Tuesdays in Saytown don’t present many options for us night owls. But the few we do have are top quality: on a weekly basis, Limelight’s longest-running DJ party, Velcro Underground, attracts a loyal, well-dressed following of progressive dance music fans; the Saint becomes an urban melting pot, bubbling over with a crowd that consistently defies sexual orientation; and enthusiastic shouts and bursts of creative genius emanate from On the Half Shell, an unassuming oyster bar that’s the current home of PuroSlam, which, according to its Wikipedia page, is “the only nationally certified poetry slam operating in San Antonio.”
On the Half Shell is one of three bars (Zinc Bistro & Wine Bar and Drink Cocktail Bar are the other two) that share a picturesque courtyard smack in the middle of downtown. For safety and convenience (and to avoid searching for parking), I took a taxi to the corner of Navarro and Market, a street that changes names three times in a matter of blocks (an example of “the founding fathers screwing with tourists,” my cabbie insisted). “Enjoy your oysters, but the food is better at Zinc, and those slams can get pretty ego-driven,” he warned me as I hopped out.
You can’t surmise much about On the Half Shell from the street, and, despite its central location, it’s easily overlooked (not exactly hidden, but you have to know what you’re looking for). When I arrived, PuroSlam was in full swing, with prerequisite heckling from the sloshed audience, and evidence everywhere that beer is a poet’s best friend. While the scene downstairs evokes college years, On the Half Shell’s upper level, which functions as a V.I.P. area on Friday and Saturday nights, is cozy, inviting, and even homey: upholstery covers the furniture, flowing panels of fabric hang from the ceiling, and clear Christmas lights give off a warm glow.
Profanity, sexuality, politics, broken hearts, the Spurs, and pretty much anything else you can imagine are all viable, slammable topics. One young slammer, who goes by “Rain or Shine,” explained that the device carrying all his new work had just died, so he’d be sharing the only poem he knew by heart. “As I breathe, I dream,” he began, his voice muffled slightly by the sound of a VIA bus coming to a stop outside. Describing the scene at a coffee house he frequents, another poet painted a vivid picture with words. The phrase “white girl after white girl” elicited “latte after latte” from an animated female listener, but “pumpkin spice nipples” was the poem’s clear money shot.
A table of five judges (selected by “Slammaster” Jason “Shaggy” Gossard) at the back of the room listened intently before holding up scorecards (scores range from 0.0 to 10.0). In each of three rounds, an overall score was determined for each poet (highest and lowest scores were thrown out; the remaining three were added), the top six moved on to round two, and only three poets made it to the final round.
Since its inception in 1999, Re: Verb, the Wild Club, El Toro, Sam’s Burger Joint, Atomix, and the Heights have all hosted PuroSlam. Rowdy crowds, antagonistic heckling, battles over cover charge, and bar owners who wanted more than just boosted Tuesday night drink sales were but a few speed bumps on PuroSlam’s winding road to On the Half Shell. When I asked Shaggy about the slam’s current home, he pointed to bartender and co-owner Nicole Lemelle, saying “She’s the reason we’re here. Nicole and her husband Harold (who’s also co-owner) have been fans since our Sam’s Burger Joint days. … In 2009, they enrolled their kid in the school I teach at (Circle School), we started talking about PuroSlam … and this time I finally agreed to relocate downtown.”
Aside from the $25 bar tab (which was ironically won by a minor last week — “Make friends with him quickly,” Shaggy instructed the boozers in the crowd) that’s up for grabs each Tuesday, winners are awarded a random assortment of loot — noisemakers, cheese puffs, M&M’s, and “priceless vinyl” (PuroSlam’s 2009 artist of the year was Barry Manilow, followed by Barbra Streisand in 2010). Who can compete? Anyone with original material; signup takes place between 9:30 and 10:25 p.m. Who does compete? Well, according to Slammaster “Shaggy,” “Hard-working, beer-drinking, fun-loving folks who want to have a good time and not be forced to sit quietly with lips shut tight.”
On the Half Shell
Vibe: Poet’s living room with a cozy upper level and some of the cheapest drinks downtown.
Best Use: PuroSlam on Tuesdays, DJs and live art on Wednesdays, Reggae on Thursdays, hip-hop on Fridays & Saturdays. Rent the entire upper level for $450, or a section that seats 10-15 for $175 (prices are based on bottle service).
Prices: Wells: $2.50; domestics: $2.50; imports: $3