Bag of Dreams

You would think by now that I would be unmoved by the sight of luggage in the lobby of the Pfister. Guests come in with bags, generic guests leave with bags. It’s all part of the hotel game. But when I see the hard working bell staff chugging back and forth with rolling carts filled with black bags that are being lined up with precision to form a sort of suitcase pond in the Pfister lobby, it’s worth a glance.

Having traveled with my mother and seen the carnage she can do at an airline baggage check-in, I first think that maybe the bags being lined up are filled with one lady’s collection of shoes. But as I get closer to the formation, I dispel that notion based on the fact that these black bags don’t bespeak of the high line of style that a lady in possession of 328 pairs of mule pumps might require for her steerage.

The moment that I see the luggage tag with a professional baseball team logo, I get it. The Pfister welcomes professional baseball teams from all around the country for their stay in town as they play at Miller Park, no matter how badly they beat our local Brewers. What I’ve come upon is the collective luggage for a traveling team who is checking out after rousting the Brew Crew during a recent home stand. Next year, by gum…next year our hometown boys will field an unstoppable team, for sure.

Rather than flipping over one of the suitcases so that the opposing team’s bags will all topple like some sort of Rube Goldberg dominos display, I stand in awe of the bags. I’m not one to kiss and tell (and don’t worry, I didn’t smooch any of the valises), so I won’t mention the name of the team that was responsible for taking out a majority of floor space with their matching suitcases. I also won’t note the bag tags of the famous players in the mix whose cases I considered grabbing and running away with to see if I could pick up a well-worn catcher’s mitt or even a lucky sweat sock because I’ve not been put on this earth to fleece ballplayers, just to admire their throwing arms and cheeks stuffed with wads of chewing tobacco.

Standing before the team totes, some far off voice calls to me. It’s my boyhood friend Ricky telling me to “look alive” as he slings a scuffed old baseball towards the ancient wooden bat in my hand. Seeing the bags, and realizing the team is on the move, I become a kid again, the one who spent summers oiling up his glove and visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY with my grandparents. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat with a scorebook and marked box scores, but there’s something about seeing the team’s bags bound together that makes me pause and remember a time in my life when a good day meant getting enough kids from the neighborhood to field two teams for a pickup game.

I share a smile and some words with the staff moving the luggage, but my mind wanders to the game. I’ll have to head out to catch nine innings before this season’s over. For now, I’ll recall the satisfaction of hearing the crack of the bat and dream about what’s inside those bags. The man in me knows that they’re stuffed with shirts and pants and shaving cream cans and socks, but the boy in me still hopes that those suitcases and filled with bats, balls, gloves and the hope for a sunny summer day when you share a soda with your pals even after they’ve scored the winning run by beating the tag at home plate.

Reflections of Remarkable Milwaukee

Last Monday January 28th an event was held at the historic Pabst Theater,which is just a stroll down the avenue from the Pfister and Intercontinental. The evening was titled Remarkable Milwaukee and gathered many of Milwaukee’s innovative business leaders, successful creative types, and championing envisionistas. The group relaxed on stage while seated on Victorian couches to discuss their visions for our city’s future over coffee and cocktails. The occasion was also a fundraiser for Historic Milwaukee, a non-profit whose goal is to both increase awareness of Milwaukee’s architecture and preserve our built environment.

In front of a packed house the participants discussed issues and positives within our city. Many issues which are not unique to Milwaukee. Ways to maintain our unique existing architecture while making it fit inside the box of modern use. How to attract and retain both businesses and skilled labor to the city. How do we make productive space out of industrial buildings which may no longer house the industry they were built by (This always makes me think of our enormous Cold Storagewarehouses sprinkled along the riverbanks). The urban education elephant in the room. How to rebuild any city’s areas of urban blight. The discussion was a unique gathering point for intellectuals who wanted to do more than demonize cities with a fast attack of scary soundbites. I gathered that they viewed cities were a gathering point of culture, art, work, and living and there was no need to work in an environment miles away from where one lives. That this city is a great trove of activity and history, which is and will be as fantastic as we decide to make it. Our quilt, per se. Within the hour of conversation nobody arrived at rushed conclusions, and I don’t think it was the goal.

The Pabst Theater was an entertainingly appropriate location to discuss Milwaukee’s health and future. Before existing as The Pabst the venue had been called The New German City Theater, and had been built by Frederick Pabst. However this structure burnt down in 1895. When word reached Captain Pabst he wrote back from a European vacation, “Rebuild at once!” and within a year the Pabst Theater stood.

It seemed serendipitous that exactly one week later I met a couple named The Williams’ from Philadelphia. We were sitting in the Pfister lobby lounge and a conversation struck up about beer. Talk regarding microbrews between a bartender and two fans of what made Milwaukee famous pours easy and quickly spills over into other topics.

They were well-versed in restaurants around the Downtown area, microbreweries, the East Side, Bay Vew. This lovely retired couple was already familiar with nearly all over my favorite corner establishments. I finally asked how they’d become so acquainted. “Oh we own a condo over near Brady Street. We come here several times throughout the year for a week or two at a time. Milwaukee’s our retirement city.”

I asked what drew them to Milwaukee as a retirement town. They don’t have any family ties and neither of them had spent much time working in Wisconsin. It was more simple than I might have guessed. They’re big baseball fans so they come in to watch games and like to ride their bikes to the stadium. From Brady Street they can take the Lakefront trail through Lakeshore State Park (the park between Discovery World and Summerfest grounds) and bounce around to connect with the Hank Aaron Trail just across from the Harley Davidson Museum, which heads straight by Miller Park.

Ms. Williams explained that they’d shopped around in Florida and Arizona but they found that although those states offered Baseball’s Spring Training the climate was too harsh for any daytime activity other than sitting and watching baseball. Plus, when they do have to get in the car Milwaukee is an easy and quick place to navigate.

In addition we have restaurants and night spots offering a level of quality to which they’ve grown accustomed on the East Coast. Galleries, museums, other sporting events, music festivals. Culture, I suppose, if you want to boil it down to one word.

After shaking hands and saying good night talking with the Williams’ made me chuckle. It seemed they epitomized many of the points this discussion panel had been trying to touch on the week previous.

In the early 1960’s the Pfister Hotel reached a crossroads. After years of neglect and mismanagement the landmark was scheduled for demolition. To the chuckling whispers of many Ben Marcus purchased the Pfister. He saw the value in this building and decided to not only save the structure, but invested in the future of the location. To him the Pfister Hotel was more than a stack of bricks and a number on paper. It represented a potential. Now here I am sitting in the lobby lounge. Talking with a couple of transplants who enjoy remarkable Milwaukee as their retirement playground.

All these years later it appears that if you build it they will come.

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!