my Grandma and I
I wrote a story about it the other week,
except then I did not know it would be our last meal
when I sat next to Grandma
and we both ordered the salmon salad
from a booth in the café.
The nice thing about a booth
is that it allows multiple people to sit in the same seat
like a couch
like you’re at home
with the passion for hospitality.
She had been talking about taking us out
to a meal at the Pfister for weeks before,
a stupendous outing, a big to-do.
After our meal we slowly ambled through the ballroom
looking at the paintings
as I carried her purse
which must have held fifteen pounds
of everything anyone could possibly ever want from a grandma.
Chickadee, would you like a stick of gum?
Do you need a Kleenex, a dab of lip balm or lipstick?
Life savers, a wallet stuffed with family photos,
five dollars worth of change
and biscotti at the ready,
like her kitchen table
that three weeks after our last meal
has a stack of all her receipts
with the one from the Pfister on top,
obviously her favorite purchase
of the bunch,
an afternoon with the family
she loved so much
that she kept two refrigerators
and an industrial freezer
stuffed with chickens, soups, roasts
and ravioli at the ready
in case we all showed up
with a platoon of long-lost relatives
and their neighbors all
a symphony of deep
in need of their 88-year-old matriarch’s
wooden spoon and steel stew basin magic.
A month ago she cooked Christmas dinner for eight
with both conventional and organic broccoli
(just for me, the grandchild with a zillion food sensitivities)
“Well, I don’t want you getting sick, Anja-Mangia!”
And that same day just for her, I typed this poem:
I roll up to a family
with one of those dual seat strollers
and make my introduction,
“Are those two ‘youngins’ twins?”
“They are almost Irish twins,” says the mama.
I’ve never heard
of that one
what does that mean?
“In order to be an Irish twin you would have to be born within twelve months of your sibling. But these two were born thirteen months apart.”
I hmmm, realizing
my Dad and aunt are Irish twins.
I’ve got tell Dad
how he’s spent seven decades
probably not knowing
this part of his identity.
The things you can learn
when you go twin watching
at the Pfister.
I really have met a lot of twins
by roaming the Pfister.
The very same day
as near-Irish twins
I meet fraternal twin siblings,
Levon and Levona,
pausing for pictures
with the lion twins.
Now, what kind of twin are the lions?
There’s a hat on the bar
beside a mostly empty coffee.
red black grey feather
probably smells good
but I don’t sniff stranger’s hats,
taking pictures of them
This quiet evening with the curtain in a knot
inspires me to write a birthday note.
I know three people with birthdays today
that I’m going to give this to:
“Happy Birthday to the missing tooth
and the room with no people in it
and to the shrink wrap bag
with nothing shrink-wrapped in it
happy birthday to the backside
of everything you will never think about
even with a search engine
and fifty widdle five-year-olds
who ask about when fish feel sad
and what is inside the popcorn kernal
to make it explode?
Those kids always talk about eternity
but I’m talking about the backside of eternity
and I’m wishing it a very happy
a berry merry birthday.”
First I give this note to Birthday Bridget
along with my spare Tom Thumb typewriter.
As we sit on the orange velour couches of the lounge
my friend Natalie exclaims
this line thrice:
“The hot cocoa here, oh!
Thick and rich!”
She can’t believe how delicious it is,
or how she’s ordered hot cocoa
all over the city—
disappointing hot cocoas
concoctions of wateriness
contained in styrofoam cup
to this whipped cream crowned cocoa,
of thick quality chocolate
that leaves rings
inside ceramic mug.]]>
“The movie itself is rather boring, it’s a half an hour long and meant for schools and businesses,” Chuck claims. So he and the AV guy from his work got together, edited it and started dubbing in voices to make it comic.
Anne was an assistant to the manager of Underwood’s typewriter division. She regularly attended business shows that had an array of sections devoted to different typewriter companies, mimeograph machines, and anything else that a person would use in a 1940’s business. Anne would be set up in the Underwood area always demonstrating the latest model for the crowds. Frequently these shows hosted contests in which young women would race each other to accurately type the most words per minute.
Chuck gives me his mom’s number. When I call her she tells me, “They would send me to different contests and I usually won because I could type very fast.” One time at a business show, a man who had been watching her work offered her a job at his brand new company. Anne politely declined, saying that she was very happy with her job at Underwood. She now regrets it, “This man was the man who started IBM! Thomas Watson! He was a delightful man. I can’t believe I said no to him, had I said yes, I’d probably have a lot more money than I have now.”
I asked Anne what her word per minute was when she typed. “Oh, probably a hundred and something, I forgot honey, but it was a lot. I played the piano. I started lessons when I was seven. I think the fact that I played the piano made my fingers very nimble.” Later, I called Chuck and asked if he knew what his mother’s words per minute was. He immediately told me “130.” At 88, Anne still plays the piano, and holds a job as a church organist.
It was Anne’s boss who suggested that she be the official Underwood Typewriter Girl of 1945. “I was petite and had blonde hair, and uh, I was nice looking. I guess that’s why they took me, they figured I’d be photographic enough.”
She kept the tin with the film reel in it for years in her file cabinet. “It took us a whole week to make it. I had to wear the same dress every day. It wasn’t washed or anything, we didn’t have a washer or dryer then. And the makeup was horrible orange, just terrible, and we’d go out for lunch between the takes and all and people would be looking at us, and me with this terrible makeup, I was embarrassed.”
Whenever a new typewriter came out, Anne would go to the factory that produced it and take a tour of the facility with the manager. “I don’t know why they had me go up there, but I did.” At one point they showed her an all-white (including the keys) portable typewriter getting packed up to be sent. “I said, ‘Oh, it’s beautiful, but why is it all white?’ And they said ‘It’s going to the Pope.’”]]>
I catch them right before they put on their coats and leave to spend their afternoon at the Discovery World museum. Daughter Natalia tells me she is eager to rest her body on the bed of nails that is kept there. Daughter Anastasia is dreamy with thoughts of the pirate ship. “Where is Joe?” someone asks. Sometimes he drifts away from the group to investigate shiny objects, and there are an awful lot of shiny objects in the Pfister, even more so when they have the holiday display up. Knowing Joe’s tendency, his brother Matthew gets up to go find him and bring him back for a picture.
Two of the kids are biological, one is foster and another was adopted all the way from Khazakstan. “They are all miracles and great kids,” confirms their mother who adds entirely in jest, “And they are all a pain in the butt.”
The family asks me to share with them a secret about the Pfister Hotel. I tell them about the peephole on the seventh floor ballroom door. The kids ask me if I have ever seen a wedding in the ballroom, and I assert that I have witnessed quite a few. The dad asks Matthew, the eldest if he knows what it means to crash a wedding and the boy nods, “You just storm in, uninvited.” I get an image in my head of myself leaping into the ballroom, wearing a cape the color of a grey cloud and holding two cardboard lightening bolts. I swipe the microphone right out of the best man’s hand and yell into it my declaration of “I’m here!” The bride and groom gasp, several guests drop their forks that clang into their plates. Everyone is thunderstruck.
“But I have never crashed any weddings here,” I clarify.
so my Grandma and Mom take us all out
to a Monday noon lunch at the Pfister café.
My cousin Courtney, lifelong Texas resident
introduces us to her new husband, Michael
who, to our collective delight is as Wisconsin as
Green Bay where he was raised.
Then there is my cousin Amy and her new husband, Punit
who grew up in Zambia, Africa.
Soon Amy & Punit (of Kansas) will voyage to India
to visit all his grandparents and family there.
Many countries and continents encompass our family,
but today’s meeting concerns the Italian “De Simone” side.
My mom wants you to know De Simone
should be pronounced Deh-si-MON-eh
not Dee-Simone as they switched it long ago
to fit their new American life in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Courtney says she thought she once heard
that De Simone is really a French name
and that one of our ancestors married a French bishop,
which would be against the Vatican’s wishes if true.
But my mom says no, that’s not right, at all,
Grandpa (my great-grandpa) had an uncle who was an archbishop,
Filippo, born in Acri, Consenza, Calabria in 1807
long before it was considered Italy, unified as we know it today.
Filippo was installed as the bishop in the Cathedral of Santa Severina
which my parents snapped a picture of when they visited Italy in 1983.
Bishop Filippo’s brother and sister-in-law lived with him,
as the caretakers of his house.
Once, when this sister-in-law turned gravely ill,
her husband prayed to let her live
and to have him be the one to die instead…
and that’s just what happened.
Then the bishop’s widowed sister-in-law remarried
to a man with the last name of Pignataro.
Years later, her son Giuseppe De Simone
(from her first marriage),
moved to America and worked
to provide enough for his teenage bride, Maria
and their first son
as well as his sisters and half-sisters
to all cross over in 1914.
Years later my mother explained to Maria all about her new waterbed
Maria was repulsed at the idea of a swaying, watery bed,
“I came over on the boat, that’s enough for me.”
Maria and Giuseppe’s son, Alberto De Simone was my Grandpa.
My cousin Amy’s Grandpa was Alberto’s brother, Alfredo.
Both Al’s eliminated the o’s off the ends of their name
so they wouldn’t stick out as Italians.
Courtney’s Grandma, Elvira became Vera.
Salvatore became Uncle Sam,
Guillermo became Uncle Willy.
Aunts Florence and Eva didn’t change their names,
Aunts Adeline and Angeline did not survive childhood.
Now, a century after Giuseppe (a.k.a “Peppi”) came over to America
looking for his new life as a blacksmith,
his offspring gather in the Pfister, ordering a bloody mary,
cream of broccoli soup and a couple of salmon salads
“Wasn’t one of our ancestors a French Bishop or something?”
No, he wasn’t,
but isn’t this game of generational telephone interesting?]]>
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.]]>
Katherine has been coming here for years
she was married for three decades
to a man who came to the Pfister to just to jog.
He died ten years ago
so, recently she asked the divine,
“could you please send me a boyfriend who does yoga?”
After she asked she didn’t expect a response,
so instead of waiting around for love
she went camping.
While she was out there in the wilderness
she met an interesting man
they talked quite awhile
and when they were done he asked for her number
but for whatever reason she wouldn’t give it to him
so it took weeks for them to run into each other again
but when they did
he asked her for her number again,
so this time she did
and now she’s spending Christmas
and New Years with him,
her new boyfriend
who just so happens to practice yoga.
He wants to serve lobster on New Years Eve
which is frankly,
a tad daunting for Katherine
who has never eaten that before.
She is a woman with habits,
she comes to the Pfister
every year to visit with Val at the bar
after doing some shopping at Boutique B’Lou.
Her bags of loot sit on the stool beside her.
Inside the paper bag wrapped bounty
are Nepalese bracelets of woven beads
of which a portion of the sale
goes back to helping the women crafters of Nepal
and their families to live more complete and healthy lives.
So Katherine bought a few of these seed bead wonders
and took one out for me to touch
it feels like a snake
in a good way,
I know, I have touched snakes
they are cool
cool and smooth,
in a bumpy way
but I have slithered myself into tangent
back to the story
this is how Kathy shows her love:
three moose are in the mail
(Or is it meese? Like geese?)
I don’t know what they look like
or if they are alive,
but she gestures how big they are
these moosen are headed
for Kathy’s great-grandchildren
who live in Minneapolis.
This morning she went shopping for the yogic boyfriend too
and he’s going to get
shrimp, champagne and chocolate cupcakes,
I know, I asked,
and now you know too.
And what did Katherine learn from all this?
She laughs, “Maybe I should pray more often.”]]>
Note to readers, while I am certain that Central Intelligence Agency workers do enjoy leisure in the Pfister, like anyone else, you have to understand that everyone, yes, nearly everyone constantly tries to impress me by telling me that they work for the C.I.A. or the F.B.I. Usually men will inform me this when not accompanied by a wife or girlfriend. They expect my eyes to grow like saucers. They expect me to swoon or trill like a parakeet. Sometimes, just to give them that moment of satisfaction I go along, but truly, you can’t pull that kind of bunk with me when everyone else says the same thing. And just what is the allure of being a C.I.A. or F.B.I agent? I am certain it is not often a job like it is the movies. Furthermore, I don’t even enjoy those kinds of movies.
The workers point to their official Santa, “Do you watch the news? He’s the one responsible for the torture of the 9/11 terrorists.” I must not look impressed, for someone else backs the claim up, “Yeah, it was all him, he was the architect of the torture.” Clearly, this is not eliciting the right reaction with me at all when a woman asks me “Were you even alive during the 9/11 terror attacks?”
2001 was thirteen years ago. If that was before my time, that would put me at twelve years of age, well, at the very most. However, I do remember learning from my high school’s intercom about the attack on the twin towers in New York. My first thought was, “What are the twin towers?”
I don’t get too deep into my reminiscing of that day, because these people seem to be having fun. One of them is wearing a yarn necklace strung with office supply clips. She tells me she retired the on same day as the official Santa and one other person. The three of them all decided to retire as a group last year because it would be cool to do that.
More former coworkers arrive, and the cries of long separation carry through the whole lobby. This is one loyal pack and they are feeling rowdy. I flee to let them howl.]]>
What’s next for Jennifer? She will keep dancing in some form. Right now she is a lady of leisure spending her afternoon in the lounge. Her son is one of the bellhops and is treating her to a stay. She is writing her Christmas letters. Open before her is a card with a lengthy penned message to her friend in Russia. Jennifer sips a Moscow Mule.
Val, the bartenderess corrects me, “It’s an Austin Mule,” since the vodka is Austin made. She introduces me to two young men at the bar. They are ordering matching red wines that they will hopefully not spill upon their immaculate matching white shirts. They have matching hair and matching black slacks. They have both just finished job interviews for the same coveted investment-banking job. One flew in from Boston, the other St. Louis, but geez Louise, do they match! And even though they are trying for the same slot they converse on the couch like old chums.
“The gifts in life have nothing to do with money, it has to do with the people you meet who change your life,” says Ronny, former basketball player and the founder of Athletes For Autism. Ronny connects people, entertainers and athletes together to form a voice for autism, a voice for the voiceless. He says the wisest people are often beggars, and many choose their poverty as a way of life. There was a beggar that Ronny would buy lunch on a regular basis. Ronny enjoyed conversations with this intelligent person and offered to give him a job and a support system so that he wouldn’t have to live on the streets anymore. The man accepted the job, cleaned up, wore a nice suit but couldn’t get through his first day on the job. It wasn’t in him; he had a calling to learn through suffering on the streets.
Ronny provided the deepest conversation I’ve ever participated in at the Pfister. He told me to write it down when I theorized, “You have to have empathy to have curiosity.”
I get a phone call from Short Man, he wants to see me. We were best friends in high school in the Carribean, he never finished and I hadn’t heard from him much since. He’s in New York. I was going from Europe to Miami but he changed my ticket for me. Three guys came to pick me up in a car at LaGuardia, they said, “We want to take you, the Short Man wants to see you.” It was the first time I was in New York. They took me to a place (I would later realize is called the Bronx) to a dilapidated building sort of like Cabrini Green. There wasn’t an elevator, they took me up these steps. We kept climbing up all these steps to the top where there was a big red door. They knocked a certain kind of patterned knock. A guy on the other side of the door lifts a flap, peers at us and says “Okay.” He moves a big steel cross from the door and lets us in.
From knee height all over the floor is only money, guns, drugs and people counting it, putting it in rubber bands. Short Man is running the operation. I’m told he will be here in a little bit. I wait and watch people counting and eating cheap sandwiches. As I wait they tell me that I’m welcome to any amount of money I want. “Just take it.”
I’m waiting and he’s still not coming. They ask, “Is there anything you want to do? Chase women? Play pool? Strip clubs?” I said I think I’d like to drink beers and play pool like we do in the Caribbean. I am to play pool against the bar’s resident pool master as my three friends (who I don’t really know) watch on and I break the shot. The pool master says, “Well, you know its $100 a game. We play for money here.” I said, “What? I’m not used to that.” My three friends said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll pay for you, just have a good time.”
I accidentally hit some of his balls with the cue. He took my cue stick, threw it down on the table and shouted, “You lose! You’re not supposed to hit your opponents balls here, ‘house rules!’ Just pay me my money and get out of here!” My friends told me to play him again. So we start playing again. Now I try and get the white ball by going at an angle, but I miss the whole shot. I lost again. “We play the next one for $500 or you pay me my $200 and walk away from the table. I tell my friends, “I’m sorry I put you through this inconvenience.” They reply, “No, you’re okay, play again.”
By now I’m learning from my mistakes. I surround his balls very carefully with mine so that when he goes he had to make the same hitting violation as game one. When he does I declare “Aha! House rules!”
What happens next is unpleasant and I don’t want to repeat it. Eventually he connects up with Short Man and they go shopping together for eight days.
We kept going to the shops and whenever something costs $800, he says, “I’ll take that. I’ll take that.” I was ready to go home, about to take the airplane, Short Man begged, “I don’t know anyone in America, stay with me. I have a problem, I’m making so much money it’s like a garden hose with water coming through and I can’t shut it off. I don’t know what to do with it.” I asked him how much money he had and he said he was making two million a week and asked, “I have a question for you, you’re my only friend. Why is it you never took anything from me? No diamond, no rolex, money or camera?” So I said, “We are like brothers, there is no need for me to take anything. As long as you have something, I have something.” Short Man nodded his head and said, “That makes sense.”