Safe and Sound
25 May, 2011
I can’t see Beth and she can’t see me. Even if we weren’t talking on the phone, she still wouldn’t be able to see me. Blind since 1985 when she was only 26 years old, Beth Finke is a mother, NPR commentator, and author of two books (Hanni & Beth: Safe & Sound and Long Time, No See) who plays the piano, moderates a blog, has modeled nude for art classes, learned to sail and two years ago got to drive a Mustang at speeds of 80pmh. This is a woman who just won’t quit! And, rightly so, shouldn’t.
Beth talks a mile a minute, with vivacious enthusiasm. She spritely tells me about the reason for her 3-day visit: several speaking engagements, including an entire day at a school just outside Milwaukee. Beth and her seeing eye dog, Harper, travel to schools to visit with kids and talk about what it’s like being blind. Today she started her day speaking to classes of Kindergarten and First-Graders.
“I’ll ask for questions and the youngest kids will raise their hands and say ‘my Uncle Jack has a brown dog and it got away once and we had to go look for him and-‘ until the teacher will step in and inquire ‘is that a question or a story?’ The older kids will offer up more thoughtful questions, like the 5th grader who once asked me ‘If you could see for one day, what would you do?’ I took my time, and said, ‘This is a hard question for me because of the way I get along, the things I do and that I’m not so sad about being blind.’ Or, there was the student today who asked, ‘Do you forget you’re blind and suddenly can see?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘when I dream, I can see.’ ”
This positivity exudes from every musical pitch-change and toned inflection in Beth’s voice throughout our conversation, and it’s clear that she is the perfect spokesperson for kids. She first began doing these speaking engagements while in Wisconsin to visit her son, Gus, who lives in a group home. Gus, 25, is severely disabled (like Downs Syndrome, but more rare and severe) and needs full-time assistance. Coming up from Chicago, Beth spends time with kids to show them how disabled people are just like everyone else, but who sometimes need different tricks to do things most of us take for granted. Her seeing eye dog is a critical tool for building these bridges.
So, what does this have to do with the Pfister? For the last four years, Beth has stayed here when on speaking engagements in the Milwaukee area. And, boy, does she love it here! She was first referred to the Pfister by a friend in Chicago, an art collector from Ohio who has lived in NYC and L.A. He regularly takes the train up from Chicago, knows all the bartenders in Blu, and shops at Roger Stevens. Ever since taking him up on his recommendation, she’s been staying here, and knows nearly all the employees’ names by heart: “Jennifer behind the desk, Harold the doorman, Jeffrey and Randall, Roc, Alicia” she laughs “I could keep going!”
“When I arrive, it’s like I’m a celebrity! All the doormen are great, one of them loved dogs and would get so excited to take Hanni [Beth’s previous seeing eye dog] out to potty. The front desk clips off a corner of my key card so I know which end to insert. Someone always walks me through where the phone is, sets the radio station to public radio, and makes sure the alarm clock is turned off. They help me set up the toiletries and even save me rubber bands which I use on the different bottles so I know what’s what. They’re always so accommodating.
“I love the piano players. Last night I went downstairs and had a Lakefront IPA – it’s nice to have local beer on tap – while I listened to Dr. Hollander, who was taking requests. I also love Perry. And, I book my train home after 1pm so I can catch them playing for the lunch hour. They’re just wonderful.”
Beth’s love of the Pfister has even connected her to others in her own neighborhood. Her favorite bartender at a restaurant in Printer’s Row has told her, Beth quotes him, pausing between each word for extra emphasis, “The Pfister has the. best. bar. ever. No TV, the piano, with locals and guests? If I could work at a place like that, it’d be great.”
As we finish up our chat, and I apologize for not being able to meet in person as originally planned, I realize, and point out to Beth, that this conversation being via phone really made us equals: neither of us could see the other. She loves this. Of course, I don’t doubt that we would have enjoyed talking just as much in person, but it certainly made for interesting perspective worthy of further introspection. It’s also pleasing to know that Beth Finke finds the Pfister to be a place where she and her seeing eye dog, at the end of a busy day talking to schoolkids, can feel “safe and sound.”