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At Lip Service West, everything you hear is true

on June 12, 2010

Joe Clifford came to the makeshift stage to loud applause, in a black short-sleeved button down and faded blue jeans. The third reader of the evening, he held his folded sheets of paper in his right hand and led his captivated audience through a saga of strung-out, drug-induced despair he called “Hepatitis Heights.”

“And this is my life,” Clifford read. “I am 30 years old. I don’t know where my wife is.”

Clifford produces Lip Service West, a forum that allows writers, both professional and amateur, to share their true stories with audiences. First founded in 2006 in Los Angeles, the event became famous among literary artists in Miami, which is where Clifford found the event; he eventually became a co-producer. After moving back to the Bay Area, Clifford began looking for a place where he could produce local Lip Service readings.

The San Pablo Arts District Fund (SPAD), a nonprofit organization that is trying to change the Golden Gate neighborhood through art, hosted Friday night’s Lip Service West event as part of its new second-Friday art gathering. Inside an empty storefront donated for the group’s activities, about 40 people sat in plastic folding chairs. Six rows of four chairs each lined each side of the room, with a small aisle leading to the front of the room and the four readers. In a nook in the back of the room was a folding table, laden with chips and salsa, crackers and cheese, red wine and Shasta. The large red door kept swinging open long after the readers had started, until the event was standing room only.

With the exception of the newly renovated building next door, the block the storefront sits on looks desolate. The Golden Gate neighborhood sits on Oakland’s western-most edge, centered between 54th and 68th streets along San Pablo Avenue. Directly to the south lies Emeryville, with Pixar and the Bay Street shopping district. To the north is West Berkeley and the ritzy stores of Fourth Street.

Idan Levin, a cofounder of SPAD said that, on average, 22,000 cars drive to and from Berkeley to Emeryville every day on San Pablo Avenue, but that the neighborhood, known for having blight and crime problems, sees little foot traffic.

“What will make a difference?” Levin asked. “Public art. We need people to visit the restaurants, cafés, and businesses that have been here for years and are trying to survive. We need people to stop.”

And that’s where SPAD comes in. Friday night’s Lip Service West reading marked the arts organization’s third event. A video exhibition by artist Michael Patrick Perez plays in the gallery’s large window every evening and serves as SPAD’s first permanent exhibit. The organization’s goal is to have as many as 15 public art exhibits along San Pablo Avenue, inviting visitors to appreciate the art—and bring business (and people) to the neighborhood.

“Maybe then people will say this is an okay place to live,” Levin said.

There are only two requirements to read at Lip Service West: Your story must be true, and can’t be longer than 1,500 words. On Friday evening, Clifford read the first chapter of his soon-to-be-published memoir, entitled Junkie Love, recalling how he first moved to San Francisco from Connecticut in the early 1990s and soon became addicted to drugs. The piece he read Friday night recounted a time the San Francisco police came to his home and Clifford, high on heroin, had no idea what to do.

Not that all of the readings were serious. Lauren Becker, an East Bay freelance writer, told the true story of being asked to write a story for a man who had an odd foot fetish. Her piece, entitled “He Prefers Bunions,” received the loudest laughs of the night.

Other readings included a humorous piece called “Dude,” read by San Francisco librarian Marcus Banks, and a chapter from the novel Matches, author Alan Kaufman’s fictitious account of an American expatriate who serves in the Israeli Defense Fund.

Clifford said he put Lip Service West’s first reading together by asking people he knew to read their own work, but encouraged attendees and local residents to send submissions to his website. “Writers, non-writers, it doesn’t matter,” Clifford said. “If you have a story, we’ll find a way to tell it.”

Andrew Birbryer and Cara Cameron, of El Cerrito, came to the reading to support their friend Clifford. “I like the shock factor,” said Birnbryer. “I don’t want a lame-ass story. I want the ‘whoa factor.’ That’s always guaranteed with Joe.”

Cameron, a writer, has already been invited to participate in the next Lip Service West event, and attended Friday night’s event in part because she was curious about how the personal narrative reading would be received. “It was really impressive,” she said.

Most of all, Birnbryer and Cameron, who are former Golden Gate residents, feel the San Pablo Arts District will bring a positive influence to the neighborhood and to Oakland.

“We’re slowly taking the neighborhood back,” Birnbryer said, and then he paused. “I mean, I don’t want them too be too hip. We don’t want to be SoHo. It’s Oakland, it’s got to have a little grittiness. It’s like TriBeCa before DeNiro.”

Attendees of Lip Service West stand outside the San Pablo Arts District Fund Friday night in Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood.

Clifford says that organizing Lip Service West is his chance to contribute to the Bay Area arts community now that he’s put his addiction behind him. He left San Francisco in 2000—there were warrants out for his arrest—and went back to school on the East Coast, earning a bachelors degree at Central Connecticut State University and a masters of fine arts from Florida International University. He checked into a long-term treatment facility and got clean. And with the help of some of his professors, he was accepted into San Francisco’s Clean Slate Program, which has given him a second chance.

“I can come back here [to the Bay Area] and have something good come from something bad,” Clifford said.

When the reading was over, the sun had set. At least half of the attendees stood on the sidewalk under the streetlamps, talking and laughing well into the night. A small step, perhaps, but as Levin pointed out, also a good sign for the Golden Gate neighborhood.

The next Lip Service West reading will be held Aug. 13. The San Pablo Arts District Fund currently holds events at 5512 San Pablo Ave.

Lead image: Joe Clifford, producer of Lip Service West, reads at Friday night’s San Pablo Arts District Fund gathering.

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1 Comment

  1. […] by W. Ross Ayers, Sean Craven, Pamela Holm, Allison Landa, Howard Zalkin. You can read our previous coverage of Lip Service West here. More info […]

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