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It was the shittiest night the Big Hunt had ever seen.
On March 24, a group of women organized a birthday party at the Dupont Circle bar. Mark Karns, a 28-year-old from Chicago, and his friends surveyed the scene nearby. “The birthday cake was half-eaten,” he says. “It didn’t really look like there was much of a concentrated effort to celebrate anything.” In fact, the party seemed pretty low-key.
Then, all of a sudden, two “big guys” barreled toward the girls, screaming. One of them wore a green blazer, Karns remembers. And on his shoulder appeared to be a big pile of shit.
The shit, it seems, came from a container of Insta-Poop, a can of fake feces that, according to Karns, looked and smelled remarkably real. Best as Karns could make out, someone at the bar—maybe one of the birthday girls or maybe some other “diabolical mischievous person”—had stooped over the railing of the Big Hunt’s second floor and sprayed the patrons below. Whoever the culprit, the Insta-Poop attack created quite a stink.
Irate, the blazer guy and his friend approached the women. “It was in [the guys’] hair, smeared on their clothing. They were furious, yelling as loud as they could…‘I smell like fucking shit!’ ” Karns remembers one shouting. Then, the men retaliated. One grabbed the can, peppering the women with Insta-Poop. “ ‘How do you like that shit? You like that shit?’ ” they said, according to Karns. He saw it caked in the women’s curls and covering their faces.
Before long, the bar was buzzing with news of the shitstorm. Meanwhile, Karns and his friends were curious. The poop looked so authentic. Did it smell bad, too? Karns’ friend leaned behind one of the victims and stealthily swabbed a specimen off his back. Thrusting his finger under his girlfriend’s nose, she responded, “ ‘Oh my God. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought you stuck that up your own ass,’ ” Karns remembers her saying. “It was overpowering,” he says. “It didn’t permeate the room,” says Karns’ friend Ray Lian, “but if you got a whiff of it, it was bad.”
Steve Wampold, owner of Prankplace.com, which distributes Insta-Poop, says the product is made in Spain and is “one of our most popular pooping-related items.” Its appeal, he says, is its flexibility. “Insta-Poop is good for people who want to make their own shapes, whereas fake dog poop comes ready-made,” he says. Like most of his stock, Insta-Poop is targeted to “cubies,” young professionals who don’t mind spending $3 to $5 to add a little levity to office life.
Joe Englert, owner of the Big Hunt, says he felt “really bad” about the incident and says the establishment has offered to pay for dry cleaning. “If he [the first victim] wants to have a poop-less event for his family and friends,” the Big Hunt will happily host, Englert says. He also has a suggestion for the birthday girls. “I think the girls who hosted the party should take care of their shit a little better.”
Goodbye to All That Jazz?
On a recent Friday night at the Smithsonian Jazz Café at the National Museum of Natural History, jazz harmonicist Frédéric Yonnet was warming up the crowd. He cupped his hands over his mouth and broke into a lively solo. Then, removing the instrument from his lips, he smiled widely. “Is there anybody in the room?” he teased. “Do you want some more? Do you want some more?”
In fact, there were plenty of people in the room that night. The venue, which has a 500-person capacity, was packed, and the audience—a mix of toddlers, teens, tourists, and gray-haired Washingtonians—clapped and cheered. Wait times for tables reached upward of 15 minutes, and at one point, the line snaked out to the museum gift shop nearby.
And yet, despite its apparent popularity, the cafe’s days may be numbered. “The [Smithsonian] Business Ventures office has told us that it will be continuing until the end of June, but its future after that is uncertain,” says Randall Kremer, spokesperson for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and music director for the jazz cafe. “They have called it a financial issue.”
Apparently, the cafe is operating “deeply in the red,” says Leslie Whipkey, a marketing volunteer for the program. In early March, the cafe was instructed not to book performers beyond April 27. Now, “the only guarantee that Smithsonian Business Ventures has made is that the cafe will operate through June 29,” she says. She worries that Smithsonian Business Ventures, which oversees revenue-generating elements of the Smithsonian Institution such as gift shops, concessions stands, and IMAX theaters, “is looking to pull the program.”
Business Ventures spokesperson Linda St. Thomas confirms that the jazz cafe’s fate “is under discussion.” She cautions that a final decision about the program’s future will be made in June and that any conclusions on the subject are “premature.”
That hasn’t stopped D.C.’s jazz fans from rallying around the cafe. Harry Schnipper, owner of Blues Alley in Georgetown, says losing the Smithsonian Jazz Café would be a major blow to D.C.’s jazz scene. “All jazz boats rise in the same water. Jazz competition is good,” he says.
“It’s one of the few places around town where tourists from the museum can bump elbows with federal workers, local hipsters, and musicians,” Larry Appelbaum, who hosts a jazz show on WPFW, writes in an e-mail. “It’s also important that they only charge $10 with no [drink] minimum. You can easily spend three or four times more than that at the better jazz clubs around town.”
Ali Ryerson, a Connecticut-based flutist who played the cafe March 16, says the program is highly regarded among jazz musicians. “I think the Smithsonian Jazz Café has a really good name in D.C., but its reputation goes well beyond just D.C.” The cafe is especially known for its jazz guitar performances, but Ryerson says the “casual atmosphere” makes it appealing to a wide variety of artists. “I’ve been hearing about it for many years,” she says.
Appelbaum says he doesn’t understand why Smithsonian Business Ventures is considering pulling the plug on the program. “I realize that every organization needs to balance artistic vision with the bottom line. But every time I’ve been to the jazz cafe, I’ve seen good audience turnout, so I really don’t know what the problem is. Are they really experiencing a loss or do they just want to maximize a profit for that space? In other words, is the problem financial, cultural, or political?” he asks.
Closing the cafe does seem “a little mysterious,” Whipkey says. She’s heard the cafe isn’t making enough money, but every week she watches hundreds of customers pay the $10 cover to enter. And according to Kremer, “the fees for the musicians are not significant—they’re fair.” About 200 to 350 people visit the cafe on a typical Friday, he says, and a birthday tribute to saxophonist Buck Hill in February drew a full house.
Whipkey wonders whether a different business model could save the cafe. For instance, she says, “there must be a way of tweaking the food and beverage side to allow the jazz cafe to operate after hours,” referring to the club’s pricey menu. (Last Friday the cafe was selling $12.95 pizzas, $20.95 prime rib, and $6 Amstel Lights.) Kremer says that he hasn’t seen the cafe’s balance sheets and doesn’t know how food costs affect the program. But he knows that opinions are split among patrons: He cites a survey that reports half the concertgoers are happy with the price and quality of the food, while others would prefer less expensive options. One thing is clear, he says: The majority of customers come for the music. St. Thomas declined to comment on whether food and beverage costs were threatening the cafe. “I simply don’t know that level of detail of the business,” she says.
Food aside, Schnipper wonders whether the jazz cafe’s problems reflect larger troubles facing the Smithsonian, particularly in the aftermath of secretary Lawrence M. Small’s resignation last month following accusations of overspending. “I just think it’s endemic of the Smithsonian Institution in general,” Schnipper says. “I think they’re undergoing a lot of change with the resignation of their director,” he says.
But concerns about the cafe’s finances have been brewing for some time, Kremer says. “I can’t speak to why this is not successful financially, but I can speak to why it’s successful at bringing jazz to the people of Washington, D.C….What our goal is [is] to figure out what we need to do to make the jazz cafe continue.”
Whipkey, however, thinks the recent changes at the Smithsonian could be a net positive for the cafe. Last week, Cristián Samper, the head of the Natural History Museum, was tapped to become acting secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Samper frequents the cafe, Whipkey says, and “we’re hoping he can help us out.” Then again, she adds, he might “have bigger fish to fry.”
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