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!