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!

 

 

 

PLUME SERVICE II | December 10, 2016 | More “Hearing Voices”

Amy Miller finds a comfortable spot on the stairs to write.
Here, Amy listens intently as Morganne MacDonald reads her story.

As promised, here are a few more stories inspired by the paintings in The Pfister Hotel.  The first was written by Amy Miller–we squealed in delight at its ability to be both formal sounding and naughty.  The second is another by Amy, a letter from a character in the hazy painting who is barely recognizable at first.  And the last is mine, also a letter, based on the dark-haired woman’s gaze vs. the glazed eyes of the red-haired woman, the position of the old man’s hands, and the dichotomy of Catholic religious items and the reasonable scale.

“The Poppy Field” story is one of imminent marriage, “Moonlight Scene” is about a hoped for return to married life, and “The Fortune Teller” tells the story of a young woman looking for good fortune in the love department.

Enjoy!

“The Poppy Field” (Louis Aston Knight)
by Amy Miller

The sun was warm for late summer.  The scent of the flowers was strong in the air, delightfully suffocating in its heaviness.

Isabelle looked over at her sister Henrietta, already dressed in her best clothes and wearing an apron to protect against soiling.  “Dear sister, I am so happy to be here with you,” said Isabelle, plucking another perfect, pink bloom.

“Not as happy as I to have you with me!” replied Henrietta.  “Just to think, the two of us picking my marriage bouquet.  It will be as if you are holding my hand down the aisle.”

Isabelle could hear the joy in Henrietta’s voice.  It was heartwarming, even in the heat–and the dizzying profusion of color abounded around them.

“You have accepted a good man.  I’m sure he will bring you a happy life.:

“Thank you for your blessing, dear sister.”

“Well, it’s really his blessings you will be concerned with this evening,” said Isabelle with a conspiratorial nudge.  

Henrietta gasped and blushed.  “Izzy,” she cried, with playful horror.

“Well, Is it not true?  T’would be a sad life to be bound to a man who could not fulfill all his duties.”

“Izzy, I’m sure he will make me happy,” Henrietta said, dropping her gaze and blushing.

“Moonlight Scene” (H.M. Kitchel)
by Amy Miller

20 September 1872

Dearest Majorie,

I write to you by light of fire and full moon.  Camp tonight is by a small stream bed.  Work fills my days, but it is in the long, lonely hours of the night that my mind turns only to thoughts of you.

I have managed to capture an excellent harvest of valuable pelts.  If all goes well, this trip will buy us provisions for a comfortable winter.  We may even have enough to try buying seed to plant in the spring.  I know how pained you feel at the risk I take on these trips.  With any luck, this one may become the last.

I hold your handkerchief close to my heart each time I sleep, trusting your love and divine providence to watch over me and hold me safe from harm. I long for the day we shall be together again in one house, as husband and wife should be.

I will post this letter to you when I next arrive at a fort.  I hope it will find you well and safe in your father’s care.  Tell him that soon he shall have a son-in-law worthy of the title.

Yours in love.

“Beneath the Table” (inspired by Ludwig Vollmar’s Fortune Teller)
by Dominic Inouye

Dear Herr Vollmar,

I write to you today with a quite serious request.  Two days ago, I accompanied my younger sister–you’ll remember her as Lotta–to your home, despite my initial concern about two girls such as us visiting a stranger, let alone a man, in his private abode.  You must know that it was not without a moral struggle betwixt us that I finally conceded to this most curious venture–if only, I told her, to unleash my feminine venom should anything unseemly occur.

She sought your sage advice, believing you to be a man of both your word and a man of God, inspired by the holy scriptures.  Indeed, the icons and crucifix and prayer beads that hang on your wall seem to speak to this truth.  But, sir, I studied you, since I am an observant and cautious girl, just as my mother always taught me to be.  Your holy words, on the contrary, belied the archaic babble inspired by the arcana of your dusty tarot cards, hidden as they were beneath the table.  I was wise to your charlatanism, but refrained from intervening, as my sister had willingly clasped her heart over her ears.  She would have been as deaf to my plea for her to leave your foolery as she was deaf to your foolery.  You spoke no godly words, only ones of devils and towers, hierophants and suns–and the Hanged Man–which she no doubt heard as favorable signs gleaned from the Old Testament or, better yet, the Apocalypse, that her long months of pining for a certain young man, nay fool, would soon be over.

This is why I write to you now, in her absence, to insist that you never allow her to visit you again; neither will she procure your services nor will you promote them. For you have gained in coins what she has lost in faith and decency.  Yes, she has more hope now, but it is misguided, turned awry by a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  I promise to not be too slow to call your bluff and reveal you as the false prophet you are.  For now, she must not know I have made such demands on her behalf.  I trust you will heed this warning.  

Sincerely,

Neté Fuchs*

* In German, Fuchs means “fox hunter.”

PLUME SERVICE II | December 10, 2016 | “Hearing Voices”

What is “voice”?

It’s what comes out of our mouths when we speak, the reverberation of air through our vocal cords that makes particular sounds, with a pitch and a timbre, a tone and a frequency.  But is that all it is?

Is it the expression of our unique style, whether spoken or written (or even painted or danced)?  A feel, a beat; a rhythm, a pace?  The formality or informality of how we are communicating, indicated by our vocabulary and inflection and even our body language?  Is it our accent, revealing our genesis, a region whose inhabitants have trained their vocal cords to reverberate in “ahs” versus “ohs,” a drawl, a click, a cadence–to say “bubbler” instead of “water fountain”?

Is it a descriptor, as in “professional voice” or “stuffy voice,”  “silly voice” or “natural voice” (whatever that is)?  Is it our way of interpreting a situation in which we vary our vocal cords to fit an environment, like a “church voice” versus a “teacher voice”?

Or is it even bigger than all this?  Is it part of our identity, our very self . . . a power that we are given or that we develop or that we sometimes choose? And something that can be taken away in a suppressive and even oppressive way, as in “taking away someone’s voice”?

The six writers who gathered with me this past Saturday afternoon for the second Plume Service writing workshop determined that it could be all of the above.  While the first Plume Service asked participants to step into a painting and experience it on all five sensual levels–seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling–this second gathering invited the writers to try on a different persona and develop his or her voice.  No landscapes devoid of humanity this time.  Only paintings which featured humans or ones with humans distant or obscured and therefore unheard.  Their goal was to let these humans talk and to venture into the distance or through the haze to meet up with those humans who they could barely see.

The ultimate goal, as with the first Plume Service, was to amass creative pieces of writing inspired by the painting in The Pfister, from which I will be able to choose selections to accompany the paintings with placards and, I hope, audio.

After an insightful brainstorm around the definition of “voice,” the participants each wrote down three adjectives that they (or others) would use to describe them.  Then I asked them to ask themselves “Is this how I talk?” and “What does it even mean to ‘talk’ this way?”  For instance, I wrote down observant, gregarious, and kind.  One way, I told them, that I speak gregariously is that I use people’s names as often as possible, addressing them often and referring to them as examples (a skill I mastered while a teacher).  I also look people in the eye and try to engage them as interesting individuals worthy of my attention.  The examples they gave were all quite personal and revealing, almost confessional at times.  But we talked about what it means for someone’s voice to be “shy” or “sassy” or “anxious” and interrogated the validity or profundity of these meanings.

We could have talked for hours, I think.  But the paintings were calling out: “Hear our voices” (whisper) or “Hear our voices!” (cry) or “Hear our voices” (lament or plea).

And off they went to explore.  When they returned, I was surprised to learn that even more people had chosen to write about Charles Clement Calderon’s A View of Venice (note to self: Charles Clement Calderon’s A View of Venice is off limits for Plume Service III!).  I have already published three poems from the first workshop all inspired by this one painting.  I don’t know what it is about this painting: Is it enigmatic?  mysterious? inviting? soothing?  Is it that we all connect somehow with ships going out to sea and ships returning?  A coming and a going?  A longing for adventure and a yearning to return?

Whatever it is, I give you three more versions of Calderon’s oils.  The first is by Cian MacDonald-Milewski, a senior in high school, who writes an interior monologue in the voice of a man returning to his wife and child. The second, by Iris Geng, steps out of the painting and describes the scene from the Calderon’s perspective.  And the third is the first of a pair by Christina Oster: the Venice poem is in her father’s voice and a second, inspired by a different painting, is in her mother’s.

“Man in Tall, Docked Ship Thinking to Himself” 
by Cian MacDonald-Milewski

I am so glad to be home to see my wife and child.  It has been so long . . . I wish I wouldn’t have had to leave them for so long . . . When I left my child, she was so small, so bright, like a yellow daisy on a warm summer day in an open field.  I pray that they have not struggled while I was away. Now that I have gained enough coin from my venture to secure us, I hope I will not have to venture again.  I do not want to be ripped from my family because of finances . . . I will tell my wife the love that I feel deep inside my soul, this ember that has only been fueled while I have been away.  When I see my child, I will whisper in her ear and tell her promises of being there for her forever and always.  I long to embrace my wife and child and never part from their side again.

Cian

When participants heard Cian’s piece at the end of our workshop, they remarked at his vivid, poetic use of language and the formality of his thoughts, which, he says, he was trying to choose his words purposefully in order to replicate what might be a cultured voice from the late 1800s.

Iris’ poem chose a different angle with a short narrative from the perspective of someone observing the painter Calderon who was observing the scene on the water.  She captures nicely a potential disruption to an otherwise peaceful day.

“A Partly Cloudy Day for Painting”
by Iris Geng

It’s a nice, partly cloudy day at the dock of San Marco Square.  The painter had set up.  A schooner with massive sails toward the dock and a gondola with six guests tries very hard to row to get out of the way of the schooner.  The rowers sing out loud to coordinate and energize the gondola, but the three passenger couples are observant.  

“Watch out for that sailboat!” cries the man with a red hat and white gown.  

“No worry,” his friend says calmly.  “We have the right of way.”  

The fear on their women’s faces relaxes after hearing his remark.  

“What a gorgeous day to be on the canal,” the woman in blue chants.  “I am looking forward to our meal near the Riolto Bridge.”

Iris (left) and Christina (right)

This next Venice poem is the one by Christina Oster.  It is written in the voice of her deceased father, who succumbed to dementia, writing an imagined letter to his wife.  In a recent email, she shared, “Due to my father’s dementia right before he passed, they never had a chance to truly say ‘goodbye’ to each other.  This exercise proved the perfect way for me to bring closure of some sort to his unfortunate passing 6 months ago.”  The poem that follows is inspired by a different painting, Antonio Torres’ Grecian Girl, and written in the voice of her mother, writing to her husband.  Both are haunting and sad, but also, as Christina writes, words of closure.

“From Father”
by Christina Oster

Mother,
Demon vessels have demented my sails.
Waves crash, carrying away sediment filled with sentiment.
A mirage to think that my mast was made of steel.
It is not.
My mast is frail and feeble, getting weaker with the pelting storm.
But, my love, don’t ever question your presence through it all.
My view of Venice is not a blur.
I do recall.
I recall your beauty, your heart, your service.
I am soon approaching inevitable shipwreck.
But I will forever remember what the sea has forced me to forget.

“From Mother”
by Christina Oster

Father,
Finally, our Parthenon crumbles to ruins.
The Aegean Sea sailed your ship to sunset well before I could perform a final tidy-up.
My exhaustion prevails, but faith through my passion and pain will pulse and persist until our life
Our structure
is someday restored. 
But for now, my love
I have poured my last service.

Christina

I am thankful that Cian accompanied his mother to this workshop and unabashedly shared the romantic words of the sailor.

I am thankful that Iris, who is Chinese, overcame her anxiety about her written English so that we could see the Venice painting (yet again!) from a new perspective.

And I am thankful that Christina felt empowered enough to share her work with six complete strangers, let alone see in the two paintings an opportunity for personal healing and growth.  In her words, “Thank you for reuniting me with a style of writing that I’ve abandoned for far too long. I often think I can only write a certain way – a more edgy, promotional, advertise-ish way. I forgot that the romantic, compassionate voice still exists.”

It doesn’t matter who you are: there is surely a painting in The Pfister Hotel’s beautiful collection that is bound to hook you, draw you in, transform your vision, and help you find (or reconnect with) your voice.  I hope you’ll consider joining me for Plume Service III.  The January date is yet to be determined, so stay tuned!

As always, thank you for reading!

p.s. More Plume Service II stories and photos to come–including my own!

p.p.s. And stay tuned, also, for a little post on a little thing that happened to me this past Sunday: I got married and had brunch at The Rouge with 25 of my closest family and friends! 🙂

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | NOVEMBER 2016 | A Month of Gratitude

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So far, HUMANS OF THE PFISTER has captured stories of life, liberty, happiness, augustness, education, and fear.  The Humans have been so willing to share their stories, whether happy or sad, simple or philosophical, funny or serious, unique or universal.  So I can’t wait to hear what they have to share with me and you this month.  Our theme?

A month of gratitude.

I will be asking Humans this month for three different kinds of gratitudes: 

lunch-box-clipart-black-and-white-clipart-panda-free-clipart-18i8wh-clipartstick_man_clip_art_24915 thought-bubble-student-think-bubble-clipart-free-images

Thanks for something that can fit into a 1’x1′ box.

Thanks for a human or group of humans.

Thanks for a something non-physical

whether it’s an idea, a value, a force–

as long as it’s something we can’t see physically.

If you don’t get a chance to come to The Pfister and talk to me, then please leave your three stories of thanks in the Comments Box below or on Facebook (my or the Hotel’s page).  I’ll publish them on the blog as they come in!

Without further ado, here are your first three thankful Humans of The Pfister:

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This gentleman visited Pamela’s studio while I was there, genuinely interested in why she was intrigued by the architecture of the Hotel (he had stopped to read the sign outside her studio).  He was at the Hotel to volunteer at an entrepreneurship awards ceremony for BizStarts.

lunch-box-clipart-black-and-white-clipart-panda-free-clipart-18i8wh-clipartI give thanks to my eyeballs, my sight.  Just imagine trying to describe this hotel.  It’s so beautiful.  Try describing this, for example, to Stevie Wonder.  I don’t take my eyesight for granted.  One of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever seen?  Just people, I guess.  Just people.  And the act of love.

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I give thanks to lots of people.  I was literally raised by Milwaukee.  I grew up in the foster care system, so I bounced around a lot.  Even as an adult, I struggled with homelessness.  But you know what?  There are a lot of good things in this world.  Even in the crevasses.

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I give thanks to Love because when you think about it, what’s life without Love.  I mean, even Hitler loved somebody.  Didn’t he love that one woman?  You know, people in the urban community have a saying: “Love, bro.  Love.  Just Love.”  I don’t know, we just say it to each other.  Maybe that means solidarity?  I deal with a lot of non-profits and their favorite word is “unity.”  Everyone’s about unity.  And that’s because you need love.  Even though yesterday I was dealing with some stuff, telling myself “You don’t need love,” I know that I really do need it.  Think about it: when you were two years old, you couldn’t do anything.  You needed someone to love you, right?

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This gentleman just lost his mother last week and was dealing with a viable mixture of grief and regret and second thoughts.  At the time I approached him, it was difficult for him to open up, but he did share a “stick figure” gratitude about his mother.  There is more that we talked about that is not recorded here.

stick_man_clip_art_24915I give thankfor my mother.  Over the past year, I realized that one of my main personality traits is that I love helping people.  I’m a software engineer by trade, but now I’m what you could call a sales engineer.  I’m the “architect” that helps engineers with their problems.  My mom, well, she touched a lot of people, too.  I have five biological siblings and count thirteen total as my brothers and sisters.  But all told, I’d estimate that she had at least twenty-five foster kids over the years.  She was a good person.

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This gentleman was volunteering for BizSmarts.  Alex introduced me to him.

lunch-box-clipart-black-and-white-clipart-panda-free-clipart-18i8wh-clipartI give thanks for belts.  You know, we need a belt to hold our pants up.  You present yourself as an example to others when your pants are held up.  There are some people, though, who walk around with their pants down, pants sagging.  In other people’s eyes, they lose respect, even if they don’t deserve it.  I don’t disrespect people who don’t wear belts, but perspective is a big thing.

stick_man_clip_art_24915I give thanks to my mother, my father, and God.  If these didn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist.  The greatest thing they have given me is my life.

 

thought-bubble-student-think-bubble-clipart-free-imagesI give thanks for my visionary thoughts.  I think outside the box.  I think of the impossible.  If someone says “No” I say “Yes.”  I do almost the opposite.  If someone says “Why can’t we do this?” I say “You’re not doing enough.”

From the Mezzanine: Milwaukee Art Museum Teens Descend on The Pfister

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Windblown and soggy, they escaped the dark cold.  They entered the bright gallery space where new art was being hung for an upcoming exhibit, one girl wrapped in a beach towel for warmth, others with curls worried about frizzing.  One boy shook his purple hair, others nudged each other as they talked about their day. Last Wednesday, a dozen teenagers introduced themselves to me with friendly smiles that revealed their eagerness to begin their experience.  At their exuberant leader’s suggestion, they immediately got into a circle on the carpeted floor and began introducing themselves more formally, if “formal” means taking turns gently tossing a Nerf-like skull to each other.  I had a good vibe about these kids.

Last Wednesday, a dozen teenagers introduced themselves to me with friendly smiles that revealed their eagerness to begin the experience.  At their exuberant leader’s suggestion, they immediately got into a circle on the carpeted floor and began introducing themselves more formally–if by “formal” I mean taking turns gently tossing a Nerf-like skull to each other.  I had a good vibe about these kids.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil
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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Helene Fischman, the Manager of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Teen Leadership Program, had arranged to bring these twelve teenagers to The Pfister, a few blocks west of where they typically meet, to learn about the Narrator program and to practice their writing by responding to their experience of the Hotel.  This special Teen Advisory Council is, according to MAM’s website, “designed to develop teen leadership skills, build teen career connections to museum- and arts-related professionals, and bring about systemic change within the Milwaukee Art Museum.”  The teens–who attend schools as diverse as Marquette, Rufus King, and Milwaukee High School of the Arts–were invited to serve on the Council based on their demonstrated leadership and enthusiasm for the arts in previous MAM programs.  Helene takes them through intensive exercises that focus on how to respond to the world around them in different ways.  And, as was clear by how they acted with each other and with Helene and me, she teaches them how to respect that world and the people with whom they interact.  They are currently creating a monthly eNewsletter–with articles about goings-on at the Museum and around the city, recommended pairings of art and music, comics, interviews, and more–and getting ready to set up a Teen Art Exhibition.

Before most of them got a chance to view the magnificent lobby (only two of them had visited before), I offered them a mini-history of the Hotel as we relaxed in the Pop-Up Gallery.  I’m not the greatest historical storyteller (aka I’m no Peter Mortenson), so my histories usually get reduced to timeline highlights.  However, the teens listened dutifully (and with what seemed genuine interest).  In fact, we even had some good laughs.  For instance, once I told them that a fire destroyed the grand Newhall House in 1883, everything after that became, for the teens, about fire.  They guessed, incorrectly of course, that Guido Pfister died . . . wait for it . . . “in a hotel fire!”  That four days after the Hotel Pfister opened in 1893 . . . wait for it . . . it, too, “burned to the ground!”  (The correct answer?  The stock market crashed.)  So we had a little fun and took some liberties with the history of the “Grand Hotel of the West,” amused by Dick and Harry (the stately lion guardians), awed by the idea of the glass ceiling, tickled by the fact that someone wrote a march just for the Pfister Hotel, and, well, I’m not sure what they were thinking when I told them there used to be Turkish Baths where the WELL Spa + Salon is now.  I detected a smirk or two.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

We made our way to the Mezzanine, got ourselves settled on the floor again, and I talked to them about the joys and difficulties of being the Pfister Narrator, in particular what it’s like approaching strangers.  “Sometimes, honestly, it feels like I’m looking for a date,” I tell them.  “I know, that’s creepy, but it’s kind of true.”  I give them my best Joey from Friends: “How you doin’?”  Sometimes, I add, it takes some coaxing and getting over inhibitions or even language barriers.  Sometimes it’s about seeking out the “loudest” person in the room, whether that means volume-loud (like the LSU fans when they were here to go to Lambeau) or appearance-loud (like the one person in the room that looks like he works on Project Runway, covered in tattoos and incredible floral skinny jeans).  I admit that sometimes I’ve prejudged people unfairly (“too sporty,” “too quiet,” “too north woodsy”–whatever those things actually mean, which is nothing) and that I’ve more often than not been humbled by what people are willing to share with me.  I meant to give them these examples in particular: the “too sporty” guy who I thought was just going to talk about golf but who told me that the time he felt most alive was after he gave one of his kidneys to his eleven-year-old daughter and started embracing Buddhist values; the “too quiet” woman who wowed me with her photography and oil paintings, embracing her inner Bohemian; and the “too north woodsy” guy who talked about fishing like it was a spiritual experience.  I do share with them one of my most recent Humans of the Pfister, Claudia, an Associate at The Pfister who was serving wine and hors d’oeuvres at a recent function that I was at.  I told Claudia to take a break from pouring us wine–we could do that ourselves–and tell me a story about a fear.  After breaking down her inhibitions a bit, I got to hear her moral philosophy on the light and the dark.  I’ve come to not be surprised when eloquent wisdom comes from the mouths of anyone I talk to here at the Hotel.  I think I used the word “humbled” at least a dozen times.

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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman

It was time, then, for the teens to do what they were here to do, which was to explore the Hotel and respond to it.  Helene and I had decided to offer them three main observation subjects: Painting, People, or Pillars (a third “P” that meant any of the architectural details of the Hotel).  I invited them to imagine what was to the unseen and unrepresented left or right each painting’s scene, or above or below, beyond or in the foreground.

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I suggested they observe guests’ and Associates’ characteristics and eavesdrop a little, or even talk to them if they seemed willing.

Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil
Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

And Helene asked them to consider what the pillars or carpeting or handrails had to say to them, or imagine who had constructed or walked or touched these elements in the Hotel’s past glory days.

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

And then they were off.

Some of the teens headed directly to the third floor, others ventured down the stairs into the lobby, gazing up at the ceiling or walking down the hallway toward Mason Street Grill.  At least one remained in the mezzanine, contemplating the rendition of Domenichino’s The Hunt of Diana.  Jack West and I were doing some serious art criticism about this piece!

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Jack West (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)

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Helene had encouraged them to be patient and take some time to look around, observe, and listen before they took their thoughts and imaginations to paper. As Helene’s beautiful photos show, the teens took her words to heart and also embraced the Hotel’s offer of “Salve”:

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Josiah Grabber (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Marcelo Quesada (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Tom Krajna (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Sarai Van Leer (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Joicelyn Brenson (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Suvan Praseutsack (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Sheyenne Wilson (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Margaret French (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)

When they all returned, we took a break, ate some boxed dinners prepared by the MAM chef, and talked about, among other things, the seniors’ college application process (two of the teens were still juniors), where they were applying, what their dream schools were.  The teens enjoyed each others’ company, clearly enjoyed having Helene as their leader, and welcomed me into their conversation with ease and delight.  In particular, talked a lot with Montaser Abduljalil, a polite and inquisitive young man.  We talked about art at his school and the school where I used to teach, about my photography project called ZIP MKE, and about how marvelous the Hotel is.  Monty, as people call him, loves that “one of the Pfister’s goals is to make your stay feel as cozy and home-like as they can, with carpet and marble everywhere and the welcoming staff.”

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

When we moved back to the Pop-Up Gallery where there was more light and less noise (the lobby was hopping!), I learned that some of them had talked to Pamela in her studio and that Monty had approached Dr. Jeffrey Hollander at his piano and talked to him for awhile, learning how Hollander remembers every song that anyone has ever asked him to play.  (In fact, before we left for the evening, Monty asked him to play Debussy’s Claire de Lune–and was simply in awe when he heard Dr. Hollander play it.  We had to stay to hear the entire piece.)

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Photo credit: Montaser Abduljalil

Dang, these kids were good!  And then, again gathered in a circle on the floor, Helene and I heard each of the teens share what they had written.  Each was written in a different style and form.  Some were poems, some were lists of observations, others were dialogues imagined or overheard, still others were written from the perspective of, say, the carpet or an empty display case, as with Sarai Van Leer’s insistent poem:

Empty
A space waiting to be filled
Hollow, for decoration?
They are saving me for something special that’s why there is nothing in me yet.
Every other one is filled with careless objects,
Just things to look at
Never to take note of
Wine, conditioner, advertisement, glasses, and more liquor
Why am I empty?
They must be saving me for something special, right?
I mean they must be!
I won’t be just something to pass by and look at,
Never to take note of!
Yet, I am special.
I am not filled
Nothing is there, my beauty is too precious
Too beautiful to be filled with nonsense objects.
I am something to take note of!

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Sarai’s inspiration

Or Thomas Krajna’s elusive “Vending Behind Closed Doors”:

Fitting in is obsolete.
Practicality and manner outweigh her. Endless possibilities of consumerism.
One action outweighs your trust.
The windows can’t see.
The doors can’t see.
Technology inputs and uneventfully changes history.

And Marcelo Quesada’s vision of the lobby:

The people mingle. The walls tower, a rich light brown of milky coffee. They curve in a heavenly, sweeping motion towards the ceiling, switching to a creamy baby blue that sings of church hymns and lullabies from my mother. The angels, depicted as children–soft, floating, just like the warm mumble of the lobby conversations. The piano is distant–the notes drip and sing and dance off the mocha walls, giving dead paintings a kiss of life. Glasses of ice and liquor clink and swish in a familiar gesture. Soft, dim yellow lights warm the space. It is full.

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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Monty (Photo credit: Helene Fischman)
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman
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Photo credit: Helene Fischman

All the pieces were rough drafts, but each held a new an interesting insight into the life of the Hotel–and each was read not from the floor but from a ceremonial chair, holding the ceremonial Nerf skull.  And, more important than the writing they had accomplished, after each reading the teens snapped or clapped for each other and rolled an orange to someone who would be the designated reviewer, offering one thing they liked about the piece their Council colleague had shared.  This was no time for critique, just celebration and positive response.  It was a pleasant bookend to the evening, which had begun in a circle of warmth from the cold and warmth in each others’ company.

Oh, and did I mention that Monty was taking photos the entire time?  A few of his photos are above in the article, but here is only a handful of the nearly 75 that he sent me.  I don’t think that last Wednesday will be the last time that Montaser Abduljalil (or the other teens*) will be visiting The Pfister Hotel!