Culture: August 2002 Archives

There are all kinds of cultural heroes, and Fred Plotkin belongs in their rank.

Mr. Plotkin, 46, is one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy. He is the author of "Opera 101," an operaphilic perennial since it was published in 1994, as well as five cookbooks-cum-social histories about Italy.
He is a very hands-on legend, and one of his best anecdotes involves a cellphone story which is hard to top.
The New York Philharmonic was playing energetically, but the gentleman on the aisle in Row M of Avery Fisher Hall was bored. He wasn't that much of a gentleman, either, for he actually pulled out his cellphone and began talking. "Hi, how are you?" he announced in a Texas drawl. "What's going on?"

Here is what was going on: Kurt Masur was conducting the Brahms Second Symphony in front of a hushed full house, and Fred Plotkin wanted to listen.

"I was incensed," recalled Mr. Plotkin, a onetime performance manager of the Metropolitan Opera who was also seated in Row M. Mr. Plotkin sprang from his seat and snatched the cellphone from the yapper's hand, turned it off and pocketed it. He returned it only at intermission. Our hero.

But wait, there's more.
There was the night he politely, but firmly, asked Imelda Marcos to leave a 1986 "Tosca." ("After she was seated in Row H, she began offering patrons $1,000 in cash to buy extra tickets for her entourage, and I ejected her for scalping," he said.) Then there was the time Mr. Plotkin barred a tardy Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at a 1983 "La Boheme" until she could be seated at intermission with her eight security guards. ("Nobody is above the law," he said.)
Oh, and we'll definitely vouch for his understanding of Italy and Italian food.

I'm a little late with this indymedia item, and I hope it hasn't been rendered null by subsequent police events, but here it is, in a great and honorable tradition.


Take your muzzle off and speak your mind at the weekly Tompkins Square Speaker's Corner. Every Saturday starting at 8pm on the S/W corner of Tompkins Square.

Not ready to spend that last $20 dollars at an overpriced East Village bar? Step over the police barricades and join the poets, the anarchists, the loudmouths, the crusty old reds, and the crusty young squatters! Step up on the soap box and take back your neighborhood by telling the consumer zombies and the cops exactly what's on your mind! War on Iraq? Police brutality? Palestine? George Bush? EVERY SPEAKER WELCOME! EVERY SPEAKER A KING! Every Saturday night starting at 8pm on the S/W corner of Tompkins Square.

--to the olympics.

First they tried just selling us the billion-dollar sports stadium, then they switched the bait to a plan for a New York City Olympics. Gee willickers, how can you be against that?

Both plans are ludicrous through and through, but I'm not going to go into the case here. Instead, I'm registering my amazement at the lead column on the front page of the NYTimes sports section today. I said the sports section!

There is no hard evidence that major sports events benefit their hosts. Building stadiums is often a Chamber of Commerce boondoggle, to put the Greatest Little Town in the World on the map.

Imagine how embarrassed New York would be right now if it had been stuck building new stadiums for the Mets and the Yankees only to have the blockhead owners and the dunderhead players stage a ruinous long layoff.

Sports have a close connection with bad civic values. There are high schools in New York spending money for football helmets while the city cannot provide enough textbooks to enhance the brains inside the helmets.

Why cities without gays and rock bands are losing the economic development race," Richard Florida describes what he call the "creative class" as those who "do a wide variety of work in a wide variety of industries--from technology to entertainment, journalism to finance, high-end manufacturing to the arts. They do not consciously think of themselves as a class. Yet they share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit. These are the engines of the new urban civilization, of the revival of (certain) American cities.

It is a telling commentary on our age that at a time when political will seems difficult to muster for virtually anything, city after city can generate the political capital to underwrite hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in professional sports stadiums. And you know what? They don't matter to the creative class. Not once during any of my focus groups and interviews did the members of the creative class mention professional sports as playing a role of any sort in their choice of where to live and work. What makes most cities unable to even imagine devoting those kinds of resources or political will to do the things that people say really matter to them?
The creative class is not indifferent to athletic activities, but they are into active sports, from traditional ones like bicycling, jogging, and kayaking to newer, more extreme ones, like trail running and snowboarding.
Not once during any of my focus groups and interviews did the members of the creative class mention professional sports as playing a role of any sort in their choice of where to live and work.
For the purposes of this argument, I think we can safely exclude spectating Olympic events from the category of "active sports," and safely include Olympic Games in the category of professional sports.

Some of you already know that Barry and I kinda collect art things--lots of art things. So, if I occasionally make a point of talking about one artist or another in the midst of my political diatribes and my almost-cute New York anecdotes (or whatever), I guess I risk describing the merits of that particular person's work as worthier than any not so cited. I want to make it clear that such an elevation is not the interpretation I intend, today or at any time in the future (unless otherwise specified at the time, of course).

Nevertheless, I am extremely fond of the work of Yashitomo Nara. I first literally almost tripped-over the images here in New York a very few years ago, and I haven't been able to escape his snare since. I'm sure this impact is only remotely related to the fact that the subject of so many of his creations, the cute, pig-tailed, pissed-off little girl who won't take any nonsense from anyone, so resembles the wondeful Sister from whom I am currently estranged.

Nara also does dogs. Today B and I walked over to Tomkins Square Park where a beautiful and moving, I guess cow-sized (not related to that horrible multiple-cow project of late memory) crying-dog sculpture rests in a very homey open pavillion, simply crying its eyes out for us and for its kind. I understand that the piece is intended to be a symbol of empathy and friendship, the tears a metaphor for the healing realized for an individual embraced by a loving community. Maybe that's too much to ask of a plastic dog, but maybe not.

I've always loved that park, but it hasn't always been easy.

Oh, the dog. He's leaving us after this tuesday.

The installation is sponsored by Haagen-Dazs. The work is destined to be installed at the Westchester Medical Center's new Maria Fareri Children's Hospital.

Nara Dog in Tompkins Square Park

But for Daphne, it was all just one career move. She did what she wanted to do, and did it for a very long time, and then she stopped.

Daphne Bayne Hellman, the jazz harpist who performed around the world and for three decades at the Village Gate but who had a special affection for playing on subway platforms, died on Sunday at a nursing home in Manhattan. She was 86.

Ms. Hellman, who had played on the streets of Paris at a music fair as recently as June, was recuperating from injuries suffered in a fall last month near her town house on East 61st Street, her family said.


"She was just the antisnob, that's what she was," said Art D'Lugoff, who owned the Village Gate, where Ms. Hellman and her trio, Hellman's Angels, played every Tuesday for 30 years when she was in town. It was one of the longest nightclub runs in the city's history.

"She had money and she knew a lot of people and she got along with everybody," said Mr. D'Lugoff, whose club closed in 1994.


Her cluttered East Side town house, usually full of boarders, birds, dogs and litters of gerbils, served as the base for a kind of floating salon. And she was its musical Zelig, whose close friends included, besides Mr. Spoons, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the artist Saul Steinberg and the writer Norman Mailer.

One of her long-term musical collaborators marvelled, "She loved to do whatever she knew you weren't supposed to do."

It looks like Mexico has the right attitude toward the Catholic Church: We'll take the fun parts and the pretty parts, but don't tell us what to do!

...there is a troublesome, yawning divide between the teachings of the church and the beliefs of Mexican Catholics. The divide is clear in surveys showing that Mexicans favor birth control, oppose religious education and are open to abortion.


"The church is always full on Sunday," [said a seminarian in a working class neighborhood of GUADALAJARA] "Rituals are easy for the people. But they do not turn to the church when they are making choices in their lives. And if they do turn to the church, many of them reject what the church demands."


Last week [the Vargas family,] David Vargas, 45, an ironsmith, and his wife Leticia, 42, invited the seminarian for lunch. The lunches offer an opportunity to spread Catholicism in an intimate setting, Mr. Barajas said. But the Vargas family seemed intent on giving the church a piece of their mind.

"Why is it that people who are divorced are prohibited from Communion?" Mrs. Vargas asked. "Divorce does not seem like a sin to me."

The aspiring priest responded, "Divorce on its own is not a sin."

But he was interrupted. "Why does the church consider it wrong to use birth control?" Mrs. Vargas said, turning toward her 23-year-old daughter, Janet. "Would the church rather we have children we cannot care for?"

While Mr. Barajas squirmed for an answer, Mr. Vargas tried to lighten the mood.

"My wife and I don't always agree," he reassured the seminarian. "We still believe in the Catholic Church. We just think it needs to grow up in some areas."

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