After I overheard – OK, totally nosily dipped into – Mario Guerra’s cell phone conversation when he was sitting next to me at the Lobby Bar, I gleaned he had recently moved to Milwaukee.
“So how long have you lived in Milwaukee?” I asked Guerra, who was wearing a nice suit and drinking a Bud Light.
“About three hours,” he said.
That explains the Bud Light in MillerCoors Country, I guess.
But really, this was the perfect opening to what would become an engaging, two-hour conversation about Milwaukee, family, disappointment, successes and what led Guerra to the Pfister Hotel.
“Why am I at the Pfister? Because it’s the coolest hotel in Milwaukee. It’s Old Milwaukee,” says Guerra, who actually grew up in Milwaukee and moved away in 1989.
“When I was in high school, I played here for various MPS (Milwaukee Public School) functions and I was always in awe. My job takes me all over the world, India, Australia, London, and there is something about this hotel.”
The Pfister, in fact, was a beacon on the horizon for Guerra when he first moved back – about 180 minutes before our conversation. He had been living in Los Angeles, working for Prudent Technologies, and when the company signed a Midwest contract, he was the only employee who would even consider moving to Brew City.
Once he left Mitchell International Airport, while driving his rental car to the Pfister, it really started to sink in. He was living in Milwaukee again.
“I was like, ‘I’m really living here now. Ahhhh.’ And then I showed up at the Pfister Hotel and life is good,” he says.
Guerra was born at St. Mary’s in Milwaukee, attended Roosevelt Middle School and the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, and left in 1989 to attend the University of Texas.
A musician who plays keyboards, drums and “everything,” Guerra was in many bands. While in college, he worked in a dueling piano bar as a pianist. He also worked as a DJ in a strip club.
Guerra had big plans to be a rock star but decided to let go of the dream after choking down his thousandth packet of Ramen noodles.
“You ever been broke? It sucks,” he says.
Guerra also joined the Marines and served time in Afghanistan. Although he firmly believes in his mission as a Marine, Guerra suffered during his tour. He spent time recovering from emotional trauma in a military hospital and found out his wife had died in a car accident.
Today, Guerra is raising his 12-year-old son alone. The child is in California with his grandparents until Guerra can secure housing and determine where to send him to school.
“I had a great experience at MPS. I’m not sure where to send my son, though. He’s really into sports. I was more of an art kid,” says Guerra.
But for tonight, and a few more nights, Guerra’s happy just to be a resident of the Pfister Hotel.
“I have a lot of possibilities, but I just got here a few hours ago. Right now, I’m just trying to figure out where I’m having my next cocktail,” he says.
Guerra said he missed the food in Milwaukee the most – specifically the barbecue at Speed Queen and Brady Street’s Emperor of China.
“Their fried rice is to die for,” he says.
But coming “home” to Milwaukee hasn’t been easy in some ways. The freeways are reconfigured. Some of his favorite places like the Brady Street Pharmacy are gone. (Guerra was, however, happy to hear that the iconic, quirky shop Art Smart’s Dart Mart & Juggling Emporium was still open on Brady Street.)
For Guerra, like all of us, life has taken some unexpected twists.
“I’m in my forties and I really don’t know everything I thought I would,” he says. “But I’m here, in the awesome Pfister, and I’m at a place in my career where I can be a little more funky. Finally sing the songs I want to sing.”