A fat-bellied man with greasy grey hair smacks his head, thrusts out a quivering hand to the crowd.
‘. . . Osama Bin Laden flies to Paris with Bush, grabs his tusch, says he has a face to launch a thousand nuclear missiles. Boy does Bush blush! . . .’
Jiving through his act like a tap-dancer on crack, he narrowly avoids the circle of tea-lights in paper bags marking out the central ‘stage’. Slam regulars call out sporadic phrases in sync. with his pre-worded discourse they already know so well.
Stray cynics stand hesitant at the periphery. Stylish twenty-somethings in thedoras wait coolly for some vestige of talent. Artsy-dressed teenagers sit crossed-legged on the stone. Lilting hobos dotted about mumble their slurred commentaries to strangers.
Grease Man gets a humble applause from scattered onlookers. Then a spritely girl with chestnut curls steps up to offer liberated descriptions of coital fun with other women.
‘. . . I lap you up, embrace your sacred rain! . . and how generously you give . . . ‘
Encouraging applause, then her frail-framed friend leaps in to proclaim her lust for life, love and self-expression; lyrical torrents of defiant individuality.
A glory-seeking man stumbles in, knocking over several tea lights. Swaying, he makes a few jokes about his own penis, finger out as if to urge patience. Clearly at pains to deliver another offensive routine, he gets booed off within a minute.
Prompt as a panther, one impatient teen whips out mini-amp and guitar to reel off a well-rehearsed blues solo; jagged jazz riffs emanating through the open space to so wowed a crowd we all beg for an encore. He attempts one but trails off mid song and scuttles back to his friends.
During the next few acts city-dwellers pour out from Mission Street’s BART station to find a sprawling gaggle of performance-lovers. Quick glances and pricked ears, flickers of intrigue or vague revulsion. Familiar eye-rolls from those who know the Beats died long ago, instant favour from those who know that’s not so; Borough and Kerouac live!
A woman with sequins all over glides to the center, calling out in an oragasmic flow: ‘I am earth, I am fire, I am wind, I am water. I pack my inner demons into boxes, building and wielding my bridge without yielding, box by box, right across San Francisco bay!. . . ‘
Growing applause and two dozen evesdroppers join the crowd. Two cops sneak in at the edge, all too ready for a public drinking crackdown.
One lean man with grey stubble strolls in to preach and beseech the sins of America, the sheer indolence of us, yes US, the listeners at this very slam who sit about idly accepting this decaying world while George Bush continues his reign of terror . . .
The delicate energy is threatened, but in the nick of time one decisive hero walks over, guides the old fool away.
Up steps a trendy, broad-jawed man in a peak cap. Not here to recite his own material, he explains with knowing zeal, rather: The Owl and The Pussycat
‘ . . . So the owl looked up to the stars above
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy, O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are!” . . . ‘
Laughter and claps all round. New layers to our whirlpool of onlookers. Scores of pedestrians leave behind the chaos of a traffic-addled junction only to find the same untamed fusion of life.
A black man with dreads and plenty stage charisma enthuses the crowd with his flow. Meanwhile a plonky Hispanic mother lets her wailing baby slip from her arms; catching him before the concrete does, she yanks out her fatter breast and suffocates the child’s face with it. Several wily crack dealers circulate the crowd, probably assessing the crazed orgy for business potential.
Next to me a short man with an open beer is telling me it’s all wrong.
‘Ees no good. In Mexico we ave’ danceen, yo know? Real dancin, no like thees. Is different. Shut the fuck! Ees differen’!’
The sweat on his face could just be beer. Two cops close in, lead him away, take his bottle and his details.
Popular man with dreads gets the loudest reception yet, and before we even know how, it’s in full swing! The bar’s been raised, the pace is holding, and it’ll take more than two cops to stop it.
Wait a sec, who let that preacher bastard back on?
‘I know, I know,’ he says, hands up in defense, ‘I been up here four times already, but you people are sick. You gotta’ listen to me. I may not be educated, but I try, I try! I can’t say what I want though, caus’ you’re all sick!’
No one holds back now: the barrage of boos and insults hits like bricks. Pretty soon the old hero’s out there to tug him away again.
And where did this double bassist come from? Beard and lanky build, shirt and khakis, he spins the enourmous thing on its axis, starts a walking bass accompaniment to whoever wants. Plenty do.
Broad-Jaw Man jumps in and delivers some spoken word rhymes. When he stutters, sporadic shrieks let him know to keep going. A beat-boxing flautist struts in to join the groove. Sputtering percussive sounds into the mouth piece, he churns out improvised lines to the bassist’s two-chord harmony.
Broad-Jaw man drops out and the flautist dips into some technical soloing. Woops and cheers fly out to him.
Man with dreads bowls in, launches into some freestyling of his own. He’s joined by Chestnut Curls and Frail-Frame girl, who dance and yelp in the sheer energy and release of the moment. The cluster closes in and other ambitious wannabe rappers run along to take their shot in the surge, the uninhibited giddiness and spontaneity of poets and musicians riffing to the same Pulse, dipping in and out like avid swimmers breaking the ice, words a-spooling, talent pooling, gravity hauling in all passers-by with half an eye for laughs and I would bet this set could keep it up till morning.
But they don’t.
My phone rings and I take it. The call only lasts two or three minutes but when I turn back the frenzy is dying down.
One guy attempts a rhyme but the words falter and the bassist has already stopped to mop his brow. The fluatist tries sporadic phrases, trailing off, then walks away. Groups are flaking, and most the tea-lights in paper bags have capsized. A girl tries clumsily to prop them up before the bags catch fire. Sounds of traffic from Mission street are already competing with the crowd, and before long the cars have won. Several performers take out cigarettes and light them, inhaling proudly as some do in their post-climax calm.
Close by a saggy woman in pink tunic is doing up her make up, pocket mirror and all. I hazard a guess at her profession and suspect that with so many people dispersing she feels it’s time to make herself known.
I turn to Jonah and the others. They’re nonplussed, aimlessly glancing in different directions.
‘What the hell just happened?’ I asked.
‘Dunno, let’s go get drunk.’