Full of light, space, and a very friendly vibe, the newest incarnation of 9 Bleecker, the Yippie! Museum/Café, is reminiscent of an Amsterdam coffeeshop without the smell of herb. It has become a surprisingly sweet spot to grab an inexpensive cup of coffee or herbal tea and relax. The atmosphere lends itself to easily connecting with many interesting, often artistic or politically active people.
Completely cleaned and renovated over the summer of 2011, the Museum/Café officially opened back up for business in September 2011. Operated by partners Michael Kombi McKenna and Robert Bovenga Payne, the space is many things; an art gallery showing a constantly changing selection of local artists’ work, a coffee house, a speakeasy and space for open mic nights, musical performances, parties, and political action meetings.
Occupy friendly, ibogaine friendly, and people friendly, the space is open to everyone from all walks, with neighbors very happy with the clean, art-filled, and active space.
“Even you can’t fix this,” said ibogaine proponent and activist Dimitri Mobengo Mugianis, daring McKenna to take over the Museum/Café’s operation from those then in charge of the spot. “I walked in at about 11 o’clock in the morning, just to see what was going on here,” McKenna tells HIGH TIMES. “I looked around, saw someone sleeping on a couch, and someone sitting in a chair in the back. It was dead quiet. I felt like I was walking into a saloon in the Old West. The whole place was just dark. At this point, there were no windows, no sunlight coming in, an old loft above the main floor, and absolutely no natural light. Not to mention the incredible smell of cat urine. So I walked up to the bar, the café, look around, and this person says to me, ‘what do you want?’ I asked, ‘may I get a cup of coffee,’ and he says ‘it’s too early to get a cup of coffee.’ That was my first experience here. Then I left, thinking, ‘no, I’m not going to do this.’”
After giving it some thought, and discussing the idea with building owner Dana Beal (ardent supporter of ibogaine availability to all addicts, and founder of the World Wide Marijuana March held every May, now currently serving the remaining 11 months of his prison sentence resulting from a marijuana trafficking conviction in Wisconsin), McKenna, along with Payne, decided to give it a shot anyway.
“I will just say that we’re incredibly devoted to our own suffering,” says Payne, when asked about their perception of what Yippie means, and how they equate it to running a business. “We’re devoted to this 75 cent price limit on a cup of coffee. That’s just a for instance. We’ve really got in place a great formula for failure as far as business goes, and a really good formula for relating to our communities. So the people who get it really get it, and it winds up paying off, and others are in a position to take advantage of us. We’re anarchists, so regardless, all are welcome.
“The whole reason there is a café, according to legend, is because Dana wanted to buy a 50 cent cup of coffee one morning and couldn’t find one,” says McKenna. “So he spent whatever it was to build an entire café, we’ve heard $200,000 – an insane amount of money, and the only thing he cared about with the café operating was that 50 cent cup of coffee.” Which unfortunately, and quite upsetting for Dana, was immediately jacked up to 75 cents, and in the first week of March, up to a dollar. Still, this is an amazingly inexpensive cup of good French press coffee.
“As far as what Yippie means,” continues McKenna, “the New York Times quoted someone, maybe Abbie Hoffman, saying a Yippie is a Hippy who’s been beaten by the cops. Or, a politically active Hippy becomes a Yippie. There was a feeling back then that hippies weren’t politically active. Hippies were more into peace, love, and sunshine, passive. As far as what we’ve seen here in terms of other areas that might distinguish a Yippie, one big one is to figure out the most ridiculous, impossible way to solve a problem, that costs you the most money, and do it that way. That would also be defined as a Yippie. If you need posters for a march you’re doing, and are expecting perhaps a thousand people, make sure you print up at least 20,000 posters. Then spread them all over the place, spending money doing it.
“It could be humorous, but it certainly wasn’t a great business model,” notes McKenna when discussing the former practice of people simply coming in and basically busking in the Museum/Café during business hours. This practice has since been done away with. “Now we’ve added say, an acoustic Sunday afternoon, which works, it actually fills up the place. Sometimes we do this on Saturday afternoons also. We have impromptu jazz events on Thursday afternoons. The evenings are a set calendar. Monday night is open mic/spoken word, and Tuesdays are an indigenous music night. Wednesdays are a comedy/political night, which came out of the Occupy movement. Thursdays are an open mic hip-hop night. All these nights will feature a main act, some featured band, and the rest will be open mic. Even with poetry, there will be someone of note then open mic for the rest. Friday nights are rock n’ roll, and Saturdays we try to leave open for private events.”
The Yippie! Museum/Café, in early days, was the catalyst for the US part of Rock Against Racism. With the urging of Norma Lotsof, wife of Howard Lotsof, the discoverer of ibogaine and its addiction interruption potential, the Yippies began throwing regular concerts in Central Park’s Bandshell. Bands like the Dead Kennedys and many other punk and rock bands took part, performing at extreme volumes, leading to a lawsuit when the City of New York tried to insist the Yippies could only continue if they used an engineer hired by the city.
Arguing that engineers are artists in their own right, the Yippies took the City to court, losing in two lower courts before famed attorney William Kunstler argued the case before the US Supreme Court. Unfortunately, they lost there as well when one unnamed Yippie was quoted in the mainstream press saying “they should make the neighbors’ ears bleed,” which was not taken kindly by the Justices of the Court. That brought an end to Rock Against Racism, although Payne and McKenna express interest in reviving the concerts at some point in the future.
“One thing I’ve noticed since the beginning here is a change from the old model, which is great and had its moment, but was really an Us vs. Them thing, such as Us vs. the police, or the Man, something of that nature,” says McKenna when describing the change in both the way the Museum/Café is operated, and how it relates to their neighbors.
“We’ve noticed there’s been a shift, which may be us, or simply the time that we’ve living in, which is really more about what people can do together. It has become more about where’s the meeting point, and what can we do about that. We’ve taken that approach to the groups that come in here. I think a lot of people would say in the past, the Yippie was pretty much dominated by a bunch of men, a lot of male dominated energy. There is still quite a bit of that around, but it certainly has opened up now. Even right now, there are a number of women hanging out in the café. So in terms of fighting the good fight, it’s about finding those places where people come together.
“A great example of that is John Murdock, who runs the Wednesday comedy/political night for us. He recently began inviting people from the other side to speak and talk on those nights, people with diametrically opposite viewpoints. We’ve had a debate with a Republican in here, or law enforcement types, people of that nature. One reason why the Yippies can get away with it is because I think they are not quite so entrenched in a particular idea, but more they’re looking at things and thinking, how can we poke fun, more in tune with being the tricksters. We throw the pies in people’s faces who are doing the wrong thing, or throwing money over the balcony at Wall Street, to watch the traders scurrying about on the floor. Things that excite us are, for instance, things like the fact that Goldman Sachs is this giant, blood sucking vampire squid. So we’ve turned that into a mascot, every so often blowing up a bunch of balloons, which Murdock will twist into this giant balloon squid, an eight to ten foot, pink and purple vampire squid, and display it attacking one of our oversized stuffed World Globes which are lying about the café. That’ll get conversations going.”
The Yippie! Museum/Café is open seven days a week, from morning to night, and open to all. With strong coffee, a vast assortment of loose herbal teas they bag separately for each serving, plus cakes, pastries, an excellent chicken chili, and more, a person could do much worse, and spend a lot more money, trying to find as congenial a place as the Yippie! is to chill out for an hour or more.
To learn more about happenings, events, and schedules at the Yippie! Museum/Cafe, please visit www.9bleecker.com