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.”

Great Gatsby Roulette

It was May of my senior year in college. Everybody was coasting, knowing either what they were going to be doing the next year, or that they’d be doing nothing. Except for one guy, Tom.

Tom had been accepted at medical school–Harvard, no less–so his future was pretty much mapped out for him, assuming he graduated from college first. Med schools are funny that way. They make you dot your “i’s” and cross your “t’s” before they let you cut body parts off cadavers and stick them in the purses of the secretaries.

Fitzgerald: “The road to med school goes through me.”


And so as we assembled for one of our last nights of drug-enhanced conviviality, we felt a general sense of relief and hopeful anticipation–except for Tom, whose face was clouded by a look that suggested he had a lot of work left to do.

“What’s eating you?” somebody finally asked.

”I need to finish one course in the humanities to graduate,” he said.

“So–what’s the big deal?” came the question from one to whom a course in literature was a day at the beach.

“I need to write a paper on The Great Gatsby,” Tom said.

“Christ, I’ve probably read that book for three courses the past four years,” said somebody else.

“Well I haven’t,” Tom said.

“Haven’t what?” I asked. “Haven’t read it three times?”

“Haven’t read it at all,” Tom said sheepishly.

Like many pre-med students, Tom had spent so much time taking organic chemistry and other hard science courses that he hadn’t had time to take any electives to round out his personality, and his heavy load of classes, labs, shooting pool, going to the race track and Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park and staying up all night playing poker had left him little time to read for pleasure.

“You’ve only got, like, two days, right?” a guy named Alan asked.

“One,” Tom replied, like a prisoner on death row who’s just finished his last meal.

A collective gulp of five Adam’s apples was heard. “You have to read it and write a paper about it . . . tonight?

He was silent for a moment. “You got it.”

The gloom that had, just a moment before, been one man’s burden spread like a contagious disease on the wings of a sneeze. We all felt terrible for Tom, but we were on the South Side of Chicago, home of Saul Alinsky, inspiration to generations of radicals and later even a President of the United States!

Saul Alinsky


What we had learned from the example of Alinsky was that there was a time for talk, and a time for radical social action to improve the everyday lives of ordinary people. We looked at each other and at Tom’s downcast head and as if by telepathy, formed a common purpose.

“We’ll help you write your paper!” someone said emphatically.

“Yeah–all of us–together!” said another.

“Guys–I couldn’t ask you to . . .” Tom began, but I cut him off. “You were there for me in Rocks and Stars,” the elementary science course for English majors, I said. “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have gotten that B that kept my grade point average where it needs to be in case I ever figure out what I’m going to do with my life.”

“You gotta work the shirt scene in there somewhere.”


Tom looked around the room and we could see his eyes misting over. “You–you would do that for me?” he asked, a lump in his throat.

“You’d do it for us, if you’d read the book and we hadn’t and we had screwed around like you and left the paper to the last minute,” somebody said.

By now Tom’s eyes were red. “You guys–you’re the greatest!” he said. He’d had a few beers.

“C’mon,” a guy named Bates said. “No time for emoting–we’ve got a lot of writing to do.”

As the only guy in the room who had mastered touch typing, I was assigned the role of scrivener. I loaded a manual typewriter with a sheet of white paper, rolled it up, and centered it for the title.

“Okay–’The Great Gatsby–colon,” I said. “What comes next, and it has to be a question.”

“Why’s that?” Tom asked.

“Because if it’s a question, you don’t have to have a thesis,” Bates said. “You’re just raising an issue . . . ”

” . . . for consideration by future generations of scholars,” said a guy named Jack.

“Uh, let’s see–Threat or Menace?” I offered.

“Too sociological. How about–’Process or Event’?” Jack suggested.

“You used that for your Haymarket Anarchist Bombing paper,” Bates said. “What about–’Icon or Shibboleth’?”

“Great,” I said and typed it in. “Okay–we’ve got to be organized, otherwise you’re going to drive me crazy,” I said. “We’ll go around the room–Russian Roulette style–and take turns. One sentence per person, then on to the next–okay?”

“I’m in,” said Bates, as he put on the Jefferson Airplane’s “Crown of Creation” album at a volume just slightly below the level that would attract the attention of a resident assistant.

“You really think that’s a good idea?” Tom said. “Don’t we have to like–concentrate?”

“Dude, you took too many science classes,” Bates said. “This is how creative-types do their thing.”

“First sentence–somebody, anybody,” I called out.  Bates had already taken a few tokes on a reefer on the quad below, so his creative juices were flowing freely.

“Uh, ‘The Great Gatsby is a seminal work that calls attention to, and plays upon, class distinctions that are customarily submerged beneath the surface in America due to the leveling pressure of democratic principles.’”

“Great start!” I exclaimed as I tapped out the opening lines. “Next.”

“The narrator, young Nick Carraway, serves as the . . . uh . . . sounding board for Fitzgerald’s critique of the American dream, as he is alternately attracted to and repulsed by the materialism with which Gatsby has surrounded himself,” Alan said.

“Got it–who’s next?”

“I guess me,” Jack said. ‘Carraway is sucked into’ . . .”

“Scratch that,” Bates said. “Not high-toned enough. Say ‘Carraway is drawn into Gatsby’s life’–something like that.”

“Okay,” Jack said, a bit peevishly I thought. Pride of authorship. “‘Carraway is drawn into Gatsby’s life because he is second cousin to Daisy Buchanan, whom Gatsby desires because she is from a social class above his, and thus unattainable.”

I looked over at Tom as I typed and noticed that his mouth was hanging open. “You guys are–incredible!” he said, a big smile on his face.

“Why don’t you take a turn?” Bates asked, as he passed the joint to Tom.

“Me? But . . . I only read the first chapter!”

“That’s enough man–go ahead,” Bates said. “Give it a shot!”

Tom inhaled, held his breath for a moment, then opened his mouth to allow the smoke to escape, along with these words. “In this respect, Daisy represents the American Dream, always luring us onward, always receding as we draw near it.”

Arnold Rothstein, fictionalized as Meyer Wolfsheim


“See–you don’t need to read the book,” I said. “It’s in the air you breathe.”

We continued in that vein for several hours until we had collectively banged out three pages–double-spaced, inch-and-a-half margins–of the most bogus symbol-spotting literary claptrap that ever issued from the mind of an American undergraduate. As we wrapped things up with the obligatory analytical pecking and poking at the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock, I pulled the last sheet of paper out of the typewriter, and everyone gathered around to admire our work.

“You know,” Bates said as took a final hit on what was left of the joint, “it’s true what they say about art having a cathartic effect.”

“Yeah,” Tom said. He was a little blissed out, but recovered enough to realize he may have missed something. “What exactly does that mean?”

“I dunno,” Bates said. “But it sounded good.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddling Anymore.”

Quitting Smack

It was the early 70’s. The Vietnam War was just coming off its peak, and the traffic of young men back and forth between America and Southeast Asia brought new, cheap and exotic goods back to the states for consumption by those deferred, rejected or too young to fight. The products of that trade consisted primarily of stereo equipment–cool-looking Pioneer brand speakers were one particularly hot item–and heroin.

Listen to Blue Cheer through these bad boys and your brain will never be the same.


I was introduced to heroin–a/k/a smack, junk–by my friend Bobby, when we worked at his father’s appliance store. Bobby had a big brother Tommy, who was right in the middle of the draftable bandwith. Tommy knew more than his share of servicemen returned or on leave from Vietnam, and one day Bobby surprised me in the delivery truck by unfolding an aluminum foil package containing brown powder.

“Dig this,” he said, or something similarly prideful as he showed me the stuff.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Heroin–from Vietnam. You want to try some?”

I knew of the dangers of heroin–addiction, a life of crime and so forth. On the other hand, a number of the men and women I looked up to were known users, current or former: Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Lenny Bruce, Keith Richards, Durward Kirby, William Burroughs, Ben Franklin.

Ben Franklin, stone junkie.


Just kidding; I threw Durward Kirby in there just to make sure you hadn’t nodded off. As junkies are wont to do.

“Will I get . . . hooked?” I asked nervously.

“No way, not from one snort.”

That sounded promising. “You mean you don’t have to shoot it up?”

“Nope. Tommy tells me up the nose is the safe, easy responsible way to take heroin.”

That sounded good to me, but we had a refrigerator to deliver, so I stopped him as he rolled up a dollar bill. “You’re going to do it now–before the last install?” I asked.

Bobby’s face took on a look of deep thought as he considered the issue of timing. “I don’t know. I think it’s like acid or pot–it takes a while to kick in. I think we should do it beforehand.”

“We’ll have you set up in a jiffy, Mrs. McKelvey . . . bluagh!”


I figured he knew what he was doing–he was the crazy one, after all, not me–so we took turns snorting lines of equal volume, then drove over to the house of an old woman who’d bought a brand, spanking new frost-free refrigerator.

We got the appliance out of the truck, with me pulling the dolly and Tommy doing his best to avoid heavy lifting; I, after all, was the former middle linebacker, while he was the kind of kid who’d lie on his stomach while everybody else was doing push-ups in gym class.

We got the refrigerator up the porch stairs when I felt even the semblance of effort from Tommy’s end cease. I heard a noise like a sink backing up, and saw Tommy puking his guts out over the railing onto the shrubs below.

“Jesus–are you all right?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” He leaned against the rail, whiter than the underbelly of a trout, and tried to collect himself.

“You’re not going to die or anything, are you?”

“No, I feel better now. Must have been the cheeseburger I ate for lunch.”

I looked at him to make sure, then rang the doorbell. At this point, I was clearly the more presentable of the two representatives of the appliance store on the porch.

The old woman greeted us and showed us into the kitchen, where what should have been a routine hook-up job was made more difficult by the effects of the drug that supplies pushers around the globe with their daily bread.

“Would you boys like some lemonade?” I recall her saying as I tried to properly position the refrigerator, using a bubble level. My guess is given my condition, she never saw a well-formed ice cube out of her freezer compartment until the day she died.

“No ma’am, but thanks,” I said, trying to bring the transaction to a conclusion. I got her to sign the receipt and we headed off to the truck, with Tommy a festive combination of green, blue and white hues.

Bob Seger


We went back to Tommy’s place–his parents weren’t home–and listened to “Stone Junkie” by Curtis Mayfield, over and over. I don’t think it was by choice; back in the day, as they say, a properly screwed-up record player would repeat an album over and over again until you got up to turn it off. Which, if you’re on heroin, you’re incapable of doing.

That was the sort of trouble you could get into in a small town in the summer, surrounded by kids who were, in the words of the Bob Seger song of the time, young and restless and bored. When I returned to college at the University Chicago in the fall, I genuinely believed I would never get near the stuff again, but I fell in with a bad crowd; pre-med students.

There is probably no more daring group of drug consumers among the undergraduates of this country than the boys who will some day become men with the power to dispense pharmaceutical products to average schmoes like you and me. Their willingness to risk their lives by exposing themselves to drugs in varying dosages, or dubious purity, and unknown origin is admirable. By the time they get their long white coats and stethoscopes they will have sampled just about every item in the Physician’s Desk Reference pharmacopoeia–and then some. It’s almost saintly, when you think about it; these guys wouldn’t expose a patient to a substance they hadn’t tried–in highly excessive quantities–first.

I had immediate credibility with the Doogie Howsers avant la lettre; I had not only taken heroin, I’d installed a major, big-ticket item “white goods” appliance while under its influence. I wasn’t some tyro, I was–as Jimi Hendrix might say–experienced. A drug kingpin among mere wanton boys.

Leopold and Loeb: I named my cats after them.


Why, you might ask, was a group of high-SAT scoring undergraduates driven to such desperate pastimes? I can’t answer that. Perhaps it was because we lived in the dormitory that had housed Leopold and Loeb, the UofC thrill-killers whom Clarence Darrow spared from the electric chair after their botched attempt to commit the perfect crime. With that sort of aura permeating the halls, you needed to do something more dramatic than play “Gimme Shelter” so loud the graduate dorm monitor told you to turn it down in order to assert your innately stupid young manhood.

Curtis Mayfield


But these guys were serious technicians, not two kids slurping stuff up their noses in a delivery van. They had hypodermic needles and syringes, and could calibrate dosages with precision. I trusted them the way you trust your family doctor. If your family doctor sells controlled substances out the back door.

And so I became–off and on, over a period of months–a more-or-less regular user of heroin. You learned to spot other users; the willowy blond in 20th Century French Drama with the little bruises on her feet, where she had to shoot up because she couldn’t find a vein in the crook of her arm and didn’t want the marks to show on her hands. We had gone out on a couple of dates the year before–then she discovered she knew more about jazz than I did. She ended up becoming an anchorwoman in L.A.

With that descent into the hell of heroin, dramatic changes in my life occurred. I got involved in a steady relationship for the first time in years. My grades improved dramatically; straight A’s in Aesthetics and Ethics–bringing me closer to Phi Beta Kappa than I’d ever been before. Those hopes were dashed when I earned my customary B in Genetics, but I had an excuse–my high school biology teacher had gone walkabout when he suddenly came down with amnesia. When my girlfriend broke up with me, a girl I’d been friends with in high school sent me a postcard saying she was coming through town, and we hooked up. I was rolling in it; the Big H, horse, whatever you wanted to call it–it was like pixie dust!

But despite all the positive changes that heroin produced in my life, I knew I couldn’t continue to use it as a crutch that helped me focus on my studies and improve my interpersonal skills. For me, smack had one fatal flaw; it was expensive, and was starting to crimp my budget for record albums. That’s right; the most powerfully-addictive drug known to man was no match for my deep-seated cheapness.

And so I sit before you–actually, before my computer–clean and sober tonight. Straight edge, hard core, as they say. I went cold turkey and got the monkey off my back, to mix my animal metaphors. I can laugh about it now, sure, but back then it was a serious thing. I still can’t believe how close I came to a life of complete and utter degradation, dissolution, and depravity.

If I’d done just a little better in Genetics, today I’d be one of those dorks wearing a Phi Beta Kappa key in his lapel.

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddlin’ Anymore.”

As Value of B.A. Declines, Some Males Ask if 6th Grade is Worth It

COLUMBIA, Missouri. Timmy Salmon has enjoyed his big brother Tom’s four years at the University of Missouri, visiting the Sigma Nu fraternity house on football game days and being fawned over by visiting sorority girls. “The Tri-Delts are pretty,” he says with the discerning eye of a budding ladies’ man, “but the Kappa Alpha Theta girls are yucky.”

C’mon, Timmy–cut ’em some slack.


Still, he’s not sure he wants to follow in the footsteps of an English major who only received one job offer, a temporary minimum wage position reviewing mortgage documents for typos and punctuation errors that could undermine a bank’s rights. “They’re paying him $7.35 an hour,” Timmy says with apparent disgust. “I can make that much mowing lawns.”

So Timmy and his friend Scott Rouchka are taking a long, hard look at whether it makes more sense for them to cut their losses now before they invest precious time and effort in sixth grade, which has historically been viewed as the gateway to seventh grade and eventually a college degree.

“Sixth grade math is a BIG jump,” says Rouchka, who was fifth-grade arm-wrestling champion. “There’s fractions and decimals, which computers already know how to do.”

The two boys’ skepticism represents a worrisome sign for college admissions officers, who already struggle to keep male-female ratios in balance in order to avoid the “loathsome cad” effect; women now make up 57% of college students, and male students are emboldened to treat their distaff counterparts badly as the imbalance between their range of possible dating and mating prospects widens over those of coeds.

“I blame college dropout billionaires like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell,” says Dean Claus Ornstein of Glendon College in Normal, Illinois before this reporter interrupts him. “I could go on,” he says, but agrees to cut his list of examples short due to editorial restrictions.

Pigs in a blanket: The choice is clear.


A bachelor’s degree is still viewed as an essential credential for most white-collar jobs by many adults, but Timmy Salmon says times have changed. “When I told the President of the Tri Delts I made enough money to buy a bike last summer her eyes got REAL wide and she said ‘Wow!’” he recalls. “I’m pretty sure I could have kissed her but they had those pigs-in-a-blanket mini-hot dogs that I love and I didn’t want to leave the buffet.”

Big brother Tom says he thinks Timmy is wrong and that there is value to be gained by exposure to the humanities early in life. “When I smoked pot in high school I was totally clueless,” he recalls. “Now our drug-addled bullshit sessions are really deep.”

Celine Dion, Ph. D.

Celine Dion has been awarded an honorary doctorate degree by a Canadian University.

Mes cher amis–

It is a great honor today to accept from thees fellow with thee funny hat the honorary doctorate degree.  For too long, how you say, “smart aleck” American rock critics have made fun of me because I have 3,000 pairs of shoes or somesing like that.  Well, to them I say–“Phooey.”  What do they have, a worthless English degree from a cow college in one of America’s square states, or one that begins with an “M” such as Missourissippie or something.  Fat lot of good that will do you when you apply for the job of mutli-talented singer with her own theatre in Las Vegas!

Alanis Morrissette:  “Anybody got any Static Guard?”


I see you back there, Monsieur and Mademoiselle Protestor!  You say University Laval has lowered its standards by giving me an honorary degree.  What do you know, you who have spent five or six years sucking down American cola drinks in the student union to stay up for your crummy calculus mid-term, while I was winning the hearts of millions?  Let me tell you what you know–zero for nothing!  Who do you think should get the honorary degree–maybe Alanis Morrissette, who is only beginning to be somewhat good-looking after years of stringy, fly-away hair.

“Excusez-moi if I look a little–how you say–smug?”


You cannot know how long my lack of a high school degree has haunted me, like a hidden scar on my body that you would die to have–if you are une femme–or to touch if you are un homme!  Now, I skip over the awful high school years–and college too!  I am Celine Dion, Ph. D, like Brenda Starr, Reporter, or Nancy Drew, Girl Detective!

Trois Celines–no waiting!


How many plus often times after a wonderful performance would I attend a reception with powerful people, and my lack of education would hinder me.  “Celine,” someone would say after introductions and pleasantries, “I know you are beautiful and have a voice that would blanch an almond, but what are the principal exports of the Benelux Countries, and when did they dig the Suez Canal?”  To these questions, I could only respond with that determined-petite-jeune-fille look I get when I play air guitar, and sing “My Heart Will Go On” to change the subject.

L’guitar d’air, a la francais.


But no more.  Now, when someone asks me “Dr. Dion, who wrote Voltaire’s ‘Candide’?” I simply say–“I cannot answer that now.  Come see me during office hours between 10 and 11 p.m. on the fifth Tuesday of each month.”

The Killer Who Sang for the Kids

Imagine, if you can, a record producer coming to his boss with an idea for a new album; a collection of children’s songs by a black man who has been imprisoned several times, once for killing a relative in a fight over a woman, a second time for attempted murder of a white man. The swiftness with which such a proposal and its author would be dispatched today would set a land speed record for rejection of cockamamie ideas.

But such an album–“Lead Belly Sings for Children”–was actually made, back in the 1940s, and it is still available today. “Lead Belly” is Huddie (pronounced “HUGH-dee”) William Ledbetter, a protean musician who was a walking encyclopedia of the music of the American folk of his time and before, which is different from what you hear performed in coffee houses and on college campuses today as “folk music.”

Lead Belly was born in 1888 in an area of Louisiana that was part Cajun and part black. He took to music early, learning to play his uncle’s guitar and the “windjammer,” a small accordion. By the age of twelve or thirteen he was performing at “sukey jumps” and breakdowns, Saturday night revels held in cabins and little, low-ceilinged dance halls.

Lead Belly, with his windjammer.


Thus even though he served an apprenticeship as traveling companion to Blind Lemon Jefferson, a popular Texas blues singer of the 20′s, Lead Belly was an entertainer first and a blues man second. He learned a lot of songs–including children’s songs–because the more varied a selection a musician offers, the more gigs he’ll get, and Lead Belly was not above playing a birthday party. My guess is he’d be amused by latter-day white bluesmen who make more at a single gig than he did in his lifetime, and who would scoff at the suggestion that they play “Skip to My Lou” for a bunch of toddlers. Lead Belly was badder than they’ll ever be, and at the same time gentler.

In addition to the blues and children’s songs, Lead Belly sang gospel, prison and chain gang songs, and songs about workers ranging from cowboys to sailors. He wrote and performed songs about noteworthy figures of his time including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adolf Hitler, Jean Harlow and Howard Hughes–the itinerant minstrel as talk radio and cable news.

Lead Belly with wife Martha Promise


Lead Belly sang about race, but in more dimensions than just black vs. white. He also noted the status gradations recognized by those who share African descent but are of different shades; “Yellow Gal”–a common term for a light-skinned woman of color that has fallen into disuse–recounts how “papa got in trouble over a yellow gal.” Lead Belly was himself dark-skinned, and perhaps had been turned down by a lighter shade of gal in his time.

While he was adopted by leftists of his time, he was apolitical and supported moderate Republican presidential candidate Wendell Wilkie against Roosevelt, a not uncommon sympathy among blacks of the time since the Democratic Party was the principal obstacle to anti-lynching and civil rights laws. He could sing of racial slights he suffered in Washington, D.C. in “Bourgeois Blues,” but in his life he was not a convincing counter-argument to bourgeois values; until he married Martha Promise and settled down, he drank away what little money he made from music, abandoned more than one wife and their children, and was quick to anger and never backed down from a fight. In short, not a model for young children to look up to.

And yet his music works on different planes. Take “Goodnight, Irene,” a staple of campfires and sing-a-longs, and the source of the title for Ken Kesey’s second novel “Sometimes a Great Notion.” It is sung today as a lullaby and an innocent love song, but there is a dark side to the lyrics Lead Belly actually wrote and sang; the singer is, after all, a married male serenading a younger woman, who tells him to “go home to his wife and family.” The last line of the chorus–sung by folkies as “I’ll see you in my dreams”–as sung by Lead Belly is “I’ll get you in my dreams.” Two verses recount the male singer’s suicidal thoughts once he is turned down by Irene; he will “take morphine and die” and “jump in the river and drown.”

Lead Belly, like Walt Whitman, contradicted himself, and contained multitudes. He was guilty of many crimes, but never lost the sense of innocence that allowed him to make children laugh, sing and clap their hands.

Your High Culture Etiquette Advisor

Ever wonder if it’s okay to blow your nose during a Beethoven sonata?  Or take a “selfie” in front of a grieving Virgin Mary in Michelangelo’s Pieta?  Ask your High Culture Etiquette Advisor for artistic demeanor guidance!

“Don’t cry, he’ll have a big holiday named after him someday!”


Dear High Culture Etiquette Advisor:

I cut hair at VIP Cuts II and there’s this hedge fund guy “Evan” who is a regular of mine.  He gets kind of flirty sometimes and last week he asked me if I appreciated ballet and I said “Are you kidding?  I am a professional dancer myself!”  This is technically true as I teach Introductory Hip-Hop at Miss Tammi’s Tap Studio.  So he asks me if I want to go with him to see the New York City Ballet, he has a couple of tickets and I said sure, I’m a big fan of all the local teams.

Things were going fine until halfway through the show when I popped my bubble gum and a bunch of people turned around and stared at me.  I didn’t know what to do so I swallowed the wad, which made it hard to talk the rest of the night and I probably didn’t come off as vivaciously as I should have.

Yesterday I saw Evan out the front window of VIP Cuts II and he was walking into Executive Hair Stylists across the street, big as life.  I’m afraid I have broken some “unwritten rule” of the ballet, perhaps you can tell me what it was.

Thanks a bunch,

Tiffany-Marie Santosuosso, Permberwick, CT

Dear Tiffany-Marie–

Yes, I am afraid you have violated one of the cardinal principles of balletomanes, namely, never ever pop a gum bubble during a pas de deux.  For future performances I would suggest you abandon the Bubblicious for something more refined, such as Wrigley’s Spearmint or Dentyne.


Hey High Culture Etiquette Advisor–

I have a question for you.  Last night I went with this woman “Evelyn” to the Boston Symphony.  I didn’t think it was a real “date” date, she is a client of my accounting firm and when she asked me if I was free the boss said I had to go.

Classical music is not my “thing” but I figured I had to for my career so I tried to be an enthusiastic fan.  The first number was Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” which I thought was a singing group with Franki Valli, but I guess not.  Anyway, the band started, played for awhile, then stopped, so I clapped.  I mean, they worked really hard and did a good job–why shouldn’t I applaud?

Antonio Vivaldi, Frankie Valli:  Curiously, never seen in the same room together.


Instead, Evelyn gave me a look like I was from outer space or something.  I kept on clapping whenever the band was through–what was I supposed to do, leave them hanging?  I hear classical musicians don’t make much money, I figured they’d appreciate it.

At intermission Evelyn was pretty icy, which was fine with me, she’s not exactly a candidate for Miss America if you know what I mean.  When the show was through she asked me could I just drop her off at her place, she didn’t feel like a nightcap.

I am wondering whether I did something wrong, not because I want to “jump Evelyn’s bones,” but I would like to make partner at my firm, Frangilli, Ersch & Como, P.C., someday and hope I haven’t screwed things up somehow.

This letter represents just my views, not those of my firm, in case any of the partners read it.


Yours truly,

Mike Adamrick, Framingham, Mass.

“Okay, everybody, you can go home, the opera’s over.”



Sorry to say, you have run afoul of one of the trickier conventions of the symphony, to wit, don’t clap between “movements” of pieces, only at the end.  This hard-and-fast rule causes problems of “closure” when a majority of uptight concert-goers don’t realize that the music is over until the orchestra starts packing their instruments and leaves.

In the future, restrain yourself from being the first to applaud so as not to look foolish before dates and even quasi-dates such as Evelyn.  Or you could just go to Red Sox games, where you can make noise whenever you want.

Mahler, channeling John McEnroe:  “You CAN’T be serious!”


Dear High Culture Etiquette Advisor–

I have been seeing this guy “Fritz” for several months now.  He is originally from Germany so I knew he had more culture than my ex-husband “Jimbo,” whose idea of art is cable TV fishing shows and tractor-pulls.

I know Germans cause a lot of wars and things but Fritz seemed nice and he was always a gentleman, kissing me on the hand when he said goodnight on our first date and progressing slowly from there, not going nuts and “invading Poland” right away like some of my friends warned me.

Anyway, Fritz took me to a concert last night and I couldn’t understand a word of the lyrics, but I hung in there because I am trying to make this relationship work, dammit!  At intermission I asked Fritz about the music and he said it was by some guy named “MAH-lur.”  When I asked him what the words meant he said “It’s the Kindertotenlieder–songs for dead children.”

Mr. or Mrs. High Culture Etiquette Advisor, I nearly fell over as I am not a punk rocker and am not into “twisted” humor like dead baby jokes.  I had half a mind to tell Fritz off then and there, but I decided instead I would just be really “cool” to him for the rest of the night as I did not want to touch off an international incident.

Is there some sort of “nuance” I am missing, or is this another example of Germans being colossal jerks under the cover of “culture,” like that guy Nietzsche who said God was dead?

Melanie Ann Barner, Wilmette, Illinois

Dear Melanie Ann–

I think you owe Fritz another chance.  Yes, Kindertotenlieder is a shocking work that jolts us out of our comfort zone, but so were Rocky Horror Picture Show and “cosmic bowling” when they first appeared on the scene, which many people enjoy today without embarrassment.

High culture, like beer and some cheeses, is an acquired taste, and may be repulsive at first, but the deep rewards it pays to the patient, mature mind greatly exceed the superficial satisfaction you may currently get from watching Access Hollywood.

And I would hold off on giving Fritz “half a mind” as you were tempted to.  It sounds like you’re going to need all you’ve got.