I guess I was in junior high–7th grade maybe. We had a co-ed gym class where we did ballroom dancing: waltz, cha-cha, jitterbug. I think it was girl-pick-a-guy. Well, I had a crush on a boy named Tom. I was hoping he’d ask me, but I was too shy–and he did! And we won Best Jitterbug out of the entire 7th grade!
Back then, we “went out” (not really “steady,” of course). We were like boyfriend and girlfriend, but really we just hung out together. I went to high school with him, too, and we became good friends.
Funny story: he ended up marrying a girl named Donna! I think it was our 25th high school reunion when he introduced me to his wife . . . named Donna of all things!
Love goes with passion–for me–and that’s music. Nothing will give me goosebumps more than performing with another person. Periodically, it’s even a mystical moment, a synchronicity of what I’m playing and what they’re playing, when we’re unified.
All of a sudden, I’m off the page, not thinking about what’s on there, and it’s like something else is leading me.
It’s like that with my husband today. Even with the mundane day-to-day, there are times when I somehow get out of my selfish part–and we’re a real pair. Frankly, it’s otherworldly.
This is what differentiates us from the rest of creation.
(Rob’s instruments are his clarinet and his voice. He has played in symphony orchestras like the Milwaukee Symphony and has played with individual artists as well.)
My first love was in 4th grade. His name was Joey, and I used to throw rocks at him to get his attention. He was from the nicer side of the tracks than me (we grew up in Latonia, Kentucky, which is now Covington). Joey was blue-eyed and had the house and the nice family. But in 5th grade, I moved away. Fast forward to high school, when Joey was the basketball star. I had just moved back to Latonia and we got back together. I threw a rock at him and he said, “I know you!” So in high school, we were going out for a little bit–and then I moved away again, from ’76-’89! When I returned, I “ran into him.” Actually, what happened is that I called a friend of mine and asked her how to track this guy down. Fortunately, he was separated. We got back together . . . and then he went back to his wife. Then I left again. I was always leaving . . .
After our conversation, Kathy and I trolled Joey on Facebook for a little bit. There were many guys with his first and last name, as can be imagined. Some of Kathy’s comments included “No way he’d make the Navy” (after finding a Joey who’s in the Navy) and “There’s no way he’d be a pastor.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
DEBBY: My first love was a copper-white, stray poodle. I was 12 years old when we found her on a rainy, stormy night running around the neighborhood. I had my dad chase her down. She responded one day to “Bonita,” which means “pretty” in Spanish, you know. She was like my first love and my first heartbreak, come to think of it. We let her out one morning–but when I called her, she never came back. But I guess if I had to say my first human love, it would be Mr. Duckler, my English teacher, when I was 11 years old. I thought he was so hot. I mean, he was so nice, for a teacher. For a teacher to be so nice–was hot.
GENE: My first love was a breaded pork chop. I was five years old, and that’s when I first decided that I wanted to cook. I saw my mom make them all the time, but I didn’t like the way she did it: overcooked. I had tried before to do it myself, but I used graham crackers and they tasted like shit. One night, then, her and dad went to square dancing and I decided to make pork chops for the entire family of six. I dug through the freezer to find some thicker chops, made the breading, and they turned out just right. I got out the little electric skillet, put it on the kitchen table (yes, my grandma and aunt were nearby–practically next door), and now I’ve been a chef for years. And I guess, like Debby, I could also mention Cindy in 5th grade: I remember she was blond with blue eyes and a little pug nose. I lived six blocks away and at times it was torture. She knew I liked her, but not how much! She always did insist that I be her dance partner, however!
My first love was named Alisa. She was a ballerina and danced in The Nutcracker. We were five years old and kissed by 10s on the playground until we hit 60 times–all while Robin watched.
Ellie’s first love was Herman. She tells us a little about him for HUMANS OF THE PFISTER’s “First Loves” edition:
Herman. He was handsome and very nice. And he played basketball and baseball. My cousin liked him, too, but I won. I liked him first.
This was maybe in 1960 because we graduated in ’64 and my parents wouldn’t let me date until I was 17. We’d go to a lot of drive-in movies, but if my younger sister went, my other sister and I would have to go with her until was old enough. So I went on a first date with Herman. He had such gorgeous eyes. We went to a show, but back then, we weren’t alone that long, so “it” didn’t work out.
In the end, I didn’t marry Herman. But he had a service station for a long time, and I would visit him for many years. He had a good body then, but . . . don’t write that next part.
Plume Service is slowly but surely writing its way down the mezzanine hallways, so far invigorating half of the paintings with literary life: writers have wormholed and teleported, stepped into and out of oily, centuried canvases, listened intently for lunar whispers and clandestine confessions.
During the last week of January, Plume Service moved from its usual Saturday afternoon time to a Wednesday happy hour, where Chef Brian Frakes surprised us with some new (for us) offerings: succulent lamb puff pastries, tender veal with chimichurri sauce, and sweet dates wrapped in bacon, plus a sensible cheese platter, fresh crudité, and plenty of wine.
Really, we were all there to write . . .
Mark Twain to the rescue: “When the time comes that a man has had his dinner, then the true man comes to the surface.”
Enter Virginia Woolf: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
With those defenses in mind (ah, who are we kidding? there was plenty of wine), the January Plume Service participants allowed both their authentic voices and their fictitious selves surface as they considered well, having dined well, each painting on their list. On this evening, I invited them to think microscopically (focusing their words on a tiny detail or two, an obscured figure, or a feature that didn’t seem to be the painter’s focus) or macroscopically (drawing back to reveal a big picture, a weighty theme, a an omniscient or voyeuristic gaze).
Alexander Miller’s classicly styled poem for “Moonlight Scene” starts this post’s collection. It draws readers toward its center lines, with the “Sacred Fire” inspired by a barely detectable camper at the water’s edge. In a similar way, the form of the poem points us, through all the melancholy and suffering, toward the “tiny white hat” that was the first detail Bethany Price discerned in the idyllic “Landscape“.
Eduardo De la Cruz imagines not “The Dancer” herself but her shadow, whom he personifies as “The Sarah Nobody Knows.” My offering is inspired not by the obvious (the architecture) but by the seagulls in “Venice”, and it ignores any evidence that the scene is a morning or afternoon one, instead imagining what I wanted to imagine.
Monica Thomas’ “Chianti” poem (did I mention there was wine?) is stylistically different from most of the others, preferring short, clipped lines and stanzas like quick movie shots that tell a bigger story of a woman’s vulnerability and power. Microscopic to macroscopic. Christina Oster offers her version of this poetic movement in “The Fortune Teller“, focusing readers’ attentions on the specific location of the cross and on the “trickling” of the rosary beads as she explores a larger theme of Fate and Faith.
Finally, Eduardo’s second offering keeps us guessing until we realize that the speaker isn’t human, but is instead standing behind the white fence in the distant pasture on a “Sunday Afternoon“. This prepares us for very different kind of voice, in style and tone, in a postmodern commentary on the details of “Diana of the Hunt” and on Victorian art in general, a critique by the writer known as Celeste Hagiopiate that melds into monolog and self-aware confessional.
But enough of my literary criticism. Please enjoy our third installment of Plume Service at The Pfister, and please consider joining me and fellow writers on Wednesday, February 23, 6-8pm. Unwind after work and bring your plume, your notebook, your thirst, and your appetite! (Click “going” on Facebook.)
Moonlight Scene by H.M. Kitchel
Moonlight whispers between the leaves
Moonlight whispers between the leaves
As night approaches and twilight grieves
The passage of congealed time
To the memory of a dream sublime.
Forgotten yet is the scent of dawn
For the veil descends on the pathways drawn
Through the tangled forest of thought
Where tears are formed as memories are caught
And lit upon the Sacred Fire
That is both comfort and funeral pyre
Beseeched again to the insouciant sky
As the memories fall and tears are dried.
Reflected upon the flowing stream
The echo of reality does scream
Beneath the waiting touch of gloom
For darkness to eat the silver Moon.
But the night itself is another page
In the endless tale from Age to Age
Still the Cycle revolves to each
As Dusk to Dawn, each other they teach.
The Dancer by Adolphe Piot
The Sarah Nobody Knows
Creeping and eloquent in style–synonymous but wild in spirit and form–she feels a breath on her toes and nobody knows her. A gallant girl but holding on by the position of Sarah. At times Sarah stops, an applaud crashes, while the Sarah nobody knows hears a clapping of the soles. The fancier the carpet, the quicker the groove, the Sarah nobody knows is the one she’d approve. But bitter is Sarah, competing for first place. While the Sarah nobody knows competes for a face . . . in the world.
–Eduardo De la Cruz
Venice by H. Biondetti
The seagull time arrives
when men have heaved their last anchors
and slung on docks their fill of fishy nets,
have warbled their merchant announcements
of crusty bread and fragrant pancetta.
Their sea cries announce
the declining day and their right
to the crumbs of the morning
and the severed heads of the afternoon.
Now is the time for women to linger
on the sea plaza, pacing leisurely
under a hazy white-winged sky,
before returning home with baskets
redolent of yeast and cured meat
and slick fins and scales.
Chianti by E. Giachi
on slats of
straps falling off
man with wandering
cask of wine
and he’ll be out.
Sunday Afternoon by Richard Lorenz
I Thought It Was You
Brother, the time we grew, the times we saw the ships along the pier leaving men of hope and sharp ideas, and came back mules of war, or part of them. I remember when we rode along the tall greens back when we were too young for men. When the kids would play and we’d chase after them. Then war took us, and our groups were divided. Then, years after, I found you, with a large bandage around your body; you’d been hurt. Remember laughing about it? We stayed up all night and traded stories: the good ones, the fun ones, the bad ones, and really bad ones. Then, it was hard to talk. You managed to get a job outside of town in a rich man’s place, while I stayed in a poor man’s den. Months passed and no sign of you. I heard he has people take care of you, but sometimes I don’t know. I miss you, brother. We are old now. The other day I saw someone with a scar that looked like the one you had on your left side, but he didn’t turn to say Hi. He went right through. Maybe . . . he couldn’t be you.
–Eduardo De la Cruz
Landscape by Leon Richet
You haunt every step of mine and the bovines, too,
off in the fields gazing at each others’ tails.
When I walk home it’s heavy since
there is a constant incense stick burning
in my ears–a smoke trail
of whispers to yourself,
going mad, naive of my eyes closed–
listening to your brain forest prose.
I wish I had the pastel colors
rich enough to paint you my agony.
And in this willowy terrain
where the wind
where the tree tops
where the elements moan in power,
their dominion is my shelter.
I am drunk here, losing control
of my hands
sifting through grass and branch,
climbing a leaf god to descend
in a bruised-love state,
my tiny white hat dotted
The Fortune Teller by Ludwig Vollmar
She slapped them on the blistery wood, accordion style. “A fan of opportunity awaits you,” she told me. My fate was in the foreground. But without faith, how will I reach it? Faith and fate are distant cousins in my life at the moment. I turned my back to faith when I had hit after hit, loss after loss. In fact, I hung that cross high out of reach, high out of sight. “Bygones,” I said.
And my rosary, well, I tucked that in a treasure chest. But I did leave a few select beads trickling out. It is a treasure chest, after all, and faith at one time was my cherished treasure. Why bury a treasure?
Also ironic that the cross now hung in my background is made of the same wood in my foreground where this psychic has slapped her cards down.
The same wood.
Note to self: “My dear, you’re ignoring the obvious.”
Diana of the Hunt (after Domenichino)
Celeste Hagiopiate Reviews a Painting at the Pfister Hotel:
The Third Gathering of the Plume Service
Oh look, a Tableau. Victorians loved their Tableaus. Here, a zaftig Diana is posed in a most wooden position, two arms raised. She stands to the left of the center of the painting. She is far too modest to stand center stage. But damn it, she demands to be seen. Dark trees in the background circle her brighter figure.
She is at the apex of an isosceles triangle of stilted figures. In the background and to the right is another triangle, far more sparse and off-kilter than the opulent composition in the foreground. (Post Modern Aside: Dom Inouye, Pfister Narrator, has asked us to notice and amplify one small detail.)
Look. There is a chaste, bare-breasted nymph at the bottom of the painting. She is pointing aimlessly. Her index finger directs our eyes to the great beyond. Those Victorians! Stupid girl, she should be pointing at Diana or at the very least, pointing to the drunken revelers in the distance.
Was this painting meant for a mansion? I suspect so. A lunging hound honors the position off center and just a little lower to the right. A direct line can be drawn between it and Diana. This is a geometrically precise painting. What, you expect a lush, adjectival poem about a pretty little scene from the old crone? Leave that to the dewy-eyed twenty-year-olds.
Coda: I’m drunk. I don’t sing for my supper or for my Cabernet Sauvignon. Lousy voice. I can be coaxed to write and recite a brief address. I do it to entertain myself. If it entertains you, well, that is an extra bonus.
“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.
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!
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 Carriers, this 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.
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:
“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:
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?”
Well, you know–I got a gym membership this year–New Year’s Resolutions and all–so I could lose weight and quit smoking. I’m weak to an extent, but until you actually make up your mind to do something, no one can force you. Then the goal is pretty much reached. You just have to grab it, you know what I mean?
I’m weak to an extent, but until you actually make up your mind to do something, no one can force you. Then the goal is pretty much reached. You just have to grab it, you know what I mean?
I know that working out with a group of people can be fun, but you have to be your own motivation. You shouldn’t need someone to get you to do what you want to do, you know what I mean?
I work out at Experience Fitness, and they have a theater with cardio machines in a dark theater, and they play a different movie each time. So you can just do your thing and get lost in the movie–and it keeps you focused. I actually just reached a new record: one hour of cardio on the elliptical!
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.” (from Jay Mcinerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, 1984)
Well, I am the kind of guy (Narrator) who would be at a place like this (the Lobby Lounge) at this time of the evening (about 5 pm). And here I am, and I cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although some of the details are fuzzy (my notebook is a jumble of hastily penned scrawls because sometimes you just want to, you know, talk to someone without recording every last word, and I’ve never gotten used to using a recorder).
Blake, a 6’1″ institutional stock broker from Tennessee who made sure I knew he came from humble origins (I got some details!), had been at the bar for some time before I arrived and set up shop. Speaking of setting up shop, it seems Blake has done just that at the Hotel for the past 35 years. “I come here at least 5 times a month,” he said with pride, “so I figure after 35 years that I’ve stayed here at least 2,000 times or more.”
I think he said his flight had been canceled so he needed to stay an extra night in Milwaukee. Of course, The Pfister was his first choice.
I recognized Blake from a couple of months ago, partly because he started telling me again about the blizzard of February 2011 when all those cars in Chicago got stuck in thick and the snow drifts in Milwaukee were at least a yard high. Do you remember those photos?!
Blake and his business associates got stuck at the Hotel for three nights, a Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Completely snowed in, buses shut down for days, nowhere to go.
He recalled: “I had about fifteen guys here for business. So we had the place to ourselves. It was like The Shining with all the empty halls. Chris, the Evening Manager, gave us the 7th-floor party room. They all wanted to gamble, so Chris walked to Flannery’s to get a dice cup. Mason Street Grill took care of us, Blu took care of us, everyone took care of us.”
Chris happened to walk by, so Blake motioned him over and like clockwork, they began a series of giddy, nostalgic anecdotes. “It sounds like you were school kids on a snow day,” I suggested. “Yes!” exclaimed Chris, smiling widely, letting down for a moment his seemingly flinty guard. Through none of this, though, did I get any details about what really went down on the 7th floor those three nights . . . maybe it was just innocent dice, who knows?
In any case, after Chris left, Blake and I returned to our drinks and somehow the phrase “gradually and then suddenly” emerged. (I wrote it down in my notebook, but the context is, shall we say, fuzzy.) I think I told him that I was a retired English teacher, so he tested me with “gradually and then suddenly.” He was stunned when I hadn’t a clue where it came from, even though, he told me, “It’s one of the most famous lines in American literature.” It turns out it’s from Hemingways The Sun Also Rises. Graduate school, for me, is a little . . . fuzzy.
“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.
“Two ways,” Mike said. Gradually and then suddenly.”
“Favorite American novel?” Blake asked, perhaps giving me a chance to redeem myself for not recognizing the great Hemingway.
I impress him with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, so he eggs me on until I can guess his favorite. His hint: something about wealth and power. My first guess was The Great Gatsby. That seemed obvious enough.
“Noooo! Think again. Wealth and power.”
“Heyyyy. Not bad. Now you’re on the right track. Think American Psycho, but a classic novel. You’re so close.”
“Yes! —in the Rye.” I feel triumphant. “Both grew up hating ‘phonies.’ Holden Caufield in the ’50s, Bret Easton Ellis in the ’80s. And Ellis went to Bennington in Vermont.” I think to myself how the fictional Pencey Prep and the progressive Bennington couldn’t be more dissimilar, but I got where he was going.
We talked about American Psycho for a while, recalling favorite scenes . . . which, if you’ve ever read American Psycho, is not polite Lobby Lounge material. In fact, Blake muffled his voice several times.
Blake insisted I check out Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (Tartt of Goldfinch fame). “She went to school with Ellis at Bennington, you know.” I did. “And the setting of the story is a small college like Bennington and a tight-knit group of students. It’s a murder mystery. And this one is much better than The Goldfinch.”
He also suggested Jay McInerney’s The Story of My Life (“It’s the female-focused version of his Bright Lights, Big City“). I learned that Ellis borrowed a character from Story of My Life–Alison Poole–for American Psycho, and that McInerney eventually claimed that Poole was based on his ex-girlfriend Lisa Druck (who later changed her name to Rielle Hunter). Blake reminded me that she had an affair with John Edwards.
We bemoaned the cocaine-addled ’80s, a prime subject of Ellis’ and McInerney’s novels. Of course, I was in middle school back then, so what would I know, other than what I learned from Ellis (I haven’t read McInerney yet, though I’m intrigued by Story).
Some wholesome interruptions occurred, too: Huckleberry Finncame up. Not sure how: fuzzy. Our bartender Torie said she had enjoyed Watchman and Maus, two graphic novels she had read in a class. “It was interesting reading in a different way. They were all comic books that we had to analyze like regular books.” And eventually the conversation returned, as it should have, to The Pfister’s hospitality, the blizzard of ’11, and the present moment.
“The Pfister is my second family. When I see Ellie, Val, Jeffery, Peter, and everyone else, it’s like coming home to my family. I can’t replicate this anywhere, especially as a business traveler. If I had decided to stay by the airport tonight, I wouldn’t have had anything close to this experience.” Blake’s hand swept the room. “They’re like a partner.”
“I was on the road for three days this week. I’ve been so pissed off at things–but not anymore. This is home.”
This was one thing that wasn’t fuzzy at all. In fact, The Pfister makes sure it’s as clear as day whenever you enter the building and look up: Salve.
My “Humans of The Pfister” took a hiatus in December, but the Humans are back! What better way to jumpstart HOTP in 2017 than with this lovely mother-daughter team. I ran into Jayne and Grace at the hotel last week. Well, to be honest, I saw on Facebook that they were in the Cafe for lunch, promised them online that I’d be there as soon as I could, and got there in time to join them for a delightful conversation in the Lobby Lounge.
Grace graduated last June from The Prairie School, where I taught her senior English class. She has completed her first semester at the Santa Fe University of Art & Design, where she is studying concept art and character design. I remember Grace as a quiet, introspective student, shy in class but mildly bubbly with friends, more a follower than a leader. She was well known for her artistic abilities, though she never boasted, never made a big deal about it. What I remember most about her, though, is that she knows what she likes and dislikes–and is not afraid to tell you, ever so respectfully.
One thing she likes is real life. True stories. History. As a reader, not surprisingly, she tends toward nonfiction. So whenever I would introduce a new work of fiction for us to study, well, I knew it was going to be a chore. She’d give it an honest go, I knew, but she wasn’t going to make it easy for me. I came to expect, with every new novel, the calm but serious question: “So, why are we reading this?” I remember, though, our interesting conversations–just the two of us, sitting in the Commons–about the role of fiction, the nature of “happening truth” versus “story truth” (terms borrowed from author Tim O’Brien), and so on. I appreciated that she was willing to listen and debate and, even, willing to question my choices and objectives.
Another thing she disliked was writing. If she could just tell me, why did she have to write it? If she could just show me in a drawing, why did she have to write it?
So what did I learn about this quiet, young contrarian on this December afternoon? It’s not box office material, but here’s the movie script:
INT. THE PFISTER HOTEL - DAY
DOMINIC sits down with his former student GRACE and her mother JAYNE to catch up on the last six months, especially with GRACE, who has been at school in Santa Fe.
What program are you in again?
It's focused on concept art and character design.
She's really doing what she loves.
(looking at GRACE)
And you get to do it in the background, behind the scenes, in a sense. Right?
How are your roommates?
I live in my own place, which is nice. But the people I hang out with, they just sing--all--the--time. I don't mind it. They're fun.
It's an arts school. So there are so many students studying music and theater and musical theater. But Grace. You know how she's always been kind of shy. But because of the program she's in, with films, and all the new people she's around, she's already designed a movie poster for one short film and now she's acting!
Yeah, I keep being asked to be an extra. It's weird. I've been a 911 operator, a news reporter, a background laugher . . .
I can see you being a background laugher. Always smirking at something.
Tell him about your Mary Jane.
I will. Being an extra is one thing, but I've never acted and the director wasn't sure if I was going to work out, but we tried it out and he liked me, so I got a role as Mary Jane--
Yes, you know, Peter Parker's girlfriend. I am still shy, but doing all this really boosts your confidence.
You did all that Irish dance for so many years, so you were on the stage all the time.
Yeah, you'd think that that would've helped.
But it's different when you're dancing with a team. I know why you'd get nervous on the stage. I get nervous. And I can't stand a camera on me!
She'll get used to it. I think she's being open to all the possibilities around her. Like, you know, she never liked to write--
No kidding. It was like pulling teeth.
Well, her teacher had them write a research paper on anything they wanted. And you know Grace--if she's not interested in it, it's going to be very hard to get her to write about it. So I made a huge list for her and--
Oh yeah. That's when she wrote about Tim Burton, right?
She's been fascinated with him for a long time.
This is just like I let her write about the Old West for her Senior Capstone project because that's what she wanted to research.
Yes. Her teacher liked her research so much that he entered it into a writing contest.
(smirking at GRACE)
So anyways. When I finally move out there next month, I want to start getting extra roles on campus. I could be the "adult woman" or the "old woman" whenever they need an adult woman or old woman. I am looking forward to moving and returning to the southwest. You know me--I love to hike and fish, I love the mountains. I'm looking forward to all the museums and Navajo jewelry and rugs and art. I'm just tired of how "American" things have gotten here. I mean, there are still places I like to go in Milwaukee, but there's just something. Maybe it's how modern things have gotten . . . or it's how busy everyone is, everyone on their phones. Out there, it's quieter.
Yeah, everyone's calm and nice. No one hustles.
And that's what I'm seeking. I don't know what it's going to be like out there. I have a job or two lined up in my field, but everything else is new. I'm excited to start exploring again, creating a new life. And slowing down.
And it'll be nice, I'm sure, to be close to Grace. You both get along so well.
(They both nod in agreement)
It's so calm and nice that I don't even watch the news.
She doesn't even watch the news. I have to tell her what's happening around her.
There was supposedly a mountain lion lurking around campus. I didn't know about that. And one day we saw smoke coming from the mountains and thought it was a forest fire. It was a controlled burn.
JAYNEI had to tell her about those things. If it weren't for me, well . . . she has to be careful. Tell him about the barracks.
Ok. So there's what we call "the barracks" and it's an abandoned part of the school.
Back from when it was St. Michael's College. It was probably where all the priests lived. It's all fenced off and Grace and her friends found a way to kind of wiggle under it at night.
(leaning forward, face beaming)
The barracks are really cool. It's one of the movie sets for Manhattan. It turns out lot of movies are made in Santa Fe. Like Tina Feys's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. And many are shot on our campus. We had to use our phones because we didn't have flashlights, and there were all these rooms with surgery tables and things, probably old movie props.
Grace is the ringleader. Everyone else was scared of ghosts, but not Grace. What she should have been afraid of were bats . . . or rats.
There was that black widow.
See what I mean?
There was an Italian kid. He got bit by something, but we didn't know what, but after two days he called 1-1-9. Yep, he's from Italy and got the emergency number backward. But eventually his mom came from Italy and he had to go home.
So there you have it.
Quiet, graceful, gracious Grace who used to turn her nose up to fictional characters is now
learning how to create concept art for fictional films,
laughing for filmmakers,
joining the ranks of Kirsten Dunst as Spider-Man’s girlfriend,
leading a risky gang of trespassing, singing art students through abandoned buildings,
braving the lions and bats of Santa Fe, and
chuckling at the misfortune of black widow-bitten Italian boys.
I never would have guessed.
Maybe she’s realizing that a little bit of make-believe isn’t such a bad thing. Especially if you’re doing something you love.
If only we had let her do more of what she loved when she was in high school–right, Grace?