A Narrator’s Farewell Part III: Bringing the Hotel’s Paintings to Life

Finally, I leave you and the Pfister Hotel with twenty (soon to be twenty-one–I’ll explain later) creative works written by me and participants in the five Plume Service writing experiences that took place between December and April.  My original goal was to bring all 80 of the Victorian-era paintings in the Hotel to life, so for the first two workshops, we perused the halls and walls of the lobby level, the mezzanine, and the 7th floor ballrooms.  I soon realized that capturing the spirit of all 80 in a few Saturday afternoons or weekday happy hours would be an impossible task!

With grand intentions, I asked participants during our first workshop to step into the paintings, then step back and contemplate the bigger picture, the world just outside the frame: What’s to the left and the right that the painter’s eye has cropped out?  What’s happening above or below?  What is that figure looking at beyond the boundaries of the canvas and wood?  

I asked them to stoop a bit closer to the oils and watercolors to notice details they might have missed.  To bend an ear to listen, perhaps imagining the taste of a fruit.  To breathe in deeply through their nose to smell the salty air.

I wondered: What is Diana telling her women at the beginning of the hunt?  What are the two women gossiping about at the altar of Athena? What is going on in the head of the nude figure at the edge of the pool? 

How did the girlfriends in Scadrone’s painting meet?  What’s going to happen after the chianti runs dry in Giachi’s, and who loses Lesrel’s card game?  What are the words to Peluso’s romantic serenade, and how is the woman in Grolleron’s piece going to get that man to leave her alone?!

The paintings offered us intriguing compositions and perspectives and colors, but since Domenichino, Bompiani, and Mayer are no longer here to give us the scoop, we became art (and artistic) sleuths, uncovering the stories these paintings tell and expressing them in our own words, through flash fiction, poetry, and other written forms.

On subsequent occasions, we would experiment with microscopic and macroscopic perspectives, with voice, and even with erotica and mock bad reviews of the paintings.

In the end, we created literary renditions of the twenty-one paintings on the mezzanine level that wraps around the lobby.  In time, these creative works will appear on placards next to each painting, accompanying the smaller nameplates that already exist.  Until then, I serve them up here as my final Plume Service to you and the Hotel.  Bon apetit!

“The Poppy Field” by Louis Aston Knight (interpreted 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.

“Sunday Afternoon” by Richard Lorenz (interpreted by Eduardo De la Cruz)

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.  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 became 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 . . . no, he couldn’t be you.

“Grand Match of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club” by John le Conte Edin (interpreted by Ana Moreno)


Everyone squints and reaches to see.  All eyes lock on the final throw.  Two women and a boy huddle, trying to keep warm; they can see their breath as they blow to warm their hands.

“Mr. Wadsworth would like a glass of the red wine and an orange,” remarks the boy.

The crowd becomes hushed as the final curler from the South throws his potential match-winning curl.  

The Apple Thief

The women and girls converse:

“How silly these men are, letting such a game consume them.”

“Such a waste of time in my opinion.”

“Elizabeth and Sarah took a basket of oranges, bread, and wine to sell.”

“Oh, did they take Elizabeth’s boy with them?  The one who is always running about?”

“Oh, yes, yes.  And thank goodness, too.  That boy is nothing but mischief.”

“Do you know he stole an apple right off of my tree last summer?   I will never forget it.  I was looking out the window, admiring a beautiful, crisp day, and all of a sudden that scoundrel runs right up to our apple tree, glances around to see if anyone is looking, plucks a fruit right off a limb, and proceeds along his merry way!”

“The nerve!”

“I know.  And you can imagine how his mother reacted when I gave her a piece of my mind.  Paddled him good, she did.”

“Well, it is good she took him with her.  We don’t need the likes of him galavanting around.”

“Not that they will sell much anyway.”

“Oh, I agree.  I feed my husband far too well for him to need anything else from any other woman.”

They laugh.

Talk About the Weather

The men and boys converse:

“Well, Mr. Wadsworth.  What is the news today?  What of that shipment of tea that was set to come in this morning?”

“It has yet to arrive.  Storms in the south seas.  I hope all three ships make it ashore.”

“The weather has been horrendous as of late.”

“Yes, I agree.  Just the other day, Caroline’s wash was ruined when a storm blew in from the east.  All evening–and even at night–she could not be appeased.”

“All this talk of women at a curling match?  Does not belong, I say.”

The crowd silences itself as Mr. Price throws his final curl.  The anticipation is almost palpable in the crisp evening air.  Men and boys strain their eyes, contort their bodies, and scamper to get the best view as the curl skid gracefully across the ice.

Untitled Landscape (interpreted by Monica Thomas)

The lake says goodbye
to reflection
as the sun hides.

The sky says goodbye
to the light
of day.

The road says goodbye
to days
uninhibited.

And the winds
And time
And memory
Never say goodbye.

“Seascape” by Robert W. Wood (interpreted by Kavon Cortez-Jones)

Mezzanine viewpoint
against the Cali coastline
the water crashes.

“A View of Venice” by Charles Clement Calderon (interpreted by Christina Oster)

From Father

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.

“Grecian Girl” by Antonio Torres (interpreted by Christina Oster)

From Mother

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.

“Diana of the Hunt (after Domenichino)” (interpreted by Alexa Hollywood aka Celeste Hagiopate, Punk Theosopher & Poseur)

Celeste Hagiopiate Reviews a Painting at the Pfister Hotel

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.  (Postmodern 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.

“Fortune Teller” by Ludwig Vollmar (interpreted 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.”

“Chianti” by E. Giachi (interpreted by Monica Thomas)

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.

Untitled (interpreted by Thea Kovac)

The cold hearth of  

a dark fireplace 

tall enough to walk through
is not the source

of light that limns 

her alert profile
soft neck

fingertips poised mid-stroke

above the guitar strings

his shoe buckle
round trouser buttons

climbing his shin

gnarled knuckles

sagging head

Does it matter if they are lit from yonder lamp or perhaps
lightning? 

He sleeps on.

“The Dancer” by Adolphe Piot (interpreted by Eduardo De la Cruz)

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.

“The Cardinal Reading” by H.A. Bras (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.

“Landscape” by Leon Richet (interpreted by Bethany Price)

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 treetops
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.

“Teddy Roosevelt’s Door” by Richard LaBarre Goodwin (interpreted by Christine Henke Mueller)

Mr. Richard La Barre Goodwin
North Dakota 1809
Portland, Oregon

My Dear Goodwin,

I have left the Maltese Ranch in search of solitude.  The woes in Washington have left a bad taste in my mouth.  I am in need of the open plains, a horse, and my destiny set in my own hands.  I know that I will need to return to Washington, but for now, this ranch and the beauty of this land shall give me space and time to think.  You have asked me to explain my absence and so I will respond by sharing with you my thoughts, my hopes, for this country.

I fear a disaster in the Capital.  Cleveland is a despicable man!  The scandal that surrounds him precludes him from holding this, the highest office, in our country.  How can such a person be held up as a model for a nation to follow?  The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on.  Sometimes people get their ends reversed.  This seems to be the case with Cleveland.

Let me explain to you what it is upon I think this nation’s future lies.  I stand for the square deal.  But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the game, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity and of reward for equally good service . . . Now, this means that our government, National and State, must be freed from the sinister influence or control of special interests.

I look out from behind this closed door and I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.  Moreover, I believe that the natural resources must be used for the benefit of all our people, and not monopolized for the benefit of the few.  I do not think that these views will land me in good standing back in Washington.  But I know, of all the questions which can come before this nation, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on.  I look out on these vast lands and the expanse of prosperity that this country has to offer and I find that I must rise up and fight back against the corporate greed taking hold over our government.  The effective fight against adequate government control and supervision of individual, and especially of corporate, wealth engaged in interstate business is the chief reason that led to the formation of the National Government.  It needs to be restored. Perhaps I shall be a dark horse and return.  Time shall tell.  

For now, I must gather my heart for what I think shall eventually be a fight to lead this country forward with progress.  How shall I do the work that is worth doing?  I know the worst thing I can do is nothing.

I hope this letter finds you in good health and that this Winter does not irritate the wounds you have suffered.  Ah! to be a retired soldier; such must be the life!

Yours with esteem, 

Theodore

“The Kittens” by Joseph LeRoy (interpreted by Alexa Hollywood)

It was the perfect place to hide the murder weapon. He saw the basket of taxidermied kittens in a small bedroom on the third floor. The delightful felines had belonged to Great Aunt Euphonia. How she had grieved at their untimely demise. Every one of the little dickens had climbed then fallen into a huge vat of cream. Alas, they expired before they could churn it into butter.

Daily, Aunt Euphonia carefully arranged flowers in the basket and then artistically strewed some about. The murderer inhaled the fragrance of roses, sighed as he saw delphiniums. The kill had been good, clean. He carefully wiped the blade of the knife so as not to leave blood stains on the sentimental tableau. He placed the knife diagonally in the bottom of the basket. Chortling, he walked back to the master bedroom. 

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

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.

“Venice” by H. Biondetti (interpreted by Dominic Inouye)

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.

“The Dog” by Alexander Pope (interpreted by Eduardo De la Cruz)

There are shades, and then there are levels.

I myself have never felt as naked as I do now.  In a standby moment: imagining anything I can be doing with my life, but not doing it, because of fear, complacency, or maybe just plain cowardice.

There is the life we live, real and abrupt waves of “thinking things through” as we go.

And then there’s Life–painted as a dog poised in the most natural way to live–with honesty, heroic tales, great songs that make you cry and the comfort of finding your heart in a warm home.

Some say life is like a wine that doesn’t get better after the fifth try.  It could be that life is the way a Chopin’s nocturne reminds us of two important realities: how fluent and chirp it was to be young, and how your mom is the best person you’ve ever met.   

The dog sits up and lives the life it wants, and that’s the difference. Or is it?

(By the way, if this got you down, there’s a portrait of some very adorable kittens if you just keep walking to your right.  You’re welcome.)

“Tired Out” by Andrea Secondo (interpreted by Ed Wingard)

I don’t wanna drink–
I don’t wanna pass shots back and forth with you–
Why do you peer pressure me?

I drink when I feel pressured.
The intoxication pressures me,
it lessens me, makes me feel minuscule,
as my conscious leaks and I hear caution scream.

I’m melancholy and it bothers me,
it bottles me, swallows me,
so we drink each other until my tonsils bleed.

I know I have someone to call closer  
whenever I’m forced to elude
the bliss in my mental ambience
and the awesome ambivalent aspect
of my equanimity tips overs and spills.

You’re still sober, so I chug–
“Pass me another shot”–
until I get caught and feel the episodic rhythm
call my heartbeat to stop, my heartbeat breath,
the manipulation that dances in me physically
when I can feel nothing and become too numb
to the pain to properly have a functioning cell
in my brain, so No

I won’t drink with you–
I won’t have another shot.

I will sit and think about this thing called life,
so let me
live.


p.s.  I mentioned at the outset that there would soon be twenty-one pieces.  That is because we neglected to interpret Eugene Fromentin’s “The Cows” painting!  How could this have happened?  These beautiful heifers will be lonely and forever frozen at the river’s edge if someone doesn’t breathe life into them!

I will accept poetic submissions until Friday, May 5th.  Email them to dominic.inouye@gmail.com!!!

A Narrator’s Farewell Part I: The Early Months

Dear Readers–

The past year has taken me places I could never have expected, which was exactly what I had in mind when I decided to quit teaching English last June after 22 years.  I knew that my dedication to my profession would preclude devoting serious time to any new pursuits or new projects, whatever they might be.  (Teaching, if you didn’t know, can be a 24/7 job. It’s all you think about.)  It was fortuitous, then, that I accepted the position as the ninth Pfister Narrator a month before my school year was finished–a sign of good things to come.  My summer was filled with a new kind of writing assignment, something quite foreign to me, given my usual summer writing, which consisted of researching and writing curriculum and responding to students on our summer reading blog. Instead of a writing teacher, I was now a writer.  In fact, I remember the first time I told someone that I was “a writer” in response to their query, “What’s your job?”  I was in Toronto to do a marathon relay and a new friend casually asked the question and I casually, without even thinking about it, replied.  I surprised myself–but in a good way.  I knew that I had found something new, something that, if I worked at it, could stick.

Before I explain how it took me a couple of months to get used to this new “job,” I would like to thank a few people, beginning with Donna Basterash, Executive Assistant to the General Manager, and Cassy Scrima, Director of Marketing for Marcus Hotels & Resorts, for their support and encouragement throughout the year.  They had faith in me that I would provide a creative portrayal of the life of the Hotel during my residency.  I hope that I did.  Thank you, too, to Colleen Maxwell, who assisted me with social media, and Rachael Kohlenberg, who kept me informed about the hundreds of events on the calendar.  Thank you to Chef Brian Frakes and his team for providing my writing workshops with delicious hors d’oeuvres and vineyard libations each time.  And thank you to former Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson for her friendship and insight and support–always.  Finally, to the Hotel Associates who made my residency fun and funny, smooth and effortless, especially bartenders Valerie, Thomas, and Ellie, Concierge Helga, and banquet staff Muny and Matt: thank you!

On April 21st, I gave my final performance as the Narrator, with a two-hour reading of some of my favorite pieces, including twenty creative pieces written not only by me but by some of the participants in my writing workshop series Plume Service.  I called the performance “The Ink Runs Dry,” and I was assisted by and thank wholeheartedly fifteen readers, including former Narrators Anja Sieger and Molly Snyder and the Plume Service authors.  It was so much better sharing the stage with them that it would have been if I was the only one reading for two hours (even I would have bored myself!).

So now, in four installments, I offer you the pieces that we read that night, with short introductions for each.  They serve as both digest and fond memory–and a chance for you to visit them for the first time or revisit them if you have been following my blog over the year.

The ink runs dry.  Enjoy.  I know I did.

–Dominic

p.s. Here is the only existing photo of the evening, courtesy of pianist Mark Davis:

No one could figure out how to go “full screen.”

PART 1: The Early Months

“My Nemesis” | May 1, 2016 

It wasn’t easy at first.  I had to learn to trust my instincts.  I had to learn to take chances.  I had to learn how to navigate a room full of strangers.  This was the first piece I wrote after my first visit to Mason Street Grill, where my friend and colleague (I was still teaching at The Prairie School) Jamie Breiwick was playing trumput with pianist Mark Davis.  

I know the trumpet player,
so I head toward him,
accidentally intercepting
the snap of his 1-2-3
with a handshake-hug,
then, embarrassed, take a seat
at the bar to strategize
how best to write the song
of this Mason Street crowd.   

What I don’t know is this room yet:
a bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.

The portamento of the familiar trumpet
guides me, glides me from table to table:
two women crack up over selfies,
a man leans into his conversation
with a woman who sits near
another man politely slicing
a tenderloin as another one–
my nemesis–
tells the bartender coyly,
“Oh, you talked me into it.”

I know the trumpet player,
but I also already know my nemesis,
my competitor, because I can tell
he’s been here for awhile
and already gotten used to
the polyrhythmic beat of the bar and the band,
the bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.

He has beaten me to a bench near a bookcase
in the corner between the kitchen
and the exit, as valets enter and leave.  
He sits there, visible but secretive,
writing in a notebook.
I had seen him see me come into the bar,
felt him eye me knowingly,
writer to writer,
as I removed my phone and stylus,
moved to the loveseat in front of him,
and alternately sipped my whiskey
and jotted notes about the music.

If we were both going to narrate the Pfister,
then at least I would be closer to the band.
But I worried my words were his words,
only more cliche:
“Sprinkling staccato keys.”
“Punctuating, gallivanting, tumbling.”
“Skipping trumpet.”
“Pulsing pluck of guitar.”

I feel his competitive words behind me,
his seasoned bluesy ear
that was probably writing
more than gerunds,
his comfortable rapport with the bartender:
“Oh, you talked me into it.”

And then my suspicions are confirmed
when the music stops and he approaches the band
before I can, with another drink in hand,
like a reporter, a critic, to confirm their names
and read an excerpt–he’s pretty forward–
from his review, which, I am shocked,
uses words like “derivative” and “painful.”

But neither the trumpet player who I know
nor the piano nor the guitar seems to mind.
Instead, they augment the dinner din
with ironic chuckles and slap my nemesis on the back.
Defeated, I wonder how he has glided so easily
into their blues, gotten to know this room
so confidently.

It’s been such a long time
since I’ve observed and listened,
written unhindered by the looming
deadlines of anxious clocks.
Dragged along by the melancholy tug
of the blues, I realize now that I allowed
my mind to wander and create a character
out of a corner bench, a notebook,
a glance, and “Oh, you talked me into it.”

To insert and assert myself into the lives
of these Mason Street strangers,
I will need to become my own character,
learn to interrupt their dinner din,
blend my pitch with theirs,
emerge from the dark wood and cool leather,
and smile myself into their lives
as cooly as my fantasy nemesis,

who, it turns out, is a prolific drummer
who’s known the trumpet player longer than I have,
who’s known rooms like this longer than I’ve been alive.

“We Are a Corporation”  | May 13, 2016

Mother’s Day Brunch was almost a bust–everyone was, well, enjoying a quiet meal with their moms, so why would they want to interrupt that to talk to me? Until, that is, I approached a crowded table and asked if I might ask them a few questions.  Within a few seconds, I had a glass of champagne in my hand and was seated with them.  Within a minute, a woman at the table named Maria would hit on me repeatedly (I’ve never been so embarrassed!), and after an hour, we had written poetry together, downed more glasses of champagne, and I felt like I had a surrogate family.

This family was hilarious and warm and inviting.  They were loud and obnoxious.  We laughed, we cried (really, we did).  They called their family a “corporation,” and, indeed, they worked together like a unit.  I was happy to share the brunch with them.  Here’s an excerpt:

A Puerto Rican family with American roots in the South Bronx and Manhattan’s Lower East Side dominates a table toward the back of the ballroom.  The matriarch, MERCEDES, is sitting at a table during the annual Mother’s Day Brunch, an empty seat to her left, followed clockwise by her niece DANA (daughter of LIZA and NICK), her daughter MARIA, daughter LIZA, LIZA’s husband NICK, their other daughter KELLEY, and KELLEY’s husband MIKE.  

Somehow, we decided to write a poem together.  I pulled a sheet from my notebook and invited someone to propose a first line.  From there, we would pass the sheet around the table so that each member of this family could lend his or her voice.  

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

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

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

“You Can’t Take My Bones” | May 30, 2016

As much as I never looked intentionally for celebrities (in fact, I always seemed to miss them) because I wanted to talk to, you know, regular people, sometimes I’d happen to talk to someone who was so “regular people” that I never would have guessed he was a nationally known news anchor for CBS–or guessed that he, or anyone for that matter, would share with a complete stranger like me such beautiful sentiments.

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

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

It’s like this: imagine your favorite band, your favorite song . . . without rhythm.  This is going to sound silly, because I was really young and didn’t understand what the song was really about, but it was Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”  My father would play that song all the time.  It was good.

Well, my father John died when I was ten years old, on Father’s Day.  But he used to say, “You can’t take my bones.  You can take away anything else, but you can’t take my bones.”  He was holding on to the one thing that was his connection to the earth.

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

“Cordials of Wisdom” | June 28, 2016

I could never tell if bartender Valerie was just toying with me or whether she was truly serious, but it didn’t matter.  I just loved hearing her observations, her musings, her 40+ years of memories of the Hotel.  And I always appreciated it when she’d make the first move and introduce me to someone at the Lobby Lounge bar–she was like my “wingwoman” in many situations.  (Of course, there were also those times she’d say, “Did you talk to so-and-so celebrity?  Or so-and-so really interesting person?  Oh, no?  They just left.”  I had failed.)  One evening, I asked her for some “cordials of wisdom” so I could record them for perpetuity:

On the Art of Conversation.  “Allow the other to begin in one direction, like a straight arrow; allow them to take the lead.  Create the space where this freedom is possible, then begin to fill in the open spaces with yourself.  Follow the arrow down one path or the other path.”

On Keeping It Simple.  “Too many ingredients in a drink confuses the tastebuds.  Too many ingredients with dozens of other ingredients in them creates mud.  To avoid the muddle, in a drink (or life), keep it simple.  Complement simple ingredients with one or two others so that you can taste each one separately; if you’re lucky, then one flavor delights at the beginning, then gives way to another, with a flourish at the end.”

On Representing Your Places Well.  “Whatever places you represent, present them well.  Creating a relaxing atmosphere, a cordial experience, an unforgettable memory–this is who we are at The Pfister Hotel, for instance.”

On How Your Perception Directs Your Course.  “If you think that that black cat crossing your path is going to give you bad luck, then it’s more likely that you will have “bad luck.”  Your belief will affect the course of your day, making you more apt to identify “bad luck” when you might not have before.  Have you ever heard, however, about someone looking forward to a white cat crossing their path?”

in part II: humans of the pfister

A Narrator’s Farewell Part II: Humans of The Pfister

After the first couple of months of storytelling, I remember sitting in the Lobby Lounge for two hours one day–and not interviewing a soul.  I sketched the lobby, the bar, some patrons, the piano, some wine glasses, but everyone that day seemed too wrapped up in each other.  It seemed that no one would want to wrap me into their lives or unwrap themselves for a moment to share their Pfister day with me.  It wasn’t them, though, it was me, for sure.  Something wasn’t clicking.  My introverted side was kicking in.  My wallflower self waited for one of them to approach me.  And that’s how Humans of The Pfister was born.

I went home and grabbed my copy of Brandon Stanton’s beautiful photography book Humans of New York and perused the colorful residents of the Big Apple, their anecdotal secrets and wishes, memories and regrets.  I marveled at his 18 million “likes” on Facebook and scrolled through hundreds of photo stories on his website.  I needed an “in” at The Pfister, especially on those days when I was uncertain how to approach a patron.

Each month, I decided, I would create a list of questions to have at the ready, big universal questions that anyone could answer, ones that would reveal the humanity and diversity of the people who visited the Hotel.


JULY

Life

  • When have you felt most alive?
  • What is your secret to living a fulfilling life?
  • What is the number one thing that has gotten you to this point in your life?
  • What is one thing that you are still working on in your life?

Liberty

  • When have you felt the freest?
  • What have you felt the least free?
  • What is the most liberating thing you have ever done?
  • Does freedom come with a price?

The pursuit of Happiness

  • How do you pursue happiness?
  • What was one of the happiest moments of your life?
  • Who or what makes you the happiest?
  • What is your definition of happiness?

AUGUST

august (adj.) 1660s, from Latin augustus “venerable, majestic, magnificent, noble,” probably originally “consecrated by the augurs, with favorable auguries” (see augur(n.)); or else “that which is increased” (see augment).

  • Who is the most venerable, majestic, magnificent, and/or noble person you have known?
  • When have you felt the most “consecrated by the augurs”?
  • When have you felt the most “increase”?

augur (n.) 1540s, from Latin augur, a religious official in ancient Rome who foretold events by interpreting omens, perhaps originally meaning “an increase in crops enacted in ritual,” in which case it probably is from Old Latin *augos (genitive *augeris) “increase,” and is related to augere “increase” (see augment). The more popular theory is that it is from Latin avis “bird,” because the flights, singing, and feeding of birds, along with entrails from bird sacrifices, were important objects of divination (compare auspicious).

  • When have you felt like the cards were in your favor, like the stars were aligning, etc.?
  • When did you interpret a “sign” of some sort and act upon it, for better or for worse?

augment (v.) c. 1400, from Old French augmenter “increase, enhance” (14c.), from Late Latin augmentare “to increase,” from Latinaugmentum “an increase,” from augere “to increase, make big, enlarge, enrich,” from PIE root *aug- (1) “to increase” (source also of Sanskrit ojas “strength;” Lithuanian augu “to grow,” aukstas “high, of superior rank;” Greek auxo “increase,” auxein “to increase;” Gothic aukan “to grow, increase;” Old English eacien “to increase”).

  • When have you felt the most “enlarged,” the most “enriched”?
  • How did you become the august person that you are?

auspicious (adj.) 1590s, “of good omen” (implied in auspiciously), from Latin auspicium “divination by observing the flight of birds,” from auspex (genitive auspicis) + ous.

  • Have you ever had an epiphany?  A time when the lightbulb lit up?

SEPTEMBER

education (n.) Latin educare “to bring up or rear a child” and Latin educere “to bring out, to lead out, or to lead forth”

  • favorite (or least favorite) education memories;
  • favorite (or least favorite) teachers, mentors, guides, etc.;
  • how they way they were brought up by their parental guardians and/or teachers affected who they are today;
  • times when someone brought out the best in them, or lead them out of their ignorance or innocence, or lead them forth toward something enlightening;
  • their own Aha! or Eureka! moments;
  • “school” vs. “education”;
  • what the “School of Life” has taught them;
  • times when they have been a teacher, mentor, guide.

OCTOBER

fear (n.) Old English faer “calamity, sudden danger, peril” > Greek peria “to try, to attempt, to experience”

  • When were you ever in sudden danger–and how did you survive?  When did you ever try something, attempt something, experience something that involved, well, fear?  (Here’s where the unique stories will emerge and where we’ll all be able to connect: who hasn’t tried something new and shaken in their boots?!)

fright (n.) Old English fyrhtu “dread, horrible sight, fear and trembling”

  • What do you dread the most?  What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?

horror (n.)  Latin horror “dread, veneration, religious awe” > Latin horrere “to shudder or bristle with fear” > Latin eris “hedgehog”

  • Who knew that horror originally meant “religious awe”?  In that sense, when have you ever been in the presence of someone or something that has made you think twice about your place in the universe or made you shudder in the face of its immense awe-someness and power?  How are you like a hedgehog, rolling yourself into a ball for protection?

terror (n.) Old French terreur “great fear, dread, alarming news”

  • What was that alarming news you received?  How did you respond?

NOVEMBER

  • What are you thankful for that can fit into a 1’x1′ box?
  • What human or group of humans are you thankful for?
  • What non-physical thing–an idea, a value, a force–are you thankful for?

FEBRUARY

  • First loves?

MARCH

  • Transitions?

APRIL

  • Foolishness?

Ok.  The questions got simpler as the months progressed!  But the stories the humans shared with me never ceased to amaze me with their honesty, insight, and revelation.  It truly was humbling that they would share parts of their lives with me.  Here are only a few:

July 2, 2016

“I felt the most alive and extremely, extremely at peace after my nine-year-old daughter was ill and needed a kidney transplant.  We went to two different doctors in southern California, both of whom said she also had cardiomyopathy and recommended both kidney and heart surgery.  One of the doctors told us, “Your daughter’s life is finite.”  Devastated, and wanting another opinion, we went to a doctor in Brazil (my ex-wife is Brazilian) and he told us to convince the American doctors to just do the kidney transplant.  So now she has my kidney and is 17 years old. Her life wasn’t finite.  After the surgery, I felt super, super peaceful.  I felt such presence and non-resistance–so free, so alive, so at peace.  I began meditating, which brought me clarity, a sense of letting go, without attachment.  I also felt joy, felt connected.  I was able to live with this life energy for some time (it’s like we need to go to a mental gym where we make ourselves aware of all our attachments, then let them go), but it’s a difficult thing to maintain, just like working out.  I’m still working on it.”

July 4, 2016

“I feel most alive when I feel like I’m making a progression, moving forward.  Otherwise, I’m at a standstill.  I measure myself to see how I’m progressing.  It’s not an ‘envy’ kind of measurement.  But I’m only twenty and I feel like I’m behind.  We’re all born with different cards.  Some people get aces, kings, or queens.  Others get deuces, two’s, or three’s.  I just want to feel like I have a nice strong deck in my hands.”

November 27, 2016

HIM:

I overheard you talking to the pianist about what he’d give thanks for that you couldn’t see.  So I looked up this quotation in case you came around. It’s from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Without getting political, there’s a general undercurrent of people not accepting people for who they are, instead of one of love and openness.  It’s not just “me, me, me.”  It needs to be more “us.”

August 6, 2016

New friends Casey (l) and Sheryl (r), both from New York, just met this week at a week-long work training in Milwaukee.  But they found that their ideas fed off of each other.  They “got” each other.  This was apparent when I sat down with them today.  

CASEY: When did I feel the most august?  Since the day I was born, going hard.

SHERYL: Nice, dude.  Going hard.

CASEY: No, but seriously. Every day is a challenge to be more magnificent than the previous one.  And challenge is a way to improve yourself instead of putting yourself down.

SHERYL: Yes, it’s a challenge of understanding yourself better.

CASEY: I give myself a warning every day never to dwell on my past.  I might screw up one day, but I challenge myself to be better than yesterday.

SHERYL: It’s good to give yourself little milestones.

CASEY: And to test the waters.  Each day, of course, is different, but you need the challenge to get going and keep going.  Life is boring if it’s easy.

SHERYL: I don’t ever want to be bored.

CASEY: I know.  I like being uncomfortable.

SHERYL: And I’d rather see someone struggle rather than breeze through life.

CASEY: It’s like this.  People like to see challenges as positive and negative.  Negative challenges are ones that find you, and positive ones are those you look for.  And with the challenges that find you, the important thing is how you deal with them.

SHERYL: And believe me, my company provides 30,000 challenges every day!  (Don’t prinT THEIR NAME!)

August 3, 2016

I feel the most august when I catch a fish.  My girlfriend and I will fish up north–a lot of walleye–sometimes in Manitowish Waters or other places like that; we’ll also fish down here by the Summerfest grounds, which is cool, but it’s different from up north.  I like being able to zone out and watch the water and nature. I like the waiting. It’s kind of therapeutic–you know, some people say it’s therapeutic to sew or run or whatever–and once you catch something, that therapy washes away and you’re in the moment and every second counts, even if you miss the hit. It makes you feel like you’re capable.  Even if you throw it back, release it, you know that you could do it if you had to, if you really needed to rely on fishing for your food.  It’s therapy leading into euphoria leading into security. That’s augustness for me.

October 16, 2016

In my experience, we always are afraid, afraid of how we’ll be in different situations.  We try a lot of good and bad stuff, but then you start doing the bad things to get noticed.  You don’t like it but you feel you have to do it.  Sometimes you feel you might not make it doing good. That’s when you’re stuck with not much light, without some kind of life.

You have to be there to help other people because they can’t break something–the bad–until they understand the life or light.  That’s where you can help: to help others be clear about the difference between the light and the dark.

August 25, 2016
“Just use a picture of a black cat, please. They’re my favorite AND they’re the least adoptable. Yes, I think it’s still because of superstition, even though it’s 2016.”

I had the pleasure of sitting down with two long-time friends–one from Milwaukee, the other from Illinois–in front of the fireplace in the Lounge.  One of them was hesitant, saying at first that she couldn’t think of anything remarkable or “august” about her life.  So her friend chimed in: “Let me tell you about Marilyn.  She’s being very shy and coy right now.  So let me get started and we’ll see if she starts to feel more comfortable.”  Marilyn did get more comfortable, and I quickly learned that she is an august crusader for animals, particularly cats.  Marilyn wasn’t being “coy”; she was being humble. At one point, all three of us were teary-eyed.  Both of them love animals so much that it was hard for them not to get emotional–even Marilyn.  The monolog here is a synthesis of their two stories, in the voice of Marilyn.

I am an energetic advocate, a voice, a home for cats and other animals, especially ones who are stray or hurt in some way.  The ones with no homes are some of the most vulnerable creatures, but so many people turn a blind eye to them, thinking it’ll be too much work to take care of them.  But I haven’t turned a blind eye, even to the detriment of my finances, my relationships, and so on.

Since I was little, I’ve always had a connection with animals, but it was just in the past 8 years or so of my life that I began to advocate real intensely for them.  Most of the cats I have I rescue off the street.  They have to be cared for, spayed, neutered, and so on.  I used to keep count.  Conservatively, I’d say that I’ve helped at least 1,000 cats.  I live in an unincorporated neighborhood in Illinois, so I have land, so it’s easier for me to take care of them.  And I’ve been blessed with a good job so that I at least have money for all the things they need.

My goal is to solve the problem, but the problem is never going to get solved 100%.  You’d need an army of people doing the same thing.  But when a cat gets healthy or finds a home–that’s the thanks I receive.  Otherwise, I don’t seek praise or thanks or attention.  I just want to speak up for their needs because they can’t say or do things for themselves.  So I also educate people about proper nutrition, medical care, responsibilities that come with owning cats.

We need to be stewards of animals and human beings.  Not just to make ourselves or God proud, but because it’s the right thing to do.

July 13, 2016

I waited a long time to get married.  My husband kept trying and trying and trying.  When I lost my mom–I took care of her for four years–I told her on her deathbed that I didn’t want to get married or have kids.  I wanted to travel and . . . When I think of freedom, I think of travel, of having choices.  Dancing, too–that’s being free.

I finally agreed to get married.  But I was firm from the first date: “No kids.”  There’s asurrounding this, though.  People might say you’re selfish.  From the perspective of overpopulation, I think I’m being rather green by not bringing another person into this world ‘just because.’  I’m making a choice not to become a mother.  There are obviously many women who choose to become moms, but what about people like me who don’t want to give into social norms?

People have told me, ‘You’re not a woman.’  But a female shouldn’t be defined by her ability to bear children.  I want to be able to wake up every day and not have to take care of another human.  I mean, maybe when I’m old and all alone and wondering why there’s no one around to take care of me, but . . . for now, it’s my choice.

July 22, 2016

More than anything, I treasure my friendships.  I love taking care of my girlfriends.  I’m married, and I love him, and that’s all fine and dandy. But as you get older, you need your friends more and more.  When you’re in your 20’s, you think and talk about stupid shit.  I mean, we’re not talking about deep things all the time, but you know what I mean.  I love to laugh with them, tell a good, funny story–things that are really living and that are new experiences.  One thing I really love to do is bike with my girlfriends (I’m a member of the advanced cycling team Velo Femmes).  They make me happy.  And to me, happiness is a state of freedom, of being unencumbered, with no stress, free of worry and life’s pressures.

I think I felt the most free when I stopped giving a shit what people thought.  I’m not an ass or anything, but I just stopped caring what society thought I should be, what people said about my age, all the compartments people wanted to put me into.  I just don’t care anymore, which has been so freeing.  And I also stopped judging other people, which is a good thing.  I’m interested in making myself happy instead of relying on others to make me happy.  I have confidence in my own skin.

There are so many horrible things happening in this world right now: random people being shot by the police, random police shootings, kids getting killed.  It makes all the little things we worry about pale in comparison.

In the end, I want people at my funeral to say good things about me not just to say good things–but because I was a good person.

August 25, 2016

Love is the most significant, energetic attribute we possess in life, but it is so elusive.  Every time I’ve grasped a taste of it, I’ve realized that its flavor is so much more vast.  I get overwhelmed–like I’m a cell in a giant of love.  Every time you taste it, there’s some new flavor.  I guess I’m a crazy, hopeless romantic, but I’m truly obsessed with this experience.

I’ve made some of the most significant life choices in the quest for this “Love.”  And it’s an experiential kind of love–not the printed card type of love.

Speaking of cordials, I feel like love–whatever it is–is truth.  It’s flowing from one ancient vine of grapes, and every grape is a different kind of love, and these flavors of grapes are all connected to the vine, and other vines–and they all connect to one source, one that goes below the ground where we can’t see it–and beyond.  What’s beyond is so mysterious, but all this love is connected to it somehow.

August 18, 2016

When you’re young, you’re controlled and watched.  But when I was about 10 years old, I was out of town in Vermont (I’m from Wisconsin) with my uncle and older cousin.  And my uncle let me carry a loaded shotgun.  I think we were probably just target shooting.  I had an opportunity once to kill a deer with a crossbow, but I just couldn’t do it.  In any case, he said, “Be careful. You could hurt someone.”  But he let me carry it.  Now, of course my parents–most parents–wouldn’t want me to do that because they’d think it was too dangerous.  But my uncle, he never took it away.  He just told me, “Be responsible with it.”  And I was.  I felt . . . trusted.

Fast forward.  I’ve been in the commercial real estate business for almost 40 years.  When I first got started, it took between 6 months and a year to accomplish my first breakthrough.  It was one of those things where I was able to solve a problem that no one else could fix.  And my solution went uncontested.  When you’re younger and still learning, that’s a big thing. Again, I felt . . . trusted.  You need to get to that point when you don’t question yourself anymore.

November 18, 2016

?אם אין אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי

I am thankful for the words of Rabbi Hillel (c. 110 BCE-10 CE): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, who am I?  If not now, when?  This is a core tenet of Judaism: the first question is about personal voice, the second is about community, and the last is about social action now.  I live and teach by this.

Recently, Martin Buber has been popping up on my Facebook.  Rabbi Hillel’s questions are like Buber’s I/Thou philosophy.  I think about how I am a white woman, which automatically makes me privileged.  For others, being in the minority forces them to see from another’s perspective.  If you are in the majority, though, you don’t have to do that. You’ve already “won,” so you’re not expected to have to see from another’s perspective.  But you have to know who you are AND how others are.  You need to step into another’s shoes.  That’s what I/Thou is about.  If not now, when?

February 20, 2017

Rob’s instruments are his clarinet and his voice.  He has played in symphony orchestras like the Milwaukee Symphony and has played with individual artists as well.

Love goes with passion–for me–and that’s music.  Nothing will give me goosebumps more than performing with another person.  Periodically, it’s even a mystical moment, a synchronicity of what I’m playing and what they’re playing, when we’re unified.

All of a sudden, I’m off the page, not thinking about what’s on there, and it’s like something else is leading me.

It’s like that with my husband today.  Even with the mundane day-to-day, there are times when I somehow get out of my selfish part–and we’re a real pair.  Frankly, it’s otherworldly.

This is what differentiates us from the rest of creation.


Here are all the other Humans of The Pfister that I interviewed:

HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | APRIL 2017 | April Fools edition | “The Least Funniest Person”

I’m not very good at telling jokes.  I always mess them up or have to think too hard.  Because of this, my mom says I’m the least funniest person in our family.  She’s disgusted with how unfunny she thinks I am.  She even puts us in order: “Your brother Thomas is first, then your brother Matthew, then me, then your father . . . then you.”  She always puts herself right in the middle!  It makes me sad.  I can be the life of the party!  I’m charismatic!  I can carry a joke!

Me with the least funniest person.
She can’t even laugh.

p.s. I love you mom!  (Editor’s Note: I added this here for Liz’s sake.)

p.p.s. This is Liz, one of my favorite students from Pius XI High School.  I assure you: she is very funny!  (Sorry, mom.  You’re wrong.)

From Abstracts to Tintypes: Passing the Brush to Margaret Muza

On March 24, Pamela Anderson revealed her collection of art produced during her residency at The Pfister.  The Pop-Up Gallery was alive with color and conversation before the pièce de résistance, the unveiling of her Legacy piece, which will soon grace the hallway next to the legacies of the former AIRs: Reginald Baylor, Katie Musolff, Shelby Keefe, Timothy Westbrook (well, his is in a glass case on the grand staircase landing), Stephanie Barenz, Niki Johnson, and Todd Mrozinski.

Here are just a few remembrances of the evening–and a sneak peak into the new AIR’s revamped studio.  Get ready to be transported to a different era with Margaret Muza’s tintype photography.  Story coming soon!

Cassy Scrima, Director of Marketing for Marcus Hotels, introduces Pamela
Friends, family, and guests prepare to watch Pamela pass the torch to the new Artist-in-Residence Margaret Muza
Margaret Muza, Todd Mrozinski, and Donna Basterash
Renee Babeau and some people I don’t know 🙂
Heidi Parkes and Jeanne Nikolai Olivieri
Two happy friends
Someone mugging with Melissa Dorn Richards
Guests mingling and contemplating Pamela’s artwork
Margaret Muza, Heidi Parkes, and Renee Babeau
One of Pamela’s sons, Adrian Cumming
Pamela giving her cousins Daniel and Anthony Anderson a close-up tour of her Legacy piece
Pamela trying her hardest not to cry–and somehow looking confident and proud of a year’s work of creating
Peter Jason activating his inner art critic while his girlfriend lets him do his thing
Voilà! Pamela’s Legacy piece
The Pfister family will miss you, Pamela!
But we know that you’re itching to get back into Material Studios & Gallery in the Third Ward!
It’s amazing what Mary Rose and the painting crew can do to transform a space . . .
. . . with, of course, a few added touches from Margaret! Stay tuned for my interview with the new Artist-in-Residence . . .

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!