Hustle and Bustle and Herb

The café has been remodeled. Its doors reopened this week. I tentatively crossed its threshold, hospital into my favorite spot in the hotel. I have to say my worries about change were eased when I ventured in the first day to find the buzz of the space was the same.

            The changes are amazing though…Starbucks (enough said) and pastries (the red velvet cupcakes, after so carefully deposited in the conundrum of a to-go box were devoured and praised by my office mates—thanks, Roy) add motion to the café.

            When I walked in, people were shopping in the gift nook, someone was in line for coffee and I honestly overheard chocolate covered somethings-or-other whisper my name. The new additions to the café actually harness a worldly feel. It’s all the hopefulness, motion and adventure of an airport with none of the expense, delay, rough crowd or anonymity. You can’t be anonymous in the café if you’ve ever once been seated by Annette.

            Annette, long time hostess of the café, actually looked relieved, bright and more than ready to slide right back into her role in the new-again space. When I chatted with her about how the changes were taking—granted, it had only been a day—she immediately let me know that right away that morning, people flocked to the comfy made-for-laptop-users corner and rode the waves of industry and Facebook into morning, clicking away at their keys. I had forgotten we were adding a television to the well-connected lounge space and had to smile at the very Pfister-esque touch of a gilded frame surrounding the flat screen. Remarking on this, Annette said, in perfect dry humor, “Ah, yes… I really thought they’d play The Young and the Restless at 11 o’clock, but they just left it on this.” She gestured toward the Headline News silently flickering above us. Perfect. The nook, complete with an Annette, is perfect.

            The servers have new aprons, still creased from their fresh folds, and there are different banquettes available. The business hasn’t changed—the suits still dominate the discussion and meetings and progress still charge forward over Senator Kohl’s Tuna sandwiches. Time is short, people hustle, mergers happen and talking with your mouth full is required. (Yes, I was watching you through the mirrors…).

            And if I worried at all that any of this change would be bad or unsettling, I was comforted by the fresh flowers that still remain on the tables. One of my first glimpses of the behind the scenes workings of the hotel, they’re my landmark that everything runs smoothly, things are fine and everything old is new again.

The NASA Game

I’ve done a lot of organizational consulting and training. Among the structures for company retreats and more is a ropes or games course. Every one I’ve ever done says start small–ice breakers and get to know you type work.

One of the games my organization and later, I, used in classes was the NASA game. There are a million versions of the activity, but this one reads that NASA has to populate the moon. Earth is on its last legs and we’ve got a 2001-type opportunity to go intergalactic. The game provides a list of various people and things and then gives you a limited number to select to bring. The exercise forces team members to hash out which person gets to go–and who you have to leave behind… Much like the “you’re stranded on a desert island and can only bring three things, what do you bring?” exercise friends may play, the game forces hard choices.

I feel like I’m leaving the Pfister for the moon. I don’t have time enough left to do all I want and I have to make choices about what to take with me. I feel certain I’m taking it all with me, make no mistake, but what stories do I use to propel out of this atmosphere?

There are hundreds of ways to eat and drink and enjoy the space. Business meetings to wedding affairs, romantic dates to happy hours…I know what I see and I’m selfishly cataloging all of it–but which should I be sharing that I haven’t yet? Is it the jilted lover? The proposing young man? The road weary Miller-esque traveler? Just as Hal asks, “will I dream?” I’m here to tell you I already do, and in the last month I want to be sure I’m sharing the right ones with you.

Comment below and tell me what stories you think have floated through the hotel and have yet to be captured.

A Portrait of the Artist

“Well, order everyone calls me Eugene,” he said, when I stuck out my hand to meet the now infamous subject of one of Katie Musolff’s paintings. I’ve seen Eugene before each time I pass through the Artist-in-Residence’s studio, but here he is, live and in the flesh and, he’s beaming.

Eugene is one of the partygoers at Friday night’s celebration of the Pfister’s second AIR and he’s a proud papa. He’s not Katie’s father, but it doesn’t matter. He knows Katie and her partner, Andy, from their time in Stoddard, WI—Eugene is a neighbor. “They’re just such good kids,” he says.

“Well, let me tell you…” he begins. Eugene describes what he calls his little “shack”—a three bedroom house that Katie walked through, exploring the best location to create the famous portrait. He says she hit the back bedroom and it was decided, “We’ll do it here. It’s the best light.”

And together, Eugene and Katie sat for days, working a few hours at a time until the work was done. “Oh, it was easy to chat with her. We always had things to talk about. It’s just so easy to talk to her.” Eugene’s sparkle isn’t from the champagne. It’s his fondness for this amazing talent, wrapped in the woman we came to know as the artist in residence, the art tour lady, “that girl in the studio” or just plain Katie.

I believe him not because he’s driven all this way to say farewell to her and spend his first night in the Pfister—a far cry from his “shack,” he says. I believe him not because he’s gathered his daughter, two granddaughters and his great grandson and great granddaughter to share in the celebration with his friend Katie. I believe him because I’ve met Katie.

Katie was my first interview at the Pfister. I walked into her studio and introduced myself as the nervous and eager finalist for the Narrator program and asked her point blank, “Any tips?” She spun on her stool, got comfortable and, despite having never met me before, began to tell me about the experience. I was enraptured with how she adjusted to being in “the fish bowl” to how she saw her role and the importance of her interactions with people, and how she was able to work among the press, the onlookers and the management. She was generous with her time, and had already gathered and measured the early months of her experience at the Pfister enough to turn it into wisdom worth passing down.

Katie also became my first story. You didn’t read a blog about it because it was the lever to the writings you see. When approaching strangers, talking with guests, and looking for common ground, Katie was where I began. “Have you seen the artist in residence’s studio? Or been on her art tours?” were my questions-as-answers to anyone who began their conversation with me by saying “It is so beautiful here!”

And that’s how most people talk about Katie—kind, engaging and willing to share and speak. That’s how she was reviewed in the press release that announced her residency. That’s how she floated through the room the night of her celebration.

That’s probably why Eugene sat in the good light and talked to her that week. That’s probably why her talent is so apparent and beautiful that he and his family took photos of the portrait and hung one in every room of his house—even though each child and grandchild had their own copies in theirs.

Trust me, being a lived, interactive creative presence at the Pfister is an amazing blessing for the artists and writers, but as I was admittedly a little teary talking to Eugene, I saw clearly it’s really a gift to those we get to engage.

“Like”ing Breakfast

I’m sure it’s clear to you by now, I love breakfast at the Pfister. I love breakfast food in general, of course, and can never make up my mind—breakfast anywhere for me includes multitudes of plate envy, but (as you also know) add coffee and I’m usually satiated.

I’m pretty sure my love of breakfast comes from some working class, Irish Catholic roots and a culinary (to a degree) dad. We had lots of “breakfasts for dinner” type meals during lent because they were filling sans meat (ah, the superb quality of pancakes!). Plus, breakfast food was always dad’s fallback when we were left in his care and hungry. Best French toast in the world came out of a cast iron skillet, flipped by one C.A. Ferris.

But it goes beyond food. When I was a little girl and out with my dad to go fishing, he indoctrinated me the entire routine—including the 5:00 a.m. gatherings at the local diner. Caps, camo and well-worn hands bullying forkfulls of crispy hashbrowns into moustached mouths surrounded me and waitresses who were used to the honey-baby-sugar pie calls of their regulars grinned at my ridiculously curly hair. Suffice it to say, breakfast at the Pfister doesn’t quite look like that, especially while it’s temporarily located in the Rouge Room.

But this morning, as I share the space with a businessman we’ll call Joe talk with his partner, I realized, it may not be all that different. Sure, the dress code ups the ante a bit (no one wore a cap), but the buzz and vibration of the day’s work about to begin was the same. The graceful familiarity of coffee pots swirling around the room and platefuls of crispy hashbrowns seated before regular patrons all feels very familiar.

Joe, a handsome gentleman, seems to be of an age of retirement, yet his crisp grey suit jacket tells a different story. He is working this morning, laughs so hard that his shoulders rattle upwards with every chuckle. His eyes are happy slits directed closed when the corners of his mouth turn up. He’s talking business, profits and partners, but it’s early, he’s still in good spirits.

Instead of a creaky old door and footfalls on the nearly rotted linoleum of my small town diner, eaters here descend into the Rouge like guests on a cruise ship. This breakfast is later too—these aren’t the 5:00 a.m. haymakers (then again, the sun isn’t shining yet as today spring has recoiled) of my small town. These are travelers. Work has changed. Hay doesn’t get made—trades and deals do. Market reports and scouting reports and quality reports are generated and housed in briefcases attached to attaches and carry-ons.

It doesn’t ruin my love for breakfast; the scene and Joe only remind me that it’s more universal than you think. Your first interactions of the morning set the tone for your day and the Flo of my hometown diner beckoned good fishing just as the service staff in the Rouge prep us for contemporary days in an urban place.

I’m eager for more breakfasts though, as the cafe renovations are slated to be finished this upcoming week. In fact, there’s a VIP event on Sunday, March 27 for cafe regulars and others to come and take a sneak peak at the new space before it officially opens on March 28. If you’re a regular, you’d better ask Lorena or any one of your favorite morning staffers to get you in past the velvet rope on Sunday.

As I finish my last swig of coffee, I remember it may be my last relocated cup of percolate in the Rouge and my next will be a Starbucks premium roast in the newly improved cafe, so I snap a quick picture. When the flash goes off, I hear Joe say to his tablemate, who is curious about my photographic endeavor, shrugging those gregarious shoulders of his, “Huh. Facebook.”

Staying on the Ride

It’s such a surreal feeling to interview your replacement. Sure, try I’m being a bit dramatic—I’m not interviewing them and when I took the job, I knew I’d eventually be replaced but there’s nothing I have to like about it.

Well, I do like the tension I felt walking into the meeting room at the Pfister as I was about to comment on and discuss the many applicants for the next Narrator position knowing the same discussions had included me just months ago. My vow was to say very little (you should know, that’s always my vow, it rarely works) and listen long, but I found I was so excited to talk about what I liked, the ideas that circulated among the applicants and to carefully detect how it worked last time with me on the table in a pile of paper instead of in the chair casting votes that I’m sure I reached “vehement” at certain points.  

Most of the applications covered the required bases, but I did learn something from the unique portions of each. I learned that there’s so much I’m taking with me and so much I’m leaving out. I was interviewed for a video blog piece as part of the process and when asked what advice I would give the next Narrator and the words flew from my mouth. Have no expectations.  All the narrators proposed a plan, had ideas for how they’d get people to talk, which stories they were in search of and I realized my plan has already been shattered—for the better.

For every person I do approach or who sits down next to me, many times, there were three behind them with tales just as interesting. Every blog I’ve written about dancing daughters and Santa lap-sitting grandmothers and celebrities was reduced to 400 words and I’m walking away with the rest of the story. What I’ve given here and what I’m taking with me differ vastly and that’s one of the only parts of my proposal that has stuck.

They asked me what I hoped to get. I told them I wanted to be talking about this experience forever. Mission accomplished. I know I understood the undertaking and I’m here to tell you, our top six finalists for the job understand it too. They all wrote about what they hope to find in the guests they share space with at the Pfister. They all had an eagerness and openness about how they’d capture it and report it. Most of all, they each seemed to want it for themselves. They all (myself included) wanted to seek out the people, seek out the histories, the feelings, the human connection that comes with just sharing a moment with people.

Just the other day, leaving the hotel, I was on the elevator with a pair of women who didn’t get off when the door opened at what I thought was their floor. I smiled toward them and shuffled aside to give them room to exit when one in the pair begrudgingly said “No, sorry. We don’t know where we’re headed; we just like to ride the elevator.” Without even thinking that it was just a polite joke that people make to be social (a lot like the “I’m doing well, thank you” standard answer to “Hello, how are you?”) I instantly replied, completely seriously “Oh, I know! I love riding the elevator. I’ve met some fun people here! Stay on, you’ll like it!”

And as the doors closed after my exit, I wondered…did the pair think I was nuts or did they get it?

Be excited…any one of the six finalists for narrator gets it. I rest assured of that.

All Dressed Up and Everywhere to Be

My best friend was in town on the weekend and we took her to Blu for free music. First, she snapped what could be an award-winning series of photos (her profession), then she let her mouth hang agape for awhile and finally she grinned and told me I had a really sweet gig (don’t I know it!)

She’s an incredible live music fan and was in town to see the Sarah McLachlin concert. I thought it’d add to the weekend to offer up free acoustic guitar 23 stories above the city.

On her various visits over the years, the goal has been to include her in as many signature Milwaukee events, dinners and journeys as possible—without repeating any. So far, I’ve been successful.

Our trip to the top of the Pfister tower was another victory. Ryan McIntyre was the musician and there was just something to the wide open, double door-width entry into the rooftop lounge that made it seem as though they were waiting for us. Though it was crowded, we stepped right into a table as others were vacating it. McIntyre was singing cover tunes and we both unwittingly became his backup singers as we got settled in.

The crowd was a fair mix of people, but many were dressed formally after having just wrapped up the AAA Awards banquet downstairs.

When I first took the job as Narrator, I was asked “how will you talk to people?” I said simply smiling and saying “hi” would do the trick and it’s true. I even used the example “I can talk to anyone, I even talk to people in elevators, even though it’s a norm violation for most.” Well, I’m not the only one.

Warmed a bit by whatever cocktails had been served there, we met a handful of couples in the elevator on our way up. The couples in the elevator approached us! Together they’d been joking and chatting and we walked in on it when we’d joined from the parking garage. Like it was their home, the six of them were very welcoming and as we joked about how they’d brought me flowers (one gentleman was carrying the table arrangement from the dinner), they all bid us a good evening as they jumped off at their respective floors.

That’s why it felt like we were old friends when they turned up at Blu for the music. Teased about having changed their mind about going to bed, one half of a couple—a stunning Lady in Red—quickly corrected me and said “Oh no, we weren’t going to bed…just getting ready to come out again!” The pair were from Ft. Atkinson but as honorees at the night’s banquet, in order to enjoy their stay in Milwaukee, they had also gotten a room at the hotel and were ready to stretch late into the night, and thanks to the Pfister, “all dressed up and nowhere to go” was put to shame.

As the pair chatted with me, it was clear they were in it for the music and I reminded them that the lobby bar included a great crowd and music as well. I have to note here, much later, when my group and I were walking out, parading my best friend see more of the hotel’s glorious details, I spotted the same pair bellied up to the lobby bar. I’d like to say I’m that much of a catalyst for people, but in reality, I think it’s the Pfister that manages its own persuasion.

What was the most thrilling was the vibe of the bar. People moved through and entered with extreme confidence. It felt more like a party than a bar. Rather than a tentative approach filled with “who might be here, who is watching me, is there room?” Blu seemed to be someone’s lovely cocktail party in their home that we’d luckily been invited to. It was a party—it was the hotel’s party. The singer made a point to welcome guests if they weren’t from Milwaukee and as I looked around, you could tell locals from visitors based on the smiles. When the singer welcomed people, it was as though all of us did, heads scanned the room and nodded.

Night life in the city is often reviewed and critiqued and the value of hotspots rotates regularly. The sense you feel in Blu on a Saturday night is that it’s always a hotspot, always evolving with its crowd, and everyone, always, is welcome. Maybe Ryan should write a song about that…

Historic Lens

As promised, Amanda has forwarded the photos from her  and Dan’s photo shoot.

It’s incredible to have lived the experience with them, but then to see some of the chosen photos and the angles and moments their photographer, Chloe from Life Tree Photography captured recreates the experience in an entirely new way.

I hope that’s what the blog does. I know what it’s like to talk with guests about my little notebook, their vacation, their work, their families and traditions. I know what it’s like to say “But the Pfister is just beautiful!” But even better, experiencing it yourself and seeing the recanted tales must double the power of memory, experience and more.

Some of her photos capture only a glimpse of the hotel, which is what is so intriguing to me. The patterns on the floor stand out to me because that’s what I’m attuned to seeing. Yet, in the photo, it’s Amanda and Dan who steal the scene.

Engagement photos at the Pfister bring a Coke and a smile.
The infamous balloons--charming, but a far less glamorous photo than Chloe's.
The Pfister as backdrop for creating a memory…
The balloons we saw Dan walking down the street with weren't the important part here.


Seeing them in period garb also enlivens the hotel. My favorite is the photo of the pair exiting the hotel and the large revolving doors behind them. Though the photo was taken in 2011, they could have been walking out of this very same Pfister 60 years ago.

Enjoy some snippets from another perspective and relish with me what it’s like to experience the hotel twice–from different angles, through a different lens–and then come down and capture your own moments, because if you haven’t figured it out yet, there are doors and floor patterns and chandeliers aplenty for you to sneak into your memories.

Brewing with Excitement

Off schedule, sure, but I think you can handle it.

First, the cafe renovations are in full swing. Then…there will be coffee (see other posts about how necessary this is in my world).

Now, I’ve just received a giant package of applications from those who’d like to continue this journey at the Pfister. It’s such a mix of emotions–it felt simultaneously like Christmas Day to click, click, click through the pages as well as utter doom as I thought about my tenure ending (not for months… I can still say that in the plural until April).

Frankly, I do not want to stop. I’m as addicted to these people and this place as I am to the coffee it’s soon to serve.

But, at the same time, I am probably MORE eager than the applicants think they are. I’m thrilled that the position continues, the talks resume, the writing develops. I can testify (and will again in a later blog) what this has done for my writing, my connection to the community and my own personal growth and knowing that–I cannot wait to unleash this opportunity on someone new.

I hope you’re watching, here comes a whole host of new voices (oh yeah, and soon, I can type this from the renovated cafe with a Starbucks coffee in hand. Ah, frenetic keystrokes, here we come!)

Hollywood Glam Meets Historic Hotel

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, sickness but at the Pfister, you can capitalize on lunches easily worth a million bucks.

That’s what Amanda and Dan were doing today. We all spotted her first… dressed to the nines, she walked through the lobby and clearly stood out among the business-suited. She begged the question, and the answer was soon-to-be wedded bliss. Amanda and Dan were engaged last July, and though they had already captured many moments on film for their save-the-date cards, they were at the Pfister today to create a new memory, wedded to their nuptials’ theme: Old Hollywood.

Complete with a vintage-inspired feathered clip in her hair, Amanda (showing that glimpse of seamed stockings so many starlets before her have perfected) chose her costuming for the photos based on a love of fashion. And, of course, a love for Dan.

Dan and Amanda are both Wisconsinites, but that’s not how they met. Dan and Amanda both migrated to California for their careers, but that’s not how they met. Dan and Amanda ended up working in the same industry, the same company and even on the same projects. Dan brought Amanda the proofs of her projects before they were sent out to the world. But even with a daily excuse to talk to his now future wife, it took him awhile to engage.

When I asked her, “Who asked the other one out first?” She said shy Dan did the deed, but,( and sorry, Dan, this is  a quote and I know you heard her saying it, “It took him a long, long time.”) I think that means it was a thoughtful, well-planned decision…just like all the pieces of their photo shoot.  

Patience seems to have worked for the pair who both wanted to return to the Dairy State to be with family. California was too far away from home, but now that they were close enough to each other, they could make the move together.

The wedding is July of this year. And while we stood with Amanda in the lobby, waiting for Dan to return—walking up the street with balloons for the outdoor portion of their photo shoot, an image any Hollywood director would have captured on celluloid—she told us she was moving away from her fashion industry career and into baking. A cupcake maven in the works, you can probably meet Amanda too—at one of next year’s Iron Cupcake bake-offs.

So, outside she went, snuggled into Dan as she braved the March chill for the perfect photo (to be included in their wedding invitation, she told me). Balloons drifting and her stockings creating the glamour she was hoping to conjure…lunch at the Pfister cooked up some memories for this young couple. She promised to share the pictures with us when she gets them back from the photographer, and she also agreed to share them with you. I think that’s perfect, because love (and an incredible array of heart-shaped balloons) was in the air and on the menu and that’s worth sharing.

The Marrying Kind

I’ve been in my fair share of weddings. For awhile there, I could truly identify with the lead character in the movie 27 Dresses and though I don’t have a separate closet full of horrible gowns, I’ve done my time in unflattering colors, shapes, lengths and get ups.

My parents had two weddings—one early in their partnership and one later, with the same family and friends. It’s a testament to how you choose your support system that many of the same guests return more than 20 years later to continue to be a part of your experience.

It’s the experience that’s been capitalized on in our culture. The wealth of television programs showcasing weddings is unreal (and often, I’d like to believe the behavior of the brides on some of these shows is truly unreal, too). From surveying brides about one another’s wedding, to the planning, to the venue’s behind-the-scenes work to the dress shopping—an American wedding has been pulled apart and dissected to its parts in more ways than one.

Far better than reality television, however, is the reality in the Pfister Hotel. Last weekend showcased a bridal show and event and nearly every weekend, you can catch guests at some stage of the wedding process. In my people-watching tenure at the hotel, I’ve seen rehearsal dinners, pre-planning events and even bridal teas. From the toes-in-the-water nature of a first bridal show to the end of the wedding event itself, all pieces of the puzzle are housed in the Pfister.

Talking in the hallway with a Pfister staffer, I heard a squeal from across the lobby. I turned in surprise, but my colleague didn’t. Without turning he said, “Oh, a bride. That must be her sister or friend…” I smiled at his savvy and sense of the hotel guests. When I peered around him, it was indeed a bride and a horde of compatriots gathering in the lobby. Her dress hung, trapped in plastic sheathing, on the luggage cart and women flocked to her. My colleague continued, “Oh, I’m so happy to see you! Oh, I can’t believe you’re getting married!” He wasn’t mocking, he was truly lip synching—having seen this ritual performance more than once, the hotel is well-versed in what comes down their aisles.

“Traditional” is one way many of the brides on television measure themselves—they are or they aren’t. But I think what escapes all of them, and what is very present in the revelers I see at the Pfister, is that weddings themselves are rituals that are traditional to us. It doesn’t matter whether your dress is white or blue, your reception is themed or not and whether or not you host a bridal tea or post-wedding gift brunch. The way all hotel guests recognize wedding parties, the way hotel staff knows immediately to stick to their service vows with families and wedding groups and the way the grandeur of the hotel is clearly open arms to whatever “modern” notion you have of this age-old tradition is evidence that weddings and their process are a part of our culture and history that are here to stay.

What’s more, I know the entire process works like my parents’ dedicated family and friends. What I’ve had equal testimony of is those celebrating anniversaries at the Pfister—whether they were married or not. Clearly, the hotel is a committed support system for the tradition and creates every day acts of vow renewal with its guests.