Joe, The Rookie

I’m not the first to find Joe as a subject. Katie Musolff also painted him outside on Wisconsin Avenue during a break.

“I’m going to be 22.”

That was Joe’s answer when I asked how old he was. His response was shared with a grin in that adorable way that only people up to a certain age are excited to tell you how old they’re going to be.

Joe started with the Pfister as a busser at the ripe young age of 18. After time spent cleaning tables Joe moved on to being a food runner and from there he has become a bartender. Joe bartends upstairs in Blu on occasion but most nights you can find him downstairs in the lobby lounge. This is where he prefers to spend his workday, as he prefers the relaxed vibe and the ability to spend time getting to know his customers.

To be fair; calling Joe a rookie isn’t entirely accurate. He has worked at the Pfister Hotel for 4 years.

The other day Joe and I were discussing houses. I just bought a fixer-upper in the Harambee neighborhood and Joe asked about my buying experience and challenges faced thus far in remodeling. Joe said that he’s thinking about buying a house. Maybe a single family, maybe a duplex. Something that a couple of handy buddies can move in and help him fix up in exchange for cheap rent. He gets that far-off glassy gaze while describing his house. “Somewhere that can be my own place with a pool table and a garden and I can make it my own.”

“How old are you anyway, Joe?” I finally asked him.  That’s when he told me he was going to be 22.

“How many 22 year olds who want to buy a house and put roots down?” I found myself thinking. This is the biggest reason I waffle on whether or not to call this guy a rookie.

Joe is the youngest bartender currently pouring drinks between the Pfister’s lobby lounge, Mason Street Grill, and Blu.

Possibly as a result of being a young he is interested in discovering new things. Joe is always quick with the best place to get a bite of food, try an innovative cocktail, or find an under-the-radar music venue. He knows who has the best hot wings, and where the burgers only cost a buck on Thursdays. He’s got his pulse on the city and it would be a traveler’s loss not to ask this young man his recommendation. I call Joe a rookie not because of a lack of experience, but because of the youthful excitement we all hope to keep fostering as we grow older.

It’s true that at 22 he may not yet be a walking recipe dictionary for every variety of fruit juicy martini, or ironically named shaker filled with frou frou creamy sweet shots. But his youthful manner is very much a boon to the young man. Joe doesn’t lean behind the bar with the sneer of a bartender who has “seen it all,” and as such hasn’t developed a bedraggled ambivalence to the world. Joe hasn’t seen it all. The world is still relatively new to him. He hasn’t heard it all, and he’s not developed the presumption to assume how your story is going to end when you’re in the middle of telling it. This guy is interested in hearing about your hometown, your last vacation, or an artist whose work he hasn’t previously been exposed to. Joe has the current experience which one cannot buy, the experience of being in the middle of one’s glorious youth. But for the mere cost of a glass of beer, you can enjoy Joe’s company. Which is almost as good as being young again yourself.

Roc’s Road to Milwaukee

There tend to be patterns of why people live where they live. Often times they got a job nearby, or that’s where they went to school, or possibly their spouse’s family is from the area.

Roc is a concierge at the Pfister and his path to Milwaukee definitely did not follow any of these typical routes. Roc and his Quaker lineage hail from Northwest Indiana. In his home state Roc had been a teacher of Latin, German, and English before becoming involved in starting non-profit organization. The organization provided the beginnings of what we now know as head-start programs, urban transit and information offices, and elderly health care programs. This would have been a fulfilling enough life for most, but Roc was then made aware that a member of his family was in need of serious help. Already in his 50’s Roc up and moved to Milwaukee to try his hand at parenting for the first time.

If you’ve ever met Roc behind the concierge desk you know that the man is a terrific storyteller. Below I’ll let you hear his story as he tells it. Click Play or Download below to hear Roc’s experience of arriving in Milwaukee and his sentiments on how invigorating later-life parenting can be.

 

The Secret

 

A young girl

tells her grandfather

she’s learning to write.

 

She explains

the yellow pencils

and blue lined paper

 

She tells him she’s learned

how to write her name.

 

“Well that’s magnificent!”

he exclaims,

“I’d love to read your handwriting.

Will you write something for me?”

 

 

She shakes her head,

“But Grandpa,

you can’t read it yet,

 

“I’m just practicing.”

 

Her grandfather smiles

and leans down to whisper

gravelly grinning decades next to her face

 

“My dear,

that is the great secret.

 

Even when you get good

at handwriting, or anything else,

even when you grow up

and get big like your parents,

even when you’re old like me,

 

every shoelace

and every signature

 

is still

just

practice.

 

Let me show you…”

he explains,

wrapping his fingers

around the yellow Ticonderoga

#2

 

“We can practice

together.”

 

Travel By Association ~ or ~ Travel Lite

 

Travelers. Travelers everywhere. Transient folks of every stripe walking, running, sitting, working, swimming, eating. Carrying luggage. Grabbing a cup of coffee. Adding sugar to their tea. En route toward somewhere. Arriving from someplace else.

Ah, airports. All of humanity distilled to a small area becoming a sudden, immediate culture. Unique and specific to that individual moment. The energy of not knowing what awaits on the other side of the tarmac touchdown chirp. I haven’t seen an airport in awhile but all the travelers inside this hotel make me feel as though I’m spending my time in a very relaxed version of one.

The experience of travel. Not just the carrot dangle destination, but getting there as well. I have these conventions, habits which only happen when traveling. I always try to arrive at the airport early to immerse in the vibe of transience, and chuckle about the seriousness of the TSA folks. After checking my luggage I order a Cinnabon roll slathered with frosting (reserved for airports alone). Then I might have a beer, even if the sun is out. I don’t have anywhere else to be and I’m not driving. Then I buy a new magazine, which I generally don’t read until reaching my destination. The reading material is only for the rare event that my neighbors prefer not conversing as much as I enjoy it.

There’s a curiosity and a titillation which exists inside places of travel or temporary residence. The immediacy that your only time to get to know all these people exists between now and your destination or connecting flight. A chance to learn from someone who may not look like you. They might only speak your language in words that provide the most * POP * to get their point across. They might not speak your language at all. They probably won’t share your political views, and will have completely different political issues in their city, or state, or continent.

I like having the time constraint of only the flight duration to try and understand another person.

There is also no accountability. You have no emotional attachment to another traveler, their past, or their future. Conversely, they hold none toward you. People are free to confide in one another regarding experiences or feelings they may not otherwise discuss openly with family, friends, or even their spouse. A person can tell a stranger all the details of their life they don’t care to be reminded of when they wake up the next day, fully rested to experience their new surroundings.

These things are all great, but what about when you can’t travel? When you’re busy.When a vacation is not in the budget. Times when work is too busy or you’re immersed in your studies. When family requirements may not allow for time outside the immediate zip code.

Despair not fellow hearts diagnosed with an incurable case wanderlust!

I invite you to indulge in something I refer to as Travel Lite. The Lite Beer of travels. This is travel by association. Chances are you’ve never met Doug from Virginia and heard his recommendations on California wine. Or Rick’s afternoon spent downhill skiing while in Dubai. Sandra’s experience working as a city planner in New York City. The bird dogs Ole has raised over the years. That time when the locals told Erica and Steve they weren’t crazy, that probably was a pointing dorsal fin, and that South America does indeed have freshwater sharks (as they dried with towels on the beach).

That is the lovely thing I’ve learned over the past few months. Any time you have a spare hour you’re able to stop in at your friendly neighborhood upscale hotel for a dose of travel lite. It’s as if all the best about travel has been brought to you. Except the food and drink is better and cab fare is cheaper than airfare.

 

Part 2: The Talking Piano of Dr. Jeffrey Hollander

 

As mentioned in an earlier post I’ve put considerable thought toward how to chronicle Jeff, his playing, and more specifically his playing at the Pfister Hotel. There are several occasions when I’ve left the hotel and driven home in silence because after hearing him at the piano anything on the radio sounded like a frivolous muck.

Different ways to “capture” Jeff battled with one another in my head. Photographs, photographs of his hands, photographs of his facial expressions while playing. Brief videos of the way his hands dance across the keys. Recording the audio of him playing and with no dialogue whatsoever. A poem about his playing, about piano as a whole, about piano history, about jazz and American folk musics being high art. A conceptual piece called The Silent Man, about the piano player in the corner who wields the loudest voice in the room without speaking at all. But in the end I decided to interview Jeff and partner our interview with his playing layered throughout. What better way to document him than to record exactly what he does?

During our conversation Jeff discusses how he started playing piano at the age of 4, his college level education beginning at age 7, who he considers his timeless contemporaries, and the years of inspiration the Grand Hotel of the West has provided him.

Below is former Pfister Resident Artist Katie Musolff’s rendering of Dr. Hollander, in the hotel’s hallway for all to see. To listen simply click play on the good doctor’s piano below, or click download to listen later.

 

Milwaukee: The Best Deal In Chicago

The view from the 7th floor East on Wisconsin Avenue.

Ah, big brother Chicago. Just two hundred years ago we were part of the same Illinois territory.

People come to Milwaukee for many reasons. Business. Dinner. Conventions. Celebrations. Sporting events. Art openings. Museums.

Visitors ask certain key questions which lead me to conclude they’re not from Milwaukee. This line of conversation usually takes place after someone says, “So how do I get a cab around here?” or “This place is great, where else should I visit?” Or they call the water drinking oasis a fountain instead of a bubbler.

I’ve noticed a trend of Chicagoans visiting us just for fun. Upon discovering this I always ask what their impressions are. Being a life-long Milwaukeean I’m curious to hear how our city is perceived.

Below are some of the most common observations of Milwaukee followed by explanations I’ve been able to piece together.

* “It’s so inexpensive here.”

That’s true, part of the reason is the sales tax “Down South” is 9.5%, compared with our 5.6%. But also being a smaller city things are just cheaper in Milwaukee. Smaller population=more resources to go around.

* “That art museum on the lake is incredible!”

You’re right, we are lucky to have had our most recent addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum designed and built by Santiago Calatrava. But years before that the art museum has an interesting story. The core of the museum’s pieces were donated by Frederick Layton, also the namesake of Milwaukee’s Layton Boulevard. Mr. Layton, along with John Plankinton, their fortunes in cattle and pigs. The Layton School of Art was started shortly after his death and when closed in 1974 was listed in the country’s top 5 art schools.

Just to the North of the Calatrava addition is what Milwaukee residents refer to as the War Memorial. After World War II an architect from Finland named Eliel Saarinen was commissioned to build a Veteran’s Memorial. Despite Eliel’s passing in 1950, his son Eero took over to complete the project on Milwaukee’s Lakefront. With construction supervision by Milwaukee architect Maynard W. Meyer and Associates, this floating building was created. The building appears to hover above Mason Street on geometric legs of reinforced concrete.

Completed in 2001 Santiago Calatrava’s addition comprises a few different areas including the Quadracci Pavilion which regularly holds weddings, openings, and other special events. Windover Hall looks out toward the lake as though one is inside a glass wrapped ship hull. Atop Windover Hall is the incredible moving sculpture known as the Burke Brise Soleil whose wings literally open at 10am, close and reopen daily at noon, then close for the evening when museum locks up.

The Milwaukee Art Museum is a four block walk from the Pfister Hotel.

* “Everyone here is so nice to us!”

Oh well gee shucks, ma’am. That’s really kind of you to say. But you should meet my cousin John. He’s a really, really nice guy. Are you hungry? I just made this pie for you…

* “That brewery tour was so much fun.”

What made Milwaukee famous… 

It’s true we are a beer city. Prohibition was more than a small stumbling block to the city’s industry but brewing culture is thriving in Milwaukee. So much that we named our baseball team after the people who make beer. Although Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz are no longer producing themselves, many brewers have taken up the cause. Visitors are able to tour Miller which has existed in the Valley for well over 150 years. If something smaller is your flavor we’ve got many options including (but not limited to) Sprecher, Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing Company. Tours also take place at the Best Place; the bar, gift shop, and former board room inside the Pabst Brewery complex. With all the talk of beer it’s easy to forget craft distillers just past the Harley Davidson Museum, Great Lakes Distillery, who are on the cutting edge of producing rum, absinthe, vodka, and many other liquors.

* “Dinner was great last night, we’re trying to decide between our options tonight. Which would you recommend?”

Our restaurants are a bit of a great secret around here. According to Zagat we have 3 of the country’s top 30 restaurants in the area. I love getting dinner at Mason Street Grill, and they have a spectacular happy hour.

* “It’s so easy to get around this city, there’s hardly any traffic ~or~ We took the train here, it’s been such an easy trip; an hour here, an hour back. ”

This makes sense, Milwaukee’s metro area has about one fifth the population of Chicago and it’s suburban outskirts. Milwaukee also has a growing bicycle population and network of bike specific trails which cuts down on four-wheeled commuters. In addition our bus system has been revised recently and ridership is up. Milwaukee is also fairly spread out, our population isn’t too densely packed into any one area.

* (and probably the biggest compliment) “We’d both rather live here but then we’d have to commute every day to our offices in Chicago.”

Even if you don’t drive it is surprisingly easy to get between Chicago and Milwaukee. There are several bus options. The Amtrak Hiawatha route from ‘The Windy terminates in downtown Milwaukee a mere 12 blocks from your favorite hotel.

For all these reasons and more our Illini brethren are discovering that a mere 90 miles to the north Milwaukee might just be the best deal in Chicago.

Cup of Joe with Joe

“French doors.”

That was the first thing out of his mouth when I mentioned I’d been shopping for a house.

“French doors can brighten up any space. If there is no doorway, build a doorway. Anything can be done. Of course, it’s easier if a house is exactly how you want it when you first walk through but that’s not realistic. Floor plans can be changed, walls can be built or removed, it all depends what you’d like to do. But the first most important thing is whether you like the house and whether you like the location. Beyond that, everything can be changed. Don’t be afraid to change things.”

Shortly after I became a fixture at the Pfister I realized there were a lot of return customers. Faces I saw over and over again. Not the travelers who return when they visit the city (although there are many) but Milwaukee residents who come to the hotel as their regular place to hold court, discuss diverse topics with a diverse crowd, and maybe enjoy a tasty lunch.

There are regulars who come in just for a cup of coffee. One such gentleman is Joe. Joe drinks his coffee with plenty of cream and warmed often. He’s never mentioned that but from the frequency at which lounge bartenders fill his cup and the smile he responds with tells me he likes a hot cup.

Joe is probably the snappiest dresser of all the regulars. I gather that he doesn’t leave the house without a suit coat, and probably grew up in a time when businessmen would never consider doing such a thing. The coat is often threaded with pinstripes matching his wool slacks. Cuff links to match or accent the tie. The tie arranged in a crisp Windsor knot. Hair in place and always a clean shave.

After Joe made his suggestion of French doors he went on to tell me that he’d spent most of his working life in architecture and real estate. He explained that he’s been involved in his share of remodels and that patience is very important.

“Remember to have fun! You get to make this house however you want it to be. You’re getting to build your castle. Don’t forget that the process can be as fun and as interesting as the result. Have fun and don’t rush it. If you’re in a position to take your time, take your time and get it done the way you want. I’ve found some of my favorite interior pieces in the strangest places. Rummage sales, secondhand stores, antique stores. When the right piece presents itself you’ll know.”

I see Joe walking the halls, ambulating as a way to get thoughts in place, or allow a momentary change of perspective to produce observations. Motion as a way to not only stimulate the blood but also the mind. When happening upon conversation Joe stands upright and his hands clasped behind his back, welcoming discourse.

A few weeks ago Joe offered several options for investing. Strategies for how one could pick out ways to make money just by reading the newspaper and placing one’s money in the correct place. Being a poet with my head always somewhere between a book and the clouds I’ve not put a lot of thought in to retirement or investing. He explained different theories of how the economy responds to different inputs and how there is always money to be made if one pays attention. After awhile I almost wondered if I should start day trading.

The most recent time I ran into Joe he was trying to figure out the upcoming presidential election. Rather, he was trying to figure out what the candidates were doing and why. Why they had chosen to focus on certain topics and not focus on other topics. Their reasons for campaigning in certain states and not others. How they will learn to work together once a candidate is selected. The chess of human interaction.

The economy, politics, real estate. It would be easy to miss the point of Joe’s conversation and conclude the guy’s trying to make a buck. But it’s not the money behind these things that makes Joe so curious. The puzzle of how everything fits together is what intrigues him. It’s the strategy, the reasoning behind the action that Joe is always trying to distill. As if he sees the world as a giant Swiss watch and in his mind he’s leaning over a workbench unscrewing every tiny component to hold it closer to the light while squinting and ask the tiny bauble, “Now what have we here…?”

 

Getting to know Chef Brian Frakes

The Pfister has received countless compliments on their Marcus Celebrated Chefs series. Many of the compliments centered around the hotel’s Executive Chef Brian Frakes. People talked about how generous he was with his knowledge and always sent them home with extra food. Guests went home energized with new ideas of how to invigorate their home cooking.

It turned out I’d met Brian briefly when I first came on as narrator. Concierge Peter Mortensen was giving me the introductory tour and we walked downstairs by the kitchen. Brian and I briefly shook hands and exchanged greetings. There were so many people and although good with faces names have never been my strong suit. We were in the kitchen but his manner was so welcoming it didn’t occur to me he could be the hotel’s chef. Most of the chefs I’ve observed in the past exude a territorial bravado (and, to be fair, it’s possible I’ve clicked the television past too many “reality” shows where the chef is always yelling about something), and Brian didn’t carry himself this way. He has a calm confidence and an “ask questions first, then respond with an informed answer,” way about him.

It’s quite possible that is why Brian’s events have translated so well. Yesterday Brian and I sat down and talked about his start in the business, his experiences in the kitchen, and how he ended up in Milwaukee as the Pfister’s Executive Chef. Listen in to give your ears a little taste of his experience and philosophy. Either click play below or download the track to listen later.

 

Getting to know Executive Chef Brian Frakes by Ed Makowski

The Work Behind the Wine

Heather doing what she does best: offering the right bottle of wine.

What is the meaning of life? I do not know and I’m quite sure many people are closer to having a conclusion than myself. The best I’ve managed to piece together is finding something you love and devising a way to make it pay your bills. Individuals who have successfully accomplished that have always fascinated me.

As an example I offer the sommelier. Their job is to become a walking wine database. How does one do this? Naturally, drinking wine is a large part of the job. But one can’t just become a lush and start wearing the expert cap. Uncountable hours of studying wine history and culture go into understanding not only wine but the very important aspect of pairing it with cuisine.

Heather Kanter-Kowal is Mason Street Grill’s in-house sommelier and assistant manager. For her wine is a way of life and a way of work. Last week Heather had a few minutes to sit down by the Mason Street Grill’s fireplace and tell me about the work behind the wine, her years getting to know the grape, and some of the exciting wines waiting for you at Mason Street. Click to listen below now or download for later.
The Work Behind the Wine by Ed Makowski

What’s in a birthday?

One day I was sitting in the lobby lounge waiting for something to happen. It can be a strange feeling to think qualitatively about conversation, hoping for a moment of random brilliance to spring from a happenstance stranger. This random Tuesday evening my mind started drifting for all the typical reason’s one’s mind wanders from the task at hand while working. Bills, or maybe errands forgotten or neglected. Maybe the current song grabbed my attention and reminded me of another song which presented a memory of an old friend and I pictured the car they drove which stranded us outside of the Boundary Waters in Ely, Minnesota. My thoughts had drifted somewhere up near the Minnesota/Canada border.

While my mind canoed past several islands a gentleman sat down next to me.

We exchanged hellos and pleasantries and went on to talking about how our day was going. I asked what he was doing at the hotel this particular evening. He explained that he was visiting to celebrate his birthday. Given the four restaurants inside the Pfister there are probably people celebrating birthdays every meal of the day. I’ve even had 31 of them. But this wasn’t any typical birthday. This man’s 52nd was an especially unique year. A birthday of gilded proportions. Not as in golden birthdays, but golden that despite extreme health issues he’s lived this long.

The gentleman’s name was Daniel and he graciously allowed me to record the story of how he arrived at the age of 52. I’ll let him tell you for himself  in the audio clip below. It’s an intimate life story and I’d rather let him speak for himself than give away any details. For me it was a great reminder of not only how lucky we are to breathe every day, but that we can never know how special another person’s day is- until we ask. Without further ado, here is Daniel’s story.

Daniel talks about why 52 was such a big year for him by Ed Makowski