“My friends from back then are probably going to see the news or read this and say, ‘Wow. That old fool is still alive?'”
That “old fool” turned 92 years old last month, on January 18th, and he was still as suave and spunky as ever when I sat down with him and his family a few days later at Sunday Brunch in The Rouge.
Casimir Piwonski was a bellboy at The Pfister in the early 1940s. It had been on his bucket list for years to return to the Hotel and stay the night. You know, have a room to himself and access to the mini-bar. Have one of the current porters carry his luggage to and from his room, ask the concierge for directions. I don’t know if he actually visited the mini-bar or needed to ask for directions–especially since much of his family spent considerable time parked in the Lobby Lounge on Saturday evening enjoying each others’ company and listening to Casimir reminisce–but I can quote for you what his third child, Carol Roeker, relayed in an email preceding their visit: “The Pfister is making his dream come true and you’re going to fall in love with him…you won’t be able to help yourself :)” Yes, I included the smiley face. I think Carol had as much fun coordinating this birthday weekend as her father did enjoying it! The family revealed the gift to him at Christmas and when I called to arrange an interview, Carol couldn’t stop rhapsodizing about all things Casimir: “Ask him about the time when . . . He’ll love to tell you about . . .” She is so in love with her father.
I didn’t want to ask him too many of the same kinds of questions that Fox 6 had probably asked him on Saturday evening. I’m sure I did, but the story I heard was not one about waiting upon all kinds of celebrities, but one of love and family. Sometimes tough love, sometimes family that’s not your original family. Take the Pfister family, for instance.
Oh, wait. Before I fill you in on what I learned from Casimir about his time at the Hotel, let me show you a photo from back in the day:
Let that sink in for a second: the dreamy eyes; the confident, mischievous smirk; the Hollywood actor jawline; the perfectly coiffed hair.
Ok. Back to 2017.
No, seriously. Back to the story.
“I was 17 or 18 years old. I was a bellboy for 6 years.” His experience at the Hotel was a mixture of rules and competition, fair and generous treatment (“Mr. [Ben] Marcus would remember everyone’s names.”), and stories for a lifetime. I could only gather a handful of the latter in between the dotings of his family and the delicious food on his plate.
Mr. Steve Peltzer dominated his memories for a good number of bites, for it was he who supervised Casimir and the other three bellboys: “He was rough. He let you know who he was. Rules weren’t meant to be broken. He would wait and time how long it took you to go up and down the stairs. No hanky-panky allowed!” I got the feeling that even though hanky-panky wasn’t allowed that a certain someone was going to withhold some stories.
“We’d run the stairs three or four steps at a time,” Casimir continued. “We never waited for the freight elevator–it was too slow! We had to take the back steps, too. Never the guest steps.” Casimir pulled an index finger slowly across his throat. “And no leaning against a pillar while you were waiting. But you would forget yourself sometimes! Oh, and you had to be clean-shaven.” He said none of this with derision, only respect for a man who expected excellence from his boys and got it. He spoke of Mr. Peltzer as one might a parent, at once to be feared and always loved.
Casimir’s biological father, Joseph Piwonski, died when Casimir was only seven years old. “I remember we were living on Hayes Street. I was looking out my window and saw my mom walking up the street and I knew. I’ll never forget that.” A very good family friend, John Budzinski, stepped in, married his mother, and supported the family. “That’s what we did back then.” (His stepbrother John, who was born after Joseph’s death, sat next to him at brunch and listened intently to our conversation, interjecting every once in a while.) Casimir knew what it meant to be part of both a loving original family and an extended community of support. He seems to have furthered this experience at The Pfister.
He made $8 a week and paid 25 cents for meals. “I made my money through tipping.” Sometimes there were added bonuses: “There was a sailor from Norway whose ship sank in the harbor so he had to stay ashore for a while. He gave $100 to everyone!” And sometimes there were cheapskates like actor William Boyd: “Hopalong Cassidy. You know how he would tip us? With a good luck charm. A little horseshoe wrapped around a penny. No one wanted to carry his bags!” He also recalled several times the ladies with deep, deep purses, so deep that their gloved hands would descend into the depths, rifle gently and blindly for coins, then emerge slowly with their tip. “They didn’t want you to see how much money they really had!” As always, Casimir reveled in these memories, with the complete understanding that those were different times.
One entity that wasn’t a penny-pincher was The Pfister. Describing the food the bellboys were served, Casimir said, savoring the words, “The food was–” Then he paused, pinched his fingers and thumb together, placed them on his lips, and–in a gesture more Italian than Polish–kissed them instead with a “Mwah!” His fingers exploded open with delight, as if to proclaim “Bellissimo!”
It’s not that Casimir didn’t covet any of the affluence of the Hotel’s guests. I’m pretty sure he did his finger-kiss again when he told me that “Clark Gable had a trench coat with big lapels. It was long, all the way down to his ankles. It took me six months to save up for my own, but I finally got it!” This humble industrious makes perfect sense given Casimir’s upbringing in another home away from home where, perhaps, he learned how to serve others.
“I grew up simple, poor. But the churches,” he remembered, “were churches you couldn’t even believe.” He was referring to the ornate glory of their interiors, I believe. “And they never had to hire anyone to take care of the churches because all the parishioners volunteered to do things at the church: clean, fix, you name it. My family cleaned the linens. And I was an altar boy until I was almost 19 years old.”
However, remember that mischievous smirk in the photo above. Service be damned if, well, adolescence doesn’t grab hold of you. Casimir confessed: “One of the things we had to do was drink the leftover wine after church. But my [late] brother Eddie and I drank too much wine once–more than we were supposed to–and Father came in. We were grounded! Father didn’t want us back. Until, of course, he needed us for Easter services: ‘Casey, Eddie–we need you.'” This is where, perhaps, he learned the power of being needed–even if it meant later in life taking the stairs three or four at a time under the watch of Mr. Peltzer.
He also knew that a commitment was a commitment: “I got bombed one Saturday night. And of course the next morning we were supposed to go to church. I didn’t want to, but my dad used the phrase ‘While you’re living under my roof.’ So I had to go to church. But that was the last time I drank on Saturdays. I drank on Fridays instead.”
“We were devils . . . but nice devils.”
It was hard not to be charmed by Casimir. He made his life–heck, Life in general–sound so real and universal, even with the peculiarities of his personal story. One could see in his face–the smoothness we see in the photograph long gone but the smoothness of his attitude toward life still strong–the face of a devoted brother and a son losing his father, of an altar boy and a mischievous kid, of an eager Pfister bellboy and a loving father to Joey, Steven, Caroline, Danny, Kimmy and Little Casey, all of whom love him back!