“My Drinking Group Has a Research Problem”: A Night of SIN at Odd Salon SF
by Tessa Rissacher, June 2018
Written for Intro to News Reporting, UC Berkeley School of Journalism
“SCIENCE!” shouted the crowd, glasses raised. Onstage, clad in tux and tails, Christian Cagigal, 42, of Daly City, gestured at the projected slide behind him bearing the word “SCIENCE!” in giant red letters. Cagigal advanced the next slide and read aloud in a quiet voice: “And sometimes ships.” The crowd boomed its reply: “SHIPS!”
Over 200 people filled the hall of San Francisco’s Public Works last Tuesday to take in the latest offering from Odd Salon, a San Francisco-based organization which curates evenings of short lectures based on obscure true stories from history. They aim to provide “Expert talks on odd topics. Odd talks on everything else.” Each salon centers on a theme and features six speakers who hold the stage for ten minutes each, emceed by a “Curator” who plans the show.
Odd Salon began in 2014 with a small nucleus of friends: Annetta Black, Tre Balchowsky and Isolde Honore. All in their late twenties, living in San Francisco, the trio yearned for the intellectual community and camaraderie of the European salons of past eras. So they decided to make their own. And it’s growing.
Odd Salon’s Facebook page now boasts 4.8K likes and their bi-weekly events draw crowds of up to 300 people. With a little financial support, anyone may become a patron. To become an Odd Salon “Fellow” one must be an onstage speaker three times.
No particular expertise in any topic is required to be a speaker, however. Odd Salon is adamant about giving the mic to people who don’t have credentials– although stories do have to be true and heartily researched using primary sources. “Our members range from people still in high school to double PhDs,” Balchowsky said.
Last Tuesday’s theme was “Sin” and was curated by Christian Cagigal, an award-winning professional magician and actor who also runs San Francisco Ghost Hunt Walking Tour. Cagigal slated his six speakers to cover one deadly sin apiece. This left Cagigal to cover the final seventh sin, Sloth, himself. “I call it ‘5 Seconds in Heaven: The Mating Habits of the Sloth’,” Cagigal said.
After Cagigal’s presentation (on actual, arboreal sloths), Michael Gene Sullivan took the stage to speak on Pride in the context of the Astor Place riot, an 1849 conflagration that killed 31, injured 120, and stemmed from a dispute over which famous actor played a better Macbeth.
Cagigal’s lineup also included Seth Rosenblatt speaking on Wrath with, “Getting Biblical: Cannibalism, Literature & the Wrath of God;” Nadya Lev addressing gluttony in “Eating Ortolans & Other Violent Delights;” Kathleen Antonia with “Greed Has a Name: Robert Newsom;” Casey Selden with “Green With Envy in the Great White North,” and Meghan Dahl closing the night with “James Joyce is NSFW”– a verbatim reading of Joyce’s erotic letters to his wife.
Throughout, the crowd engaged in what Amy Widdowson, 34, a Public Relations exec and longtime Odd Salon Fellow, terms “positive heckling”– a lively, participatory feedback relationship with the speaker. The talks were loaded with references to previous salons and included a lot of running jokes about the ankles of the sound man, Patrick. Cocktails were encouraged, often. “We like to say of Odd Salon: my drinking group has a research problem,” laughed Balchowsky.
As close-knit as the crowd appeared to be, Cagigal and others cultivated an ambiance to welcome newcomers who, by show of hands, made up roughly 15% of the audience. “All kinds of people come out” said Carlos Ruben, 30, security man for Public Works. “Different personalities from different backgrounds. Everybody’s welcome.” The dominant vibe of last Tuesdays crowd could best be described as…gothic nerd? Lots of black clothing, tattoos, ear gauges, and colored hair. But amid the “alternative” throwback scene were a few Patagonia jackets and khaki cargo shorts too.
At evening’s end, Annetta Black strode onstage in a well-cut, bodiced black gown and presented Cagigal with Odd Salon’s customary gift to the night’s Curator: a pile of books on that salon’s theme. For curious minds, Odd Salon always posts a “further reading” list after each talk on oddsalon.com, as well as a comprehensive archive of past salons. Tickets range $15–25. Next week’s theme is “Prank.”