One Lawyer Gives Back By Helping Those More Fortunate Than Himself

NEEDHAM, Mass.  It’s Thursday night in this mixed-income suburb of Boston, and the sight of cars lining a quiet residential street indicates to a casual observer that there’s a cocktail party in progress in one of the town’s newer, more upscale homes.  “That’s where the need is greatest,” says lawyer Bob Pliateck, as he takes care to make sure he has enough business cards in the breast pocket of his plaid sport coat.  “A lot of guys will do their pro bono work in the cool comfort of their air-conditioned offices, but not me.  I ‘take it to the streets,'” he says, making air quotes to indicate that he is using hip, youthful slang.

Nicest house on the street.

Once he’s been greeted by the hostess at the door, he begins to circulate among the guests, who are resplendent in colorful outfits that only a week before would have been viewed as “rushing the season” of spring, which in New England generally lasts only a day or two before giving way to summer.  “I do most of my pro bono work at cocktail parties,” Pliateck says with a grim shake of his head at the array of potential problems he’s likely to encounter tonight.  “The unmet legal needs here–house closings, estate plans–are so overwhelming it’s really a scandal the way the legal profession turns a blind eye to the problems of the upper middle class.”

Under a Massachusetts rule, lawyers in this state must provide twenty-five hours of legal aid annually to people of limited means, or pay a fee ranging from $250 to 1% of their annual taxable income to organizations that provide such services.  “I could just write the check,” Pliateck says.  “But that would be the easy, more expensive way out.”

“Don’t turn around–here comes that guy Pliateck.”


So the sole practitioner walks the mean streets of leafy-green suburbs like this, looking for those more fortunate than himself who nonetheless, in traditional cheap Yankee style, refuse to pay high hourly rates for downtown Boston lawyers.  “It’s my calling, the way Mother Teresa ministered to the lepers in Calcutta,” he says of his selfish quest for billable hours.

“A thousand dollars for a simple estate plan?  You can go shit in your hat, pal.”


Bar officials say Pliateck’s quixotic pursuit of the slightly over-privileged puts him in compliance with the mandatory public service requirement, but just barely.  “Perhaps we should re-word the Rule,” says bar counsel Everett Winthrop III.   “Technically everybody south of the Bill Gates-Warren Buffett level is ‘of limited means,’ but Bob’s a lawyer–he saw a loophole and drove right through it.”

*Boring lawyer.  Must  . . . stifle . . . yawn*


Pliateck has heard the complaint before, but says he will not be deterred by small-minded critics who he suspects are simply envious of the way he “does well by doing good.”  “It’s sour grapes,” he says.  “Those guys are just jealous they didn’t come up with the idea first.”

At Sidekick School, Goal is to Play Second Fiddle

BOSTON.  It’s 7:20 a.m., an early hour for late riser Will McHusack, but the young man who is currently employed as a night security guard at a local college dorm nonetheless seems filled with enthusiasm.  “Got to chase my dream, you know?” he says to this reporter as he stakes out a place first in line at a non-descript building on Commonwealth Avenue.  “A lot of people think talk shows are filmed late at night, but that’s just an illusion from the backdrops.”

Our founder, George Fenneman

McHusack is here along with other budding Ed McMahons for the first day of spring semester classes at Fenneman’s School for Sidekicks, which offers courses designed to prepare young men for the highly-competitive world of second-rate entertainers who, once they realize they will never make it big based on their talent, aim slightly lower for a spot on a couch next to a television talk show host.

“But seriously, folks–Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease strikes kids in the first bloom of youth.”

At 7:30 a.m. the doors swing open and the assembled students file into a large, open room outfitted with 42 desks with adjoining couches and, after instructor Bob DaVilla checks their names off the enrollment list, each takes a seat opposite a dummy through which DaVilla’s voice will emanate once the “lab” part of instruction begins.

“First thing you guys have got to remember from Sidekick 101 is don’t act, RE-act,” DaVilla says with heavy emphasis on the last word.  “It’s not The Tonight Show with Ed McMahon, it’s The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson–got it?”

Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy:  I hear he’s hiring.

Heads nod in comprehension, and a few students jot down notes.  “I really wish you wouldn’t do that, you’re going to have to ‘wing it’ as a talk show sidekick, so you have to learn to perform without a net,” DaVilla says as McHusack scribbles “I really wish you wouldn’t do that” before screeching to a halt when DaVilla clears his throat ominously.

“Tonight we’ve got Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, Oprah Winfrey, and Kathy Griffin on my lap.”

The instructor leads the class in a few warm-up exercises, taking pains to point out that a sidekick must himself be warmed up before he goes out to warm up the crowd for the host.  “Let’s do ten double-takes, five to the right, five to the left,” DaVilla says, and the young men practice the patented comic gesture of surprise without incident except for one young man who develops a crick in his neck when his first “take” is executed too sharply.

“Yes, as a matter of fact I DO have a new movie coming out, thanks for asking.”

“Now for some broad laughs at your host’s lame jokes,” DaVilla says, and the sound of forty-two young men emitting a pleasant but controlled “HA-HA-HA” bounces off the walls of the barebones classroom.

DaVilla’s charges are now ready for some physical activity, and he segues into a typical transition with a scripted introduction of a fictional young starlet whose agent has placed her on a talk show to promote a new movie in which she will, for the first time, play a starring role.  “She’s appeared in supporting roles in a number of films including I Know Where You Went on Vacation Last Summer, Farthammer II and Land of the Lost Unicorns, say hello to . . . Marci Eversharp!”

The students stand up and clap with restrained enthusiasm, then begin the delicate movement they will execute thousands of times, like matadors performing a cruzar before an on-rushing bull, if they hit the big time; making way for a guest to greet the host and take a seat on the sofa.

“Good, good,” DaVilla murmurs audibly into his microphone before he spots something he doesn’t like and shouts “Hold it!” loud enough to be heard next door in a cosmetology school.

“Everybody see what he did wrong?” DaVilla snaps as he descends on a hapless young man in the first row.

The other students are silent, mainly out of fear that they’ll give the wrong answer and become the next victim of DaVilla’s wrath.

“Anybody?” DaVilla asks, calmly at first, and then, with exasperation, “Nobody?”

The silence persists, so DaVilla is forced to answer his own question.

“You always move down the couch, away from the host, not towards him–that’s where the guest sits!”

Loyalty Card Fraud Has Coffee Shops on Guard Against Caffeine Arbitrage

BOSTON.  To all appearances, Amy Vilsbeck is just another customer at Uncommon Grounds, a local purveyor of coffee and espresso drinks in the financial district here.  “I blend in pretty easily,” she says as she pretends to check her phone for text messages.  “There are a lot of young people like me who hate their jobs so much they’ll use any excuse to get out of the office.”

“The quiet types minding their own business?  They’re the worst!”

But in fact Vilsbeck is a plant, hired by the owners of the hole-in-the-wall shop, which uses customer “loyalty” cards that offer a free drink for every nine purchased in order to attract customers away from chains such as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts.  “I enjoy the undercover nature of my work,” she says as she sips on a decaffeinated drink in order to avoid burn-out.  “I’ve been a file clerk and a receptionist, this is more like a spy movie.”

“You hold him, I’ll hit him.”

The young woman’s job is to spot and stop fraudulent use of loyalty or “rewards” cards, which eat into her employer’s bottom line.  “Say like a guy will buy nine small coffees,” says Tom Mattieson, who occupies a similar position at Boston Beans, a competitor.  “He shows up with nine holes punched on his card on Friday and all of a sudden his tastes have changed to a half caf/half de-caf soy macchiato caramel latte–there goes our profit,” he notes.  “I call that a rather perverted sense of loyalty.”

Financial regulators say such arbitrage from low to high-priced drinks is legal, but a growing source of concern on volatile futures markets.  “You have a lot of bottom feeders buying up cards with nine holes punched at deep discounts,” says Morton Shulman, head of the SEC’s Special Task Force on Small-Time Crooks Who Can’t Afford Good Lawyers to Beat Us.  “Then they go in and order these complicated drinks, causing wild swings in the time it takes me to get in and out with my regular coffee and corn muffins.”

“You found it on the street, did you?  Like I haven’t heard that one before.”

And so Vilsbeck and others like her are the first line of defense against a new crime wave on which sketchy characters surf, hoping to chisel coffee shop operators out of sums that can reach into three figures, if one counts the two to the right of the decimal point.  “We had a guy try to pull a fast one this morning, leveraging his crappy coffee purchases into a vanilla iced latte and even a biscotti,” she says with disgust.  “You don’t want to scar anybody permanently, but that’s apparently what Tasers are for.”

The Mid-Life Strip Tease Crisis

It started out as just another Saturday night dinner party in the suburbs. Conversation ran the gamut from our kids to our septic systems to our kids to home values, then made a hairpin turn back to our septic systems. Who says the suburbs are boring?

And yet, once we’d finished dinner and had mellowed from the wine, our little group of friends grew reflective. We started talking about our “bucket lists”–how we were going to spend the remainder of our years before we lapsed into senility. Now that we were all empty-nesters, we had time on our hands to do–something.

One woman said she was looking into starting an inner-city charter school and asked my advice. Since I’ve been involved with two that failed, I told her I was like a C student in high school biology class and she was the frog–did she really want me to get my hands on her pet project?

Frogs in biology class


Her husband was looking into a fantasy baseball camp–a chance to play with the Red Sox heroes of his boyhood. Another guy was taking guitar lessons. Next at the table was Sally–a Ph.D. with a good job at a local university, doing interesting work in public policy. What’s your dream? somebody asked.

“I’m already working on it,” she said, with a smug little smile forming on her mouth. “I’m taking stripping lessons.”

“I love re-doing old furniture,” another woman said.

“Not that kind of stripping,” Sally said. “Strip-tease dancing.”

Oh, my goodness!


If the stereo and the dishwasher hadn’t been running and if I hadn’t succumbed to a burp at that moment, you could have heard a crouton drop on the all-wool designer rug beneath us.

“Are you serious?” a woman named Tori finally said.

“Sure, why not?” Sally said. “I love to dance, and it’s a legitimate sub-genre found in many cultures. In different countries it goes by the name of raqs sharqi, the Dance of the Seven Veils, the Hoochy-Koochy.” That’s Sally–even her conversation follows the Chicago Manual of Style for footnotes.

Chicago Manual of Style: Don’t take off your clothes without it.


“I hear burlesque is making a comeback,” I said, trying to defuse a potentially awkward situation. I watched Tori to make sure she wasn’t already texting her scorn around town under the table.

“That’s right,” Sally said. “It’s offered in adult education classes . . .”

“The term adult is used loosely,” her husband added in a joshing tone.

” . . . and there are dance troupes that specialize in it.”

“You know,” I began, seeking to add a little regional historical perspective, a gift that my friends never cease to be bored by.  “Boston has a long and proud tradition of burlesque, notwithstanding the efforts of the old Watch & Ward Society to keep it ‘Banned in Boston.’”

“Really?” a man asked, stifling a yawn.

Scollay Square


“Government Center used to be called Scollay Square, and its strip joints were famous throughout New England.”

“You two seem to be the strip experts,” Tori said, and not with any hint of approval.

“I’m having just one teensy problem,” Sally said.

“What’s that?” someone asked.

“I can’t come up with a stripper name–every stripper needs a professional stage name.”

A nomme de strip?” I asked helpfully.

“Yes,” Sally said. “I’m afraid all of my imaginative powers are exhausted by the required training in bumping and grinding I’ve undergone.”

I looked at her with disappointed surprise. “You don’t know about the Quik ‘n E-Z Stripper Name Generation Formula?” I asked.



All eyes turned towards Sally, and I thought I noticed her reddening in the face. “Why . . . no.” You could tell from the looks of skepticism around the table that people were beginning to have some doubts about the extent of Sally’s preparation.

“It’s easy–as the name implies,” I said. “You take the name of your first pet . . .”

“Okay . . .”

“Then the name of the street you grew up on. Applying it to myself–and I wouldn’t ask you to subject yourself to the rigors of the process unless I, like Madame Curie, had exposed myself to it first–my stripper name is ‘Buffy Broadway.’”

“Neat,” said Todd Pinsky, a former fraternity rush chairman who was always willing to play games at social gatherings. “I guess I’d be . . . Lady Liberty.”

“Cool,” said Tori’s husband, Jed. “I’m Poodie Magnolia.”

Everyone laughed except Tori, who was still having trouble wrapping her brain–deformed by years of Calvinist theology absorbed in Presbyterian Sunday School–around the concept.

“I think we need to hear from the woman who’s actually going to be using her name,” I said, trying to keep the conversation on a non-judgmental tack. “How about it, Sally?”

“Well,” she hesitated, “I guess I’d be Bimbo Thirteenth Street.”

“Hold it,” I said, stepping in as umpire. “The ground rules of the Quik ‘n E-Z Stripper Name Generation Formula are that if you would be stuck with a numerical or alphabetical stripper name, you’re allowed to use a cross street.”

Sally had to think about that for a moment. “Obviously there were two–one on either end of the block. Can I pick the one I like best?”

“No fair,” Tori said emphatically. She was a stickler for rules when we played croquet, too.

I reached in my pocket to check the Official Rules of Stripper Name Generation. “Let’s see–here it is. ‘Section 7.3, Selection of alternate names in the event of multiple cross-streets or pets in a litter.’ If you have first-letter alliteration with the ‘b’ in ‘Bimbo,’ use that first.”

“No–that doesn’t work.”

“Then you are free to use either one.”

“I’m Bimbo Fox!”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Blurbs From the Burbs.”

As Whole Language Yuppies Move In, Phonics Junkies Are Forced Out

BOSTON.  The neighborhood here known as the South End has historically been a transitional stop on the way up–or down–the social ladder.  “We got the winos and junkies who lost their last best hope of realizing the American Dream,” says long-time bar owner Michael “Mickey” Flaherty, “and then we got the freshly-minted MBA’s who work long hours and can’t afford the suburbs yet, or ‘yuppie scum’ as I affectionately refer to them.”

Boston’s South End

The clash between those on the rise and those who have fallen off the treadmill of the American economy has been exacerbated of late by a different dimension of assessment besides education and income, however; younger residents who learned to read by the “whole language” method, which allows children to select their own reading matter and emphasizes recognition of words in everyday contexts so that teachers can have more and longer breaks, and older residents who learned to read through phonics, a form of corporal punishment inflicted by sadistic instructors that actually works.

“If you can read this sign you probably took phonics.”

“It’s sad to see what happened to my older brother,” says Nora Gilson, who at the age of 60 harkens back to the watershed point when elementary school teachers gave up on phonics and turned to whole language instruction because they were tired of drumming syllable sounds into impressionable young heads.  “He learned to read, and now can’t watch television for thirty seconds without turning it off in disgust.”

“Listen, pal–if you pronounce it ‘ven-TIE’ one more time I’m throwing you outta here.”

The addictive power of phonics has led to an underground black market in “Hooked on Phonics” tapes, which phonics “junkies” use to “shoot up” in dark alleys so narrow that quotation marks are often scraped off of words that pass through them.  “It’s a real shibboleth,” says Armand St. Gregoire, a professor of linguistics the University of Massachusetts-Seekonk campus, referring to the word used to distinguish Gileadites from Ephraimites in Biblical times.  “A yuppie will walk into Starbucks and pronounce v-e-n-t-i as ‘VEN-tea’ because they know the culture while some homeless guy will say ‘ven-TIE’ and get thrown out of the place.”

“Will read your homeowner’s insurance policy for food.”

The scars that phonics leaves on its victims are worn as badges of pride by some, who point out that whole language learners are more likely to watch “The Bachelorette” or think Marcel Proust is a goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs.  “Sure I coulda been successful and spend all my time in airports and lobbies watching drivel on TV screens,” says a man in a green “snorkel” coat who identifies himself only as “Marty.”  “But then I wouldn’t have the satisfaction of making fun of the guys on SportsCenter.”

There’s Nothing Rougher Than a Genteel Crowd

It’s springtime, which means that across America, crowds are filling auditoriums with the sound of their voices, yelling loudly–sometimes angrily–as they watch young people crash into each other.  I’m not talking about the NBA Playoffs.  I’m referring to spring dance recitals.

I was introduced to the rough and tumble world of youth dance recitals nearly two decades ago, and yet the memory is still painful.  My wife, who taught introductory ballet, thought it might be fun if I brought our two sons to watch the end-of-season extravaganza, in which children (mainly girls) dress up and dance to songs from Disney movies.  Thematic unity among music, costumes and dance is not required, nor even encouraged.

At the last minute my wife asked if we would change seats with a woman whose failing vision made it difficult for her to see the stage.  As we stood up to do so the lights went down, causing momentary disorientation as our eyes adjusted to the dark.  We moved hesitantly up the aisle and across a row of seats, and as the curtain went up we heard the tender expression of a mother’s love.

“Sit down, fer Christ sake!” a woman yelled at us, her video camera rolling.

“Get out of the way, you idiot!” another screamed.

I don’t want to sound judgmental, but the crowd at a Marvelous Marvin Hagler fight I once attended seemed decorous by contrast.

“No way.  I ain’t goin’ to no youth dance recital.”


The incident recalled another encounter with the madness of genteel crowds I experienced at a recital by Gustav Leonhardt, world-renowned keyboard player, at Harvard.  Leonhardt was to perform on a specially re-constructed 18th century harpsichord, but it was a cold night and the heating system in the concert hall–only slightly newer than the harpsichord–wasn’t working well.  Leonhardt came out and announced that he was sorry but the cold temperature made the instrument unplayable and he would perform instead on a modern instrument.

Gustav Leonhardt:  “Why don’t you come up here and say that, punk?”


A fellow came in after this announcement and sat listening for a while, growing more agitated by the moment.  Finally, after Leonhardt had performed three pieces on the newer keyboard, the man stood up and yelled “PLAY THE F _ _ KING CLAVICHORD!”  Then, to everyone’s relief, he stormed out.

Classical music fight, Boston Pops


And I’m sure you recall the incident in 2007 when a fight broke out between two well-dressed audience members at a Boston Pops concert.  It seems one guy was talking and another guy asked him to please be quiet.  Let me tell you, at a classical music performance, them’s fighting words.

“Fer christ sake–this ain’t the goddamn Symphony!”


I don’t know what it is that makes crowds at hoity-toity events lose their cool, but I have a theory.  It’s all the excuse-me-pardon-me-oh-I’m-so-sorry sheen they put on their personalities when they get all dolled up to go out.  Unlike spectators at, say, a Boston Bruins game, among whom it is considered the height of pretension to tuck in one’s jersey.  The more refined the spectators, the more easily they snap.  Fans at baseball games may yell “Kill the umpire!”, but this is a critical judgment, not a call to arms.

Maybe if classical concert-goers would let go with a “Kill the conductor!” every now and then, we could all listen to the effing clavichord in peace.

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “The Genteel Crowd: It’s So Much More Fun Being Vulgar.”

Some Cry Foul as Skinny Guys Again Dominate Marathon

BOSTON. The Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon, attracts runners from around the world every Patriot’s Day, a holiday on the third Monday in April that serves as an excuse for local bureaucrats to take the day off.  “Running Boston is my dream,” says Ngtmbe Jpksgzi of Kenya, whose name was cobbled together from surplus letters left behind by American “eco-tourists.” “Perhaps if I win, I can afford a few more vowels.”

McKelvey: “It’s not fair!”


But local runners are beginning to chafe at what they say is a system that results in skinny guys and gals winning the event year after year, leaving them with nothing to show for their half-hearted efforts to stay in shape.

“I musta done ten, maybe twenty situps since last year,” says Chuck McKelvey, a regular at the Kinvarra Pub in East Roxbury. “They told me to forget about entering.  Me–who grew up here!”

“That guy’s so skinny he has to pass a place twice to make a shadow!”


So regulars stage a “drink-in” at the bar every Patriots Day, refusing to move from their seats until all the free snacks have been consumed and all runners have crossed the finish line.

“It’s tough, believe me,” says Bob Wychekowski, a long-time patron whose loyalty caused him to adopt the pub as his mailing address last year when he was going through a divorce.  “I know the runners are in excruciating pain, but on the other hand they don’t start serving lunch here until twelve o’clock on the dot.”

Pizza-flavored goldfish on Salisbury Steak


Until then, customers depend on a subsistence diet of honey-roasted peanuts and pizza-flavored goldfish served free at the bar, or garlic and onion potato chips and Andy Capp Pub Fries purchased from a vending machine next to the men’s room. “You got to suck it up,” says Mike Donahue, pronounced “DONE-a-who.” “Those urinal deodorizers can kill your appetite if you get a Bubble Gum or Wild Cherry scent.”

Advocates say they will push for the creation of a new category for participants, just as the Boston Athletic Association, the marathon’s sponsor, eventually recognized female and wheelchair partipants. “I don’t see why they can’t have a separate Couch Potato Class,” says McElvey, whose weight tops out at around 250 pounds during the off-season. “Don’t they understand I have an eating disorder?”