Happy Accidents Help Make Merry

Sometimes the best things that happen to you are accidents, there which is why we say “happy accident” when talking of coincidences or other fortuitous events. Tonight was a fortuitous event for a number of people at the Pfister Hotel.

Its now traditional tree lighting ceremony began, for me anyway, in a crowded elevator where one patron had to simply defy all elevator expectation and turn to us all and say in awe, “are you all going to the tree lighting at the Pfister?” The entire group nodded. This tradition was new to her, but she didn’t realize, obviously, that so many others had seen the value in gathering in a beautiful space to kick of Christmas with all the staples: Santa, cookies, eggnog and a beautiful tree.

In the lobby, it was clear most of us were underdressed compared to the frills and fashions the toddlers were bedazzled with. Cake-toppers all, there were scores of young girls and boys holding their excitement for what parents surely wound them up about—the Man Himself would be arriving (not by eight-reindeered sleigh, but rather by City of Milwaukee fire truck, same amount of flare, surely).

As I wandered the event, I kept stumbling upon guests who had no idea what they were getting into. The lovely couple from West Bend who were just out for the evening and wanted to be sure and stop at the Pfister for a drink, (“I just love the piano bar!” the wife explained) were thrilled to find themselves in the midst of the holiday spirit. They had no idea the event was scheduled, but were oohing and aahing at the little ones flocking to the Man in Red.

Jolynn, Arlene and Lilly are long-time friends and fans of the Pfister and planned their evening cocktail hour to reunite with long-time staffer, Ellie and some Brandy Alexanders. When they discovered the ceremony, they instantly became belles of the ball. In addition to photographing any group of garland-garbed children, Jolynn also snagged a photo of herself with St. Nick and spent the rest of the event convincing her friends (and those seated near them) that they, too, should try out a lap they probably hadn’t sat on in 60 years. She succeeded, by the way, and the evening felt complete when barriers broke down and a roomful of adults started snapping photos with the Jolly One.

Jolynn’s friend, Arlene, planned to come in with her granddaughter (just adopted from Russia she proudly told me) to have their picture taken for her holiday cards. Tonight’s event convinced her she would return tomorrow and capture the moment in front of the glorious Pfister tree.

This trio was particularly fun because they spent the night giggling and touring the lobby with others, simply thrilled at the holiday cheer that had befallen them. It wasn’t until late in the ceremony that I suggested they have their own picture taken before the tree—they’d taken everyone else’s! This moment of “oh, well, of course we should!” surprise captured the evening best for me. No one is surprised at holiday spirit. It’s a regular event; we schedule it on the calendars. What I think it is, though, is that we are completely prone to being caught up in it and swept away despite our best attempts to be mature, only there for the children, or “too old for all that.”

The true sign of that was that folks had forgotten themselves and spent the evening meeting new people and enjoying children. And holiday carols. And cookies. I refuse to say it was just the eggnog that made everyone so gracious, engaged and cheerful. I insist the spirit alone was more than accidental tonight as the Pfister reified its tree-lighting tradition.

Moved by Memories

The holidays often make people nostalgic. Smells, capsule lighting, seasonal images…all of it can take you back to a specific moment in time. Making memories is a big part of who we are and even though we live in a world of saved images and digitally infinite Facebook messages and Gmail chats it’s comforting to know that our mind will always preserve the best and most important moments in our lives.

Roc, a long-time concierge at the Pfister, can tell you a million stories about memories. His are, of course, of guests and interactions and moments he’s been lucky enough to share, but one he told me recently moved me to tears. Every April, a woman returns to the Pfister. She comes in to have breakfast on a Sunday morning and revealed to Roc that the breakfast is more than simply physical nourishment to her—it feeds her heart, her memory.

You see, this distinguished patron was married at the Pfister Hotel in 1942 and she and her lovely groom woke the next morning to share their first breakfast together in the hotel as husband and wife. Then, her beloved shipped off to the Great Lakes Naval Station and took his place in the war and dutifully gave his life. His new bride never saw him again.

When I was little, I remember my dad telling stories one night about being a young boy, sliding down a hill with his brothers. His eyes filled with tears and he grew quiet. I asked him what was wrong and he simply said “I’m sorry, I was eight years old again for a minute there. I was gone.” That’s when I learned how memories could work on you, how they could sustain you and bring you to life. Sadly, for my father, though, many places he spent his youth are gone—torn down, rebuilt, destroyed by fire or the elements in a small town unable to save or preserve them.

The ever-young war bride returns annually, however, to relive this vivid memory in her life, this scene of smells and lighting and images. That a mind–a memory–can preserve for that long is a wonderful reminder that in our hectic, 140 character micro-blogging world, we as people still have the ability to treasure the important moments that we have been a part of. It doesn’t take hash tags or photo captions to do it, either. Merely the scene, the staff, the ways of being in the Pfister can call this memory into a lived moment again.

It’s with a twinge of jealousy on behalf of my dad that I think of her annual opportunity. I can’t imagine what she must feel when she walks through the lobby each year, but I do think it’s amazing that the Pfister still stands and opens its doors to her every spring.

Finding Yourself at the Pfister

Often, look people aren’t used to being a tourist in their own town and in Milwaukee, I come across the phenomenon often. When was the last time you took the Miller Brewing tour? Or had lunch at the Safe House? Or, like the woman I met at the Pfister lobby bar, doctor when was the last time you had a staycation in Milwaukee? Micki (not her real name, of course, but she was nervous to be written about, so I’ll change her name here and bear the pressure of giving her a name she’d like. I think of a “Micki” as energetic and as having a fun, there infectious laugh, and this woman did, so she’s become Micki to me).

Micki and her mom were taking a time-out at the Pfister for the weekend and it was working its magic. Caught between celebration and desperation, Micki is one of the many who had been downsized when our economy so dramatically shifted. Out of work for more than a year, she finished her bachelor’s degree and was proud of her accomplishment, but the celebration was tinged by her job hunting priorities and the pressure of work.

A massage, haircut, great dinner and drinks in the hotel and she still wasn’t comfortable. She bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t even quiet her mind during her relaxing massage at Well Spa because the stressors of unemployment were so great.

I think as a culture, we need to become attuned to this. Two years of people’s lives shifting so dramatically has taken a collective mental toll on us. This summer, I met a suburban couple who lived in a utopia of a neighborhood with expensive homes and two-car families. When the husband lost his job, the wife explained, the neighbors treated them “as though it was catching.” She was confident and strong when she explained they lost most of their friends because they were “infected” with unemployment.

Micki was feeling the same pressure. A young 42 and a clearly vibrant woman, she confided in Valerie (the Pfister’s bartender) and me about how troubled she was that her work life had so profoundly affected who she was. “Getting back to my old self” was her mission and it was pretty inspirational that she kicked off the journey with a staycation at a local hotel and some bonding time with her very supportive mother.

We often forget how many human connections we need and have and how often those come from our work. I was happy to be a connection to Micki at the hotel while she talked through how she was feeling. It was clear she was seeking out confirmation and conversation and it was easily found in those she interacted with at the Pfister.

It’s a reminder to us all to recognize the people in our world as not simply unemployed, but rather, without the support of daily work routines and colleagues. If our culture has been treating unemployment like a disease or sickness, then the recovery metaphor is clearly apropos here. We should start a conversation about how to support each other emotionally because our nation’s “recovery” isn’t only a recovery of spending and saving and index rates. Like Micki, the need to recharge, recalibrate and reinvent yourself demonstrates that many  need emotional recovery as well.

Bunny Tales

Meet seasoned Pfister staffer Valerie…

Ask any seasoned staffer at the Pfister to talk about what they’ve seen, but only if you’re prepared to be awed. Some of the greatest moments include an era where “clubbing” took on a different notion than it does today. Balking at a $5.00 cover charge to see the infamous Joan Rivers is something Valerie, a seasoned bartender of more than 35 years, remembers. Valerie started at the Pfister when she was just 18 and by 19, she was behind the bar, “critiquing” (her favorite word for quality assurance) her drinks and cocktails until each was perfection.

Valerie’s work ethic is the first thing you notice about her. During our entire conversation, she never stopped moving, yet, she’s never hasty. Step by step she assembled the famous Pfister Marys that she says are as local as you can get. “Klement’s sausage, Wisconsin cheddar, Miller Lite chaser and sometimes even the local Rehorst vodka.” Valerie doesn’t tire of each patron who responds, “This could be my dinner!”

An assemblage of vegetables and snacks adorn the glass, but the contents of the cocktail are what go unmatched. Valerie pulled jar after jar of ingredients from her secret stash below the bar. The small round jar was filled with her special mix, the base, as she calls it. “But if you want it more spicy, I have these infusions…” and she reveals to me various samplings of flavors, spices (including the most recent with habanero peppers). I ask her, “Valerie, will you make a book of all your recipes and secrets?” Without hesitating,  she replied, “I don’t know, will you write it?”

She moves methodically, but never misses a beat. The equivalent of a former Playboy Bunny who worked at Blu before it was Blu, (“We had the collars, the cuffs, the same sort of outfit”), Valerie has seen celebrities come and go. Over time, however, her exactitude for her product hasn’t waned.

It’s not just the drinks Valerie takes care of. In the course of a hectic evening, I watched her attend to guests who were undecided on what to order, guests who were return clients, guests who needed to talk, reminisce and confide, fellow workers who had questions on drinks, patrons who may have left with their tab and me, prying with all sorts of questions. She did it all flawlessly and while in constant, careful motion.

Earlier this month, another list of Milwaukee’s top/coolest/hottest people emerged and the list was heavily sprinkled with bartenders. I remember working in the restaurant and hotel industry and always encountering new hires who wanted to be a bartender—they all thought pouring the booze and making the tips would be a great gig. What they didn’t understand is the panache, grace and sense of duty it requires. All fledgling bartenders should have a seat at Valerie’s lobby bartop to watch and learn how to be a “people-tender.” 35 years of service is hard to replicate, but the lessons it offers are plentiful.

The Pfister Bloody Mary from PfisterHotel on Vimeo.

Embodied History

 

Each time I walk into the Pfister, someone in front of me is stumbling around, slack jawed, gazing up at the beautiful ceilings. But it’s not just the carpets and paintings that create the pomp of the Pfister. It’s the rich history the staff preserve simply by being present, available and ready to share their stories. Customer service isn’t just about getting guests where they need to be; at the Pfister it clearly includes cataloging moments that add to the opus and depth of the soul that passes through the hotel.

For this reason, I’ll be publishing the stories the staff at the Pfister are so willingly sharing with me.  Just as these tales didn’t occur in a moment, neither will their retelling. As the staff are each a segment of what makes the Pfister whole, here, too they will be presented in segments. I cannot capture a Valerie or a Roc in one blog, so watch for their rich remembrances over time, helping to make this tale whole.

Not So Lonesome at the Pfister

* Note: At the Pfister, we typically do not disclose the identity of entertainers who stay at the hotel. In this case, we’ve received express permission to do so.

There are many memories I have of my dad that keep me close to him.  Lonesome Dove, the character-driven cowboy novel I read at my dad’s direction, is one of my favorites. We were in love with Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall’s perfect portrayals of the lead wranglers we’d befriended.

I thought of dad Thursday night in the Lobby Bar at the Pfister where I watched the crowd wind up for the weekend. The infamous Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall) walked through. He embodied the same calm, calculating pace of his characters. I wanted to shake his hand and tell him how much he meant to me—he breathed life into a character that linked a teenage girl to her father at a time in life when daughters and fathers lose touch.

He ended up on a couch next to me and this man, who to me symbolizes so much, proceeded to discuss where to find a great steak (and to the Pfister’s credit, noted that Mason Street Grill was a top pick). I was mesmerized with this larger than life character living as a regular man—a patron waiting for his table.

More impressive was how we, the Milwaukee community, sitting in the lobby having our drinks, respected this legend. No one caused a stir. Many recognized Mr. Duvall, but most seemed to recognize him as a fellow client of the hotel, they were in good company and that was enough.

When I later told friends about the encounter, everyone had a connection to the actor. A best friend even explained the funeral of a grandfather buried with the Lonesome Dove VHS.

I am thankful for the night’s education. I learned that there is a character to the Pfister and when you join the crowd, you become a part of making that character real. It’s a classy character, one who observes but doesn’t disturb. It’s a character who knows its value and merely nods politely to its parts.

My adventures with Mr. Duvall and his group also confirmed for me that everyone has an impact. The retelling of the tale affected so many close to me that it reminded me how important we are to one another—and we often underestimate that. You can never fully realize how much meaning you have as you pass through and I am fortunate to have been there to capture it.

To the Brim with Potential

I used to be a morning person, emphasis on past tense. But, rumor has it, I can have breakfast with Herb Kohl if I’m up early and at the Pfister Café. In a Herculean effort, I made it there early and was rewarded with coffee but no Kohl.

I have to say, that I thought I’d encounter a quiet morning with few people around, but I was wrong. Apparently, the world is a morning person and takes up arms at the Pfister on a weekday. A series of low rumblings and coffee cups clinking equated the slow hum of a delicate alarm clock rather than the surprise and excitement of happy hour.

The men in the next booth were rehearsing for a presentation. A silver fox sat facing his three colleagues, who circled him as he coached. If it were dinner, if the lighting weren’t as bright and if they had their suit jackets on, I’d wonder if we were filming The Godfather 4. But it was breakfast and based on the presentation they were part of the conference upstairs.

The other curious image of the Pfister in the morning is men’s shirt sleeves. They’re out there for the world to see. Collections of businessmen all gathering for their day left their dark, imposing jackets draped in the backdrop. Instead, the restaurant and lobby were filled with vulnerable, crisp white shirt sleeves.

In my current job, the first time I came to the public budget hearing was overwhelming. The Common Council chamber was filled with hundreds of firefighters, all there to speak on how the budget affected them. Though that was indeed an appealing site and a set of calendar images waiting to happen, the morning view at the Pfister is just as invigorating. Singles everywhere claim they’re “tired of the bar scene” so I would encourage them to try a new tactic. Coffee at the Pfister Café is the businessman’s version of the firefighter calendar waiting to happen. The professional men, their guard (and jackets) down, seemed to ooze out of every hallway and booth.

But it wasn’t just the well-dressed men that made it appealing. Everything is fresh and new. Quinn, a front of house staffer at the hotel, joined me in surveying the day’s roster. Who would be in, what conferences were happening, what would the hotel see today—the raw potential of the day seemed to host an energy for guests and staff alike.

Morning at the Pfister is a far cry from the bar scene, but its energy, potential and opportunities are well worth the sleep you may give up to experience it. I felt guilty taking coffee to go knowing I was cheating on my regular baristas…until I bumped into an assistant coach for a professional basketball team on my way out of the café. Sorry Starbucks, no espresso can kick off a morning like this.

Meet Julie Ferris: The Pfister Narrator

The Pfister Hotel is proud to introduce Julie Ferris as our first-ever Pfister Narrator. Julie is a wonderful talent and we are glad to have her capture some of the wonderful stories that take place within our hotel each day. So if you see Julie in the lobby, search please say hi and start up a conversation. Julie will be posting her stories on the Pfister blog twice-per-week over the next six-months. Check back often and see what exciting and unique experiences she shares with the rest of Milwaukee and beyond.

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Meet Julie Ferris: The Pfister Narrator from PfisterHotel on Vimeo.

ThirdCoast Digest: The Pfister names a Narrator: Welcome, Julie Ferris

By: Judith Ann Moriarty of ThirdCoast Digest

Link to Original Article.

I’ve never met Julie Ferris face to face, buy viagra though I did watch a video tape of her answering questions about how she might best fit into the Pfister Hotel’s Narrator residency. The scene was in a private room just off the mezzanine area, where five review panelists met over a period of two weeks, the endpoint being one writer, selected from a field of twenty, who would serve as Narrator for six months.

The quality of the applications was impressive, and as a panelist I spent hours reading each and every word.

My choice was not Julie Ferris. But I was only one panelist. The other three felt strongly that she should emerge as the winner. And that’s fine with me. She graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. I hate to brag, but my grandpa graduated from the U of I in the 1870’s.

You certainly made a good impression during the taped interview: good eye contact, a big smile and no hesitation in your presentation. I was startled, perhaps because I expected the stereotypical writer, you know, someone shy and introspective…the tweed and horn-rimmed glasses type. Were you ever that person?

Yup. I sure was. Maybe not horn-rimmed, but definitely awkward… I always felt introverted, but no one would believe that. I’m open and energetic with friends and family, but I can be shy. I’ve just learned that functioning in this world means walking up to someone when you want something and offering a handshake.

Though I always feel shy and awkward, I am that person who will tell you that there’s mustard on your lip or something on your teeth. I’ve just learned over the years it’s better to push yourself to engage other people. Life is too short to always be afraid of what they’ll think of you.

You work in City Hall, a politician’s throw from the Pfister where you will conduct 10 hrs of interviews (per week) and then shape and post on the Pfister Hotel blog two takes on your experiences. I’ve sat in that lobby recently and noticed that most of the lobby loungers are busy gazing into their cell phone screens. Will it be a problem getting people interested in being interviewed? To them, you’ll be a stranger. Right? How are you going to handle that?

I spent the summer doing environmental theater at the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Granted, people who paid their entrance fee into the Faire were prepared to be approached by actors in funny costumes with bad accents…but still, it wasn’t as hard as you think to simply talk to someone. People want it and need it; sometimes they just don’t realize it.

I rode the bus one day sitting next to a quiet grandmother who stuck tight to her side of the seat. We watched a seemingly undisciplined teenage boy with drooping pants move out of the front seats to make room for an elderly man with a cane. The boy even helped the man to his seat. For all the attitude the young man had, we were both surprised.

The woman finally turned to me and patted my arm and said “Wasn’t that just so nice?” She just HAD to express something to someone about that moment and we had shared it so she turned to me to do it. I think people can engage. I’m banking on it.

So if you graduated from the great University of Iowa, you must have some fave writers who either attended the Iowa Writers Workshop, or taught at the university.Care to share?

I went to Iowa as a rhetorician. I had three other programs I was offered, but I am from the Midwest and Iowa was very close to home. It was also ranked the top program in the country so my father just said “Do it! If the number one school wants you, you should want them!”

In the back of my head, I secretly wished that in the five years I was there I’d meet John Irving. Plenty of other fantastic writers were a part of the university community and many more have gone on to earn great accolades, but I had grown up on Irving and in many of his books, he writes about his time at Iowa. I wanted to feel what he wrote and then meet him. Sadly, he never came through while I was there.

I did spend time with Pam Houston, my personal favorite, when she launched her first non-fiction memoir. That was a favorite moment.

Did you ever have ambitions to be a novelist, say in the manner of Joyce Carol Oates or any of the many other fine American writers?

I did and I do. I always wanted to be a writer, but also wanted many other things and followed those paths. When serving as an assistant professor, at conferences and more I would explain that my next career would be novelist. Another faculty member at a conference or some such said “Oh, yes, that makes you a true academic. We all think we have a fiction book in us.” And the people standing there all nodded in agreement. I didn’t like that moment, I wanted to feel that I was different.

I left academia and finally had the time to scratch out the book, which is about halfway finished and begs for my attention.

Six months, ten hours per week, $1,000 per month. Do you get free lunches? Did you know the café serves a sandwich named after Senator Herb Kohl? He dines there frequently, but a waiter told me the Senator never orders his namesake sandwich. Big couches and chairs, a blazing fireplace, an intimate bar. Sounds like a good gig to carry you through winter. But dangerous perhaps?

I think dangerous isn’t the word as much as “addictive.” I enjoy people. And the Pfister has so many events, nooks and crannies to find them in, and now in this role, I am official.  I’m like the Velveteen Rabbit—I’ve been made real. I’m no longer just some lady talking to a person—I’m supposed to be talking to people, it’s on my nametag! With that kind of sanctioning, I wonder if I’ll find myself addicted to the atmosphere and the people and the problem won’t be getting it done, the problem will be stopping.

The Pfister Narrator Julie Ferris: The Celebration of Family

Following is Julie Ferris’s first entry as Pfister Narrator. It was selected as the winning sample blog post by The Pfister Narrator review panel, who chose her for this position.

The Celebration of Family

The rowdy din of the Pfister lobby on a Saturday night is electric. The crowd is a collage of wedding guests, diners and those reluctant to return to their rooms for fear of missing the excitement.

The wedding groups bring an array of generations, elaborate garb and intoxicating anticipation. A beautiful chorus of older women, bedecked in colorful suits that would put Coco Chanel to shame, were beaming in the lounge and I had to be a part of their magic.

I sat next to the gorgeous octogenarian in teal and she welcomed me with a pat on my hand and started talking. She’s the great aunt of the groom, visiting from Michigan, and there to support her niece. The groom’s mother had lost her husband far too young six years ago and needed familial support. I was honored to hold these intimacies with Jalilah; sharing her personal concerns for her family made me feel like an old friend. As she continued to explain her family, she said firmly, “we support each other.”

“We” was the Arabic culture from which she hailed. The family’s roots were in “The Old Country”– Palestine. Watching these four elderly aunts waiting for the next step in the festivities was infectious. They had the ease and carefree character that come with age and wisdom. No one picked at her suit, adjusted her hair or checked her make up. They knew it was impeccable and they knew, in the long run, it didn’t matter.

“We’re waiting for the party bus,” Jalilah announced. Another aunt, who couldn’t hear over the excitement, nodded vigorously. “I don’t know where they’re taking us,” Jalilah said, “but it will be fun, I’m sure!”

It was important to Jalilah that they traveled for the wedding. “We like to party. This wedding is only three days; in the Old Country, we party for a week!” She never stopped smiling and it was clear that it wasn’t just that she shared excitement with me, but wanted to impart a kind of wisdom—family supports one another, family travels to be there, family celebrates.

As the time came for the aunts to board the bus, Jalilah patted my hand and held my arm and told me to enjoy my night. I wished her safe travels and a good wedding and in that moment, she was my great aunt, too.