Moon Units

The offbeat and the heartfelt flourish at a '90s-style coffeehouse



In an intimate, smoky, free-flowing space called The Moon, a bearded college student is up on the small stage, laughing as he reads his poetry; the crowd, clustered around circular tables, is laughing back. We have landed in what seems a most peculiar, provocative place.

Alex Shaumyan, originally from the Soviet Union, now studying at Southern Connecticut State University, reads his "Poet's Guide to New Haven." He describes streets that smell of pizza, falafel, urine and stale beer, blocks roamed upon by Deadheads, Yalies, yuppies, preppies and artsy-fartsy types, "a city of beggars and businessmen." Shaumyan just can't help giggling when he hits one of his lines he finds particularly funny--which happens often--and the rowdy audience eggs him on.

Scenes such as this are played out twice a week, Monday and Wednesday nights at The Moon's "Arts Night Out" coffeehouse. Located on New Haven's Whalley Avenue, near the "automobile row" of car dealers, the club is in an unlikely spot for such free-form goings-on. But ever since Ed Leonard, who describes himself as "a starving musician and songwriter," hit upon this idea, it has attracted an increasingly loyal cult following.

"It started in February 1990." says Leonard, the coffeehouse's emcee. "I was playing here with a band and I thought, 'Gee, what a great place for a coffeehouse.' One of the co-owners, Carlos Prega, said, 'Do it!' It's worked so well that a few weeks ago we expanded it to Wednesday nights.

"I had no idea there was so much talent in New Haven and Connecticut." he added. "Hardly anyone is bad. It's a venue. There aren't many places for original artists to perform."

Damn straight. This also means audiences don't often get a chance to check out unusual art and acts. I must admit I had some misgivings about what I was going to encounter, but the spirit was so open and most of the entertainment so eccentrically fine (especially Shaumyan) that the "nights out" I experienced were good times.

Here's how it works: Anybody can come in to watch, regardless of age. As the posters say, there is "Free admission and free food"--shrimp or potato salad, Buffalo wings. At around 9:30 or 10 p.m., the performers begin their acts, which last about 10-20 minutes, depending on how much they have to do or say. These are the folks who signed up ahead of time. After midnight, it's an "open mike," so anyone who wants to play guitar or dance or sing or read or whatever can get up there and just do it.

Sometimes this informal approach turns a tad chaotic. On a recent Monday night, when Leonard missed his first "Arts Night Out" in history because his cat was sick, musician Bill McKenna filled in as emcee. When McKenna got up and introduced David Carter, poet, nobody came forward. "Did he cancel on us?" McKenna asked the audience. No response. "So, Bill Owen--is Bill Owen here tonight?...Oh, you're baggin' me!... Does anybody have a guitar? "

A moment later, a bewildered-seeming man wandered in the front door and asked, "Who's in charge here?" It was David Carter, poet.

McKenna said, "Here's Dave," and Carter, in plaid shirt and madras shorts hopped on stage. "I just ask that you listen," he said and then he read a poem written by a friend he served with in Vietnam. Playing staccato bursts on his harmonica to accent key phrases, Carter concluded: "It is wrong to kill, period. And this you have to learn, the way I did."

"That's good stuff," called out a young dude in the crowd, far too young to remember Vietnam. Yep, many of these dressed-in-black students who predominate at the coffeehouse (generally they are from Southern, not Yale) do sit there and listen to poetry. But what they actually come for seems to be the local rock bands such as the Retardz, who plug in and start to wail after a couple of the poets and acoustic guitarists have had their say.

The poets, balladeers and rockers share a rage, an anguish over what it is to be livin' in the USA in the '90s. You might hear some verse about masturbation, the emptiness of career planning, the futility of Desert Storm. Introducing one of his own songs, McKenna said: "It's an expression of frustration for religious intolerance and censorship." This is raw and immediate stuff, a 1990s version of the 1960s coffeehouse.

And if you don't dig the acts, you can watch the people in the crowd--like the kids with the tattooed arms, wearing a baseball cap backward, reading to himself what appeared to be a diary or a book of poetry scribblings, using a Budweiser label as a bookmark. Where do these people come from? Who knows: maybe they only come out at night, on The Moon.

NOTE: The Moon closed on Saturday, September 12, 1992, the night of the full moon. It was also the only club in New Haven where Nirvana played before the band became famous with the video "Smells Like Teen Spirit." I wrote a poem called
The Moon in the memory of the club.