HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | MARCH 2017 | Transitions Edition | “The Classic Look is Made to Last”

Today’s HUMANS OF THE PFISTER post is about “Transitions”–but also kind of an anti-transition story.  It’s more a story about endurance, about a stalwart establishment that has survived three transitions to become a 25-year staple of Wisconsin Avenue, just a half-block west of The Pfister. Meet the proud owner of The Sophisticated Man, Diane Hamiel, herself a sophisticated woman who was sporting sleek gold glasses that flared out to meet her delicate bob and a sharp black top with a poofy lapel, not to mention a kind, witty smile.

I owned the Leather Boutique for women when I first started.  It was mainly for women; the only things for men that we sold were wallets and belts.  The boutique was on 3rd and Juneau, near where they’re building the new arena.  But I lost the store to a fire.

However, that’s when I realized that men need help.  They need someone to help them get dressed up; they don’t have enough places to shop.  So I opened up my first men’s shop in the Prospect Mall in 1974.  We were such a small shop, and people didn’t think we’d survive.  But we were there until 1981 and moved to a bigger space in the Grand Avenue Mall, eventually moving to 322 E. Wisconsin, which is where we still are.

We sell classics.  One of the things I always say is “The man’s ideas may be changing fast, but the classic look is made to last.”  We still have guys wearing things they purchased 20, 30 years ago.  They come in and show you–and they come in with their kids now, too!   I feel like a big-time grandma!

I just love men.  At The Sophisticated Man, we love servicing men!  We can dress you up from head to toe: socks, shoes, underwear, shirts, suits, coats, slacks, hats, you name it.  We help them with personal attention. You can walk into the shop like that [gestures to my jeans and sweater] and you can walk out like you’re going to meet the President.  We dress all the sports stars–they come to us.

What would you hook me up with if I came into the store?

Like I said, we could dress you head to toe.  I mean, you can have your casual look [again, gestures to my jeans and sweater], but–you look like you’re a 15 1/2″ neck, probably a 34-35 long.  Yes?

Exactly.

A Room With a View: Afternoon Tea at Blu (Finally!)


(Suggestion: Play while reading.)

It is no wonder that Blu has been named the Best Hotel Bar in Milwaukee by OnMilwaukee.com.  But it’s not only their thirst-quenching selection of premium cocktails that earned them this billing–or their stunning views of downtown and Lake Michigan, or their bookings of some of the hottest jazz and other musicians in the city, or their BluTender fundraising events for local non-profits.

It’s The Pfister Afternoon Tea.  It took me and Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson almost a year to partake, but last Friday we did, on one of those afternoons when the crisp air and bright sun combine to showcase everything with diamond-like precision.

While many other hotels in the United States offer high tea service (we won’t mention their names), it’s safe to say that The Pfister is one of the only ones that doesn’t just hand guests a menu with dozens and dozens of teas.  Instead, Tea Butlers (or, as I like to call them now, “Tea Sommeliers”) offer guests tableside tea blending.  After guests are seated, a Tea Butler arrives with a gueridon service trolley and, like someone handling precious antiques, lifts each of thirteen beautifully jarred teas, expounds on each tea’s origin, unique ingredients and flavors, and other fascinating miscellany.  The thirteen selections are Rishi Teas, harvested around the world and headquartered in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, which lends local flavor to the exquisite sensations of breathing in each tea’s aromatic subtleties.

Our Tea Butler was Juan Rodriguez, who has been amazing guests with his tea knowledge for eight years.  “I learned a lot from taking the [Rishi] tea vendors crash course at the beginning,” Rodriguez says, “but I also did a lot of my own research, went to libraries and book stores, read a lot about the history of tea, different kinds, and so on.”  His explanations of each tea’s nuances–and how they would pair with the selection of dried mangoes and plums, fresh apple, lemon, and ginger slices, and  cinnamon, mint, and dried hibiscus flowers–were as relaxing as the sunny heights from which we listened.

The exquisitely polished silver tea pots came one at a time (Juan indulged each of us with three different pots as opposed to the usual one).  My round began with the delicate 1893 Pfister Blend White Tea Rose Melange, was kicked up a notch with the Vanilla Bean Black Tea steeped with cinnamon, and was settled with the Tangerine Ginger.  Pamela enjoyed the Jade Oolong, Chocolate Chai, and the Tangerine Ginger as well.  And what an indulgence it was–that’s a lot of tea, that’s all I’ll say.  But before we could indulge, we had to let it steep for 3-4 minutes, after which we were instructed to hold onto the chain of the tea ball infuser so that it wouldn’t fall in . . . alas, someone didn’t hold onto the chain (hint: those aren’t my fingers in the photos).  And so commenced the Thirteenth Labor of Hercules:

Finally: success!

While I waited for the fishing expedition to end, a little research answered a question that was lingering on my brain: Why is it called “high” tea.  I assumed it had something to do with the level of upper-class distinction, with pinkies-in-the-air, with a British custom that I remember reading about and seeing in films in college (I was stuck on Edwardian England, as well as on a certain girl named Erin–Lucy Honeychurch to my George Emerson–who would lavish me with tea in her purple dorm room).  In fact, it was E.M. Forster’s Room With a View–which, come to think about it, is what Pamela and I were experiencing at Blu–that sparked my romanticism of old.  But Lucy’s view from the Pension Bertolini in Florence had nothing compared The Pfister’s view!

I was surprised to discover that the “high” part of high tea was originally a reference to the working men who took their mid-afternoon meal, standing up or sitting on high stools, eating cakes, scones, and cheese on toast with their tea.  It doesn’t seem like there was a cause-and-effect to what happened next, but eventually the upper class co-opted this practice (much like they did with one of my favorite Danish meals, the open-faced sandwich, or smørrebrød).  For them, high tea was a proper snack before hitting the town.  It is rumored that in the early 1800s, Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, began using mid-afternoon tea and a snack to cure her “sinking feeling” (apparently, the British typically only ate breakfast and a late dinner).  More women began joining her for tea, snacks, and socializing.  And the rest, I guess, is history: Anna has tea, everyone wants tea; John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, develops the sandwich, everyone wants high tea sandwiches; the upper class needs a nineteenth-century version of a 5-hour energy drink before promenading in Hyde Park, everyone wants that boost (which is strange, because promenading seems pretty leisurely to me).

I’m not sure what Pamela did after our Pfister tea, but my niece came into town and we went out for tacos and tequila (for me–she’s only 20), a far cry from the goat cheese and watercress sandwiches; delicate cucumber sandwiches; dill-chantilly, curried quail eggs; chive and herb-roasted turkey pinwheels with red onion marmalade; Scottish smoked salmon rolls with roe; chocolate dipped strawberries with white chocolate shavings; freshly baked blueberry and cranberry scones; lemon raspberry mascarpone tarts; opera tortes; French macaroons; madeleine cookies; and lemon curd & strawberry preserves.

To top it off, the high tea harpist soothed us with songs as diverse as the symphonic version of Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and John Legend’s “All of Me,” her fingers strumming beautiful notes while Pamela and I talked about art and creative placemaking, photography and city-building, the upcoming Jane’s Walk and 200 Nights of Freedom, Black Power and the state of education in our country.

I guess even high tea couldn’t tame the artist and activist in us both.  In fact, what it did was both bring us back to a time when both the working class and the upper class shared a similar pastime and propel us forward into new ideas and hopes for the future.

Time to start drinking more tea–and the start of an annual tradition.

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!

 

 

 

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.

20161011_180321 20161011_180959

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.

20161011_181813

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.

20161011_183810

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?

20161011_183122

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????

20161011_182913

HE’S FREAKING ME OUT!

20161011_183210 20161011_183216-1

20161011_183223

Jazz Virgin

I admit it.  I’m a jazz virgin.

But The Pfister Hotel is going to initiate me.

At the Mason Street Grill on Wednesday evening, after listening to part of a set by the Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo, I snuck up to a table where a woman was sitting alone.

The Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo

Her companion had just temporarily vacated his seat to chat with Jamie and Mark.  This seemed like a good opportunity to see what she knew and thought about jazz.  I introduced myself (her name is Sheryl) and remarked about how smoothly Jamie’s embouchure and Mark’s fingers communicated with each other, almost telepathically (I didn’t use the term “embouchure”–I had to look that up!).  I was really bemoaning the fact that I’d never been able to tear my eyes away from the sheet music and just, well, jam.  Improvise.  Instead, my classical and acoustic guitar playing was always literally by-the-book.  Sheryl conjectured that improvisation was like telling each other, “We’re going to do this together–but also separately.  Let’s just agree to play in this key, this tempo, this style.”  Then I’m going to play, then you’ll come in when it seems right.  I’ll listen to your notes, you listen to my rhythm.  We’ll build off each other.   Communicate and create with a look, a beat, a tone.  We’ll build off what we know and take it from there.

20160608_214806Sheryl’s husband, Kurt, whose seat I had taken, is an accomplished pianist, composer, and arranger.  When Kurt returned to the table, I learned that he had arranged the music this spring for James & the Giant Peach at The Prairie School, where Jamie and I just got done teaching for the year, and had also just performed with Aretha Franklin at the Riverside the previous Friday.  When I told them that one of my missions as the Narrator is to uncover the story of jazz at The Pfister–and educate myself on the genre–both Sheryl and Kurt recommended that I begin my instruction with Ken Burn’s famous Jazz documentary series.  Sheryl admitted to knowing about as much as I do about the technical side of jazz, but it must be nice having a jazz expert to which to defer when jazz virgins like me ask questions like “How do Jamie and Mark know when to come in after the other one solos?” or “Are there many female jazz musicians?  Have there ever been?  If not, then how come?”  or “Were they just playing Coltrane or modern jazz or Monk or someone else?”  She was able to help up to a point, then she and I were in the same boat.  I hope we’ll find ourselves in that boat again during my year-long Pfister initiation into the world of jazz.

This pleasant conversation seems like a good starting point for my initiation–that and Ted Gioia’s Jazz Standards, which I had tucked into my bag in case I had time to read while listening to Jamie and Mark.  I wouldn’t have time to read, but I would go on that evening to meet several other people who undoubtedly will become some of my jazz mentors this year.

Jamie made sure to introduce me to August (Auggie) Ray, vice president of Jazz Unlimited of Greater Milwaukee, whose mission is “to support the art of jazz in all its forms and encourage local jazz musicians, composers and venues by cultivating an interest in jazz through local live performances, youth scholarship opportunities and community outreach throughout the Greater Milwaukee area.”  Auggie sat near the piano and typed prodigiously into his iPhone, posting to Facebook a photo of the Duo, some notes, and the location.  He calls The Pfister “one of the best promoters of live music in the city.”  With live piano seven days a week, live music in the Mason Street Grill six days, and live music at Blu at least two times a week, I couldn’t argue with him.  The Pfister is not alone in promoting live music, especially jazz.  Auggie moves from one live music venue to another throughout the week, averaging two a day, although his personal record is six in one day: Amelia’s at 5:00, The Packing House at 6:00, Caroline’s at 8:00 (mostly blues), Mason Street Grill at 9:00, then the Jazz Estate for until 1:00 am (reopening in July!).  At each new place, he posts to Facebook.  He is a constant presence in the life of jazz and blues in Milwaukee.  We only got to chat for a little bit, because he was headed up to Blu, but not before he gave me a Jazz Unlimited newsletter (this is going to be invaluable!) and told me that Dan Albrechtson, who plays piano in The Pfister lobby, has a steady gig–on every second Monday at Hart Park in Wauwatosa, where I live–giving a concert and jazz history lesson with Pete Wood, Bruce Yeo, Don Shesky, and Rob Moore.  (I’ll see you there soon, Dan!)

Before the night ended, I joined Mark Davis and his Wisconsin Conservatory of Music colleague, guitarist Paul Silbergleit, at Blu, where, it turns out, Mark Thierfelder had booked The Julie Lyon Quartet from New York City to play a special show with his Mark Thierfelder Trio.  (Of course, Auggie was up there already, posting away!)  Among other musical combos, Mark also plays with The Jazz Corporation, joined by Greg Marcus and Bill Bonifas.  While Julie sang the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong version of 1945’s “Frim-Fram Sauce,” popularized by The Nat King Cole Trio, Paul and I discussed my earlier regret, the one I’d shared with Sheryl, about never being able to improvise or jam.  In something of a consolation, he assured me that there are musicians who only improvise but who don’t really know music, and that there are musicians who can only read music, who know notes on the page and perhaps music theory, but who don’t really feel music.  He argued for a happy medium.  We also talked about how one’s environment can come out in one’s music, just as it can emerge in writing (Paul referenced Hemingway and Key West).  

20160608_215255
The Julie Lyon Quartet

However, as interesting and cerebral as our conversation became, these are things I’ll have to think about later as I try to learn more about jazz, as an art form and as a source of stories here at The Pfister Hotel.  Sometimes, at midnight, in a crowded bar with interesting gentlemen and songs about pork chops and bacon, oss-en-fay and shafafa, one just wants to enjoy one’s Old Fashioned, nibble on wasabi peas, tell stories, laugh–and listen.

An Introduction: Prequel No. 1

Greetings, Milwaukee!

While Narrator Emeritus Jonathan West’s photograph and bio still linger on the sidebar–it’s no wonder, since he has become such a presence and voice at the Pfister over the past year–I offer you two “prequels” to my first official post as Pfister Hotel Narrator, in which I will formally introduce myself and give thanks to those who have come before me.  These two prequels are adapted from the two sample blog posts I submitted to the selection committee.  The first, “My Nemesis,” is brought to you by . . .

. . . a recent mid-April evening, when I followed a young man with a guitar case into the Mason Street Grill, in search of a story to write as part of the process of becoming the next Pfister Hotel Narrator.  As one of three finalists, I knew I had to work with a close ear and a nimble pen.  My plan was to listen for a while to the Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo, then snag Jamie for an interview in between sets.  This should be easy, I thought, since Jamie is a colleague at a local independent school, where I currently teach English and he teaches Instrumental Music.  I’ve enjoyed hearing him at Blu several times, but always in the evening, when the lounge is bustling.

Jamie Breiwick on trumpet at Blu.

However, as I sat down with a whiskey, my phone, and my stylus, I felt a presence.  In fact, I saw him and heard him. I could swear that this presence was also a finalist for the Narrator position.  I imagined that, just because he was writing in a notebook, he must have had the same objective as I had.  It’s not every day that you see people scratching in actual notebooks anymore.  He had had, I assumed, the same idea: hang out at the Mason Street Grill and capture the ambiance of the Grill and the rhythm of the Duo.  I really did feel a tad competitive–even nervous–because he seemed to have an “in” that I didn’t have, as you’ll see, even despite my connection with Jamie.  This is the poem that emerged from this, my first “foray” in the Pfister’s first-floor restaurant where I hoped to spend plenty of time in the coming year:

My Nemesis

I know the trumpet player,
so I head toward him,
accidentally intercepting
the snap of his 1-2-3
with a handshake-hug,
then, embarrassed, take a seat
at the bar to strategize
how best to write the song
of this Mason Street crowd.   

What I don’t know is this room yet:
a bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.
The portamento of the familiar trumpet
guides me, glides me from table to table:
two women crack up over selfies,
a man leans into his conversation
with a woman who sits near
another man politely slicing
a tenderloin as another one–
my nemesis–
tells the bartender coyly,
“Oh, you talked me into it.”

I know the trumpet player,
but I also already know my nemesis,
my competitor, because I can tell
he’s been here for awhile
and already gotten used to
the polyrhythmic beat of the bar and the band,
the bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.

He has beaten me to a bench near a bookcase
in the corner between the kitchen
and the exit, as valets enter and leave.  
He sits there, visible but secretive,
writing in a notebook.
I had seen him see me come into the bar,
felt him eye me knowingly,
writer to writer,
as I removed my phone and stylus,
moved to the loveseat in front of him,
and alternately sipped my whiskey
and jotted notes about the music.
If we were both going to narrate the Pfister,
then at least I would be closer to the band.
But I worried my words were his words,
only more cliche:
“Sprinkling staccato keys.”
“Punctuating, gallivanting, tumbling.”
“Skipping trumpet.”
“Pulsing pluck of guitar.”
I feel his competitive words behind me,
his seasoned bluesy ear
that was probably writing
more than gerunds,
his comfortable rapport with the bartender:
“Oh, you talked me into it.”
And then my suspicions are confirmed
when the music stops and he approaches the band
before I can, with another drink in hand,
like a reporter, a critic, to confirm their names
and read an excerpt–he’s pretty forward–
from his review, which, I am shocked,
uses words like “derivative” and “painful.”

But neither the trumpet player who I know
nor the piano nor the guitar seems to mind.
Instead, they augment the dinner din
with ironic chuckles and slap my nemesis on the back.
Defeated, I wonder how he has glided so easily
into their blues, gotten to know this room
so confidently.

It’s been such a long time
since I’ve observed and listened,
written unhindered by the looming
deadlines of anxious clocks.
Dragged along by the melancholy tug
of the blues, I realize that I allowed
my mind to wander and create a character
out of a corner bench, a notebook,
a glance, and “Oh, you talked me into it.”
To insert and assert myself into the lives
of these Mason Street strangers,
I will need to become my own character,
learn to interrupt their dinner din,
blend my pitch with theirs,
emerge from the dark wood and cool leather,
and smile myself into their lives
as cooly as my fantasy nemesis,
who turns out to be a prolific drummer

who’s known the trumpet player longer than I have,
who’s known rooms like this longer than I’ve been alive.  

Turns out that my “fantasy nemesis,” however, was just retired drummer Rick Krause, who, according to a performance bio provided by Jamie, was “about 14 years old when he began taking the bus from Oconomowoc to Milwaukee every other week to study jazz drumming.”  He was there, of course, to enjoy the Duo; his critical “review” was a joke among friends.  For about 40 years, from 1971 into the aughts, Rick performed with locals like Mark Davis (my piano man this evening!) and national artists like Eartha Kitt.  The list is pretty extensive; I’ve never heard of any of these people!  I’m realizing that the jazz world is a networked litany of names and notes: Melvin Rhyne, David Hazeltine, Barry Velleman, Teddy Wilson, Bud Freeman, Eddie Higgins, Richie Cole, Chris Connor, Jackie Allen, Pete Condoli, Edie Adams, Barbara McNair, Kirk Stuart, Rich Crabtree, John Gary, Johnny Desmond, Ken Berry, Phil Ford and Mimi Hines, Kaye Ballard, Arthur Siegel, Hildegard, Tony Martin, The Four Lads, Jimmy Rodgers.  

One of my plans this year is to narrate this unfamiliar (to me) world of jazz for the guests of the Pfister and visitors to the website.  Incidentally, the young man with the guitar case was the Duo’s accompanying guitarist Max Bowen, who, I learned, moved to Milwaukee from Michigan only about a month ago.  I got a chance to sit down with Jamie and Max in between sets–talking about education and jazz and improvisation and Africa.  More on both of them, too, I hope, in future posts!

It’s Great! What More Do You Need to Say?

We all stood in the hallway shoulder to shoulder. Smiles all around. There was a feeling of shared hoopla on a recent Friday night as I stepped into a ground floor elevator with a band of gals and guys who were out on the town making mischief. You could see the revelry in their eyes, and, sure, I might have also been able to smell it on their cocktail scented breath.

Heather flashed a big smile my way and said, “I love your bow tie.” I thanked her for the complement and she then fished around to see what my deal was, why in the world were she and her friends trapped in an elevator with a dork like me in a suit and tie. I told her I was a writer, the guy who got to tell the stories of the throngs of men and women who came to the Pfister for merry good times full of cheer. It was as if I had dropped an exuberance bomb for our ride 23 floors into the sky.

Heather and her pals Jackie, Ted, Chad and Amanda lit up like Christmas trees on fire, ready to talk, squeal and scream about all the good stuff in the world. Well, not so much Amanda. Amanda was playing it cool. Super cool, and you don’t need to try too hard when you’re super cool.

I asked the game of friendlies where they were from and almost in unison like they had been given five-dollar bills by the local convention and visitor bureau they proudly announced their Milwaukee hometown roots.

To a person I could tell they all loved Milwaukee, so I asked them all, “What’s your favorite thing about Milwaukee?”

Out came a strong a unified message, surely pitched with just the right tone to make me see that it was the truth, and nothing but the truth.

“It’s great!” exclaimed Heather.

“It’s great!” belted Jackie.

“It’s great!” hollered Chad.

“It’s great!” tooted Ted.

Amanda raised an eyebrow. When you’re cool as a cucumber, your brows can do all the talking. I could tell hers were saying, “It’s great!”

The walking party bus was headed to Blu to continue their Friday night fun night, and when we arrived at the 23rd floor they poured out of the elevator and almost cartwheeled right into the bar. They beckoned me to follow, but I realized I had left a notebook on the ground floor, so I waved goodbye and headed back down. I planned to travel back up after retrieving my notes, so I suspected our paths would cross again.

With notebook in hand, I caught another elevator and made my way to the sky. The doors of my elevator car opened on the 23rd floor, and who do you think greeted me tumbling in to make a ride back downstairs but the fun bunch I had just left at Blu.

I asked them what was going on and Heather, by now their legitimate spokesperson, said, “That bar is not our scene. We’re headed out. Maybe we’ll see you around!”

The doors closed and I knew things would turn out okay for Heather, Jackie, Ted, Chad and Amanda out on the streets of old Milwaukee. After all, as I had just learned from one of Milwaukee’s finest happy times teams, “It’s great!”

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

Coffee Guy Gets Tea-ed Up

Almost exactly one year ago, I spent six long weeks denying myself coffee. I did it as part of a dietary change, and as a substitute for coffee, I was allowed to drink green tea. That’s sort of like replacing 100 pounds of the world’s finest Swiss chocolate with a pair of damp sweat socks. After six weeks, the first thing I did was drink three pots of coffee. I have not turned back since then and couldn’t be happier or more jittery.

The effect that this period of coffee abstinence has had on my appetite for tea is brutal. That’s why, approaching my recent planned outing for afternoon tea at the Pfister I had one anticipatory feeling.

Meh.

Oh, what a silly fool I was. “Meh” was simply the wrong feeling to be hanging onto as I got ready to have the full Pfister tea experience. “Meh-gnificent” would have been a more apt expression of brewed awakening, for I now know that the Pfister tea ceremony has the power to wash any taste of indifference out of the mouth of even the hardest core java Joe or Jane.

Ever since I have taken on the role of Pfister Narrator I have imagined what a sweet experience it would be for my daughters and wife to enjoy afternoon tea. It’s just the sort of thing they like. They actually really enjoy tea. I’ve seen them drink it many times, always with smiles on their pretty faces. I also have it on good authority that they like desserts that you can pick up with your fingers and pop easily into a mouth. Basically, afternoon tea is firmly in their wheelhouse, so I knew even though tea wasn’t my thing, it would be a rare and wonderful treat for them to enjoy.

The day in question of our recent tea experience was something of an occasion for gluttony for me. In fact, I had chosen this day to have afternoon tea with my family expressly because I was intentionally keeping things on the light side in terms of caloric consumption during the day. In my mind I was warmly planning to back off the tea service so my wife and daughters could really lean into it. My calendar was booked with an annual dinner with friends later in the evening, the sort of thing that you prepare for by not eating for about fourteen days prior. I would leave afternoon tea with my family and order a 72 oz. steak covered with buttered mushrooms. So, attending tea with my girls, something that I wasn’t particularly on the edge of my seat to drink or nosh upon, seemed like the perfect diversion where I would easily back off on sating myself.

Believing full well that I would demure from more than a nibble and sip at tea, I ordered an appropriate amount of sweet and savory treats for the four of us. I remember actually saying to my family, “I’m sure that I won’t actually eat anything…you know, I have to eat all that beef later.”

That statement set me up to prove one very important fact about my culinary leanings. When I am presented with food that is glorious to gaze upon and seeping pots of delicately and colorfully flavored aromatic beverages, I have absolutely, positively no restraint. Those tea sandwiches, scones, and last drops of hot tea never knew what hit them.

I now understand from first hand knowledge that there is nothing more genteel than enjoying afternoon tea at the Pfister. My family and I arrived at the 23rd floor and were escorted to the sofas arranged in front of the fireplace in Blu. I looked around at a roomful of graceful, happy people with arched pinkies sipping piping hot cups of tea. A pair of ladies sat behind us lingering over a long conversation.

“You ladies look like you’re having a wonderful afternoon,” I said, noting that there was the air of celebration about their mid afternoon clatch.

“It’s her 70th Birthday,” said one of the women, as she slipped some leftover treats into a carry out container that the attentive staff has provided her. “We get to take some of these treats home to keep the memory of a perfect afternoon going.”

My family wished these two charming women well as they gathered their belongings and made their way out into the afternoon sunshine. I thought it sweet that the women had taken a tea-time doggy bag home, but as we launched into tea, I also felt safe knowing that there would be plenty of treats for my ladies, perhaps even a skosh too much since I had plans to keep my hands to home and my lips pursed.

Then Juan showed up. If you have the chance to enjoy tea service at the Pfister, you have a great opportunity to be guided to the tea bar by an expert. Juan is the resident tea butler, and as he presented 15 different choices for tea to my family and me, I felt all tea inhibitions melting away. If Juan had told me to drink tea out of my elbow, I’m sure I would have done it, because his description of the body, fragrance and luxurious notes of every flavor of tea presented was better than the next.

I chose to have a pot of Earl Grey tea because I came to understand it had the most caffeine, therefore I took the leap to translating this fact into, “It’s the most like coffee.” My wife and daughters, true warm-blooded tea drinkers chose adventurous and fruity herbal varieties. They weren’t trying to cover anything. It was tea they had come for, and it was tea they were getting.

When the tea came in stunning sterling silver pots, I felt my knees weaken. This tea looked pretty good. What would it hurt to try a cup, right?

You’ll understand this if you have the beautiful chance to enjoy afternoon tea at the hands of the Pfister’s masterful staff, but after the first sip of perfectly brewed tea you are presented, your taste buds open and you immediately desire some delectable snack. There is no problem in this regard, of course, because at afternoon tea service on the 23rd floor of the Pfister, treats appear before your eyes and they are as pretty as jewels and as scrumptious as anything you’ve ever put in your mouth.

DSC03665
My tower of gut busting destruction.

How I know this, me, the one who had such heavy resolve going into this event to not partake of too much that was put in front of me so I could save room for all the steak in the world later on in my day, has to do with the fact that I have what you can call a true lust for life. In other words, I’m a pig of the highest degree.

The gateway food to my ultimate demise on the tower of treats presented to us was a beautiful little crab salad finger sandwich. My family does not like crab, so they suggested I take those for a little snack. I obliged, wanting to be polite, but half an hour later I lost all sense of time and space as I was lathering mascarpone cheese on my third scone and my daughters were realizing that there would be no carry out containers to take home like the lovely women we had met earlier in the day.

My youngest daughter, Carmela, had been watching me lap up my tea and recognized something in each sip I took. She said, “You look just like you do when you drink coffee, Daddy. Like an old man with a scrunched up face.”

DSC03670
Carmela mirrors my tea face, but much more cute, of course.

The little tea hugger was right, of course. Because of my trip down the tea road at the Pfister, I now see no difference in the pleasures of a good cuppa, be it coffee or tea. And, oh, if you’re wondering, no fears–I ate all my steak later that evening, and washed it down with a nice hot cup of black coffee.

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

At 10pm on Friday Night

I love meeting new people in my role as the Pfister Narrator, viagra but there are some times when I’d rather fade into the wallpaper and listen; watching and admiring life passing by rather than having face-to-face discoveries.

Times like 10pm on Friday night.

This last Friday I had been at the Pfister early in the evening to see the new Teachers show in the Pfister’s Pop-Up Gallery that our Artist-In-Residence Todd has curated with his usual care and attention. I then had to dash off to some other social engagements for the evening that wrapped up a few hours later. At a few minutes to 10pm on Friday night I found myself alone on the streets of Milwaukee faced with the options of going home to lay my head on my pillow or swinging by the Pfister to see if I might run into friends who I had heard were out and about for fun and games. It was one of those moments when I really didn’t want the shank of the evening to fade too quickly. I still had the itch to surround myself with the buzz of people clinking glasses and chattering away before wrapping myself in my bedcovers and calling it a day. So, viagra at 10pm on Friday night, the Pfister it was for my final stop.

I made a full swing through the hotel to see if my friends were solving all of the world’s problems fueled by glasses of gin and champagne. Alas, they seemed to be somewhere else in the universe hatching plots, but at 10pm on Friday night, I sensed that I had the rare solo viewer chance to seek out the everyday magic that seemed to be tucked in every action filled nook and cranny of the hotel that has become my home away from home.

The lobby bar was filled to the brim with twenty-somethings dressed to the nines smiling and flirting their way to the promise of a dewey eyed Saturday morning pillow talk with someone kind of sweet. And at 10pm on a Friday night, a handsome man with a perfect tight and trim haircut lit up the chilly winter night by proving that his purchase of an electric blue suit was the best charge he had ever put on his credit card.

IMG_0256

I popped into Blu on the 23rd floor and thought about staying around to listen to the melancholy songs wafting through the air, but I saw that at 10pm on Friday night there were no seats to be had and decided it was probably bad form to take a perch on someone’s lap. As I made my way to the ground floor with a group of white haired ladies cheeping at each other, I learned that Harriet, some far off friend, had taken up swing dancing, and her new hip was holding up just fine.

A pass through Mason Street Grill at 10pm on Friday night reminded me that I should absolutely consider eating more steak and listening to loads more jazz because everyone packed into the swank room brimmed with joy and the luscious perfume of Porterhouse.

At 10pm on Friday night I made my way past the Artist-In-Residence Studio to see that Todd was home and that creation was marching on with a guest humming along drawing and painting into the dark hours.

IMG_0253

I like to think that at 10pm on a Friday night there should never be a question of whether or not art is happening at the Pfister.

It also pleases me to no end that at 10pm on a Friday night a young lady is allowed to stay up way past her bedtime so she can snake her way through a crowded room in her bathing suit after a starry sky swim.

IMG_0252

The little yawn coming from my mouth told me finally that at 10pm on a Friday night there was no shame in submitting to the lure of cozy time with my lids snapped shut, so I buttoned up my coat and started to make my way to the parking garage to grab my car and head home. As I passed the Café at the Pfister I noticed that the occasion of a special Chef’s Table dinner was warmly bringing together a group of people for elevated food and inspired conversation. Peering into the darkness of the room, I looked past Dr. Hollander, the Pfister’s legend of the 88 keys, as he was taking a break from his piano set. I couldn’t tell if the shining light around his noggin full of well-tuned notions was coming from a simple light bulb or the glow of genius within his artist’s soul.

IMG_0254

You see, at 10pm on Friday night there was indeed magic in every corner on this particular hotel, and I was lucky enough to be there to see it all in its everyday glory.

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

So Ma, how did you get to be ninety years old?

Hello all, this intro is from your current Pfister Narrator, Jonathan West. It’s with the greatest of honors that I share with you this Guest Narrator post today from my immediate predecessor, the inimitable Anja Notanja Sieger.  While I was out of town over the holidays, Anja recently spent a lovely tea time with some special ladies who believe that celebrating a birthday is not merely a once-a-year affair, but something that you should put on your calendar at least every month.  I think you’ll enjoy Anja’s tale just as much as I did.

Every month Margaret’s daughters take her out to celebrate her birthday, because once you turn 90 you have to celebrate your birthday every month. This month they’re having teatime in Blu.

DSCN4114Juan, the tea master wheels a cart over to the party and initiates us:

“I am going to pass thirteen tea jars to you so you’ll have a chance to smell and select the one you’re going to be drinking.” He unscrews the jars and hands each to Margaret first, “This is the 1893 Rose Melange… Chinese oolong green tea, very light on the palate… German chamomile blossoms, a very soothing and relaxing tisane… Cinnamon plum… Hibiscus with a blend of berries and mango flavors… Tangerine ginger… Earl grey with a blend of lavender flowers along with bergamot oil essentials, it has a brothy flavor to it along with an amber color… This one comes from Sri Lanka, a Ceylon, stands very well with milk.

One of Margaret’s daughters interjects, “Which one goes best with champagne?”

 

DSCN4060 DSCN4059 DSCN4055

Juan smiles and continues, “A white tea infused with peach blossoms… A green tea from the region of Pu-erh… Chocolate chai, it has cacao nibs, coconut shea beans, yerba mate, dried dandelion roots, cardamom, vanilla and long pepper… This one here is making an appearance for the season, it is called: Cocoa mint… And lastly a black tea infused with sencha vanilla bean, very aromeric and flavorful.” I’m not correcting aromeric to “aromatic” as I relish how Juan jumbled the word into something more enticing and elevated to the world of the senses than the usual phrase.

DSCN4103I am one of nine women gathered for tea, and impressively, none of us orders the same tea, and Margaret doesn’t even want tea. After sniffing hearing the described virtues of all thirteen varieties she just wants a hot chocolate. After nine decades she really seems to have a grasp on what she desires and has no trouble asking for it. Meanwhile, Margaret’s daughters ask her, “So Ma, how did you get to be ninety years old?”

DSCN4069

“I got to go to college because in the summer I would work for a restaurant in the Wisconsin Dells.” Teenaged Margaret started work on the first day of the summer and for three months she’d never have a day off as a waitress. “That was the rule,” confirms Margaret. After graduating from The Milwaukee State Teachers College, she taught first grade for thirty years until she retired. Margaret taught jillions of kids how to read, including her own grand niece who had learning disabilities. She didn’t even quit her day job once she became a mother to Art, Jane, Tom, Nancy and Barb. There was only one bathroom, no shower. On Saturday nights the children took their weekly bath before shining their shoes.DSCN4072

Margaret liked to sew. She made Halloween costumes, a Santa Claus suit, lovely dresses for her daughters and granddaughters, teddy bears and kangaroos for students to hold at rest time at school, table runners, aprons, seat cushions, and matching swim trunks for her boys. They were striped and long before long swim trunks were popular, but they were made long so that they could grow into them.

DSCN4064Sitting beside Margaret is her great-granddaughter Lauren, who just turned 13. Lauren aspires to be a surgeon and likes going deer hunting with her brother, Margaret’s only other great-grandchild. In the summertime when Lauren was little she’d come visit Grandma Margaret on Lake Winnebago, a very algae ridden lake. “I’d come swim and then rake her seaweed,” explained Lauren.

DSCN4078

Margaret has splendid health, her only ailments being mild Parkinson’s and severe gluten intolerance. It is revealed that I am united with Margaret in that we both have celiac disease. She found out she had it when she was 70, and before the diagnosis they suspected she had intestinal cancer. After the diagnosis she got a bread maker and lived. I found out I had celiac when I was 21 and before the diagnosis I took three naps a day. After the diagnosis I spent year subsisting off of avocados and zucchini until my gut healed, and I too lived.

DSCN4082DSCN4083

I admit I’ve always avoided teatimes because I assumed it would just be a sort of gluten fest, cookies, crumpets and lady finger sandwiches wagging at me in a taunting chorus, “No, you can’t have this, no, no, nyah-nyah-nyah!” So I am amazed when a tiny tiered platter of gluten free delicacies are set out just for Margaret. I am amazed again when she requests that I sit beside her and share the hors d’ouevres which were made specifically for her and none of which happen to taste even remotely gluten free. Thank goodness. Included on the platter are these pita slices with dallops of hummus, and the pita even has that powdery surface I recall from years ago when I last ate gluten. This is pure miracle.DSCN4081

Margaret goes straight for the chocolate covered strawberries, while I prefer the cucumber sandwiches and savory items. Margaret has a sweet tooth, and her favorite ice cream is white chocolate with raspberries from Kelley’s, a creamery outside the town of Eden that boasts something like 106 different flavors including chocolate covered potato chips and a thanksgiving dinner flavored concoction known as “turkey lurkey.”

DSCN4067After spending seven decades as a reading teacher and matriarch, it appears some caretaker instincts are ingrained, such as turning the platter just so that the very able bodied twenty-something kid beside her can have a slightly easier reach to the cream dalloped pastries. “Don’t burn yourself on this tea kettle, it’s hot,” Margaret warns me.DSCN4073

I am told that Margaret is having the time of her life. She plays dominoes, and is known as the “bingo queen.” She recently moved to her own condominium, and now for the first time in her life she lives alone and on her own terms.