We were blazed, having passed around several joints. I was sitting with Dana, Leticia, Evan, and Dr. Ken. It was after 8 PM when two armed men, whom I had never before seen, came stealthily up the stairs and entered the second floor of 9 Bleecker Street. “Nobody move!” one of them shouted. Only one of them had his gun drawn, but it didn’t matter. One gun was enough.
They canvased the space smoothly, without the slightest hesitation. They had done this before, I thought. As they circled the room, they continued to yell and the one with the gun scanned the room pointing his gun at each of us, while the other searched the premises. “Where is the money? We know there’s money here. Give it to us or someone’s going to get hurt!” I remember one of them yelling, his gun pointed in Dana’s direction. They seemed to know who was in charge, because most of their attention seemed directed at him. They began to tear through cabinets and file drawers, throwing their contents to the floor.
Dana, who by nature is wholly resistant to authority, started laughing wildly, jeering through his white handlebar moustache, telling them they had come to the wrong place and there was no money to be found. His mocking tone set off the one with the gun, who gracefully moved across the floor towards him and pistol whipped him across the face. Dana fell out of his chair, his nose broken and blood running down his face and on to his shirt.
He held his gun steady, pointed at Dana on the floor, and threatened to shoot him in the head if he didn’t give them the money. We all sat dead still. The gunman took whatever cash Dana had on him. The other robber continued to tear through drawers until he landed on a plastic garbage bag filled with weed (that Dana had planted specifically for people to steal, so they’d leave the good stuff alone. “Absolute dreck,” he called it). The robbers were clearly not satisfied with this find. If there is money, why doesn’t Dana just give it to them, I thought?
The robbers marched us single file up the stairs to the third floor. I had never been up there before, as few people were ever allowed or invited. The smell of cat piss was overwhelming. Alice, a prickly woman who talked to cats like they were people and people like they were garbage, lived there.
Alice tried to make a run for it, but one of the robbers grabbed her by her hair, dragging her back into the room. The rest of us were forced to sit on tattered chairs and couches. After much screaming and some resistance, she coughed up the thousand dollars cash she had stashed in her room. The man who had her by the hair shoved her roughly. Then as quickly and quietly as they had entered, they were gone.
The assault lasted close to an hour. For some time afterward, I sat in shock. Many questions were spinning around my head. Why had this happened? 9 Bleecker didn’t exactly attract people with money, so why had it been targeted? The robbers had clearly known who the owners were, but how? The robbers had moved through the space with surgical precision. They knew the layout and did not hesitate for a moment. They seemed sure of themselves. It didn’t feel random, but almost as if it wasn’t money they had come for at all.
It was no secret that Dana had made himself more than his share of enemies over the years, among his shady “colleagues” as well as in law enforcement. Had this been about retribution of some kind? A warning? Something political?
And most worrying, there was a strict rule at 9 Bleecker: whenever someone arrived, whoever was leaving or volunteered had to go down and make sure that the door was locked. If the robbers had broken in by force, we would have heard it. So, how had they gotten in? Or: who had let them in?
The robbery happened in the Summer of 2005, during a stretch of time, from 2003 to 2008, when I spent a lot of my evenings on the second floor of 9 Bleecker Street (or ‘Number 9’ as we referred to it), sitting around talking about god knows what, with some strange and interesting people. What we all had in common is that we smoked pot and knew the proprietor, Dana Beal. The building was, and had been since 1973, the headquarters of the Youth International Party, also known as the Yippies. Dana was an original member of the Yippies, along with the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Ruben and Stu Albert.
The Yippies came to prominence as a result of their involvement in the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when Chicago police clashed violently with peaceful protestors. The Chicago 7 (originally 8), as the group of activists that was arrested came to be called, were charged with conspiracy to incite a riot. Among the 7 were three prominent Yippies: Hoffman, Ruben and Lee Weiner. Their conspiracy convictions were overturned on appeal and the incident was termed a police riot by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence.
Amidst the concentration of anti-movement activities being conducted by FBI’s COINTELPRO (counterintelligence) program, the Yippies were likely targets of the government’s strategy to ‘disrupt and neutralize’ Civil Rights and anti-war activists. As Abbie Hoffman and other Yippies became popular figures whose political voices resonated beyond the counterculture. Given that the FBI never discontinued its surveillance of activists, the possibility existed, however unlikely, that the robbery at Number 9 was a continuation of this harassment. This was the tense political landscape within which the Youth International Party operated, and so, understandably would earn the ire of law enforcement for decades to come.
We never reported the incident to the police, as that would have drawn unwanted attention to the goings-on at Number 9. So there was never an investigation and no official record of it. While several suspects and theories emerged, there was never a conclusive answer as to what had happened.
I can’t remember the first time I went to Number 9. I imagine my initial reaction was like most newcomers – a mixture of fascination and disgust.
Fascination, for precisely the reason that when you walked into Number 9, it felt like you’d traveled back in time. Not much in the way of renovation or redecorating had taken place since the 70s. Rally posters from decades past were peeling off the walls, and haphazardly balanced stacks of flyers sat on top of boxes filled with copies of the New York Times (Dana had been collecting every single one since the late 1960s.) As a young activist eager to understand the history of the Civil Rights, anti-war and Black Power movements, this was an education that I couldn’t get sitting in a class at NYU.
Disgust, because the place was always filthy; wrappers and other trash strewn about; ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts and joint clips, and the ever present smell of cat piss. And because, while Number 9 attracted an incredible diversity of people, naturally some of those people were unsavory. Loudmouthed bigots, with selfish libertarian ideologies, halitosis and/or body odor.
Entrance to the 2nd floor was by invitation only. Activists, artists, journalists, writers, musicians, potheads, junkies, punks, anarchists and other personalities ranging from the awe-inspiring to the cautionary would stop by, most often to partake in one of Dana’s oversized joints.
The Yippies, who had once championed street theater and outlandish political pranks (throwing pies at politicians, dumping cash on the New York Stock Exchange), had since the early 1990s turned their attention to the legalization of marijuana and ibogaine for medical use. Ibogaine is a psychoactive plant substance that has been used to treat heroin addiction and has its roots in spiritual traditions of the Bwiti people of West Africa. Dana had established Cures Not Wars as a label for this new phase of activism.
Originally from Ohio, Dana spent his early organizing years in middle America, eventually migrating to the East Coast and settling in New York City. In 1963, he spent a short time in a mental institution due to this erratic personality, but was able to avoid being drafted to Vietnam. Dana gained recognition for organizing smoke-ins at Tompkin’s Square Park. In 1967, he was arrested for drug possession. Three thousand people marched from a Fugs concert across town to the federal holding pen. This was the beginning of Dana’s status as a figure in the movement.
Dana could be a paranoid and garrulous man, who would routinely yell, stomp and bray at people he suspected of being “narcs” or “infiltrators.” Or, people who just didn’t agree with him. I remember several instances early on, of Dana pointing his old, weathered finger at me, demanding to know: “You’re not a NARC!! Are you?” But there were moments of softness and humility. Dana, with his thinning white hair and matching handlebar mustache could at times project a grandfather-like quality. It took me some time to realize that it wasn’t personal, that it was just the way he was, and had always been.
Leticia had been going to Number 9 since the late 90s, and worked closely with Dana. She was one of the few visitors at Number 9 who kept Dana in check, and had earned his trust and respect as a result. I met Leticia working at a community center in Chinatown/Lower East Side called Project Reach. Leticia and I became close quickly, because we shared a low tolerance for bullshit, the same political sentiments and a deep appreciation of weed. She brought me to Number 9 to recruit me to help with the Million Marijuana March, which she was instrumental in organizing.
Evan had a quiet way about him, always standing off to the side by the radiator smoking a blunt. He had wire framed glasses and his hair was cropped close, save for an exceptionally long rat-tail dangling from the back. Evan was smart, well read and unlike many people at Number 9, easy to talk to. We’d talk for hours about art, history, music, social movements, women, and New York. Evan would eventually be disillusioned by the movement, and in particular by Alice who sat atop the second floor, descending from time to time to order people around and talk to the cats. He cut himself off from Dana and the Yippies. I remember catching Evan’s gaze during the robbery: trustworthy and calming.
Dr. Ken is another key figure in the ibogaine legalization agenda. I knew him the least of those present during the robbery. Dr. Ken is a clinical psychologist and lent his legitimacy to the ibogaine debate. At the time, it seemed to me that I wasn’t worth talking to. Just another one of the stoner kids who hung around waiting for Dana to throw them a clip. I remember, I caught Dr. Ken scanning the exit to the stairwell during the robbery. I imagined he was evaluating the possibility of a mad dash for it and thought, “If this guy runs someone is going to get killed.”
Before the incident, I remember 9 Bleecker having an anachronistic feel to it. A little cross section of a time past that I had heard and read much about but unfortunately was too young to have experienced personally. The stories of 9 Bleecker were the stuff of legend. John Lennon smoking a joint on the roof, Allen Ginsberg reading poems in the very same loft I was sitting in, the Yippies preparing their next outrageous prank. It was sometimes hard to tell for certain which stories were real and which were folklore, but this is what had drawn me to the place: its dense history, coupled with it being a safe place to get high and talk about politics, religion, art and changing the world.
But things changed after the robbery. Security became tighter. Dana and others who were mainstays at Number 9 became paranoid and would randomly accuse people of being spies and enemies. It was hard to tell when they were being high or being serious. This coalesced with the pressure to hold on to the building while the owners were trying to get the old crusty activists out, so they could raise the rent and bring in the newest trust fund hobby project. Maybe a boutique clothes shop, or an overpriced tapas bar? I came to see the robbery as a turning point. 9 Bleecker would never be the same safe space again. A last flailing bastion of a New York that was fading fast in the shadow of gentrification.
In order to stay afloat, the first floor of Number 9, which was in exponentially worse shape than the second floor, was renovated and the Yippie Museum Café opened. There was a moment of possibility and excitement for the prospect of reviving the space, and the counterculture. By this time, CBGB’s was gone, and the Bowery was undergoing a rapid transformation. Early on, I made attempts to contribute, but quickly realized that the problem was not gentrification but a movement (if at this point you could call it that) that was rotten to the core.
Walking into the Yippie Museum Café, the first thing you’d see was the “Pieman,” Aron Kay, behind the reception desk. Aron gained notoriety for throwing pies at political targets, including Senator Daniel Monyihan and former director of CIA, William Colby. But, Aron, like Dana, was surly and demanding. That was the least of it, though. Aaron had over the course of the years, and as a result of health issues, become something of an obnoxious blob. An obese, drooling, immobile guard dog.
Once you got past Aron, you had to pass through the gauntlet of degenerates, who all felt entitled to official titles. The problem is no one did any real work, and whenever they got the chance they skimmed off the top, or just fucked off. In Dana’s absence, Number 9 took on a grotesque quality, a caricature of itself desperately struggling to maintain a foothold while being encroached on from either direction by the new New York.
As Dana sees it, the downfall of Number 9 was the result of “a series of betrayals, thefts and one major arrest.”
In June 2008, Dana and a loud, skittish woman named Carlotta, were arrested in Illinois for money laundering. They were caught with $153,000 in cash, money that would have secured ownership of Number 9. Dana said it was actually $156,000, but the cops took $3,000 for themselves. Though the charges didn’t stick, it led to a lot of bad press, which compromised the bank loan that Dana needed to keep the building.
In 2009 and again in 2011, Dana was arrested charged and convicted, in Nebraska and Wisconsin respectively, for trafficking marijuana across state lines. The weed was supplying an underground buyers club that primarily served people living with illnesses, and was one way that Dana made the money to pay the rent at Number 9.
Dana had spent years coordinating these clandestine trips, and I know he took care to cover his tracks, change routes, use different drivers. Is it possible that some cop out in the middle of nowhere smelled something fishy about this aging hippies and made a lucky collar? Maybe. Is it equally possible that they were caught as a result of an informant? The robbers hadn’t tried to get any money from the rest of us, only Dana. In fact, they reassured us that we were safe and that they hadn’t come for us.
Dana had hired a cadre of incompetents, thieves, and low-level hand-to-mouth con operators to run the café in his absence. After over three years in county jail, Dana was released a month after Number 9 was shuttered in 2014, rendered defunct by a gaggle of opportunists who stole from the register, botched orders, failed to pay bills, insulted customers and everything else short of just burning the place to the ground. Dana was effectively homeless by the time he came home, with his possessions in storage.
It was around this time, that I started visiting Number 9 less and less frequently. The spell had been broken, and the realization fully landed: activists could be, despite their political expressions and calls for change, just as disorganized, narrow-minded, petty, and corrupt as anyone else.
Immediately after it happened, possible suspects and theories of how and why the robbery had occurred began to circulate around Number 9. The three prime suspects were all acquaintances of Dana’s who had at one point or another had a falling out of some kind: a conman and career criminal, a former Black Panther and the publisher of an underground counterculture newspaper. I’ve chosen not to identify the men in question, because they were never charged with a crime and their involvement has never been fully substantiated.
According to Dana, he received a call from one of the aforementioned suspects who had been helping him negotiate a deal with landlord, a month prior to the robbery. He was allegedly upset about payment he felt he was owed and gave Dana “one last chance” to settle up. Dana refused, and as usual slammed the phone down stomping his cowboy boots on the hard wood floor.
Dana believes without a doubt that the robbery was set in motion by the caller, “a fabulous conman…who sent in the vultures,” the robbery that would eventually lead to the unravelling of Number 9. But as it stands, there is no conclusive evidence whether the robbery was an inside job, government infiltration or a random occurrence. Regardless, it was the first in a series of inevitable events that would capsize the Youth International Party once and for all. In the spirit of tolerance and inclusivity, the counterculture had allowed itself to be infiltrated by self-interest and greed.
Since the Yippies lost 9 Bleecker Street in 2014, the building has been taken over by the Overthrow Boxing Club. It is run by a group of young tattooed models and boxers. Overthrow was the name of the underground newspaper Alice published out of Number 9. A tribute? Or just a way to commodify a piece of counterculture history? Who really cares, right?
Dana says the club had promised to pay for the rights to use the name but never did.
Dana now lives on the second floor of a dilapidated synagogue on 6th Avenue. When I walked in, it felt like I was back at Number 9. A laptop sitting on a desk amidst piles of paper, a bookshelf stocked with sci-fi books and pill boxes (Dana suffered a heart attack while in jail and has been on medication since), someone passed out on a mattress in the corner and an ashtray with a half smoked joint.
He is more melancholy and subdued that I remembered him being ten years ago. He speaks more frankly, without the bravado. He regrets: letting the Yipster Times fall apart in the 1970s, not writing the breaking article on phone phreaking, the blue box and the origins of Apple in the 1980s, not refinancing 9 Bleecker at the right time in the 1990s, trusting the untrustworthy for far too long.
He becomes quiet and pensive when he remembers Alice. “Alice was alienated from me, lost forever,’ he says, ‘but we had a long, long sunset.” At the age of 69, he seems clearer than ever about his objectives and maintains a rare belief in people and the possibility of positive change.
When I asked Dana how he maintained his idealism, given decades of betrayal, he paused for a full minute before answering. “Do you know how much four milligrams is?” I shrugged, not sure what he was getting at. “Four milligrams is a speck! A speck of ibogaine two times a day reverses Parkinson’s. We’re at a breakthrough moment.” His face lit up, and he started explaining his plans for shipping ibogaine pills to people with Parkinson’s around the world. The deflated relic instantly replaced by the indefatigable activist.
“You can’t allow any disaster, no matter how large, to paralyze you for the rest of your life,” he concluded.
As I got up to leave, Dana asked me for a dollar. I stuck my hand in my pocket, and pulled out the change I had and handed it to him.
“You’re partially paying for my New York Times,” he said.
“Do you still save every issue?” I asked.
“No, not really anymore,” he replied. “I’m digital now.”
Sidd Joag is a New York City based journalist and visual artist.