That’s a Big Clock: Robin and the Polish Moon

Robin Campbell, The Pfister Hotel’s house carpenter for eight years, retired two years ago.  But he came back for Gallery Night last Friday to see the work of his friend Stephanie Barenz, the Hotel’s fifth Artist-in-Residence (AiR), as well as the work of the other AiRs past and present. When she arrived, she described him in avuncular terms as they greeted each other warmly.  “I designed the huge frame for her painting in the hallway,” Robin beamed.

I had originally attended the opening of “Bridges: Artistic Passages“–an exhibition of current works by all eight AiRs, including the exhibit curator, Pamela Anderson–with the intention of writing about bridges and passages, with interviews of the AiRs and guests.  It was, perhaps, too early in the evening to capture a good story: downtown was spilling out onto the streets and into cars and buses, homeward bound.  Perhaps some of them would make their way back downtown for some art appreciation.  Many of the artists were also participating in Gallery Night at other studios.  (I plan to go back and capture my impressions of the exhibit in a future blog; you should visit, too!)

In the meantime, however, I caught the eye of someone across the room, who looked at me almost knowingly, inviting me to his table like he had something important to tell me.

I had not known that the Hotel had a “house carpenter” (I wondered where the workshop might be).  “In my shop at home,” Robin informed me. He then proceeded to flip through his phone’s gallery, like an eager teenager, to show me tables he had masterfully refinished, cabinets and shelving he had designed and built, and an impressive moveable wall in an upstairs ballroom.  He regaled me with a story about how all the doors in the ballrooms had needed tweaking one year (“None of them would close, they were all crooked”) and how he saved the Hotel a lot of money by correcting all eighteen or so doors–in only a day and a half!   As his finger swept through the photographs, it dawned on me that the beautiful glass case on the grand staircase landing was probably–“Yes, I made that, too.” (I was embarrassed that I had walked by the case so many times without realizing that the dazzling blue dress encased within it was crafted by Timothy Westbrook, the fourth AiR.  I thought it was, well, what did I think?  A ball gown from 1893?)

He also designed the case for Niki Johnson‘s Tether, the deep red tub lined with feathers and fur that sits across from the art studio.

There’s also a massive butcher block table that looks like puzzle pieces that Chef Brian Frakes pulls out for special presentations, and Paint Department Supervisor Mary Rose told me later that he also built all the podiums in the hotel and the long tables in the basement’s Salve Staff Canteen.

It was clear that Robin took exceptional pride in his work, as well he should.  He turned that pride to humility for a moment, though, when he told me how Stephanie had honored him in one of her paintings during her residency.  The woodwork was interesting, but now I wanted to follow him down this path.

Stephanie had joined forces with Narrator Molly Snyder to collaborate on a book of paintings and writings inspired by their time at The Pfister. Called The Carriersthis collection is both rooted in Milwaukee and transient with departures and travels and arrivals.  In one of the rooted painting-story pairings, “Robin & the Fisherfolk,” a small fishing boat in the foreground is overwhelmed by a turbulent magenta-yellow sky and a tower of concrete, construction cranes, southside homes, and a strangely dark and imposing Allen-Bradley Clock.  One of those homes is the one Robin grew up in.

Robin & the Fisherfolk (2013) by Stephanie Barenz. Mixed media on canvas, 84″x60″.

During his childhood, his family lived five blocks from the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower.  His house was on the west side of the street, looking east. It’s the house on the middle-right in Stephanie’s looming tower, the one with the porch.  The moonlight was so bright it would shine right into his house and onto the desk in his room.  His family, as did many in the Walker’s Point neighborhood, called it the “Polish moon,” a sobriquet in honor of the Polish immigrants of Walker’s Point.  What I love is that Robin made it seem like it was only his family that called it that; there was that sense of pride again.  As an accompaniment to Stephanie’s painting, Molly captured a similar special pride in her short story:

by Molly Snyder

“We never had to have a clock or thermometer in the house,” Robin mused, “because all we had to do was look out the window.  And my school was two blocks away.  We’d watch the guys washing the glass of the clock–especially when we were studying.  It was so cool, how could you blame us?

Robin had been enjoying the appetizers and had somehow devoured all but a lonely raisin, which he picked up, then placed back on the plate.  I understood that the stark white plate was one of the 40-foot, 3-1/2 inch clock faces.  “You knew it was a big clock, obviously, but when you saw a man up there?  Then you told yourself, ‘That’s a big clock!'”  The only photo I have of Robin is this one of him pointing to the raisin man:

Raisin man.

We saw Stephanie arriving, but before they greeted each other with friendly memories and hugs, Robin left me with this: “Eventually, I got to work as a painter in the offices and parking lot of Rockwell Automation– and guess what?  I was up there on the side of the building on one of those swing stages, just like the guys I’d see from my school window.  It’s funny how everything comes full circle, isn’t it?”



My term as Pfister Narrator is about to expire.  A bell is sounding.  A cane is coming to pull my waist off the stage.  A gong is sounding.  Ladies are booing, children are throwing popcorn at me, but I do not want to leave my flaming hula hoop.

I still wanted to tell you the story about Pfister engineer Matt.  One time Matt showed me these wild photographs that his grandpa took of factory workers and machinery in the middle of the last century.  His grandpa started out as a photographer in WWII working on sites where they needed to get rid of land mines.  I find it interesting that Matt works with some of the same mechanical things that his grandpa would have captured.  Recently, Matt promised me that he would build me a theremin one day.  The first time I ever talked to Matt he called my arms “buggy whips.”  These are the sorts of friendships I have made at this hotel.  Of all the people I met, I cherished most my staff interactions.

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I am never going to write the full story of what happened in the kitchen at 11p.m. last Saturday. DSCN1643DSCN1628I was interviewing Robert who has been a Pfister cook for 14 years.  He has also done this martial art called “Wing Chung” for about 14 years.  DSCN1635Robert explained Wing Chung as “other martial arts are more, uh, if one person is stronger than the other, they’re going to win.  In Wing Chung you don’t have to be as strong as your opponent. It is more about technique and knowing what your opponent is going to do.”  As he told me this three orders of atlantic salmon with chorizo mashed potatoes with red pepper sauce and asparagus were created. DSCN1630 “The baseball players are here tonight and you know, they want all the steaks and the fish,”  said Robert.  Every seven years Robert does something called “iron palm,” to harden his fists.  “I have to hit four bags of rocks for one hundred days.”  He has to do this four times per workout to get the front, back and side and heel of the palms.

DSCN1640I want to tell you more, like the real estate lady who tried to sell me a house in the hallway, but I haven’t any more room, I haven’t time.  Jonathan West is coming.  He is nice, he is dapper and I know you will like him.  The other day I met up with him and Molly Snyder, the narrator whose job I stole a year ago.  We all stood together, a Pfister Carol with Narrators Past and Present.  DSCN1660Toodle-loo,

Anja Notanja Sieger.

P.S.  Stay tuned, the next post will be by JONATHAN!





This is my last blog as the Pfister Narrator. I have been thinking a long time about how I want to end this magickal year, and suddenly, it came to me – strongly and clearly like the light of the moon through a bedroom window.

I will document my recent hotel lunch with the most magickal person I know.

Renée came to me, like most gifts, as a surprise. Fifteen years ago, I walked into the tattoo shop she owned at the time and from the moment I saw her, I was swiftly drawn to her. This has only happened to me with a person one other time in my life. (Yes, I tell people when they ask. Yes, I believe in love at first sight.)

The tattoo I got that day was of my then-husband’s name scrolled across a sacred heart. She joked that getting someone’s name inked on your body was a sure-fire path to heartbreak. (She was right. I just didn’t know it at the time.)

On my way out, a bandage resting atop a bleeding heart on my arm, I invited her to an all-girl party I was hosting that weekend. She said yes and my heart – the one in my chest, not on my arm – started to beat quickly.

For the next 10 years, we created a friendship that was much like a bonfire. She and I served as the air, fueling the fire between us with projects of creativity and spirituality. She taught me to trust my intuition. She carried a mirror that reflected my truest self.

We shared a circle. We shared the stage.

Eventually, because nothing gold can ever stay, we sprouted new wings and flew in different directions. For a time, we were silent faeries unable to exchange smoke signals. But slowly, we found our way back to the fire. It’s smaller now, but still warm and sparky.

Sometimes I wish we could return to the way our friendship was. I really don’t think I’ll ever have a friend like Renée again. I started to think such thoughts during our lunch last week in the hotel. I’m still trying to understand endings and how they aren’t really endings. I parted my lips to express this, and then I once again saw the tattoo wrapping around her wrist in curly, green scrawl: “Everything is unfolding perfectly.”

Five signs it’s time for me to leave the Pfister

Truth be told, my year as the Pfister Narrator flew by and I really don’t want to leave the position. However, the eloquent, wise words of Robert Frost once again filter through my brain: nothing gold can stay.

And really, there are five signs that make me think the universe is trying to tell me it’s time for this chapter of my ol’ Book Of Life to end. So, here they are.

1. The snacks in the Lobby Bar changed.

The complimentary munchies in the Pfister Lobby Bar served as my main food group during the past year and until recently, were consistently the same. However, a couple of weeks ago, they were suddenly different. Don’t get me wrong, the new nut-seed-dried fruit mix is still insanely addictive, but there are no longer wasabe peas in the mix. (I love wasabe peas!) This reminded me that I, too, must soon make like the spicy dried peas and ditch the proverbial snack bowl.

I am never going to look at a garlic chip in the same way.
I am never going to look at a garlic chip in the same way.

2. Joe is no longer a Lobby Bar bartender.

Joe was the face of the Pfister Lobby Bar for me – in part because our schedules meshed and he was usually working when I was – but also because of his mad drink-making skills and warm smile. Joe moved behind the bar of the Mason Street Grill, which is also inside the Pfister Hotel, and I occasionally visit him in his new digs. But it just ain’t the same.

I miss Joe. And his mad Old Fashioned making skills.
I miss Joe. And his mad Old Fashioned making skills.

3. My blazer needs dry cleaning. Like, really needs dry cleaning.

Being a black concert T-shirt and jeans kind of girl, when I got the job at the Pfister I decided to purchase a few items that would spruce up my look a smidge. I asked a couple of fashionistas what I should buy and both said instantly “you need a black blazer.” So I got one and wore it like a uniform – often over black concert T-shirts. But now, 11-plus months later, that thing really needs a-washing. I’m taking it as another sign that it’s about time to hang up my Narrator cap.

It's not going to wash itself.
It’s not going to wash itself.

4. Stephanie’s legacy painting is on the wall.

Every artist in residence at the Pfister gifts a piece of work to the hotel which is then displayed in the hallway outside the studio. Former Pfister artist Stephanie Barenz’s tenure was over the month before mine, so that in and of itself felt like a sign of the end for me. However, when I actually saw her legacy piece hanging on the wall, it was like a mini version of R.E.M. climbed into my head and started playing “It’s the End Of The World As We Know It.”

"Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn."
“Eye of a hurricane, listen to yourself churn.”

5. Anja is waiting in the wings.

One of the true beauties of the Pfister Narrator position is that by picking a new writer once a year (prior to me it was every six months) there’s a new voice in the blog and new energy in the hotel. From the moment I learned Anja Notanja Sieger was applying for the position, I knew she was going to get the job. I am wistful about leaving, but ready to pass the spool of typewriter ribbon to Anja. I know she is going to do a wonderful job, with or without a black blazer.

Dear, Anja. Please feed the lions for me. Love, Molly.
Dear, Anja. Please feed the lions for me. Love, Molly.


Dancing through life

Dressed in their “Sunday best,” three sixth grade students from Hartford Avenue School perched on the edge of a sofa in the Pfister Lobby Bar – all with gold trophies in their laps.

“How did you get those?” I asked.

“For dancing!” They said in unison.

They were there with their teacher, Marti White, and the school nurse to perform salsa, tango and swing dancing that they learned through the Mad Hot Ballroom program, which teaches dance to MPS students. They perfomed earlier in the evening in the Pfister’s Grand Ballroom and will be a part of a city-wide competition at the BMO Harris in May.

“I was kind of nervous,” said Justin. “We were kinda bunched in and my foot accidentally hit someone else’s so I would give myself seven out of 10 stars when I was hoping for a 9 out of 10 at least.”

It’s about more than winning though, Ms. White reminds.

“Dancing enriches your learning in so many ways. And it provides exercise and ties in other important aspects like nutrition and taking interest in things,” she said.

The three kids nodded and then went back to gazing at their trophies.

Their future, like everyone’s, will be filled with many different dances – some graceful, some not – but they were lucky to have such valuable concepts presented to them at such a young age.

This latest Pfister interaction reminded me of a quote by the writer Robert Brault that’s been floating around Facebook lately.

“Taking a step backward after taking a step forward is not a disaster, it’s a cha-cha.”

Unusual collection makes fine recipe for life satisfaction

When Shari and Al asked Pfister executive chef Brian Frakes to sign a toque (chef’s hat), rx he was honored.

“I was truly honored and requested to be displayed between (celebrated Chicago-based chef) Charlie Trotter and Julia Childs, both heroes in the business,” says Frakes.

Shari and Al obliged Frakes’ request and during a recent visit to their home, malady I saw his white hat positioned proudly between the other two Greats.

The 76-year-old couple from Bay View have been collecting signed toques for decades and have an impressive collection which includes signatures from Julia Child, Charlie Trotter, Paula Deen, former White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier, Sandy D’Amato (James Beard award winning former owner of Sanford in Milwaukee), the California-based Tim Au and now, Chef Frakes.

“The toques are all very dear to me,” says Shari. “I treasure them.”

Most of the toques are displayed in glass domes on a shelf in the couple’s kitchen and two are flattened and famed on the wall.

“I need another shelf,” says Shari.


To get the toques to stand upright on their own, Shari says she puts rolls of paper towel inside the hats as makeshift forms and, one time, used two stacked rolls of toilet paper because she was out of paper towel.

Shari and Al started collecting signed toques because they have always admired talented chefs and both are avid autograph collectors of famous people. Shari started collecting autographs as a child and Al, who worked as a limousine driver for almost 18 years, received many autographs of famous folks while on the job.

Hence, a large portion of their house’s wall space is covered in framed autographed photos.

“Al drove a lot of people around and even though they were celebrities or big hot shots they were very nice to him,” says Shari.

To obtain the autographed toques, Shari usually sent the toque with a letter requesting a signature and a self-addressed, stamped mailer.

“I was never refused,” she says. “It’s amazing to me.”

Shari and Al have already purchased another toque and plan to soon ask Milwaukee chef and restaurant owner Joe Bartolotta to sign it.

“Al and I think anyone who has worked hard all of their life and they can make it through hard work, well, we’re so proud of them,” says Shari. “If you don’t have any interests in life, what do you do?”

Pfister familiar faces

As the Pfister Narrator, I’ve had the chance to meet people from all over the world including Cambodia, Germany and California. One of my favorite things to do is watch guests from afar and wonder where they are from and why they are at the Pfister before I approach them. (I try not to be too creepy gawky. I think I pull it off most of the time.)

However, I also really love when I come in contact with someone, randomly, whom I already know. I always congratulate them for coming to the Pfister – whether it’s for drinks and the Lobby Bar or a bite to eat at the cafe – because I really don’t think enough Milwaukeeans take advantage of the Pfister’s splendor on a regular basis.

And I’m not one to “should” on anyone, but Milwaukee, you should visit the Pfister more often. I think we sometimes forget that you don’t have to be staying overnight at the hotel to access it and how much it can provide a getaway feeling even during a short visit.

Recently, I ran into Alisha, a woman who I was in a theatrical performance with a few years ago. (OK, I wasn’t going to type this at first because it makes some people feel uncomfortable, but it was a performance of the “Vagina Monologues.” There. I said it. Happy?)

Alisha was with a friend and they were having a cup of tea before a rehearsal. I just started drinking tea and I asked them for advice on good teas and where to get ‘em. It turns out they were a treasure trove of tea-related info and I felt like I sometimes do in my life: like things are all coming together perfectly.

We ended our conversation and said perhaps we’d run into each other again at the Pfister sometime. I liked the sound of that.

I really didn’t come to the Pfister a lot prior to my tenure as the Narrator, but I am definitely now a lifelong guest. I plan to visit for the rest of my life just to visit the lions, to listen to Dr. Hollander play the piano in the Lobby Bar or to simply reflect on the beautiful experience I had as the writer in residence in 2013 and 2014.

I usually imagine myself drinking a glass of wine during one of thes future Pfister pop ins. But maybe I’ll order a cup of tea instead.

Luckily, he has a sense of humor

When I found out that Brian was staying at the Pfister on business from Nashville – a place I’ve never been but have on my Bucket List – I was full of questions. Unfortunately, the majority of them were, accidentally, stereotypes.


I start by asking him if he likes music. I mean, EVERYONE from Nashville likes music, right? He pauses and says, “Yeah, I like music.”

“You probably get that question all the time,” I say.

He nods. “Actually, people usally ask me if I’m a musician when they find out I’m from Nashville. A country musician.”

And then, I just can’t help myself, I ask him if he likes country music.

“No,” he says. “Believe it or not, I don’t. I will listen to live country music in Nashville because the live music scene is so good there – and there’s a lot of surprise shows that get announced the day of – but I don’t like country music otherwise.”

“You live in Nashville but you don’t like country music?” I ask.


“You can get beat up for that in Nashville, can’t you?” I ask.

We laugh. I apologize for the stereotypes. 

“That’s OK,” he says. “There are stereotypes everywhere.”

I ask him where I should go when I visit Nashville someday. He tells me to stay away from Downtown and to find the dive bars in the outskirts instead.

“The Downtown is all tourists,” he says.

“How can you tell a Nashville tourist?” I ask.

“They’re dressed from head to toe in country gear,” he says. “Most people who live in Nashville might wear cowboy boots or jeans, but they’re not wearing it with a hat and a tight shirt, all at the same time.”

I then apologize for Wisconsin’s winter-like weather in April.

“I’m used to it,” he says. “It’s been very cold in Nashville this winter. A lot of days in the 20s”

I ask him if he had to buy a winter coat this year. He laughs. I realize I just said yet another stereotype.

“I already owned a winter coat,” he says. “In fact, get this: I bought my winter coat in Florida.”

“You’re blowing my mind, dude,” I tell him. “And feel free to ask me a bunch of stereotypical questions now, too. Ask me if I like cheese or if I know Fonzie or tell me I sound like the lady in ‘Fargo.”

“I might,” he says, smiling. “For now, I’m going to drink my beer.”

I look at the label on his beer.

“Bud Light?” I say. “That’s how we can spot a tourist in Wisconsin.”

Blu on blue

I never knew much about Denim Day until this year when I interviewed a woman for named Dawn Helmrich, cialis a sexual abuse survivor who is responsible for launching Denim Day in Milwaukee.

Denim Day was started after a woman in Italy was raped by her driving instructor. The man was originally convicted, nurse but later a judge overturned the conviction because it was decided the victim was wearing tight jeans and therefore, because she most likely had to assist in the removal of the pants, buy viagra she gave consent to the rape.

Outraged, women started showing up at the Italian parliament wearing tight jeans in protest and Denim Day emerged. Today, campuses hold special events and offices encourage their employees to wear jeans on the third Wednesday of April in solidarity with sexual abuse survivors.

This year, Denim Day is on Wednesday, April 23.

Last night, Blu hosted a “Hope Shining Blue” event in honor of Denim Day that featured five local artists tending bar. Ten percent of all sales and tips going to the Healing Center which provides services to people who have been sexually abused.

It was great to see so many people turn out for the event which raises awareness to such a terrible, often-silent reality for so many.

The blue-ness was everywhere, except in mood, from the name and decor of Blu, to the clothing color worn by so many to the calm, beautiful lake just beyond the glass window that is wonderful at healing us no matter what our pains are.

‘Twas a blu-tiful evening.


So many strings attached: chatting with violinists

The first time Pat stepped foot in the Pfister Hotel was in 1968, store and she was immediately smitten.

She came to Milwaukee from Cleveland to audition to be a violinist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the auditions took place in the space which is now Blu on the top floor of the hotel.

There were so many people auditioning ahead of Pat that her fingers started to get cold and so she returned to her room to practice. She realized that something special, no rx almost magical, was happening between her and her violin.

“That day, I played so well I think I knocked stars from the sky. They could have given me flies on a sheet of paper and I would have been able to play it,” she says.

Apparently, the concert master who led the auditions agreed, because Pat got the job and played with the symphony orchestra for 42 years. And a few years later, she and the concert master got married and were happily wed until he passed away in 2002.

“He must have really liked the way I played violin,” says Pat.

Over the past 10-15 years, Pat and another violinist, Karen, have met in the Pfister Lobby Bar to have food and drinks and to catch up on life. They also enjoy listening to pianist Dr. Jeffrey Hollander whom they have known through the music world for many years.

Karen joined the symphony is 1978 and she, too, married another symphony member, a trombonist. When I mentioned that musicians seem to marry musicians, she laughed.

“It’s hard for us to get dates that aren’t musicians. We all work weekends,” she says.

The two women say they feel more like sisters than friends.

“She’s like my younger sister,” says Pat.

“She’s like my older sister,” says Karen.

The women have a lot in common, other than both being violinists. They are both from the Midwest and they both learned to appreciate music at a very young age.

“My mother says from the time I was 3 I would run to the piano at my grandmother’s house,” says Pat.

And they both love the Pfister Hotel.

“It’s my escape. My home away from home,” says Karen.

“I told Karen that when I die, my spirit is going to be in the corner over there, next to the piano and the grandfather clock,” says Pat. “I don’t to be anywhere else except in this beautiful, beautiful place.”

There was a few seconds of silence while we all looked around, marveling at the warmth and opulence of the hotel. And then I started asking the questions again.

I really should know better than to ask grown ups what their favorite anything is. My kids ask me all the time and I usually tell them I don’t really have a favorite color, animal or song. It depends on the day, on my mood, on so many things.

And yet, I could not stop myself from asking Karen and Pat what their favorite piece of music was.

Not surprisingly, they both laughed. “What’s your favorite food?” asked Karen. “Who’s your favorite man?” asked Pat.

They then asked me if I was a musician and I tried to gloss over the fact I was a crappy bass player, a passionate but so-so singer and that I had been in a couple of bands. Their faces lit up and they started to ask me questions about my musical endeavors.

“I feel silly having this conversation with you two symphony musicians,” I said. “I’m a sloppy punk rocker.”

“No! This is wonderful” they chimed and asked more questions, which led into another conversation about conversation – specifically, knowing when to listen and knowing when to share.

“You two are really good at both,” I said.

“So are you,” said Pat.

I asked one more question, this time, not one that included the word “favorite.”

“Do you break a lot of strings?”

“Oh, it happens once in a while,” says Pat. “One time I broke an A string and had to steal one from someone else.”

“I broke an A string once, too!” says Karen. “I didn’t have another one so I played without it. A lot of alternate fingering. You do what you have to do to make the music.”