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.”

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).  

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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.

“You Can’t Take My Bones”

Last Thursday evening, I had an hour to kill before I met a good friend and colleague for dinner in Bay View.  Dressed in my “Pfister casual,” as I’m calling it–dark denim and an almost black-blue and silver short-sleeved shirt–I settled into one of the sofas in the lobby, ordered an Old Fashioned from Ellie, and pulled out my notebook.  

Two men at one end of the bar, two at the other, two women in front of me, a man and a woman at the far end to my right–all deep in conversation, or glasses of post-work wine, or, in one case,  a pile of wings.  How to approach them?  I’ll admit, the hardest part of my job as Narrator so far is making the first move.  In my dating days, I used to be a wallflower who waited for people to approach me, but here I was, hanging out in the lobby of an elegant hotel, navigating the gray area between friendly and intrusive.  

I passed a little time by roughly (I say roughly because . . . well, I’m sorry!) sketching the two women while I waited for my drink (expertly made by Jeff, by the way), continuing to scan the room for a potential story.  What was their story, I wondered.  Why were they there tonight?  What would they be willing to share with me?

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Enter: a deus ex machina!  Piano music from the sound system.  

No, it seemed live.  From the cafe?  That would be odd.  From Mason Street Grill?  Too far away.  No, it was coming from inside the lobby.  

I peered past the two women I had sketched and the god who was not really in a machine materialized: Dan Albrechtson, playing a rendition of “Stand By Me.”  From where I was sitting across the lobby, he appeared to be in his 70s, his black jacket curved over the keys, his wispy white hair and wire glasses hanging low.  I was amazed, even from as far away as I was, by the effortlessness and grace with which he played, his hands sliding back and forth across the keys.  When I sat down with Dan a little bit later, I would get to see how youthful his hands look and how wide his fingers can stretch from key to key.  He would play for me a regular 1-3-5 major chord, call it “ugly,” then play it with the 3 in the next higher octave.  He would tell me how he used to sit in school, writing with his right hand and stretching his left fingers against the table edge.  “Like a gymnast learning how to do the splits,” I would muse.  He would also share (though I’m not sure how it came up!) that he used to run half and full marathons, and he would wow me with his mile times when he was my age (let’s just say he was faster).  While Dan’s running is now all on a treadmill, I’m impressed and inspired: I hope that in thirty years I’m still running and doing my own version of Dan’s 10-key finger span with something I’m good at–perhaps writing or teaching or something new.

Which brings me to why Dan was my deus ex machina, that element of classical Greek theater in which a god or goddess would suddenly show up just at the right moment–which was usually at the end of the play when all was chaos and confusion.  When I realized he was playing, then, I added him to my quick sketch and leisurely sipped my drink, still wondering how I was going to approach any of the people in the room, none of whom seemed “in the right spot” for a conversation with me. I wrote down in my notebook, however, the question I’d like to ask them if I could, inspired by Dan’s piano playing: What do you hope to still have when you’re 70, 80, 90 years old?  What do you hope to still possess?  

And then–here’s the Greek moment–one of the men from the bar walked up to Dan to tip him and thank him for playing.  He seemed pretty approachable, so as he returned to his friend, I approached.  They both agreed with smiles that Dan’s music was beautiful.

It turns out that DeMarco, now living and working in New York City, was visiting his old pal Justin.  When they were younger, they had shared a healthy rivalry as news reporters and anchors in Milwaukee.  Tonight, they are all compliments for each other, especially Justin, who is convinced DeMarco is headed for the big seat at the network.  But that’s not what we talk about.  We talk about growing old and being tenacious.  What do they want to hold onto into their older years?

DeMarco: I want to still have rhythm.  I want to be able to still keep a beat.

Me: What do you mean?

DeMarco: Rhythm isn’t just something physical, like being able to walk straight.  It’s that sweet cadence that you possess.  It’s music, which you get to interpret.  It’s really everything.  

Me: I think I know what you mean.

DeMarco: It’s like this: imagine your favorite band, your favorite song . . . without rhythm.  

Me: I can’t even hear what that would sound like!  What was your favorite song as a child?

DeMarco: This is going to sound silly, because I was really young and didn’t understand what the song was really about, but it was Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”  My father would play that song all the time.  It was good.

Me: Ha!  That’s like the kids in my neighborhood years ago lip syncing to “Baby Got Back”!

DeMarco: Yes.  Well, my father John died when I was ten years old, on Father’s Day.  But he used to say, “You can’t take my bones.  You can take away anything else, but you can’t take my bones.”

Me: That fits in perfectly with my first impression of Dan on the piano.  His fingers are still gliding across those keys like nothing at all.

DeMarco: Rhythm (snaps his fingers three times) connects everything.  Everything.  You know how when people say “My rhythm’s off”?  That means something’s not right.  Some kind of connection.  (smiling) It aligns with the universe.  It keeps everything in sync.

During my conversation with DeMarco, Justin chimed in intermittently, in between devouring a plate of wings.  With three left on the plate, he offers me the rest, informing me that they are excellent.  Not usually a wings man, and headed to dinner soon, I defer, but he insists that they are that good.  I only eat one, but they are.  “Grilled, not fried.  That’s the secret.”  I’ve never tasted wings that meaty and tasty.  I’ll be back.

But back to Justin.  

Me: What was your favorite song?

Justin: (without skipping a beat) Prince’s “Adore.”  Not many people seem to know that one.

Me: I don’t recognize it.  But I’m bad with artists and titles and stuff.

Justin: I must’ve been about 12 years old, and there was this line where he says, “You could burn up my clothes, / smash up my ride.  Well, maybe not the ride”–and he’d say it in his Prince voice. (voice gets higher) ”Well, maybe not the ride.  But I got to have your face / all up in the place.”

(When I got home, I listened to “Adore.”  What a sexy tune, especially as blog-writing background music.)

Me: And what do you still hope to have when you’re older?

Justin: I want to still be in touch with my spirit, my soul.  There are so many people who are disconnected from their spirit–or become disconnected.

Me: “Spirit” and “soul” can both mean dozens of things to dozens of people.  What do they mean to you?

Justin: My connection to humanity.  I still want to be able to relate to people all over the world.  I want to be cognizant of my connection with everyone and everything.

I am certainly glad I got the chance to connect with the two compassionate, kind, and heartfelt spirits of Justin and DeMarco, with Ellie and Jeff (I’ll be seeing more of you soon!), and most of all with Dan, whose music set the evening’s wheels and ideas and memories into motion.  Thank you!

Under the Spreading Chestnut: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part IV

In this final installment of lunch with Mercedes’ clan, we write a poem together, inspired by Nick and Liza’s story about the loss of the stack of love poems decades ago.  Or was the flurry of words that were floating and flinging across the table seeking a resting place?  Whatever the reason, I pulled a sheet from my notebook and invited someone to propose a first line.  From there, we would pass the sheet around the table so that each member of this family could lend his or her voice.  

Almost instantaneously, Nick said, “Under the spreading chestnut.”  We were all surprised by the “chestnut” reference (who comes up with “chestnut” in the first line of an impromptu poem?).  But then he changed his mind: “Oh, no.  We can’t use that.  That’s from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem.”  I’d never read it before but discovered that it is the first line of “The Village Blacksmith,” which turns out to have a beautiful reference to the blacksmith’s mother and whose first line reads “Under a spreading chestnut tree”).  Putting on my English teacher hat, I assured him that our poem would contain an allusion to Longfellow, a line lifted partially, borrowed honorably.  All eight of us, with Longfellow as the ninth, would co-write a new poem.

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The original Longfellow draft, featuring our inspiration line: “Under a spreading chestnut tree.”
Our co-written poem, inspired by Longfellow.
Our co-written poem, inspired by Longfellow.

Once the sheet had rounded the table, I prepared to recite our words to a rapt audience.  But we were all surprised when Nick said he wanted to open our poetry reading with his own poem, a lengthy one he’d written for his wife Kelley awhile back, featuring a mixture of formal language and modern references to black holes and the galaxy.  “He just sent it to me in a message one day,” Kelley told us, to which all of us responded, of course, “Awwww.”

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Nick reads a love poem to Kelley.

This is what I finally got to read to them, a fitting end to a surprisingly intimate Mother’s Day Brunch at The Pfister Hotel:

Under the spreading chestnut
a mother’s love goes far.
And we breathe a sigh of relief
because we know how beautiful you are.
Your beauty is like the sunset–
so pure and full of wonder.
The love we share will never die–
let no man put it asunder.
Look toward the stars, behind the thunder.
Hide your dreams from those who seek to plunder.
But show them to the Lord above
who’s under the spreading chestnut
where a mother’s love goes far.

Happy (every day) Mother’s Day!

My Door Was Always Open: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part III

Continued from the previous post entitled “We Are a Corporation”:

MERCEDES, who now lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has been coming to the Pfister for many years since her daughter MARIA moved to Milwaukee from the South Bronx almost twenty years ago.  This winter, she came to Milwaukee to support MARIA through back surgery, then stayed on through her recovery (interestingly, MARIA lives on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side).  This Mother’s Day Brunch is a good opportunity for “the corporation” to enjoy a meal, memories, and laughter together.  The hotel Narrator, DOMINIC, has soon become less Narrator and more “guest family member.”

The lively exchange–and by “lively” the playwright means LOUD, EXUBERANT, VOCIFEROUS, CLAMOROUS, EMPHATIC, all in the best ways–rises above the surrounding tables’ gentle fork-scraping and mild conversation.  Surprisingly, DOMINIC doesn’t care that more than a few heads turn toward the table, wondering what could possibly be so interesting or funny.  Some probably find the volume rude.  But the brunch continues uninhibited.

MARIA: I moved to Milwaukee in 1998.  I loved a man who brought me here for his job then dumped me six months later.  I had moved for work, too: I was an immigration officer.

MERCEDES: She’s retired now.

MARIA: Unfortunately, after he dumped me, I knew nobody.  But the minute I wandered into the doors of the Pfister, I knew I was at home.  

DOMINIC: So you just wandered in?

MARIA: Yeah, it must have been hot.  Or I was looking for a place to rest, maybe stay.  I mean, I was a poor Puerto Rican from the South Bronx, but (slowly) I like high-end stuff.  So, I knew that this was my kind of place.

MERCEDES: And everyone was so nice to you, too, right?

MARIA: Yeah.  First, I met the bartender, then the piano player.  I loved to just sit by the fireplace and read the newspaper.

MERCEDES bends over and whispers to me.

MERCEDES: She would get high enough that she would stand on the piano and belt out songs.  

MARIA: I heard you mom.  Yes, I’d get “high enough” to get on a piano and sing.  I made people laugh.  Our family believes extremely in “Live for the moment,” you know.  I mean, I could walk out of here and get hit by a bus, so, it’s important.  (looking at DOMINIC) It’s so important that you are so cute that I want to . . .

Strategically, someone at the table starts humming a tune from West Side Story again.  

KELLEY: Well, we are an honest bunch!

Just then, MUNY, one of the banquet servers, approaches to refill our champagne and water.  She stands directly behind MARIA, who grasps her by the hand.

Muny and Maria, a match made possible by The Pfister Hotel.
Muny and Maria, a match made possible by The Pfister Hotel.

MARIA: Me, I like to go into the interior . . . you know, the people and stories in the background.  To know that the service is so good wherever you go within the Pfister, especially from Muny.  She was Muñeca when I met her fifteen years ago.  Muny’s mom, auntie, and more–they all worked at the Pfister, too.  You know, she’s the heart and soul of this place, of this brunch.  It’s not only about the atmosphere and the beautiful things.

MUNY: Everyone calls me the “Brunch Lady.”

MARIA: Yes, Muny, you are the “Brunch Lady” that everyone requests.

Squeezes MUNY’s hand as MUNY exits with a wide smile that never seems to leave her face.

Growing up, our house was always filled with people, whether black, white, green, yellow.  Our house was like a revolving door.  There was always a place for Puerto Ricans, or Muny’s, or . ..

MERCEDES: It’s like it was in Little Italy–you have to visit Little Italy.  We used to go to Pellegrino’s all the time.

MARIA: We’d call it P.J.’s.  

MERCEDES: Yes, P.J.’s for short.  

DOMINIC: Is it still there?

MERCEDES:  Ah, yes.  We haven’t been there for awhile, but you should if you visit.  They would see us coming and have a bottle of wine ready, then we’d stay after with the maître d’, Anthony, until two or three in the morning. (smiles proudly)

MARIA: That’s what it’s all about.  

Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.

MERCEDES:  I’ll have to go back there soon.  Back to that “open door” Maria mentioned: I couldn’t stand seeing kids on the street.  And back then, the youth had so many problems they had to deal with.  So if one of the kids was a boy, then I’d let him stay in my son’s room until he could get things together.  I never put a kid out.  My door was always open.

LIZA: Just like at Pellegrino’s.  You were strict, though.  

Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.

We called you “the fly swatter.”

MERCEDES: (to DOMINIC) I was the fly swatter.  Sometimes these kids needed a (she “swats” DOMINIC’s shoulder like she were dusting it off) little fly swat.  It was hard living back then.

DOMINIC: But your door was always open. That’s what matters, huh?

Everyone at the table confirms this with nods and approving smiles.  They make a toast to open doors and things that matter.

We Are a Corporation: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part II

Set in the Grand Ballroom of the historic Pfister Hotel, in present day Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Two gigantic chandeliers divide the room, which is framed in gold, with walls covered in Victorian art.  A Puerto Rican family with American roots in the South Bronx and Manhattan’s Lower East Side dominates a table toward the back of the ballroom.  The matriarch, MERCEDES, is sitting at a table during the annual Mother’s Day Brunch, an empty seat to her left, followed clockwise by her niece DANA (daughter of LIZA and NICK), her daughter MARIA, daughter LIZA, LIZA’s husband NICK, their other daughter KELLEY, and KELLEY’s husband MIKE.  Multiple conversations are occurring as DOMINIC, the hotel storyteller, approaches in a new blue suit, a notebook in hand ready for a potential interview.  

Enter DOMINIC, who takes the empty seat next to MERCEDES.  We see them talking but can’t hear their conversation until MERCEDES speaks up.  Besides the two nieces, DANA and KELLEY, the rest of the family has a slight but recognizable accent.

MERCEDES: (points to a woman across the table) It’s her you should be talking to.  She could tell you some stories.

DOMINIC: She’s your–

MERCEDES: My daughter.

DOMINIC: (surprised) No.  She–

MARIA: People always think that we’re sisters.  But she’s almost 80 and well . . . I’m–I’m tired of the comparison.  She’s an oxatarian . . . no, an oxagenarian, oxageraranarian.  Wait.  What’s it called?  You know.

KELLEY: It’s an oxag–.

DOMINIC: Octogenarian, I think.  Eight generations.

MARIA: Heeey.  You’re cute.  I could just eat you up!  

LIZA: (gently slaps MARIA with feigned disapproval) Maria!  Stop.

NICK: (jumping in)  Ok . . . so you’re the narrator.  What does that entail?

DOMINIC: Well, I’ll be telling the stories of guests at the hotel over the next year.  People like you.

MARIA: We are a corporation!

NICK: We are an organism!

MIKE: We’re a bunch of crazy Puerto Ricans!

Everyone spontaneously toasts with champagne.

MERCEDES: That we are.  Those two are my daughters, Maria and Liza.  That’s Liza’s husband, Nick.  That there’s their daughter Dana–she’s 16.

MARIA: She goes to the Special Music School right across from Julliard.  It’s better than Julliard, of course.

MERCEDES: And that is Kelley (it’s K-E-L-L-E-Y) and her husband, Mike.  

MARIA: Kelley is in pharmacy, but she’s going to go into surgery eventually.  And Mike’s in construction now, but he’s going to be the next Puerto Rican astronaut!  He’s joining the Air Force soon.

DOMINIC: (to Kelley and Mike) Congratulations.  (to DANA) You like the school, huh?  

DANA: Yes, I play guitar–

MARIA: And sax!

DANA: –and sax.  And I study voice.

MERCEDES: She has a beautiful voice.

LIZA: Yes, you should hear her sing.  Like an angel.

MARIA: Like an angel.  In fact, we were just going to do a rendition of our favorite musical, West Side Story.  You know–

MARIA starts humming “I want to live in America,” then others join in.

DANA: I really like biology, though . . . and I’d like to be a mortician.  I have strange tastes!

DOMINIC: That sounds pretty well-rounded to me.  I used to be a bio major, then I switched to
English.

DANA: That’s cool.

MARIA: Yes, it’s cool.  We’re all poets at this table.  And you–I just want to bring you home with me!

This time, it’s DANA who swats her aunt MARIA.  No one else bats an eyelash.

MERCEDES: She’s always like this.  Just watch.

MARIA: And Nick is Greek.  

She spells and pronounces his last name.

Greek and Puerto Rican.  Can’t you tell?

NICK: No one ever believes me, so I have to spell my last name and sing a song in Greek.  

Without skipping a beat, NICK begins singing a syncopated song, slowly moving his torso and arms in the style of a Greek dancer.

MARIA: You know, Nick’s a poet.  But he wasn’t always one, right Liza?  In fact, he once lost a whole set of love poems that Liza had written.

LIZA: That’s right.

NICK: I didn’t know any better back then.

MARIA: You were young.

NICK: Seventeen.  So I threw them in the trunk of the car–I was borrowing it from someone.

LIZA: I had gotten a whole set of stationery.  And I filled up every single one with poems.  I poured my heart and soul into them.

MARIA: And then he lost them.

NICK: But she’s still with me, thirty-eight years later.

LIZA: That’s true.  He really is romantic.

KELLEY: He would write cards for me when I was growing up.  

MARIA: Yeah, he made all these cards with crossword puzzles on them–

KELLEY: –that I had to solve.  And then in each there would be a message to me about how much he loved me and so on.

LIZA: And don’t forget he’s an amateur magician, too.

MARIA: He was always pulling a little bunny out of a hat and stuff!

DOMINIC: Everyone here sounds so creative!

MARIA: And you.  You’re so cute.  We’re going to have you over and invite the whole family!

MERCEDES: Look.  (pointing at my face)  He’s blushing!

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

* Pictured (l-r): Maria, Dana, Liza, Nick, Mercedes, Kelley, Mike

Thirteen Blackbirds: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part I

In the days leading up to the Pfister’s famous Mother’s Day brunch this past Sunday, I began wondering why we brunch in the first place.

I knew that the word was a portmanteau of “breakfast” and “lunch.”  And I remembered gorging (I mean, feasting) on scrumptious delights in Las Vegas–filling plates with eggs benedict, haricot verts, and cinnamon toasts, then refilling with perhaps a bowl of ramen.  Or how about Korean beef?  Or when did they bring the shrimp rice out?  And that tower of petit fours and mille-feuille looks tempting.  I know I’ve enjoyed the smaller, tamer menus at Milwaukee destinations on Brady Street or the lake–and once at the Pfister long ago to say goodbye to a friend who returned years later to create her own award-winning meals, including brunch, in Delafield.  However, I still wondered why someone had reserved Sunday for bustling buffets and fancy formalities.

Was brunch special?  Was it better?  Did it have something to do with accommodating church goers?  Was it simply a tradition–and if so, what was its origin?  What was the history of this elusive (exclusively American?) eating phenomenon?  Why did we fill and refill plates and plates of food at 10 in the morning?

To prepare, I headed to Wikipedia, which taught me that brunch emerged in England in the late 19th century, perhaps as an offshoot of the ubiquitous practice of eating a large mid-morning meal in Catholic households after a day of fasting.  I also learned that its American popularity began in the 1930s when Hollywood stars traveling cross-country would stop in Chicago–presumably only between 10 am and 11 am–their stomachs demanding a hearty meal.  Post-World War II Americans saw a drop in church attendance, a rise in the working female population, and the need for new social outlets besides the church hall after Mass.  Most enlightening, however, was this excerpt from Guy Beringer’s 1895 essay “Brunch: A Plea,” which appeared in almost every article I read about this institution:

“Brunch is cheerful, sociable, and inciting.  It’s talk-compelling.  It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

My goal this past Sunday, then, was to enter the Grand Ballroom, get the lay of the land, and engage as many mothers as possible in “cheerful, sociable, and inciting” conversation that would help them and me “[sweep] away the worries and cobwebs” of the first week of May.  If talk of worries and spiders proved too personal, my alternative was to co-create with guests a Mother’s Day poem inspired by Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Guests were certainly “cheerful” and “sociable,” but not immediately “inciting” (until I met Mercedes, but more on her later!).  After I introduced myself to several tables of brunchers and asked–in between their bites of grilled quail with couscous, dried cherries, and citrus, seafood stuffed sole with tarragon lobster sauce, and vanilla bean cheesecakes with mango glaze–if I could return in a quarter hour or so to see if they would be available for a short chat, I admit I was feeling a tad daunted.  Not too many people seemed interested in speaking with me longer than a minute, and who could blame them?  They were celebrating a special day in a beautiful place and were there with one mission: eat everything in the first row, then hit the omelet station, and end with dessert.  Two missions, I mean: eat and celebrate mom.

While I waited to chat further with the guests, I found myself strolling the perimeter of the ballroom to peruse A. Telser’s seductive painting of an “Oriental Girl” with a diaphanous veil, Ferdinand Wagner’s colorful “Royal Love Feast,” L. Berton’s sandy “Arab Horsemen,” and H.W. Hansen’s Wild West “Wild Horses,” noting the sexy dynamism in these paintings that ringed the tables of guests enjoying private conversation with their partners or lively but politely quiet memories with extended family.  I felt a little like Lucy Honeychurch in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, meandering the museum-like Santa Croce church, stopping, admiring, reading a placard–then moving on to the next exhibit with little feeling.  As I moved from painting to painting, however, I was reassured that the ballroom is more than its walls and adornments: it’s about the people with whom one interacts.  I met various members of the banquet service, including Muny (“Hi, Dominic!  I recognize your voice!  I like your suit, too!”), Preston (“My mother always told me to shake hands firmly and look her–and anyone else–in the eye.”), Matt (“I’m trying to bridge the gap between art and architecture as I figure out my future.”), Francesco (“I’ve been here so long that the Pfister should give me a post in front of the hotel like those guys at Buckingham Palace.”), and others.

In time, I did gather the beginnings of a shared poem and did snap a few photographs of potential mothers for my story.  But the poem remains unfinished, the photographs beautiful but story-less . . . because at one point I crouched down to ask a striking older woman named Mercedes if I might talk to her and her family, and in no less than sixty seconds my jacket was off, I was holding a glass of champagne, and Mercedes was pointing across the table as she whispered, “She has some stories to tell you.”  Indeed, her daughter Maria, had a lot to say.  

For now, I leave you with my unfinished poem and a couple photos of my story-less mothers.

But stay tuned for “East Side Story,” the second installment in my Mother’s Day Brunch story, to read more about Mercedes and Maria and their New York family and what it means to truly “brunch” the Guy Beringer way: ““Brunch is cheerful, sociable, and inciting.  It’s talk-compelling.  It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.”

I
Among twenty celebrating mothers,
The only moving things
Were your arms around me.

II
I was of two minds,
Like a ledger
In which there is a deficit but also a surplus.

III
The mother whirled in the thunderstorm.
It was a beautiful part of the danger.

IV
I do not know which to prefer,
The luscious sundae of motherhood
Or the sprinkle on top,
The mother scooping up her joys with a spoon
Or just after.

V
When the mother chopped the mixed salad,
She chopped the leaves
Of one of many salads.

VI
The journey is not prescribed.
The mother must be flying.

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.