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.

PLUME SERVICE 4.0 | February 22, 2017 | Victorian Paintings Gone Wild (Warning: NSFW…just kidding…come on…they’re paintings!)

Before we get to the results of the fourth Plume Service writing workshop, let me just say: This is not what I had planned!  It’s not important what I was going to have the writers’ focus be; what’s important is that we decided to begin by brainstorming a list of different genres and formats with which we could experiment that evening.  You know, alluring ones like lists, emails, and texts (snore); stirring ones like personal ads, advertisements, and autopsy reports (morbid); passionate ones like stand-up comedy and . . . bad reviews (now that could be fun).  Thumbs up, thumbs down.  2 out of 5 stars.  Critical commentary.  Then someone, I can’t remember who, mentioned (shhhhh) e . . . r . . . o . . . t . . . i . . . c . . . a.

Amused, I turned around to gaze at the painting of Venice that had attracted so many Plume Service writers before.  A gondola.  A ship.  A tower.  Waves. This was going to be hard.  But then, when you think about it (really, take a stroll down the halls and along the walls of the ballrooms), The Pfister’s walls abound in sultriness.  Consider these suspects:

(just kidding)

Time for a cold shower?  Yikes.

And consider, too, the names: “Flirtation” (there are two of those!).  “The Kiss.” (Are those two babies?!) “The Captive.” (Wow. Thank goodness for feminism!) “Trysting Place.” “The Chess Game.”  “Love’s Dream.” “The Royal Love Feast.” “Admiration.”

Bad reviews and erotica it was, then!

Will all of these make the cut and grace the walls of The Pfister?  I dare say, probably not.  A little (a lot?) too risque.  But I can say that the writers accepted the challenge without batting their eyelashes, they wrote with passion and concentration, they shared their pieces out loud at the end, snapped and clapped their praises for their fellow writers, and discussed the intricacies and honesties in each story.  Sure, there were a few blushes and giggles.  But the experience was liberating, refreshing.  How often do we talk to each other with such candor and immediacy about sexuality, let alone sensuality?  Without shame or embarrassment?  And how often with relative strangers?

We’ll start with a tame one.


Richard Lorenz’ Sunday Afternoon (as interpreted by Christina Oster)

Phyliss and Benjamin liked to color within the lines.  They were regimented people with allegiance to the “dullsville du jour.”  Sadie Saccharine was their feisty neighbor, a woman of vibrancy who brought flirtation and festivity to any and all she encountered.  Sadie had a way of encouraging Phyliss to make bold changes and take chances.  After all, it was Sadie who encouraged Phyliss to change her name spelling from the typical two L’s at the end of it to two S’s.  She had flirtatiously said, “Think Phyl-iss – like a kiss!”

Phyliss and Benjamin had a horse ranch with brown horses and black cows.  They ate porridge for breakfast and spaetzle for dinner.  But when it came to evening, it was retire to bed–not much spark for the forbidden.

A knock at the door occurred one Sunday afternoon.  Sadie appeared, dressed in Victorian Secret, whispering to Phyliss.  Benjamin, eating porridge, tilted his ear closer, then raised his eyebrow.  Intrigue ensued. He set down his porridge, approached the ladies, winked, and playfully asked, “Color me three?”


R. Wood’s “Seascape” (as imagined by Bethany Price)

I saw you resplendent from across this small world.  In a time of flowering and self-searching.

I came here with a lover, Armand, but around your waves a new muscle of spirit and flesh pulses in me.

The greenery where we lay is too stifling.  His hands around my shoulders and neck while we lay.

I’d rather you bed me.

But instead you bed the body just passing below my line of vision.  He slipped, this nude man with matted hair.

I imagine his soft penis and mine kissing like your waves do among the endless cerulean.

Your song bids me come.


Andrea Secondo’s “Tired Out” (as imagined by Bethany Price)

He had set the table an hour before Armand got home.  Typical of him, lateness–but he understood, too, the hectic nature of his days.  After gossip of the sun-soaked day, Armand fell asleep.  The wine didn’t help matters.  I will bed him gently, he thought.  I will tuck his covers around his chin, admiring the soft body that has loved him for so long.

In the dark, Armand’s toes will curl around his calf, his soft murmurs, drunken, as sweet as when they tangle together, under the richness of God’s graces, the sun stroking their faces along with the usual suspects.


“Diana of the Hunt” (as imagined by Monica Thomas)

She’s come bearing horns made of moon, shaking brick and bound in garb of mushroom sack and thick rope.  Young Athena, bare-chested in bejeweled breastplate, by her side.

Look, look–how on the distant hillside they frolic to nude-photobom Susan Boyle’s left-breasted man-spread selfie.

These twins in braids splayed naked in the shallow pond as the lean greyhound laps up water, hellhound held in tight fists by her collar.

Uninitiated, the right bank eunuch is gearing to cross legs, wearing nothing but a thong.

The hem of Aphrodite’s apprentice rides way above the knee while a servant squats in front, strumming the female master’s lute from behind.

Far left, these lovers share throbbing hearts and Paul Simon’s soft, sly face.

The arrow pierced the tip of the smooth, erect pole at the right bank.

One battle-clad Amazonian arm hangs blue ribbon laundry from the May Day frame amongst the golden blindfold and the herald’s horn.


“Untitled Landscape” (as interpreted by Eduardo De la Cruz)

The thought of your touch sparks my core.  It makes me miss you more. It was there, painted on a spring dusk when the trees had just witnessed its first yellow leaves, when the air was so quiet and the flow of the river so tender, that you could hear the gentle scratching of the grass on feet.  On a day like this, we took what the world had given us and became all in one. Your breasts, like two tender fruits of heaven, rested on my bare skin. Your hands joined to mine; the way your curls rested on my shoulders as I leaned inside against the riverbank.  I could feel the cool air on my back as your fingers gripped the skin on my hips.  I could feel us now and I could live this moment forever.  Every strike on your pelvis made the gentlest bounce on your curls.  As I prepared to climax, I could feel your grip tighten, almost there, almost there…

Crap, I dozed off for a minute.  I find myself staring at a simple painting of a nature scene with a pair of trees and a river parallel to a dirt road. And in the glorious scene of it all, I could only think about two things: how I felt like the biggest loner, and the intricate things I must do to act cool while I hide this boner.


H.A. Bras’ “The Cardinal Reading” (as interpreted by Dominic Inouye)

One critic of H.A. Bras’ “The Cardinal Reading” purports that “Bras sees the background as less important (sic) which can be seen in the lack of detail.”  While this may be so, it may be equally valid to argue that the background details that are more important.  The background details and the foreground ones–and, to be sure, the cardinal’s costume itself.

Consider, for instance, Bras’ choice of decorative flourishes, however undetailed or blurred: to the left, a painting of a mysterious, foggy island, the kind to which one would row for a clandestine tryst; the equally enigmatic wallpaper swirls obscured by a too-large and ominous cardinal shadow; the arched doorway to the right revealing a curtained space perfect for a quick change . . . of scenery; the velvety table clothing creating another ideal hiding space; not to mention the elaborately mussed folds of the cardinal’s very own robes, bunched oddly enough to hide a, well, . . . And, of course, the slight mountain of carpet, most likely unrecognized by most, rapidly pushed up in haste as feet scrambled away, revealing a small, dark, gaping cave.


“Man and Woman With Guitar” (as interpreted by Ana Moreno)

As they did every evening after supper, Elizabeth and her husband warmed themselves close to the fireplace, talking about the day’s occurrences and other topics of immediate importance.  Elizabeth’s husband was an older, worn, tired man who thought of nothing but trade embargos, tobacco shipments, and balancing his money purse.

As he drifted off to sleep, Elizabeth’s mind began to wander as her fingers lightly strummed her guitar.  Her fingers intentionally stroking each string, she looked intently into the glowing embers and began to imagine his fingers softly running up her thigh.  The chords melded together as she imagined the tips of his fingers brushing against her wetness. Instinctively, Elizabeth spread her legs, inviting his dreamlike touch to encompass her entire beiing.

Her strokes became strategic, intentional, one building on the other.  With each pluck of the guitar, Elizabeth imagined her husband’s fingers being thrust inside her.  Her rhythm became heated, eccentric.  The sounds emerging from the guitar became stronger, harder.  Her breath began to quicken.  Fingers strumming in continuous motion.  Building and building.  Until one final, immense crescendo sprung from her guitar as she moaned in outwardly emphatic pleasure.

Elizabeth’s husband stirred in his chair at the sound of his wife’s immense pleasure, though he did not wake from his solitude.  He was a man of business and comfort, Elizabeth thought as she composed herself from her all-encompassing orgasm.  He has no time to think of such lowly things as pleasing me.

If only, though, she thought.  If only.

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | FEBRUARY 2017 | “First Loves” Edition

My first love was named Alisa.  She was a ballerina and danced in The Nutcracker.  We were five years old and kissed by 10s on the playground until we hit 60 times–all while Robin watched.

Ellie’s first love was Herman.  She tells us a little about him for HUMANS OF THE PFISTER’s “First Loves” edition:

Herman.  He was handsome and very nice.  And he played basketball and baseball.  My cousin liked him, too, but I won.  I liked him first.

This was maybe in 1960 because we graduated in ’64 and my parents wouldn’t let me date until I was 17.  We’d go to a lot of drive-in movies, but if my younger sister went, my other sister and I would have to go with her until was old enough.  So I went on a first date with Herman.  He had such gorgeous eyes.  We went to a show, but back then, we weren’t alone that long, so “it” didn’t work out.

In the end, I didn’t marry Herman.  But he had a service station for a long time, and I would visit him for many years.  He had a good body then, but . . . don’t write that next part.

PLUME SERVICE III | January 25, 2017 | Small Details, Big Themes, and Lots of Wine

Plume Service is slowly but surely writing its way down the mezzanine hallways, so far invigorating half of the paintings with literary life: writers have wormholed and teleported, stepped into and out of oily, centuried canvases, listened intently for lunar whispers and clandestine confessions.

During the last week of January, Plume Service moved from its usual Saturday afternoon time to a Wednesday happy hour, where Chef Brian Frakes surprised us with some new (for us) offerings: succulent lamb puff pastries, tender veal with chimichurri sauce, and sweet dates wrapped in bacon, plus a sensible cheese platter, fresh crudité, and plenty of wine.
Listening intently to each other read their drafts. Featuring: wine.

Really, we were all there to write . . .

Mark Twain to the rescue: “When the time comes that a man has had his dinner, then the true man comes to the surface.”

Enter Virginia Woolf: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”


With those defenses in mind (ah, who are we kidding?  there was plenty of wine), the January Plume Service participants allowed both their authentic voices and their fictitious selves surface as they considered well, having dined well, each painting on their list.  On this evening, I invited them to think microscopically (focusing their words on a tiny detail or two, an obscured figure, or a feature that didn’t seem to be the painter’s focus) or macroscopically (drawing back to reveal a big picture, a weighty theme, a an omniscient or voyeuristic gaze).

Alexander Miller’s classicly styled poem for “Moonlight Scene” starts this post’s collection.  It draws readers toward its center lines, with the “Sacred Fire” inspired by a barely detectable camper at the water’s edge. In a similar way, the form of the poem points us, through all the melancholy and suffering, toward the “tiny white hat” that was the first detail Bethany Price discerned in the idyllic “Landscape.

Eduardo De la Cruz imagines not “The Dancer” herself but her shadow, whom he personifies as “The Sarah Nobody Knows.”  My offering is inspired not by the obvious (the architecture) but by the seagulls in “Venice”, and it ignores any evidence that the scene is a morning or afternoon one, instead imagining what I wanted to imagine.


Monica Thomas’ “Chianti” poem (did I mention there was wine?) is stylistically different from most of the others, preferring short, clipped lines and stanzas like quick movie shots that tell a bigger story of a woman’s vulnerability and power.  Microscopic to macroscopic.  Christina Oster offers her version of this poetic movement in “The Fortune Teller, focusing readers’ attentions on the specific location of the cross and on the “trickling” of the rosary beads as she explores a larger theme of Fate and Faith.

Finally, Eduardo’s second offering keeps us guessing until we realize that the speaker isn’t human, but is instead standing behind the white fence in the distant pasture on a “Sunday Afternoon.  This prepares us for very different kind of voice, in style and tone, in a postmodern commentary on the details of “Diana of the Hunt” and on Victorian art in general, a critique by the writer known as Celeste Hagiopiate that melds into monolog and self-aware confessional.

But enough of my literary criticism.  Please enjoy our third installment of Plume Service at The Pfister, and please consider joining me and fellow writers on Wednesday, February 23, 6-8pm.  Unwind after work and bring your plume, your notebook, your thirst, and your appetite!  (Click “going” on Facebook.)

Moonlight Scene by H.M. Kitchel
Moonlight whispers between the leaves
Moonlight whispers between the leaves
As night approaches and twilight grieves
The passage of congealed time
To the memory of a dream sublime.
Forgotten yet is the scent of dawn
For the veil descends on the pathways drawn
Through the tangled forest of thought
Where tears are formed as memories are caught
And lit upon the Sacred Fire
That is both comfort and funeral pyre
Beseeched again to the insouciant sky
As the memories fall and tears are dried.
Reflected upon the flowing stream
The echo of reality does scream
Beneath the waiting touch of gloom
For darkness to eat the silver Moon.
But the night itself is another page
In the endless tale from Age to Age
Still the Cycle revolves to each
As Dusk to Dawn, each other they teach.
–Alexander Miller

Sarah and Sarah compete for attention on the carpet.
The Dancer by Adolphe Piot

The Sarah Nobody Knows

Creeping and eloquent in style–synonymous but wild in spirit and form–she feels a breath on her toes and nobody knows her. A gallant girl but holding on by the position of Sarah. At times Sarah stops, an applaud crashes, while the Sarah nobody knows hears a clapping of the soles. The fancier the carpet, the quicker the groove, the Sarah nobody knows is the one she’d approve. But bitter is Sarah, competing for first place. While the Sarah nobody knows competes for a face . . . in the world.

–Eduardo De la Cruz


Venice by H. Biondetti

The seagull time arrives
when men have heaved their last anchors
and slung on docks their fill of fishy nets,
have warbled their merchant announcements
of crusty bread and fragrant pancetta.

Their sea cries announce
the declining day and their right
to the crumbs of the morning
and the severed heads of the afternoon.

Now is the time for women to linger
on the sea plaza, pacing leisurely
under a hazy white-winged sky,
before returning home with baskets
redolent of yeast and cured meat
and slick fins and scales.

–Dominic Inouye


Chianti by E. Giachi

Pointed shoes
on slats of
dry cedar.

Muslin bodice
straps falling off
left shoulder.

Another unshaven
man with wandering
hands.

Another empty
cask of wine
and he’ll be out.

–Monica Thomas


Sunday Afternoon by Richard Lorenz

I Thought It Was You

Brother, the time we grew, the times we saw the ships along the pier leaving men of hope and sharp ideas, and came back mules of war, or part of them.  I remember when we rode along the tall greens back when we were too young for men.  When the kids would play and we’d chase after them. Then war took us, and our groups were divided.  Then, years after, I found you, with a large bandage around your body; you’d been hurt.  Remember laughing about it?  We stayed up all night and traded stories: the good ones, the fun ones, the bad ones, and really bad ones.  Then, it was hard to talk.  You managed to get a job outside of town in a rich man’s place, while I stayed in a poor man’s den.  Months passed and no sign of you.  I heard he has people take care of you, but sometimes I don’t know. I miss you, brother.  We are old now.  The other day I saw someone with a scar that looked like the one you had on your left side, but he didn’t turn to say Hi.  He went right through.  Maybe . . . he couldn’t be you.

–Eduardo De la Cruz


Landscape by Leon Richet

You haunt every step of mine and the bovines, too,
off in the fields gazing at each others’ tails.
When I walk home it’s heavy since
there is a constant incense stick burning
in my ears–a smoke trail
of whispers to yourself,
going mad, naive of my eyes closed–
listening to your brain forest prose.
I wish I had the pastel colors
rich enough to paint you my agony.
And in this willowy terrain
where the wind
where the tree tops
where the elements moan in power,
their dominion is my shelter.
I am drunk here, losing control
of my hands
sifting through grass and branch,
climbing a leaf god to descend
in a bruised-love state,
my tiny white hat dotted
with greenery.

–Bethany Price


The Fortune Teller by Ludwig Vollmar
She slapped them on the blistery wood, accordion style.  “A fan of opportunity awaits you,” she told me.  My fate was in the foreground.  But without faith, how will I reach it?  Faith and fate are distant cousins in my life at the moment.  I turned my back to faith when I had hit after hit, loss after loss.  In fact, I hung that cross high out of reach, high out of sight. “Bygones,” I said.
And my rosary, well, I tucked that in a treasure chest.  But I did leave a few select beads trickling out.  It is a treasure chest, after all, and faith at one time was my cherished treasure.  Why bury a treasure?
Also ironic that the cross now hung in my background is made of the same wood in my foreground where this psychic has slapped her cards down.
The same wood.
Note to self: “My dear, you’re ignoring the obvious.”
–Christina Oster
Christina’s drafting process

Diana of the Hunt (after Domenichino)
Celeste Hagiopiate Reviews a Painting at the Pfister Hotel:
The Third Gathering of the Plume Service
Oh look, a Tableau.  Victorians loved their Tableaus. Here, a zaftig Diana is posed in a most wooden position, two arms raised.  She stands to the left of the center of the painting.  She is far too modest to stand center stage. But damn it, she demands to be seen.  Dark trees in the background circle her brighter figure.
She is at the apex of an isosceles triangle of stilted figures.  In the background and to the right is another triangle, far more sparse and off-kilter than the opulent composition in the foreground.  (Post Modern Aside: Dom Inouye, Pfister Narrator, has asked us to notice and amplify one small detail.)
Look.  There is a chaste, bare-breasted nymph at the bottom of the painting.  She is pointing aimlessly.  Her index finger directs our eyes to the great beyond.  Those Victorians!  Stupid girl, she should be pointing at Diana or at the very least, pointing to the drunken revelers in the distance.
Was this painting meant for a mansion?  I suspect so.  A lunging hound honors the position off center and just a little lower to the right.  A direct line can be drawn between it and Diana.  This is a geometrically precise painting.  What, you expect a lush, adjectival poem about a pretty little scene from the old crone?  Leave that to the dewy-eyed twenty-year-olds.
Coda: I’m drunk.  I don’t sing for my supper or for my Cabernet Sauvignon.  Lousy voice.  I can be coaxed to write and recite a brief address.  I do it to entertain myself.  If it entertains you, well, that is an extra bonus.
–Celeste Hagiopiate, Punk Theosopher and Poseur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ok.  Back to 2017.

No, seriously.  Back to the story.

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

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

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

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

John Budzinski (left) and Casimir (right)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s a Big Clock: Robin and the Polish Moon

Robin Campbell, The Pfister Hotel’s house carpenter for eight years, retired two years ago.  But he came back for Gallery Night last Friday to see the work of his friend Stephanie Barenz, the Hotel’s fifth Artist-in-Residence (AiR), as well as the work of the other AiRs past and present. When she arrived, she described him in avuncular terms as they greeted each other warmly.  “I designed the huge frame for her painting in the hallway,” Robin beamed.

I had originally attended the opening of “Bridges: Artistic Passages“–an exhibition of current works by all eight AiRs, including the exhibit curator, Pamela Anderson–with the intention of writing about bridges and passages, with interviews of the AiRs and guests.  It was, perhaps, too early in the evening to capture a good story: downtown was spilling out onto the streets and into cars and buses, homeward bound.  Perhaps some of them would make their way back downtown for some art appreciation.  Many of the artists were also participating in Gallery Night at other studios.  (I plan to go back and capture my impressions of the exhibit in a future blog; you should visit, too!)

In the meantime, however, I caught the eye of someone across the room, who looked at me almost knowingly, inviting me to his table like he had something important to tell me.

I had not known that the Hotel had a “house carpenter” (I wondered where the workshop might be).  “In my shop at home,” Robin informed me. He then proceeded to flip through his phone’s gallery, like an eager teenager, to show me tables he had masterfully refinished, cabinets and shelving he had designed and built, and an impressive moveable wall in an upstairs ballroom.  He regaled me with a story about how all the doors in the ballrooms had needed tweaking one year (“None of them would close, they were all crooked”) and how he saved the Hotel a lot of money by correcting all eighteen or so doors–in only a day and a half!   As his finger swept through the photographs, it dawned on me that the beautiful glass case on the grand staircase landing was probably–“Yes, I made that, too.” (I was embarrassed that I had walked by the case so many times without realizing that the dazzling blue dress encased within it was crafted by Timothy Westbrook, the fourth AiR.  I thought it was, well, what did I think?  A ball gown from 1893?)

He also designed the case for Niki Johnson‘s Tether, the deep red tub lined with feathers and fur that sits across from the art studio.

There’s also a massive butcher block table that looks like puzzle pieces that Chef Brian Frakes pulls out for special presentations, and Paint Department Supervisor Mary Rose told me later that he also built all the podiums in the hotel and the long tables in the basement’s Salve Staff Canteen.

It was clear that Robin took exceptional pride in his work, as well he should.  He turned that pride to humility for a moment, though, when he told me how Stephanie had honored him in one of her paintings during her residency.  The woodwork was interesting, but now I wanted to follow him down this path.

Stephanie had joined forces with Narrator Molly Snyder to collaborate on a book of paintings and writings inspired by their time at The Pfister. Called The Carriersthis collection is both rooted in Milwaukee and transient with departures and travels and arrivals.  In one of the rooted painting-story pairings, “Robin & the Fisherfolk,” a small fishing boat in the foreground is overwhelmed by a turbulent magenta-yellow sky and a tower of concrete, construction cranes, southside homes, and a strangely dark and imposing Allen-Bradley Clock.  One of those homes is the one Robin grew up in.

Robin & the Fisherfolk (2013) by Stephanie Barenz. Mixed media on canvas, 84″x60″.

During his childhood, his family lived five blocks from the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower.  His house was on the west side of the street, looking east. It’s the house on the middle-right in Stephanie’s looming tower, the one with the porch.  The moonlight was so bright it would shine right into his house and onto the desk in his room.  His family, as did many in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, called it the “Polish moon,” a sobriquet in honor of the Polish immigrants of Walker’s Point.  What I love is that Robin made it seem like it was only his family that called it that; there was that sense of pride again.  As an accompaniment to Stephanie’s painting, Molly captured a similar special pride in her short story:

by Molly Snyder

“We never had to have a clock or thermometer in the house,” Robin mused, “because all we had to do was look out the window.  And my school was two blocks away.  We’d watch the guys washing the glass of the clock–especially when we were studying.  It was so cool, how could you blame us?

Robin had been enjoying the appetizers and had somehow devoured all but a lonely raisin, which he picked up, then placed back on the plate.  I understood that the stark white plate was one of the 40-foot, 3-1/2 inch clock faces.  “You knew it was a big clock, obviously, but when you saw a man up there?  Then you told yourself, ‘That’s a big clock!'”  The only photo I have of Robin is this one of him pointing to the raisin man:

Raisin man.

We saw Stephanie arriving, but before they greeted each other with friendly memories and hugs, Robin left me with this: “Eventually, I got to work as a painter in the offices and parking lot of Rockwell Automation– and guess what?  I was up there on the side of the building on one of those swing stages, just like the guys I’d see from my school window.  It’s funny how everything comes full circle, isn’t it?”

 

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | JANUARY 2016 | “Trying New Things”

Dee did not think he had anything interesting to tell, especially about this month’s theme of Trying New Things. Surprise: “You got a story out of me. You’re good.”

you just have to grab it

Well, you know–I got a gym membership this year–New Year’s Resolutions and all–so I could lose weight and quit smoking.  I’m weak to an extent, but until you actually make up your mind to do something, no one can force you.  Then the goal is pretty much reached.  You just have to grab it, you know what I mean?

I’m weak to an extent, but until you actually make up your mind to do something, no one can force you.  Then the goal is pretty much reached. You just have to grab it, you know what I mean?

I know that working out with a group of people can be fun, but you have to be your own motivation.  You shouldn’t need someone to get you to do what you want to do, you know what I mean?

I work out at Experience Fitness, and they have a theater with cardio machines in a dark theater, and they play a different movie each time.  So you can just do your thing and get lost in the movie–and it keeps you focused.  I actually just reached a new record: one hour of cardio on the elliptical!

–Dee

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Noooo!  Think again.  Wealth and power.”

“American Psycho?”

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

“Ahhh…Catcher–

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blake with longtime Pfister friend Ellie

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

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

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | JANUARY 2017 | TRYING NEW THINGS

HAPPY NEW YEAR, READERS!

My “Humans of The Pfister” took a hiatus in December, but the Humans are back! What better way to jumpstart HOTP in 2017 than with this lovely mother-daughter team.  I ran into Jayne and Grace at the hotel last week. Well, to be honest, I saw on Facebook that they were in the Cafe for lunch, promised them online that I’d be there as soon as I could, and got there in time to join them for a delightful conversation in the Lobby Lounge.

Grace graduated last June from The Prairie School, where I taught her senior English class.  She has completed her first semester at the Santa Fe University of Art & Design, where she is studying concept art and character design.  I remember Grace as a quiet, introspective student, shy in class but mildly bubbly with friends, more a follower than a leader. She was well known for her artistic abilities, though she never boasted, never made a big deal about it.  What I remember most about her, though, is that she knows what she likes and dislikes–and is not afraid to tell you, ever so respectfully.

One thing she likes is real life.  True stories. History. As a reader, not surprisingly, she tends toward nonfiction. So whenever I would introduce a new work of fiction for us to study, well, I knew it was going to be a chore.  She’d give it an honest go, I knew, but she wasn’t going to make it easy for me.  I came to expect, with every new novel, the calm but serious question: “So, why are we reading this?”  I remember, though, our interesting conversations–just the two of us, sitting in the Commons–about the role of fiction, the nature of “happening truth” versus “story truth” (terms borrowed from author Tim O’Brien), and so on.  I appreciated that she was willing to listen and debate and, even, willing to question my choices and objectives.

Another thing she disliked was writing.  If she could just tell me, why did she have to write it?  If she could just show me in a drawing, why did she have to write it?

So what did I learn about this quiet, young contrarian on this December afternoon?  It’s not box office material, but here’s the movie script:

INT. THE PFISTER HOTEL - DAY

DOMINIC sits down with his former student GRACE and her mother JAYNE to catch up on the last six months, especially with GRACE, who has been at school in Santa Fe.

DOMINIC
What program are you in again?

GRACE
It's focused on concept art and character design.  

JAYNE
She's really doing what she loves.  

DOMINIC
(looking at GRACE)
And you get to do it in the background, behind the scenes, in a sense.  Right?  

GRACE
(nodding)
Yes.  

DOMINIC
How are your roommates?

GRACE
I live in my own place, which is nice.  But the people I hang out with, they just sing--all--the--time.  I don't mind it.  They're fun.

JAYNE
It's an arts school.  So there are so many students studying music and theater and musical theater.  But Grace.  You know how she's always been kind of shy.  But because of the program she's in, with films, and all the new people she's around, she's already designed a movie poster for one short film and now she's acting!

GRACE
Yeah, I keep being asked to be an extra.  It's weird.  I've been a 911 operator, a news reporter, a background laugher . . .

DOMINIC
I can see you being a background laugher.  Always smirking at something.

JAYNE
(eagerly)
Tell him about your Mary Jane.

GRACE
I will.  Being an extra is one thing, but I've never acted and the director wasn't sure if I was going to work out, but we tried it out and he liked me, so I got a role as Mary Jane--

JAYNE
From Spider-Man.

GRACE
Yes, you know, Peter Parker's girlfriend.  I am still shy, but doing all this really boosts your confidence.  

JAYNE
You did all that Irish dance for so many years, so you were on the stage all the time.

GRACE
Yeah, you'd think that that would've helped.  

DOMINIC
But it's different when you're dancing with a team.  I know why you'd get nervous on the stage.  get nervous.  And I can't stand a camera on me!

JAYNE
She'll get used to it.  I think she's being open to all the possibilities around her.  Like, you know, she never liked to write--

DOMINIC
No kidding.  It was like pulling teeth.

JAYNE
Well, her teacher had them write a research paper on anything they wanted.  And you know Grace--if she's not interested in it, it's going to be very hard to get her to write about it.  So I made a huge list for her and--

DOMINIC
Oh yeah.  That's when she wrote about Tim Burton, right?  

JAYNE
She's been fascinated with him for a long time.  

DOMINIC
This is just like I let her write about the Old West for her Senior Capstone project because that's what she wanted to research.

JAYNE
Yes.  Her teacher liked her research so much that he entered it into a writing contest.

DOMINIC
(smirking at GRACE)
Too funny.

JAYNE
So anyways.  When I finally move out there next month, I want to start getting extra roles on campus.  I could be the "adult woman" or the "old woman" whenever they need an adult woman or old woman.  I am looking forward to moving and returning to the southwest. You know me--I love to hike and fish, I love the mountains. I'm looking forward to all the museums and Navajo jewelry and rugs and art.  I'm just tired of how "American" things have gotten here.  I mean, there are still places I like to go in Milwaukee, but there's just something. Maybe it's how modern things have gotten . . . or it's how busy everyone is, everyone on their phones.  Out there, it's quieter.

GRACE
Yeah, everyone's calm and nice.  No one hustles.  

JAYNE
And that's what I'm seeking.  I don't know what it's going to be like out there.  I have a job or two lined up in my field, but everything else is new.  I'm excited to start exploring again, creating a new life.  And slowing down.

DOMINIC
And it'll be nice, I'm sure, to be close to Grace.  You both get along so well.  

(They both nod in agreement)

GRACE
It's so calm and nice that I don't even watch the news.

JAYNE
She doesn't even watch the news.  I have to tell her what's happening around her.

GRACE
There was supposedly a mountain lion lurking around campus.  I didn't know about that.  And one day we saw smoke coming from the mountains and thought it was a forest fire.  It was a controlled burn.

JAYNE
I had to tell her about those things.  If it weren't for me, well . . . she has to be careful.  Tell him about the barracks.

GRACE
Ok.  So there's what we call "the barracks" and it's an abandoned part of the school.

JAYNE
Back from when it was St. Michael's College.  It was probably where all the priests lived.  It's all fenced off and Grace and her friends found a way to kind of wiggle under it at night.

GRACE
(leaning forward, face beaming)
The barracks are really cool.  It's one of the movie sets for Manhattan.  It turns out lot of movies are made in Santa Fe.  Like Tina Feys's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.  And many are shot on our campus. We had to use our phones because we didn't have flashlights, and there were all these rooms with surgery tables and things, probably old movie props.

JAYNE
Grace is the ringleader.  Everyone else was scared of ghosts, but not Grace. What she should have been afraid of were bats . . . or rats.

GRACE
(chuckling)
There was that black widow.

JAYNE
See what I mean?

GRACE
(smiling)
There was an Italian kid.  He got bit by something, but we didn't know what, but after two days he called 1-1-9.  Yep, he's from Italy and got the emergency number backward.  But eventually his mom came from Italy and he had to go home.

So there you have it.

Quiet, graceful, gracious Grace who used to turn her nose up to fictional characters is now

  • learning how to create concept art for fictional films,
  • laughing for filmmakers,
  • joining the ranks of Kirsten Dunst as Spider-Man’s girlfriend,
  • leading a risky gang of trespassing, singing art students through abandoned buildings,
  • braving the lions and bats of Santa Fe, and
  • chuckling at the misfortune of black widow-bitten Italian boys.

I never would have guessed.

Maybe she’s realizing that a little bit of make-believe isn’t such a bad thing.  Especially if you’re doing something you love.

If only we had let her do more of what she loved when she was in high school–right, Grace?

 

 

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!