The pitch was irresistible, like a promotion for an epic National Geographic documentary: “We invite you to discover, explore and learn the true facts, the mystique, the strengths, the faith, the character of one of America’s most influential men,” it read. And then it mentioned Marion Barry.
Washington City Paper plunked down the $17.50 asking price in January, which the advertisement promised would fetch a “48 month, full color, glossy stock calendar” that “beautifully chronicles the inspirational life of” Mayor Barry.
Unfortunately, the mayor’s most famous inspirations—malfeasance and poor service—appear to have rubbed off on the group in charge of producing the calendar. The D.C. Concerned Citizens Caucus Inc. (DCCCC) is a shadowy District nonprofit that has conducted youth programs and citywide voter registration drives.
Six months after cashing the check from City Paper—and six months into the calendar’s four-year 1996-1999 term—DCCCC had yet to deliver the goods. The runaround that ensued would have made Barry—four-term leader of the D.C. bureaucracy—proud.
The savvy avoidance experts at DCCCC began the chase with a plausible-sounding request. “For information on the calendar, you need to call Ms. Lavonia Perryman at this 800 number,” responded the receptionist to the first inquiry. That number rings at an answering service in San Mateo, Calif.
Perryman returned the message promptly and dutifully passed the buck. “Oh, you need to call the D.C. Concerned Citizens about the calendar,” she said. Another call to DCCCC netted the same referral as the initial call. It was clear that it was going to take a calendar to keep track of all the time required to follow DCCCC’s instructive runaround. A visit seemed in order.
DCCCC is located in a two-story tan brick building at 5700 Georgia Ave. NW—the same building that the mayor’s 1994 campaign rented for $1,000 per month from Barry “associate” Roweshea Burruss, who owns the 12th Street party house where Barry claims he stops to change his clothes and eat sandwiches.
The closed blinds in the office’s windows emit a forbidding air, and a pull on the locked glass front door prompts a frown from the office receptionist. She finally gets up slowly, making pains to show that she’s being inconvenienced. When she reaches the door, she unlocks it carefully and opens it just enough to ask what’s up. When she realizes there is an inquiry about the calendar, she locks the door again and returns with a piece of paper. It reads, “Ms. Perryman 1-800-317-9672.” When I complain that I’ve already called the number, the woman yells through the door, “That’s all the information I can give you. Bye.”
During the second round, it’s clear that Perryman is a vanishing virtuoso at the top of her form. First, she pledges to look into why we haven’t received the calendar. Then, when asked whether the calendar actually exists, she replies, “I have no idea. I manage public relations for them. I don’t deal with the calendar.”
Thereafter, DCCCC’s receptionists commence a three-pronged strategy to deflect calls to DCCCC President Betsy Tibbs about the calendar. At first they say she is out and will call back. Tibbs doesn’t respond to five messages, and at that point the persistent caller is put on perma-hold. On the second-to-last call, a man who claims to be “Hernandez, Jose Hernandez” says he can provide no assistance because he is the janitor and is in the office just to clean up—at 3:30 p.m. He picks up again on the next call and says he is “Smith, John Smith.” The caller observes that the evasions are getting cuter and cuter. “That’s what my mother says, too,” responds Hernandez-Smith, just before hanging up.
DCCCC has made an art form of elusiveness—the city’s best-traveled politicos and community types routinely shake their heads when asked about the organization and Tibbs. Joan Thomas, a lifelong Ward 4 activist, says she helped DCCCC organize community events and programs, including the group’s two-week summer retreats for District youths to a “Christian camp” in rural Virginia. Thomas says that Tibbs showed her mock-ups for the Barry calendar but never the finished product. “I’m the type who buys things that I can see and touch,” says Thomas. “I’m not into ordering things that I see in a catalog or something.” Smart woman.
And Tibbs keeps a remarkably low profile for a woman who claims to be a lifelong community activist. A flier for her losing campaign for delegate to the 1996 Democratic National Convention lists a plethora of tremendous, eclectic, and misspelled achievements: “Responsible for the Re-Election of Major [sic] Barry 4th Term, 1994…Responsible for the largest turn out [sic] of voters in the History of Ward 4…Owner of Bale Record Company…Member of the Biccential [sic] Committee.”
Since its founding in 1973, DCCCC has made the headlines once, when it sponsored a 1979 gala celebration for local youth at the Shoreham Americana Hotel. The group invited 700 District kids and promised a star-studded lineup of honorary guests, including Barry, Abe Pollin, and D.C. congressional Delegate Walter Fauntroy. No one showed up. A local representative of the NAACP stopped in the middle of his invocation address when he recognized the futility of speaking to a ballroom of empty tables set for 1,000 guests.
DCCCC, it seems, knows something about producing no-shows.—Erik Wemple