The Lost “Gypsy Society”

by Natasha Ball


Badger sipped coffee in the audience at The Gypsy Coffee House open-mic night for an entire year before he wrote his name on the sign-up sheet. He had decided he’d read a song he wrote about how one of his ex-girlfriends had come down with a bad case of throat cancer and how happy he was about that.

I had said no when he asked if anyone was sitting in the other chair at my table, one I’d picked out just in front of where the mic stood, framed between two naked windows. He wore a black dress shirt, a tie, and shined shoes, and he was bald under his pork pie-style hat. He introduced himself and said that he had taken over for Bradley Garcia, owner of The Gypsy, as emcee for the night.

The night he read the throat cancer poem was nearly a decade ago, and Badger has been helping to emcee the event for long enough to know without asking which of the performers to welcome as first-timers. Over the strumming of a guy with a fauxhawk and a guitar, he told me to stick around if I could, because he was going to take the next set.

“If you don’t like dirty shit, you should go outside now,” Badger said into the mic. He recited a poem he wrote in 2005 — “First the Cooter, Then the Pooter,” he called it — and I noticed as he sailed through the lines that he had a slight lisp. Half-way through the performance, someone from the audience feigned retching in the lobby.

Big, warm laughs had been coming from the table behind me, where Garcia was perched on a barstool. He re-opened the 1925 Gypsy Oil Building 12 years ago, turning what had been a blighted eyesore into the coffee house known now to the locals as The Gypsy. At something like 640 consecutive weeks and counting, the open mic-night there is probably the second-longest-running weekly production in Tulsa, just after The Drunkarddown at the Spotlight Theater. The performers are mostly regulars, and the audience is mostly performers. They try to remember to laugh and clap and nod thoughtfully in all the right places, to not be distracted by the songs or the poems they’d like to mouth to themselves just one last time, as their comrades revolve on and off stage.

Garcia starts the clock as each performer leans in to the mic: First it’s a guitarist, then a comedian, then a shy poet with a binder full of new work taking the mic for the first time. An open-mic night fixture named John Robinson, having earned the right to exceed the 10-minute limit, stopped between songs to smooth-talk at a woman at a nearby table. I could hear his lips brushing the mic as he spoke.

A bout of writer’s block has kept Badger’s pen dry since those early days at the gypsy, and an invasion of high-schoolers with wet dreams of wielding an ax in a metal band forced out the founding open-mic night haunts. When he’s not at home with his wife and son, or when he’s not at the office or working his part-time gig as a DJ, Badger still shows up to help Garcia host.

“Back in the old days it was like, the Gypsy society,” Badger said. “There was much more spoken word—now we have more guitarists, more musicians. I miss that. That was a magical time, back then.”