Diamond Dave Whitaker

Diamond Dave Whitaker

Guardian Photo by Pat Mazzera

It’s another Thursday night at the corner of 16th Street and Mission, and a crowd of poets, performers, homeless, and hipsters is clustered around the brightly tiled egress of the BART station. One jumps into the center of the circle to play a howling tune on his acoustic guitar. As soon as he’s finished, another is instantly up, reciting an original ode, her voice straining over the sirens on the street.

It’s the weekly open mic, the beating heart of street performing for many poets in the city. While the attention of some fades down the sidewalk or lowers to a clandestine beer, there’s one pair of eyes behind thick, plain-framed glasses that is unabashedly locked on the performer. They belong to “Diamond” Dave Whitaker.

No matter who’s onstage, Whitaker’s tuned in, his lips quietly mouthing a private counterpoint, his short frame buoyed by the beat, his hands jabbing the air during dramatic moments. Whitaker is one of those rare people who are always listening, always watching, always believing that great insights could come at any moment, from the mind of any person, around the most unexpected corner.

“Cast a wide net” is the first line of his treasured credo, which he’s quick to share in the scratchy jazz of his stream-of-consciousness speech. “Find a common thread. Let life flourish. Don’t panic, just keep it organic.”

Between performances the stocky soon-to-be septuagenarian shuffles through the crowd, greeting friends and strangers with equal ease. If San Francisco’s long list of storied iconoclasts were to nominate one person to represent it on a welcoming committee, to stand in for all that is unique, amusing, and ideal about this city, 69-year-old Whitaker would be an excellent choice.

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Whitaker arrived here at age 19 in 1957 after reading Kenneth Rexroth’s seminal Feb. 22, 1957, piece in the Nation that suggested something unique was going on in North Beach.

“Radical politics and poetry were coming together for the first time,” Whitaker says of his arrival on the scene and his immediate friendship with the great beats. “I worked as a bike messenger by day. I was a beatnik by day and night.” Back then those poets’ version of an open mic was Blabbermouth Night at the Place on Grant Avenue.

Whitaker’s initial involvement entailed witnessing the scene and spreading it; one of his claims to fame was passing along a copy of Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory to a young Bob Dylan during a brief return to Minneapolis in 1961. He soon became an integral part of the Diggers and the Black Man’s Free Store in the Fillmore. “I cooked and served food every day during the Summer of Love,” Whitaker says. He continues to feed people through Soupstock and Food Not Bombs, and his Rock ‘n’ Roll Spaghetti is still a feature at the annual Rainbow Gathering.

His politics don’t just involve nourishing the people with potlucks and poetry. He lobbied for district elections in the 1970s, and his sparkly nickname came from his hosting a KPOO-FM radio show, One Struggle, Many Fronts .

While many of his fellow ’60s cohorts have cashed out, Whitaker is far from retiring. He attends classes at City College, where he’s studying “whatever is interesting, fulfilling,” and serves as vice president of cultural affairs for the Associated Students. He’s the keeper of the flame of a lively local poetry scene, dreaming up new community events like “Poem Dome,” an annual open mic at City Hall to celebrate National Poetry Month, and the first annual City College Spoken Word Festival, honoring 31 years of Leslie Simon’s Poetry for the People. He attends the event at 16th Street and Mission each week and hosts his own open mic on the second Tuesday of every month at the Park Branch library.

“I’m surprised I’d still be on the planet in 2007, to be almost 70 and still doing it,” Whitaker says of his active poetry life. “My role is kind of as an elder of the community, to help provide some of that context, lineage, history, herstory, and hipstory.”

Originally published July 18, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian