Mark Plotkin in 2011
Mark Plotkin in 2011 Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Mark Plotkin, the impatient, pugilistic political commentator, died in September 2019. But three years later, most of Plotkin’s cremated ashes remain dumped inside a gallon-size Ziploc baggie stuffed into a plastic funeral urn. His final resting place is far from certain.

“At the moment,” says former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, “Mark sits down in my basement, waiting for the next action to occur. He’s down in my basement only because it’s very creepy to have somebody’s ashes in your house.”

Evans was a longtime Plotkin friend who, with others, has tried to wrap up the so-far endless effort to finally put Plotkin’s ashes to rest. There have been, for example, two Plotkin urns. 

But we have gotten way ahead of ourselves with this tale. Plotkin, 72, was found dead in his Glover Park apartment on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. Days had passed and no one had heard from Plotkin, who had been ill with cancer but always made a point to still be heard.

Evans “had a bad feeling.” He called then-Police Chief Peter Newsham to express concern. Newsham sent a police officer to Plotkin’s apartment building to meet up with Evans and NBC4 reporter Mark Segraves, who also had known Plotkin for years and had worked with him at WTOP Radio.

“We went to Plotkin’s apartment,” Evans recounts. “Actually, we went to the wrong apartment first.” Plotkin had lived alone for decades and few people had ever been invited inside his cluttered home. “Then we found his apartment,” Evans continues. “The door was unlocked … Mark was lying on the floor.” He may have died that Friday night because Saturday and Sunday editions of newspapers he relished reading were still piled at his door. 

“We knew that Mark had cancer and wasn’t open to [getting more] treatment,” Segraves says, but no one was expecting Plotkin to die that quickly. “To find him like that was heartbreaking.”

The police officer called the coroner. Plotkin’s body was taken to the city morgue. 

“We had to make a determination of what to do next,” Evans recalls. Plotkin’s mother had died long ago, as had his estranged father. There were no brothers or sisters, no spouse, no partner, no relatives that anyone might know.

But Evans knew Plotkin wanted to be cremated. He knew that because during one boisterous dinner evening years ago, Evans had asked Plotkin what he wanted to happen if he should be hit by a bus or something and die.

“Mark wanted to be cremated. So, jokingly then, I wrote down a number of things literally on the back of a napkin,” Evan says. “Where his mom was buried, what he wanted at his funeral, who he wanted to speak. So I had somewhat of a roadmap … But now, it became very important to have something like that.”

To cremate Plotkin, Evans’ search led him to choose the Hunt Funeral Home on Kennedy Street NW. But who would pay for the cremation? Councilmember Elissa Silverman stepped up and personally paid the bill. 

Silverman says she and Plotkin had been friends since her days as Washington City Paper’s Loose Lips columnist. “We were two Jewish people who had a love of politics,” Silverman recalls. “Plotkin took me under his wing.” When, in 2013, Silverman decided to run for an at-large Council seat, Plotkin attended one of her first meet and greets in Ward 3 and complained that she hadn’t mentioned in her speech before this influential audience that she had attended Brown University. “He told me that was a big mistake,” Silverman says.

After the cremation, Evans drove to pick up the Plotkin urn. En route home, Evans called Segraves with the news. 

“I’ve got a body in the trunk!” Evans excitedly reported. 

Segraves wasn’t amused. He—and nearly everyone else in D.C. media—knew the FBI was investigating Evans at the time for possible misuse of his Council office. If the FBI agents were listening to Evans’ calls, “we’ll all have to give depositions! Are you fucking crazy?” Segraves blurted. 

Evans remembers the exchange. “Wouldn’t it have been interesting back then had some police officer pulled me over and discovered Plotkin in my trunk.”

The second urn containing Mark Plotkin’s cremains

For Plotkin’s ashes, this was the beginning of a nearly three-year odyssey.

“I think, knowing how angry Mark would get for the most trivial reasons, that Mark would be angry enough to rise from the dead” because of the ensuing delays, says longtime friend Kojo Nnamdi

Plotkin had been one of local Washington’s best known journalists. Though he failed at running for the D.C. Council in the early 1980s, he kept up running commentary on local and national politics with his job as the resident political analyst for Nnamdi on WAMU and later on WTOP.

Nnamdi had talked to Plotkin the Friday before he died. They planned to go to dinner, but Plotkin said he didn’t feel well enough to make it.

To honor Plotkin in the weeks after his death, Evans and Segraves set up two remembrances. One took place at the John A. Wilson Building, which Plotkin’s advocacy had helped save from being turned over to the federal government. A second community service was held at George Washington University, where Plotkin had been a vociferous fan in the stands, loudly criticizing the errant coaching of the university’s basketball team. 

“I didn’t know if we would have ten people or a hundred,” Evans says of the Nov. 6, 2019, event at GW. “But it was packed. We filled the whole room. Mark had wanted all the mayors to show up.” Former mayors Vince Gray and Sharon Pratt did attend, but Muriel Bowser, Adrian Fenty, and Anthony Williams, for various reasons, did not. “Sharon Pratt came and spoke and it was great,” Evans says, noting Plotkin especially appreciated Pratt’s advocacy for D.C. statehood. Bowser issued a statement praising Plotkin’s uniquely aggressive style. “Minted in a time before social media,” she wrote of him, “Mark was never one to mince words…” 

After being displayed at both memorial events, the urn was on the move.

Jon Friedberg, one of Plotkin’s longtime friends who now lived in Madison, Wisconsin, was co-executor of Plotkin’s modest estate and attended the D.C. services for Plotkin. It was decided that Friedberg, a retired high school history and government teacher, would take the urn to Chicago. There, Friedberg would spread the ashes on Plotkin’s mother’s grave. Before that, the ashes might stop by Gibson’s, a famous political bar that Plotkin had relished for—like himself—its noisy, political atmosphere. 

Friedberg was staying in the District with journalist Michael Weisskopf, another Plotkin friend since high school.

At Weisskopf’s house in Northwest, they decided they would open the urn. They wanted to spread some of the ashes at local sites here, especially the Rose Park tennis courts in Georgetown “where he loved to play tennis,” Weisskopf remembers. 

But they couldn’t get the damn urn open, no matter how hard they tried.

“The seal of the urn was some incredibly tight glue,” Friedberg recalls. Frustrated, they went out to the back alley of Weisskopf’s home. “I threw the thing from over my head to the pavement and shattered the urn,” Friedberg admits, “and we retrieved the ashes.” 

Friedberg scooped up the ashes, placing them in a large Ziploc bag. It seemed they weighed a lot, though he wasn’t sure how much. (The Cremation Association of North America tells City Paper that the average adult cremated leaves about six pounds of ashes.) “I wasn’t going to take some six pounds of ashes back with me,” Friedberg remembers. And he didn’t know what the legalities were for transporting human remains. “I didn’t want to deal with that,” he says. 

So off they went, Friedberg and Weisskopf, to the local UPS store, with Plotkin’s ashes in the back seat. “We leave the ashes in the car and we’re sort of lurking around the store because I don’t know if we can even send them back.” Friedberg approaches a clerk, who was unfazed. “‘Oh, no problem,’ she says. ‘I just sent my father back to Ireland last week.’”

So the Plotkin ashes were finally en route to Friedberg’s home in Madison, where most of them remain. 

It turns out the Ziploc bag in Evans’ Georgetown basement contains just a part of Plotkin. “Oh, there are still plenty of them here,” Friedberg says. “They sit in the bottom of a closet down in my basement because my wife does not want them upstairs. But I sent Jack plenty.”

Friedberg and Weisskopf say a plan earlier this year to finally spread Plotkin’s ashes on his mother’s grave was disrupted by the ongoing pandemic. They now hope to spread the Chicago ashes later this year. More delays for the notoriously impatient Plotkin. “Tom, you know only too well, maintaining a friendship with Mark was not easy,” Friedberg says. “He was a very high maintenance person.” 

Plotkin’s urn is high maintenance, too.

Back in D.C., Evans initially thought the saga of Plotkin’s ashes ended when they were handed over to Friedberg. But this summer, in a telephone call with Charles Sills, the other co-executor of Plotkin’s will, Evans learned that the ashes were still in Friedberg’s basement. 

Segraves was furious. At WTOP, he and Plotkin had made journalistic names for themselves as rough and tumble reporters. “I know that I am still channeling my inner Plotkin—my aggressive manner, holding someone accountable, expressing outrage,” he says. Segraves wanted to jump into a car, drive to Wisconsin, get the urn, and maybe spread them on the mother’s grave himself. “I was pissed. I was outraged. I know what Plotkin’s last wishes were.”

But Evans urged Sills and Friedberg to just send the ashes back to D.C., warning them not to use the U.S. Postal Service. “This was a couple of months ago,” Evans says. “The U.S. mail has become enormously unreliable and the last thing I wanted to do was to lose Mark in the mail. I thought, ‘Oh no, this is going to be the end of Mark Plotkin.’” But in early August, Plotkin arrived, via the U.S. mail, in a plastic bag inside a large legal envelope. Attached to the plastic bag, a small handwritten tag from Friedberg read, “Greetings from Mark Plotkin!” 

A bag containing Mark Plotkin’s cremains

Evans now had his portion of the ashes, but no urn. 

Back to the Hunt Funeral Home on Kennedy Street NW. Evans explained the story and the sympathetic funeral home gave him a new urn. Evans also learned there that Friedberg and Weisskopf could have opened the original Plotkin urn easily if they had known to simultaneously press two sides of the urn. 

Now Evans had the new urn and ashes in the Ziploc bag. Heading home, he called Segraves. “I’ve got the body in my trunk again.” 

For now, the Plotkin urn sits on a radiator in Evans’ basement. 

The former councilmember, who resigned in the wake of his FBI investigation, has been back at the Wilson Building in recent days, scouting its five floors and basement for a spot for the urn and a glass display case.

Several days ago, in a meeting with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Evans suggested some shelving in the waiting room outside of Mendelson’s office. But the chairman politely demurred, telling City Paper, “it’s a display case with a bunch of awards and plaques regarding me, and someone’s ashes would be completely out of place there.”

Also unresolved is a proposal to ceremonially rename D Street NW behind the Wilson Building “Mark Plotkin Plaza.” But that takes a lot of bureaucracy and more time. More delays. 

“I don’t know how we are going to make this all work,” Evans acknowledges. “If not the Wilson Building, I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

So, like the urn itself, everything is still unsettled, three years after Plotkin’s death. Plotkin, so impatient in life, is neither forgotten nor properly rested.

He “was easily the most impatient” person you could know, says Weisskopf. If Plotkin knew of the urn’s unsettled status, Weisskopf predicts, “He would be crazy … he would be sputtering.”