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Points of Departure

Framing Sacco and Vanzetti
by Sara Hirschhorn

One fall day in 1971, Neil Thomas Proto had an epiphany. It wasn?t
about God, or Vietnam, or flower power, or love. For the George
Washington University law student, studying the execution of two
Italian-American shopkeepers for robbery and murder in a Boston prison
on August 23, 1927, was an awakening. Proto recalls hearing a few
conversations about the case in a class and going to see a recently
released film on the subject (the one with the Joan Baez soundtrack, he
fondly remembers these days). Then he just knew: Nicola Sacco and
Bartolomeo Vanzetti were about to change his life. When ?Justice On
Trial: Ben Shahn?s Case For Sacco And Vanzetti,? a collection of the
modernist painter?s gouaches and tempera paintings accompanied by
historical photographs and film, opened at the Yale Art Gallery on
October 14 for a two month run, it was not only one of several events
commemorating the 75th anniversary of their deaths, but also the result
of a one-man mission to bring Sacco and Vanzetti to New Haven.

When you talk to Proto, who tends to get hysterical when addressing the
subject, it is hard not to feel like those dim memories from the annals
of high school history are going to change your life as well. Though he
now lives in Washington, dc, and works at a high profile law firm,
Proto was born and raised in New Haven and still maintains a residence
here. He has devoted the better part of his life to reading, studying,
and educating about the Sacco and Vanzetti case. In the process, he has
constructed his own revisionist history of Sacco and Vanzetti?s story,
become a collector of Sacco and Vanzetti-related folk music, and
co-adapted an operetta??The American Dream: The Story Of Sacco And
Vanzetti??which debuted at New Haven?s own Shubert Theater this April.

After that fateful day in 1971 when he first realized the spiritual,
philosophical, and historical significance of the case, Proto hit the
books. For the next two years, it got ?a little intense.? He spent
months studying the eight volumes of transcripts and reading every work
he could find on the execution. Finally, in 1996, Proto began his
magnum opus, a manifesto published in Italian America, the magazine of
the national Sons of Italy, on the significance of the trial. But after
publishing a second article in 1997 for the 70th anniversary of Sacco
and Vanzetti?s execution, Proto had a second epiphany: that the message
was not getting out. So, after 27 years of devotion, he redoubled his
efforts. ?Why was this not talked about?? he remembered. ?And what does
it mean that it wasn?t talked about??

Proto started talking to important people. He got on the phone with
Mayor John DeStefano, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, and Yale Law School
Dean Anthony Kronman to put together a symposium that was the first
phase in a mission to bring Sacco and Vanzetti to New Haven. He played
on Yale?s historic connections to the case?countless articles in the
Yale Law Review, petition drives by the yls dean, and the advocacy of
the Supreme Court Justice and then-Professor William L. Douglas?and
wasn?t above drumming up a little Yale/Harvard rivalry over the issue
either, like calling up the Mayor to suggest, ?John, would you call the
mayor of Boston to ask him what he is going to do to commemorate the
anniversary of Sacco and Vanzetti?? Slowly, he converted them to his
idea of bringing Sacco and Vanzetti to the city.

Proto?s crusade paid off. ?I was just tickled,? he recalls, ?it was
great fun, a merry experience.? There were large turnouts at events
like the gallery exhibit, the New Haven Colony Historical Society
reading, and the ?compose-your-own-Sacco-and-Vanzetti-folksong? evening
sponsored by the Eli Whitney Folk Festival. Proto proudly remembers ?a
very bohemian crowd.? And, the operetta played the Shubert to a
sold-out crowd.

If the exhibit?s coming to New Haven started with Proto?s epiphany, it
is only appropriate: The art itself was the product of a full-blown
religious experience. The painter Ben Shahn (a Jewish immigrant who
arrived in the United States only two years before Sacco and Vanzetti)
called his series of 32 modernist, distorted gouaches (8 of which are
on display at the art gallery) and 2 tempera canvases ?The Passion Of
Sacco And Vanzetti,? in reference to the death of Jesus. Shahn
explained his political art with an epiphany of his own: ?Ever since I
could remember, I?d wished that I?d been lucky enough to be alive at a
great time?when something big was going on, like the Crucifixion. And
suddenly I realized I was. Here I was living through another
Crucifixion. Here was something to paint!?

For Proto, his own is as much a ?great time? as that of Ben Shahn.
?It?s stunning how analogous it is to what is going on today,? he
remarked. Although the anniversary celebration was planned years in
advance, the themes of anti-immigrant sentiment and criminal justice
seem especially pertinent?a connection which exhibit curator Robin
Jaffee Frank did not hesitate to acknowledge. Perhaps the yearlong
commemoration is unlikely to inspire miracles. But did it change Neil
Proto?s life? ?Absolutely.?

Mussel Man
by Meredith Angelson

At the corner of Elm and Howe, in the huddle of establishments famous
for their quick eats and cheap drinks, something has changed. There is
a strange new glow around Rudy?s Bar & Grill. It might be the new neon
signs in the window. It might be the sunlight reflecting off the new
sliver furniture outside. It might be the blinding whiteness of the
?Belgian Frites? banner above the door against the crusty sienna bricks
of the wall. One can?t quite be sure. The ineffable magnetism which
surrounds the dimly lit and cozily grimy dive draws you in to press
your nose and grubby fingers against the window and peer in with the
wonderment of a child at the window of a toy store on Christmas Eve; or
more poignantly, a college student at the window of a bar on a midweek

You cannot have failed to realize last year?s addition of Belgian
frites to Rudy?s menu. Even if you?ve never tasted them (for shame!)
the legend of their succulence and superiority to any fry you?ve ever
tasted has surely wafted down Elm Street and piqued your interest and
your appetite. You may even have heard of the man behind the myth, Omer
Ipek, known to those less intimately acquainted with him as ?the frites
guy.? Ipek, a Belgian native who came to the United States three years
ago, started working at Rudy?s a year ago. No mere fry jockey, he
trained as a chef at the Cuisine Belge Enseignement Internationale in
Brussels. (He also, conveniently, has a degree in Economics.) While
working in New York at ?Belgian Fries? fast food chain, he met former
Rudy?s owner Thomas Henniger. As the two discussed Henniger?s business,
Ipek says, ?I told him it was a good idea to add Belgian fries to his
menu, because in a bar you drink beer, and fries go along very well
with that.? Omer Ipek is a wise man with good taste.

He has imported from Belgium the most essential tool of his craft: the
frites machine. ?You can?t find that kind of machine here,? he
explains. Belgian frites friolators are more powerful than the machines
typically used in fast food restaurants in the United States, and they
are larger and have round frying baskets. ?With round baskets, the heat
moves all around the sides of the basket, which cooks the potatoes
faster and makes them crispier,? Ipek says. The differences between
Rudy?s plump and juicy frites and McDonald?s fries, parched and chewy
by comparison, don?t stop there. Ipek?s fries are 100% vegetarian,
cooked in soybean oil, and his potatoes are carefully hand-picked and
prepared. ?I don?t buy Idaho or some cheap potato. I try to get the
right size: 70 count potatoes??that is, 70 potatoes per 50 pounds of
potatoes??which have a better taste for fries than Idaho.? Ipek
hand-peels the potatoes and soaks them overnight. Each day he dries
them out before he ?blanches? them in the fryer for several minutes at
a low temperature. He sets them aside for at least half an hour before
cooking them a second time at a higher temperature until they are ready
to serve. Ipek then presents each customer with a silver funnel
overflowing with fries, gently glistening with soybean oil amidst the
folds of wax paper and crowned by a tiny plastic spear, plunged
whimsically into a frite. He offers his customers over 20 different
sauces with which to eat their frites, including Belgian Mayonnaise,
Curry Ketchup, Thai Peanut Butter, Andalouse, Americaine, and his
personal favorite, Samurai. He imports their ingredients from a Belgian
sauce company because, he says, ?In Belgium they are very fancy about
sauces.? We?re pretty damn fancy in New Haven too: Rudy?s now goes
through 600 pounds of potatoes a week.

Omer Ipek has certainly brought a great deal to this bar with his
frites. Before their advent, few people realized that Rudy?s even had a
menu. Now, thanks to Ipek?s European sensibility and talent in the
kitchen, Rudy?s is becoming known as a place for meals and snacks, as
well as quality brews, good conversation, and loud punk music. But the
mystique of the frites cannot wholly account for Rudy?s new appeal.
Those neon signs in the window are new. The stretched bunting set up
outside when the weather is warm welcomes customers to ?Rudy?s Bar &
Grill? and invites them to relax Parisian caf

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