Relakin

In Colorado, you have “relatives” and in Kentucky you have “kin.”  So what happens when a group of people from both states work together and play together so often they consider each other family?  Well, the Colorado folk now have kin, and the Kentucky folk now have relatives!  And what happens when you get adopted by this affectionately slapdash family?  You become “rela-kin.”  Or, at least this is what I learned late one night last week in the lobby lounge.

At the end of a long day that consisted of 8 hours of my day (sometimes night) job, followed by a few hours getting to know the life of the room service employees (a story chosen by Facebook fans), it was 11pm and I had just settled down at a table next to the piano: laptop open, notebook to the left of my computer, a glass of wine to my right and lilting tunes sprinkled through the air.  The plan was to get a little writing done and then head home.

Elly arrives to my right with a group of five.  A boisterous, laughing group, they push two smaller tables together and the person nearest me leans over and says, “You’re not doing work are you?”

I laugh, “No!  Yes!  Sort of…” and explain what it is I do.  Another member of the party interjects, “Well, it sounds like work and it’s too late to be working so we’re not going to let you get any done.”  And they didn’t.  The next two hours flew by.

All five had been in Milwaukee for a few days now, as part of a boating law conference.  “Ah, yes,” I tease, “because Colorado and Kentucky are known for their expansive waterways.”  I wink.  They laugh.  Friends through the conferences they’ve attended over the years, they easily tease one another and laugh heartily at anything remotely amusing.  I like them a lot.  The couple from Kentucky had managed to attend a Green Bay Packers game and a Brewers game.  The Rockies had just beat the Brewers, which pleased the folks from Colorado greatly.

We talk regional life, exploring the topic of skiing in Colorado (I’ve never been on skis).  I’m informed of the best places to go: Sylvester is more family-oriented but Steamboat has fluffier snow, and good tree skiing.  No matter where you go, night skiing is the most magical – lights strung up along the trees that line the slopes, glittering off the crystalline powder as it sprays into the air, glinting in the moonlight.  Since Kentucky is known for its bourbon, I inquire about the best whiskeys out of their state.  The top brands are Woodford Reserve (Bourbon), Heaven Hill, Four Roses (a craft distillery started in 1888 that recently went into wider distribution), and Buffalo Trace.  They add, “Though, if anyone ever offers you ‘Pappy Van Winkle,’ don’t say no.  It’s a 23yr old bourbon that is a distinct and memorable spirit experience.”

Several glasses of wine later, it’s 1am and I gather up my belongings to head out.  Throughout our jocular conversation, we touched on much more personal issues, including family life, travels and personal histories, so when it came time for me to leave, as we say our goodbyes, they add, “You know, now you’re family.  You’re,” pausing for a moment, “rela-kin!”

Rela-kin, indeed.  I think it might be nearly time for a road trip.  Colorado, Kentucky, here I come!

The Turk’s Head

Turk's Head Knot bracelet1

Jimmy McManus sits at a table in the lobby bar, having a beer.  He’s heavily bearded, gruff and scruffy, in a t-shirt featuring a skull & crossbones, drinking a nice pint of beer.  His appearance indicate you might not want to run into him in a dark alley, but he has the biggest, friendliest smile on his face.  Jimmy is a regular visitor to the Pfister, but only for beer because his home, at least for the summer and early Fall, is the S/V Denis Sullivan, the world’s only re-creation of a 19th century three-masted Great Lakes schooner, where he serves as 2nd Mate.  Peter, who introduced us, explains that the 1st Mate is the one putting the banana peel under the Captain while elbowing the 2nd Mate out of the way.

Having grown up sailing 14′ Hobey Cats in the San Diego Bay, Jimmy was 20 yrs old when he saw an advertisement for a “cannon battle.”  Intrigued, he checked it out.  In it, tall ships try to outmaneuver each other as they sail in a manner that mimics a high seas battle.  Drawn in, Jimmy started out as a volunteer, provided only with room and board.  Within a week and a half, he knew it was what he wanted to do: six years later, he got his Captain’s License.  Since then, he’s served as mate of Lady Washington, mate of the Lynx (where he sailed from San Diego to Florida by way of the Panama Canal), and as synchronicity would have it, as Captain of the Hawaiian Chieftain, the tall ship on which I celebrated by 18th birthday (a good number of years ago).

Most tall ships travel from port to port, upwards of three per week, but the Denis Sullivan parks in Milwaukee all season.  Its home is Discovery World, where there’s an entire workshop in the basement devoted to sails, supplies, repairs and work needed to keep the Denis Sullivan in tip-top shape.

A recent shipboard tour with Jimmy–where he regaled us with stories of a German count who served as a raider, of old clocks and compasses used on newer ships–gave us a glimpse into life on a tall ship.  Bunks below deck don’t offer much more than a simple place to sleep, which is fine when there is so much work to be done.  Whether you’re the Helmsman, assisting the Captain at the helm; or the “Idler,” not responsible for much more than delivering coffee, grabbing supplies, etc.; or serving on Bow Watch, standing at the bow, keeping a wary eye out for whatever might be missed by those at the back of the boat, where the wheel is but with a very limited perspective: all this is primary to the demands of cleaning, cooking, maintaining engines or plotting courses.  Deckhands may sit around, appearing to relax, but closer examination reveals minor, vital work, such as braiding large knots for use in hauling lines and sails (ten of them, with a total of 4300 square feet of rigging).  The floors are wood, waterproofed with cotton and “oakem” underneath pitch that must be re-applied every few years.  Even with all the new technology available, navigation of large bodies of water still relies heavily on traditional methods of work: the steering uses a King’s Spoke, string & weight rigging that helps the Captain line up the 3 ton rudder accurately every time.  The GPS may go askew, or stop working, but the boat will still run true.

Mostly an educational tool, the Denis Sullivan does day and sunset sails for the public, but concentrates its work with school groups.  Captain Tiffany Krihwan is especially proud of their program, which is essentially an “introduction to field science,” giving kids an opportunity to drop specialized containers into the water to examine the health of Lake Michigan via water quality and sediment examination.  Their extended trips teach first-hand energy conservation as the kids must eye up how much fresh water they have available, or amount of electricity they use each day, and how to ration each resource.  Jimmy has great stories from these overnight trips.  Like the time they were anchored offshore of Port Washington and motored to shore via dinghy for “emergency” cheese curds, or when an unexpected stop in Kewaunee meant a hike into town for peanut butter custard.

Jimmy lives an old life that we may be unconnected to in our modern age, his is encompassed by the humbling experience of being hundreds of miles offshore, where 23,000 lives have been lost to the ravages of nature, leading to a feeling of insignificance.  But in that feeling there is a sense of wonder that can only occur in such isolation and vulnerability.

One recent weekend, as the Denis Sullivan was making its way back from Sturgeon Bay, a thunderstorm having already delayed their departure once, the ship encountered a late-evening storm developing around them as they reached the precarious middle of Lake Michigan.  At the last minute, the storm split around them, going both North and South, revealing a clear, moonless sky above them.  The storm surrounded on all sides, but directly above was the brilliant sparkle of the entire Milky Way.

.~~~~.~~~~~~.~~~~.~~~~~.~~~~~.~~~~~.

Don’t just take my word for it!  You can visit the Denis Sullivan for FREE, as a part of Historic Milwaukee’s upcoming event, Doors Open Milwaukee, on Saturday, September 24th.  Take a tour of the ship, and hear the stories of 19th century Great Lakes life.

1The “Turks’ Head Knot” is an intricate, ornamental knot woven seamlessly from a single line of rope, braided to resemble a Turkish headband.  Jimmy got his from the first boat he worked on and has worn it ever since.

Feeling Famous

When hearing a front desk employee greet a savvily dressed guest, it’s hard not to wonder, “who is that?” and lunge for a newspaper, cross-referencing  to see if it might be a celebrity.  It’s no secret that the Pfister is one of the hotels of distinction for sports and entertainment stars of all kinds.  Now, I’m the sort of oblivious person who could sit down next to Harrison Ford and not realize it, saying something like, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Harrison Ford?” and embarrassing myself.  (Though rumor has it that even Charlie Chaplin lost a Chaplin lookalike contest.)

Of course, there are a few major reasons that the easily-recognized stay at the Pfister.

The first is discretion.  The employees are solidly respectful of the privacy of celebrity guests. They don’t reveal names and they don’t gossip.  Now, one of the concierges may regale you with a charming anecdote of a musician joining one of the pianists in the lobby bar for a tune, but it’s the sort of thing you hear once it has passed into legend.  And it’s always something that anyone who happened to be there that night would have witnessed.  They can assure celebrities a private place to stay: one where they can relax within their room as well as in the public areas, without being bothered.

Another reason is that the fans in Milwaukee also happen to be awfully polite.  They don’t hang around outside doors with memorabilia to get autographed, or lurk in the lobby with a camera phone at the ready.  It’s not that they don’t want to gush over a favorite musician or meet an idolized athlete, but they’re just subtle about it.  For example, I did happen to be in the lobby one evening when a world-famous athlete came through.  A lone gentleman who’d been waiting at the bar for quite some time very quietly, politely approached the athlete.  His body language and voice were all deference and respect.  He was hoping to get a jersey signed for his ailing father who adored this particular sportsman.  The jersey was autographed graciously and the two went their separate ways.

But, the truth is, the biggest reason I never know whether or not a guest is famous is not because of my own inability to recognize them, but that the Pfister treats everyone like a celebrity.

And while I wouldn’t mind having a casual drink with one of my favorite actors or get serenaded by one of my favorite musicians, the most wonderful and memorable interactions I’ve had since May have been with regular people who pass underneath the Pfister’s signature red canopy, and the employees who make them all feel so special.

Made in Milwaukee, Found in the Pfister

Made in Milwaukee!

A foursome of guests was querying Roc, the concierge, about what to check out nearby the Pfister today.  He shared with them a few restaurants and then suggested they check out a little festival in its third year, called “Made in Milwaukee.”  Featuring local bands, local food and libations, as well as local arts and local businesses, Made in Milwaukee was taking place all day today in Cathedral Square Park, just a few blocks from the Pfister.

Meanwhile, in the lobby, I met someone from New York who was visiting Milwaukee for his first time and wanted to know what he and his wife should check out before they attend a wedding tomorrow afternoon.  They’d already gone to the zoo earlier in the day and had the rehearsal dinner yet this evening, so they only had the morning.  The suggestion that seemed to click for him was simply walking down Wisconsin Avenue to the lakefront and meandering northwards along the shore to Alterra at the Lake for coffee and baked treats or a fresh wrap.

Of course, if it’s a stormy day and you’re stuck inside the hotel because you forgot your umbrella, or you miss out on any one of the city’s numerous outdoor shindigs that go on all summer long that feature local wares, you don’t need to look much further than the halls, bars and cafe of the Pfister, for a sample of the city.

Beyond the history that is contained within the walls themselves, the employees are a bastion of Milwaukee knowledge, trivia and historical anecdote.  Concierges Peter and Roc will be thrilled if you ask them to tell you about actress Sarah Bernhardt’s involvement on the Milwaukee stage or about The Basilica of St. Josaphat.  They will happily take you on a story-fueled tour of the city, if you have a few minutes (or an hour) to engage their encyclopedic minds on the topic.  Of course, there’s the work by local artists as displayed in, or on the walls outside, of the artist-in-residence’s studio.

As far as having a taste of Milwaukee, start in Mason Street Grill, where you can sample the Mason Street Amber, brewed specifically for the restaurant by Lakefront Brewery (home of the country’s best brewery tour).  The lobby bar also features Lakefront’s most popular beer, Riverwest Stein, on tap.  Both of these watering holes, plus Blu, offer Rehorst vodka and gin, made by the Great Lakes Distillery.  Their vodka won a silver medal in the 2007 San Francisco World Spirits competition, so you know it must be good!

Want a little more?  Step into the cafe and check out the items on display, just inside the entrance.  In addition to small bottles of Rehorst spirits, you can pick up a six-pack of Lakefront Brewery’s Riverwest Stein, or their Organic E.S.B (Extra Special Bitter) – a refreshing ale styled after the British pours.  Stock up on Sprecher: known for their Root Beer, Sprecher also makes the kid-friendly Cream Soda and Orange Dream, plus adults-only Special Amber and Black Bavarian (my favorite).  Need a snack to go with all your beverages?  Pick up chocolates from Indulgence Chocolatiers, or organic Vanilla caramels with dark chocolate and sea salt made by Becky’s Blissful Bakery.

Of course, you can always just stay in your room.  First, tune your radio to local music stations WMSE (91.7) or 88Nine (88.9) for some great sounds (some by local bands, of course); then pick up the phone and dial room service to have a meal made by Milwaukee chefs, in Milwaukee’s historic hotel, delivered to your door by a Milwaukee employee.*  It doesn’t get any more local than that.

 

 

*Don’t forget to tip!

Honor

The sort of gentleman who would be described as “distinguished,” John Harris is 67 years old, though I told him he doesn’t look a day over 61. Straight-backed, and impeccably dressed in a tailored suit for the wedding he’s here to attend, John drapes both his hands over the top of a cane, the first few fingers intertwined, gold rings alight underneath the lobby chandeliers.

“Is it always this busy?” John asks as he sits in the chair opposite me at one of the lobby tables where I’m observing all the action of a Saturday afternoon in summer. We talk while he waits for a shuttle to the offsite reception for his wife’s niece, who’s getting married today. Himself married for 36 years—celebrated in May—John points out his wife. Seated on the couch among a large group of finely dressed people of differing ages, she certainly stands out: her blonde hair swept up, her glasses frame her face beautifully, while a sparkling necklace circles her throat. She has the proper carriage of a fine lady, and exudes warmth underneath her beauty. The secret to a long marriage, according to John? Consideration, care, patience and always staying in communication.

Home for John and his wife, is Chicago. Both are recently retired: she from several decades as a doctor in the Chicago Public Schools, he from life as a restaurateur, running lounges that featured live music—both contemporary ‘Top 40’ acts and classic jazz. His finest establishment, City Life, still operates as he set it up, even though it’s under new management, and offers three jazz shows a week. When I tell him I’m a fan of classic jazz and blues, he tells me I need to come listen to “June Yvonne” sing Billie Holiday.

John is quiet-spoken, but with a definite twinkle in the eye contact he levels at you and an understated intensity to his conversation, though laced with nothing but sincerity. It’s not a surprise, then, to learn that he was a Marine, serving for 12 years and doing two tours in Vietnam. The noise of the crowded lobby evaporates into a mere background murmur as we talk about his time served. His comrades are still his friends, though only three of his ten closest are still alive: “When you go through what we did, you forge bonds for life.”

Impassioned, his eyes a little watery, we talk about how different things are now for returning veterans of wars and other armed conflicts, compared to Vietnam. There’s a new generation, it seems to both of us, who can oppose a conflict—sometimes vehemently—but who maintain great respect for those who serve. Mostly I listen as he talks about this concept and what a welcome change it is to what he went through; he particularly feels it’s important to keep that human connection to one another, especially as war becomes increasingly mechanized and anonymous. Despite our differences, we can all find common ground within our humanity; perhaps if we focus on that, we can only become more considerate of, and care for, one another.

Our conversation is suddenly interrupted by a younger guy, jacket slung over his shoulder and carrying a baby, who approaches jocularly, calling out, “John! Time to go! Quit flirting!”

John stands, balancing on his cane, introduces me to his wife and, before he goes, shakes my hand. It’s a double handed shake—my one enveloped in his two—the kind you get from a person you feel it is an honor to acquaint yourself with… and however brief an honor, an honor it was indeed.

We who have seen war, will never stop seeing it. In the silence of the night, we will always hear the screams. So this is our story, for we were soldiers once, and young.

(quote from ‘We Were Soldiers’)

Fall Right Through

Gwen and Adam are seeing their daughter off to college at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. They’re in town to help their daughter settle in to her new life here, as well as renovate a cottage near Oconomowoc for future visits.  Originally from Waukesha, Gwen met Adam, an Ohio native, and they moved to West Palm Beach, Florida where they now make their home.  Gwen says she misses Wisconsin, with its mild summer and changing seasons.  While staying at Hotel Metro, they come to the Pfister for drinks nearly every day, on top of seeing other Milwaukee sights.  In fact, sporting Brewers wear, they talk about the game they just came from (vs. the Cubs), and plan to see more before they fly back south.

Somehow we get onto the topic of California, my home, and they tell me about their vacation to Santa Barbara where they fell in love with a restaurant in the mountains that was one of the first stagecoach stops upon entering the golden state: Cold Spring Tavern.

Adam says about Cold Spring Tavern as they try to describe its ramshackle, historic appearance to me, “It’s almost like you’re going to fall right through the floors–”  She interjects, “The floors are just wooden, and sloped, you couldn’t fall through them .”  He states “You could in some places! Wasn’t there a place roped off –?”  Gwen cuts him off, in that emphatic, final way only a wife can, “No. They were just crooked,” and she turns away to answer her phone.  As she’s turned away, Adam whispers, a wink in his voice, “You could fall right through them.”

History on display in Pfister

Established in 1886, a mere seven years before the Pfister, Cold Spring Tavern was a relay station where coaches could stop off, get water and rest before continuing westwards using an additional pair of horses to get the coaches up over the mountain via San Marcos Pass.  It still has the “gang house” where the toll road construction workers bunked, as well as a jail house for troublemakers and ne’er-do-wells.   The walls of the buildings are made of stone and wood, ivy covers everything, broken wagon wheels are propped up all around, and original signage marks its history, all flanked by ancient, large Sycamore trees.  It’s been owned by the same family for 70 years.

It’s interesting to consider the convergence of time with these two historic places.

Cold Spring Tavern started out being frequented by travelers and pioneers: common folk forging a new life in the “Wild West” as part of America’s “Manifest Destiny.”  Now, while still maintaining a presence for travelers and the everyman, it is regularly frequented by celebrities of all types and is so popular, reservations are encouraged.

The Pfister was built and presented as the “Grand Hotel of the West” with its glistening, colorful marble, wide halls and individual room thermostats.  A stop in Milwaukee, as part of “the West,” indeed, but one for the wealthy, the powerful, and the famous.  While still the first stop in town for stars, it has become much more accessible over the years, opening its doors and its bar to anyone who wants to stop in for a tasty morsel, refreshing drink, or a place to lay a head.

With all this in mind: the convergence of history and geography, the past falling right through into the present, I leave you with this quote from Lyndon B. Johnson.  “Is our old world gone? We bid it farewell. Is there a new world coming? We will bend it with our will to the hopes of man.”

Who Let the Dogs In?

One morning as I enjoyed breakfast with a writer friend in the Café, talking books and playing cribbage, I watched a compact car pull up to the valet; hanging out the back window was the enormous, shaggy, tri-color head that’s signature to the Bernese Mountain Dog. A little later in the afternoon, I was in the lobby when he sauntered in, tongue lolling out and panting from what could only have just been a vigorous walk. Doug, accompanied by his owners Anne and Andrew, looked like a 100+ pound stuffed animal as he was remarkably calm and well-behaved for his two years.

As Doug flopped down on the marble floor, directly in front of one of the large lions that flanked the staircase, a woman stopped to ask, “Can I pet your dog? We have two dogs, but they got left at home.”  Andrew had tweeted the Pfister, asking if they were dog friendly, and explained this to the woman, who replied “Oh! Good to know. That will change our plans for next time – maybe we’ll bring them with us!”

We talked more, while I fluffed Doug’s fur and he panted with contentment.  After posing Doug by one of the lions for a regal photo, I gave Anne and Andrew directions to the nearest dog park and bid them farewell.

During Summerfest there was a small terrier who made random appearances through the lobby, and turned heads every time. His name was Jonah and his face was split with black and white markings that mimicked the Phantom of the Opera’s signature half-mask on one side of his face. He was regularly walked by a burly, inked guy with long hair in a ponytail who easily could have been a techie for any one of a number of bands playing at the Fest that week.  They were quite the pair!

There was also the fluffy white poodle named Gucci skittering alongside her owner’s tennis shoes as they skipped outside and back again on a rainy day. Of course, there was also Gertie, the Basset Hound I met over the Fourth of July weekend, who enjoyed romping down an empty corridor chasing tennis balls and getting attention from all the employees.

Roc, one of the concierges, has much love for the visiting pooches, saying “I love when dogs and children, come to stay. One time a dog that was staying here walked by me, grabbed the pen out of my hand, and just kept walking. It was the darndest thing.”

A recent Saturday featured numerous weddings converging in one place and, amid all the smartly dressed people, a large black and tan dog passed through the lobby, tail wagging a mile a minute. Never one to pass up a chance to get some canine love, I crouch to her level to greet her. At four years old, this Shepherd/Rottie mix is still all puppy. Her limbs flail as her enthusiastic, bounding energy has her practically spinning in circles trying to greet everyone within reach of her half-flopped ears and wet nose.

A bride, her bouquet and dress held together in one hand, pauses to greet Val, petting her briefly, a giant grin spreading across her face, then continues onward. Val’s owner then shows off Val’s only trick. He points two fingers at her, thumb up, like a mime’s gun, and says, “BANG!” as his thumb closes on his fingers and moves toward the ceiling. Val drops heavily to the floor, all 100lbs of her, lies on her back to “play dead,” though her front paws continue to kick the air and her face is happy: loose and goofy. It’s hysterical.

Val’s owner tells me how she was originally a stray from Manhattan and now lives with him in New Orleans. He jokes about this sweet, oaf of a dog, “She’s the love of my life,” while his girlfriend, waiting patiently, smiles as she affirms it, “I’m only #2.”

They make their way through the crowd, heading out for a walk, when they run into another bride. From across the lobby, Roc and I watch with great amusement as the bride greets Val and her owner, hear her shout “BANG!” and to much laughter, we see Val perform her one trick to everyone’s charm and delight, before heading out of the crowd.

Through all of this, Val’s tail never stops wagging; not even for a second.

——————

*If you’re visiting the Pfister with your dog, drop me an e-mail, I’d love to say hello and maybe snap a photo for the blog!

To Walk or To Ride?

There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coachlamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all.**

A face even a mother could love: Wilson

It’s not often you see gentlemen in top hats anymore.  It’s even more rare to see someone young sporting this classical piece of head finery.  Underneath the fine, black top hat is a mop of dark, shaggy hair belonging to a stalky young man with long, lean limbs.  A bicycle courier by day, Kevin Ward is a part-time coachman for Milwaukee Coach & Carriage.  The top hat is a loaner, but Kevin’s hoping to track down one of his own.  You’ve likely seen the elegant horse-drawn carriages as they clip-clop through the streets of downtown, circle Cathedral Square Park, and pick up fares outside Milwaukee’s downtown hotels.*

Kevin enjoys his work as a coachman (started in April 2010) because it’s a nice contrast to his day job where he rushes around, picking up and dropping off packages, managing “squawkbox” calls over the radio.  When he’s driving the carriage, he settles into a comfy seat, enjoys his water and snacks, regaling passengers with Milwaukee stories and trivia: “I get to look at the city and its beautiful architecture and just let the horse do all the work.”  The bartender, Jeff, interjects as he winks and hands over a brown paper bag, “the horses love Gardettos!”  Kevin laughs, “They do love Gardettos – and apples and popcorn and cheeseburgers and carrots and anything you give ’em.”  The hotel employees are fond of the horses, and even Joshua Wolter is known to visit them for a few minutes, offering up soothing pats (“It always helps me relax.”).

Wearing jeans and boots with his felt top hat, this lanky young man has the eloquent way of speaking that comes with being a natural storyteller.  Though he’d never even ridden a horse until recently, Kevin grew up on a farm outside Fort Atkinson, with Holsteins.  How long does it take to milk a Holstein, might you wonder?  “As long as it takes,” he answers.  Full of stories about wedding proposals and Harley motorcyclist passengers, Kevin clearly relishes the time he spends as a coachman.

Based out of a former Standard Oil building near 2nd & National with an outdoor paddock for the horses to play in, the sixteen horses of Milwaukee Coach & Carriage are mostly Belgians and Percherons with a few crosses.  These draft horses were originally bred, centuries ago, to carry knights away from battle.  Almost symbolically, many of the horses are leased to the Milwaukee Police Department’s Mounted Police Unit.  The money from the city helps take care of the horses, giving them a high quality of urban living.

Many of them in their early to mid teens, at least one of the horses, Shamus, is nearly 35 years old!  There’s also Wilson, a handsome 9yr-old who Kevin says is “very smart, in a boyish way.  He knows the streetlights, but likes to test new drivers.”  But nearly everyone’s favorite is Smokey.  A half Belgian, half who-knows-what, Smokey has short legs and the fat body of a Belgian, making him look a little like a hippo.  While not too bright, he’s the strongman of the bunch.  He’s been known to run up Kilbourn while pulling the wedding carriage, the heaviest in the fleet, stop for a red light and look behind him at his driver, as if to say “Why are we stopped?”

The carriages operate year-round; even on wintry days, they will carry you on a tour of the city, sparkling in the snow – enclosed and warmed under a blanket.  Kevin recently started reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and said the opening pages include a carriage ride which is reminiscent of his late winter and early spring drives, when he’s guiding a horse and carriage up Wisconsin Avenue towards the Pfister, slogging through slush as the cold washes over him.

A bellhop comes in and alerts Kevin that there’s an interested couple outside the front door where Shamus is patiently standing in wait.  Kevin grabs a brown paper bag from the bar, tips Jeff, puts his top hat on his head and strides off to do amble the city streets, reins in hand, clucking away as the world slowly rolls by.

*Equine law in Wisconsin allows for horses to park anywhere and be tied to anything, except the Federal Building, of course.  So, for those of you who live in congested urban areas where parking is a problem?  Apparently you just need to exchange that car for hay-loving 1700lbs on four legs.

**Chapter 2: The Mail, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Something borrowed, something blue

Summers in Milwaukee are made for weddings, with blue skies, light lake breezes and sunshine peering through drifting white, fluffy clouds.  Any picturesque historic locale books up far in advance, even in a mid-size city like Milwaukee.  There’s a lot of competition  options for weddings in this town: Villa Terrace Decorative Art Museum, Lake Park, The Grain Exchange, Renaissance Place, Milwaukee Art Museum, and I’ve been lucky to attend weddings at several of these gorgeous places.  One place where I’ve seen numerous weddings, but haven’t known a single person getting married, is here at the Pfister.  Boasting over 6,000 weddings throughout its 115-year history, that’s over 12,000 people celebrating their new life together with nearly 3,000,000 guests.

One recent Saturday, in less than two hours and preceded by guests stopping at the concierge desk to inquire after their intended reception’s location, no less than four brides passed through the lobby.  Swimming through formally dressed guests are brass luggage carts, pushed and pulled by the bellhops, loaded with packages from Crate & Barrel and lavishly beribboned gifts.  From the bright sapphire blue to deeper shades of royal, and even the whimsical teal, there is an abundance of blue with the dresses of the ladies attending the receptions, possibly inspired by summer skies.

The first bride, in her strapless gown, train draped over an arm, bends down to pet the head of a very happy dog passing through the lobby.  A second bride and groom arrive to a much emptier lobby as guests have made their way to the ballrooms on the seventh floor, many with drinks in hand.  A photographer trails behind them, documenting each pause, every point of the finger to the ornate ceiling as they keep the fingers of their other hands intertwined.

A mother rushes by, coaxing along two little flower girls in matching dresses of ballerina-tulled skirts, with lavender ties around their waist, ending in a bright, big bow at the back.  Shortly after, comes the arrival of an entire wedding party.  The bride is in a full, white lace skirt with a ribbon around her waist as well; her bridesmaids sport purple dresses that complement the lavender of the flowergirls.

As this group gathers for photos on the second floor, a fourth bride and her wedding party stream through the front doors.  Her strapless, beaded gown is reminiscent of a prima ballerina.  Her hair curled into a bun at the crown of her head, the veil streaming down behind.  When brides at the Pfister, dressed in such lavish gowns, pose on the marble steps of the grand staircase, flanked by colorful bridesmaids, it’s clear how such an ornate place could inspire the desire for a little girl’s wedding dreams to be brought to life.

Beyond the romantic images and celebratory color, there’s a quieter, more necessary life that goes undocumented.  The bride that must borrow a cell phone from the photographer in order to reach her betrothed for coordination of photos upstairs in Blu.  Or, the young lady that comes up from the salon with her hair done, veil set perfectly in place, but is dressed in jeans and a zippered sweater and is accompanied by just one woman – one “of a certain age” who is likely mom, aunt or future mother-in-law.  And, meanwhile, on the seventh floor: The ballroom doors are flung open, chairs covered and tied, tables arrayed with wedding favors, namecards awaiting their inevitable plucking and replacing, flowers adorning and complementing every available surface, crystals on chandeliers and votives appear especially bright, sparkling and white: everything waiting, silently, in utter anticipation

Something Old, Something New

Grand Old Chandelier

I recently got to get acquainted with a freelance marketer, seek sports journalist and travel blogger from Texas named Jayme Lamm, who I met at the Pfister because Jayme was connected with the Astros and had heard about how wonderful it was from both the tour and booking managers for the team. Referred to me by the marketing director at Travaasa Hana in Maui, where she’d recently stayed, prescription Jayme was described as “a fun, bubbly blonde who looks stereotypically Texan, but then she opens her mouth and what comes out doesn’t match, at all.”  I’d nosed around on her website, read a few of her blog posts and began following her on Twitter, and was quickly convinced we could have some fun and I could probably learn a lot from her.

When she arrives, there’s an instant affinity: petite like me, she has sunny blonde hair, big brown eyes, is highly energetic, and reminds me of my younger sister.  We start chatting right away about what brings her to Milwaukee (a family reunion up North), and how she’s looking forward to spending a night out and about.  I warn her that on Wednesdays not much is going on, but I had an idea that would allow for a quick survey of Milwaukee: something old, something new, and something unique.

Starting at the Pfister (“something old”), we toured the hotel.  A fan of old hotels because of their character, Jayme has stayed at a lot of beautiful places, but is impressed by what she sees here.  Ending inside Mason Street Grill, we settle onto a pair of leather stools at the end of the bar, and our bartender, Micah, approaches with the menus.  As we decide on our drinks (champagne for Jayme, a glass of Kung Fu Girl Riesling for me), Micah guides us through the appetizers.  I know we’ll be definitely ordering my favorite (Tuna Tartar Tacos), but we aren’t sure what else to get.  Thanks to Micah’s guidance, we add Mason Street’s signature Rockefeller Dip and Fried Surf Clams.

Conversation turns from the week’s Brewers games (“It got so hot and muggy with the roof closed for the rain!”) to her blogging work.  Jayme relates how she always keeps an eye out for stories, though because she has bad luck, the story often ends up being about her.  Our appetizers arrive and are demolished before we even knew they were there.  Jayme, with her story-finder’s observant eye, notices Micah’s pin – a small square, featuring a butcher knife and the words “certified foodie.”  We both instantly jump on this new thing and inquire after its meaning.  We’re informed that it’s related to something at Mason Street Grill called “Counter Culture, “ which consists of a 7-course meal served with a chef as guide, at a special counter facing the kitchen, a la a chef’s table.

Sprecher on tap at SPiN

Jayme and I then head to our next destination (“something new”). SPiN Milwaukee is located in the Third Ward, a short jaunt from the Pfister, which gives me a chance to point out other fine destinations for food and drink.  A combination table tennis club and bar, SPiN features ping pong tables for rent by the half hour or the hour and a full-service bar with food.  It’s quiet when we arrive, but gives us a chance to talk to the bartender, after he serves us a couple pints of Milwaukee-made Sprecher beer.  He and Jayme hit it off when he mentions being a musician and she mentions she’s looking to hire someone to write a little jingle with her for her charity work.

By the time we’re finished with our pints, having met one of the for-hire table tennis coaches and practiced giving perfect high fives (secret: keep your eye on the other person’s elbow), it’s quite late.  Instead of going on to our “something unique” which was going to be At Random: Bay View’s swanky, orange-lighted, rat pack-music playing, liquorrific milkshake fountain shoppe – we decide to call it a night.  SPiN managed to be both new and unique; as did Jayme.

For Jayme, the Pfister was old, new and unique and she looks forward to returning to Milwaukee to stay there, in order to best explore more of what the city has to offer, like the Safe House and Bryant’s Lounge, which were both recommended by Micah (and endorsed by me).  Plus, At Random is waiting, as is a whole array of new places that have cropped up in the city over the last five years.  It’s a terrific thing to be in a city that has so many wonderful things to offer, but I also like knowing where my favorites can be found: like Tuna Tartar Tacos and Kung Fu Girl Riesling.