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