Our Quaint Spirits

A 1yr-old tiger cub is racing around the lobby.  He bounds and leaps down the main hallway, creeps by the lobby tables and pounces on the stair steps.  With his muted “Rawwwwrrr,” he terrorizes the guests – terrorizes them with his cuteness.

It’s Halloween and this adorable nipper is certainly getting in the spirit of the holiday.  While ghouls, witches, and zombies prowl the streets outside, the Pfister remains ghost-free.

Or does it?

Of the millions of people who pass beneath the red canopy and through the revolving doors on Jefferson Street, a few are bound to haunt its halls.  A fair number indeed haunt my Narrator notebooks, beyond the ones about which I’ve already written.

Here are a few of these quaint spirits:

~Frieda, a tiny woman with fiery energy who walks everywhere, chirping her musical “HiiIIiIii”s, when she stops in for weekly coffees.

~Steve, from Moore, Oklahoma where, in a 40-mile radius, Conway Twitty, Toby Keith and Dolly Parton were all born and raised – transplanted to Visalia, California.  His time in Milwaukee seemed to be highlighted by the one-a-day Pfister pizzas: “the best I ever had – it had bacon on it!  My in-laws have a pizza place and there’s isn’t that good.”

~Roc’s and Peter’s endless, entrancing and charming tales of everything they’ve seen and heard over their cumulative 30+ years as concierges.

~The fast-talking tax attorney from New Jersey who’s come here for 42 years, beginning in 1969 when he prosecuted a case at the Federal Building, which he found to be beautiful like one in D.C. that was once an old post office.  The Pfister is one of his favorite hotels, up there with the Boston Marriott and the Palace in San Francisco.

~The teen girls in mussed, braided hair with matching jerseys, high-socks flecked with mud from a soccer match.

~A trio who went for a horse-drawn carriage ride, after which one friend said to the others “I was expecting that to be pleasant, but that was splendid!”  He went on to tell the story of the only pony ride in his life, which occurred in his hometown of St. Louis when he was 7 years old, consisting of three sad ponies walking in a circle in a grocery store parking lot: “In retrospect it was awful!”  This ride, with Kevin, the young, top-hatted driver, redeemed the memory.

~Tony, the banquet server who’s been here 25 years and is also cook who makes his dishes using vegetables and herbs grown in his daughter’s garden.  A painter with two Boston Terriers (Sam and Frodo), he will never forget having met Desmond Tutu: “he was the kindest person to me.”

~The guest who spontaneously broke into a bar-side recitation of the A.E. Housman poem, “When I was one-and-twenty…” from A Shropshire Lad.

~The multicultural phenomenon that was a Scottish clan reunion convening over Irish fest weekend; dinner reservations at a German restaurant.

~The slightly stooped, goateed, tweed-coat-wearing man here for his 65th high school reunion, up in Manitowoc, who introduced me to his pony-tailed son, saying “this girl’s just as nice as the one we met in Chicago!”

~The head of a local independent radio station who occasionally lunches in the lobby.

~Sandy, a 15yr resident of Florida originally from Milwaukee, in her black drape dress that perfectly showcased a gorgeous necklace of painted, ceramic flowers and blue stones.  An English teacher for 40 years at the junior high and high school levels, she has two kids, 19 grandkids, and six great-grandkids with three more on the way.  She was opinionated and feisty, with an open heart and great wisdom.

~Lunch with Marquette theater professor, and playwright, Phylis Ravel where, over oriental salad lettuce cups and soup, she says she always imagined hotel management to be no different than the theater: “All the characters, drama and theatrics, but with better pay.”

~The gray-haired, spectacularly mustachioed groom who, while posing for photos with his wedding party (average age 45-50), dropped to one knee and perched his bride on the other.  A bystander quipping, “Careful! He’s old and probably can’t hold that position for long!” followed by laughter from all; the joy and love emanating from the group eclipsed that of all the other weddings.

~Every single employee who has welcomed me with a smile and an open hand.

The ghosts here are presidents, mothers, bankers, and cooks.  They are guests from foreign lands, enthusiastic employees, and everyday neighborhood regulars.  These spectres are an accumulation of 128 years of people passing through doors, living under the roof, and working the halls.  Every moment – extraordinary or ordinary – leaves a footprint on the brocaded carpet, for others to weigh on.

As I bind off these ink-stained pages, I step back into the shadows, as haunted by this hallowed place as it will haunt me.  To leave a mark, or be marked, but possessed now to be ever present until it will no longer have me as one of its numerous spirits of hospitality.

The Fuel of Magnificence

Artist at work

“When I first decided to be a professional artist, I wanted that fishbowl experience, so I got a storefront studio,” Reggie says.

“It’s not intimidating to discover an artist in public space,” adds Caitlin.

A group of us are seated in the Lobby Lounge, discussing the two residency programs the Pfister has developed for art and writing.  As the current artist-in-residence, Shelby Keefe, is out of town, the inaugural AIR, Reginald Baylor, joins us instead – along with his business partner Heidi Witz.  One of the managers, Jessica, is also taking part in the conversation, at the head of which is Caitlin Strokosch, Executive Director of the Alliance of Artists Communities.  The goal of the Alliance is a clearinghouse of information for artists seeking residencies (places to cultivate their particular art) and for residency providers.  While these residencies are certainly there to help an artist create original works and become better at what they do, there is an important public component to them.  90% of the more than 1,000 programs worldwide have an engagement with their local communities.

This public engagement is hugely important.  A 2003 study by the Urban Institute found that while 96% of Americans valued the arts, a mere 27% valued the artists.   The study concluded that “Making a real difference in the creative life of artists will entail developing a new understanding and appreciation for who artists are and what they do, as well as financial resources from a variety of stakeholders. Achieving these changes involves a long-term commitment from artists themselves, as well as arts administrators, funders, governments at various levels, community developers and real estate moguls, not to mention the business and civic sectors.”

There’s a clear disconnect between the art we see and experience, and those creating it.  Caitlin explained, “a lot of residencies struggle with that aloneness of creating art, wondering how to you let the public into that process.”

The assistant front desk manager, Jessica, originally thought the artist-in-residence program at the Pfister was primarily for enriching the guest’s experience.  “What I noticed was a lot of people would come here – not just stay here – and consider the Pfister a part of that Milwaukee experience.  The community and city has gotten involved.  It was such a pleasant surprise.”

Seeing artists as “regular Joes” by seeing the backs of their paintings as opposed to the fronts that create a sense of idolization, that separation of the artist from the art viewer that results in the divergent numbers of people who appreciate art, but not art makers.

For-profit companies are one path to bringing the public into the artist’s process, bridging that gulf between art and artist in the eye of the public.  Businesses that see creativity as an asset, that invest in the new creative economy, find themselves nurturing a different craft or conversation product, one that’s not much different than the culinary arts of Mason Street Bar & Grill, the fashion arts of Roger Stevens or Boutique B’Lou, the music artistry from pianists in the lounge or in Blu, or the healing arts of WELL Spa.  Customers and guests then see each of their experiences has having artistic merit, which bolsters value of other arts.

The struggle between artists creating “to create” and artists creating for production and money is a historically constant one.  “It’s a conundrum,” Reggie says, “Professionals won’t do their work if they’re not getting paid.  Why should artists have to be any different?”  With the rise of local art shows like Made in Milwaukee, and online marketplaces like Etsy, artists are finding ways to create art, but also make, or supplement, a living with those creative gifts.

The Pfister’s unique approach to this investment into the creative economy has now stood for a few years as a shining example of how art and business and co-exist in a mutually beneficial partnership.

MPT production/gallery space

Just down Wisconsin Avenue, at the hollowed-out Grand Avenue Mall, a similar partnership has begun.  The new owners had an open house in June that featured a local design firm and Creative Alliance Milwaukee, showcasing how the mall plans to open up to more nonretail use.  Already, two arts organizations, ArtMilwaukee and Milwaukee Public Theatre, have moved into empty storefronts there, joining the same wing as the offices of online magazine ThirdCoastDigest.

Milwaukee’s creative economy is growing fast, and being a part of this sort of new, engaged partnership between business, art, and the public has certainly lit a fire under me to continue to remain engaged and supportive of these endeavors.  And, I see the next Pfister Narrator, Ed Makowski (stepping up to the proverbial desk on November 1st), taking this program to even greater heights within that growing community.

Words in Blu

An artist, a summer camp director, a theatre operations manager, a board member, and two poets walk into a bar.  There is no punchline, this is something that happened a few weeks ago.

“Hello sir,” the bartender greets them as they arrive, setting a napkin on the bar, “what can I get you to drink?  Do you need to see a menu?”

The menu is taken by all, perused slowly – considering all the flavorful options.  The bartender offers to “whip something up on the spot, we’ll just charge you by the ounce.”  Tonight, charging by the ounce would go a long way.  It’s just after 5:30 in the evening and happy hour is luring this mismatched group to Blu with the added incentive that every drink made drops a donation into the coffers of a local nonprofit.  A semi-regular occurrence on the 32rd floor of the Pfister, one haphazard temporary bartender (sometimes two) takes up the shaker and taps behind the bar, with the over-the-shoulder support of manager Adam Jones, with a portion of each drink and all tips benefiting a nonprofit or charity.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is Celebrity Blutending.

The night’s organization benefiting from each cocktail and pint of beer is Woodland Pattern Book Center.  Tonight’s guest bartender?  Yours truly, the Pfister Narrator.

I admit to being nervous about my one hour “bartending,” though I always fancied myself a natural since multi-tasking and being good with people are two of my strengths.  Once I finally stood surveying the bottles and glasses, while Adam gestured and pointed out the basics, I realized I had no idea what I was doing.  Lucky for me, the first drink, a gin & tonic, is easy, followed by a couple of draft beers (trickier than expected), requiring more finesse.  Eventually, a board member requests a Celia’s Rosedrop Martini.

“My favorite!” I gush to her, while I try to figure out what in the world “rose essence” looks like and where it would be stored.  It’s a good thing Adam is there to pass me the opaque ketchup-mustard-bottle filled with a pale pink liquid.  Measuring the ingredients, shaking the tiny metallic cylinder, pouring it to the brim – it’s all much smoother than I expect.  Adam had told me earlier the key was to slow down, and I found it to be perfect advice.  I could chat, hesitate and even make a mistake (“you only get one do-over!” Adam jokes) without worrying too much.

Right after I convince two gentlemen it’s okay (“kind of awesome”) to wear matching hats and order the same drink (two Hendricks gin & tonics), I meet the person I’m most excited to see at this event: Jenny Henry, Woodland Pattern’s education coordinator.  She moved to Milwaukee for this job just over a year ago from Boulder, CO, excited to expand on the book center’s mission to promote reading and writing, and offer a community resource for writers and artists in the Riverwest neighborhood.

We talk about the work she does particularly with a program titled The Urban Youth Literary Arts Program, which focuses on enriching the reading and writing lives of kids in neighborhoods near the Riverwest one where Woodland Pattern is located.  They offer poetry camps, creative writing excursions, and tutoring for students, with the goal of not only improving basic skills, but also encouraging kids to think outside the box, express themselves clearly and creatively, and perhaps find a new love of reading.

“It always challenges my thinking, how to frame things in ways they’ll understand, and then I get to rearrange my own ways of working with words,” Jenny says about directing the program.  She fills me in on some of their upcoming programming which includes a workshop on inter-generational writing, poetry, comic books and claymation and nature.

The results are telling: Students involved in the most recent academic year of the program improved their communication skills (written and verbal) and critical thinking skills by 86-92%, with similar numbers gaining confidence in public speaking, learning how to respect others’ ideas with an open mind, and finding positive role models through the program.

A recent documentary, Louder than a Bomb, follows several groups of students from the Chicago Public Schools as they write, perform, and compete in poetry slam events.  It clearly illustrated the incredibly positive impact this sort of work has on kids, especially those who might be leading difficult lives, and was the inspiration for my choosing Woodland Pattern’s program as a recipient for the evening’s funds raised.

“How was your drink?” I ask a guest who had a VO & 7, “can I get you another?”

“It was great,” he replies, “but I’ll just have a beer.”

I manage to manipulate the tap without making too much of a mess.  He pays Adam, and throws the change into the large decorative tip can.  The sound of bills swishing and coins jangling as they land, is a reminder that each drop fills the glasses of kids who are eager to find ways to write about their own experiences in the world.  Who knows, maybe one of them is a future poet, artist, camp director, or Pfister Narrator?

Letter to a New Narrator

As the proverbial pen is about to passed to the next Pfister Narrator, recently chosen through hours and hours of deliberation by a committee of writers, editors, marketers and businessfolk, and soon to be announced, I wanted to pass the pen not only to my successor, but also extend it to those who didn’t get selected or who have yet to apply.

Dear New Narrator,

So it begins: your quest to write about the people, events, and moments that occur within the historic Pfister Hotel.  Where else can you walk the same floors tread by every U.S. President since McKinley and also play a round of Jenga with visiting businessmen?  The vibrant scenes and people of today meld with the ever-present ghosts of the past in a way unmatched by most other places.  It’s all the creative juice any writer could possibly need or want!

However, the excitement and anticipation can be overwhelming, or perhaps there is an underlying uncertainty about how to approach this novel opportunity.  I would, therefore, like to offer you some thoughts about the position, as I near the end of my own six month tenure watching, listening, talking, laughing and writing.  “So I’ve devised a sort of Ten Commandments that are the result of some of my own struggles with this blessed occupation,”*

1.  Be prepared.  You saw the call for Narrator applications.  You read the description of this grand hotel’s search for someone to hang out at the hotel, talk to people, and write about it all.  It sounded exciting!  You talk to people all the time!  You write and you’re good at it!  Before you do apply, here are a few suggestions:

  • Read the blog posts, comment, engage in the discussion with the current narrator and other commenters.  You will find yourself getting to know the hotel and its guests so that when you do put your foot on those marble steps, you’ll already feel as if you belong.
  • Drop in.  Pass through.  Comfort and familiarity breeds confidence.  Experience leads to clarity and a unique view.
  • Tailor your writing samples.  If you’ve been reading the posts, you’ll get a feel for what the position requires, even if your own voice and approach differs from the current narrator.  This allows you to cultivate a writing sample that stands as not only your best work, but which is then representative of the work you intend to do.
  • Reapply.  If you didn’t get selected, and you really want it, try and try again.  The next narrator applied three times!

2.  Eavesdrop.  That couple over there that’s arguing with great animation?  It could be they’re engaging in a philosophical discussion, or it’s something personal and human that can remind you of the greater connectivity we have beneath surface appearances.

3.  Don’t interrupt.  Listen carefully, take notes, write down everything.  Don’t engage a guest who’s getting tips from the concierge.  Let the bartender make his or her expert recommendation.

4.  Interrupt.  Ask questions!  Leap into the fray, crack a joke with the group of laughing guests at your elbow.  Offer a recommendation!

5.  Know when to do both.

6.  Befriend the staff.  They are the Pfister’s lifeblood.  They will give you the best connections, insight and -yes- gossip.  They will help you feel at home.  They will welcome you with open arms, make suggestions and refer you to the intriguing characters they have also recently met.  They know the hotel, the guests, the city and their knowledge will enrich everything you write.

7.  Read and re-read.  Go back and read what the previous narrators wrote about: you may find you don’t want to repeat something, or you’ll find a different angle, take or perspective that only adds to the nuance of a topic.  Read your own posts out loud to yourself before publishing them.  Re-read them.  Edit with consideration and care, but don’t be anxious.  You want the posts to reflect a real person’s voice, view, and experience.  Read the comments.  Reply right away.

8.  Take lots of pictures.  They may inspire your imagination, or remind you of something, when you most need it.

9.  Be honest, but be discreet.  Don’t direct the conversations you engage in – with the staff or the guests.  Let the conversations happen.  But inquire, probe and reach; connect with your own stories and experiences in a way that will lead them to open up further, deeper.  Respect the “off the record” statements, but don’t rule them out.  Understand that there will be things you see and hear that you cannot write, but which will give you a fuller character, a better sense of the truth beneath what you will write.

10.  “As for the rest, let life happen to you.  Believe me: life is always right.”**


With thanks to *Richard Bausch’s Letter to a Young Writer and **Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet .

Not Everyone has a Story

And sometimes not having a story is the story.

Let me give you an example.

Today was a day so busy – everyone moving to or from something, and even the gathered groups in waiting are in stasis, with any outsider’s approach treated as an interruption – that the person most eager to chat is on his way into the men’s room, pausing briefly as he views me scribbling with a pen, to ask, laughing, “You taking a survey?”

Among all the sparkling movement of scarves and high heels, suits and even a kilt, there was one spot of stillness.  Sitting at a marble table in the lobby, a man sat with a drink for upwards of an hour.  He watched.  He sipped.  He sat back in his chair, casually observing the chaos around him.  I approached, asking if I could sit in the empty chair adjacent.

We moved easily into stranger conversation.  I don’t mean “stranger” as in “more bizarre” or “unusual,” but the conversation that arises between strangers: talk of weather and casual observation of immediate actions.

“I haven’t been down here for thirty years,” Tim tells me.  “I went to Marquette, but I’ve been in Green Bay ever since.  It’s changed so much, but I forgot what a great city it is.  I’ll have to come back down here soon.”  We chatted about Green Bay – one of his kids goes to a school that is in such close proximity to the stadium that whenever a Packers game is played on a Monday or a Thursday, the kids get out early because of traffic.  The players also regularly visit the schools.  “It’s still very much a small town, though,” Tim adds, “nothing ever happens – and that’s okay.”

Conversation meandered over to technology, his concern about being born “about 10 years too late” borne out as he explains his restriction of smartphones or laptops for his kids until they’re heading off to college (as one daughter will be doing so next year, maybe to Tim’s alma mater, maybe also to MSOE).  We talked about books, how much he enjoys people-watching, the importance of communities, and his plans to travel the U.S. in an R.V. when he retires – “I’m never going to touch another flake of snow!” – and more.

A couple appeared abruptly from behind a crowd, and Tim greeted them with enthusiasm, “Hey! I know these people!”

“These people” being Todd and Lori.  He is a special education teacher and she is an E.R. nurse.  The three of them bantered about the wedding they attended earlier – the bride is someone Tim and Lori worked with – and about how the groom wasn’t quite what they imagined, but in a good way.

Tim teases Lori for having left his workplace for other pastures, saying “I’ve never gotten over it.”  She ribs him right back, “you didn’t call looking for me, either!”  It turns out that she sought work that offered hours allowing for her autistic teenage son to have someone home nearly all the time.  Although his verbal development may be in toddler years, he is quite adept at going online to find Disney videos and other musical shows and movies that make him happy.  Todd explains why, “the melodies,” his hand punctuates the up-down pattern of most catchy Disney tunes, “da-da, da-da, da-da. Their predictability is soothing.”

After ten years in the U.S. Navy, Todd used his medical background to find work in the special education field.  Having worked with all ages, he’s currently helping 18-21 year-olds in independent living: “they live as a group in an apartment setting, go off to their jobs in the morning, come home for lunch – sometimes we go out – it’s wonderful.  I’m lucky.  From the first day of work, I said ‘this is it. This is what I’m meant to do.’ ”

As the crowd dissolved, the threesome noted they should probably head up to the reception.  We say goodbye.

The word “story” comes to us through Middle English and Anglo-French, from the Latin origin historia.  Merriam-Webster defines “story” in several ways, including “history, an account of incidents or events, an amusing anecdote, a fictional narrative shorter than a novel; a widely circulated rumor; a lie; a legend, or romance; a news article or broadcast.”

This clearly wasn’t a “story” in a strict definition.  But, the connection of humanity in moments without story, can shine brighter than any memorable “account of incidents” or “amusing anecdote.”  It is in these moments where we find our best selves.  It only becomes a story, when someone else, like me, tells it.

A Knock at the Door

Knocking once, Blake calmly sings out, “Rooooom ser-vice.”

Silence.  Through the door, we can hear the sound of a television.  Blake raises his hand slightly, the one that isn’t balancing a tray, considers knocking again when a voice comes from within, “Just a minute.”

The door opens.  “Evening Ms. ——, how are you?”

One hand on the door handle, the other removing an earring, she replies, “tired, and very hungry.  I’m so happy to see you,” moving aside to allow entrance.

A moment later, he reappears, backing up and closing the door behind him as he grants the guest a good stay.  We step back onto the service elevator, the colorful halls and warm lighting giving way to the humming machines, humid corridors, back halls and fluorescent lights that make up the halls below ground.

We make our way past the tables draped in white cloth, hiding warmers underneath while prepped on top with small bud vases and tiny salt and pepper shakers.  Blake removes his jacket, hanging it on a doorknob in order to keep it clean, and turns in his tip.  Tips are split among all the servers working a particular shift.  Deanna, parked on a stool in front of the phone and computer where orders come in, waves a slip of paper in the air, indicating another order has just come through.  Blake immediately begins setting up a tray for the delivery, snatching miniature jars of ketchup and mustard from the small shelves where they reside next to other, equally miniature, jellies, jams and A-1 Sauce.

“I started out waiting tables at the Radisson,” he tells me as he arranges silverware, “I like this better than waiting tables, it streamlines the service work.”  He picks up a dish from Freddy, the chef currently on duty.  “I like to cook, so watching the chefs down here has been great.  If you observe and study, you can catch on and learn.  I’ve learned a lot about reduction sauces, how to use butter and wine for fish – stuff like that.”

You can’t pass through the halls of the Pfister’s lower levels without coming across Freddy.  Born in Belize, he lived in Louisiana for two years at age 11, before his family moved on to Chicago.  Through helping his family of nine siblings, and on to five years in the Navy, he always loved cooking for people. After signing up to work for the U.S. Post Office, a chance encounter in the halls of a community college made him drop everything and go to culinary school.  “I followed a pretty girl in a culinary uniform who said to me, ‘What do you got to lose?’ and so I signed up right away.”  He proudly shows off his red pepper coulis, chorizo and gives me a sample of creme brulee.  “I have fun doing this,” he says, gesturing over his entire work area, his domain for the last 15 years.

We walk up a ramp and into a different elevator to make a stop on the historic side, delivering a meal to a businessman on his first visit from Charlotte, NC.  As we walk, Blake explains the basic order of operations: first, a call comes in to the order taker.  A time quote is offered, based on the order, though the average time is 30 minutes.

Next, the order goes to one of six chefs who work in the department.  In addition to Freddy, there’s also Darin, a quiet chef who is doing mostly prep work during these third shift hours.  And Zachary, a line cook for the last year and a half, who came over from Fratello’s.  Originally he was hoping to learn pastry work, but the only opening was in room service dining.  “My mom was a stay-at-home, I cooked for friends in college, eventually going to work at a friend’s restaurant.  I worked at Bartolotta’s for awhile and loved learning how to make gnocchi pasta.” I ask for a hint.  “If you mash the potatoes too much, it makes it glue-y.”

In between orders, the servers chat while cleaning and organizing supplies, pre-setting trays and carts.  I meet Miguel who transferred from Lake Geneva, where he did “a little bit of everything – bakery, banquets, coffee service, everything.”  Originally from Guanajuato, he loves Wisconsin, especially its seasons.  Fall is his favorite, but he’s partial to the beauty of the snowy days and nights, and enjoyed helping decorate the resort every year for Christmas.  Now in Milwaukee for two years, he’s found he likes doing room service for its consistent schedule and personal, face-to-face interactions with guests.  He smiles big, his eyes crinkly a little around the edges, when he says, “I really love serving people.”  I believe him.

So, what happens when they receive a strange or unexpected request?  The information is noted by the order taker, who politely responds with something along the lines of, “XYZ department usually takes care of that, but I’ll be sure to pass it on for you.”  This achieves a two-fold purpose — the guest now knows who to contact the next time that particular request needs to be made and service is also provided right away.  It’s very rare for even the most unusual requests to go unfulfilled, as proven by Chef Concierge Peter Mortenson when he once had to track down a sugar maple sapling for a Russian ambassador.

Deanna, who has worked in restaurants since she was 16, spending 7 years at one family restaurant where she still works part-time, said her strangest request so far was the call she got where the guest said, frantically, “I don’t have a microwave in my room!”  Deanna calmly replied, “I’m not sure why that is, but I’ll take care of it for you,” and within ten minutes, the guest had a microwave.  And you thought all room service did was bring you food.

YOUR TURN:  Do you order food to your room when you travel?  What’s your favorite thing to have arrive at your door?

Finding Your Roots in Milwaukee

Joe, the newest addition to the lobby bartending staff, is standing behind the green marble countertop, polishing a glass; his black pants, stiff white tuxedo shirt and black vest with gold-threaded “ThePfister” monogram crisp in its newness.  “I just had the best calamari in the city,” he says, “at Umami Moto.”

The female half of a couple, seated nearby, jumps in, “We’re from Seattle, we can’t do sushi anywhere else.  Where does it come from out here?”

Joe, with his earnest smile, ever striving for perfection, giving his all to this new position (previously he was a food runner), replies with enthusiasm, “They ship it in fresh from Hawaii daily!”

“How old are you?,” the mustachioed man asks, as he gestures for Joe to refill his drink, noting Joe’s young appearance.

“Old enough,” he laughs, confirming the man’s cocktail choice and delivering it with speed and grace.

The couple introduces themselves as Fred and Anita, of Whidbey Island.  Anita is shorter than her husband, her curly hair a perfect complement to her bubbly, chatty nature.  She turns towards me and says, “the customer service here is impressive. I feel like if I wanted a wheatgrass shot, someone here would go grow the wheat, cut it, seed the grass, and press it.”

Fred, tall with glasses, has the air of a reserved, distinguished gentleman, but who quickly becomes easy to tease – clearly the jocular sort that is always good for a story.

Though they’d just come from watching the Packers game at a pub down the street, Fred and Anita spent the majority of their day among tombstones at Forest Home Cemetery.  As it turns out, the reason this pair, married for over 30 years and widely traveled, is in Milwaukee for the first time, is because of genealogy research that Fred is doing, begun over two years ago.  While tracing the lineage of his mother, he found a link to the Pfister – in his own family!  His maternal line, worked its way through the Falk family, directly into the Vogels, and the Pfisters  The link was distant, and a little labyrinthine, but worth noting as it firmly placed his generational history into footprints that have left indelible marks on the Cream City.

Branching Out

The tree looks a little like this:  Guido Pfister and Frederick Vogel, cousins, moved to Milwaukee and started a leather goods company together, incorporating in 1872 as Pfister & Vogel.  Guido’s vision for a “grand hotel of the West” was seen to fruition thanks to his son, Charles.  Guido’s daughter, Louise, married cousin Frederick’s son, Frederick Jr. Their daughter Elizabeth married Otto H. Falk, of The Falk Brewing Co.  Otto’s brother Frank married Margaret Jacobs whose sister, Mathilde, married Dr. Edgar Neymann.  Their daughter was Fred’s mother, Margaret Eleanor Neyman Smyth.

Not only do the branches sweep over some of Milwaukee’s most historic institutions, but also drops leaves at the corner of 27th & National where Margaret Jacobs’ father, William H. – a Colonel and commanding officer of the 26th Wisconsin Infantry (the Sigel Regiment) during the Civil War – built a columned mansion referred to as “The House That Rang With Music.”  A nod to the grand southern plantation houses, featuring an artesian well, greenhouses, orchards and stables, its fame was in the rooms within that provided both home and performance space for Milwaukee’s musicians.  A musician in his own right, Col. Jacob’s daughter Emma married Eugene Leuning, an orchestral and choral conductor.  The Leuning’s son, Otto went on to become a composer and music professor at Columbia University in NYC.

They’ll head out the next day for a family reunion in one of the adjoining counties, to meet people they never knew existed before this week.  Anita tells me, “we were going to visit Chicago for a few days, after the reunion, but we’re extending our stay here because we just love it in Milwaukee!  The attitude here – everyone is so warm and welcoming.  We were in Hartland yesterday to meet some cousins and some old guys at the bar shouted to us while we were leaving, ‘Come back again! The first drinks are on us!'”

Speaking of drinks: the three of us order a round of drinks, Joe delivers beautifully, and we toast the Smyth’s new home, Milwaukee.

Clap, Clap, Clap-Clap-Clap

Milwaukee is hot with Brewers fever right now. Skyscrapers have windows lit up in a pattern that reads “GO MB!” and the scrolling signs on the fronts of the city buses stream route numbers alternating with “Go Milwaukee Brewers!” Sculptured sheep that graze peacefully in empty storefronts now wear team garments.

One night last week in the lobby bar, Jeffrey was playing his airy, light beautiful tunes while on the TV in the corner, Corey Hart silently hit a home run, cheered on by more than 40,000 mute fans on their feet in Miller Park. Bernie launched himself at his slide, fists raised in the air as he winds to the bottom, fireworks went off, but without a sound. The juxtaposition was illuminating: Everyone was paying attention, even the grandest hotel in the city.

Besides the love they have for the Cream City’s much-loved, long-suffering baseball team, the Pfister employees were paying extremely close attention to how this game played out, as well as the one that would end several hours later, as it all would determine what would happen the coming weekend: a possible influx of athletes and fans, resulting in a massive reservations and room shift that could be any manager’s nightmare. It’s a good thing that the Pfister knows how to manage such seismic shifts with finesse and polish; extra staff and managers on call to put that extra foot forward, pressed jackets and smiles at the ready. The Pfister is especially aware of its connection to baseball fans, especially those who come from long distances to cheer on their favorite team, whether it’s the one that has roots here, or the one that’s visiting.

I, too, have thoroughly enjoyed the baseball fans who pass through the hotel.

There was the night when two young women in Brewers shirts stood at the bar with a young man approximately the same age – also in blue, gold and white – and a tall, slightly older gentleman in a Brewers hoodie, were approached by someone in a snappy suit who grabbed the hand and shoulder of the older man, shouting “Congratulations! I hear you’re about to be a grandpa!”

Or, the rowdy group from Kentucky and Colorado who toasted “Go Brewers, Packers and Rockies!” while the couple from Kentucky proudly showed off their new Brewers jerseys. And the guests here on business who board a bus to the stadium where they’ll get to watch the game from a suite sponsored by their company. The stylish professional who’s always dressed to the nines in fine suits and classy ties showing off his Brewers socks. The guy who stopped in to the lobby bar to pick up tickets from a friend of a friend who couldn’t use them and who said, gratefully, as he clutched the envelope granting him two Club Level seats: “It’s my girlfriend’s birthday and I’m going to surprise her with these! She’ll be thrilled!”

There were many times a group of Brewers-jersey-clad people would be approaching the center of the lobby, coming in one door, while a group sporting the gear of the Brewers’ opposing team would arrive from the other direction and I half-expected them to break out in a West Side Story-style confrontation, complete with snapping fingers and dancing feet. Of course, for some inexplicable reason, I’m also always hoping that the Miller Park grounds crew will do a choreographed flash-mob dance when they trot out with their rakes between innings.

Then there was the day last month when Roc, a concierge, was approached by a mother and her three boys who wanted to go see the Brewers play a game, but didn’t have tickets. Could he help? Through a lot of internet searching and phone calls, he managed to eke out tickets for the family. During that game, her youngest son caught a fly ball and they later sent the photo to Roc, thanking him for his role in facilitating this memory for that boy.

So, all of Milwaukee feels like that boy right now: excited, hopeful, wanting to see something incredible happen and be a part of it. This former A’s fan, smitten by the Brew Crew over the last decade, will be cheering “Go Blue!” from Blu, starting 7 minutes after they open at 4pm, just in time for that first pitch Friday afternoon. Let’s go, Brewers!

Dinner for Books

“Life is a bunch of crazy!” interjects the young man seated across from me at a table in one of the back rooms of Mason Street Grill, as he shakes his head with slow acceptance of this fact.  Nate, 14, is the son of one of the dinner guests, herself the long-lost childhood friend of the guest of honor, Lisa McMann.  Lisa’s other guests are all fairly nondescript, which is not a surprise once you find out they’re all booksellers or librarians.  Book people aren’t known for their flamboyance, but they certainly get animated when you get them going, as Lisa has with a game she’s proposed to the group.  The premise of which is this: the group owns a 24hr television network and gets to decide on the programming.  Each person takes a turn saying what show(s) would be fun to share with the world.

As the appetizers arrive, a sampling of nearly everything on the menu, half the lineup is set, ranging from reality shows (Survivor and The Biggest Loser) to British classics (Dr. Who, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Fawlty Towers) to contemporary sitcoms (Modern Family, and How I Met Your Mother).  By the time the entrees have been ordered and wine glasses have been refilled, the lineup has rounded out with some kids programming (Reading Rainbow, of course, and Phineas and Ferb), fun educational shows (Mythbusters), dramas (Deadwood and E.R.), and some “news” (Colbert Report and Daily Show).  Book people, it turns out, watch more T.V. than you might have thought.

Naturally, the conversation turns to the written word.  Lisa has been in in town for three days doing events at schools and libraries in Milwaukee and Waukesha counties while promoting her new kids’ novel, The Unwanteds.  Imagining a world where artistically inclined kids are separated out from society, Lisa was inspired to write it when her own creative kids (her daughter is into theater and music, while her son loves to draw) came home with letters saying their school’s arts programs had been cut.

Considering this, it’s an exceptionally wonderful thing for her to interact with middle grade students in a way that encourages them to take up the pen for themselves.  Lisa says she tells them, “You don’t have to be an adult to write a good story.  You don’t need a college degree.  You can be an inventor today.”

In fact, one of her visits was to Lincoln Avenue School, which supports a selection of artists-in-residence who get free use of studio space in exchange for helping out in classes.  As a result, there is art everywhere in the school, which enthralled Lisa to no end.

That same desire to connect and inspire is why Lisa arranged this dinner at Mason Street Grill.  When she was 19yrs old, working as a bookseller, and writing in her spare time, she watched a lot of authors pass through the bookstore.  One night, one of them invited her out to a dinner after a reading.  That author?  Madeleine L’Engle, author of the children’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time.  The ensuing conversation at dinner with such a literary superstar pushed Lisa to become the writer she is today, with an emphasis on reaching out to inspire others to write.

“This kind of setting is really important,” she says, with a big smile, as she passes the desserts around to the librarian at her elbow, “you never know when you might inadvertently encourage a fledgling writer.”  I smile back.

Faith, Family and Friends

This Sunday, thousands of women who were breast cancer survivors and fighters, along with their friends, families and supporters, gathered in the rain at the lakefront for the annual Susan G. Komen race for the cure.  Somewhere in that crowd were some folks likely staying the night in one of the InterContinental Hotel’s Pink Rooms.

Just last Thursday, only a few days before the race, a large crowd gathered in the lobby of the InterContinental (a sister hotel to the Pfister, in the Marcus Hotels family) to celebrate the one year anniversary of the Pink Rooms.  Servers circled around the room, offering up appetizers and specialty pink cocktails, while attendees mingled.  A tree sprouted from the tile floor, its bare branches pinched by pink ribbons featuring handwritten names of loved ones who had fought breast cancer.  Perhaps symbolically, the tree was slated for the woodchipper but has been given new life, donated by the city for the purpose of spreading hope.  Each ribbon tied to it was paid for with a $5 donation and features the name of a breast cancer survivor, and will stay up through October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Some of the women, in pink blouses, sweaters, jackets or scarves, stopped by the WELL Spa + Salon table where they could sample services.  A large pink ribbon cake was held aloft next to several dozen mini pink cupcakes.  It was a lot of pink.  Even the men wore pink – mainly in their ties and shirts.

All of these people were here to celebrate an idea that started over a year ago when three hotel employees – Bridget Gallagher, Sarah Geitner and Susan Cusatis – came up with the idea to offer up a themed room in support of breast cancer.  With the support of Steve Marcus, the hotel’s general manager Tim Smith and local designer Beth Howley worked with Bridget, Sarah and Susan to design two rooms, with pink accents and special artwork.  The cost of staying in one of these rooms goes to support ABCD: After Breast Cancer Diagnosis, a network of survivor-mentors and recently diagnosed mentees.  A year later, the rooms have provided a lush overnight experience to 480 guests from 21 states and 6 countries, and the board president was presented with a very large check (really, it was an oversized cardboard check!) in the amount of $8,150.

Everyone I spoke to was there because they, or someone they knew, had been touched by breast cancer: a personal fight, or that of a family member, spouse, boss, or co-worker.  There were photos blown up and perched on stands, each showing a pair of smiling women, who had connected through intensive work akin to matchmaking.  One committee member explained how ABCD is different, being “all about free, one-to-one support.  We match survivors with participants who’ve been recently diagnosed.  They’re like you, from a similar background, and the matches aren’t just for the new patient, but also for the spouse, child, friend – whoever needs that extra, personal support.”  Mentors are trained extensively in areas of continued education and interpersonal skills.

“May you sit in this chair and enjoy life, appreciate your family and friends, and with your faith, continue to dream.” -Marge Vetter

As ABCD surpasses geographical boundaries, networking women together in a chain of hope and support, so the Pink Rooms have done the same even here at this cocktail party, which is flush with happiness, not sadness, hope, not hopelessness.  Other groups in Milwaukee, each with a different angle, but all working together, had members eager to share their stories, and connect to others.

I met Kathie Walker, an 11yr survivor of breast cancer, who is a member of the Milwaukee chapter of Sisters Network, a national network focusing on African American women.  Kathie explained how their work is increasingly in untapped neighborhoods, as they cross cultural lines in order to “nip it in the bud wherever we can find it.”  “It” being awareness and education, which can be difficult when organizations don’t feature diversity.  “It’s all about the testimony.  It’s your biggest sell point, and women will listen to women who are like them.”

This idea, the commonality needed in connecting women who are like each other, in order to teach awareness and cultivate support, was also evident in the testimony of Kate Kucharski, a young woman who was diagnosed in 2008, at age 32.  A healthy, non-smoker, with no family history of cancer, Kate was diagnosed completely out of the blue.  She had an aggressive tumor and went through 16 rounds of chemo, putting her cancer into remission in April 2009.  Engaged when she was diagnosed, her fiancee couldn’t deal with the stress and broke up with her in the middle of it all.  She felt like things were falling apart.  But, “things happen for a reason,” this bright-eyed, broadly-smiling blond told me.  “I’m the type of person to go out, do something, and finish it.” So, she reached out to other young women affected by breast cancer and created Milwaukee’s Young Survivor Coalition in January 2011.  Drawing its circle around the 45 and under crowd, they are a network of 40 young survivors who offer monthly events for socializing, education, and support.  Young cancers have a higher mortality rate, and the young women found their concerns were different than the older survivors they spoke to: a 19yr old is worried about college, engagement, a baby on the way, and having really young survivors who have been in remission for years is very encouraging.

“I’m winning the fight, and helping other girls win, too.” concluded Kate, in a sentence that perfectly summarized the purpose of ABCD, the Sisters Network, and the Pink Rooms.

The work that these women are doing via their organizations, along with the hard work of friends, family, and other supporters is what continues to keep people hopeful that should they, or someone they know, be affected by cancer, they can find reasons to fight and people who will fight with them.