Most of the time, Love Cafe belongs to U Street strollers and laptop jockeys who sink into soft seats against the butter-yellow and exposed brick walls and sip iced lattes.
But on a recent night, the Northwest cafe belonged to voices of fear, anger and loneliness, and to people who weren't even there.
Jail is everything bad
People get sent to jail
Because people think it helps
But jail makes you heartless and crazy
The microphone stand cast a shadow over Dexter Daniels as he calmly, clearly recited the verses of an absent 17-year-old. The words weren't his own, but he understood. Just a few months ago, he had been in there, too -- a teenager in the D.C. jail, an adolescent in a place made for adults.
As about 75 people nibbled on pastries, Daniels and other readers fed them harsh words about fast money, blood on the streets and feelings of being caged. The poems -- some rhyming, most free-form -- told of dreams of freedom: soccer games, all-you-can-eat buffets in Virginia and sleeping in a real bed. There were visions of gang life, friends slain by gunfire, and the resignation of being labeled a criminal.
The writers are or were members of the Free Minds Book Club and Writing Workshop, founded in November 2002 by two freelance journalists who wanted to make a difference in the lives of young offenders. In less than two years, the group has served more than 70 young men housed in a separate unit at the D.C. jail. Most are African American or Latino, and all are 16 or 17 years old and charged as adults. As they await trial -- or, for those who already have been convicted, transfer to a federal prison when they turn 18 -- they are looking for ways to ease the boredom and frustration.
"Once you're reading a book, a book will take you to another place, for a while," Daniels said.
He recalled his first days on the unit, after he was charged with armed robbery last fall. Someone stole his shoes. Other juveniles threw feces into his cell. He feared the recreation yard, so the book club became his escape.
"In jail, there were books everywhere, floating between cells," Daniels said. About eight of 22 youths incarcerated at that time joined the club. It was one of the few things they looked forward to, he said.
On the outside, Daniels, then 17, had been a senior at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, taking Advanced Placement pre-calculus and Spanish. Inside the jail, he was offered basic multiplication and division problems.
Daniels was released after about 10 weeks with charges dropped. He was the victim of mistaken identity, he said. Yes, he said, he had left his Petworth neighborhood headed for Adams Morgan with a group of teenagers on the night of Nov. 15, and some members of the group had stuck up clubgoers. He was not one of them, Daniels said, but the police stopped everyone in the group who fit the description: black males wearing dark clothes. After a short stay at the city's Oak Hill youth facility in Prince George's County and two hearings, he was charged as an adult and sent to the D.C. jail.
Now that he is out, he is moving on. He transferred to another high school so he could make up classes and graduate on time. He is a Marine, having left the city late last month for boot camp on Parris Island, S.C. Daniels said recently that he'd like to travel to Africa as a Christian missionary.
But he had unfinished business.
"This is not about me; this is about me trying to help the people that's there," he said of the reading. "It's kind of like I'm doing this for the me that was inside there."
Reading group founders Kelli Taylor and Tara Libert, both 40, said the youths mostly choose to read books that address such issues as racial intolerance, incarceration, poverty, crime and drug abuse. They're also big Harry Potter fans.
"It's really amazing, the insights these kids bring to the discussions," Taylor said. "They're always asking for more books." Each session, held every other Monday, includes a creative writing exercise to help the youths reflect on their actions and their goals.
"We were really not certain how the idea would be received at the jail," said Taylor, who followed a juvenile on death row in Texas while producing a documentary in 1996 and eventually befriended him. For four years, she exchanged letters and shared books with the inmate. He was executed in 2000.
Libert said the idea for the late July poetry reading came during a visit to the jail by Washington Wizards center Etan Thomas, who also writes poetry. One of the youths asked Thomas to read his work to them, and the enjoyment of that moment prompted a public reading of their writing.
Teenagers from City at Peace D.C., a youth development organization, volunteered to give voice to the words penned by the jail poets. The readers emphasized inflection and tone, trying to re-create a hard and scary life they knew little about.
"It was very nerve-racking because I wanted to do justice to the poems," said Malcolm Shanks, 14, of Southwest.
Marion R. Wilson, who recently returned from Memphis, where her grandson Davon Wilson is serving a 37-month sentence for robbery, went to the Love Cafe reading "to let him know I'm here while he's doing his time."
Davon Wilson, now 18, lived in Upper Northwest when he was arrested in 2002 and sent to the D.C. jail, where he joined the writers' group. His family hopes that with time off for good behavior, he will return to the District in early 2006.
The reading of his poems "Clutch Time" and "Unbearable" helped Marion Wilson know there still is hope for her grandson because he expressed thoughts about his future.
"It was something I didn't know was in him," she said. "If he can look that far ahead, he can tell right from wrong.''
The reading club continues to send books to Wilson. "He worries when he [doesn't] hear from them," his grandmother said. Wilson recently wrote to say he had passed his GED high school equivalency test, which he took after encouragement from Taylor.
On a day soon after the reading, several youths sat in white plastic chairs in a windowless room at the D.C. jail, chins in palms, as a videotape replayed the reading for those who had created the poems. They wore oversize orange jail jumpsuits with pant legs rolled and cuffed over jail-issue slippers or expensive basketball sneakers whose laces had been removed.
"That . . . made me feel good to see somebody laughing and clapping at what I wrote," said Kuron Calleo, 17, who lived in the Sursum Corda housing complex in Northwest. "It was hard thinking about it. It was my first time doing something like that."
Delonte King, 16, of Northwest, was there, too. King, who pleaded guilty to armed robbery, seems resigned to his predicament, with some adolescent, macho bluster. But King could not hide his smile as the tape rolled. Though he did not know reader Eryn Trimmer, he recognized the words of his poem "Gorilla":
I feel like an untamed gorilla
With no cage or food
Walking around in society
With no ending or beginning
King cocked his right arm and raised a fist in triumph as the audience applauded his work.
"I'm just proud of myself because I was doing something constructive," he said.