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Street poets come together at 16th and Mission

Tonny Villarreal
Poets share stories outside a Mission District BART station in San Francisco

Note: This article contains language some readers may find offensive.

Usually, people who emerge from the 16th Street BART Station in San Francisco are greeted by men and women slumped over shopping carts, by panhandlers, and by the cacophony of traffic. But late on Thursday nights, BART passengers stride into the sounds of poetry. For over a decade, poets, musicians, and comedians have been meeting outside the station.

Some say the open mic at 16th and Mission is the city in a microcosm. If that’s true, San Francisco looks something like this: commuters hurrying somewhere else, a few homeless people staying put, and police slowly driving by. And then, of course, there’s the poets.

No place for Walt Whitmans

Charlie Getter is one of the open mic’s founding fathers. Back in 2003, Getter and six poet friends had been reading their work at a coffee shop. When it closed for the night, they weren’t ready to call it quits.“A bunch of friends who came to the reading started meeting in a living room,” he says. “About a month later, they called me up and said, ‘Charlie, you gotta come. We're gonna go to the street corner.’ I thought it was stupid. They went out to 24th the first time. They came out here the next time. And then I started coming and I thought, ‘This is awesome! This is a lot of fun.’” Plus, 16th Street seemed like it could use some poetry.

Now, this is not an open mic for the 20th century Walt Whitmans of the world who want sonnets about babbling brooks and flowery meadows. Once, a performer was stabbed, yet continued to recite poetry until Getter convinced him an ambulance would be a good idea.

“So we had to call the police. It was the only time we’ve had to do that in 11 years, which is kind of amazing,” Getter says.

Getter's seen drug dealers stop what they're doing just to watch. While doing a poetry reading at San Bruno prison, some of the inmates recognized him from his street performances.

“Well, you know, there's no crime when we're here,” Getter says. “That's kind of why we thought we were getting a free pass from the cops because they were like, ‘Hey, these guys are watching.’ We keep our eyes open.”

Odes to cops and tech

But now, he says, the cops have their eyes on them.

“Now they all read ‘Why We Hate the Cops’ poems,” Getter says, reflecting on how the topics have changed over the years. “People would come out with love poems. It's such a bummer. It’s old. People are angry.”

One longtime regular, Casey Gardner, jumps into the center of the circle, and starts reading one of those angry poems Getter's talking about. But her poem has an ironic twist.

“An Open Complaint Letter to Twitter,” she begins. “Twitter! What the fuck are you doing?! You deserve the fair shair of the blame. Where is your behemoth tendency towards world domination? You should be buying blocks by now.”

Gardner doesn't hate Twitter, or tech, or high rise condos; she just loves her street corner. She says she first read at the 16th and Mission open mic almost three years ago.

“I was so nervous. I had my paper in my hands. I got up, and I read this thing, and I was too quiet,” Gardner says. “They were like, ‘You're good, come back!’ And I haven't been able to stop.”

Now Gardner teaches poetry, and hosts youth slams. She's worried about the police officers she sees watching the open mic, and she's worried about what could happen to the gathering if current development plans become a reality. Last October, a developer submitted plans for 351 new condos in the 16th and Mission BART plaza.

“We're able to do this because what are we interrupting? They're the people that live here,” Gardner says. “This is also for them. Everyone comes here to be involved. For one night a week, there's no crime here. There's just poems.”

An uncertain ending

Getter often stays until the last poem is read, but he thinks that one day, the whole open mic will be gone.

“Just like anything, it’ll stop someday. I mean, if they tear down all the buildings, it'll be really sad,” Getter says. “The Subway shop or whatever fast food restaurant will probably stop us. The story is they're gonna tear down all these buildings and put in retail establishments. That's when it will end. If it doesn't end of its own accord. That’s when it’ll end.”

But it’s not over yet. And for now, every Thursday night, poets emerge out of the BART stop, plant themselves down on the 16th and Mission concrete, and listen to angry, heartfelt, and occasionally even upbeat poetry. Those walking through the neighborhood stop and turn. The homeless join in. Police officers watch from a distance. And, for a few hours in a quiet corner, crime seems distant, muted slightly by the sounds of poetry.