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

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

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

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 4.34.05 PM
The original Longfellow draft, featuring our inspiration line: “Under a spreading chestnut tree.”
Our co-written poem, inspired by Longfellow.
Our co-written poem, inspired by Longfellow.

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

20160508_122939
Nick reads a love poem to Kelley.

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

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

Happy (every day) Mother’s Day!

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

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

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

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

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

MERCEDES: She’s retired now.

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

DOMINIC: So you just wandered in?

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

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

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

MERCEDES bends over and whispers to me.

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

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

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

KELLEY: Well, we are an honest bunch!

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

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

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

MUNY: Everyone calls me the “Brunch Lady.”

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

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

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

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

MARIA: We’d call it P.J.’s.  

MERCEDES: Yes, P.J.’s for short.  

DOMINIC: Is it still there?

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

MARIA: That’s what it’s all about.  

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

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

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

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

We called you “the fly swatter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOMINIC: She’s your–

MERCEDES: My daughter.

DOMINIC: (surprised) No.  She–

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

KELLEY: It’s an oxag–.

DOMINIC: Octogenarian, I think.  Eight generations.

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

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

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

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

MARIA: We are a corporation!

NICK: We are an organism!

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

Everyone spontaneously toasts with champagne.

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

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

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

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

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

DANA: Yes, I play guitar–

MARIA: And sax!

DANA: –and sax.  And I study voice.

MERCEDES: She has a beautiful voice.

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

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

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

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

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

DANA: That’s cool.

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

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

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

MARIA: And Nick is Greek.  

She spells and pronounces his last name.

Greek and Puerto Rican.  Can’t you tell?

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

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

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

LIZA: That’s right.

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

MARIA: You were young.

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

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

MARIA: And then he lost them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOMINIC: Everyone here sounds so creative!

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

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

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

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

Thirteen Blackbirds: Mother’s Day Brunch, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Introduction: Prequel No. 2

Here is the second of my two “prequels” to my first official post as Pfister Narrator, in which I will formally introduce myself and give thanks to those who have come before me.  This prequel is also adapted from a sample blog post I submitted to the selection committee.  “Window Seat” is inspired by a Saturday afternoon conversation I had with the new Pfister Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson.

Spring had finally arrived–at least for a few days–but instead of doing a long run in the 70-degree sun, I decided to wander into the Pfister to uncover a story.  Luckily, the sun followed me into the lobby and down the hall to Pamela’s studio.  Eager to meet my potential colleague, I was greeted both by geometric splashes of primary colors (can shapes be both geometric and splashes?) and by the kind, soft-spoken artist.  

Our conversation delighted and incited (insighted?) me, so I reimagined her spoken words in the form of a written letter addressed to me, from her, two weeks prior, just before she began her one-year residency at the Pfister.  For me, the art of letter writing is a dying art form, and since we talked so much about painterly and writerly voice, I wanted to hear her in a different way, from one of her favorite spots in the world: the window seat of an airplane.

Now that I know that I will indeed be working closely with her in the next twelve months, I look forward to writing her back.

April 1, 2016

Dear Dominic,

I’m writing this from 28,000 feet.  Soon, I will touch down on the hotel’s carpeted runway and disembark in my new studio-for-a-year.  I haven’t met you yet, but I sense your imminent arrival at my doorway.  From the window seat–a must-have when I travel–I am snapping photos real and imaginary.  Right now, the sun guides the plane, a Catalan yellow sun the way Miró reimagined it (we’re actually over Lake Michigan right now, but my mind has traveled to Catalonia before).  The clouds are high, muting the sky in a pastel blue that Diebenkorn would have appreciated (I’ve traveled to the west coast with him before).  I’ve been around the world with painters past and present, Dominic, but would you believe that I’m only beginning to map my own voice now?

You will ask in a couple of weeks, “Did you not have a voice before?”  Did you lose it?  Can a painter, like a writer, have a voice?  Don’t we all have one?  

I certainly had a voice before.  I’ve been mapping it all my life, just as you have been mapping yours, the contours of your inscape, the swirls of your unique fingerprint–that’s what voice is.  Not necessarily something that can be heard or seen.  It’s always inside us, but it’s about developing it.  There’s so much in our world that we have access to visually, that for me, as a painter, finding that fingerprint has been difficult.  It’s difficult for all of us, because we have this sense that it’s all been done before.  You must feel the same as a writer.

Of course, I’ve been informed by–you can’t help it and there’s nothing wrong with it–the fluid landscapes of Diebenkorn and the geometrical, splashy fantasies of Miró, but I’ve remade myself so many times, all on my own.  I didn’t go to school for art, but I did look and study on my own, collecting images and preferences from so many sources.  And I played as a child, all the time.  That was a key to my talent.  If it was a brightly colored block or brick, or Lincoln Logs, or anything you could build with, I was creating something.  I guess you could say I had a natural talent for seeing how things fit together and how they could fit together in new ways.  But at some point in my life, perhaps after getting really good at painting floral scenes, I determined that I needed to be braver with my paintings.

by Pamela Anderson

That’s an interesting word, you will say, to describe art: “bravery.”  It sounds like the stuff of heroes and soldiers and tightrope walkers.  But if we are to transform ourselves and find our voices, then we will have to be brave, a word, I’m guessing you know, that comes from bravo, Italian for “bold and untamed.”  So I’m trying to tap into moments that speak to me from 28,000 feet–I’m looking down now and see that Catalan sun reflect off the lake’s dark surface, creating lines of yellow, crests of white, the plane approaching the shoreline of emerging green fields (we’re south of the airport).  An almost invisible line stretches across my view–the flight of a bird?  An optical illusion?  (To be truthful, I’ve already painted this, but it wasn’t of a Lake Michigan shoreline.  It was something altogether different, intuited in a private conversation I was having with my world.  In any case, I hope you’ll see it when I hang it in my Pfister studio.)

Another painting that will be in my studio when you visit me in a couple of weeks is an aerial landscape (you’re going to notice this right away, I’m thinking–we see with similar eyes): patches of primary colors like children’s blocks and elemental earth, the geometry of agriculture, the interruption of rivers, straight lines that partition (I see straight lines in nature–why?).

These paintings are informed, as I’ve said, by Diebenkorn and Miró and countless other artists, but I’m making them my own . . . I think, I hope.  Sometimes I feel brave, other times not.  You know that I applied for this position three times?  That’s ok, though; I’m glad I didn’t receive the residency those other two times.  I wasn’t ready.  Of course it was validating to be a finalist, but once I validated myself, when I heard my own voice and said, “Hey, that’s me,” that is when I decided to apply one more time.  Maybe that’s what “voice” is: that thing inside you that says/writes/paints/creates itself out of you and says, “Hey, I’m you.”

by Pamela Anderson

The plane is about to touch down.  When you come to visit me, I’ll be wearing gentle black lace and I’ll speak with a soft voice, but you’ll also notice that I speak with large scraping tools, mops, and oversized paint brushes and that my massive paintings don’t have my signature on them.  That’s because I’ve decided to be brave: to let my tools, whatever they may be, guide me and let my paintings reveal my voice.  Many people get upset, in fact, when I don’t sign my paintings on the front.  But I think it’s better when someone can say that they saw one of my paintings from across a room or even a block away and said to themselves “That’s a Pamela.”

That means my voice is being heard.

I wish you all the best as you find yours.  And I look forward to meeting you.

Sincerely,

Pamela

An Introduction: Prequel No. 1

Greetings, Milwaukee!

While Narrator Emeritus Jonathan West’s photograph and bio still linger on the sidebar–it’s no wonder, since he has become such a presence and voice at the Pfister over the past year–I offer you two “prequels” to my first official post as Pfister Hotel Narrator, in which I will formally introduce myself and give thanks to those who have come before me.  These two prequels are adapted from the two sample blog posts I submitted to the selection committee.  The first, “My Nemesis,” is brought to you by . . .

. . . a recent mid-April evening, when I followed a young man with a guitar case into the Mason Street Grill, in search of a story to write as part of the process of becoming the next Pfister Hotel Narrator.  As one of three finalists, I knew I had to work with a close ear and a nimble pen.  My plan was to listen for a while to the Jamie Breiwick/Mark Davis Duo, then snag Jamie for an interview in between sets.  This should be easy, I thought, since Jamie is a colleague at a local independent school, where I currently teach English and he teaches Instrumental Music.  I’ve enjoyed hearing him at Blu several times, but always in the evening, when the lounge is bustling.

Jamie Breiwick on trumpet at Blu.

However, as I sat down with a whiskey, my phone, and my stylus, I felt a presence.  In fact, I saw him and heard him. I could swear that this presence was also a finalist for the Narrator position.  I imagined that, just because he was writing in a notebook, he must have had the same objective as I had.  It’s not every day that you see people scratching in actual notebooks anymore.  He had had, I assumed, the same idea: hang out at the Mason Street Grill and capture the ambiance of the Grill and the rhythm of the Duo.  I really did feel a tad competitive–even nervous–because he seemed to have an “in” that I didn’t have, as you’ll see, even despite my connection with Jamie.  This is the poem that emerged from this, my first “foray” in the Pfister’s first-floor restaurant where I hoped to spend plenty of time in the coming year:

My Nemesis

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

What I don’t know is this room yet:
a bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.
The portamento of the familiar trumpet
guides me, glides me from table to table:
two women crack up over selfies,
a man leans into his conversation
with a woman who sits near
another man politely slicing
a tenderloin as another one–
my nemesis–
tells the bartender coyly,
“Oh, you talked me into it.”

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

He has beaten me to a bench near a bookcase
in the corner between the kitchen
and the exit, as valets enter and leave.  
He sits there, visible but secretive,
writing in a notebook.
I had seen him see me come into the bar,
felt him eye me knowingly,
writer to writer,
as I removed my phone and stylus,
moved to the loveseat in front of him,
and alternately sipped my whiskey
and jotted notes about the music.
If we were both going to narrate the Pfister,
then at least I would be closer to the band.
But I worried my words were his words,
only more cliche:
“Sprinkling staccato keys.”
“Punctuating, gallivanting, tumbling.”
“Skipping trumpet.”
“Pulsing pluck of guitar.”
I feel his competitive words behind me,
his seasoned bluesy ear
that was probably writing
more than gerunds,
his comfortable rapport with the bartender:
“Oh, you talked me into it.”
And then my suspicions are confirmed
when the music stops and he approaches the band
before I can, with another drink in hand,
like a reporter, a critic, to confirm their names
and read an excerpt–he’s pretty forward–
from his review, which, I am shocked,
uses words like “derivative” and “painful.”

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

It’s been such a long time
since I’ve observed and listened,
written unhindered by the looming
deadlines of anxious clocks.
Dragged along by the melancholy tug
of the blues, I realize that I allowed
my mind to wander and create a character
out of a corner bench, a notebook,
a glance, and “Oh, you talked me into it.”
To insert and assert myself into the lives
of these Mason Street strangers,
I will need to become my own character,
learn to interrupt their dinner din,
blend my pitch with theirs,
emerge from the dark wood and cool leather,
and smile myself into their lives
as cooly as my fantasy nemesis,
who turns out to be a prolific drummer

who’s known the trumpet player longer than I have,
who’s known rooms like this longer than I’ve been alive.  

Turns out that my “fantasy nemesis,” however, was just retired drummer Rick Krause, who, according to a performance bio provided by Jamie, was “about 14 years old when he began taking the bus from Oconomowoc to Milwaukee every other week to study jazz drumming.”  He was there, of course, to enjoy the Duo; his critical “review” was a joke among friends.  For about 40 years, from 1971 into the aughts, Rick performed with locals like Mark Davis (my piano man this evening!) and national artists like Eartha Kitt.  The list is pretty extensive; I’ve never heard of any of these people!  I’m realizing that the jazz world is a networked litany of names and notes: Melvin Rhyne, David Hazeltine, Barry Velleman, Teddy Wilson, Bud Freeman, Eddie Higgins, Richie Cole, Chris Connor, Jackie Allen, Pete Condoli, Edie Adams, Barbara McNair, Kirk Stuart, Rich Crabtree, John Gary, Johnny Desmond, Ken Berry, Phil Ford and Mimi Hines, Kaye Ballard, Arthur Siegel, Hildegard, Tony Martin, The Four Lads, Jimmy Rodgers.  

One of my plans this year is to narrate this unfamiliar (to me) world of jazz for the guests of the Pfister and visitors to the website.  Incidentally, the young man with the guitar case was the Duo’s accompanying guitarist Max Bowen, who, I learned, moved to Milwaukee from Michigan only about a month ago.  I got a chance to sit down with Jamie and Max in between sets–talking about education and jazz and improvisation and Africa.  More on both of them, too, I hope, in future posts!

The Final Bow

This is my final thing to say as The Pfister Narrator…believe me, it’s not the final thing to say as Jonathan West.

I’d like to take you back to July 7th, 2001. On that hot summer day, a stocky, dark-haired figure sauntered into the lobby of the Pfister Hotel. His palms were sweaty and perspiration soaked his t-shirt. He was nervous, his stomach flipping with anxiety. The Pfister didn’t really feel like his sort of joint. His finances were stretched, work was weighing down on him, and a hand injury that he had suffered weeks before left him without feeling in two of his fingers; tough stuff for a guy who liked to write stories about his life and sappy love notes to the woman who had agreed to marry him. But underneath it all, that guy (it’s me, folks, if you were confused by the reference to dark-hair, something that I actually had back at the turn of the last century) was just another schlub who was easily distracted by grandeur and unnerved by the feast of the senses offered at the Pfister.

My trip those many years ago was made in anticipation of the single greatest day of my life. I speak of the day I stood in front of another group of people and said, “I do!” to a dishy lady who was not short on opinions and somehow could schedule her life and mine for the next 17 years while chatting with me on a 9-mile jog. Paula Maria Suozzi had stolen my heart, and because we were getting married in six days, I had come to the Pfister to buy a shirt.

I was lucky that a classy lady had agreed to marry me, so I had made my own decision to show up for my wedding day in a classy shirt. Back then, that meant one thing for a man of distinction living the large life in Milwaukee. “Get thee to Roger Stevens at The Pfister, sir!” was the herald’s call when a nice shirt was warranted.

I had saved up a few Lincolns…well, truth be told, a few Franklins…so I’d be able to pick up a swell shirt. I was not to stray, and my finances wouldn’t really let me, so my shopping list had one item on it, and one item alone. A pink shirt.

I probably should have seen it coming, the moment I walked into Roger Stevens. I immediately became distracted. No way was I getting out with only the new shirt I was going to have on my back. When I saw the wall of bow ties, I knew there was going to be trouble.

I’ve been a bow tie man for a long time. In planning for my wedding day, I had in mind a certain tie from my carefully curated collection that I would wear. But that plan vaporized when I got distracted by a simple, elegant bow tie that I knew would go perfectly with my soon-to-be-bride’s dress. I did a little quick math in my head, kept the cash I had in my pocket, pulled out a credit card stressed to the point of exploding, and bought a gorgeous pink shirt and a patterned bow tie with an elegant dark red, black and gray pattern.

The tie was ideal. It was a perfect accompaniment to Paula’s dress. We marched down the aisle, celebrated with our family, and capped off the day of our wedding by checking into the Pfister for our first overnight stay as husband and wife. Our marriage was off and running as we sunk deep into the luxury of the Pfister, a perfect couple stylish beyond belief and ready to tackle anything that came our way. My own distraction had worked like a charm this time.

But distraction wasn’t always so fruitful for me as we left the Pfister after our wedding night and started to live life. I had spent a lot of my life coasting by, indulging in distractions that were not necessarily the best or healthiest things for me. My distractions brought about a tendency towards bad planning and bad choices. Perhaps a smarter man would have learned his lessons earlier, but I kept getting distracted never really fully working towards the life I dreamed of living as a man, husband, provider, artist and first and foremost, a writer.

As my distractions diverted me from doing the hard work I needed to do towards all my life’s pursuits, my wife’s laser focus became sharper and sharper. Never one to mince words, Paula kept at me, verbally giving my keister a kick until distractions could no longer be a constant excuse I could hide behind. Paula, more than anyone, kept saying, “You can do this, you numbskull…just focus.”

Which leads me to today and the capstone on a most extraordinary year. A little over a year ago I had left a good job with a vague idea of “wanting to write more.” I was reminded around that time that the Pfister was in its annual cycle of looking for new candidates to fill the Narrator role. I had applied to be the Pfister Narrator a couple of times before, but in each attempt, I had done it sort of half-heartedly, pretty distracted by everything around me. When I mentioned throwing my hat in the ring one more time, who do you think was the first to tell me to step up my game, clear away all the distractions and get to work? I continue to call her the prettiest lady I know with the sharpest mind to boot.

When I think of my final bow as the Narrator, it’s a simple choice. It’s the one that I was distracted by many years ago here at the Pfister. Though I’m no longer a drinker, I proudly am tying one on in celebration of the Pfister, forever for me a symbol of incredible possibility, a place for great starts and legendary endings.

Thanks for reading. My heart is full with gratitude for a year of bliss.

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

10 at 100

This is what they call my penultimate post. The second to the last. It’s also number 100.

I generally prefer words over numbers, but I had in my head a number that I wanted to hit this year in terms of posts I created as my contribution to the Pfister Blog. That number was a nice and round 100, the place we are right now. But then I had something more to say, so I’ll leave you later today with post number 101.

In these 100 posts, I’ve written close to 60,000 words, basically a nice sized novel. I’m sure pleased that I got to tell these stories this year, but I leave my role as Narrator also reflecting on all the tales that I never did tell. Some moments didn’t warrant a full story, and some are the sort of things that could make a particularly dirty sailor blush. I’ll keep those memories stashed in my notebooks as I’m certain they will come in handy down the road in other writing that I have in mind for the future. The memories of things seen and heard at the Pfister are really the gift that keeps on giving to a writer.

I did, however, feel that there is a certain sense of occasion and ceremony when you hit the 100 mark. To that end, I wanted to share the Top 10 Things I Never Wrote About. I hope somewhere down the road you’ll come across these moments again woven into the fabric of a short story, book, play or screenplay that bears my name as a writer. They were all great encounters, and I know sooner or later they will be the perfect spice for a full meal.

  1. That day when the homeless artist tried to draw my picture in the Lobby Lounge. It was a sad and tender memory, and one where I saw the Pfister Associates show what decent human beings they really are.
  2. Pfister Building Engineer Matt Eells giving one of the greatest speeches any human being has ever made at former Artist-In-Residence Todd Mrozinski’s farewell night. I bow to Matt’s eloquence and charm.
  3. That elevator ride with Donald Driver where he complemented me about how nice my bow tie was.
  4. Every public men’s restroom at the Pfister. I made it a goal to visit them all…and I have strong opinions about which is the best one.
  5. The night I was having drinks with friends up in Blu and we looked out the windows and sat speechlessly for five minutes as we marveled at where we were as a magical thunderstorm raged outside.
  6. Former Senator Herb Kohl smiling at me as he passed me while I ate one of the 147 Senator’s Tuna Sandwiches created to honor him that I consumed in the Pfister Café.
  7. Kibuttzing with Barbara Brown Lee about life and art.
  8. Watching a mediocre cover band practice “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in one of the Pfister Ballrooms prior to an RNC party after the Fall 2015 Republican Debate in Milwaukee.
  9. The day I met former Milwaukee Bucks player Bob Lanier in the Lobby Lounge and told him I had met his wife in Scottsdale, AZ during a chance dinner meeting and with a raised eyebrow he said to me, “You mean my ex-wife?”
  10. Every dirty joke and loopy story I heard from my pals John, Ray, Elizabeth, Carrie, Scott, Stephan, Erika, Matt, Katherine, Jimmy, Sarah, Leda, Tommy, and others during Pfister lunch, dinner or drinks.

And if you want to hear the really naughty stories, buy me a plate of truffle chips someday and maybe, just maybe, I’ll spill the beans.

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

Left Feet Left at Home

You know what bothers me about ballroom dancing?

Nuthin’. Absolutely nuthin’.

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There are two things that you can count on during April in Milwaukee, and that is hot and cold. The cold refers to how you will feel when you read the daily weather report. The hot takes into account that come the third weekend of April the Pfister catches ballroom dance fever.

All the glitz, glamor, and glitz again of competitive ballroom dance is on display as men and women outfitted in a dazzling collection of brightly colored dresses and velvety black shirts make the Pfister home base for the Wisconsin State Dancesport Championships. This competition is so showy, so eye-popping, so over the top that it would be impossible to do color commentary in real time because there are too few words available to describe the hip swivels, turned ankles and bodies moist with fresh dance sweat.

Have you ever been in a room of ballroom dancers who have a lust for the gold medal? It’s unlike anything you’ll ever see, but then again my head might simply be clouded by the haze of hairspray that fills the air. I spent some time watching the dancers strut their stuff, summoned to the Pfister’s 7th Floor Ballrooms by the sounds of rhumba and cha cha. Watching ballroom dance competition is just like watching a great baseball game, except, you know, it’s not boring and there’s a greater amount of sequence and eyeliner on the competitors. Otherwise, just the same, though.

Before entering the ballroom to see bodies in motion, you must walk through a forest of neon clothing and accessories. It’s a heart stopping shopping opportunity for all the dancers doing their dance thing and possibly your dad for his secret “boys only” fishing weekend (dad is sure to catch a big one in his new fishnets and low cut electric blue gown).

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In the center of the floor, dancers perform short routines as a panel of judges mark scorecards. That’s where most eyes are trained, but if you have it in you to look away from the bumping, grinding and gliding, you’ll see that the sidelines are really their own main attraction. It’s there where you’ll see upcoming dancers reapplying makeup and keeping warm in silky robes that are a mixture of “come here, you sexy kitties” and “where’s the spit bucket, I took too many upper cuts in Round Six.” Make no mistake about it, though, ballroom dancing requires great physical agility. And reliable false eyelashes.

On the sidelines you’ll also see cheerleaders, members of dance teams who have come to show some spirit for their pals. I had noticed a particularly energetic red head during the morning dance sessions loudly egging on her team, so I was delighted to run into her later in the day for a little chat.

DSC03804“This is like prom of steroids!” squealed Gloria, a member of the Celebrity Dance Studio from Downers Grove, IL. She and her teammates had come to the Lobby Lounge to kick back with a few glasses of cheer after a morning of competition.

“I’m done for this competition,” explained Connie as her white wine arrived. “Yesterday I danced 18 entries.” I might add that Connie chatted with me as she leaned on her cane, proving without a shadow of a doubt that dancers are badass.

I asked Gloria and Connie about the extraordinary outfits that each dancer wears.

“I just have three outfits,” said Connie. “In my age bracket, I’m running out of competition. I want more competition, you know,” Connie said, tapping her cane to emphasize her point and just remind me that nobody puts Connie in a corner.

“Those outfits costs thousands of dollars,” said Gloria. “The whole package…that’s what you need to win medals.”

Gloria wasn’t competing at this tournament due to some minor ailments, but couldn’t help herself from being the main cheerleader for her team.

“I’m going a little crazy not being able to dance,” she said. “But you know what? That doesn’t mean I can’t be the loudest one in the room!”

Gloria doesn’t need to raise her voice to convince me to turn my head and give ballroom dance a gander. I am in, hook, line and sinker. But I promise you this readers, I’ll stay on the sidelines. You can thank me later for sparing you the site of me in a navel-cut black velour blouse and tight slacks. I’ll leave to the pros for that sort of stuff.

Because you’re good, and read all this way, here’s a like peek at what I got to see today. I have the greatest job in the world, if you weren’t aware.

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

My Favorite Place

This is the post that my children have been asking me to write for months.

I have been asked time and time again to answer one question about my experiences at the Pfister.

Where’s your favorite place at The Pfister?

I am not wishy washy on this question. There’s no doubt in my mind about how to answer. Ladies and gentlemen, might I introduce you to the Pfister parking garage.

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Behold the wonder!

You suspected I’d tell you that my favorite spot was Blu, a plush and sophisticated bar on top of the world? Maybe you imagine me claiming the Pfister swimming pool as my ultimate-ultimate? Lobby Lounge? Rouge? Well Spa? Mason Street Grill? Guest Room 1113? The secret vault where they keep all the snack mix? Listen, you can’t go wrong with any spot at the Pfister. It’s all good when you think about the Pfister spaces and places tour.

But that parking garage, oh, that marvelous parking garage. It’s the place where I’ve seen more stories played out as couples with happy smiles load up their overnight bags in the back of sedans or men and women torn asunder by a lovers spat silently slink into separate cars. I’ve narrowly avoided head on collisions, helped confused visitors recall where they parked their cars, and even woke up someone taking a car snooze. It’s a hub of activity and I love it all.

But more, so much more than anything, I will always cherish that parking garage as my favorite Pfister place because of one singular sensation. Or, rather, one singular sense.

The Pfister parking garage smells like delicious fatty bacon. Boom…mic drop…and out.

I noticed the perfume of pork almost immediately when I started parking on-site on a regular basis. Some days it was stronger than others, a shift in the wind helping to raise or lower the sniffability. I walked the ramp one day to see how far the scent traveled…fifth floor was the limit, but third floor was the peak of porkiness.

I’ve traced the source of the smell to the Mason Street Grill kitchen where meats are licked by flames all day and into the night. I can accept this plausible and very real explanation, but that really doesn’t matter to me. My favorite spot will always make my mouth water, licking my chops for salty, fatty, greasy satisfication.

Thank you Pfister parking garage. I love you and all your bacon ways.

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.