To give an idea of what the Blue Dragon Cafe is all about, co-owner Norman Everett, sitting in overalls and a ski cap at one of the cafe’s tables, tells a story from October.
It was around the presidential debates. The Dragon was packed.
In one room, poets recited their work for a contest of lyricism and wit called a poetry slam. In the next, the satirist campaigners Billionaires for Bush carried facetious signs such as “Corporations are people too” and “Four more wars.”
And in the third room, about 50 screaming teenage girls and boys celebrated a birthday party.
“They all got along perfectly well,” Everett says. “It’s really a community feeling here.”
Since opening in 1999, the Blue Dragon Cafe, 1517 Girard Blvd. N.E., has been a comfortable home away from home for the young and old from the neighborhood and beyond. Regulars say the cafe offers tranquility, poetry, music, inspiration, friendship and kindness – and, oh, yeah, great coffee and food too.
“You can come here and feel like you’re in your own den,” says Roy Diethorn, a Blue Dragon regular for more than two years. “You can sit down and not feel hurried.”
Even though a Starbucks sits within walking distance to Diethorn’s home in the Northeast Heights, he still prefers a drive to the Blue Dragon. A perk: The Dragon lets him use its phone to check the messages at his home office.
“The people are so nice here,” he says. “It’s not like going to a chain establishment where everything’s busy and fast. Here, people that help you are more relaxed and you can talk to them.”
One employee took a moment to assist another of the cafe’s regulars, a quiet, bearded man who paces from room to room holding a cup of coffee and occasionally leaving notes and drawings on the bulletin board.
The employee gently took away the man’s coffee mug and handed him a tall, handleless cup the cafe set aside for him to minimize his coffee spills.
“He’s been pretty much a fixture here,” says Kristofer Dale, the other co-owner of the cafe. “We had a couple of adaptations we had to make for him.”
Hannah d’Errico, 22, a University of New Mexico student who has worked at the cafe since September 2004, says Dale and Everett are some of the nicest bosses she has ever had.
“Kris and Norm are just really good people,” she says while comfortably entrenched in one of the cafe’s many booths, a homework project spread out on the table before her.
“They’re not like these stuck-up bosses who just want to make money. They actually care about the place. They want to make it a cool place to be.”
Getting a job at the cafe is a distinctive process. Instead of an application form, would-be employees receive a blank sheet of paper and are told to put on it whatever they like.
“Basically what we’re looking for from people is how do you deal with and express your individuality,” Dale says. “You don’t really know who people are until you give them an opportunity to demonstrate it.”
For many patrons, the cafe is one of the few places in town to regularly hear and see local music and performances. Or, if they’re so inspired, they can perform themselves at the cafe’s Wednesday open-mic nights, an event so popular that parking in the neighborhood’s narrow streets and tiny parking lots quickly becomes scarce.
Leigh Banfill, 19, a UNM freshman, has been coming to the cafe since she was a junior in high school. She says Submerged, the literary magazine she worked on at Eldorado High School, formerly had open-mic nights at the cafe.
“If I can think of a place I enjoyed in high school, it would be here,” she says. “They support and are tied into the community . . . in many ways that feed the creative growth of it.”
Banfill points out the local art hanging on the walls – currently dark paintings of men and women – and the local musicians playing seven nights a week as other ways the cafe reaches out.
Banfill also says most of the cafe’s staff recognize her – and it’s an easy place to create new friendships.
“Everybody who hangs out here in general gets to know each other,” she says.
One table of UNM students who came for a recent open-mic night were joined by a friend – who set down a pitcher of hot green tea for all of them to share. They had met at the cafe just a few weeks earlier.
Gavin Potts, 20, a guitarist in the group, says he has been coming to listen or perform at the open-mic nights almost every week since August 2004.
“The setting is very relaxed for it,” he says.
Val Hermanson, 21, a friend of Potts, has lived in the surrounding neighborhood all her life. She has been patronizing the cafe since she was 15 or 16, she says, and it has become more open over the years.
“This is . . . like you’re going to someone’s house,” she says. “I find a lot of friends here. It’s like a common connection.”
When Potts’ turn to play comes up, he steps onto the rug that acts as a stage and sits on chair facing the audience, which quickly becomes attentive when he softly strums his acoustic guitar.
One audience member listening to Potts is Raynie Vanderford, a 52-year-old husband and father of four. He sits with his two of his sons, Tanner and Aric, both busy sketching comiclike figures while the music fills the room.
Vanderford, a Northeast Heights resident, has been coming with his family – including the occasional in-law – to the cafe for five or six years, he says.
“I think it’s a cultural icon,” he says. “You never know what you’re going to see.”
Chitra Marler, a Corrales resident, says she was at the cafe the first day it opened in 1999. Only four people performed for that night’s open mic, she recalls.
“It has really grown,” she says.
Marler comes often to read her poetry, but that is only part of the cafe’s appeal. The free flow of ideas packaged by local artists into short performance pieces, songs, poems and whatever else they dream up inspires her to do her own art.
“This really promotes and propagates the exchange of ideas,” Marler says. “This place will thrive forever.”