In my eight months as the Pfister Narrator, I’ve learned a lot about traveling, hotels, art, people and, just last night, trends in coffee.
I sat down next to Ron and Jonathan in the Lobby Bar and noticed they were both enjoying tall, black coffees. We started chatting and I asked them if they were digging their drinks.
“Absolutely,” said Rob. “We love coming here to drink coffee, eat these delicious snacks and listen to Dr. Hollander play the piano.”
“Do you always drink black coffee?” I asked.
“Well not always,” said Jonathan. “Sometimes we put a little butter in them.”
Wait butter? As in butta?
“Yeah,” said Jonathan. “I don’t eat breakfast and I know it’s an important meal and so the butter adds a little nutrition.”
They went on to explain to me that butter also provides a creaminess and richness to the coffee that is really delicious. Even though butter is a dairy like cream – a more common coffee condiment – I still could not wrap my mind around the concept for some reason.
So, I went home and did a quick Google search, only to realize butter in coffee is a thing – a trend – based on an ancient tradition.
Recently, it’s become increasingly practiced because some drinkers find that extra calories increase their energy levels throughout the day. It’s particularly popular among individuals on the heavy in protein / low in carbs “paleo diet.”
There was really only one way to form an opinion on butter coffee and that was, of course, to try it. And so, this morning, I did.
The creaminess of the butter serves the same purpose as milk or cream – it cuts back the bitterness of coffee and adds a silkiness to the drink.
That said, I wont be tossing a stick of butter in my coffee pot anytime soon, but I always appreciate the chance to try something new and step outside my usual routine.
But I’m drawing the line at raw eggs in my coffee. That’s one dairy product that needs to stay far, far away from my mug.
That was Joe’s answer when I asked how old he was. His response was shared with a grin in that adorable way that only people up to a certain age are excited to tell you how old they’re going to be.
Joe started with the Pfister as a busser at the ripe young age of 18. After time spent cleaning tables Joe moved on to being a food runner and from there he has become a bartender. Joe bartends upstairs in Blu on occasion but most nights you can find him downstairs in the lobby lounge. This is where he prefers to spend his workday, as he prefers the relaxed vibe and the ability to spend time getting to know his customers.
To be fair; calling Joe a rookie isn’t entirely accurate. He has worked at the Pfister Hotel for 4 years.
The other day Joe and I were discussing houses. I just bought a fixer-upper in the Harambee neighborhood and Joe asked about my buying experience and challenges faced thus far in remodeling. Joe said that he’s thinking about buying a house. Maybe a single family, maybe a duplex. Something that a couple of handy buddies can move in and help him fix up in exchange for cheap rent. He gets that far-off glassy gaze while describing his house. “Somewhere that can be my own place with a pool table and a garden and I can make it my own.”
“How old are you anyway, Joe?” I finally asked him. That’s when he told me he was going to be 22.
“How many 22 year olds who want to buy a house and put roots down?” I found myself thinking. This is the biggest reason I waffle on whether or not to call this guy a rookie.
Joe is the youngest bartender currently pouring drinks between the Pfister’s lobby lounge, Mason Street Grill, and Blu.
Possibly as a result of being a young he is interested in discovering new things. Joe is always quick with the best place to get a bite of food, try an innovative cocktail, or find an under-the-radar music venue. He knows who has the best hot wings, and where the burgers only cost a buck on Thursdays. He’s got his pulse on the city and it would be a traveler’s loss not to ask this young man his recommendation. I call Joe a rookie not because of a lack of experience, but because of the youthful excitement we all hope to keep fostering as we grow older.
It’s true that at 22 he may not yet be a walking recipe dictionary for every variety of fruit juicy martini, or ironically named shaker filled with frou frou creamy sweet shots. But his youthful manner is very much a boon to the young man. Joe doesn’t lean behind the bar with the sneer of a bartender who has “seen it all,” and as such hasn’t developed a bedraggled ambivalence to the world. Joe hasn’t seen it all. The world is still relatively new to him. He hasn’t heard it all, and he’s not developed the presumption to assume how your story is going to end when you’re in the middle of telling it. This guy is interested in hearing about your hometown, your last vacation, or an artist whose work he hasn’t previously been exposed to. Joe has the current experience which one cannot buy, the experience of being in the middle of one’s glorious youth. But for the mere cost of a glass of beer, you can enjoy Joe’s company. Which is almost as good as being young again yourself.
This is the one I’ve avoided writing. The elephant in my room. The profile I’ve put off for five months while I watched and listened quietly in the background, leaning against a column with my arms crossed wondering how it happens and how to write about it.
Every time I’ve listened to Dr. Jeffrey Hollander play the piano I’ve had a clear desire to write about him, to chronicle the man and his work. I’m a music fan but I’ve never been a musician. I can converse in a limited manner regarding jazz and even less when it comes to classical composition. But we all know when we’ve been able to observe an art which resonates within us. There has been more than one occasion when I’ve listened to Jeff play and I feel like he’s reached inside of me and turned my ribs into piano keys. Then, there I am in a hotel lobby and suddenly sniffing and clearing my throat amongst a roomful of travelers.
When Jeff’s playing within the setting of the Pfister Hotel it’s almost as though you’re attending a private concert. Sometimes he’s behind the piano for lunchtime, sometimes evening, other nights he plays late. Often, in the late morning sun there are only a few other people who happen to be on their computers or reading while he plays, looking around the room to catch eyes and smile to anyone whose ears have perked. I still haven’t wrapped my brain around the fact that some people come to work and get paid while listening to Jeff play multiple times a week.
So what’s my deal? Why haven’t I just gotten over it and written about the guy already?
My conundrum is this: How do I presume to be able to ask questions of someone regarding an activity, a vocation, a way of life they’ve lived for 70 years?
The irony is that Jeff is a surprisingly engaging musician. Beyond being an approachable musician, he’s a nice guy. Throw out your image of the stormy, brooding genius and replace it with a guy who will tell you about the composer of the piece he’s playing, why they are important, and will ask if there is anything you would like to hear.
In most musical performances there is a barrier between the performer and the audience. Sometimes it’s literal, for instance a stage (Or those weird cages that only exist in tough guy bars in movies like Road House.), but even if there is no obvious stage there is a perceived separation between performer and listener. This makes sense, as playing music is difficult. It requires concentration. For most people an instrument, or painting, or basketball requires most of the individual’s brain power. I know I’m not a very interesting person to sit with when I’m typing. Jeff, however, likes talking when he’s playing. He invites the audience to engage him. His entire face lights up when someone sits at the table closest the piano and begins speaking with him.
There are no shortage of stories about Jeff’s playing. He’s performed all over the world and has played at the Pfister for well over 20 years. Many hotel staff members have their own song, a song he knows they enjoy and he begins playing when they walk through the lobby, or arrive for their shift. Concierge Peter Mortensen’s is “Kiss Me Again” by Victor Herbert. One time a little girl asked if he’d ever heard of a song she liked called “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which made Jeff grin. She sang, lighting up the entire lobby, while the doctor backed her as the smiling rhythm section.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched people, clearly in thought and on their way to an appointment, stop in stride upon realizing the music that they’re hearing. They then look back and forth toward the sliding doors and longingly toward the man behind the piano. Realizing the happenstance musical moment they’ve stumbled into they’re earnestly considering how much time before they absolutely need to leave to arrive on-time.
This has happened to me dozens of times over the past five months, which is probably to blame for the timid sense of awe I’ve acquired toward Jeff. I want to capture him accurately and I don’t want to screw it up.
So, now that I’m getting over my stage fright in approaching this easygoing guy, Part 2 will be about Jeff and his piano. Tonight, as he always does on the first Thursday of every month, Dr. Hollander will be performing in Blu. The series is called Rhapsodies in Blu, and entry to the 23rd floor is free. I encourage you to listen to him dance across the keys before reading Part 2 about the man and his music in the very near future.
On Saturday October 15th the Pfister Hotel participated in the East Town Associations, ed “Heat It Up:Milwaukee’s Bloody Mary and Chili Challenge,” taking place during the Farmers Market inCathedral Square. With over 20 local restaurants vying for the coveted award, participants took in all the different offerings during the crisp Saturday Morning.
In the Chili competition, awards were given out in two different categories. “Best Veggie Chili” and “Best Beef Chili.” Chef Andronico Guzman Rivera of the Pfister Café entered with his Signature White Bean Chili. While his Chili was enjoyed by the masses, Chef Andronico took honorable mention.
In the coveted Bloody Mary competition, participants were judged by two specific criteria, “Bloody Mary Display,” and “Best Tasting,” both scores combined for one Grand Champion. Taking that award was Valerie from the Pfister Lobby Lounge with her signature “Pfister Mary.” Val had the longest line of all competitors with people actually getting a cocktail from other competitors, so that they could drink it while they wait in line for the Pfister Mary and it’s cornucopia of accoutrement.
We are very proud of our two participants. They were a great display of sportsmanship and healthy competition for theMilwaukeearea. Congratulations again to Chef Andronico and Valerie on their Pfister Spirit!
In Colorado, you have “relatives” and in Kentucky you have “kin.” So what happens when a group of people from both states work together and play together so often they consider each other family? Well, the Colorado folk now have kin, and the Kentucky folk now have relatives! And what happens when you get adopted by this affectionately slapdash family? You become “rela-kin.” Or, at least this is what I learned late one night last week in the lobby lounge.
At the end of a long day that consisted of 8 hours of my day (sometimes night) job, followed by a few hours getting to know the life of the room service employees (a story chosen by Facebook fans), it was 11pm and I had just settled down at a table next to the piano: laptop open, notebook to the left of my computer, a glass of wine to my right and lilting tunes sprinkled through the air. The plan was to get a little writing done and then head home.
Elly arrives to my right with a group of five. A boisterous, laughing group, they push two smaller tables together and the person nearest me leans over and says, “You’re not doing work are you?”
I laugh, “No! Yes! Sort of…” and explain what it is I do. Another member of the party interjects, “Well, it sounds like work and it’s too late to be working so we’re not going to let you get any done.” And they didn’t. The next two hours flew by.
All five had been in Milwaukee for a few days now, as part of a boating law conference. “Ah, yes,” I tease, “because Colorado and Kentucky are known for their expansive waterways.” I wink. They laugh. Friends through the conferences they’ve attended over the years, they easily tease one another and laugh heartily at anything remotely amusing. I like them a lot. The couple from Kentucky had managed to attend a Green Bay Packers game and a Brewers game. The Rockies had just beat the Brewers, which pleased the folks from Colorado greatly.
We talk regional life, exploring the topic of skiing in Colorado (I’ve never been on skis). I’m informed of the best places to go: Sylvester is more family-oriented but Steamboat has fluffier snow, and good tree skiing. No matter where you go, night skiing is the most magical – lights strung up along the trees that line the slopes, glittering off the crystalline powder as it sprays into the air, glinting in the moonlight. Since Kentucky is known for its bourbon, I inquire about the best whiskeys out of their state. The top brands are Woodford Reserve (Bourbon), Heaven Hill, Four Roses (a craft distillery started in 1888 that recently went into wider distribution), and Buffalo Trace. They add, “Though, if anyone ever offers you ‘Pappy Van Winkle,’ don’t say no. It’s a 23yr old bourbon that is a distinct and memorable spirit experience.”
Several glasses of wine later, it’s 1am and I gather up my belongings to head out. Throughout our jocular conversation, we touched on much more personal issues, including family life, travels and personal histories, so when it came time for me to leave, as we say our goodbyes, they add, “You know, now you’re family. You’re,” pausing for a moment, “rela-kin!”
Rela-kin, indeed. I think it might be nearly time for a road trip. Colorado, Kentucky, here I come!
There’s a clattering sound that breaks into the still, Sunday afternoon quiet of the lobby lounge. It’s startling, but muted enough that nobody else turns to look. When I do look, I see wooden blocks, scattered over the top of one of the lobby tables, as three young men in t-shirts and shorts settle in for a game of Jenga.
Within seconds, I’m parked in the fourth chair for a round of this tricky, wooden block stacking game. Introductions are made: Michael, Mike and Mikey* all offer up a firm handshake and a slight southern accent. All in from Dallas, Texas, they are here for their 8th year staying at the Pfister for Northwestern Mutual’s annual network representative meeting. Mike and Mikey are killing time waiting for their scheduled massages at WELLspa, and Michael eyes up a nap, as they’re all three heading to the Milwaukee County Zoo later this afternoon for a “garden party” put on by NML as one of the numerous family-friendly events going on around town at any number of our institutions and museums.
“If there’s any way you can get in,” says one of them, “you want to go. It’s so much fun!”
We talk and laugh while taking turns testing a wedged block, then slowly tapping, pushing, pulling until one ekes free, followed by an even slower, more tentative placing of said block on the top of the increasingly unbalanced tower.
We talk about Milwaukee – they like exploring the town when they’re here, heading to nearby watering holes in the evening hours – and they tell me what to check out in Dallas, if I ever go: Barcadia, a bar featuring old-school arcade games, like Tron and Space Invaders, is definitely up my alley.
The three are all equally as similar as they are different. Tall and fair, a little on the soft-spoken side; tall and dark, but warmly gregarious; and frat boy turned father of two who still know show to crack the great jokes. All three are married with kids, and, as we played and chatted, Michael announced that he just heard from his wife the night before that she’s starting a blog, too.
“Too?” I asked.
Yes: “too”. Apparently the wives of the other two already keep blogs—mostly on the domestic side, though the primary focus and purpose is to keep friends and family in the know with their kids’ lives: photos and stories and so forth.
Part of their boyish camaraderie comes from the fact that they work in the same office, started right around the same time, and are all about the same age. They talk easily about how they don’t feel directly in competition with one another (though Mikey did win a recent sales contest that allowed for him and his wife to join 49 other couples for a weekend trip to San Francisco), even as they operate solely on commission and therefore are competing for the same market base. Of course, part of this comes from a low market share in their region, but a bigger part of this comes from that feeling of family you get simply by working with people you like for 40 hours a week in the same physical space.
We applauded poor Mikey for his attempts to goad us into toppling the tower, though ultimately it fell for him. A second round tumbled for Mike. Kudos were given to Michael and I for not losing twice in a row. Mikey went off to get his massage, and the remaining three of us went in for a game of Yahtzee. Having not played in 15 years, they were patient with me as I re-learned the game, from scratch.
While they were only three out of the estimated 10,000 people who came to Milwaukee earlier this week, they reflected what I saw in most of the people passing through the lobby during the days of the conference: warm, polite, friendly, and family-oriented but not without a penchant for some fun. And, thanks to the games shelf now taking up space in the Pfister Cafe, we had a ton of fun.
*Two out of these three names are real. The third, well, we all agreed it would be a lot more fun to just give him a similar moniker as the other two.
From the brass knocker that indicates a guest’s room number to the matching brass plate on the electronics charging box inside; from the intricate patterns of the stair railings to the wallpaper stripes; from the ever-changing flowers in the front hall to the roses on the carpet – the tiniest of details come together to create the Pfister experience. Most people come inside and are so mesmerized by how it all comes together in its final tableau, nurse the details are easily overlooked.
For example, the grand elegance of the lobby with its varieties of Italian marble, pink and gold coloring, wide-open space ringed by impressive pillars, and lofty ceilings that rise over two stories above to a colorful mural, store may be one fabulous picture. However, stop to take a closer peek: See how the carpet at the main entrance is blue and gold, but there’s a rug over it that has veins of aquamarine, cranberry and mauve outlining the dueling blues – all populated with verdant patterns of decorative botanic designs that mimic those ringing the pillars and wrought into the railings along the staircases. See how the gold is then subtly trimming the edges and knobs on the two black wood tables that proudly display petals and blooms of all kinds and colors.
Certainly the Victorian art that adorns the public spaces is noticeable, discount but it’s good to stop and examine them more closely, catching the way a painter labored over the softness on the chiffon sleeves that cloud the arms of the angelic model in Adolphe Piot’s The Rose. Or, catch how much a cherub looks like one of the Pfister employees*.
When walking the halls where the rooms are located, simply look up. While you may take note of the lighting’s luminescence, have you considered the luminaries themselves? These brass fixtures with white shades also mirror the rounded, petaled designs strewn throughout the entire hotel’s décor. However subtle and simple, their classic appearance hearkens to that lamp you remember from your grandmother or great-grandmother’s parlor room, the electrical wires woven through golden chain links.
Each guest room door (even they vary in style—look for some with oval, some with rectangular cutouts, some with trim and some without) features a golden knocker with the room number etched into the brass in a deep, contrasting black.
Take the elevator to Blu. Notice the numbers? What’s missing? Ah, yes, the superstitious “thirteen.” I, of course, always think that just makes floor 14 really 13, and so on up to the top until the 23rd floor really becomes only the 22nd. But, I do love it when a building skips the thirteenth floor when numbering their levels. It creates a bit of a literary history note, some flair that creates a connection to the time when the building was erected.
Of course, the carpet outside of Blu is…well, BLUE! An exquisite navy blue is primary, overlaid by more contemporary floral patterns of the palest shades, bordering on cream or white. Braided throughout are curlicues – as if an artist patiently drew their finger in linking circular patterns while the carpet was being dyed, and this solo-digit trail was all that was left behind.
Speaking of the elevators, have you seen the star-shaped compass design that is inlaid into the marble outside the 7th floor doors? With forest green, pale mauve, and white points set on a cookies-n-cream ice cream floor, it stands out while being stood upon.
And, standing out is precisely the purpose of every one of these minute details. Each tiny component of aesthete sets out to complement its neighbor in a way that renders each nearly invisible. Take the time to stop, look closer, and you might be even more astounded by what you find.
*Which painting and which employee isn’t a secret, but you’ll have to come visit and ask around to find out!
Dan Albrechtson is slight of stature, stooped as though permanently shaped to sit on a bench and let his shoulders lead dancing fingers across a black and white striped musical floor. A retired math and computer teacher, his spectacles echo the days of computer programming gone by: large, square rims made of thick wire, but his tux and Scots-plaid vest are high class.
“Do you know what request I receive the most?” He takes a sip of his coffee (“one sugar, one splenda, got to make it equal,” Dan quips) as he sits next to me on his break. I shake my head, no.
I love Ol’ Blue Eyes’ music and when I express this, he brightens, “I saw Frank Sinatra in 1982 at the U.S. Cellular Arena, though of course it wasn’t called that, then.”
Chatting about crooners of music past, Dan tells me about his recent trip to San Francisco where he saw Tony Bennett perform for a packed house at Davies Symphony Hall. I tell him I’m from San Francisco and ask him where he stays.
“Usually the Fairmont, but this time my wife and I were at the Mark Hopkins.”
Dan tells me about how he plays at the Top of the Mark whenever he visits the City by the Bay, where he goes at least twice a year. His very first visit to San Francisco was in 1949 with his family. He was seven at the time.
“The piano at the Mark is exquisite. It’s got some of the best sound of any piano I’ve played. Did you know the one here,” he gestures to the Pfister’s lobby piano, “is at least 90 years old? The brass plate on it says ‘Apollo’ and Apollo was sold to Wurlitzer in 1929. Pianos show wear from their players and this one must have been played by a woman with long nails at some point in its history. Come see.”
We go to the piano, he lifts the lid. The first thing I notice are the burn marks on the keys at the far right: cigarettes, Dan tells me. He points to the center of the piano – just above the keys are long scratches in the wood, gouges that span several inches, all layered on top of each other.
“How did that even happen?” I ask Dan.
He demonstrates, playing the start of a tune, leading to the right, then, with a flourish, brings his right hand back to meet the left. As his hands float above the center keys on their journey leftwards, his fingers nearly graze the center wood, exactly where the gouges are.
“See that? When someone is playing, if they have long nails, the tips will scratch the paint or finish right off the wood here.”
He trails his fingers along a few keys. “Do you know what the second most common request I get is? Something from Phantom,” and he launches into a medley of his own design, replete with his own original arrangements of transitions between the title track, Music of the Night and All I Ask of You, through Masquerade and finishing up with Music of the Night again. It’s beautiful.
A story follows, one about Beethoven and Gershwin meeting in heaven. Beethoven challenges Gershwin to a piano duel. Gershwin agrees, on the condition that they take turns at the same piano and each begin and end their turn with the same note: F# – Beethoven agrees. It’s on. Dan begins. It’s Moonlight Sonata, which eventually drifts into Summertime, all the while Dan continues to narrate the story of these two great composers sharing time at some perfect piano in the sky. Another trade-off, and then a third, with the triumphant Fifth Symphony leading into the finish: the final chords of It Ain’t Necessarily So.
He finishes, takes a sip of coffee. “Pick any three notes.” Dan sits back and waits, a slight grin tugging up one corner of his mouth. “Original compositions are like writing. You just need the right words to get started, and the rest will follow. So, pick three notes,” he gestures to the center keys, “somewhere in here, black or white.” I tentatively reach over and press three keys.
Dan pauses, thinking, taps the keys for confirmation, says “Alright, then” and begins to play. What comes out is sounds like it could be the theme song from some delightfully charming, long-running, BBC romantic comedy sitcom like Last of the Summer Wine. I can’t stop smiling, the tune is irresistible. And it’s all mine.
Where: Parking garage When: 7:30pm What: Power-washing of the parking ramps. Motors running, water streaming, hoses draped across the cement. Cars with license plates from Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee all sport bike racks. Perhaps for people taking part in the UPAF Ride for the Arts which went on over the weekend?
Where: Elevator bank in hallway When: 7:35pm What: The soft hum of the A/C reflects the summer heat outside as fans circulate cooled air.
Where: Café at the Pfister When: 7:36pm What: A man in a khaki shirt moves rhythmically through the space, circling with his mop, shoulders flexing, reaching and swirling as he cleans the floor.
Where: Lobby When: 8:03pm What: Automatic doors at the main entrance open with a squeaking “swoosh” and a man on a mission brusquely enters, sweeping past tall vases cradling Birds of Paradise flowers. He’s holding aloft a white box topped with a brown paper bag: a guest’s order from a local eating establishment, arriving by delivery, the grease starting to spot the corners of the bag. The phone rings. Someone needs another bathrobe.
Where: Lobby Lounge When: 8:36pm What: The crinkle of paper and soft breath of pages being turned as a man sits in one of the plush chairs, reading the latest issue of TIME magazine. Ellie & Jeff quietly confer over the drinks menu, shoulders touching as they examine it where it sits on the end of the bar. Another guest stands with arms crossed in front of the corner armoir, open to reveal a previously hidden television, tuned to the (muted) NBA Finals.
Where: Business Center When: 8:50pm What:Minesweeper working fine.
Where: Lobby When: 9:02pm What: A guest returns from dinner. At the front desk, Stephanie, a gently gregarious soul, cheerfully inquires about how his meal was at Elsa’s on the Park. He has nothing but glowing enthusiasm and asks her for another recommendation for when he’s free another night later this week.
Where: Lobby Lounge When: 9:15pm What: Piano music begins again: strains of a soft waltz drift through the room, bouncing off the marble floors and expanding upwards into the arched ceiling. A bar stool squeaks.
Where: Lobby When: 9:16-9:23pm What: The phone rings. Two arrivals check in within quick succession – one right after the other. Footsteps on carpet, followed by wheels of luggage trailed behind. Guest #1 noses around on a tablet-style device, waiting while Stephanie finishes up a phone call. The clattering of keys follows as she swiftly checks him in, giving directions on where to find the pool. Guest #2 is dressed similarly: casual, comfortable traveling clothes. She, too, is checked in within moments.
Where: Lobby Lounge When: 9:26pm What: The automatic doors swoosh, squeak. A gentleman in a polo shirt and baseball cap rushes in, practically charging to a table that stands adjacent to the rear of the piano. He grabs a chair and sets it directly facing the enter of the instrument, his back to the lobby. Elly is by his side within seconds, confirming his order (which she already knew: he’s definitely a regular). He teases her. Jeff lobs a few remarks their direction, punctuated with laughter. He removes his cap, offers some cash to the piano player’s tip jar and murmurs some requests. The piano player’s head nods an affirmation, never ceasing the dancing of his fingers across the keys.
Where: Lobby bar When: 9:42pm What: Recently checked-in guest comes down to the bar and takes a seat, spreading her newspaper out before her, open to the crossword puzzle, her pen tapping in hand, in time to the music. The gentleman who sat by the piano has joined everyone else at the bar. The piano shifts from a lilting, soothing melody to something more bright, bubbly and lively – mirroring the increase in chatter as banter between Elly and Jeff and the other guests picks up slightly.
A humming fan, footsteps on the carpet, soft laughter, clattering keyboard keys, a tapping pen, the squeak of a bar stool, piano music, the swoosh of the automatic front door, a door being shut as someone departs…
Two men casually sit in the lobby lounge, amidst a loud, chattering crowd of entrepreneurial salesmen and women converging for an annual gala. They sit in facing chairs with an immense, dark walnut coffee table between them, each mirroring the other’s physicality and body position. Perhaps it’s their khaki pants and button-up shirts with collars undone that signal business casual. Perhaps it’s their quiet engagement with one another as they confer over a clipboard. Whatever it is, they are an unassuming presence, two apart from the rest of the people in the room. While everyone else talks with loud importance about numbers or how to grow a customer base, these guys have the easy laughter and rapport that comes from a lengthy working relationship that involves a lot of traveling together – waking up early, sharing cabs and cramped waiting areas at airports.
One of the few seats free happens to be located as part of the array of chairs in their vicinity, so I approach: “Is this taken?”
The slightly graying, broadly-smiling man opposite me replies, “No, not at all.”
“Do you mind if I sit here?”
He gestures, and the taller, dark-haired and bespectacled man nearer me nods an affirmation, “Please…”
Within moments, the gentleman across, who as it turns out has the remarkable low growl of a young (much more articulate) Sylvester Stallone, leans over and gestures at my scarf, while firing off questions in quick domino-falling succession: “What a lovely scarf! How is that tied? What is that? A name tag? What does it say?”
It’s almost effortless as we slide into conversation about what brings them to Milwaukee. Working for an international company, they come to Wisconsin a couple times a year to visit with one of their clients, based in the area, and one of their favorites. A favorite client because they are straightforward and honest, yet undeniably warm – almost certainly a result of the company’s roots in the Midwest, as the stereotypes about people here being honest and hardworking, has borne out time and again over the decade and a half they’ve done business together.
Our conversation meanders to discussing the importance of wearing ties to an initial business meeting, then over to what great things they should do in Milwaukee the next time they visit (take in a show at the Pabst/Riverside, see the Calatrava, etc.), and on to a recent six-course dinner they had at an Italian restaurant in NYC where four of the courses were pasta. They talk easily about their families (one son recently graduated college) and generally represent a perspective that, in the rush of the modern world, feels lost: one that is relational and not focused on the increasingly impersonal nature of business. It’s refreshing, and particularly so when taking into account that they don’t work for a small enterprise.
The crowd dissipates, the air empties of marketing strategies and is replaced by classical music, and these two travelers depart for dinner. Promises are made to keep in touch.
So, the next time you see people sitting together, attired in business clothing and casually chatting, consider that they might not be talking profits, but rather sharing a story of the last good meal they had in another city, or perhaps something even more personal—a child’s accomplishments—that may be a sign of a deepening business relationship, or the dawning of a new friendship. And, just maybe, you might consider walking up to them and asking if the nearby seat is free.