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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Checking In With” Carol, Our Sunday Brunch Host | August 2016

You can’t tell from the photo (or maybe you can), but Carol possesses a quick wit! Watch out . . . or your smiles will make your cheeks start to hurt!

“Checking In With” Carol, Sunday Brunch Host

Here at The Pfister, I treat everyone the same.  I know they’re human beings: they all put their pants legs on one leg at a time.

I have been in hospitality for thirty years–I started out in banquets here at the Hotel–but I also have a huge theater background.  I did theater as a kid and in high school; I also did Student Congress and debate, both of which helped me talk my way out a problem.  Then I did community theater in my hometown.  There, I found myself backstage more–I was good at telling people what to do, where to go, what they needed–and was stage manager and producer on some of the productions.

Some of my favorite productions were Nunsense (I loved the amazing banter between the nuns, and the character I played had to do a song and be on pointe the whole time–yes, in ballet shoes) and My Fair Lady (I loved the dances).  What I realized is that theater is really about the people: we eat and sleep together for a few months at a time.  We become family, one that understands the stress and wear and tear that theater can inflict.  I mean, in a regular family, people can say, without really knowing your situation, “Oh, you can get through this” or “Why are you stressing so much?”  But in a theater family, everyone understands–and it can be more comfortable being with people who understand.

Hosting the Sunday Brunch at The Pfister is kind of my outlet for theater now: each guest is a new audience.  I feel trusted by the Hotel to take care of guests–all of the Associates do–for the good of the company.  It’s nice being able to make someone’s day a little better.

Gallery Night: Interpreting the Textures in Our Lives

It is what it is.  Perception.

It is what it is not.  Metaphor.

My mother used to like to recount how one day in preschool, a classmate approached me and asked me, “What are you?”  Yes, “what” not “who.”  As my mother and teacher eavesdropped, I’m told that I (and this is all my mother, I’m sure) tilted my head in contemplation like some kind of mystic saint (okay, now I’m making stuff up), looked him in the eye, and exclaimed, “I’m Dominic.  Just Dominic!”  I love this story.

I was acutely aware of my identity from a young age.  I just was.  Nothing more complex than that.  I didn’t need another name, another label.  Thanks for asking.

As I grew older, I used to spend my weekend afternoons playing in the yard.  I wasn’t throwing a football to myself in touchdown simulations or practicing backflips so I could impress my friends.  Instead, I was often crouched with my Matchbox cars at the foot of the dogwood tree or in the earthquake-proof huddle of massive bamboo.  From this perspective, my cars were life-sized, the holes in the trunk caves for them to hide, the rough bark slats dangerous roads for them to traverse, the water trickling from the hose a potential cause for a spin-out.  If a one-inch black beetle or four-inch slug–both are common in Seattle–happened to scuttle or slime its way into the path of one of my cars, then a battle was sure to ensue. (Note: No beetles or slugs were harmed in the writing of this blog.)  Sometimes, in the shadow of the bamboo, I would examine the nodes that punctuated the hard stem wall–and, I kid you not, I distinctly remember one day musing to myself something like, “Those are like the positive or negative events in our life that really stand out, that mark important things and make us who we are.”  I’m pretty sure I wrote that down in one of my short-lived diaries.

I was still “just Dominic,” but, as I look back on myself, I began to develop a sense that there was meaning outside myself, outside what things “were.”  No one taught me this directly.  It felt more innate, something that revealed itself over time.  Books could have contributed (Scott O’Dell, C.S. Lewis, the Serendipity series, Old Testament woodcut coloring books).  Religion might have contributed (transubstantiation, forgiveness of sins, stained glass windows, incense smoke signals to God).  But neither books nor religion told me to focus my perspective and imagination and make tiny things large, or told me that bamboo stalks contain poetry.  No one taught me how to interpret (in Latin, “to translate”).  Meaning-making kind of just happens, I think.  

On July 22nd’s Gallery Night, then, when I dug myself (metaphor) out of my lethargy after a week of some sort of horrific stomach bug (metaphor) contracted in Canada and dragged myself (metaphor) to The Pfister again so that I could enjoy the two new Pop-Up (metaphor) Gallery exhibits and Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson’s painting to the music of Nineteen Thirteen–it wasn’t surprising to me that my interpretive antennae went into overdrive.

. . . . .

TRANSFORMATION: AN EXHIBITION

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An initial browse through the Coalition of Photographic Arts (CoPA) presentation of Transformation: An Exhibition revealed to me a stunning array of interpretations.  I went in with no preconceptions or knowledge about the exhibit other than the expectation that I would experience photographic expressions of “transformation,” which CoPA defines on their site as “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance; a metamorphosis, renewal, a revolution.”  I wasn’t aware before Gallery Night that the exhibit also had a civic component–

“Our city is working hard to reinvent itself, and as individual photographers we endeavor to move outside our comfort zones–to transform the way we interpret subjects.”

–nor was I aware of the process by which photographs were created, juried, and displayed.

It was curious to me, then, why all the placards mentioned the surfaces or substrates on which the photographs were printed: “the toothiness of the paper” (nice metaphor!), “the canvas substrate,” “the rich, elegant surface,” “the high-tech, rigid, durable feel of the material.”  Even more curious, coming from an educational background, were the descriptions of each work that struck me as quite similar to assignment or learning objectives: “This assignment will ___.”  “The student will ___.”  Each followed a similar template:

“The paper will enhance the graininess of the photo.”  

“The high-tech, rigid durable feel of the material will match the industrial subject of the photo.”  

“The cold look and feel of metallic relates to the cold feel of the image.”  

“There is a soft, dreamlike sense to the image that fits with the sophisticated look and feel of the paper.”

I learned that photographers submitted their work to CoPA, and selections were juried by the Haggerty Museum of Art, who determined how Prime Digital Media (PDM) should print each work.  Pam Ferderbar, CoPA president, explained it this way in The Shepherd Express:

“The transformation occurs when you take a digital image and apply it to a surface that has the ability to not only provide a tactile experience, but that literally conveys the emotion of the subject.”

I studied Melody Carranza’s 3 Kings, Ruth Yasko’s ethereal Mannequins, and Dennis Darmek’s watercolor-like Swimmer.  I wondered how 3 Kings would change if it were applied to something other than Sunset Metallic Photo Paper, whether some of the dreaminess of Mannequins would be lost on something other than Luster Premium Photo Paper, or if the liquid sunlight in one my favorites, Swimmer, could be achieved only on Big Jet Universal Photo Gloss Paper.  I have every confidence that the Haggerty jurors chose wisely, because these three photographs and the dozen others are revealed in dramatic and moving ways by their surfaces.

I started thinking about how our daily lives are affected by the “surfaces” and “textures” in them: the ones we apply ourselves, the ones that others bring, the ones that pre-exist as part of our daily landscape.  

If your day is textured from the outset by insomnia and an annoyingly blaring alarm, then God help the poor co-workers who will experience your rough demeanor the rest of the day.  If your day, however, is textured with sunrise yoga and perfectly brewed coffee, then those same co-workers might be smiled upon by your yogic brightness.  It matters, doesn’t it, whether others intentionally or unintentionally texture your day with nettling emails or mean gossip rather than meaningful conversation and positive reinforcement.  It matters whether the sky is sunny or rainy, whether the news is uplifting or depressing, whether the pavement is rough or smooth.  Most of all, I think, everything depends on what surface or substrate we choose to apply ourselves to each day–no matter what the world has determined for us.  

YOSEMITE & THE TETONS

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I made my way to the back of the gallery, where a companion exhibit, Yosemite and the Tetons, features the photography of CoPA founding member Tom Ferderbar.  A celebration of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, these photographs capture the majesty of two of our national treasures, both on a small scale (as in the rock at Mirror Lake or a black barn in a field at the base of the Tetons) and a large scale (as in Bridalveil Fall or Tetons #5).  I got a chance to talk to Mr. Ferderbar, who studied under Ansel Adams in his Yosemite National Park workshop.  He began by describing the difference between amateur photographs (like the ones I took on my recent visit to Yosemite) and professional ones:

I’ve been to so many other national parks, but the photos I took there were just snapshots.  To shoot a particular mountain or scene, you have to think about the purpose of shooting it and go without your family, camera out the window.  You have to go by yourself or with an assistant.  

Getting more specific, Ferderbar pointed out two of the photographs hanging in the exhibit, Teton Moonset #1 (July 2012) and Teton Moonset Black and White (July 2012):  

Thanks to the Internet, I could find out exactly when the moon would still be up even after the sun had already risen.  By the time I took the photo, unfortunately, smoke had moved in from a forest fire.  I had taken into account the topographic quadrangles, gotten to my spot an hour before, watched the moon moving down, sometimes having to move 100 yards or so to get the right angle.  By the time I took the photo, unfortunately, smoke had moved in from a forest fire–you can see the glow in the clouds.  The sun wasn’t right. 

He rendered the photo in color and black and white, saying he prefers the black and white because it obscures the glow from the clouds that he hadn’t been going for, but also because it creates a wholly new texture and mood.  The white of the snow pops out differently, the moon creates a sense of mystery as it punctuates an otherwise dark landscape.  As Ferderbar described this process, which I hope I’m rendering correctly, I couldn’t help but think about how he was describing the effect that atmospheric textures–and the time of day and I imagine even the temperature, as well as the forest fire, whether natural or man-made–had on this piece.

When I asked him what his favorite non-planned photographs were, he pulled up his website on his phone to show me a few from his Miscellaneous collection.

  • He likes the striking colors and textures in Record Shop, San Francisco CA (1968), the criss-cross of red and green framing the windows, the rusted cream fire hydrant in the foreground, the confetti-like litter.
  • A photo of his uncle is titled Soldier on WWII Furlough and it seems like a pretty straightforward portrait, but he appreciates the peculiar heft and angle of the cropped car on the left, his almost silhouetted uncle, standing stiffly with his right foot resting on the door ledge, a dog, left foot in motion, trotting toward him in the snow, with a weathered barn in the background against a white winter sky.  
  • He took Dusk, Melcher Hotel, Milwaukee WI (1958) with a 35mm wide angle lens.  Because the photo is way underexposed and the picture so tiny, it looks like blue film grain.  It appears almost pointillistic to me.  Ferderbar likes that there is a human component to the otherwise static photo: two guys sitting on the brightly lit steps to the hotel, which is where the Performing Arts Center is now.
  • Finally, when he showed me Plane and Birds, Milwaukeee WI Airport (1975), I told him how much it reminded me of the photo stills that make up the 1962 French classic La Jetée and he mused about how he knew the guy that was in charge of Midwest Airlines at the time and he let him sit at the end of the runway in order to get his shot of a plane landing, a flock of birds peppering the sky in front of it just as he took it.

Just like the photos in Transformation are transformed by the surfaces and textures to which they’ve been applied, Ferderbar’s photos express to me a similar metaphor: Sometimes we can plan for hours, days, even months for the perfect shot or experience, and sometimes we are pleased with the product, sometimes surprised by the unexpected outcomes.  Sometimes, too, that shot-on-the-fly or that spontaneous experience can reveal shapes and patterns and textures that we could have never planned.

I like that Ferderbar shared both kinds of photographs with me.  

PAMELA M. ANDERSON, FEATURING NINETEEN THIRTEEN

20160722_214305 (1) 20160722_214130 13833257_10154377389268909_1434921930_o 13838424_10154377394648909_1275315469_o 13838408_10154377395853909_141666941_o 13838591_10154377397958909_576671351_o13844050_10154377396213909_955475495_oI rounded off my evening in the Rouge Ballroom by experiencing a unique texture experiment that synthesized the experimental music of Nineteen Thirteen and the abstract painting of Pfister Artist-in-Residence Pamela M. Anderson.

I could try to do justice to Nineteen Thirteen musical stylings, but feel I should simply quote from their website’s homepage:

A cello crafted in Romania in the year 1913 is processed through today’s technology and framed by the percussion of Violent Femmes founding member Victor DeLorenzo.  

Cellist and composer Janet Schiff creates multi-layered, electrically amplified cello loops to the solid pulse of stereo drum rhythms. They interact in a sassy and superb fashion.

The cello is from 1913 and the music is from today.

Sassy and superb indeed.  At one point DeLorenzo drove–yes, like a car–his Zildjian cymbal, eventually using his snares to accompany Schiff in a plucking, strolling ostinato rhythm.  She began layering on top of that a Spanish dance melody which I soon realized was Maurice Ravel’s Bolero.

In another sassy move, DeLorenzo tipped over one drum, then his cymbals, then the other drum, lifted each and dropped them, stamped his feet on the stage to rattle them, tapped the side of the drum, and used untraditional parts of each instrument as Schiff worked in tandem with the languorous bowing of her cello.

When it came time for Anderson to paint, Schiff’s plucking reminded me of the Japanese koto Sakura, her bowing more classical, and DeLorenzo would lightly tap the drums for awhile, then his snares would sweep the drum head in long circles, then rattle the sides with expressive bursts.  The audience witnessed–perhaps for the first and only time–Anderson’s entire creative process, one shaped and textured by the music that Nineteen Thirteen was inviting her to interpret on paper.  In fact, Anderson used as one of her painting tools some of DeLorenzo’s snares.

Anderson was most influenced, she says, by “Victor’s drama and wanting to end the painting with a flourish.”  Her flourish?  The sudden and surprising addition of periwinkle blue.

This was a perfect example of how texture–this time, musical texture–could influence how a person created her world.  If Schiff’s cello or DeLorenzo’s drums had performed any differently, would periwinkle have appeared?  Where would the red have emerged–and how?  The black diagonal?  

. . . . .

It is what it is.  

It is what it is not.

I’ll always live in the first.  But I’ll always prefer the latter, because interpretation has allowed me from a young age to see my world differently and wonderfully.  It has allowed CoPA to transform photographer’s visions by layering them on one substrate versus another.  It has allowed Tom Ferderbar to capture mystery where there might not have been or beauty in what would normally be ignored or passed by.  And it has allowed Nineteen Thirteen and Pamela M. Anderson to create newness with every bow, pluck, snare, or stroke.