Entertainment without a cover charge in San Diego

Blarney Stone, public library, Warwick's, Museum of Contemporary Art, Cafe La Maze, Wit's End

I am old, I am old. I shall wear my trousers rolled. At 36, I’m a good two years out of the demographic sweet spot, and if people aren’t trying to sell you things, there’s a reason why. It’s all downhill from here. Besides, times are hard, and the nightlife is expensive. Better to just settle in with the laptop, fire up Hulu, and get comfy while I wait for the Reaper.

Get out of the house, says The Voice. Do not go gentle into that good night. Do you expect me to believe that you can’t find a life without paying a cover charge. You sorry sack of…

Okay, okay, fine. I’m going. But where? If only there were some sort of guide, some

list of (free) events around San Diego.

Well now, lookie here — a newspaper! The San Diego Reader

SUNDAY, MAY 17

“ ‘Do You Believe in Gosh?’ Allison Gill performs Mitch Hedberg’s final album in tribute to the late comedian, 8:00 p.m., Blarney Stone Pub, Clairemont. Admission: Free.”

“Blarney Stone,” reads the caption below an image of the storefront hanging to the left of the pub’s tiny stage. A huge, creamy-white certificate hangs to the left of the tiny stage inside the Blarney Stone, looking for all the world like an oversized diploma. A photo of the storefront adorns the center of the certificate; the caption below reads, “Blarney Stone: 5817 Balboa, San Diego, California. Established in 1978. A Bass Certified Proper Pint Establishment.” Looking around at the low, rough-hewn rafters and the proliferation of proper tables, you can almost accept the designation and all it implies — almost forget that you are at the far end of a monster strip mall in a part of America that can lay little claim to the whole Irish in America experience. But then, there are reminders: the flat-screen TV hung on top of the mural depicting a pub fireplace, the paper shamrocks adorning the rafters, and the douchebags.

Well, that’s maybe a little harsh. But there’s something about the young guy sitting at my table — maybe it’s his shiny button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled smugly all the way up above the elbows; maybe it’s his agitated “I heart Red Bull” demeanor, maybe it’s the way he’s saving places for his friends with a cell phone, keys, and a pack of cigarettes — that rubs me the wrong way. Because I’m old and grumpy. Mind you, not as old and grumpy as Crazy Old Guy over at the next table — you know, the one with the standard-military-issue eyeglasses and the haircut that reduces his graying patch to a kind of hair-beanie. Even when he’s happy, buttonholing a nearby listener with his latest observation, he still sounds aggravated.

But enough about them. They are just two, and the bar is full and loud and happy, and here comes Ms. Gill, slouching up to the stage in a flannel shirt, boy jeans, glasses, and New Balance sneakers (you must not forget the sneakers, O Best Beloved). Her breasts are bound up with an Ace bandage — though that won’t become clear until later, when she returns to the stage holding it aloft and expressing gratitude for her newly regained freedom. She pushes her hair back out of her face in an appropriately dudelike fashion and gives a brief disclaimer in a whiskey-rich voice:

“Mitch recorded this record about three months before he died. A lot of the jokes I’m about to tell are kind of unfinished — he was working them out, trying new material on the crowd. Keep that in mind when you’re listening — you can almost hear how the jokes would have turned out had he not done a bunch of heroin that night in March. I love him, and this is for him.” With that, she slips into character and gives us a taste of Mitch working out his act: “I was at the DC Improv, and they used my name for all sorts of shit, and it was embarrassing…they were, like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, please do not yell out Mitch’s jokes during the performance,’ because I guess one time this guy yelled out my joke and he was too drunk so I got mad and it’s like…I don’t know, that shit’s funny. It’s f*in’ hilarious — trust me. Go into my head and come back out and tell me I’m wrong.”

(It’s a good save — by the end, the crowd is back on his side. And what do you know — my shiny-shirted friend is such a fan that I catch him delivering punch lines right along with Gill — almost like the joke. Better still, one of his friends is so deep into his iPhone that he can’t bear to put it down during the performance, and Crazy Old Guy is so annoyed by the phone’s glow that he storms off, muttering, “There’s one in every crowd.” Shiny-shirt and his buds will later conclude that the old man is an asshole.)

I listened to Hedberg’s “Do You Believe in Gosh” on YouTube before heading out to the show, and hearing Gill now, I am suitably impressed with her impersonation of the man. A lot of Hedberg’s charm comes from his inflection — simultaneously enthused and bemused, friendly and yet tending to trail off inwardly, as if he’s considering what he’s just said. Gill nails it. “I taught myself how to play guitar, and that was a stupid decision, because I did not know how to play. I was a shitty teacher. I would never have went to me.”

That’s a mid-length joke; many are much shorter. “I’m wearing New Balance shoes, but they’re old, so I might start falling.” (See, I told you not to forget the sneakers, Best Beloved. Gill did her homework.) Occasionally, (s)he’ll bust out an actual story. “I was watching TV and there was a show about a lady who was born without arms — like, literally, she was born with her hands attached to her shoulders. And it was, like, that’s sad, but they were, like, ‘This woman doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “can’t,” ’ and to me, that’s actually kind of worse in a way. Not only does she not have arms, she does not understand simple contractions. It’s very simple, Lola: you take two words and put them together, take out the middle letter, put a comma in there and raise it UP!” This works on so many levels, partly because Hedberg himself never used contractions when he spoke.

I learn that particular tidbit from Gill, who has made a study of such things. “I’m hugely influenced by Mitch Hedberg as far as the kind of comedy I write,” says Gill after the set, standing in the cool outside the bar for a minute before heading back in to sing bawdy, comedic songs under her own persona. “I just don’t do heroin. I think he’s one of those accidental geniuses, like the Beatles. There are tribute bands — I figured, why not tribute comedy?”

Adopting the Mitch persona, says Gill, takes little more than “a couple of drinks. If you f*ck something up, well, Mitch messed up all the time because he was so fcking high. So you can just be, like, ‘Ah, fck, I fcked that up,’ and people will be, like, ‘That’s so right!’ When, actually, I fcked it up.”

But then, there is that inflection, and you don’t get that out of a couple of drinks. “I have a freakishly good memory, and it’s auditory,” Gill says. “If I hear something once, I’ve got it. When I was four or five, I started doing talent shows, memorizing Shel Silverstein poems. But I had to have someone read them to me to memorize them, and in a very overacted manner. The inflection makes it almost like a song, and I’m good at imitating that. If a comic has that sort of thing, there you go.”

Gill saw Hedberg perform once at Spreckels in 2004, six months before he died. By that point, she was already working Sunday nights here at the Blarney Stone. “They had an open-mike night, and I came in and performed. There were, like, six people there,” but one of them was the owner, “and he said, ‘You’re hosting open mike from now on.’ ” (When she starts into her own set, it becomes clear that she’s developed a following of her own. When she launches into a song about one-night stands, a trio of young women at the bar roar out responses to each line: “Well, it’s 2:00 a.m. and I don’t know your name [KNOW YOUR NAME!] You might think it matters, but you’re all the same [ALL THE SAME!]…”)

These days, she says, “I’m pretty selective. I had some people who weren’t that great, and they drove people out of the place, so now it’s more ‘I’ll book you to play on Sunday and you won’t get paid, but the owner is usually here, and if he likes you, he’ll book you to play on a Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. And they pay really well.’ ” Customers get a dose of free comedy from up-and-comers, and comedians get a lesson in working a bar. “People come here to try out comedy because when they come here, they can get good at dealing with hecklers and dealing with a room that’s not set up for comedy. It’s just a regular open mike at a bar — it’s not the Comedy Store, where everybody’s laughing because it’s nice to do that.”

MONDAY, MAY 18

I watch most of my TV and movies on a 15-inch computer screen, which makes the promise of seeing Terminator 2 at something approaching cinema-size up in the Loft at UCSD pretty tempting. Yeah, I’ve seen it — twice — but it’s a durable action movie and would make for a fun run-up to Terminator: Salvation. On the other hand, I’ve seen it. Twice. A better call: Special. “This darkly comic riff on our relationships with our heroes and our medicine cabinets, starring Michael Rapaport, screens for Film Forum, 6:30 p.m., San Diego Public Library, downtown. Admission: Free.”

Whatever charms the New Library (of Happy Anticipation) may eventually possess, I’m betting it won’t be able to match the old main branch for stubborn charm. The term “stately pile” is usually reserved for old English country houses, but it’s what I think of every time I behold the library’s façade, with its faux-stone front, its glassy entry level, its short columns below the roofline. And my favorite room in the stately pile, hands down, is the third-floor lecture hall, tucked behind a single door framed with smooth wood paneling. It’s dated, but in the best possible way — there’s not a trace of wear on the wainscoting; the movie-style seats are still springy and comfy, and the acoustic beveling of the ceiling still looks futuristic. Pull down a movie screen in front of the stage curtain, fire up the overhead projector, and you’ve got a fine free movie house.

“I work on the idea that if something intrigues me, there will probably be others who feel the same way,” says Ralph DeLauro, who runs the library’s film program. “And because it’s free, you can go for art with a capital A and see what happens. Special seemed like an oddball film that fit in with what we do.”

DeLauro started screening films in the early ’80s, “on the rooftop of a Fifth Avenue artists’ colony.” In 1984, he walked into the library, proposed running a film series, and got the go-ahead from PR officer Lois Hyman. Over time, he developed relationships with community groups, political organizations, and various film festivals, so that now he finds himself premiering PBS-bound POV films like Tintin and I, hosting director Grace Lee for a screening of The Grace Lee Project, and welcoming scholars to discuss films like Crips and Bloods: Made in America. And thanks to a screening license, he can show films from most of the major studios, as well as “smaller labels like Lionsgate and FirstLook.”

The hair on every head among the first arrivals is gray; some of it is more kempt than others. A carefully assembled couple take their seats near the front; the gentleman in front of me is less put together — white French cuffs jutting from the sleeves of his blazer, an incongruous web belt around his waist. “How do you like the movie so far?” he calls to a friend across the aisle, though of course, the movie hasn’t started yet. “I thought I’d add a little humor,” he adds, “because you might as well be happy.”

As we get closer to showtime, a few younger folks arrive. “All these people are regulars,” says DeLauro as he fiddles with the DVD player at the back of the theater. “We do this every Monday unless there’s a holiday, and they come pretty much every week.”

DeLauro welcomes the crowd, the room goes dark, and the screen lights up. Starting a film with a voiceover is almost always a sign of narrative infirmity, but Rapaport sells it with his plaintive reading: “I used to dream about flying. It went the same way every night. I realized I could fly — no, that’s not quite right. I realized that there was no reason I couldn’t fly, and after that, I’d float off the ground. But I haven’t had that dream in a while. Now, lately, I dream about more ordinary things, like doing my laundry or shopping for groceries. I wonder why that is.”

“You might as well be happy,” said the man in front of me. Twenty minutes into Special, I’m shaking my head in wonder — dude is prescient. Happiness, and the (super)heroic struggle to attain it, are at the core of the film.


Let me back up a bit. I actually start Monday night at Reds Espresso Gallery in Point Loma for their Meeting of the Minds. “ ‘Thinkers’ Gatherings planned. Draw a topic out of a hard hat or bring your own theories and hold court. 5:00 p.m. Admission: Free.” It sounds promising, but by 5:30, the only attendees are a couple of graying Boomers, and their discussion is more about process than anything else: whether it was more fruitful to mix it up with someone deeply opposed to you, your opinion, and everything you stand for or to hash out distinctions with someone who shares your basic worldview. (The proprietress told me they were just getting started with the series — maybe it will pick up.)

I don’t stick around to hear their conclusions, but I do check out a case in point of the latter scenario: the 7:00 p.m. monthly meeting of Activist San Diego at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. Tonight’s topic for the 30 or so people seated in a circle in the otherwise empty room: Obama’s first 100 days.

Our host is Matt — young and loose, sporting a black bowler hat and a beard big enough to bind up at the base. “The purpose of this meeting was to try to have a sort of discussion collectively with the people in the progressive community,” he explains — which is why he’s invited folks from the Green Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and others to share their thoughts. He’s also teamed with fellow members of Activist San Diego to present short overviews of Obama’s actions with regard to the bailout, immigration, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, torture…

“And health care,” adds a woman sitting in front of me.

“And health care,” agrees Matt.

Over the next hour, the president takes a beating from the left. The Activist San Diego presentations lambaste him for increasing spending on border security, refusing to go after “those people involved in ‘harsh interrogations’ under the Bush administration,” leaving troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and allowing the continued use of mercenaries (such as Triple Canopy), and propping up the banks and Wall Street with no risk to anyone but the American taxpayer.

After that, Barbara Storey, program director for health care for the League of Women Voters of California, excoriates the Obama administration for not even allowing the discussion of single-payer health coverage at the Baucus-led Finance Committee hearings. “To date, more than 13 people have been arrested because they’ve gone into the hearings and talked about it — and these are doctors and nurses. There is no way you can finance this system and keep the health-insurance industry in it. They’ve got to go. The Obama-Baucus plan is a disaster happening.”

Her ire also spills out on those closer to home. “We’ve actually passed single-payer the last two legislative sessions here in California, but… I don’t like to use his name, so I just call him ‘him’ most of the time, that’s how I deal with my frustrations…”

“Well,” says a gentleman seated nearby, “you could refer to him by his most famous movie role, the Terminator.”

“Well, he terminated our health care twice now. But we will pass it in 2011. It’s just mushrooming, and we finally started pulling people in from Hollywood. Lily Tomlin does this thing where she’s a phone operator for an HMO. She says, ‘Surely you don’t believe that HMO stands for Help Me Out?’ She’s doing some great stuff.”

A young white man opines that Obama “is a follower — he has to follow the center. Our job is to shift the center to the left, to a more progressive area. We’ve failed to do that because we’ve failed to get our message out. We don’t have access to the media. We don’t have access to the political parties that are in power. We have to infiltrate those minds and open them. I’ve been working with the La Jolla Democratic Club, and we’ve developed a system of Focus on Change groups at focusonchange.org” for speaking to “the general public that is normally apathetic.”

A young black woman comments, “Republicans are on the run — they’re marginalized. Yet it seems to me that the administration is still consistently playing to the right. On the major issues, it seems like we’re still waiting for the right to decide what should happen. On the Employee Free Choice Act, we’re still looking to big business to see what they want to do. The left should be stronger than at any time in my lifetime; why are we not making bigger gains?”

An older black man disagrees. “I didn’t vote for Obama — I voted Green. But for me, personally, this is the best 100 days I’ve seen since Kennedy. The atmosphere has changed. I don’t think people are as bigoted or as racist as they were a few years ago. African-Americans look at the justice system and think maybe they have a better chance.”

But wait! Who is that readying a rebuttal? It’s Crazy Old Guy from the Blarney Stone on Sunday! What are the odds? “This man is dangerous,” he booms. “We knew that before the election. As charismatic as he is, see how rotten all his lines are: about giving the Bible-thumping bigots more pork. He said, ‘I am going to cut out pork earmarks’ — he flat-out said that! And then he walked in and gave the Zionists money! He gave AIPAC money! Take statements that he’s been allowed to get away with — ‘Oh, hell, honky firefighters who have better scores and better abilities don’t deserve equal pay.’ Put that in the context of a woman, or a different race, and see how badly his stuff stinks. Europe has had a reduction in racism, but America, as Dawkins points out, has had an increase. That’s just a fact. And Obama, in his bigotry and ignorance — unequal pay for equal work — is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

“Okay,” says Matt. “Well, thank you for that. And now, let’s see, we’re going to hear from…” But how do you follow such a bravura performance? Time to go.

TUESDAY, MAY 19

Do you still read novels? No, seriously. You can be honest.

Of course, if you’re still reading by this point, it may be that you’re one of those people who still enjoy words on paper, so maybe you really do read novels. Good for you. Journey with me now through the fabled, moneyed realms of La Jolla to Warwick’s Office Supplies, Gifts, Stationery, and Books for.…

“Debut Author Night. Meet Deirdre Shaw (Love or Something Like It) and Janelle Brown (All We Ever Wanted Was Everything) when they discuss and sign their novels, 7:30 p.m. Admission: Free.”

“We really believe in the importance of promoting debut authors,” says Susan McBeth to the nine people seated before the podium set up next to the cash register at Warwick’s. “We’ve supported authors before they were known to the world…Khaled Hosseini, who wrote The Kite Runner — was here for his first book, and we had maybe 40 people here, 39 of whom were in his family. At his next event, we had almost 600 people.”

The crowd is almost entirely female (and two more women will arrive during the proceedings to bring down the median age). But both Shaw and Brown are eager to point out that their novels are not chick-lit. Says Brown, “I think chick-lit began as ‘single girl in the city, drinking cocktails, looking for love.’ Very plot oriented. There’s always a Mr. Wrong and a Mr. Right. They can be charming, and they’re very, very light — they’re not really concerned with bigger issues about society or relationships. And I think that over the last decade, those books have become so popular that all fiction by women that involves women has been pushed in that direction in terms of marketing. In my book, there’s no love at all — there are a lot of bitter relationships. And there’s no shopping. And yet, when the book came out, there were roundups that said, ‘This summer’s chick-lit novels include All We Ever Wanted Was Everything.’ ”

Shaw felt the push over the title first (her own idea was Do You Know Who I Am?) and then again when it came to the cover — and she had a sheaf of mock-ups to prove it. “You feel like you’re writing literary fiction, and you picture your book as this really artsy, literary thing. Our original had this black-and-white photo of a woman sleeping in a bed. At the end of the day, Barnes & Noble didn’t like it — they thought it was too serious, too somber. They basically said, ‘You can go ahead with it, but we’re not going to buy that many copies, because we don’t think it will sell that well.’ ” Random House started bringing Shaw options, and she rifles through the lot for our benefit. “Way too chick lit…bland…totally generic…hated the high-heeled girl the most…bride crying into a pillow, too immature…bride and groom pushing a beat-up car I liked; it told a story…bride standing on half a wedding cake…husband dropping the bride…” At the end of the day, “everybody ended up liking the final” — a torn and slightly crumpled valentine heart. “They felt it was clean and pretty. I was surprised to be so happy with it.”

“I had a very similar experience,” says Brown. “My first cover was a picture of a dead Gerber daisy. Barnes & Noble didn’t like it. Eventually, we decided on this picture of a melting sundae. It’s all about approachability, and this was approachable but also hinted at the darkness of the book. I think the book has done well, but whether it’s because of the cover or because of the content, I couldn’t tell you.”

Blonde, thin, and ramrod-straight, Shaw reads first, after McBeth quotes from a starred Booklist review: “Shaw’s graceful prose and razor-sharp observations make this absorbing debut a true standout.” The main character, a New York—born divorcée named Lacey, has fled her new home in L.A. and snuck into a Nebraska writer’s colony, passing a TV script off as a play. She runs into a hostile Marine sergeant at a local bar but apparently makes a good impression:

“I went back to the bar to settle my tab.

“ ‘I already got it,’ said the sergeant.

“ ‘Really?’ I said, looking up at him.

“ ‘Really,’ he said.

“We spent the rest of the night walking the town and talking. The streets were quiet, their homes, small and white and tucked away for the night, lamps glowing yellow and warm behind unlocked doors. Later, we headed out beyond, to the dirt roads, by the farms and the rolling fields, where it was silent except for our footsteps and the low murmur of our talk. He talked to me about war and duty and loyalty and commitment. It was so dark we could see the Milky Way. Toward dawn, we went down by the river. The green grass was firm and new. Afterward, he kept me so warm, it was like he had a skill for it. Then we watched the sun come up. I hadn’t done anything like it since I was a teenager.

“I told him that, all of it. I said I would never forget him.

“ ‘Where do you think you’re gonna be when I get back?’ he said. ‘I mean, what is it you want out of life?’ ”

“I was touched by the question but felt it was too late to ask it. Whatever I’d wanted — well, I hadn’t gotten it. Ten years ago, or even five, when I was in my twenties, I’d had time to figure out what I wanted. But now, at thirty-three, there wasn’t any time to think about wanting; I had to go ahead and get it. And suddenly I realized I couldn’t say what I wanted from the future, because the future and I were at the same place. Whatever I wanted from the future, I was living it right now.

“ ‘I guess I want this,’ I said happily, hugging myself, exhilarated by my realization. ‘A night like this. More nights like this.’

“He smiled. I knew he thought I was talking about him and that was okay.”

McBeth takes the podium again to introduce Brown, whose novel was voted Best Book of the Year by Library Journal when it came out in hardcover. Brown has brown hair and is wearing a brown dress and is expecting. (“When did that happen?” asks one of the ladies in attendance before the reading. “I could explain…” replies Brown.) She introduces us to Janice, one of her three protagonists: newly divorced from her husband of 29 years, who has just struck it rich and shacked up with her best friend. Janice is at the supermarket, shopping for dinner:

“She trots the cart down past the fresh herbs in the refrigerated bins just as the sprinklers hiss on. She pauses for a brief second and — she can’t help it, it looks so cool and enticing, and she feels just a tiny bit wobbly — tips her head in, just over the dill, tilts it up, and lets the mist come down over her face and neck. It feels marvelous, as soft and delicate as a feather, dampening the top of her blouse, catching in her hair. She is reminded of a trip she once took to Hawaii with Paul — a walk in a tropical rainforest, a waterfall that she longed to step under but didn’t dare, lest she ruin her sundress and sandals. Only now can she sense the bliss that comes with that kind of abandon.

“ ‘Janice?’

“The voice seems to come from a thousand miles away.

“Janice steps back with a jolt, realizing with alarm what she has done, and opens her eyes. Water is in her eyes, she can’t really see, but she recognizes Barbara Blint by the throatish rasp of her voice.

“ ‘Barbara!’ she says, as she frantically mops the water from her face with the sleeve of her blouse. There’s nothing really wrong with Barbara. It’s just that she’s a bit too enthusiastic. Like a puppy that won’t stop licking your foot, no matter how much you discourage it. If there is a charity planning committee, Barbara will undoubtedly volunteer for the most demeaning tasks that no one else will touch; if there is a Thanksgiving church feed for the poor, Barbara will be stuffing donated turkeys at 4 a.m.; if there’s a death in the neighborhood, Barbara’s the first to arrive with a casserole and a tear-stained face. And then there’s Barbara’s overt religiosity, an acquisition after the death of her husband…five years ago and a slightly gauche novelty in a neighborhood of understated religion. Barbara now talks about God in the same familiar way poor people in the Midwest did, as if he lived in the double-wide next door and was coming over that night for a Hamburger Helper dinner.”

Then it’s time for the standard Q&A about the writing process, about writer’s groups, about MFAs, and most importantly of all, about how did you get an agent/how did you get published. (Brown made connections with other writers through her work as a journalist; Shaw, a former TV writer, joined a writer’s group and landed a story in Swink.) Finally, the attendees make their purchases and line up to get their books signed. I can’t bear to check and see whether Shaw or Brown sells more.

WEDNESDAY, MAY 20

“Underdogs. High Tech High Media Arts seniors and Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego host an exhibition examining the underdogs of society. These 46 students offer sound works and ‘a diverse array of seven-minute digital works including experimental, interactive and journalistic styles’ with a variety of topics, 6:00 p.m. Admission: Free.”

Ah, contemporary arts spaces. So. Much. White. (And. Concrete.) But the high school kids add both color and personality, and the fun starts before I even finish ascending the concrete stairs. Over and above — or rather, under and around — the echoes of chatting teenagers, I can hear something scraping. The effect is grating, unsettling. It’s David Ciani’s Untitled Soundscape.

“The concept of my project,” he explains, “was to capture the struggle between humans and animals and to show how animals are often subjugated to human interests. They’re kind of an underdog. I captured sounds of animals in situations where they’re being subjugated. I took a trip to Thailand for spring break, and they had this elephant show. They had the elephants play harmonicas. We rode the elephants, and the whole backtrack for the sound piece is the sound of the chains on the elephant harness swinging back and forth.”

From the stairs, I head down the white hall to the newsroom. A large television runs five “newsy” segments on a loop — or, if you want to watch just one, you can slap on some headphones and get up close to one of five portable DVD players. Clint Buchhauser and his partner Jonathan Le decided to focus on small businesses. “It’s just kind of a news report,” says Buchhauser, “with small businesses as the underdog in this economy. We talked to a couple of business owners about how they’re dealing with the current crisis. But we were kind of limited by the seven minutes.” At the other end of the hall, a photo display depicts a shut-down Coffee Bean Bar, its jaunty red-and-yellow paint job mocked by the chain-link fence demarking its demise. The caption: “As of February 2008, there are more than 11,000 Starbucks stores in the US. Any other coffee shop seems hopeless in the face of such a giant. So, this coffee shop is the underdog.”

Two segments manage a neat juxtaposition regarding Christianity’s status in society, with one interviewing Christians about the difficulties they face in evangelizing and another scanning the news for evidence of bias against atheists in a largely theistic country. Another profiles wheelchair-bound tennis players. “My project is a simple message showing people in wheelchairs living life to the fullest,” explains Bob Landry. “I chose this topic because I have an uncle who is paralyzed. Once he became paralyzed, he chose to stop living a full life. I wanted to show that life does not stop and that a new and satisfying life can be created.”

“A lot of people are doing projects on personal issues,” says Amanda Schoepflin, co-creator of the experimental video Exemption. “I went through downsizing, and it was a very emotional process for me. The other project members went through the same thing — one couldn’t go to the college he wanted to attend, another couldn’t get aid she needed. Our project is about going from middle-class to that little bit under middle-class.”

“The girl I did my piece with, someone she’s very close to was raped as a kid,” says Ivan Vandenbergh, explaining The Unspoken, a video remix he made with Megan Davenport. “She felt the need to push the idea forward, because we feel that when people start talking about rape, no one wants to listen.”

The film, which screens in the “mature audiences” Education Room, features a number of clips from the Jodie Foster rape drama The Accused. Most of them focus on the crowd in the tavern during the rape itself, the way the men egg each other on. “Rape is attributed to four things,” reads the intercut text, “peer pressure, alcohol, all-male groups, and male dominance.” Cut to a nasty pre-rape scene from Farrah Fawcett’s Extremities. “Ninety-nine percent of offenders were aroused by the description of beating and raping a woman. Is it morally right for these explicit scenes to be shown in movies? Rape is so prevalent that one in every four women will be raped in her lifetime.”

Vandenberg comments, “We almost used a clip from Irreversible” — a French film notorious for its nine-minute rape scene — “but we thought it might be a little much. We didn’t want to be encouraging it,” especially in light of that 99 percent statistic. “We wanted people to question themselves when they were watching this.”

The Education Room — white, with benches made from egg crates and Astroturf — also features a film exploring domestic violence, and another, Bitch! Make Me a Sandwich, which steps back from this or that particular experience and addresses the structure of traditional gender roles. “I did a project on feminism last year, so I sort of got into it then,” says creator Alejandra Ewing after the screening. “I just wanted to show how it is in a lot of families. I think it should be more equal, so I flipped it around. I wanted to show girls breaking out, showing they’re fed up with it.” The climax: an angry woman asking her man, “You know what, bitch? Why don’t you make me a f*cking sandwich?”

It’s not all edges and bruises and sorrow. Out on the deck overlooking the harbor, a carnival basketball-shoot game is set up alongside a clip mix of underdogs in sports films. “Americans love the underdog because we can all relate to their circumstances,” reads the text. An ex-gangbanger has recorded a song about finding God and escaping thug life. Back inside, the main screen features an aspiring dancer interviewing actual pros about the challenges they face. (“It’s difficult to be in a career where you’re judged so much on the way your body looks, even what your face looks like.”) And Ashauncy Diaz-Nixon sticks up for love. “I went around to all my peers and asked them what they perceived love as. I also went to a life coach and interviewed her. I think love is the underdog. Lust and sexual attraction are way bigger than love and often confused with love.” Says the life coach, “It’s really just finding a person who is willing to try to get there with you, that’s willing to endure stuff so that you can get closer to unconditional love.”

The (white) Burgland Room has the biggest screen, and it is there that I see my two favorite pieces. The first is Darian Silverman’s Hidden Angel, a tribute to single mothers. What I love about it is the careful opening sequence — the camera at ground level, filming a toddler as she goes about the laborious business of obtaining Apple Jacks, bowl, milk, and spoon, setting up a dining spot on the kitchen floor, pouring cereal and milk, eating a few bites, and then leaving the whole mess behind. Followed by an equally careful and laborious cleanup sequence, all underlaid by a lilting, Feist-y song. It is the finest example of visual storytelling I see tonight, followed closely by Dustin Emerson’s action drama The Hall Monitor, which tells the story of a hall monitor who gets pushed one step too far by the evil forces that plague his halls.

“What do you want?” asks his frightened girlfriend before he goes off to confront the bad guys.

“JUSTICE!” he screams, and the audience erupts in laughter.

“JUSTICE!” he screams again as he jogs out the door, and the room laughs even harder. And justice he gets — bloody, hilarious justice.

“I just wanted to do something cool,” says Emerson, when I talk to him about his project. “Everybody was doing documentaries, and I didn’t want to do one. There were a bunch of superhero movies coming out, and for some weird reason, I was reading an article on hall monitors on Wikipedia. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a hall monitor. I was working too much on it and I turned it in late and got a C, but I’m just happy I had a good project.”

THURSDAY, MAY 21

“The Sandy Chappel Quartet, Appearing every Thursday with Burnett Anderson, Marley Weak, and various pianists. Standards/jazz/blues. Cafe La Maze, National City, 6:30 p.m.” (Admission — well, it’s a restaurant/bar, so they’d probably prefer you to buy something. But there’s no cover.)

“Suggestions for a perfect evening,” reads the framed menu just inside the back door at Cafe La Maze. “Your choice of savory food from our extensive menu. Your favorite mixed drinks, cocktails, and liqueurs. Dancing to the music of James McClaine’s orchestra. They’re sweet and hot. Phone Greely 7-5822 for reservations.”

James McClaine’s orchestra has gone the way of phone numbers like Greely 7-5822 and the illegal gambling room that used to operate upstairs from the cafe back in the day. But the management has done everything it can to make you forget the intervening decades. Cafe La Maze, in its current incarnation, is the finest recreation I have ever seen of the sort of ’40s nightclub I’m nowhere near old enough to have ever actually seen. The red (p)leather on the semicircular booths is immaculate, if not quite as red as the fuzzy pattern overlaying the silver foil wallpaper in the dining room. Somebody’s done a half-decent knockoff of an Al Hirschfeld mural on the wall next to the marble-topped bar — there’s Kate Hepburn, there’s Abbott, there’s Costello. (More stars show up in black-and-white photos surrounded by enormous, ornate frames — Gable, Garbo, even Jean Harlow.)

And the orchestra? That’s been replaced by the musical stylings of Sandy Chappel and Burnett Anderson since, oh, about 1989 (excepting three brief absences). “We came here from Texas,” says Chappel, plunking down at the bar and pulling up a glass of white wine. “We were headed for San Francisco because of the jazz scene, and Burnett’s cousin was working at the jazz station as a DJ. There was a piano player in town who Burnett had worked with — an English guy — and we were going to visit him and move on. We went to the Abbey, and man, we met everybody there — there was a benefit the next day for Leon Petty, who had been Nat King Cole’s drummer. The music director approached us and said, ‘I need somebody to conduct music on Sundays.’ I said, ‘Burnett, I think we’re home.’ ”

The La Maze gig turned up courtesy of the local weekly. “We wanted more work, and somebody said, ‘Look in the Reader.’ The guy that was playing guitar here had an ad in the paper, and he hired Burnett and me, and we’ve been here through five managements — 20 years this August.”

The band plays on a tiny stage, so tiny that drummer Weak must set up his kit on the somewhat less tiny dance floor below in order to make room for pianist Ed Kornhauser.

Chappel sits on a high stool when she sings, one leg crossed over the other so that her silver flip-flop dangles a bit. She tucks her glasses into the black shirt she wears under a diaphanous purple jacket and croons Cole Porter’s “ ’S wonderful… ‘S marvelous…” She doesn’t hang on to the notes, and Anderson fills in the silences between phrases with lines so gentle that you fear they will warble and fail — but they never do, not quite. Weak matches his feel — lots of brushes and mellow beats, verging only occasionally into tom-tom. Kornhauser’s piano is by far the loudest element, and his solos lean toward what I would call bebop if I knew anything serious about jazz, which I don’t. There are TVs behind the bar, but nobody’s watching them.

Chappel reels off four or five standards — including “All of Me,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Fly Me to the Moon” — then takes a break. Listening to the way she approaches the high notes, I get the sense that she has reached the point in her career when she needs to conserve her strength in order to perform throughout an evening. She has been singing, she admits, for 47 years.

“So, since you were two, then?”

“Thank you,” she says, sipping her wine. “I smoke, which is a big no-no. I’ve lost some of my upper range. I have charts from 30 years ago from a piano player back in Texas, and I’ve had to rechart them maybe a step lower because of age and smoking. I have to be really disciplined with breathing exercises and vocalizing, but I live with the most disciplined man in the world. There’s no day that he doesn’t put that horn to his mouth, and I have to live up to that. I don’t know why he’s not famous. Sometimes I forget to re-enter on a song because I’m listening to him.”

Burnett plays three, sometimes four nights a week at Cafe La Maze, and Chappel joins him every night except Wednesday (jazz night). Tonight, Thursday, is standards, and thanks to Michael Buble, “A lot of people who come in here really love standards — young and old.” She sighs. “I wish I could write one. We’ve both opened up more on the writing — it really opens your heart. But we always fall back on the standards.”

While we talk, Chappel’s fans pay their respects. An older gentleman puts his arm around her and croaks in a deep, grinning bass: “ ‘It’s impossible, tell the sun to leave the sky, it’s just impossible…’ ” At the far end of the bar, three folks from Santee sip their beers and smile. “We love it here,” says one of them. “We love that the people and the musicians interact. The only music we have where we are is a jukebox.” It’s just the sort of thing Chappel wants to hear. “When I was young,” she says, “I wanted to be rich and famous. Now I just want to sing.”


Standards can be tricky things to maintain, of course — the same notes again and again, the same sentiments, the same musical payoff. Chappel likes to think of songs as stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends. Eamon Carroll, who sings Irish songs down at the Field in the Gaslamp every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday night, doesn’t have as exact a formula. “Pete St. John said there are no tired songs, only tired singers,” he says, as if by way of agreement, then adds, “You can be singing a song for years and years, and then one night, it’ll be reborn for you. It takes on a new meaning, and the song impels you. I don’t know why. And playing in places like this helps keep you on your toes, because you interact with your audience. Mostly, they’re great, but you can get people who give you a hard time.” Like the Blarney Stone, the Field is a drinking establishment first and a performance space second, and you have to learn to work a room. (Carroll doesn’t even sit on the stage when he sings; he prefers a corner by the great stone fireplace, in part for the view it gives him of the whole Field. “You can see people coming in and tapping their feet as they walk in, and you can throw out feelers and see what people are into.”)

Because of the Gaslamp’s tourist-heavy crowd, Carroll finds it’s best to lean on the standards pretty heavily. He figures he’s got a couple of hundred songs in his head, but he generally limits his repertoire to 20 or 30 pub classics, “what I call ‘black pudding’ stuff. The fellow who sat down just before you asked for ‘The Green Fields of France,’ but on a normal night, you’d be reluctant to do that. It takes seven minutes to sing, and it’s slow and meaningful, and there’s great emphasis on the lyrics. But on a quiet night.…”

On a quiet night, it still might be a hard sell. “People’s attention span for songs is about 30 seconds,” grants Carroll. “I do a lot of medleys. You go from one song into another and then back to the first, and people don’t even realize it. The whole time, I’m reading the crowd — if I’m losing them, I’ll switch to another song.”

Not that he’s complaining. “This is the best Irish pub I’ve ever played in the U.S. — by a mile,” he says, looking about during a break at the alcoves, the tables, and the high shelves behind the bar. “My idea of an Irish pub comes from what it doesn’t have. It doesn’t have a jukebox or a pool table or a dartboard or a television — except for sports.” (The Field’s screens go dark after the NBA playoff game is finished.) “It’s a great, great pub. People come back here year after year.”

One of those repeat visitors is Kevin, a 24-year-old sailor on the USS Ronald Reagan. And when he comes, it’s at least partly for the music. “When I was stationed here in San Diego, I came to the Field and heard Eamon play — he’s excellent at the old folk songs. I bought his CD, and it’s one of the main things I listened to while we were on the Surge in ’07. I’ve been one of his biggest fans ever since, and he’s been teaching me, giving me advice on how to sing. Every time I’m out at sea, I’ll practice down in the engine room — try new songs, try to get better. I’ll probably get up there in a little bit and make some noise. I really like ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley.’ I’ll sing it a cappella — it’s a great song. I’ve had people start paying attention to where the whole bar was silent.”

FRIDAY, MAY 22

Look, I’m old, married, and white. You didn’t really think I was going to get through an entire week of free outings without attending a single dinner party, did you? Don’t you read Stuff White People Like?

SATURDAY, MAY 23

Geez, it’s Saturday, and I haven’t heard a lick of live rock and/or roll. I am old. I’m so old that I fail to anticipate that a four-band show at O’Connell’s in Linda Vista is going to have a $5 cover (such a bargain, but I’m in it for the freebies this week). I’m so old that I show up at 8:30 for a gig that the paper says will start at 8:00, when everybody else knows it’s not gonna start until 9:00.

That would be Nick Z. at the Wit’s End in Hillcrest. The bar is under new ownership, and it shows: the dark-red walls and black ceiling bear no smudge of age or grime. “It’s hotter than Hasselhoff up here,” says Nick from the stage in back — but he doesn’t remove his signature cap. “We’ve got three bands coming here tonight,” he says to me and the couple at the bar. “Hopefully, this place will get crowded. I’ll do my part.”

And he does, singing in a style that puts me in mind of Jason Mraz, with all of the earnestness but little of the self-regard. “I was playing at the Ivy downtown,” he says, “and this woman jumped onstage to sing with me, and it inspired this next song. The lyrics are shallow and simplistic, but it’s what came out. It is what it is…sometimes it has to be simple to get it across.”

Get a little closer so I can get to know ya…I want to make it work for the two of us…Let me break it down to the sunshine sound…

I’m off after four songs, but though I stop at any number of clubs and hear any number of bar bands, I don’t find myself taking too many notes. It’s not that the bands aren’t good — I’m pretty impressed with the Buick Wilson Band’s cover of James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” at Pal Joey’s in Allied Gardens, and even TNT’s version of “You Shook Me All Night Long” at Dirk’s Niteclub in Lemon Grove. It’s just that Nick Z. said it already: It is what it is. The band cranks up a familiar song, the patrons nod and tap their feet as they drink, and somebody gets up to dance. It’s not that pretty to watch, but then, I’m sober, and anyway, they’re not dancing for me. They’re out on the town, having a good time.

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