A Man of Many Families: A 92-Year-Old Pfister Bellboy Returns to Charm

“My friends from back then are probably going to see the news or read this and say, ‘Wow.  That old fool is still alive?'”

That “old fool” turned 92 years old last month, on January 18th, and he was still as suave and spunky as ever when I sat down with him and his family a few days later at Sunday Brunch in The Rouge.

Casimir Piwonski was a bellboy at The Pfister in the early 1940s.  It had been on his bucket list for years to return to the Hotel and stay the night. You know, have a room to himself and access to the mini-bar. Have one of the current porters carry his luggage to and from his room, ask the concierge for directions.   I don’t know if he actually visited the mini-bar or needed to ask for directions–especially since much of his family spent considerable time parked in the Lobby Lounge on Saturday evening enjoying each others’ company and listening to Casimir reminisce–but I can quote for you what his third child, Carol Roeker, relayed in an email preceding their visit: “The Pfister is making his dream come true and you’re going to fall in love with him…you won’t be able to help yourself :)” Yes, I included the smiley face.  I think Carol had as much fun coordinating this birthday weekend as her father did enjoying it!  The family revealed the gift to him at Christmas and when I called to arrange an interview, Carol couldn’t stop rhapsodizing about all things Casimir: “Ask him about the time when . . . He’ll love to tell you about . . .”  She is so in love with her father.

I didn’t want to ask him too many of the same kinds of questions that Fox 6 had probably asked him on Saturday evening.  I’m sure I did, but the story I heard was not one about waiting upon all kinds of celebrities, but one of love and family.  Sometimes tough love, sometimes family that’s not your original family.  Take the Pfister family, for instance.

Oh, wait.  Before I fill you in on what I learned from Casimir about his time at the Hotel, let me show you a photo from back in the day:

Let that sink in for a second: the dreamy eyes; the confident, mischievous smirk; the Hollywood actor jawline; the perfectly coiffed hair.

Ok.  Back to 2017.

No, seriously.  Back to the story.

“I was 17 or 18 years old.  I was a bellboy for 6 years.”  His experience at the Hotel was a mixture of rules and competition, fair and generous treatment (“Mr. [Ben] Marcus would remember everyone’s names.”), and stories for a lifetime.  I could only gather a handful of the latter in between the dotings of his family and the delicious food on his plate.

Mr. Steve Peltzer dominated his memories for a good number of bites, for it was he who supervised Casimir and the other three bellboys: “He was rough.  He let you know who he was.  Rules weren’t meant to be broken. He would wait and time how long it took you to go up and down the stairs.  No hanky-panky allowed!”  I got the feeling that even though hanky-panky wasn’t allowed that a certain someone was going to withhold some stories.

“We’d run the stairs three or four steps at a time,” Casimir continued. “We never waited for the freight elevator–it was too slow!  We had to take the back steps, too.  Never the guest steps.”  Casimir pulled an index finger slowly across his throat.  “And no leaning against a pillar while you were waiting. But you would forget yourself sometimes!  Oh, and you had to be clean-shaven.”  He said none of this with derision, only respect for a man who expected excellence from his boys and got it.  He spoke of Mr. Peltzer as one might a parent, at once to be feared and always loved.

Casimir’s biological father, Joseph Piwonski, died when Casimir was only seven years old.  “I remember we were living on Hayes Street.  I was looking out my window and saw my mom walking up the street and I knew.  I’ll never forget that.”  A very good family friend, John Budzinski, stepped in, married his mother, and supported the family.  “That’s what we did back then.”  (His stepbrother John, who was born after Joseph’s death, sat next to him at brunch and listened intently to our conversation, interjecting every once in a while.)  Casimir knew what it meant to be part of both a loving original family and an extended community of support. He seems to have furthered this experience at The Pfister.

John Budzinski (left) and Casimir (right)

He made $8 a week and paid 25 cents for meals.  “I made my money through tipping.”  Sometimes there were added bonuses:  “There was a sailor from Norway whose ship sank in the harbor so he had to stay ashore for a while. He gave $100 to everyone!”  And sometimes there were cheapskates like actor William Boyd: “Hopalong Cassidy.  You know how he would tip us?  With a good luck charm.  A little horseshoe wrapped around a penny.  No one wanted to carry his bags!”  He also recalled several times the ladies with deep, deep purses, so deep that their gloved hands would descend into the depths, rifle gently and blindly for coins, then emerge slowly with their tip.  “They didn’t want you to see how much money they really had!”  As always, Casimir reveled in these memories, with the complete understanding that those were different times.

One entity that wasn’t a penny-pincher was The Pfister.  Describing the food the bellboys were served, Casimir said, savoring the words, “The food was–” Then he paused, pinched his fingers and thumb together, placed them on his lips, and–in a gesture more Italian than Polish–kissed them instead with a “Mwah!”  His fingers exploded open with delight, as if to proclaim “Bellissimo!”

It’s not that Casimir didn’t covet any of the affluence of the Hotel’s guests. I’m pretty sure he did his finger-kiss again when he told me that “Clark Gable had a trench coat with big lapels.  It was long, all the way down to his ankles.  It took me six months to save up for my own, but I finally got it!”  This humble industrious makes perfect sense given Casimir’s upbringing in another home away from home where, perhaps, he learned how to serve others.

“I grew up simple, poor.  But the churches,” he remembered, “were churches you couldn’t even believe.”  He was referring to the ornate glory of their interiors, I believe.  “And they never had to hire anyone to take care of the churches because all the parishioners volunteered to do things at the church: clean, fix, you name it.  My family cleaned the linens.  And I was an altar boy until I was almost 19 years old.”

However, remember that mischievous smirk in the photo above.  Service be damned if, well, adolescence doesn’t grab hold of you.  Casimir confessed: “One of the things we had to do was drink the leftover wine after church. But my [late] brother Eddie and I drank too much wine once–more than we were supposed to–and Father came in.  We were grounded!  Father didn’t want us back.  Until, of course, he needed us for Easter services: ‘Casey, Eddie–we need you.'”  This is where, perhaps, he learned the power of being needed–even if it meant later in life taking the stairs three or four at a time under the watch of Mr. Peltzer. 

He also knew that a commitment was a commitment: “I got bombed one Saturday night.  And of course the next morning we were supposed to go to church.  I didn’t want to, but my dad used the phrase ‘While you’re living under my roof.’  So I had to go to church.  But that was the last time I drank on Saturdays.  I drank on Fridays instead.”

“We were devils . . . but nice devils.”

It was hard not to be charmed by Casimir.  He made his life–heck, Life in general–sound so real and universal, even with the peculiarities of his personal story.  One could see in his face–the smoothness we see in the photograph long gone but the smoothness of his attitude toward life still strong–the face of a devoted brother and a son losing his father, of an altar boy and a mischievous kid, of an eager Pfister bellboy and a loving father to Joey, Steven, Caroline, Danny, Kimmy and Little Casey, all of whom love him back!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pfister is My Second Family (Although the Details are Fuzzy)

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.  But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.” (from Jay Mcinerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, 1984)

Well, I am the kind of guy (Narrator) who would be at a place like this (the Lobby Lounge) at this time of the evening (about 5 pm).  And here I am, and I cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although some of the details are fuzzy (my notebook is a jumble of hastily penned scrawls because sometimes you just want to, you know, talk to someone without recording every last word, and I’ve never gotten used to using a recorder).

Blake, a 6’1″ institutional stock broker from Tennessee who made sure I knew he came from humble origins (I got some details!), had been at the bar for some time before I arrived and set up shop.  Speaking of setting up shop, it seems Blake has done just that at the Hotel for the past 35 years. “I come here at least 5 times a month,” he said with pride, “so I figure after 35 years that I’ve stayed here at least 2,000 times or more.”

I think he said his flight had been canceled so he needed to stay an extra night in Milwaukee.  Of course, The Pfister was his first choice.

I recognized Blake from a couple of months ago, partly because he started telling me again about the blizzard of February 2011 when all those cars in Chicago got stuck in thick and the snow drifts in Milwaukee were at least a yard high.  Do you remember those photos?!

Blake and his business associates got stuck at the Hotel for three nights, a Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  Completely snowed in, buses shut down for days, nowhere to go.

He recalled: “I had about fifteen guys here for business.  So we had the place to ourselves.  It was like The Shining with all the empty halls.  Chris, the Evening Manager, gave us the 7th-floor party room.  They all wanted to gamble, so Chris walked to Flannery’s to get a dice cup.  Mason Street Grill took care of us, Blu took care of us, everyone took care of us.”

Chris happened to walk by, so Blake motioned him over and like clockwork, they began a series of giddy, nostalgic anecdotes.  “It sounds like you were school kids on a snow day,” I suggested.  “Yes!” exclaimed Chris, smiling widely, letting down for a moment his seemingly flinty guard.  Through none of this, though, did I get any details about what really went down on the 7th floor those three nights . . . maybe it was just innocent dice, who knows?

In any case, after Chris left, Blake and I returned to our drinks and somehow the phrase “gradually and then suddenly” emerged.  (I wrote it down in my notebook, but the context is, shall we say, fuzzy.)  I think I told him that I was a retired English teacher, so he tested me with “gradually and then suddenly.”  He was stunned when I hadn’t a clue where it came from, even though, he told me, “It’s one of the most famous lines in American literature.”   It turns out it’s from Hemingways The Sun Also Rises.  Graduate school, for me, is a little . . . fuzzy.

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said.  Gradually and then suddenly.”

“Favorite American novel?” Blake asked, perhaps giving me a chance to redeem myself for not recognizing the great Hemingway.

I impress him with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, so he eggs me on until I can guess his favorite.  His hint: something about wealth and power.  My first guess was The Great Gatsby.  That seemed obvious enough.

“Noooo!  Think again.  Wealth and power.”

“American Psycho?”

“Heyyyy.  Not bad.  Now you’re on the right track.  Think American Psycho, but a classic novel.  You’re so close.”

“Ahhh…Catcher–

“Yes!  —in the Rye.”  I feel triumphant.  “Both grew up hating ‘phonies.’ Holden Caufield in the ’50s, Bret Easton Ellis in the ’80s.  And Ellis went to Bennington in Vermont.”  I think to myself how the fictional Pencey Prep and the progressive Bennington couldn’t be more dissimilar, but I got where he was going.

We talked about American Psycho for a while, recalling favorite scenes . . . which, if you’ve ever read American Psycho, is not polite Lobby Lounge material.  In fact, Blake muffled his voice several times.

Blake insisted I check out Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (Tartt of Goldfinch fame).  “She went to school with Ellis at Bennington, you know.”  I did.  “And the setting of the story is a small college like Bennington and a tight-knit group of students.  It’s a murder mystery. And this one is much better than The Goldfinch.”

He also suggested Jay McInerney’s The Story of My Life (“It’s the female-focused version of his Bright Lights, Big City“).  I learned that Ellis borrowed a character from Story of My Life–Alison Poole–for American Psycho, and that McInerney eventually claimed that Poole was based on his ex-girlfriend Lisa Druck (who later changed her name to Rielle Hunter). Blake reminded me that she had an affair with John Edwards.

We bemoaned the cocaine-addled ’80s, a prime subject of Ellis’ and McInerney’s novels.  Of course, I was in middle school back then, so what would I know, other than what I learned from Ellis (I haven’t read McInerney yet, though I’m intrigued by Story).

Some wholesome interruptions occurred, too:  Huckleberry Finn came up. Not sure how: fuzzy.  Our bartender Torie said she had enjoyed Watchman and Maus, two graphic novels she had read in a class. “It was interesting reading in a different way.  They were all comic books that we had to analyze like regular books.”  And eventually the conversation returned, as it should have, to The Pfister’s hospitality, the blizzard of ’11, and the present moment.

“The Pfister is my second family.  When I see Ellie, Val, Jeffery, Peter, and everyone else, it’s like coming home to my family.  I can’t replicate this anywhere, especially as a business traveler.  If I had decided to stay by the airport tonight, I wouldn’t have had anything close to this experience.” Blake’s hand swept the room.  “They’re like a partner.”

Blake with longtime Pfister friend Ellie

“I was on the road for three days this week.  I’ve been so pissed off at things–but not anymore.  This is home.”

This was one thing that wasn’t fuzzy at all.  In fact, The Pfister makes sure it’s as clear as day whenever you enter the building and look up: Salve.

Who Says Skating’s Just for Kids? BluTending with Wisconsin Edge Masters Synchronized Skating Team

One man orders an Arnold Palmer, a dry vodka martini, and a Chardonnay. It almost seems like a test for the bartender, Nicole, who doesn’t know what an Arnold Palmer is.  He has to explain to her that an Arnold Palmer is half lemonade, half iced tea–no alcohol. He notices me noticing his test, then laughs and explains to me that if you add vodka, then it’s a John Daly, but he just wants an Arnold Palmer.  Both sound like summer to me. Meanwhile, Nicole, nonplussed, simply asks her fellow bartender where the lemonade and iced tea are.  She yells over to me:

“I’m doing two shifts tonight.  It’s terrifying . . . and fun!  Actually, it’s overwhelming!”

Despite being out of her comfort zone, Nicole takes charge behind the bar at Blu.  Yes, Nicole was helping raise money for the Wisconsin Edge Masters Synchronized Skating Team by volunteering to be a BluTender for a couple of hours.  It’s no surprise that she has the confidence of a pro–whipping out Arnold Palmers, nice pours of wine, and a strong New Old Fashioned (“That’s what the blood oranges are for!”)–because she is the captain of the Edge Masters team.

When her first shift is over, she slips onto the bar stool next to me and fills me in.  “Most people think of ice skaters as kids who stop when they’re adults,” she said, “but there are a lot of adult skaters in the metro [Milwaukee] area.  In fact, you have to be at least 25 years old to be on the Masters team.”  Nicole has been the captain for two years.  When I tell her that I’ve never heard of synchronized skating–and this is coming from someone who’s always loved watching skating at the Olympics–she confirms that not enough people know about it . . . yet.  “And the Olympics aren’t out of the question.  We’re working on it.”  She smiles.

I learn from her that each year, more and more people come out of the woodwork, as she puts it, people who used to skate when they were younger and who are looking to rejoin the sport, either for personal enjoyment or actual competition.  I didn’t get a firm handle on the timeline of synchronized skating (Nicole’s New Old Fashioned might have something to do with it–and I’ve never claimed to be a reporter!), but apparently (we’ll say “some time ago”) a “coffee club” of about ten senior citizens started taking to the ice together.  According to Nicole, their mindset was “We just want to skate.  We don’t care who it is, we just want to skate.”  And skate they did, replete with helmets and wrist guards.  This must have been a sight to see.  I muse to myself that I hope to be as tough as those senior citizens when I’m older.  I can’t even walk without falling sometimes, though, so I quickly abandon the prospects of being a tough old guy on the ice.

But it was “chaos,” Nicole adds.  “No one knew each other well.  There was a coach, sure, but no one really in charge.  But by the second year, it got more organized.  It was an evolving group.”  Many of the original “coffee club” members still skate, including 84-year-old Carl, who still skates and skis.  Inspired partly by these bold seniors, more and more adults in their 20s, 30s, and 40s started thinking about competitive skating again.  People started noticing who the “real skaters” were at open skates and through a mixture of personal and social media recruiting, teams started to coalesce.  And now there are Beginner, Preliminary, Pre-Juvenile, Teen, and Intermediate teams, too.

2015-16 Masters Team

According to their website, the Wisconsin Edge Synchronized Skating Teams “began with one team in 1985 under founder and coach Jon Sorkan. Within a short period of time, the Wisconsin Edge gained national recognition when the teams moved into the Pettit National Ice Center, one of the few Olympic Training Centers in the nation . . . In 1997, the Wisconsin Edge earned their first medal at the National Precision Skating Championships in Syracuse, NY after placing 2nd in the Intermediate division. Since then, Wisconsin Edge teams have gone on to medal at both the Midwestern and National Championships across multiple divisions of U.S. Figure Skating’s synchronized skating program. Most recently, Wisconsin Edge’s Preliminary team won the 2015 Midwestern Championships.”

While you can’t tell from the photo above of the 2015-16 Masters Team (with Nicole, I’m pretty sure, in the middle of the front row) is that the skaters range from 25 years to 60 years of age.

“In fact,” Nicole exclaims all of a sudden, “let me introduce you ‘Sparkly Jan,’ our 60 year old!”  As Jan and I shake hands, something in her beautiful 60-year-old face (again, you’d never know–that’s Jan in the first row, right!) strikes me as familiar, as does her first name, and I ask her if we know each other.  She smiles widely but says she doesn’t think so.

“Were you in a play with me about a purple kimono?” I try.

Lightbulb goes off: “Oh my god!  I was your wife!”

And the rest of the night is something of a blur (or at least I didn’t write much down after this moment).  Jan and I did, indeed, perform in a student-written and directed one-act play at Pius XI High School at least ten years ago.  We played the Japanese parents of a hefty son who reveals to them one evening that he likes wearing mom’s purple kimono.  Rave reviews.  Star on Hollywood.  All that.

She took a turn at BluTending:

Here, Jan looks like the stern wife she played in our one-act . . .
. . . but here, Jan shows a truer face: all smiles.

We eventually got a chance to talk.  In between reminiscing about our (or at least my) poor acting skills and filling each other in on a decade’s worth of life, Jan did add about her Masters team that it is comprised of so many kinds of professionals: “We have one stay-at-home mom, two PhDs, two nurses, one lawyer, one speech pathologist . . . They’re all so well-educated.”  I liked that she was proud of this characteristic.  And I loved that I was sitting with this classy, poised woman named Jan who is still doing what she loves.

I did meet Jan’s skating partner and Wisconsin Edge coach David, who told me that synchronized skating was invented by Dr. Richard Porter 53 years ago and that there’s a competition named after him in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  He told me that Jan had just passed her adult gold pairs test and that “for the last 16 years, I’ve been lifting Jan over my head and throwing her across the ice.”

I also met Jan’s daughter Angela, who is also a Wisconsin Edge coach.

I remember a fun conversation with David and his friend Josh, who was there to support the team, about death spirals and the impossible “Pamchenko Twist” from the 1992 movie The Cutting Edge.  We talked about a lot more that I can’t remember.  But it was fun.

At some point Jan, Josh, and I marveled over the little ditty about the Wisconsin Gas Light Building:

When the flame is red, it’s warm weather ahead. When the flame is gold, watch out for cold. When the flame is blue, there’s no change in view. When there’s a flickering flame, expect snow or rain.

At another point in the evening, I had a fun conversation with a Polish woman, dressed to the nines, about her fabulous life and her upcoming memoir, which I’m supposedly writing in 2017.  I took this picture that she really liked:

Very little of this is in the correct order, you should know.

I walked away from the beautiful Blu views with good memories, new insight, new friends, and a good buzz from the New Old Fashioneds (seriously, folks–The Pfister has it right!).

And a potential book deal for 2017???  Call me, whoever you were!

 

 

 

BREAKFAST WITH SANTA | December 3, 2016 | What Do You Want From Santa? (Adult Version)

Breakfast With Santa, December 3, 2016

On the day after Thanksgiving, the Pfister Christmas tree was lit and Santa arrived to the applause of adults, the squeals of children, and the caroling of madrigals in the packed lobby.  But Santa didn’t return to the North Pole right away.  Instead, for the next three Saturdays, Mr. and Mrs. Claus (and a sledful of elves) are revisiting the Hotel at Breakfast With Santa in the elegant Imperial Ballroom.  To just call this “breakfast,” though, doesn’t do it justice.  I was able to get some beautiful shots of the holiday smorgasbord from the tiny balcony typically reserved for newlyweds, from which the laughter of families and the clink of plates blended harmoniously with the musical cheer resounding from the speakers.

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The excitement was palatable: trays and trays of delicious foods, crafts for the children, and jolly elves whipping everyone into a holiday frenzy.

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And then . . . “Can I have your attention, everyone?”  Concierge Peter Mortenson took center stage and entertained the crowd by pointing to a random breakfaster and asking, “Is that Santa Claus?”  The children, of course, yelled, “Noooooo!”  So if that wasn’t Santa, then, how could beckon him?  What else to do but to pick up a young boy, stand him on a chair, and announce that this boy had suggested singing a song.

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It worked!  In the middle of “Jingle Bells,” look who arrived!

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So, what’s a lowly Narrator to do when all the kids are sitting on Santa’s lap or making ornaments or decorating cookies? Interview the adults, of course, and ask them what they wanted from Santa.  Earlier in the week, I had gotten a glimpse of what of what kids at the tree lighting celebration had asked Santa for–electronics, toys, puppies, baby sisters, and the occasional selfless Milkbones for their current pets:
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May all of your wishes–whether you are young or old–come true in the new year!  Ho Ho Ho!

You can visit Santa this Saturday, December 10, and Saturday, December 17, from 9:30am-11:30am, in the Imperial Ballroom on the 7th floor.  Tickets are $45 for adults, $20 for children 3-10 years, and free for children 2 and younger.  Call 877-704-5340 or 414-935-5950 to reserve your spot!  

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | OCTOBER 2016 | Fear Edition | “Conquering Fears”

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A good story about fear–well, it’s kind of vain–is about when I was 21.  I conquered a lot of fears by going to school in London.  I was going to UW-Parkside and found a study abroad program through UW-Platteville.  I really had no monetary understanding or issues; I just didn’t care.  I just knew I was going to do this.

But I was scared shitless.  For one, I didn’t know anyone in the program because I was at a different school.  I just wanted to get out and do stuff–and I knew I’d have to conquer any fears.  When I was there, I had to figure out the Underground by myself–I did that.  And one time I figured out how to see four plays in one day!  LENNON, 42ND STREET, GIGI, and LES MIS–seriously, the opening night of LES MIS in London!  

When I came back from London, however, all the normal fears came back, especially since I didn’t feel, from London, like I had to make any real decisions.  But of course I did.

I want this kind of experience for my daughters.  I want them to experience a different culture and conquer their fears–at least temporarily.

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | OCTOBER 2016 | Fear Edition | Pius XI High School Blutender Happy Hour

At a recent Blutender event for Pius XI High School, where I taught English for ten years, I met up with some of my old colleagues and their friends and supporters.  They were raising money for the Hank Raymonds Scholarship Fund.  When Mr. Raymonds died (he was the Marquette University basketball coach and athletic director in the 1970s), his three children, who were all Piux XI alums, created the fund in his honor.

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I’m not afraid of the unknown or the past.  I mean, I’m not afraid of death because of my faith, and I don’t regret anything in my life.  I remember taking a course called Death & Dying at Dominican; this was pivotal in my not living with regrets.

My biggest fear, then, is not having enough to retire on, especially as a single person.  I don’t fear being alone–I have lots of friends and family–but I do worry about retirement.

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I have a surface phobia: falling down stairs.  In fact, I was on the 30th floor of the 411 Building at Quarles & Brady when I found out they were going to have a fire drill in which we were to take the stairs all the way down.  I escaped the building early and came here to The Pfister and got a cup of coffee.

But my actual fear is this: my sixteen-year-old son goes to Pius and he’s physically disabled.  I’m constantly trying to provide opportunities for him, and I know that he doesn’t want to be different.  So my biggest fear is dying before I know he’s “set.”  I want him to have insurance and money so he can take care of himself.  I don’t want to die before him.

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I’m afraid of not being liked.  Well, maybe I shouldn’t use the word “liked.”  I mean, teachers are the most insecure people.  Teaching is our chance to be in power, but sometimes, when I think I’m doing well and I’ve nailed it, there’s this one kid out of thirty that tells me, “That’s crap.”  That’s being a teacher, though, huh?

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My biggest fear is being up this high on the 23rd floor.  If you paid me a million dollars to press my face up against the glass, I wouldn’t take it!  I used to take the kids to Great America and go on the highest roller coasters, but for some reason I’m afraid of heights now.

When I was coming up the elevator, I kept telling myself “You can take it!  You can take it!  I’m a big girl . . .”

See that guy by the window????

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HE’S FREAKING ME OUT!

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Cordial of Wisdom | August 2016

This is Thomas, one of the bartenders in the Lobby Lounge. He is full of cosmic love.

Last month I offered the first “Cordial of Wisdom” from behind the bar in the Lobby Lounge, featuring the imaginative, pun-laden, talismanic words of wisdom of Val, who has been with the Hotel for decades.  Today, I offer you Thomas.  At first, he smiled and said, with so much conviction, “I think I’m too young to be disseminating wisdom.  I’m still learning so much.”  I was patient with him, which was good because he tilted his head up slightly, his eyes glazed in contemplation, and with clarity and conviction that belied his age (which he didn’t reveal), began to talk about love.  We joked that I would call this post “Love Letter to My Wife,” but I think it’s really a “Love Letter to Love.”

Love is the most significant, energetic attribute we possess in life, but it is so elusive.  Every time I’ve grasped a taste of it, I’ve realized that its flavor is so much more vast.  I get overwhelmed–like I’m a cell in a giant of love.  Every time you taste it, there’s some new flavor.  I guess I’m a crazy, hopeless romantic, but I’m truly obsessed with this experience.

I’ve made some of the most significant life choices in the quest for this “Love.”  And it’s an experiential kind of love–not the printed card type of love.

Speaking of cordials, I feel like love–whatever it is–is truth.  It’s flowing from one ancient vine of grapes, and every grape is a different kind of love, and these flavors of grapes are all connected to the vine, and other vines–and they all connect to one source, one that goes below the ground where we can’t see it–and beyond.  What’s beyond is so mysterious, but all this love is connected to it somehow.

We got a kick out of taking this photo.

“Checking In With” Carol, Our Sunday Brunch Host | August 2016

You can’t tell from the photo (or maybe you can), but Carol possesses a quick wit! Watch out . . . or your smiles will make your cheeks start to hurt!

“Checking In With” Carol, Sunday Brunch Host

Here at The Pfister, I treat everyone the same.  I know they’re human beings: they all put their pants legs on one leg at a time.

I have been in hospitality for thirty years–I started out in banquets here at the Hotel–but I also have a huge theater background.  I did theater as a kid and in high school; I also did Student Congress and debate, both of which helped me talk my way out a problem.  Then I did community theater in my hometown.  There, I found myself backstage more–I was good at telling people what to do, where to go, what they needed–and was stage manager and producer on some of the productions.

Some of my favorite productions were Nunsense (I loved the amazing banter between the nuns, and the character I played had to do a song and be on pointe the whole time–yes, in ballet shoes) and My Fair Lady (I loved the dances).  What I realized is that theater is really about the people: we eat and sleep together for a few months at a time.  We become family, one that understands the stress and wear and tear that theater can inflict.  I mean, in a regular family, people can say, without really knowing your situation, “Oh, you can get through this” or “Why are you stressing so much?”  But in a theater family, everyone understands–and it can be more comfortable being with people who understand.

Hosting the Sunday Brunch at The Pfister is kind of my outlet for theater now: each guest is a new audience.  I feel trusted by the Hotel to take care of guests–all of the Associates do–for the good of the company.  It’s nice being able to make someone’s day a little better.

Cordials of Wisdom | July 2016

She works Tuesday through Saturday behind the bar in the Lobby Lounge, but in one sitting dispenses enough wisdom for an entire week (although she would probably chuckle her inward chuckle at me calling her quips and quivers “wisdom”).  She moves behind the bar with grace but always looks like she has a trick up her sleeve (she had several this afternoon, actually!).  Here is the first of multiple installments, I’m sure, of Valerie’s Cordials of Wisdom:

 

  • On the Art of Conversation.  “Allow the other to begin in one direction, like a straight arrow; allow them to take the lead.  Create the space where this freedom is possible, then begin to fill in the open spaces with yourself.  Follow the arrow down one path or the other path.”

Valerie has a quiet way of making you feel comfortable in the Lobby, waiting patiently for spaces that she can fill with wisdom, humor, impromptu insights, probing questions.  

 

  • Keep It Simple.  “Too many ingredients in a drink confuses the tastebuds.  Too many ingredients with dozens of other ingredients in them creates mud.  To avoid the muddle, in a drink (or life), keep it simple.  Complement simple ingredients with one or two others so that you can taste each one separately; if you’re lucky, then one flavor delight at the beginning, then give way to another, with a flourish at the end.”  

I learned this with her cordial of berries, coffee, and an ingredient that I’m not sure is secret or not, so I don’t dare mention it here lest I suffer the quivers of her “quips and quivers.”

 

  • Represent Your Places Well.  “Whatever places you represent, present them well.  Creating a relaxing atmosphere, a cordial experience, an unforgettable memory–this is who we are at The Pfister Hotel, for instance.”  

If you represent a school, present in every place you go as an ambassador.  If you represent a household, model for others what kind of family you are.  The same goes if you represent a company or a religion or a political office.  You are a synecdoche, a part that represents a whole.  It’s so easy to forget this, isn’t it?

 

  • Your Perception Directs Your Course.  “If you think that that black cat crossing your path is going to give you bad luck, then it’s more likely that you will have “bad luck.”  Your belief will affect the course of your day, making you more apt to identify “bad luck” when you might not have before.  Have you ever heard, however, about someone looking forward to a white cat crossing their path?”

Perhaps if more of us did . . .

 

  • Your Doubt Will Blind You.  “Here are three quarters separated by two dimes, all in a row.  Can you move two adjacent coins at a time, left or right, in three moves, so that the three quarters and two dimes are next to each other, with no spaces between any coins?”

I tried.  And tried.  And retried.  The answer to her question was a frustrated “No.”

“You doubted yourself.  You had it–the third move was right in front of you.  Many times.  But you doubted yourself.”

After whining a bit, I think, she calmly moved two coins, then two others, then two others.  And the coins aligned.  Then she brought out the cocktail napkin, ripped it into shreds, blew on it, and waved it in front of me like a white flag.  But it was me who was surrendering!  Magic . . .

So if you’re downtown when Valerie’s working and you’re feeling all quarters and dimes–or even worse, feeling like a shredded napkin–then step into the elegant Lobby Lounge, pull up a chair, bend one ear to the piano and another to Valerie, and get ready for some true Cordials of Wisdom.

 

“It Doesn’t Cost a Lot of Money to Be Nice”

For their 60th wedding anniversary, they went to Bora Bora.
For their 61st, Niagara Falls.
For their 62nd, Nashville, their 63rd Dallas.
They had a staycation in a Kauai Hilton last year.
And for this, their 65th anniversary, Joanne told Jim to surprise her.  

Even a couple of hours before her anniversary dinner at the Hotel where it all began, she still didn’t know why they had traveled all the way from Kauai.  Jim had arranged to have them renew their vows among family and friends, including two of their three children and Joanne’s brother, who lives in town and whom she hadn’t seen for about five years.  He had scheduled a late morning appointment for her at the WELL Spa + Salon, so, of course, she was suspicious, but Jim and the associates at The Pfister had done an excellent job of keeping the secret.

Colleen Maxwell, our Social Media Manager, and I got a chance to sit down with Jim before the big night to hear about his sly plotting and planning, but more importantly, for me at least, about his answer to this question:  What is your secret for staying married for so long?

Look at that sly smile. His wife still didn't know why they were at The Pfister!
Look at that sly smile. His wife still didn’t know why they were at The Pfister!

Answer: Start planning in junior high.

As Jim told it, “I spotted her when she was twelve, when I was in 7th grade.”  Well, that’s an early start.  “I was part of the CYO, the Catholic Youth Organization.  They would let the 6th graders take a look to see what was in store for them.  And one day I pointed to my friend Bill and said, ‘That girl in the white shirt and black and white checkered shirt–she is beautiful.’”  Needless to say, Bill reminded Jim that she was “only twelve.”  That didn’t stop Jim, though, from watching and waiting.  

His mother had wanted, as many Catholic mothers in his era did, her son to become a priest.  He attended Marquette University High School, doing his mother proud.  From afar, however, he watched Joanne grow up.  Then, about two months from his sixteenth birthday, in the year of our Lord 1947, the phone rang: it was Joanne.  They agreed to go on a date to a Saturday party, but not before Joanne laid down some “ground rules.”  (She knew about the crazy house party he’d been at a few weeks earlier at his cousin’s place while the parents were gone: “I was a victim,” Jim insists.)  Even though she was dating other people at the time, Jim couldn’t refuse such a bold offer.  And neither could her parents welcome strapping young (and Catholic) Jim into their lives.

Answer: Remind them how beautiful they are.

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Thank you, Google, for the many faces of Dorothy McGuire.

Jim’s voice crackled with sheer disbelief that anyone so beautiful could have come into his life.  “She was and still is very beautiful.”  He said this several dozen times (and wouldn’t tire, I’m sure, of saying it again.)  People used to come up to her and ask for her autograph, because she was the spitting image of Dorothy McGuire, a star of radio, stage, and screen, especially in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Just the other day,” he adds, jumping ahead many decades, “we were having brunch at a hotel after Sunday Mass.  Two women came up to us and told my wife, ‘We can’t get over how beautiful you look.’  This has happened so many times when we’re out to eat.  I always want to tell these women that I’m sitting right there, too.  Whatever happened,” he joked, “to saying, ‘Hey, this fellow doesn’t look that bad either’?  What am I?  Chopped liver?”

Five years later, they were married.  Jim referred to The Pfister Hotel as the “first place we ever shacked up in Milwaukee after we got married.”  As we all know, of course, The Pfister is far from a “shack.”

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This is the photo that reminds Jim of Joanne the most.

Answer: Tolerate each other and accept each others’ individual talents.

They started what he kept calling an “interesting” and “supportive” life together.  One of the keys to their marriage, it seems, was allowing each other to be their own persons, to follow their own paths–but together.  He called it “tolerance,” but it seems much more than that. A very early indication of their acceptance of each other was when she had to practice her tennis game to defend her CYO championship at the resort on their honeymoon, something that got their friends wondering whether Jim and Joanne understood what was supposed to happen on a honeymoon.  But play she did, and Jim, in love with his new partner, didn’t think twice about it.  

They would go on to adopt three children in their early years, two sons and a daughter.

He eventually opened his own office supply company, with three employees.  For someone who didn’t even know how to use Liquid Paper, this was a risk.  But they made things work, with Joann helping in the store, too.  But it took Jim a while to realize that she possessed a not-so-hidden talent.  “She was always bitching about salesmen who didn’t know anything about sales,” he says.  She was a fierce critic who knew how things should be run, so he got her set up with her own office furniture business, which is still successful, now run by their daughter, with Joanne as chairperson of the board.  

Jim talked at length about his other career choices, all of which Joanne supported.  He once worked for the Texas Rangers selling season tickets to businesses, traveling once a year with the ball club because his sales were so good.  He worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in charge of state-wide distribution.  But most interesting to me was his three-week-a-year stint as Santa Claus for twenty-five years.  Jim was no mall Santa; instead, he dressed up for friends, especially friends with children, and Joanne would accompany him as an elf.  Free of charge.  He did it out of pure joy, making sure that his friends got at least one gift from their children’s wish lists–and to let him know what they had gotten.  That way, he would know that a boy had gotten, say, a G.I. Joe for Christmas, and armed with this knowledge, the following year “Santa” could tell that boy, “Remember when you wanted that G.I. Joe last year.”  Kid’s mind blown.  Jaw dropped.  Santa is real.  

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The private dinner and renewal of 65-year-old wedding vows.

Answer (the most important one): Enjoy life and be nice.

Jim’s philosophy of life?  “When I die, I don’t want people to stand at my casket and say, ‘That poor guy didn’t enjoy life.  He didn’t use enjoy every minute that God gave him.”  He added, “It doesn’t cost a lot of money to be nice to people,” he told us.  

Originally, I was going to title this post “Giddy as a Frickin’ High Schooler,” a phrase Jim repeated to me numerous times on the phone and during our interview.  Giddy.  Young.  Enjoying every minute that God gave him.  

However, in the wake of the senseless tragedy in Orlando this past weekend, I’ve decided to use Jim’s more relevant and ridiculously simple words as my title:

“It Doesn’t Cost a Lot of Money to Be Nice.”