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Photograph by Pablo C. Leites

Pizza and Poetry: Sonoma's once-monthly cafe boasts something for everyone.

Heart of Community

Sonoma's Center of the Universe Cafe is for all souls

By Heather Irwin

Mismatched candles are hastily lit in the dark by improvising volunteers. The fact that the electricity has gone out doesn't seem to worry anyone particularly. The arriving guests are cast in and out of shadow as they quietly meander down the Sonoma Community Center's institutional hallway toward its improvised cafe entrance. Anticipation of tonight's performance is somehow enhanced by the lack of power, rather than dampened.

We've come for the monthly Center of the Universe Cafe, a converted Catholic schoolroom turned improvisational poetry jam/supper club in the heart of Sonoma. Greeting us is the smell of garlic, hanging heavily in the flickering darkness. The good news is that the electricity seems to have only affected certain portions of the building. The kitchen ovens hiss and spit in the cafeteria as busy cooks rush to serve the hungry crowd of more than 40 gathered here.

It's a little after 6:30 on a warm, lazy summer evening, and no one is in a hurry to get going. The schedule for tonight's performance is less than rigid--a bit like its founder, Ken Brown. The pony-tailed former mayor and cafe organizer wanders through the makeshift eatery saying his hellos and occasionally chasing after his two-year-old daughter, Eden. It seems that there are few people here tonight he doesn't know. This is, after all, a sort of social club for Sonoma's progressively minded politicos, artists and poets, and those who love them. By a few minutes after 7 the crowd has mellowed with glasses of organic red wine and settled into their seats, talking in hushed tones and occasionally looking toward the simple stage, waiting for the first performer.

"Five minutes, five minutes," says an eager figure wandering down the candlelit hall gathering stragglers. We've arrived a little late, at the tail end of the dinner line. Piles of mismatched plates mark the start of a small buffet. Moving through the line, my rose-patterned platter gets a heap of salad, garlic bread still steaming in its aluminum foil jacket, homemade beet salad and two slices of tonight's feature, super-thin-crust pizzas with goat cheese, artichoke and a whole host of other goodies.

The Center of the Universe Cafe is like an exclusive supper club and cabaret that is neither exclusive nor clubby, yet you kind of have to be in the know to end up here. Though the cafe has been around in one form or another since the late 1980s, Brown says the "bubble kind of burst" and it wasn't until two years ago that he decided to start things up again, making the formerly once-weekly culture and poetry confab into a monthly open mic and dinner. There are no real directions or invitations--you just show up the first Saturday of each month, eat what's being served (guest chefs rotate monthly) and enjoy the show.

Dinner is a casual buffet, with themes and ingredients changing each time, depending on the cook. May was Indian food; for June, Cynthia Boyer and Gail Goldman cooked up some 72 ulta-thin-crust pizzas. The price for dinner and the show is a mere $10. The show only is $6; there's no longer an option for just the dinner. Brown says folks were just showing up for the $5 dinner and leaving. And frankly, that's missing the whole point.

Now in our seats, Ken introduces us to his fellow Sonoma councilman Larry Barnett. Brown and Barnett, for those not intimately knowledgeable of Sonoma city politics, are well-known for their progressive social agendas, environmental stands and anticorporate viewpoints. The two discuss a recently sponsored living-wage bill and both were staunchly against a large resort slated to be built several years ago. (The resort builders were sent packing, and the space became a bike trail and nature preserve.)

Councilman Barnett loves to talk politics and is a passionate defender of the way he thinks his town should be. Thumbing through his copy of Victor Littlebear's recently penned book The Bushiad and the Idyossey, a neo-Homeric epic slamming George W. and his posse, Barnett talks about how he'd like to keep corporate chains like Starbucks away from the town square. Of course, one just opened near the square.

"They never open just one, you know," he says ominously. We all nod in agreement, though I can't help but think of a morning latte habit which may or may not involve Starbucks. But that's what the cafe is all about--friends coming together to talk politics, share views, dish gossip about the community they love.

Through the evening, friends and family cheer on friends and family reading poetry, singing songs and commenting on the current state of the world with humor and wit. No one takes themselves all that seriously--which makes the event that much more entertaining and cohesive.

A bass player accompanies those who want to punctuate their lyrical words with music, and then sits tacitly for those who don't. "Beeeeeeeeeet fingahs," sings Ann Hollister. Her rhythmical recipe-poem about cooking 10 pounds of beet for the night's Hawaiian beet salad is punctuated by keyboard riffs. Others page through wrinkled notebooks or typed manuscripts, read from published books or from manuscripts they simply hope will someday will be published.

From the most personal revelations about marriage, sexuality and one's inner psyche to political and theoretical commentary about native peoples and social issues, the performers run the gamut. Each is limited to five minutes--at least in theory. Early performers get a tinkle of bells to announce the end of their allotted time. Later performers sometimes seem to go on for, well, a lot more than five minutes. But regardless of talent or merit, there is no judgment, and even the most lackluster of performers receives hearty applause and support.

We step outside around 9pm, groggy from wine, food and poetry. The room glows from the inside, the electricity now restored. The door is opened into the back courtyard and a sleepy dog rests half inside and half outside. Light spills onto the sidewalk and the next performer takes the stage. Walking into the cool, dark night toward home, we can still hear the laughter and applause from a cafe at the center of the universe.


Center of the Universe Cafe, first Saturday of the month, from 6:15pm. Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St. Dinner and show $10; show only, $6. 707.938.4626, ext. 2.

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From the June 9-15, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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