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Café International Friday Night Performance Series & Open Mic

Ever since Poetry Above Paradise ended, Café International's open mic series has officially been the longest running open mic in the city. According to Robert, the head barista, it's gone on for over 15 years now and has turned into an institution. "It runs us," he says.

Even when hosts Ramu or Kirk don't show up, people still go ahead and do their thing every Friday. The categories are open, ranging from poetry to music to comedy. A few of the original core still show up to reminisce about how great the spirit of sharing and support was back in the late 70s, when the place was packed with young artists and everyone was excited to be reading and listening to poetry.

Today, a lot has changed. Café International is in the Lower Haight, next to the projects, and attracts a representative cross-section of the population -- including tweakers, homies, club denizens and rejects from the dada freak show. Don't get me wrong: Lower Haight is my neighborhood and I love it, but the artists have gone elsewhere.

Open mics at Café International can attract some wacky fellows, and you sometimes have to sit through songs that would make even the tone-deaf cringe. When stream-of-consciousness philosophizing puts you in a daze, you may be zipped back to reality by the street person banging out sloppy "negro blues piano" to pick up a few quarters and a meal.

Many of the café's patrons during open mic are only there to get their Friday night caffeine fix before hitting the town, so there's a lot of talking and people walking in and out. This can be distracting, especially when wannabe rock stars show up with their groupies who occupy the middle of the room and sit snickering with their backs to the performers until their friends get up to play. If you want to hear anything, it's best to sit near the sound system. The vibe depends a lot on who's feature poet that night.

Also bizarre are occasions when the energy gets chaotic, and it seems as if nobody's got the will to channel it. Perhaps the problem is there's no cohesive direction to prevent it from going all over the place. I saw a baby-faced accordion player stroll in on the middle of a street musician's two-chord strumming, while hollering "Shake it mama, shake it." Everybody sat in disbelief and Jerry the Elvis impersonator left even before his turn.

Or maybe it's that the twenty-somethings in attendance don't respect those jaded old survivors from the Vietnam era, with their rants about protests and conscientious objectors, cancer and crack. When Bennie Lewis, the progenitor of Café International's open mic, came back as a featured poet, he stopped, exasperated, in the middle of his second piece to ask how the spirit had got lost. Kids kept blabbing, full of guffaws and self-absorbed gossip. Bennie finished his third poem and walked out, perturbed that people were playing chess.

But whatever one might say, Café International gives you your penny's worth of entertainment and colorful characters, as evidenced by the photography student who left happy, having taken over 40 portraits that night.

Café International Friday Night Performance Series & Open Mic
Every Friday 8 pm - 11 pm
Donations appreciated
Café International
508 Haight St., at Fillmore, SF, 415.552.7390