Planet X: worlds away from typical nightspots

May 19, 1994|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,Contributing Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- A large man sporting a crew-cut, T-shirt and sweat pants is hunched over in the middle of the dimly lighted cafe. Beads of perspiration cover his forehead; his face is twisted in a grimace. He raises his voice above the conversations surrounding him, above the clinking plates and the grinding coffee machine -- to read poetry from a notebook.

When Mike Fekula, 37, a switchboard operator by day and a raving poet by night, finishes his poem, "I Fell in Love With a Lesbian," the crowd claps, cheers and whistles.

It's a typical Wednesday night at the Planet X, a modern version of the '50s coffeehouse. In a town where the favorite pastime seems to be chugging beer and picking up dates in bars, Planet X offers art, conversation, vegetarian food and music.

And the quirky cafe, on the corner of Route 1 and Baltimore Avenue, is catching on fast.

"It's really great here, like a time warp," Jim Link, a 52-year-old remedial English teacher from Prince George's Community College, said on a recent poetry night. "It's a very exotic and bohemian journey away from the comatose and repetitiveness of everyday life. . . . There's not a pinball machine in sight. Not a pool table in sight and no booze in sight. How refreshing."

Planet X is a cafe with a conscience. There's no smoking after 6 p.m., when it gets crowded. There are frequent benefit shows: for environmental groups, pro-choice groups, and mentoring programs in inner-city schools. There's live music, and, of course, the weekly poetry night.

"This is a place where people can come and feel safe to express themselves," said Mr. Fekula, a Planet X regular -- just like the golden Buddha statue that sits on a window ledge.

That's just what the husband-and-wife team of Justine Gulledge Carpenter and Clint Carpenter had in mind when they opened the coffeehouse -- named after the movie "The Man from Planet X" -- in February 1993.

"I modeled Planet X on a D.C. coffee shop called Coffee and Confusion where my dad used to hang out during the '50s," said Ms. Carpenter, 32. "There was always an open mike for people to say what they wanted, and that's what I wanted for this place. I wanted to create a little place for people who felt like they didn't fit in anywhere could hang out."

She added, "I wanted to attract a diverse clientele and I wanted to make it different."

Different it is.

Customers, mainly the 20-something Generation X, face a visual blitzkrieg: Handmade tables are designed in every shape and form, and chairs look like yard sale refugees. Blood red and deep green walls are adorned with hypnotic, abstract paintings by local artists. And from the ceiling hang dolls painted with fluorescent green and red stripes, with wickedly teased hair and colorful feathers attached to their backs -- punk-rock cherubs from hell.

The people are different, too.

Cellist Brad Knobel plays classical pieces during Saturday brunch, and livens up a country band on Monday's acoustic night.

"Kipper," a poet/singer/waiter, will take your order, bring your food and make change while singing what he calls "cheesy, '80s contemporary tunes from REO Speedwagon, Styx or Journey." While pouring cappuccino, he might even recite some of his poems, like the one about a lovesick gorilla suitably titled "Koko's in Love."

"The community -- young adults looking for alternative ways to spend their time -- was always here, they just didn't know there were others like them around," Mr. Carpenter, 27, said. "That's what we're trying to do here, bring the community together."

Since May 1993, Steve Sabean, a 31-year-old doctoral student studying physics, has been running Planet X's most popular event, the poetry night.

And he puts on quite a show. There are sonnets, limericks, haiku and free verse. There are love poems, hate poems, angst-ridden poems, protest poems and funny poems. Besides attracting local wannabes, there have been appearances by such working poets as Rose Virgo, Sharkmeat Blue and D.J. Renegade.

"I encourage everybody to come perform," he said. "You don't have to be anybody special, you just have to put your name on the list, wait for us to call your name and then perform. Some people are truly good and some aren't, but finally, there's something else to do in College Park besides get drunk."

The coffee's pretty good, too.

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