The Great Plotnik

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

About Last Night

Plot only took two photos last night: the table, before anyone sat down or all the food got piled on top of it, and Ducknik's amazing macaroons.

Fortunately, The Great Mushnik brought her camera. Here are some more very nice photos from last night.

Only one more comment: can you imagine transcendent matzoballs? Can this even be possible? Yes, it can. Chef Pickle makes the absolute best, best, best matzoballs in the history of the long suffering, microwave-seduced Jewish people. You can see her in Photo Two in the above link.

The rest of the meal was great -- Rose's brisket and Bill's White Horseradish Sauce, potatoes poached in brisket gravy, beets in cumin and olive oil, Pip's fresh asparagus, muhammarra and jicama, Mushie's huge green salad, navel orange-olive-sweet onion salad, a cabernet from Sam's own vineyard and several other bottles besides (yes, one Manischewitz bottle from which only one person -- guess who? -- drank any), Liz's chocolate flourless cake, macaroons, strawberries -- and more, probably -- but those matzoballs. Holy Moley. Who knew? Not Plotnik, that's for sure.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Bread/Matzo Continuum

The sermon this morning, children, involves prayer and what people expect to get out of it. Different religions treat prayer in different ways. In the Plotnikkie religion all prayers are immediately answered. You don't always recognize it, but your call has gone through and the issue has been resolved by Customer Service.

Plot started thinking about this because when he was at the Great Fate-Nik's wedding last week he sat next to a good friend of the groom, Tom. Tom was a nice guy, and he said he was a practicing Catholic and that he had given up sweets for Lent. At the same time, his plate was filled to overflowing with chocolate cake, chocolate candy, chocolate brownies, chocolate torte and cookies of all flavors from the dessert table.

"Aha! A Plotnikkie!" Plot thought. But no. When Plottie inquired as to how Tom managed to justify giving up sweets while at the same time consuming great quantities, Tom informed the previously uninformed leader of a Minor Western Religion that the Catholics build in Off Days to their Lenten Sacrifices. You get Sundays off, apparently, or at least you are allowed to transgress several times during the period of giving something up. Which is to say you have to give it up, but you don't have to give it all up.


Most people pray. Oh, they SAY they don't, but they do, especially in times of great stress, when nothing else seems to have a chance of working. And when they pray they usually add: "If you'll just do such and such for me, I'll give up sex for three weeks," or "I'll stop swearing for a month" or "I'll pray twice a week for a year."

This presupposes that God NEEDS the stuff they're offering, like He doesn't have ENOUGH people already not eating sweets.

But it's not for Him. It's for you. You have to sacrifice, to suffer a little bit, so that you can feel like you're offering something meaningful in exchange for what you so desperately desire.

So here's where matzo comes in. The Great Plotnik grew up within the Jewish PFT (Preferred Fairy Tale). Today and tonight Plotnik is proving his fealty by eschewing bread in favor of matzo. The truth is, Plotnik doesn't eat much bread, and he loves matzo, so this sacrifice is not a difficult one.

(Mmmmm, matzo with peanut butter? You buy matzo in the five-pack and then have it left over for weeks? This is livin'.)

Eating matzo is Plotnik's one dietary adherence to his PFT, but really it's more than that. It his tribute to his BNE (Ben and Eva). The rest of the year Plotnik eats whatever he feels like, but on this night he reclines, he puts on a yarmulke, he recalls his halting childhood Hebrew, and in return he gets to feel connected. He thinks about his grandparents and their apartment, about fitting 30 people into a space that held 10. It's such a wonderful memory.

He wishes Mummy P. could be here. He wishes his children could be here. Next year, maybe. But Plotnik will enjoy his matzo this year, because he thinks he gets it.

It is all about feeling cleansed. You want to feel that somehow, despite your brain filling you with logic, there is an illogic at play too. It is that illogic that transports you to your spiritual plane, call it whatever name makes you comfortable. We all need to get there from time to time and the ticket is not free. You just have to give something up first.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Pretend Photos

(Blogger is all screwed up this morning. You're not looking at a really cool picture of the multicolored potatoes Plotnik pulled out of the tubs in the backyard potato plantation next to the artichoke fields.)

The Great Plotnik World Headquarters Meatball and Brisket Kitchen is in full swing, even though the Great Plotmeal does not happen until tomorrow night. Like Chick Hearn used to say, the potatoes are picked, the briskets are cooked and the gravy is chillin', the beets are marinatin' and the whip cream is gettin' hard.

(You're not looking at a photo of a 10 1/2 pound piece of uncooked beef brisket. For those who don't eat beef, this photo would probably make you sick.)

There are only a few rules for a Passover: you must have as many guests as can fit around the table, you have to eat something you grew yourself and the youngest person must search for the missing matzo afterwards. This year the youngest person may be 50. You don't have to spend so much time hiding it. The older they are, the worse their eyes are.

Plotnik is planning to pay off with Chilean pesos this year. At 5,000 to the dollar you think you're gettin' rich.

(You don't see that crisp 5,000 peso bill.)

It's actually kind of cool to pretend you're posting photos.

(You aren't looking at Plotnik stuffing a basketball over Kobe Bryant.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Full Moons, and A Toast to Cleo

During the last full moon, Plot and Duck were standing on the side of a dusty road in Northern Patagonia, waiting for the bus drivers to finish their cigarette(s) break.

This full moon we'll be here, at home, eating brisket and matzoball soup made by the daughter of a Presbyterian Minister. How good is that?

A month from now, maybe in LA?

It's nice to measure the motion of our lives by where we are during full moons. You need to be home for a certain amount each year, but you need to be somewhere else during some of them too, or else you stop noticing. Shouldn't ever stop noticing full moons.


And here's a toast to Cleo. (Clink!)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Boochie Factor

Last night Plot and Duck saw Dan Hoyle's latest one-man show "The Real Americans." It's worth seeing, though perhaps not on the same level with his brilliant last show 'Tings Dey Happen." Dan Hoyle is a performer to be reckoned with. You can read the San Francisco Theater Blog review of "The Real Americans" here.

The Great Plotnik is making up for time away from the theater while in Patagonia, by seeing as many shows as possible in the next few weeks. He shared The Great Mushnik's opinion of Stephen Adly Giurgis's "Den of Thieves." AND, it had Boochie. Plotnik is thinking of adding The Boochie Factor to his ratings system. When Boochie hits the stage, eyes and ratings go up a notch. Every show should have a Boochie. You can read the San Francisco Theater Blog review of "Den of Thieves" here."

Both of these shows are very funny, but Plotnik probably enjoyed "Den of Thieves" more, because it had a full cast of brilliant character actors and a perfectly convoluted plot. Both shows received the same review, three stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. "The Real Americans" costs a lot less to mount, though, having no set to speak of, so you can see it for a lot less money. You couldn't go wrong with either one.

Coming up: Berkeley Rep, A.C.T., TheaterWorks, StageWerx (which is in the same building as SF Playhouse), Exit, Magic...lotsa good stuff.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ten for Ten

"The Night is Always Darkest Just Before Dawn, and It's An Hour Worse During Daylight Savings Time."

Cousin Two-Three-Four, everything's gonna work out fine. You've just got an extra hour before the sun comes up. You can trust Plottie on this one.


Plotnik ordered a ten pound brisket yesterday, and put canned stewed tomatoes (the secret weapon) on his shopping list. The usual crowd is assembling next week, minus a few, plus one -- after all these years, the Jews STILL need help getting out of Egypt. Year in, year out, they never learn.

There is still a very small possibility that Mummy P. will make an appearance, but...well, we're not counting on it. If she came Plotnik would get to make the brisket at the side of his maestra, the Queen of All Yummy Things, which recalls to him his story about the last time she came to Saint Plotniko to make brisket. That's at least...what, ten years ago? Wow.

Yes, Plotnik remembers at that time writing "Mom's 85 now, and has trouble navigating that wooden spoon..." Well, now she's 95. Things don't get any easier.

But the point is that as long as we are on this earth we've got a chance to get together, and getting together is the whole point. Not the service, not the ceremony, not the tradition, not the building with the fancy altars or statues or the sacred this, that or the other; neither eating one food and not eating the other food nor giving up something for X amount of days or weeks, nor reclining nor sitting up straight -- you do what Ducknik's dear Auntie Melba used to say: "Everybody come stick your feet under my table!"

Ten pounds of brisket for ten people sounds like a lot, but there's never a scrap left. That's a holiday.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Just Punch Return

"Rashard Lewis's 3-pointer at the buzzer tied the game at 94-84."

The Saint Plotniko Morning Bird Cage Wrapper is the worst newspaper of any major city in the country, has to be, but it still has its charm. One of its charms is that it comes to the door, or close to the door, or lies nearby on the street, especially in the rain like this morning, but at least it's there most days when it's supposed to be, more or less.

Its other charm is that it's on paper, and Plotnik and Ducknik can hold it in their hands and read it, while propped up on their pillows. It doesn't take long to read and today's news is the same as yesterday's or last week's or last year's, but you've got Get Fuzzy and Doonsbury, and you've got local Sports teams (Plot is waiting for the annual GIANTS TO FINISH LAST headline that appears every spring, in one column, next to GIANTS POWERHOUSE IN NL WEST in the other column).

And if you want to read about anything gay or anything about dogs, the Bird Wrap is your rag. Nuclear War would be moved to page two if two celebrity cocker spaniels came out of the closet.

But, you's a paper and it's still here. At the wedding on Sunday Plotnik sat next to a guy who had been assistant sports editor at the Wrap for 25 years. He was talking about how everything is being marketed for the internet now, and how traditional sports guys like him were being let go around the country. Well, duh. Ask The Great PunkyDunky about that one.

Plotnik also spent a wonderful evening in Salta, Argentina, with a German sportswriter named Alex, who is the beat writer for Germany's favorite soccer team. That's like traveling with the Yankees. He no longer writes for his newspaper itself, just for its online edition.

Alex and Plotnik spoke about the differences in online writing and traditional writing -- Plotnik had to learn all about that when he started reviewing movies. Online writing is far more concise, you have less space and it is presumed that the online reader has less attention span than the traditional newspaper reader. It apparently takes less energy to punch RETURN than to physically turn a page.

Which gets us back to Rashard Lewis tying the score at 94-84.

In the old days they would have published a next-day apology and retraction of that typo. Now, they won't even notice it. It's only a game.

And they won't notice it when Republicans and Democrats throw lie after lie at each other and Republicans threaten and Democrats pretend to be shocked. It's only a game.

Plotnik does not feel the political parties are at fault here. It is their job to denigrate the other guys. It is the fault of TV and Print.

I mean, what happens when a fan runs out on the field in the middle of a baseball game? They take the TV off him. They don't even show the fool being tackled by police and being led away. Publicity is all he wants anyway and he is denied that.

So why not do the same with this horse manure we call political exchange? Ramp it down, not up. Ignore it. It WILL go away if nobody is watching. How many people read Sarah Palin's twitters? 200? How many read the internet reports about them?

Jesus, this is so stupid and so obvious.

America's attention span is presumed to be short. Give 'em a short byte and a headline and they will punch RETURN and move on. Why don't we just punch RETURN and move on to things more important than if Nancy Pelosi being targeted by Republicans means 'targeted' or 'TARGETED?' Punch RETURN. Move on.

The old headline would read: "Lack of Substance in America's News and Dialogue Between Parties Upsets The Great Plotnik."

The new headline is: "Plotnik Sick."



Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Is Life Just a Shooting Star?

How is this happening so fast? Not to go all misty on you, but seeing this photo reminded Plotnik of the song he wrote for Belly's daddy when he was probably just a little younger than she is:

"Don't grow
Stay the way you are
Don't grow
Is life just a shooting star?"

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


The Great Plotnik is back at his desk, which is covered with Victor Jara CDs, computers, cables, a flash drive and a mike and a mike stand and a wall phone that is for the time being a desk phone because the cheap plastic wall mount broke, a coffee cup from New Orleans, an old drum machine from Tokyo, speakers, a kleenex box, invitations from press agents and theater companies, pictures of Isabella...hmm, let's stop for a moment and look at that one, awww...and that one...awwww...and ten zillion pieces of paper which should probably be looked at before, say, October, and Plotnik's mug from college filled with pens that don't write and grease pencils with no tips. And the old computer keyboard and the old PC monitor and the old PC mouse.

The first thing that has to be done when you get home from a trip is to clean up all the litter from before you left. Your mind is littered enough with thoughts like "My, it felt free and wonderful to be on our own and moving through the clear, clean air of Patagonia," and "My, wasn't it a great feeling to be hiking on that glacier and staring at those cave paintings and playing that white charango (which you should have bought, you cheapskate) and, my, how about tango-ing in the park?"

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Only in America

Eight Hare Krishnas playing frisbee in Tilden Park.

Ira married Jobeth at the Brazilian Room in Tilden Park. There were no obvious Hare Krishnas in the audience but there may have been a Harry Kirschner.

It was a beautiful wedding with a chocolate theme. Each table had different chocolate bars for wedding favors. Plot and Duck got Green and Black's. It's really good.

It's beautiful when two people in their fifties find each other. Thank goodness for J-Date.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Saint Plotniko and the Livin' is Easy

Saturday morning, and the living is easy.
Bagels toasting, and the coffee is nigh.
Your Plotnik's fat, and his Duck is good looking.
So hush, little Plottie, don't you cry.

Stop your whinin' already.

Plot took to the hills on his plotkicycle this morning and thought he'd drop dead as a doornail before he got to the second hill. But he didn't. When he walked into the bagel shop the Korean lady greeted him like she always does, with a napkin to blow his nose into after his bike ride, and the owner scooped up six poppy seed bagels and a tub of cream cheese and put them in a bag. Plottie didn't have to say a word except "Thanks, guys."

Across the street at the farmer's market the Sikh in the blue turban hasn't changed his tune: "Oh Good Morning Sir I am giving you a sample?"

The unfortunate slide guitar player was there already, doing the world's second worst gig, playing for bratty babies at an outdoor farmer's market at 8am on a Saturday morning.**

The young Hmong (which does NOT rhyme, or at least Plotnik refuses to rhyme it) sold Plotnik his bunch of scallions and cilantro.

Koreans, Sikhs, African Americans, Hmong. Ain't none of that in southern South America. Just Latinos who look like Northern Italians and Basques.

The latte in Nef-Nik's U.F.'s Coffee mug was amazingly delicious.

Yesterday, the new wine selections came in the mail: a 2006 Zinfandel (Block 2), a Sangiovese and a new blend.

Last night Plotnik bbq'd fresh salmon with a Vietnamese dipping sauce, using the crispy method he learned in chile, where the salmon was really, really good.

No better than here, though.

(And as he hinted to you repeatedly, the beef in Argentina was no better than here either, and now Plotnik is going to admit something to you that will not do anything to better Argentine-American relations.

(Do you know where the very best beef was in Argentina? Not the vaunted ballyhooed lomos and bifes de chorizo and matambres and this cut and the other cut. The answer is:


(The last day, while at Buenos Aires International Airport waiting for their plane journey to begin, Plot and Duck each had an Argentine version of a quarter pounder with cheese. One bite and they just stared at each other, open eyed.

(The deal is, Argentine beef tastes just like ours, and is better for you because it's all grass-raised without hormones, but it's tough tough tough. It's the chew that keeps on chewing.

(But take that beef, grind it, press it, roll it and put it on a bun: Priceless. All the taste and none of the work. And it's grass fed so it's not at all fatty.

(Sorry to admit it, and all you gourmet friends of Plotnik, you may now burn this blog.)

The three pictures are three of Plottie's favorites of the trip that don't have him or Ducknik in them: you are looking at the little house on the pampa which looks like any other picturesque farmhouse in the world except for the Serrano Glacier falling down the mountain behind it; above that is the motorcycle parked in the middle of nowhere, with the road winding away in the distance, taken at the end of the trail before the hike down and then up again to the Cave of the Painted Hands; and on top is the inside of gaucho Tiburcio Sayhuehue's house where the mate tasted so indescribably awful but the guitar was gloriously in tune.

You all knew this was coming: Plottie's back and happy to be here.


** The piano player on the second floor at Nordstrom's.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Bosteros


Our neighbor destroyed our bougainvillea and one side of our garden while we were gone. He does this every few years but really outdid himself this time. The weeds decided to eat the rest of it. Our other neighbor is selling her house and everything has gone to seed.

Crap. Everything looks like crap.

Plottie is tired. Those last five hours on the plane were 'way worse than the 17 before them. The last hour the pilot must have landed in Bend, Oregon and pushed the plane to Saint Plotniko with his hands.

Everything around here looks a little -- shabby. Plot has been catching up with his emails this morning -- and realizes how much crap he looks at on a daily basis.

But he also missed reading the blogs from his friends. He hadn't realized some of them are having a really tough time and today he feels...crappy about it.

He and Duck couldn't open the front door yesterday because a month's mail had gone through the front door mail chute and was piled up against it. How much of that mail was worth reading? One small check from ASCAP. The rest went in two huge garbage bags.

Phone messages: solicitations for crap from the Crap Institute.

Back to work? Plays to set up, good. Music to work on, good. Old projects -- Plotnik spreads himself too thin, he knows he does it, but it's hard to know when to stop. Crap.

The key seems to be to pick out the jewels. But how do you know what is a jewel and what is just, well, crap? If you wrote it, you like it, but you're also 'way too close to it.

Mummy Plotnik. She's OK, but Plotnik must get down there, though right now stepping on an airplane or driving six hours in a car does not sound very good.

While they were gone, Plot had set up a signal with Mummy P. He would text her, her helper Lilian would read her the text and then they'd text back. He set himself up with an international text package for that purpose. She'd hear from him and he'd know she was all right.

She didn't do it, of course, and that meant he worried. Then the earthquake came. Everybody in the family heard about it before Plotnik did and they got understandably worried. The Great PD was awakened at 6am to hear there was very bad news, that there had been a terrible earthquake in Chile and Plot and Duck might be underneath it all.

Plot and Duck were a thousand miles away, but hey. Luckily, PD texted Plot and said "How are you?" and Plot was on a bus where there was actually a cell phone signal at that point. He texted back "Fine, and you?"

PD advised Plottie to immediately put up a notice for Plotnikkies but, of course, there was by that time no internet signal anywhere near where Plot and Duck were. But it all got sorted out eventually. It's actually very good to know that people are interested in your welfare.

Baseball? Plot doesn't care. Basketball? Ehhh. If he could have stayed one more week he might have spent the hundreds of dollars to go see the two big rivals in Argentine soccer play each other. La Boca versus River Plate.

This is the way athletics are supposed to be -- to the death. River Plate wears red and they are the upper crust team. Their nickname is 'los milionarios,' when they're not using their other nickname, which is 'Gallineros,' which means chickens, because when they lost a very important game a few years ago the other team taunted them by waving live chickens.

The River Plate stadium is huge, where the Stones and Nirvana come to give concerts. La Boca, on the other hand, wears blue and their stadium is called La Bombonera, which means firemen. They are the lower class team from the slums. Their nickname is 'bosteros' -- which literally means horse shit, because they were the ones who always had to clean up after the rich people's horses. They chant during the game, like Queen: "WE ARE THE HORSE SHITS!"

So it's the millionaires against the horse shits. You couldn't write this any better. 150,000 screaming people in the stands and barbed wire to keep one sections' fans from tearing the other ones apart.

Who is the most revered Argentinian of all, after Evita Peron? Maradona, who led Argentina to a World Cup championship thirty years ago. Where was he from? La Boca, of course. A really fast little horse shitter.

Plottie would have been on the La Boca side for sure.

But no. He's in Saint Plotniko, looking at crap mail. And email. And phone solicitations. The same-o same-o. Bitch, bitch, bitch.

Thanks for everyone's emails. You all have presents. BZWZ and Cousin Seattle, Patagonia is the land of rocks. That's all I'm sayin'.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Plotnik's hair got really long during this trip, but he had it cut off yesterday morning, with Ducknik watching and taking pictures, a few hours before they had to get in the cab to leave Argentina and return home. In the neighborhood of Caballito, where they were staying, there is a very old-school barber shop, like Plotnik remembers from when he was a child -- the strange alcohols in the glass jars, the razors with the sharpening strop hanging off the ancient chair, and above all the conversation. Plot hadn't had a haircut like this since Mexico City forty years ago and he was determined to go do it again.

For 35 pesos ($8) he found out everything there is to know about the barber's home province of Chaco, and the incompetent Argentinian government. AND, he looks positively Cesar Romero at this moment.

Or at least he did, before the 24 hour misery of three international flights. Right now, in the middle of the last leg, he looks and feels more like Shemp, the third Stooge.

A twelve hour plane trip is 'way worse than a twelve hour bus ride. On the bus, the drivers can't last more than two hours without taking a three or four cigarette break, so you get to stretch. The seats are 'way more comfortable and you can look out the window and see the world zoom by. You stop in small towns and see the way things really are.

A twelve hour international plane trip is an exercise in discomfort mixed with institutionalized indifference. And it's at least sixteen hours or more -- the two hours in advance at the airport and the wait to pick up baggage and clear customs. And we're not talking about the two and a half hour flight before and the five hour flight after. When you stagger off those planes you feel like a three day old empanada.

And something always happens at the airport to remind you you're home.

For Plotnik at 6am this morning, that something was First World Security at the Toronto Airport. He and Duck took buses and trains and five flights on four different airlines in South America and never had to take off their shoes, never had to remove the computer from the backpack, never had to worry about liquids, never had to take the coins or extra camera battery out of their pocket before going through the metal detector. Or the bottle of water.

In Toronto Plot and Duck went through it all, and then some, and it's worse after twelve miserable hours on a stuffed airplane with babies crying and people all around you coughing up lungs and livers.

This leg, the last leg, is taking forever. They're over America now. The prospect is not all that exciting.

It's going to be good to be home, but not right away. Places you travel to are so much more lax, the way of life in the rest of the world so much slower and easier, the people far more knowledgeable about the affairs of the planet, as a general rule, than Americans. They speak your language if you don't speak theirs, which, if you're American, you probably don't.

Plot and Duck learned about Chile and Argentina from cab drivers -- who tend to speak so fast even Plotnik can only get a percentage of what they're saying. They will tell you the truth, if you ask them the right way, from their perspective -- the point of view of people living on the ground.

It's never fair to call the people of one or another country friendly or unfriendly. In every country most people are helpful and a few are assholes. In both complicated cities -- Buenos Aires and Santiago -- the moment Plotnik brought out his map a stranger would be at his side, offering him directions.

The problem was the same problem as in Maine, or in Istanbul -- the directions were usually incompetent. But everyone meant well.

Reading the guidebooks about Buenos Aires before they left Saint Plotniko, Plot feared he was heading into chaos -- pickpockets, thieves, lying cab drivers, murderous neighborhoods, every step only one unsteady moment from certain disaster. Everybody had a horror story.

What a pile of poop. Yes, the stories were true, yes a few neighborhoods looked pretty damned dicey, but would you go into East Oakland at 2am waving a camera? That's what the French tourist staying at Casa Giorgio did -- speaking no Spanish, he and his girl friend wandered into the worst part of La Boca in the middle of the night and -- sure enough, somebody put a gun to his head and stole his passport and his money. And his camera.

Yes, he was unlucky, but he also was an idiot. Of course, this kind of thing can happen anywhere. Plot and Duck could get mugged at SFO in a few hours. It's not too likely.

Buenos Aires at night is also the most exciting place Plotnik has ever been. People who read this fearmongering stuff in guidebooks are likely to miss the best part of a glorious city -- tango milongas and the streets filled with people talking with their hands and spouting their national poetry and eating steaks with their fingers.

Two nights before Plot and Duck left Caballito, they went to a local parilla (grill) for dinner, at around 10pm. Two women walked in and sat down at the table next to them. Plot heard the first woman asking the waiter about dietetic things -- how much oil is in that and can you leave the potatoes out of the salad? It was like being home.

Then they ordered. The waiter brought then a hugendous platter of beef ribs-- three double-cut slabs, cut into five or six pieces each, on a sizzling platter. They proceeded to pick that beef up with their hands, bone by bone, as Annie Lamott might have said, and demolish it all. While they ate, they talked, waving the bones like batons conducting their own private orchestra.

Trust me, it has been a month of Tuesdays since you've seen two women eat that much beef in a restaurant and have such a great time doing it.

This is the way the Argentines seem to be. Chileans are better off, and are probably more confident about their futures and therefore better planners, but Argentines are alive. They don't leave any meat on any bone.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Beso on the Bus

Plot and Duck waited on the corner of Primera Junta and Guayaquil Burgos for the 53 bus that would take them all the way down to La Boca. A girl in her thirties was standing in the street also, stretching to see if the bus were coming. Plot asked her if the 53 bus stopped at this intersection and she said that it did. Within five minutes Emilce, Plotnik and Ducknik were fast friends.

When the bus arrived they boarded together, stood together and talked about everything, about life in Buenos Aires, about the cost of apartments and child care, about health care, about the best restaurants in town, about life with two kids in the blessed city of tango. Emilce said she and her husband would never be able to afford to buy a home. Sounded familiar.

Two people got off so Plot and Duck sat down.

Then an older lady got on so Plot got up to give her his seat. She sat down heavily and within thirty seconds was intimately involved in the conversation. She had few teeth, so her conversation was difficult for Plot to decipher, but she had her two centavos to get in as well about the city.

It's a long ride to La Boca on the 53 bus, at least forty minutes. The two women got off at different times. When Emilce got set to leave the bus, she wrote her email address on a piece of paper, first asking a man across the aisle for a pencil, and for the name of the restaurant she was trying to remember to recommend to Plot and Duck. Now he was involved in the conversation as well and he thought the restaurant was called Bodegon del Obrero, and he agreed it was an excellent choice and they talked about the size of the milanesa and how good the fried potatoes were and that Plot and Duck better be hungry and should make sure to keep their mochila (backpack) in front of them when they were walking off the beaten path in La Boca.

Two more men standing in the bus agreed about the restaurant and keeping the backpack in front, although one of them knew another restaurant he thought might be a good choice and the lady with no teeth agreed with him, nodding her head emphatically.

Emilce kissed the first man on the cheek when he got ready to leave the bus. Plotnik would have thought that two strangers on the bus kissing each other goodbye was weird, a week ago, but not any more.

Then Emilce came to her stop. Plotnik went to shake her hand but she pulled him towards her cheek, that he summarily kissed. Ducknik stood up and she kissed her too. Emilce got off with many good byes and promises to come see the Plotniks if she ever got to Saint Plotniko.

But it wasn't over. Now the old lady with no teeth stood up to get off and as Plotnik smiled at her without realizing what was about to happen, she reached out, grabbed the back of his head with both hands and pulled it towards her, smacking his forehead right into the pole. Plot winced, but she kept pulling until his face reached her cheek, which he figured he'd damned well better kiss. So he did.

She said something without any teeth that was probably 'adios' and then she grabbed Ducknik and kisssed her too and God knows what either of them said to each other.

The bus got to the end of the line. Plot and Duck got off. They'll be home Thursday.

Monday, March 15, 2010

By Day and By Night

By day, Buenos Aires seems to be your typical huge megalopolis, filled with commerce and subways and people scurrying in all directions, narrow sidewalks crowded, buses and cabs making five lanes out of three, mom and pop stores in one district and giant warehouses in another, historical sites up against equally historical buildings where municipal and national government decisions are still being made.

If they do that in Argentina. Talk to anyone who lives here and they'll tell you the only decision that gets made in this country is which bribe to accept today and which one tomorrow.

B.A. is a federal city, like Washington D.C. or Mexico City and lies at one end of a river so wide it is made up of both salt and fresh water channels. The Rio de la Plata looks like an ocean. It has brought everything in and taken everything out of this country for five hundred years and you can't begin to see across to other side, to the nation of Uruguay.

Like Rio and like New York, The Porteños have their own language. Spanish speakers like Plotnik and Ducknik, who have learned their Spanish with a Mexican accent, can get lost trying to figure out new verb forms and pronunciations, but the people just repeat it and repeat it and sooner or later you get it.

Or, they speak English. Never, never, never have Plot and Duck heard worse English. When they were in Chile, the Chileans could at least pronounce enough recognizable English words that if they insisted on speaking English, Plotnik could guess what they meant. This is not possible in Buenos Aires nor anywhere else in Argentina.

People say they learn their English from American TV shows, but these can't be American TV shows -- they must be Albanian TV shows. No American or British speaker of Spanish should ever think that their Spanish is worse than an Argentine's English.

There is little comfort in this knowledge.

Ducknik's Spanish has leapt forward. She can keep up with practically anyone's conversation now, even taxi drivers. Speaking is harder, but that's the way it is for everybody. Plotnik, the mimic as always, has picked up the Porteño accent and is now dropping his s's and Zsa Zsa Gaboreando his consonants like a native. Well, maybe a native Albanian. But he and Duck understand each other perfectly.

At night the buses and trucks turn into tango. Yes, JJ-aka-PP, it is the national pastime.

Yesterday, Plot and Duck had one of their best days yet. First of all came a cooking class at the hostel, where Ana took Plot and Duck to the market to buy ingredients, then came home and made empanadas (with cheese, ham and corn) and milanesa (breaded steak). It was all accompanied by tango music of course and there was as much laughing as eating.

Afterwards, the Plotniks took the subte (subway) down to the San Telmo Street Fair, which is a two mile stretch of a combination of antiques and Carnival.

It was every bit as much fun as the grand Sunday market in Chichicastenango, which Plotnik thought at the time could not be topped, and probably can't be -- but this fair comes in a very strong second. And the music is better. Plot and Duck bought out the place, so everyone can now relax: their presents are in the suitcase.

By the time night had fallen, Plot and Duck had walked to the end of the fair, in Dorrego Plaza in San Telmo, where local people had set up an impromptu milonga. A bunch of guitar players and singers stood at one side, playing and singing tango songs while local people filled the plaza dancing. It was one of the loveliest things ever -- grandpas dancing with granddaughters, old barrel chested men dancing with young girls, beautifully made up older women dancing with their friends, and young people too -- teenagers with backpacks who just happened by and had to dance.

Plot and Duck sat on the cobblestones and Plot shot a Flip Video of everything. He asked Duck to dance. She said no thanks. Which is to say, the first time ever that Plotnik asked someone to tango, she shot him down.

But it was a little un-nerving -- not that these were all great dancers, but they all seemed to know what they were doing. The older the man, the less he moved and the more the women just danced in a circle around him. It was something to see.

Weather: perfect. Balmy, warm but not too warm. Smells of food cooking. Vendors everywhere. Then out to Cafe San Juan for a great dinner. And Plotnik has to admit that now that there are only a few days left in their trip, he has no desire whatsoever to come home. He could use another week or two in Buenos Aires. They'll have to pack it all in to two and a half days now.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Plotnik has stepped on his dance partner's feet many times in his long career as a klutz, but last night was the first time he ever stepped on his own feet. You have to do these cross over steps without really going anywhere, and your partner has to know what you're doing so she can back up a little bit since she's doing the same cross over steps at the same time. It goes one-two-three-cross-re-cross-re-cross-three-four. One and two, both threes and the four are a snap and so is the first cross, but the two re-crosses, where you step right back where you were before, except you've already swiveled your hips and so you've got to swivel them back, and then there's that last wiggle which would normally be just like the first cross -- if you were dancing by yourself or just dreaming about it -- but your balance is already off -- and there's only one way to stop without falling and you end up stepping on your own feet.

Whaever. Learning to do the tango with fifty other people, of all ages, arranged in a huge circle inside the old fashioned milonga (dance hall) around the teacher in his black t-shirt, gray pants and soft gray shoes, and his dance partner, wearing a pink dress over pedal-pusher length black pants and very red, very high heels, was a hoot and a holler.

Duck and Plot were not the very worst. They sort of kept doing what they could without getting too fancy. The idea was to survive without bringing shame to America, and it is safe to say this was accomplished, because Plotnik checked the headline in the Buenos Aires News this morning and our two countries are not at war.

Plot has always had a problem when he dances, He hunches over like he's bowling, when he ought to be upright and gliding. The Great Plotnik loves to dance but he has never been able to glide. He would love to glide. Really. This man can glide.

He also has never had anyone, any man that is, point out to him that you put your arm here and your hip there and the idea is to keep your center of balance right here and for Christ's sake wipe that shit eating grin off your face just because you pulled off one freaking cross re-cross re-cross without singing Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The teacher said don't grab her, just hug her, lightly, like you've just met a good friend, and then start to dance.

The teacher said you hold your left hand like you're balancing a tray,

The teacher would show Plotnik something and then stop and address the entire group and show them how not to do it.

Plotnik really learned a lot. Ducknik had not been looking forward to this lesson, due to a lot of things but probably most ominous of all was that she didn't bring any high heels with her. But none of the learners really wore them, except for a few ladies who obviously knew what they were doing already. The lady in the yellow beret, tight yellow pants and yellow high heels was really good. It's in the hips, man, it's in the hips. These Latinas get it.

It cost twenty pesos to get in (around $5) and you could buy a beer for eight pesos.

When the first group sat down, the more advance dancers took their place and the instructor started in on some very complicated giros (spins), volteos (twirls) and different combinations of abiertos and cierros (open and closes). Talk about the impossible dream.

At midnight Plot and Duck and Jim from Boulder, Colorado, and John from London, England, both of whom are staying at the hostel, went out for some pasta. The Plotniks appear to be adapting.

The previous night, Plot took Duck to see the Homero Manzi tango spectacular, in a night club not too far from the hostel. It was a costumed affair with a five piece band of piano, violin, bass, nylon stringed guitar (amplified) and bandoneon (accordion).

The band was great. The dancers changed costumes all night long (Plotnik can verify that each female costume change included panties of the same color as her dress. That's a lot of panties, but, trust Plottie on this one, after a bunch of those high twirls it was probably best that there were no costume malfunctions.

The show was all very 1920s, which was when Homero Manzi wrote the lyrics to these songs. Formal waiters brought Irish coffees and petit fours The walls looked like Toots Shore's or the Palm Steakhouse in Beverly Hills, with old fashioned caricatures on the walls of the great tango dancers of the day. It was fabulous for the first twenty minutes.

The last hour and a half was pure agony, with Plotnik and Ducknik both fighting sleep and twitching from time to time, a leg flying out in one direction or another, head jerking backwards, uneaten petit fours scattered. The show just wouldn't quit. Every song sounded the same and after awhile it doesn't really matter, blue underpants or red underpants or cream underpants or black underpants.

But now it's Sunday morning and Anastasia (yes, Great FiveHead, this is her name), who runs the hostel here and is a fountain of information on tango, on Argentina and especially her beloved Buenos Aires) has just finished going over her lunfardo, which is the specialized language of tango. If you don't speak lunfardo you can't understand a word of these tangos, and Plot and Duck now know exactly one song. But it's a good one, a cebollera (tear jerker). They're all tear jerkers.

Anyway, when Plot and Duck were dancing in the milonga, learning the steps by themselves, it was really fun. Tango is complex and you've got to have two people who know what they're doing. It doesn't seem possible just to allow yourself to be led, without figuring out first what you're gonna do about stepping all over your own shoes, whether it's high heels or travel clodhoppers. But you can do it. If Plot and Duck can do it, you can.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Two Places to Stay in Buenos Aires

Arriving in Buenos Aires, Plot and Duck got lucky until Plotnik flinched. When they decided to fly down instead of taking the long bus ride, it meant they needed to find a place to stay for one night before their six day reservation at Casa Giorgio started on Thursday,

The chain of events was easy -- John Fernandes, whose picture you saw the other day from Iguazu, had used to own another small b and b, called Garden Buenos Aires, in the San Telmo district of B.A. He had sold it to an artist friend of his, so he called her and she said she had two rooms available: the cheaper one with a shared bathroom and the more expensive two floor garden cottage with its own facilities.

The flight from Iguazu to B.A. was fast and easy, no turbulence, sorry about that Cousin 2-3. Plot and Duck hired a remise (cab) to take them from the airport to San Telmo, but they had already learned their lesson in Santiago about keeping the taxi with its meter running until they've completely checked out where they're going to stay. This time Plot and Duck and the taxi driver waited at the door of Garden Buenos Aires until they finally heard approaching footsteps.

While they waited they couldn't help but notice the piles of garbage heaped up all over the streets, in and out of bags, and the sidewalks that looked like they had dug them up 100 years ago searching for gold and never got around to paving them over again. The owner of Garden Buenos Aires, Pam Murphy, a New York expat, finally threw open the big wooden doors. "It's a big house," she said.

Plot, Duck and the taxi driver gasped in disbelief. Plotnik has seen a lot of houses in his time but nothing - NO T H I N G like this one.

Imagine an old New Orleans railroad flat, only not a railroad flat which is small but a railroad mansion which is huge, with many, many rooms, one after another down long hallways that open into gardens and sitting spaces, and inside galleries open to the sky and plants and trees growing in every corner, and crazy artwork on the walls of naked girls and African masks and every room had some kind of loft and balcony and there were iron stairways going up the sides of every wall disappearing into Pam Murphy and her daughters' living space upstairs which, as Plot and Duck found out later, is everything the downstairs is times three.

The cab driver went away. Pam Murphy showed Plot and Duck the expensive garden cottage first and they took it right away, since it was only for one night and not ALL that expensive. (Did he mention luxurious? Let him mention it now, and let him say he felt guilty taking the expensive room, being a man of the people, but not for as long as you might have thought, also being a spoiled brat.)

Pam bought the lot behind her a few years ago and turned it into a garden, which means the property goes all the way from one block to another. That's where the little pool is and where you have your cocktails before your nap before dinner, or maybe it's the other way around.

What a palace. No more strip of ham substance for breakfast. We're talking granola -- GRANOLA! -- and thick homemade coffee cakes and fresh squeezed orange juice and fabulous coffee. All that stuff Plot and Duck had been thinking about, until they got to iguazu and found it there, and now again in Buenos Aires.

But the neighborhood: funk-eee! San Telmo is like a cross between Brooklyn and Spanish Harlem and Soho, only Buenos Aires is so much bigger than New York and the streets are very wide with zillions and zillions of people on them, and there aren't any high rises in San Telmo. LOTS of graffiti, most of it political, lots of notices about tango, and an unreal amount of trash with no trash cans.

No beggars, though, and no visible homeless people, which has to lead you to the conversation of which is worse: garbage in Buenos Aires, which can be picked up, or homeless people pissing on the sidewalk in Saint Plotniko, which apparently cannot be.

Plot felt at home here. He loved San Telmo. So he decided to call the woman at Casa Giorgio and cancel his reservation.

He really needed the Great PD to do this for him. Plotnik doesn't do well when Argentine women scream at him in Spanish. This is the second time it happened and the results were the same. He stammers. he errr-ahhhs. And he always agrees with whatever it is they're screaming about, in this case that he had a solid reservation and he damned well better show up the next day with his sick wife (the excuse he had tried to use -- he got the Duck's approval first) unless she is dead or in the hospital and it better be a big hospital.

So this morning (after breakfast) Plot and Duck reluctantly checked out of Pam Murphy's place in San Telmo and came here, to Casa Giorgio in the neighborhood of Caballito, where the room is actually nicer than the other one at one third the price. Dance-Nik and The Great WantzaNewname would love the way they shop for shoes up here.

So it's back to a hostel situation, but a nice one. True, there's no free phone to call the USA. No bottle of wine on the downstairs coffee table. No insane house of spirits with fascinating other guests. Here it's kids again who speak Spanish like Mummy Plotnik.

No granola, but fresh baked chocolate churros.

The Duck has already unpacked. And the tango lesson was last night. Tango is a hell of a lot harder than it looks. Looks like we're staying.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Charangos


Last... Sunday, was it? ... Plot and Duck joined eight other people for an all day minibus trip north to the town of Humahuaca (OO-ma-WAH-ca) in the province of Jujuy, an Andean town of cobbled streets, adobe houses and a sense of being a million miles away from the rest of the world.

Before they got to Humahuaca they stopped in the smaller village of Purmamarca (Percy Sledge), which is perched in front of an extraordinary multi-colored mountain. As you head up into the hills north of Purmamarca lots of the scenery looks like this -- crazily beautiful colored hills and lots and lots of cacti.

There were towns with small, lovely Indian churches with four hundred year old (and priceless) paintings from the Cuzco school hanging in them, and schools where they were teaching the old methods of making ceramics, and lots of people out in the fields harvesting carrots and peppers and onions.

At the ceramics school, the man who made the pottery showed the group his kilns out in the back where they also happened to be barbecuing a goat.

But for Plotnik the most amazing moment occurred in Humahuaca, a very old pueblo of narrow streets and mud buildings but also lots of signs of modernity -- like cellphone shops and graffiti. Inside a shop window Plot saw a hand-lettered sign that said CHARANGOS PROFESIONALES.

Now, The Great Plotnik had been thinking about thinking about buying a charango ever since he heard The Great PD's charango that PD brought home from Iguazu several years ago.

But every time Plot went into a music store in Salta, the home of the charango in Argentina (the instrument is native to Bolivia), he was disappointed with one thing or another -- the price, or the sound, or the size, or the fact that he didn't want to own a charango just for the sake of owning it. He doesn't want to be a collector. Either he'd play it or he didn't want it.

So there he was outside the adobe-walled CHARANGOS PROFESIONALES shop in Humahuaca when a man cradling a very pretty charango came up to him and said: "Pasele, por favor. Estos son mios." It was nice to have someone say this is my shop, these are my charangos, please walk on in. So Plotnik did.

Charangos are small. The man kept four of them behind the counter in little cloth bags, each bag a different color.They were marked at different prices -- from 500 to 1200 pesos -- $120-$300. He took each one out of its bag and played it -- the man could really play the charango, but, once again, Plotnik just wasn't sold. He thanked the man and started to walk outside but the man grabbed him by the arm and waved his finger back and forth. "Espere, caballero.˜ Wait.

Behind the counter in the shop were four large lockers. They looked like the kinds of frozen food lockers you used to see on ice cream trucks.

The man now introduced himself. "Mi nombre es Salomon," he said, and Plot answered "Yo soy El Gran Plotniko, y esto es mi esposa Ducknika." (not their real names).

"Bueno, El Gran, ahora tu vas a ver algo." Plot wondered what he was about to be shown.

Salomon opened one of the lockers and Plot could see that inside, instead of the ice cream he had expected, Salomon had very carefully stacked at least two dozen multicolored hard charango cases. He pulled one out.

"Mire," he said. Look.

He set the charango on its back and then turned it over and over so Plotnik could examine both sides.

He explained the different kinds of woods he had used to build it, the ebony for the fingerboard, the bracing, even the electric pickups he had already installed.

Plot's eyes asked Salomon to play this charango, and he did, and it sounded like butter. The price tag was $3000 pesos ($775).

"Pues gracias, Señor," Plot said after awhile, "pero no tengo tanto plata por un charango." Salomon knew Plot wasn't going to buy this one, but he grabbed Plot's shoulder again and said: "Espere." He put the first charango back in its case, reached into the freezer case and brought out a second one.

This one was perhaps even more beautiful than the first one. It had a condor carved on top, and was ebony and cream colored. The shop was so small it was hard to have two people in it at once, and even harder to take a picture.

These were SUCH beautiful instruments. Plot thought about it. But in the end, he couldn't justify parting with that much plata for an instrument that is fairly limited in its range. It felt too much like collecting stamps or coins or fancy cars. You ought to love an instrument if you buy it at all and Plotnik doesn't know enough about charango to love it.

So, after seeing several more hand-carved masterpieces, each as pretty as the last, Plot and Duck said "Senor, no mas,˜ walked out of the store and around the block, Plotnik had to ask himself if he was sure and himself said yes, he was sure.

But it was half an hour until the bus was leaving and Plot was drawn back to the shop again. He walked over and sat down on one of the chairs outside the store, where Salomon was also sitting, playing his own charango, the one that had no price tag on it.

They then spent fifteen minutes or so talking about music and how Salomon, who was also a music teacher and composer, felt about the charango and how much it meant to him and to his people, the local people of Northern Argentina, and how much he loved his own charango, although it had a little hole in it, and Plot told him about his guitar and ukelele, like the two old men in Paul Simon's "Bookends," only in Spanish, talking about their favorite grandchildren.

Plottie could have sat here all day. But the bus was leaving. So he and Duck did too.

More beautiful mountains on the way home. No charango.