A Squat in the Dark: Inside The Lower Haight's Underground Literary Salon

Maybe we're flattering ourselves, but we like to think we know a thing or two about what's going on in the 'hood.

We try to stay up on restaurant openings, Muni's ever-evolving cosmetic work (eat your heart out, Joan Rivers), and of course, any and all reality television filmed 'round the way.

Which is why we were surprised and intrigued to get wind of a barely legal (actually, demonstrably illegal) underground literary event operating not-so-quietly under our very noses.

851, or "The Squat", is an empty apartment located at 851 Haight Street. It's without electricity, stripped down to its essential components, and, according to downstairs neighbor, writer and 851 mastermind Janey Smith, "an illegal unit, an [un]inhabitable, unfriendly place."

When it was first mentioned to us, it was indicated that "candles and fucking and drugs and dirt" were all a workaday part of the 851 scene. Janey didn't do a lot to dispel that image.

"The north wall in the reading room caught fire once during a reading. An audience person's hair caught fire once. People meet other people, there's a lot of making out that goes on, and groping, lots of groping … Actually people have sex at 851 a lot."

He says that the cops have come out twice, the fire marshal once, and neighbors have threatened lawsuits and "other stuff."

Investigative interest piqued and social phobias on red alert, we decided to check out last night's reading for ourselves.

You get in the old-fashioned way: ring the doorbell for 849 (Janey's apartment) and you're welcomed into what feels like an unusually friendly house party. Despite misgivings about possible fire danger, sexual predation (we'd been warned there'd be no condoms provided) and various literary insecurities, we found a warm crew of writerly types, most of whom seemed to know each other and were more than happy to introduce us around. 851 has been hosting readings for an entire year, and it showed: most people seemed to be regulars on the scene, and almost everyone involved had BYOBed like a champ.

Soon it was time to head upstairs.

Warned to keep completely silent, we filed obediently up to the unfurnished 851 unit, which was illuminated with dozens of tea candles scattered across all available surfaces.

The apartment has the bones of a kick-ass space, but it's been completely gutted, and with no power, heat or furnishings, it’s got a spooky but not altogether unwelcoming vibe. "851 has always been there." said Janey. "It's haunted. People attend 851 on certain days each month because 851 thinks 'people.'"

We settled onto the floor, and one by one, writers Zack Haber, Derek Fenner, Joshua Mohr and Gabriel Blackwell took the stage (the stage in this case literally a pile of dirt), reading from a selection of poems and book excerpts that were hilarious, affecting, and school-night brief.

The unpretentious vibe and the opportunity to shoot the shit with up-and-coming writers is one reason that 851 works at all. According to Janey, "It's not just that people party with, and politely endure, the antics of famous writers such as Robert Gluck, Michael Kimball, Michelle Tea, Steve Roggenbuck, Jarett Kobek, Suzanne Scanlon, etc., but they actually chase the stuffiness out of the room."

So is 851 best categorized as some sort of literary speakeasy? A public reading? A fire hazard? A doomed illegal squat? We’re still not exactly sure. But whatever it is, we're already looking forward to the next installment.

Access to 851 could get shut down at any moment, so keep an eye on their Tumblr to learn about any future events — if there are any future events, that is.