“It Doesn’t Cost a Lot of Money to Be Nice”

For their 60th wedding anniversary, they went to Bora Bora.
For their 61st, Niagara Falls.
For their 62nd, Nashville, their 63rd Dallas.
They had a staycation in a Kauai Hilton last year.
And for this, their 65th anniversary, Joanne told Jim to surprise her.  

Even a couple of hours before her anniversary dinner at the Hotel where it all began, she still didn’t know why they had traveled all the way from Kauai.  Jim had arranged to have them renew their vows among family and friends, including two of their three children and Joanne’s brother, who lives in town and whom she hadn’t seen for about five years.  He had scheduled a late morning appointment for her at the WELL Spa + Salon, so, of course, she was suspicious, but Jim and the associates at The Pfister had done an excellent job of keeping the secret.

Colleen Maxwell, our Social Media Manager, and I got a chance to sit down with Jim before the big night to hear about his sly plotting and planning, but more importantly, for me at least, about his answer to this question:  What is your secret for staying married for so long?

Look at that sly smile. His wife still didn't know why they were at The Pfister!
Look at that sly smile. His wife still didn’t know why they were at The Pfister!

Answer: Start planning in junior high.

As Jim told it, “I spotted her when she was twelve, when I was in 7th grade.”  Well, that’s an early start.  “I was part of the CYO, the Catholic Youth Organization.  They would let the 6th graders take a look to see what was in store for them.  And one day I pointed to my friend Bill and said, ‘That girl in the white shirt and black and white checkered shirt–she is beautiful.’”  Needless to say, Bill reminded Jim that she was “only twelve.”  That didn’t stop Jim, though, from watching and waiting.  

His mother had wanted, as many Catholic mothers in his era did, her son to become a priest.  He attended Marquette University High School, doing his mother proud.  From afar, however, he watched Joanne grow up.  Then, about two months from his sixteenth birthday, in the year of our Lord 1947, the phone rang: it was Joanne.  They agreed to go on a date to a Saturday party, but not before Joanne laid down some “ground rules.”  (She knew about the crazy house party he’d been at a few weeks earlier at his cousin’s place while the parents were gone: “I was a victim,” Jim insists.)  Even though she was dating other people at the time, Jim couldn’t refuse such a bold offer.  And neither could her parents welcome strapping young (and Catholic) Jim into their lives.

Answer: Remind them how beautiful they are.

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Thank you, Google, for the many faces of Dorothy McGuire.

Jim’s voice crackled with sheer disbelief that anyone so beautiful could have come into his life.  “She was and still is very beautiful.”  He said this several dozen times (and wouldn’t tire, I’m sure, of saying it again.)  People used to come up to her and ask for her autograph, because she was the spitting image of Dorothy McGuire, a star of radio, stage, and screen, especially in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Just the other day,” he adds, jumping ahead many decades, “we were having brunch at a hotel after Sunday Mass.  Two women came up to us and told my wife, ‘We can’t get over how beautiful you look.’  This has happened so many times when we’re out to eat.  I always want to tell these women that I’m sitting right there, too.  Whatever happened,” he joked, “to saying, ‘Hey, this fellow doesn’t look that bad either’?  What am I?  Chopped liver?”

Five years later, they were married.  Jim referred to The Pfister Hotel as the “first place we ever shacked up in Milwaukee after we got married.”  As we all know, of course, The Pfister is far from a “shack.”

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This is the photo that reminds Jim of Joanne the most.

Answer: Tolerate each other and accept each others’ individual talents.

They started what he kept calling an “interesting” and “supportive” life together.  One of the keys to their marriage, it seems, was allowing each other to be their own persons, to follow their own paths–but together.  He called it “tolerance,” but it seems much more than that. A very early indication of their acceptance of each other was when she had to practice her tennis game to defend her CYO championship at the resort on their honeymoon, something that got their friends wondering whether Jim and Joanne understood what was supposed to happen on a honeymoon.  But play she did, and Jim, in love with his new partner, didn’t think twice about it.  

They would go on to adopt three children in their early years, two sons and a daughter.

He eventually opened his own office supply company, with three employees.  For someone who didn’t even know how to use Liquid Paper, this was a risk.  But they made things work, with Joann helping in the store, too.  But it took Jim a while to realize that she possessed a not-so-hidden talent.  “She was always bitching about salesmen who didn’t know anything about sales,” he says.  She was a fierce critic who knew how things should be run, so he got her set up with her own office furniture business, which is still successful, now run by their daughter, with Joanne as chairperson of the board.  

Jim talked at length about his other career choices, all of which Joanne supported.  He once worked for the Texas Rangers selling season tickets to businesses, traveling once a year with the ball club because his sales were so good.  He worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in charge of state-wide distribution.  But most interesting to me was his three-week-a-year stint as Santa Claus for twenty-five years.  Jim was no mall Santa; instead, he dressed up for friends, especially friends with children, and Joanne would accompany him as an elf.  Free of charge.  He did it out of pure joy, making sure that his friends got at least one gift from their children’s wish lists–and to let him know what they had gotten.  That way, he would know that a boy had gotten, say, a G.I. Joe for Christmas, and armed with this knowledge, the following year “Santa” could tell that boy, “Remember when you wanted that G.I. Joe last year.”  Kid’s mind blown.  Jaw dropped.  Santa is real.  

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The private dinner and renewal of 65-year-old wedding vows.

Answer (the most important one): Enjoy life and be nice.

Jim’s philosophy of life?  “When I die, I don’t want people to stand at my casket and say, ‘That poor guy didn’t enjoy life.  He didn’t use enjoy every minute that God gave him.”  He added, “It doesn’t cost a lot of money to be nice to people,” he told us.  

Originally, I was going to title this post “Giddy as a Frickin’ High Schooler,” a phrase Jim repeated to me numerous times on the phone and during our interview.  Giddy.  Young.  Enjoying every minute that God gave him.  

However, in the wake of the senseless tragedy in Orlando this past weekend, I’ve decided to use Jim’s more relevant and ridiculously simple words as my title:

“It Doesn’t Cost a Lot of Money to Be Nice.”

The First 30 Years

Some couples got it. Ron and Maryann don’t just got it. They define what it means to got it.

I think about marriage every day of my life as a really happily married fellow myself. Some of the things I think about are how satisfying it is to have a life partner and how you never can stop working on making your marriage all it can be. Ron and Maryann have hitting it out of the park as a successful married couple for 30 years. They reminded me that all the stuff I think about marriage is never to be taken for granted, site but also that you gotta always do a little more. You gotta always make time to laugh.

The happy couple is, in fact, laughing as I meet them all refreshed and glowing after a Well Spa visit that Maryann secretly arranged for their 30th Wedding Anniversary. They’re looking over a painting of a teapot in our Pfister Artist-In-Residence Studio, and and Ron is telling Todd Mrozinski that the teapot looks just like the one in a sort of B-movie extravaganza he and his bride came upon when flicking through the channels last week. “It was called ‘The Brass Teapot’ and I’d say, yeah, it was pretty good,” says Ron.

Maryann is quiet and smiles up at her hubby. It looks like a smile she’s practiced a lot. I can just imagine these two snuggled next to each other in recliners or something, store their hands touching as they reach into the bowl of popcorn. The word “lovebirds” comes to mind.

Ron explained to me that he had had some practice with marriage before getting hitched to Maryann some 30 years back. Considering his track record with his first two marriages before he struck gold with Maryann he tells me, “I never thought I’d get to five years, but then you start passing ten, 20, 25, and then all of a sudden you’re at 30. Who knew?”

I’m not convinced that it’s as easy as that to rack up 30 years of marriage, and I ask the couple what’s their trick for being each others ball and chain for three decades and smile like they do as they look upon each other like they’ve just met. They talk of their travels, the joys of being parents and grandparents, and the most important word each of them has learned by being married to one another.

“Yes,” says the couple. “Always say ‘yes’ whenever anyone asks you to do something new.”

Saying “yes” for Ron and Maryann has meant traveling to far off places, having friends in all corners of the world, and opening their eyes to all the possibilities of how to see and tell a story. As avid theatre and concert goers, the couple explain to me that you should take chances and see live performances even when you have no idea what the show is going to be about. I’m always dubious of this kind of thing from years of producing theatre myself, some of it the sort of stuff I’d like to forget I ever put on stage. Ron tells me not to fear.

“No, no. Don’t have regrets about that.” He tells me that one of the most memorable dates he had with Maryann was when they decided to buy tickets to a Vegas style show advertised in a small performance space. They showed up for the performance and waited in the audience until they realized that they were the only two people who had bought tickets.

“It was a little uncomfortable when the show began, it just being Maryann and I in the audience,” said Ron. “But, you know what? It ended up being a real good show.”

Maryann smiles again. Ron looks at her and knows it’s time for them to make tracks for other adventures. Thirty years and all it takes is a wink, a smile and a chuckle or two. If that ain’t love, mister, I don’t know what is.

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Operation Pamper: The Secret Spa Mission

Friday the 13th. 10:55am. Pfister Hotel Lobby Bar. Black Ops Mission engaged. Decompression fluids in process. Relaxation level at Level Orange headed towards Blazing Red.

I was witness to a secret mission at the Pfister this morning. It included a fair dose of intrigue. I never felt in danger as I saw the mission going down, viagra however. There was hardly any dagger, but plenty of cloak. Well, robe, actually.

Seeing three women looking like they’re ready for the weekend to start a little early in the day on a Friday in the Pfister lobby is like a bell going off in my brain that says, “Hey, these ladies probably have a story.” I wasn’t wrong.

I took a seat next to the trio and asked, “What are you ladies celebrating? You look like you’re in a festive mood.” They put in three drink orders, the kind of ones you make when you don’t have to go back to work, and smiled.

“We’re having a little R&R before our spa visit. Just to really relax,” said one of the women. Sounded like a pretty nice Friday to me, so I followed up to see if I could ask them some questions and write about their day.

That’s when eyes started to shift back and forth, questioning looks appeared on their faces, and I started to get the feeling that they thought I was working for some covert operation. Then they landed the deadliest question any writer who talks to people and writes about it fears he or she may hear.

“Uh…where does this go? We need to be careful.”

Now, that’s exactly the sort of response that generates two strong feelings. The first feeling is one that tells you in your tender soul to just leave the ladies be and let them enjoy their day. The second feeling is that one where you’re just not going to stop until you get the full scoop on the nefarious doings potentially going down. I’m weak in the knees when it comes to stories of people doing things they maybe shouldn’t be doing, so my tender soul took a rain check on taking the lead and I kept going with my questions.

I explained to the ladies that I wanted to hear their story and write about it for this very blog. The word “blog” made them open their eyes wide with a look of terror. Looking back at me they had expressions on their faces that sort of said, “You’ve found us! Curses! Drat!”

I asked, “What’s the matter…you playing hooky?” I thought back to all the times a few friends of mine and I might have slipped out of work for an unplanned drink, cookie, or, the granddaddy of them all, afternoon nap. Yeah, I realized that if someone had approached me in those moments wanting to write about my slinking away, I wouldn’t have taken too great of a shine to that proposition.

Immediately, the ladies assured me that they weren’t playing hooky. “No, no! Nothing like that,” said their default spokeswoman. “We just shouldn’t really spread this news around that we’re here right now. It’s sort of a special thing.”

I’d love to tell you that they were all trained ninjas or women on the run from the law, but it seems that there was no soul stirring betrayal happening. The women weren’t employed in some corporate espionage scenario. They just happened to be three great workers who their boss had recognized within their company with a trip to the Well Spa on this particular Friday afternoon.

“We told a little white lie about where we were going to the rest of the people we work with. We didn’t want them to feel bad that it was only the three of us getting to spend the day in the spa.”

I learned more about the who, what and why of how the ladies came to get their afternoon off, but my tender soul finally kicked in. They let me snap a picture of them toasting the day, but I’m not telling any more than that. Yours is a little white lie that I’m happy to keep, ladies. A fine spa mission to you all, and you’re right–your co-workers would have been very jealous of your perfectly divine day. Operation Pamper is a super sneaky success.

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What Would Be Chapter One

I promise you, physician if I ever write a book that weaves together bits and pieces of prose into a narrative that tells a story about the many important and not so important moments I’ve seen, heard and experienced at the Pfister, this would be Chapter One.

The sevenish afternoon lobby lounge so and sos didn’t lift their heads from their draft beers because one of the women was a red head and the other was a brunette. They didn’t even shift their attention from getting a light buzz on before eating the fully expensed porterhouses they would charge to the home office because the terry robes hugged the ladies’ shoulders just right. It wasn’t even just because lady one and lady two were carrying a pair of the biggest cocktails any of the men had ever seen, stuff and that was saying something for a lineup heavy on traveling salesmen.

Truth be told, the casual head turns had to do with the whole package. That packaged deal could have been the start of a classic one-liner. “Two pretty ladies walk through the lobby of a swank hotel in terry cloth robes carrying a pair of perfect Manhattans…” There were literally hundreds of good ways to fill in a good punch line, but none of those would have landed the way the red head and brunette were killing it today.

It was a busy Thursday afternoon, and the front desk had a steady line of arriving guests checking in for a long weekend of work, play and all manner of diversions in between. Accommodation was the name of the game, and luggage was in need of toting as hospitality was served up with a genuine smile and just the right mint on a pillow. That sort of attention to detail required laser focus. Which is why the lightly clothed ladies who might otherwise stick out like some spa perfect sore thumb were not the main attraction on this particular autumn afternoon.

The men at the bar weren’t really even staring at the ladies as they made their slow walk across the lobby. They were a pack of kittens, nary a cad among the toothless middle agers, and too tame to be any sort of leering threat.

The corner of the eye of the home goods salesman from Topeka picked up that the red head had her hair up in a ponytail. He thought that was nice because as he was told and as was true he was basically a nice guy who always did actually finish last.

As the IT rep from Boise reached for a bar napkin to blow his nose, he saw the glimmer of the auburn liquid in the women’s icy rocks glasses and wondered what kind of bourbon was floating their boats. He desperately hoped they were Jim Beamers, not card-carrying members of the cult of Jack Daniels.

Noticing the daintily painted toes that the ladies flaunted on their flip flopped feet, the audit specialist from Nashville made a mental note to check out that sassy color when he got home for his own private spa night. Everyone has secrets.

If there had been spotlight operators working the lobby they surely would have tracked the ladies, hopefully picking them up with a beam of light softened by a gel in some charming shade of pink. For now, however, it was a step, a sip, a step, a giggle, a sip sip, and a sigh, all passing by all the passersby.

Hendricks stood at the farthest corner of the open space watching. It was his customary spot so he could see all there was to see and discreetly attend to anything that needed his carefully taught muted mitigation. He was a suit and tie guy who had long felt naked without at least three layers of cotton between his skin and the reversible belt he wore as part of his daily uniform. One thought pierced his brain as he watched the queens of serenity saunter the crowded space with nary a care for inquiring eyes as they enjoyed the comfort of robes and smart cocktails in public spaces.

“If I loosened my tie in the woods and no one was around to see it, would it make a sound?”

Deep flowed the rivers of the lobby’s steady suit and tie guy.

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Nobody Ever Writes About the Travel Writer, so I’m Writing About the Travel Writer

One of the great joys I have as a writer is to meet other writers. Typically a writer meet up is filled with quotable quips, diagnosis hair-pin turns of phrases, and good humored word-wise one-upmanship. It’s the literary equivalent of dogs sniffing one another’s behinds.

So like a happy, fluffy puppy, I was very excited to have the chance to meet writer Amber Gibson as she made a recent trip to the Pfister. She describes herself as a travel and food writer, as well as a model. I describe myself as a writer, raconteur and great eater of meat. As you can see, we’re basically the same person.

Our Resident Artist Todd and I met up with Amber to give her a brief tour of our treasured art collection and chat about the Pfister’s Artist-In-Residence and Narrator programs. That is to say, advice Amber was given a really fine tour by Todd, and I accompanied him to try desperately to serve the role of witty wing man. Todd needs no addition of wit, but when the chance comes for a writer to write about another writer, you’ll have to physically restrain me from putting pen to paper.

I’m always curious about how other writers view the process of writing and how they go about getting their work seen and read. Amber is an impressive young lady, the valedictorian in her class from Northwestern University’s journalism school. No slouch in the word department is she. When we meet and I see the grace with which she presents herself decked out in a silver ensemble that looks runway ready, I also note that she can easily fall back on that modeling part of her vitae when writing gigs are slim.

We begin our visit in Todd’s studio with handshakes and pleasantries and immediately the bond between us all is evident. We’re all creative types who like hanging around hotels, and because of the good graces of the universe, we all get to follow our passions daily.

Amber asks Todd and I about being the Pfister’s current in-house artist and writer. She is curious about whether or not we live at the hotel during our stay. Todd and I share a glance and I can tell he’s thinking the same thing I am. “Oh, what a fine, fine idea, Amber. I’ll take Room 2012, please.” We explain that we both have homes here in Milwaukee, but that it is difficult to pull ourselves away from the luxury and elegance of what we each blissfully get to call our “office space.” Amber gets it in spades immediately. Her eyes are full of wonder noting that the Pfister’s dedication to arts and culture is unique.

I get my first travel tip from Amber as we talk about some of the most interesting and beautiful places she’s covered. She mentions that she did a video report for Yahoo! Travel on Fogo Island off of the coast of Newfoundland, Canada and that it is a breathtaking and remote location to visit. Amber’s story and video prove that point, and I encourage you to check out her full portfolio for more engaging work at her website at ambergibson.com.

A gentleman never asks a lady’s age, so I refrain from saying to Amber, “How is it that a kid like you is such a seasoned traveler?” Amber is bright eyed, inquisitive, and blessed with the glory of youth. She understands that she’ll never be mistaken for some road weary writer who longs for the homely comfort of a typewriter, but maybe for a teen who is waiting for her parents to join her for a 24-course tasting menu at some storied restaurant she’s writing about. She embraces this challenge with youthful energy and is full of story ideas and pitches that turn editors into employers.

As an intern during college, Amber worked a plum internship for Time Out Chicago. Pushing and pitching to the editors she worked with there led to her first assignment doing a feature on creative cocktails in the Windy City. That story kicked off an impressive run of features covering eye-popping destinations and mouth-watering food.

During our visit together, I’m looking for that connective tissue between Amber and I that confirms our shared membership in the Writers of the World Club. I latch onto it when Amber and I start talking about horses as Todd shows us an oil painting from the Pfister’s collection that features a majestic steed.

“I love horses,” says Amber. “But I haven’t really ever had any riding lessons. I have always just hopped on and figured it out.”

Amber tells me that once when she was pursuing a story, she was given a horse and allowed to roam free on 2,300 acres of a Montana ranch. And yet, she admits, she has never really been trained on the ins and outs of horse riding. She tells me that she’s never shirked from trying something new, and horse riding, like writing, takes a lot of belief in your ability before experience ultimately catches up with aspiration. It’s not really “fake it until you make it”, but it’s evident to me that Amber and I are cut from the same cloth: live it, write it, share it—that’s when you get to call yourself a writer.

Amber is one of those people I know I can turn to in the future for tips on where I can avoid spending travel money. She’s spent enough time chasing through airports to catch connecting flights to be a bit of an expert. She tells me that last year she spent a total of 48 hours in Chicago during March and often ended one trip at O’Hare to begin another a few hours later as a new flight took off.

Her time in Milwaukee will be a tad more relaxing. She’ll spend the rest of the weekend dining at Sanford and Ardent and soaking in the pulsating life around the Pfister. We finish our visit because Amber’s got a quick trip to the Well Spa where she’ll get a stylish treatment done for her long, silken hair. This is one traveler who knows how to enjoy the ride, and the fact that she is a card carrying member of the grand and benevolent fellowship of writers makes me happy to be part of that same club.

Join Me As I Begin to Salute the Women and Men in Silk and Lace Uniform

I anticipate that today I will begin what will grow to become a more public and frequent declaration of one of my favorite harmless infatuations.

Bridesmaids.

Oh, how I love a gaggle of ladies who have all agreed to wear the same dress and stand in front of a group of people.

And, okay, I can’t forget their male counterparts, the groomsmen. Guys, remember, clip-on bow ties just mean you haven’t tried hard enough (forgive me, I’m a bow tie snob).

The Pfister is a glittering nexus for wedding activity. It’s either the place your party gathers and stays at before a march down the aisle, or it becomes wedding command central for every element of your public declaration of love. It is literally possible to enter the Pfister for your wedding one day and never leave the building until several days and glasses of champagne later when a shiny new ring has been firmly placed on your left hand.

Everything you need for a good wedding experience can be found at the Pfister. There’s nothing wrong with the eye candy of the whole building with its classic architectural flourishes, of course, but there’s also a spa for pre wedding primping, plenty of bar space for having an ounce of courage before you make the big move into coupledom, and ballrooms are abundant for your grandmother to sit and finish her wedding cake while you and your wedding party do the Chicken Dance to really show the world you’ve gotten hitched. Plus, a post wedding day breakfast in the Café at the Pfister offers plenty of options for that one dude at every wedding who pushes it a little too far and needs to have a start of day meal that combines equal parts of greasy and gooey (a sure fire hangover cure according to my dear, sweet mother).

I have a sentimental attachment to the whole idea of weddings as they relate to the Pfister, because my wife and I stayed the night at the Pfister the evening after we got married on a Friday the 13th 107 years ago (I am very old as you can probably tell from my baldness and affection for eyeglasses that make me look like Swifty Lazar). I will always remember how gorgeous our room was and how quickly we fell asleep when we tumbled into our suite. I am ever grateful for that uninterrupted night of Pfister rest as it gave my wife and I the strength we needed to rise triumphant the next morning and finish off the catering we had done ourselves for a party for 200 of our friends…but that’s another story of things you should never do when planning a wedding.

At my wedding, I wore a suit and my wife wore an eggplant colored dress. My brother and I were the ushers, no one wore matching colors, and the bride taught a spinning class the morning before the ceremony.

It is perhaps because of this casual approach to pomp that I have since been slightly obsessed with the dynamics of weddings that really have some sort of structure and design. Don’t get me wrong, I love how I got married, but I always have secretly wondered what it would have been like to have a few guys stand next to me in matching bow ties while I said my vows looking at my dad uncomfortably stuffed into a tuxedo. It boggles my mind what that might have been.

It was with a giddy joy that I came upon a group of bridesmaids in the Pfister Lobby. Signing on to be a bridesmaid means that you are content with enjoying the one time in a woman’s life when wearing the same dress as another lady at a party is not only an okay social thing to do, but it’s sort of expected. In this case the chosen bridesmaid dress was a deep dark blue. The ladies had every hair perfectly in place and comported themselves with a grace that suggested they knew their business well.

I thought their dresses were quite fetching, but I am also constantly curious about how the ladies themselves feel about the clothes they must wear in service to the bride as her support network. I honed in on a bright-eyed lady named Ashley who I sensed was the organizer of the group. I asked her that key style question that haunts all bridesmaids: “So, how do you like your dress?”

Ashley smiled and graciously said, “I think it’s beautiful. I imagine I’ll wear mine again.”

I stood with Ashley and found myself in the center of the group of waiting lady attendants. I posed the question to the other women, and fellow bridesmaid Melissa said, “It’s okay. Certainly not the worst I’ve ever worn.” Like a career soldier, Melissa wears the colors in dutiful service to the bride. Melissa, we salute you.

I noticed that all the bridesmaids were wearing matching flip-flops. Ashley explained to me that the flip-flops were a comfort concession for later on in the evening when the whole bridal party planned to tear up the dance floor. Other heeled shoes were part of the uniform of the day, but it seemed that standing on ceremony in those for too long would have been a bit too much for all the ladies’ tootsies.

In the pecking order of my bridal party obsessions, bridesmaids come way before groomsmen. It’s not every man’s business to wear a tuxedo. I think the best gang of groomsmen are the ones who sort of fade into the whole party. They’re the ones who are fun lads, have all the right buttons done, and don’t faint from locking their knees during the wedding ceremony.

The fellas complementing the ladies in blue were all hydrating well sucking on water bottles when I asked for a picture. It was good to see that no flies were open as I asked for a photo.

Groomsmen extraordinaire.  But let's face it, second fiddle to bridesmaids.
Groomsmen extraordinaire. But let’s face it, second fiddle to bridesmaids.

I imagine these guys presented well at the actual event. They looked like they had all done a good workout beforehand and were serious, steely and focused on being a quiet and respectful set of bros who knew it was best to let the ladies shine.

Ashley pointed out to me that the bride had made her way into the lobby at one point and that I might want to talk to her about the big day. I smiled at Ashley, and nodded enthusiastically about that announcement, but I never thought to check in with the woman in white (who, by the way, was gorgeous and beautifully gowned). Honestly, I didn’t much care. It’s the ladies and gents who agree to have their clothes picked by others that really turn my head.

My mother, the Green Hornet, and other notes of love

Are you still feeling the glow of Mother’s Day? It was a glorious brunch filled day at the Pfister this past Sunday when good sons and daughters showered their moms with well deserved adoration.

Me? I was out of town, there and I’m not 100% certain that my Mom even had a good cup of coffee.

Lest you think I’m a terrible son, you should know that I did manage to arrange an early Mother’s Day lunch at the Café at the Pfister with my mother Judy. She’s a rock star of motherdom, and I wanted to make sure I had at least bought her a salad.

I also had an ulterior motive for our lunch date. My Mom has a great Pfister story that I really wanted to hear told to me at the scene-of-the–crime, as it were. This story is part of my family’s legend and lore, and I’m sure for those folks who were around the day it happened some 35 years ago, it’s still a memorable moment.

My wife Paula (a woman who is in the Top 2 of all-time great mothers on my “Mother’s I Love” List) was also included in our celebration of good mothers bread breaking because she somehow had never heard the story, and I’m also just rather fond of lunching with her.

My mom, Paula and I settled into a table in the Café right along the windows. It had been years since my mom had been to the Pfister, and as we took our seats she looked out the window as if looking back in time.

“It happened right out there,” said mom gazing at parked cars on the street. “Right in front of all the cab drivers. They had a good laugh.”

Over the years I’ve thought and thought about my mom’s story, and I’ve considered how different endings could have changed the course of my life in some pretty drastic ways. We’ve certainly laughed about it all over the years, but listening to my mom tell my wife the story put the whole thing in perspective for me once again and makes me think that maybe my mom had a guardian angel watching over her as she exited our family car to have the most eventful day ever getting her hair done in the Janice Salon at the Pfister (which has now blossomed into the full service WELL Spa® + Salon).

Paula leaned in as my mom recalled the day long ago when pants legs were flared and the music of your life had a disco beat. I was about 10-years-old and my brother was a mere toddler as my mom dropped us at a neighbor’s house so she could drive downtown to the Pfister to get her hair done, taking a well deserved break from her job at that time as a stay-at-home mom. We were a one car family back then, and my hard working father took the bus to work everyday as a tax attorney in a downtown office building a mere few blocks away from the Pfister.

Our family car was an AMC Green Hornet. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it did the job of getting us around town.

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The AMC Green Hornet. Style, class, distinction…meh.

It also proved to be reliable for shuttling us back and forth to visit our family in upstate New York, a trip we made for the Christmas holiday and summers. That car was steady, and on our family’s modest budget it was a more than a-okay set of wheels.

Mom parked the Green Hornet on Jefferson Street right across from the lineup of cabs servicing Pfister guests in need of a ride around town. She filled her meter, dashed into the hotel, and went into the basement salon for a nice hairdo tune up.

As soon as she got settled in her stylist’s chair, someone rushed into the salon and said, “There’s a car on fire across the street!”

My mom gulped hard, panicked knowing that she herself had parked right across the street. Hoping that she heard red or orange or even brown, she asked, “What color is the car?”

“Blue,” answered the town crier who had given the car- -on-fire report. “It’s a blue car, and it’s up in flames.”

Blue was a perfectly fine color as far as my mother was concerned. It wasn’t green, the color of our sweet little ride, so she relaxed believing there was no need for concern and sunk into the stylist’s chair for one of the stunning cuts she always received, classic looker that she has always been.

As mom made her way out onto the street freshly coiffed, the news of the burning car had almost vanished from her thoughts. That is until she pulled her keys out of her purse and was stymied about how to unlock our AMC Green Hornet that was now charred and smoking parked tightly against the curb. Whether or not a Green Hornet burns blue when it bursts into flames, there had clearly been a mix up in making the announcement.

The cab drivers nearby had been waiting to see who the poor sucker was who owned the car. They told my mom that the moment she had walked into the lobby at the Pfister, flames had shot up from under the hood of the car. Had this happened a few moments earlier, my mom would have had no need for a cut and shampoo but my brother, dad and I might have had a great and powerful need for another lady who did a damned fine job of keeping us all together. It was, to say the least, the best bad timing my mother ever had.

My mom tells of walking to my dad’s office and announcing to my father that the car had burned up and that the fire department had smashed the driver’s side window when putting the fire out. I can only imagine the look on my dad’s face when my mom showed up that day to tell him that their only car was out of commission.

But here’s what I love about this story and my parents pluck and determination—we kept that car. My parents did what they could with the means that they had, and I’m happy to report that we had that little AMC for another couple of years. It even made the trip to upstate New York for Christmas a few months after the blaze. Of course, my brother and I huddled under blankets and my dad drove with mittens because heat rarely came from the dashboard after the accident.

Paula, my mother and I chuckled about it all over our salads, thinking about how crazy it was for my mom the moment she made her horrible discovery. I’m gladder than glad that no one, most of all, my mom, was hurt back in the day. I’m also proud to say that I know that standing before that smoldering Green Hornet in the afternoon sun nearly 40 years ago, my mom’s hair looked amazing.

A Mud Bath, Followed With An Insult


A few months into my job at the Pfister I learned something very interesting:

 

If you want, the spa will give you a bowl of clay to go with a hot steam shower. Yes, with this spa offering, you can temporarily remake yourself as an exquisite porcine figure, steamed on a spit, enjoying the mud bath of your life.

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I did not take pictures of this service, but I did experience it on Saturday. Actually, that’s not true, I took one photograph of the steam. My intent was to capture the breath of hell curling out of the shower door, but by the time I turned my camera on, the breath had transitioned from that scene of Hades unfurling to that of the whole bathroom being filled with a boiling fog.

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I could not see my feet. Actually, I could not see anything but the fog for the next twenty minutes. I relied on my sense of touch to carry me through it all.

 

After my shower I felt like a sedated lobster on a dinner plate. I went up to the lobby with my typewriter.  My  intention  was to document the fascinating phenomena of what it feels like to be a cooked crustacean, but I did not get the chance.   I smelled cigarettes.

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Before me were three pretty people wearing cigarettes as a lingering perfume. Voyagers from the land of Green Bay. To make conversation I inquired, “Are you in school?” The tall one replied, “No, none of us are. I make enough money so I don’t have to go to college.” The group of them came down for the weekend, never having been to the Pfister before, and very much enjoying their stay… except for Drake. Drake, the fourth element to their group was asleep, while they explored the city. He also did not join them for drinks last night. “Drake is always missing out on the fun because he works third shift at a cheese factory.”

 

Drake’s friends asked me to write him an insult letter. They handed me my tip and told me that when he emerges from his room later he wants to “meet chicks.” Tashina, the female in this group of friends adds, “He likes chicks a lot, but never sticks with them for very long.” As they go upstairs to admire the ballrooms, I write the insult.DSCN1041

They loved it!
They loved it!

In Which I Get A Massage

A few weeks into December, a generous and innovative customer commissioned me to typewrite five short stories to give to their various family members on Christmas day. Being the purist that I am, I decided that all the drafts for these stories should also be crafted on a typewriter. After a week of writing five short stories and their numerous foul drafts on that unforgiving contraption, I felt compelled to unlock my shoulders. They were digging into my jaw and I was beginning to walk funny.   Finally!  The excuse I’d always wanted to visit the Pfister’s basement… that’s where they keep the WELL spa!

I ordered a 60-minute massage and they gave me a clipboard. Would I like any upgrades? Coconut cream kneaded into my scalp? A longer time for the shower? Deeper pressure? Fifteen extra minutes to just relax in the room by myself afterwards? And did I bring my own iPod or would I like to listen to nature sounds or classical music on the internet radio?

 

I am a wild animal in human form,

so nature sounds, please.

 

They demonstrate how to use the shower. It’s a little complicated because it features so many enjoyable options.   There is the traditional handheld showerhead on the east wall, or one could bask in a cool mist or dance their way (this shower is large enough to accommodate the dance party of a medium sized family) into the south corner and experience six jets of scalding hot water coming at you from three different directions. I chose that last option and was utterly flustered with relaxation.

I learned from my masseuse that nine out of ten women have kinkeled shoulders like me. The expression is true in that that’s where “we carry the weight of the world.” Men, conversely, tend to strain their backs by holding all the tension in their buttocks. My guess is that many of them are just trying to grip the world from the bottom, but the world is too heavy to be carried real far that way.

Midway through the massage the nature sounds transitioned from a scene of crashing waves on the beach with euphoric seagulls to a bathroom sink sized brook that gurgles and tinkles. I had to ask her to change the station to classical music and let me use the plumbing before continuing. That is my only critique of the experience, aside from the fact that any massage that’s shorter than five and a half hours is way too short.

To make everything even better at the end they offered my choice of a glass of limewater, tea, mimosa or champagne to sip, and I could sit around as long as I wanted, reading magazines and snacking on fruit and nuts. I drank the chamomile.

I’m 90 Years Old and This is the First Time I’ve Mentioned It

Sophia and her mom live in Seattle, sale but every year they come visit with grandma for a few weeks because she lives here in Milwaukee. Julie, Sophia’s mom says that today she found out that her mother was elected high school secretary. Her mother, Eunice confesses, “I’m 90 years old and this is the first time I’ve mentioned it. I also had the lead in the school play. In fourth year English, I had to recite a poem in an Irish brogue accent in front of the whole school during the assembly.” The majority of the population in Gays Mills Wisconsin where Eunice lived were Irish. “Oh it was fun. I was so introverted I couldn’t offend anyone. I’m glad I’ve saved it till now— it won’t affect any of your lives now.” Sophia squeals with delight, “Heee, oh Grandma!” “We learned a lot today,” says Julie.

Julie, Sophia and Eunice.
Julie, Sophia and Eunice.

Julie grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee.  “I got my haircut here in high school because Rosemary Ross, the TV personality would get her hair cut here. Twice a year. Once, I got a permanent wave here too.” Back when it was the peak of fashion, grandma Eunice would go get a permanent wave once a year, “About the time it started looking good, that’s when you had to get another one.”

Everyone is quiet for a moment and then Eunice complements my hat, lamenting, “I just wish hats would come back again. It was always the fun part of your outfit, when you were going to buy the hat.” Sophia adds,“You had a dressmaker too for a while. I think that’s the most awesome thing!” Julie looks at her mother and daughter in a moment of discovery and asks, “Why aren’t we wearing hats? We should be!” Sophia agrees so fervently that she erupts into a fit of giggles, “Yeah, hehehehe!”

Then there is silence for a while again, it is broken when Eunice points to the painting above the piano and sighs, “Isn’t that frame pretty?”

Julie and Sophia are at the end of their 2014 Wisconsin vacation. This time they went to Irish Fest, Wolf Peach— a new restaurant, and to Chicago a couple of times. “We’ve been visiting family mostly. We saw the Magritte show at the Art Institute of Chicago… it’s kind of dark.” I ask Julie if she means dark as in the subject matter of the art and Julie replies, “Well, it is, but I mean literally, the lighting was really low and everyone was very quiet. Subdued, and a lot of the pictures are spooky or kind of gruesome. It was a real experience to walk through. No one was talking.” Sophia agrees, “Yeahhhhh.” Summing it up Julie says, “It was kind of disturbing, we looked at the little doll houses after that to even it out.”

Swelling with Grandmotherly pride, Eunice tells me, “Sophia is celebrating, she just finished her Summer Intensive Ballet. Nine to five, six days a week in Seattle at the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company.” Sophia, who has been doing ballet for five years, speaks up, “It was really fun, I felt like I learned a lot.” Eunice, still glowing with her granddaughter’s accomplishment tells me, “She was told she has good stage presence.” Sophia, smiling, meekly tries to cut her off by shouting “Grandma!” But Eunice continues: “Compared to the rest of her class.”