Repartee with a librarian

I always wanted to be a librarian. It started when I was a kid, going to the East Side Library in Milwaukee, and enviously watching the librarians stamp book after book. It looked like so much fun: pressing the stamper with the raised backwards letters and numbers on the ink pad and then carefully pressing it on the card in the book.

Sometimes the librarian stamped the due date perfectly below the previous date. Other times it was a little wonky – maybe pointing a little bit up or down. Once I remember the new inky date overlapped the old date and it was hard to read when exactly my book was due.

My sister and I played library all the time. And I played with my own kids, too. There’s something about it. Like playing school except, for me, more fun. Probably because it includes only books and no math, unlike school.

I have spent a lot of time in libraries since I became a mom. Because of my over-extended, disorganized Mom Life, I’m not so good with book return these days and often find myself saying, “The library is free. Well, for most people. Not me.”

I think right now I owe at least a few dollars for one of the “Wimpy Kid” books.

However, when I found out that I was chatting with a real librarian in the Pfister lobby one afternoon, I was stoked. Turns out she was in the hotel for the VRA (Visual Resource Association) Conference and was an archivist from the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, New York.

We chatted briefly about the similarities between Milwaukee and Buffalo – both rust belt cities – and then I asked her a few shop talk Qs.

Me: What is the VRA Conference?

Her: Conferences for a group of mostly librarians and art historians who take care of a collection of visual resources. They used to be slide librarians but now everything’s digital.

Me: Are there still many librarian jobs available?

Her: Yes, they are often called something else now – information management, etc. – but there are jobs in the field. They just look a lot different than they used to.

ME: Do you read a lot of books?

Her: Yes.

Me: What are you reading right now?

Her: (Pausing, smiles.) I’m actually reading a trashy, Swedish crime novel right now.

Me: That’s awesome. I was expecting some “War and Peace”-like response.

Her: Not this week.

Me: Do you ever wear pencils in your hair to secure a bun?

Her: Oh for sure.

Me: Leave it to librarian to be resourceful. Bad pun intended.

Tea time with steampunks

The Pfister Hotel is a natural setting – both aesthetically and historically – for a Milwaukee Steampunk Society outing. Hence, salve when 36 members of the group spent last Sunday afternoon at the hotel, it was a perfect fit and a visual feast.

The group, all of whom were dressed in elaborate steampunk attire, went on an art tour with Pfister artist, Stephanie Barenz, and followed it up with a formal tea at Blu.

Perhaps you are asking the same question I asked. What the huzzah is a steampunk? (You might not have included the “huzzah” part.) I have heard the word “steampunk” many times and had a sense of its meaning, but really, what exactly is it?

Well … According to Charles Tritt, who organized the Pfister outing, the term is not easy to define – nor should it be because everyone defines it and executes it a little differently.

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“Basically, ‘steampunk’ is a retro-future movement that focuses on the Victorian period. But it’s a reinterpretation of Victorian times and themes including industrialization, lighter-than-air travel, etc.,” he says.

“Retro-future?” I ask. “Isn’t that an oxy-moron?”

“Exactly,” says Tritt, eyes shining.

“Exactly,” I say – drinking my ginger tea and drinking in the creativity and whimsy of the free spirits in the room.

Tritt told me he discovered the steampunk sub-genre when he went to a science fiction convention with a steampunk theme. “It was perfect. It’s something I enjoyed all of my life but didn’t have a name for it,” says Tritt, who is also an engineering professor.

The looseness of the interpretation is also a thread that runs through the Milwaukee Steampunk Society in general. The group does not have a founder, a leader or regular meetings. Instead, anyone can join and anyone can organize an event and attract attendees via social media.

Past events, other than the Pfister outing, included the Reinaissance Faire and laser tag. (Corsets in combat? Sure, why not.)

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“I don’t think there is any one thing that everyone in the group has in common. Everyone has something in common, but it tends to be something different,” he says. “Some are writers, clothing makers, consumers of media. Every steampunk is different – it’s a hugely varied group of people.”

Most people’s costumes are a mix of the vintage, new and handmade. Tritt points out his coat is from H&M, but he made his bolo tie. A woman wears a formal Tardis dress from Dr. Who that she made herself and yet another attendee sports a 10-pound hat made from stainless steel and brass that he crafted at work.

“I have a stainless steel tie, too, but it didn’t go with the vest,” he says.

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Another woman tells me she came to the Pfister event from Madison. She says the group has helped her meet new people post-college.

“Everyone here is so inviting and friendly,” she says.

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Tritt points out a couple other highlights of being a member of the steampunk society.

“Where else do men talk to each other about clothing this much?” he asks. “And women tend to show you their undergarments.”

I love people who are not afraid to make bold statements, celebrate the imagination and are deliberate with their dress, actions and entertainment choices. That afternoon, I went home and ordered a black rose brooch, much like the one worn by the woman sitting across from me at the tea. I need a piece of steampunk for myself.

A blog within a blog

My full-time job is as a writer for OnMilwaukee.com. This week is Hotel Week on OnMilwaukee.com and so, aptly, I wrote a blog about my experiences as the Pfister Narrator. Here it is.

Last spring, I was selected as the Pfister Hotel’s sixth Pfister Narrator. Prior to me, local writers Stacie Williams, Julie Ferris, Ed Makowski, Dasha Kelly and Jenna Kashou held the post.

The role of the narrator is to spend time in the hotel, talking to guests about what brings them to the hotel and documenting their stories via the Pfister’s blog. But it included much more than that, too.

Over the past 10 months, I have heard some amazing stories, including one about a couple who decided to wed at the age of 90 and two women who blew me away with their heartbreaking honesty and their shoe collection.

I also visited the grave of Guido Pfister with flowers, rode the elevator all night and interviewed a lion, but I might have had one too many at the Lobby Bar that night.

In November, the sixth-month Narratorship was extended for a full year. Although this is a lot to take on because of my unwavering commitments to my family and OnMilwaukee.com, I was honored and thrilled to keep going.

And I just wasn’t ready to let go.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the job has been working with and becoming friends with the artist in residence, Stephanie Barenz. From the moment I saw her beautiful work – laden with Milwaukee imagery, particularly the clock tower which I can see from my yard – I knew we had a connection.

Stephanie and I have collaborated in many ways during the year. I have learned so much about visual storytelling through Stephanie and also caught a bad case of wanderlust from all of her paintings and tales from faraway places. (I do have a tirp to Indianapolis on deck for this year, but that’s not quite a remedy for the road trip blues.)

Stephanie and I also created a collection of greeting cards and hosted a storytelling event that had nine Milwaukee artists compete with stories about art. Anja Sieger won this event.

I wrote companion copy for most of the paintings she has completed this year and The Pfister has funded a book of her paintings and my writings. She painted my “life story” as a thank you for the writing, and the piece completely blows me away. I have lost sleep wondering where I wing hang this in my house – it doesn’t seem I have a wall that will do it justice.

As I watch Stephanie finish up her last painting, and my favorite Lobby Bar bartender moved on, I sense it is almost time for me go, too. I have six weeks left, but I am already feeling nostalgia. I have visualized myself removing “Pfister Narrator” from my Facebook profile and actually teared up. (Geez, somebody knock me over the head with my laptop, mmmkay? Oh wait, it’s a MacBook Air, too light. Shoot.)

But aside from my friendship with Stephanie and so many other Pfister employees, the greatest gift from this role has been realizing how much I love Milwaukee history.

I have always considered myself more of a pop culture enthusiast with a mild interest in history, but within the past year, I have felt closer to and hungrier for the past than ever. I always knew I had that gene in there somewhere, my father had a doctorate in American history, but it took a gaggle of decades for it to fester, I guess.

I’m certainly not about to rival Milwaukee historian John Gurda, or my coworker Bobby Tanzilo for that matter, but I am on this path now, too, thanks to spending so much time in the opulent, historic Pfister Hotel.

On, Milwaukee – past, present and future.

Mason Street’s most loyal customer

Pam stops in at Mason Street Grill for a meal twice a month – sometimes more – often for the Happy Hour specials, nurse but not always. She loves the flat bread, the steak forks and the mushroom forks – which are on the $5 happy hour menu – as well as the steak and the snap peas.

And as much as she adores Mason’s food, pills she also adores the staff – one server in particular.

“I love Amanda,” says Pam. “She is the best.”

Amanda Walters, who was Pam’s server the night I interviewed her, has worked for the Pfister for five years. She started working in the Mason Street Grill last June, and prior, worked at Blu, the Cafe and the Lobby Bar.

Pam says Amanda has never steered her wrong with the menu. She admits she’s picky about wine, but she trusts Amanda’s tastes. And she also trusts Amanda to verify that I’m actually the Pfister Narrator and not just a tipsy, nosy kook.

“She’s legit,” Amanda assures her.

Pam and Amanda agree on one more thing during the interview: neither of them particularly like the idea of being documented in words. They agreed to do this – as well as the photo – but they were skeptical about it, as some people are.

“It’s just …” Pam started to say.

“Anything actually written on paper is evidence,” finished Amanda, smiling.

“Exactly!” says Pam, beaming at Amanda.

Although initially hesitant, Pam opens up to me. She is an animated person with a warm and outgoing personality who’s not afraid to state her opinion. I tell her at one point she needs her own talk show.

Pam tells me that once she was accidentally overcharged on her credit card during a meal at Mason, but when she called and told the manager, it was handled so swiftly, professionally and generously that she became even more of a fan of the restaurant than she was before the incident.

“The issue was cleared up in just a few days and the next time I came in they paid for my entire dinner,” says Pam. “It was really nice.”

She goes on to tell me another story about when she came during the holidays with a friend and even though Amanda was working in another section, she came over to Pam’s table and bought both her and her friend a drink.

“You just don’t get that everywhere,” says Pam.

No jacket required

Amanda and Craig traveled from their home in Elkhorn to Milwaukee just for the day and in order to randomly stop in at “cool places.”

I love the spontaneity of their plan and the fact their quest for cool landed them in the Lobby Bar sipping cocktails. Amanda had been to the Pfister one time before for her sister’s birthday. They – along with a few others – went to Blu (on the 23rd floor of the hotel) and had a spectacular time.

“I just had to come back,” says Amanda. “Craig’s never been here. It’s such a beautiful hotel.”

Amanda went on to say that she was, at first, concerned that perhaps they weren’t dressed up enough to hang out at the Pfister. However, she decided to risk it and was happy to find out she was perfectly comfortable in her casual clothing.

We talked about the range of guests – and therefore the range of attire – at the Pfister Hotel. I told Amanda and Craig that when I tell people I work at the Pfister, they sometimes make a comment about how “fancy” it is. (A few even said it in a fake “rich person” voice.)

And it is fancy, I tell them, but it isn’t.

The hotel is extraordinarily opulent, from the twinkling crystal chandeliers to the stunning Victorian art collection – it’s a visual feast of history and beauty – but it’s not stuffy.

Furthermore, I spend about 10 hours a week at the Pfister and never once have I felt displaced even though I’m a pretty casual gal. I’m most comfortable in jeans and a black concert T-shirt – and I admit I upped my wardrobe game for the Narrator position (translation: I bought a blazer) – but I didn’t exactly run out and charge piles of gowns and gold adornments.

I often tell people who suggest the hotel is too lavish for their likes the story of founder Guido Pfister and how he wanted to give the city a beautiful yet comfortable gathering place. A hotel that would serve as “Milwaukee’s living room.”

And although my living room doesn’t have large lion statues or, sadly, a dapper and dedicated staff (in fact it’s kinda small and overstuffed with books and old furniture), the Pfister lobby does feel like an extension of my home at this point. Even on days when I’m wearing my Joan Jett T-shirt.

Under the blazer, of course.

Happiness is a human connection

Whether or not life is a series of coincidences, sickness random happenings or something even more divine is the biggest existential question people have contemplated since the beginning of time.

I have pondered this on and off my entire adult life and recently, cialis I’ve been in this phase of questioning again because the coincidences are happening with delicious frequency these days.

Like this weekend, for example.

I sat down at the Lobby Bar next to a couple and struck up a conversation. They told me their names were Dan and Debbie, hospital that they were in town from suburban Chicago for Debbie’s birthday and they were celebrating with German food.

German food. German food. For two straight weeks I can’t escape you, German food!

Although I have lived in the German-cultured Milwaukee my entire life and my son is German (his father is almost 100 percent German), it wasn’t until recently that I ate a meal in a German restaurant.

Since then, I wrote a blog about German food, an article about German food, have stumbled accidentally across numerous articles about Germany and German beer and have enjoyed multiple conversations with people about my first schnitzel-eating experience.

“You mean a heart attack on a plate,” joked Debbie when I described to her my first schnitzel, which came complete with a fried egg. “All it was missing was the bacon.”

So I shouldn’t really be surprised when I sit down next to two strangers and our very first topic of conversation is about a German restaurant. It’s how this crazy, question-marked world works, right?

We went on to chat about food in all different ways. We talked about Milwaukee favorites like the menu-less Fourth Base restaurant, Leon’s maple custard and the best local joints for steaks. We also talked Chicago hot spots, too, and I now have a fresh list of eateries to try next time I’m in the Windy City, like The Rosebud and Lawry’s and, above all, I promised to try an Italian beef.

During our conversation, we also found that we had Harley Davidson motorcycles, a taste for Scotch and Duluth, Minn. in common.

I really dig sharing practical, insightful information like where to eat when traveling or the best place to cruise on a bike. But even more so, I love when conversations take on an unexplainable quality of familiarity and connection. Especially when it happens with strangers.

Schnitzel and Pfister friendships

Recently, I wrote about a unique evening I hosted with Pfister artist Stephanie Barenz and the hotel’s executive chef, Brian Frakes, called “The Gathering Of The Senses.”

The event invited the public to sign up for an evening of paint instruction, travel stories and a five-course, travel-inspired meal. The intimacy of the event and the connection between the nine guests who attended and us was fun and, at times, even inspirational.

And last week, the story continued.

Stephanie and I – along with our partners – traveled to Ononomowoc to visit the restaurant of one of the attendees. Lori Schwefel, who owns Schwefel’s with her husband, Dan – attended “Gathering of the Senses” with her daughter, Hannah.

It was fun (and oh so filling) to check out their turf in the quaint town of Oconomowoc. Even though it’s only 40 minutes from Milwaukee, after a few minutes in the restaurant, I felt like I was on vacation.

After our visit, I wrote a lengthy piece for OnMilwaukee.com about the restaurant – which is a delicious German bar and eatery that the couple has owned and operated since 1989.

As an experience junkie, I was excited to eat my first schnitzel (delicious) and enjoyed every last scrap on my plate, from the cooked red cabbage, to the beef soup, to the decadent strawberry dessert.

Look, my first schnitzel:

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But the best part of the evening – and I think Stephanie would agree – was discovering that Lori and Dan value people and storytelling as much as we do. The couple shared funny, sad, challenging, even some “off the record” stories about their lives.

And we gobbled their stories up like dumplings.

I particularly enjoyed the stories about their kids growing up in the restaurant. Lori recalled a tiny Hannah who loved bar tending even when she wasn’t tall enough for customers to see her on the other side. And their son, Austin, was passed around the restaurant long ago like a hot potato in Pampers.

I also loved the stories about their early days at the restaurant, including when they had to fire their chef on their very first day open because he arrived five hours late for work.

It is so enriching to have friends who come from a different place from you – who have different insights and experiences and views – and yet, some of the very same valued aspects of human existence.

The Schwefels’ generosity with their food was incredible, but their generosity with their words was absolutely priceless. That night, comfort food took on a whole new meaning for me.

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Soaring through happy hour with flight attendants

As flight attendants, treat Jamie and Quin land all over the country. Including, recently, in Milwaukee.

I met them during Happy Hour at Mason Street Grill and asked them what, if anything, they like about Brew City.

“The Public Market,” Quin says immediately. “I love it. Love the gourmet food. I visit every time I’m here.”

Jamie says she liked the city, too, but being a Bears fan – both she and Quin live in Chicago – makes her experience here sometimes a bit unsavory. Especially when she’s wearing her Chicago Bears gloves.

“The Green Bay fans give me sh-t about these all the time,” she says.

Personally, I have always been fascinated by the lives of pilots and flight attendants. As a person with terminal wanderlust, it seems like a really exciting and enriching job.

“It is,” says Quin. “It’s like being on vacation every day. You don’t have to see the same boring people every day and work in the same boring office. And I was in Ft. Lauderdale last night.”

I am clearly in the wrong profession.

“The best part is that I have friends all over the country, and I get to see them, when I’m working,” she says.

Have they ever experienced “scary moments” in the sky?

“There have been a few,” says Jamie. “But I’d still pick flying over driving or taking a train any day.”

Do they still serve any special snacks on their flights?

“Cookies in the morning!” says Jamie.

Favorite places to fly?

“San Diego. It’s where I’m from,” says Quin.

Jamie’s response surprises me a bit. I never thought of this place as an all-time favorite destination.

“Portland, Maine,” she says. “I love the seafood – the restaurants are phenomenal – and the scenery is beautiful.”

OK, Portland, Maine, you are now on my Travel Bucket List. Thanks, ladies, and happy trails to you.

Getting along swimmingly at a sea-themed soiree

On Thursday night, I went to the 2014 Book Of Lists party with Pfister artist-in-residence Stephanie Barenz and my parter, Royal.

The party’s theme this year was “Under The Sea” and its mission was, as always, to celebrate the media firm’s Book of Lists, which is a compilation of the lists published each week in the Milwaukee Business Journal.

The unofficial mission of the evening, however, was to enjoy the art of the six Pfister artist finalists, eat from an incredible seafood-loaded buffet, imbibe boozy blue drinks, play carnival-esque games and attempt to stay upright while balancing on a mechanical surfboard.

Let’s just say it was harder than it looked.

The annual shindig is described as “the best business networking event” of the year and attracts more than 500 business-area executives which means lots of suits, ties and, this year, plenty of lobster claws and mermaid tails, too.

A sea-friendly spirit was in full force and the details – from the bowls of goldfish crackers to the insanely detailed starfish and seahorse cookies for dessert to the super fresh mussels – made the evening a wave of success.

But perhaps my favorite part of the evening was all of the costumes. I particularly enjoyed the lobster lady in the elevator and the hippie Neptune dude as well as my own chance to toss on a coconut bra and sailor’s cap and climb inside a photo booth with my super fun party mates.

My time as the Pfister Narrator is winding down, and to stick with a water metaphor in honor of the sea-themed party, I’m swirling the drain over here. Hence, these moments, and documentation of these moments, are really starting to make a splash in my nostalgic parts.

Too smiley to be a crab. Must be a lobster.
Too smiley to be a crab. Must be a lobster.
There was a big star at the party.
Sea creatures say “cheese,” too.
Secret: That's not his real beard.
Secret: That’s not his real beard.
Nice tail.
Nice tail.
Ok, we might have had one blue drink too many but this really was fun.
One blue drink too many?

Channeling Elvis

On June 28, 1974, the legendary Elvis Presley performed at the Arena in Milwaukee (which is now the U.S. Cellular Arena). That night, after the concert, Elvis stayed at the Pfister Hotel.

The story behind his visit is amusing. On April 25, a little more than two months prior to his gig, the Milwaukee Journal ran a four-paragraph story on page 15 of the paper with the headline “Elvis To Be Here June 28.” Tickets were available for $10, $7.50 and $5 via mail order only.

This was the only announcement about the show – no other printed, TV or radio ads. However, 4,500 requests for tickets were received within days, selling out the show and leaving many Elvis fans ticket-less.

Last summer, a Pfister employee shared with me and my family the story of Elvis’ famous stay. He told us Elvis stood on the south-end landing overlooking the lobby and waved at the crowd before retiring to his room for the night.

My family is filled with Elvis enthusiasts. My father loved The King and had to hide his blue suede shoes from his mother who despised the pelvis-thrusting hound dog. My partner’s mother is a big fan, too, and we took her to her first Elvis impersonator’s show last winter.

One of our 11-year-olds likes him so much that we bought her a pair of fake Elvis glasses, complete with sideburns, for the holidays.

On Sunday, we decided to take her photo, wearing the glasses, in the exact spot in the hotel as Elvis stood almost exactly 40 years ago. However, we quickly realized it was such a fun idea that all of us – with the exception of our 10-year-old who was at a soccer game – would partake in the photoshoot.

Even Pfister artists in residence, Stephanie Barenz, her husband, Zach, and Pfister Lobby Bar bartender Joni got in the Elvis-channeling action.

Here’s a gallery serving as our tribute to The King’s brief but unforgettable appearance in the lobby. I call it “Heartbreak Hotel, Pfister style.”

Olivia is Elvis.
Olivia is Elvis.
Stephanie is Elvis.
Stephanie is Elvis.
Royal is Elvis.
Royal is Elvis.
Joani is Elvis.
Joni is Elvis.
Kai River is Elvis.
Kai River is Elvis.
Zach is Elvis.
Zach is Elvis.
And I am Elvis, too – blowing kisses to my invisible adoring fans.
And I am Elvis, too – blowing kisses to my invisible adoring fans.