of finding San Francisco’s literary scene. He was disappointed with what he saw at a lot of traditional, indoor open mics which he considered dry and lackluster.
“There’s a whole different dynamic on the street corner.”
More than five years ago the main players at the corner were performing indoors. Charlie Getter, Miguel Perierra and a woman remembered only as “Liz” were taking turns hosting an open mic at the now defunct Cuppa d’Oro. When the doors closed at the coffee shop, Perierra and some of the regulars decided to continue practicing their poetry to each other. They would spend nights with the five of them, Perierra, Patrick Donohoe, Eric Shaw, James Marchetti and Shahid Buttar performing for each other in Marchetti’s living room. After a month without an audience, the group decided to take their talent to the streets.
The first outdoor reading was held at 24th and Mission streets.
“The vibe there was different,” says Getter, who didn’t join the group in its first month on the streets.
“I was far too full of myself to just hang out in a living room and do poetry,” he explains in his personal history of 16th and Mission, “What Happened?” “I thought that I required a much bigger audience.”
He has attended just about every Thursday night open mic since his first.
“I definitely get the most rain days,” he says.
Getter was one of the founding members of 16th and Mission who formed the Collaborative Arts Insurgency (CAI). The group was shaped around a collective frustration with open mics in the city and became an opportunity for joint performances.
“I saw the collaborative emphasis as weakening each group member's individual poetry,” Getter writes. “If you can lean on a bass player or a dynamic flute player, you didn't have to write pieces as tightly as if you had to do them on their own But I was wrong.”
“Each of those things created cohesion between the performers, who were maybe not as confident in what they were doing on their own and the participation in the group gave them cover to experiment more and find their own voice.”
Most of the CAI’s first performances were politically motivated. As time passed, the group morphed as old members left and new members came. Getter and Perierra are the only two of the founding group to still regularly attend the open mic.
“Open mics are where bad performers go to ignore each other, so the CAI was pretty happy that the frustration with those events turned into something very positive,” says regular emcee Alter the Path. Path came across the event on his way to the BART station in 2004. He did shows with the CAI in Portland, Ore., and around the Bay Area from 2004 to 2006.
“At a certain point the CAI took their hands off the thing and let it just be what it is,” he says.
The event has lived on without the CAI’s support.
“Nobody really runs the thing,” Loberg says.
“We just get down,” says Path. “It's not a scene.”
The event has had an impact on its participants. Bonnie No, a poet who has been going to the event for four years, has a pigeon tattoo to represent the open mic. Amber Bouman has three stars tattooed on her, one for each year she’s been “protected” by hanging out on the corner of 16th and Mission streets.
The idea came to her after a regular was being followed by a couple of guys on Mission Street. A woman sleeping on the sidewalk told the men that the regular, Sara Wingate Gray, spent time at the street corner. The men left her alone after that.
“Now, they might have taken off because there was a witness, but after Sara told this story we were all joking that it was because the guys were told that she hung out at 16th and Mission,” Bouman says. “She was protected. So Sara, Miguel (Perierra), Bonnie (No) and I were joking that we should all get stars tattooed, like a general, to mark us as protected, and we‘d get a star for each year we’d been there.”
The open mic has also led to a series of books. The “16th and Mission Review” is put out monthly by members of the open mic who pool their resources to make the books.
“There is really no substitute for being there,” Path says.
The idea for a chapter book came from Perierra after a session at Zeitgeist, a bar on Valencia Street.
“I’ve been over to random people’s houses and seen books on their shelves,” says Loberg. He has been involved in making the books because of the things he has seen while performing. “So many people are doing great, great stuff and not getting recognized.”
The Review is filled with work from artists who perform on the street corner.
“Everyone sends in poems, short stories or comics, like in this next edition.” says Loberg.
Each book is put together by hand. There were 100 copies printed of last month’s edition.
“I glued the last one at 6:30 that morning,” Loberg says.
The books are free to people at the open mic on release night and five dollars each after that.
The event will be celebrating its fifth year on the corner of 16th and Mission streets on May 15.
“We think we might have started in April, we’re not sure,” Getter says.
The open mic starts at 9 o’clock every Thursday night at the entrance to the 16th and Mission BART station opposite of Walgreens drugstore.