An artist, a summer camp director, a theatre operations manager, a board member, and two poets walk into a bar. There is no punchline, this is something that happened a few weeks ago.
“Hello sir,” the bartender greets them as they arrive, setting a napkin on the bar, “what can I get you to drink? Do you need to see a menu?”
The menu is taken by all, perused slowly – considering all the flavorful options. The bartender offers to “whip something up on the spot, we’ll just charge you by the ounce.” Tonight, charging by the ounce would go a long way. It’s just after 5:30 in the evening and happy hour is luring this mismatched group to Blu with the added incentive that every drink made drops a donation into the coffers of a local nonprofit. A semi-regular occurrence on the 32rd floor of the Pfister, one haphazard temporary bartender (sometimes two) takes up the shaker and taps behind the bar, with the over-the-shoulder support of manager Adam Jones, with a portion of each drink and all tips benefiting a nonprofit or charity. This, ladies and gentlemen, is Celebrity Blutending.
The night’s organization benefiting from each cocktail and pint of beer is Woodland Pattern Book Center. Tonight’s guest bartender? Yours truly, the Pfister Narrator.
I admit to being nervous about my one hour “bartending,” though I always fancied myself a natural since multi-tasking and being good with people are two of my strengths. Once I finally stood surveying the bottles and glasses, while Adam gestured and pointed out the basics, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. Lucky for me, the first drink, a gin & tonic, is easy, followed by a couple of draft beers (trickier than expected), requiring more finesse. Eventually, a board member requests a Celia’s Rosedrop Martini.
“My favorite!” I gush to her, while I try to figure out what in the world “rose essence” looks like and where it would be stored. It’s a good thing Adam is there to pass me the opaque ketchup-mustard-bottle filled with a pale pink liquid. Measuring the ingredients, shaking the tiny metallic cylinder, pouring it to the brim – it’s all much smoother than I expect. Adam had told me earlier the key was to slow down, and I found it to be perfect advice. I could chat, hesitate and even make a mistake (“you only get one do-over!” Adam jokes) without worrying too much.
Right after I convince two gentlemen it’s okay (“kind of awesome”) to wear matching hats and order the same drink (two Hendricks gin & tonics), I meet the person I’m most excited to see at this event: Jenny Henry, Woodland Pattern’s education coordinator. She moved to Milwaukee for this job just over a year ago from Boulder, CO, excited to expand on the book center’s mission to promote reading and writing, and offer a community resource for writers and artists in the Riverwest neighborhood.
We talk about the work she does particularly with a program titled The Urban Youth Literary Arts Program, which focuses on enriching the reading and writing lives of kids in neighborhoods near the Riverwest one where Woodland Pattern is located. They offer poetry camps, creative writing excursions, and tutoring for students, with the goal of not only improving basic skills, but also encouraging kids to think outside the box, express themselves clearly and creatively, and perhaps find a new love of reading.
“It always challenges my thinking, how to frame things in ways they’ll understand, and then I get to rearrange my own ways of working with words,” Jenny says about directing the program. She fills me in on some of their upcoming programming which includes a workshop on inter-generational writing, poetry, comic books and claymation and nature.
The results are telling: Students involved in the most recent academic year of the program improved their communication skills (written and verbal) and critical thinking skills by 86-92%, with similar numbers gaining confidence in public speaking, learning how to respect others’ ideas with an open mind, and finding positive role models through the program.
A recent documentary, Louder than a Bomb, follows several groups of students from the Chicago Public Schools as they write, perform, and compete in poetry slam events. It clearly illustrated the incredibly positive impact this sort of work has on kids, especially those who might be leading difficult lives, and was the inspiration for my choosing Woodland Pattern’s program as a recipient for the evening’s funds raised.
“How was your drink?” I ask a guest who had a VO & 7, “can I get you another?”
“It was great,” he replies, “but I’ll just have a beer.”
I manage to manipulate the tap without making too much of a mess. He pays Adam, and throws the change into the large decorative tip can. The sound of bills swishing and coins jangling as they land, is a reminder that each drop fills the glasses of kids who are eager to find ways to write about their own experiences in the world. Who knows, maybe one of them is a future poet, artist, camp director, or Pfister Narrator?