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Toasting Litcrawl with Martinis at Martuni's

Author and poet Allison Benis White reads in Wash Quarters, a laundromat on Valencia and 20th street
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Author and poet Allison Benis White reads in Wash Quarters, a laundromat on Valencia and 20th street
The final event of this year's Litquake featured a feast of readings at your favorite watering holes

The night started off at the very tip of Valencia Street at Martuni’s, where about 40 people squeezed into the bar’s dimly lit backroom to listen to “BARtab Presents: Bar Pick-Ups Gone Terribly Wrong (or Right).” Before the first reader stepped up to the mike, the dedicated waiter scurried around the packed audience to get everyone their drink of choice – martinis, mostly.

Welcome to Litcrawl, the enormously popular final event of the nine-day Litquake in which venues large and small across the Mission open their doors for readings. Every year, it seems, is bigger than the last; 2010’s Litcrawl boasted its longest trek ever, 1.6 miles of bookish events. A total of 68 spaces hosted hundreds of literary types, both reading and watching, who filled up Valencia Street sidewalks.

Litquake organizers estimate that over the course of the night, 7,100 people came, with an average of 115 crowding into each reading.

At Martuni’s, author and spoken-word artist Meliza Banales kicked off the night with a story of a Craigslist hook-up ad gone terribly wrong. It all started after a six-month stint of being sober and celibate: “It was the early 2000s and the city was quiet […] there weren’t a lot match.com whatevers yet, I knew you couldn’t order up a person the way you order up a taco, but this was sex!” Banales told the mostly-over-40 audience. Long story short, the ad turned into a Vegas wedding. But before it went terribly wrong, it went terribly right, as this video shows (warning: the clip contains sexual content and graphic language).

Tatyana Brown recites poetry in the Gestalt House on Valencia Street
Thalia Gigerenzer
Tatyana Brown recites poetry in the Gestalt House on Valencia Street
Thalia Gigerenzer

The next stop was Gestalt Haus on 16th Street, where we stumbled in during “the wet and sickening thud of tiny skulls against plaster/ then glass/ then wood/ each frenzied collision another spike of panic in our blood.” Poet Tatyana Brown was reading at the zine sPARKLE & bLINK’s monthly reading “Quiet Lightning.” It seemed to have something to do with death – and being feral – but we’re not sure. Anyway, death was soon overshadowed by “skies made of honey and cantaloupe stains” as Maisha Z. Johnson waxed poetic about her ancestral home Trinidad.

But enough of this fluffy stuff. We headed to the Mission District Police Station for the real dish, where the event “Mission & Mayhem” promised gritty stories from San Francisco’s underbelly. We walked in to see about 30 people sitting obediently in what looked like a meeting room, listening to Seth Harwood read from his newest book “Young Junius” about drug dealers in Massachusetts. “If we’re lucky, we’ll get out of here tonight without being arrested,” Harwood joked before his reading. The audience laughed nervously.

The setting was more than a little bit odd – authors read from an SFPD podium, in front of a sign that said: “The views expressed by the individuals or groups using this community room do not necessarily reflect the views of the San Francisco Police Department or its Members.”

Then, onto Wash Quarters on Valencia and 20th Street – a laundromat with really good acoustics (who knew!) – for a change of scenery. Author and poet Allison Benis White sat in the middle of the laundromat reading poems inspired by water, clothing and heat. In the background, people went about their weekly laundry rituals, including one woman who wasn’t about to stop her spin cycle for some crazy gathering of poets musing on sponges and the origins of the universe.

“This is becoming more and more like a dream,” said Benis White of the surreal atmosphere, adding, in a slightly irritated tone, “I’m really hoping nobody else calls that woman.”

Next stop was Ritual Coffee Roasters, where litcrawlers and San Quentin ex-prisoners were slowly displacing the café’s Saturday night laptop fiends. Wait, what? The event was “San Quentin, You’ve Been Living Hell to Me,” a kind of showcase of a writing group that authors Keith and Kent Zimmerman lead with prisoners at San Quentin’s H-Unit.

One of the readers was recently discharged inmate David Mears, who waxed poetic about his cleaning job at the prison. “Hot loogies fly everywhere, hanging like bats on the ceiling,” read Mears. The highlight of the event was this great poem about a little corner in the Tenderloin by inmate Joseph Hyme, read by Keith Zimmerman:

Litquake - San Quentin

Near the end of the crawl, the night took a surreal turn as we peeked into Clarion Alley for “Bawdy in the Alley: Real People Share Their Bona Fide Sexual Exploits in Ten Minutes or less.” It was the last stop before the crowds either dispersed or moved into the after party, taking place at the Blue Macaw on Mission Street.

A crowd huddled in the dark around a loud, masculine voice telling a graphic story about his encounter with a girl in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform. “What’s going on?” asked a confused passer-by, eyeing the crowd skeptically as the story got more and more graphic. “Oh, it’s just Litquake,” said a girl in her mid-20s, adding, “it’s a literary event.”

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