Naked City: A Music Story


Sometimes the most interesting thing about a concert has nothing to do with the music. Witness what happened at the Kaufmann Concert Hall of New York’s 92nd Street Y on November 16th, 2013 when one strange man stole a bit of the show. A performance given in a metropolis sometimes called the “Naked City.”

The gentleman in question walked down the left aisle just before the Hagen Quartet came on stage to play an all-Beethoven program. As he entered his row close to the stage, he faced right and loudly addressed the assembled throng:

I really don’t want to be here. I guess it’s impolite to say, but I’m not interested in this.

The speaker seemed to be alone, so no one had taken him to the concert as a hostage. But, I will admit, he did look strange. The gentleman was short and bearded — nothing remarkable there. But he wore a baseball cap with a picture of Jesus facing forward and a sparkly or glitter-filled abstract pattern decorating the bill of the hat. A tan vest covered his aquamarine blue shirt. And, perhaps most interestingly, he had standard-sized headphones on the top of his head and covering his ears, all the while holding a CD player in his right hand. Would he even be listening to the live performance as it happened or to whatever recording he preferred?

Patrons seated close by were clearly concerned. One summoned an usher who must have remonstrated the fellow just as the Hagen Quartet entered the stage. Happily, the first half of the concert proceeded without incident and almost certainly without the knowledge of the performers that there might be a vocal eruption interrupting them before they were done.

One could only wonder if Patron X would return after intermission, when the big piece of the night, Beethoven’s Quartet #14 in c#, Opus 131 would be presented, one of the greatest of the great works.

Again, the unexpected happened just before the musicians returned, even if it was now slightly less surprising. The man loudly said, “Calm Down.” To others? To himself? I’d guess the latter.

And then, as before, the Hagen Quartet — two brothers and a sister all named Hagen, along with Rainer Schmidt — began a musical journey to the mountain top of artistic expression — presumably untroubled by the little guy back on earth who didn’t want to be there.

An evening, then, of the ridiculous and the sublime. A crisis averted. A man, probably not all that stable, who kept himself in just-enough check to let the show go on. Or perhaps it was the music that did the job. As William Congreve put it in 1697,

Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.

Some of us go to concerts to experience the transcendent. Perhaps this man, too, was trying to transcend his own limitations. Maybe his first public statement was intended to identify his discomfort as well to remind himself that any ensuing misbehavior might be “impolite;” thus to set the stage for achieving an unaccustomed level of control and comportment in a situation that was difficult for him, something he must struggle with often. His second loud announcement could then be understood as a kind of personal guidance he’d learned to give himself in order to keep on track toward his goal of self-control. No way for me to know with certainty, or course.

As the narrator of the old New York-based, TV police drama “Naked City” used to say over the closing credits:

There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.

The performance of the Hagen Quartet, by the way, was enthralling. But what I’m wondering is, did we 900 in the audience — witnessing a man struggling to restrain himself and a quartet reaching for the sublime on stage — really observe not one but two of the hard-won, small miracles that sometimes happen in the “Naked City?”

The above image is the title card of the 1958-1963 TV drama Naked City. It is sourced from

The R.S.V.P Puzzle


In the ancient world (or perhaps I should say, in the 1960s) everyone knew what R.S.V.P. meant. Today, not so much. Oh, people do think they know. But, you can be dead sure and dead wrong.

Consider today’s essay a short lesson in good taste and good manners. It might make people like you more.

An example will illustrate the point. I had the occasion to invite several people to a dinner for an organization with which I am involved. It is a not-for-profit corporation. These particular invitees had been helpful to the enterprise, but we didn’t know all of them well. The invitations requested them to R.S.V.P. It was clear that the dinner would be free to each one, a material way to thank them for their good-will and assistance.

Fourteen of these invitations were sent, but only three responses were received as the date approached. About two weeks before the event emails were sent with a second request to R.S.V.P. This brought additional answers to the question of whether we should expect their attendance or not.

Out of the blue came two emails from people who had not been invited, telling us that they would be coming. Whoa! How did this happen?

It turned out that these were associates of two of the real invitees. The newcomers were individuals whom we had never met and had not been involved with our not-for-profit corporation. They’d been given the invitations and encouraged to attend our event. Indeed, they were temporary employees in those organizations that had been helpful to us.

This put us in the awkward position of having to tell these people that they had not been invited (as they already knew); and, since we are a charity, to inform them that we had a limited capacity to provide complimentary dinners that would diminish the funds available for our philanthropic efforts.

The attempt to pass along our invitation reminded me of a practice that has occurred in wartime. During the Civil War, for example, you could get out of serving as a soldier if you could find someone willing to substitute for you. Still, this was hardly the Civil War, but a simple dinner invitation done in gratitude for the help provided to us. No bullets would be flying.

So what happened? Why did we receive responses from less than 2/3 of those to whom we wished to show some kindness and gratitude? And why did two of those people think it would be appropriate to pass along our invitation to others we did not know without asking us if this was permissible?

First, I don’t think anyone intentionally wanted to be rude. These are all good and decent folks. They do good work at their places of employment. They had no motive to be disrespectful and I’m sure had no intention of being thoughtless.

What other explanation might then account for the failure to respond? I suspect that R.S.V.P has somehow lost a bit of its meaning, the compulsory quality it used to carry. So what exactly does it mean to R.S.V.P. and what did it mean once upon a time?

Let’s start with the literal meaning. It is an abbreviation of a common French phrase whose translation is, “Please respond.”

According to Wikipedia:

The high society of England adopted French etiquette in the late 18th century, and the writings of Emily Post (the authority on etiquette) aim to offer a standard no more stringent than that tradition. Late 20th century editions (of her book), building on her 1920s beginning work, say… that “Anyone receiving an invitation with an RSVP on it is obliged to reply….” and some recent editions describe breaching this standard as “inexcusably rude.”

Emily Post advises (that) anyone receiving an invitation with an R.S.V.P. on it must reply promptly, and should reply within a day or two of receiving the invitation.

OK, so when you receive a written invitation to an event, it is expected that you will quickly inform your host whether or not you plan to attend. That puts some pressure on you: if you are coming you need to so inform the sender; equally, if you are not coming, your anticipated non-attendance must also be reported.


  1. First, because someone has thought of you favorably. He or she wishes the pleasure of your company. It may be your brilliance, your beauty, your fame, your charm, or something else, but the invitation says that you matter. By responding you acknowledge the kindness and compliment being extended to you and take a small step in reciprocating. In effect, you are saying, “Thank you for the invitation. You matter to me, too.”
  2. Invitations generally do not go to everyone. Space is often limited. If the host or hostess is to be able to plan to fill those spaces, he or she needs to know who will be there and who won’t.
  3. Social gatherings generally involve food and refreshments. The party planner must have a reasonable idea of how much to buy, how much to prepare, how much to budget. And, they must have enough advanced notice to do this.
  4. You were invited. Not your understudy, not your next-door-neighbor, not your business associate. Don’t assume that anyone else can substitute for you. That diminishes the importance of the thoughtfulness of the host or hostess in choosing you.

I suspect that many of us don’t think about these things too much; don’t think about the reasons our potential benefactor needs to hear from us, sooner rather than later or not at all. Some assume that they need to respond only with regrets at not being able to come. And, indeed, many invitations come with the message “Regrets only.”

I imagine that when some of us delay responding or don’t respond at all, we are thinking, “Oh, one person more or less isn’t going to matter that much;” or “I’ll get to it later.” No harm is intended by this attitude, yet there can be inconvenience or expense to the person extending the invitation. Remember, that person has to answer the question “Should I buy enough chicken for a dinner of 15 or 115?”

I also have witnessed, as have all of us over 40, that the civilized world has become a more casual place, one with fewer dress codes, social restrictions, and compulsory expectations. A world that is a bit friendlier and more at ease. But, sometimes that ease is purchased at the price of slackness, inconsideration, and unreliability. I can’t tell you what the perfect balance is, but I can tell you that if you are planning an event, you hope that people take your invitations seriously and make your life a little easier by informing you of their plans with respect to it.

Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, offered us a way to think about situations like this. He wrote about the idea of a “categorical imperative” when it comes to rules for moral behavior. He suggested that each of us should ask ourselves some version of the following question: Would I be content if the rules I use to govern my behavior (like viewing an R.S.V.P as optional) also apply to everyone else in the world? And, would the world be better or worse for it?

Really, it is pretty simple. The Golden Rule is almost always a great way to evaluate our conduct. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Even in response to dinner invitations.

What Should be the Last Word on the Question of Civility and Rudeness?

Memo to Kanye West, Serena Williams, and Representative Joe “You Lie” Wilson:

If you do not wish to be treated offensively, do not give offense.

In other words, live by the Golden Rule.