HUMANS OF THE PFISTER | SEPTEMBER 2016 | Back-to-School edition | “Is That All There Is?”

20160915_133845In between his sets at the Mason Street Grill this Monday–where he plays every Monday from 5:30-9pm–Chicago jazz pianist Joel Burt and I talked a little about his musical journey and, using a bit of interpretive poetic license, about the most important question any learner can ask: “Is that all there is?”

Getting here has been a life-long journey.

When I was younger, like ten years old, my mom said that I should take piano lessons.  And when mom says you’re going to take piano lessons, you take piano lessons.  But of course I wanted to play baseball, football.  I only dibble-dabbled with the piano for years after that.

I became an underwriter, but at one point I decided I’d like to try piano again.  I didn’t want to be in the front seat of the hearse; I didn’t want to be a vegetable.  So I enrolled at Berklee in Boston. Each day is a new day, right?  I always want to do something today that I didn’t do yesterday.  It’s always new–otherwise, what’s the point of doing the same thing all the time.  Like my mother used to tell me: “Make sure you go clean underwear on.”

I started off as a sideman for different bands, but now I’m pretty much in the lead.  I’ve been playing for six years at The Pfister and they finally gave me a drummer.  I mean, I’m not famous, but it’s nice getting called back.  I’m always learning, always getting better. I recently heard an arrangement played by an eighteen-piece orchestra and contacted the arranger: “You got to teach me how to do this.”  And he finally told me, “When’re we gonna start?”  Not “Here’s how much it’s going to cost” but “When’re we gonna start?”

I don’t ever want to live in a box.  Because life is like . . . a cabbage. A huuuge cabbage, with so many levels of life.  You can keep peeling it back and there’s still more!

20160915_133823 20160915_133724

Mr. Burt and I ended our pleasant talk between sets by suggesting I listen to Peggy Lee’s song “Is That All There Is?”  If I’m understanding the lyrics correctly, the title line in the chorus suggests that the speaker has come to understand that powerful forces aren’t always as powerful as she perceived them to be.  Taken out of context, though, the title line could certainly echo Mr. Burt’s passionate optimism and desire for new experiences:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
In his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to a fire?”

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And when I was 12 years old, my daddy took me to a circus.
“The Greatest Show On Earth.”
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears.
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And as I sat there watching, I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over,
I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to a circus?”

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And then I fell in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks by the river
Or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love.
Then one day, he went away and I thought I’d die.
But I didn’t.
And when I didn’t I said to myself,
“Is that all there is to love?”

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep-

I know what you must be saying to yourselves.
“If that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all?”
Oh, no, not me.
I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.
‘Cause I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,
That when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath
I’ll be saying to myself-

Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is my friends
Then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

Five Ways to Avoid Spending Your Wedding Anniversary Weeping When Your Spouse is Out of Town

This piece of mini literature is all about me not crying my eyes out. Straight out of the gate I must fall to my knees and thank all my friends at the Pfister Hotel from preventing that shirt dampening tragedy from taking place.

This past Monday was my 14th wedding anniversary. It also marks the 14th anniversary of the first (and until this week, generic last) time I stayed overnight at the Pfister Hotel. That overnight was made possible by a swell gift from some Canadian friends of my wife and I on our wedding night. It really was their secret ploy to kick us out of our house so six of them could take over our home and spend the night. Those Canadians understand full well how to stretch the American dollar.

To mark this momentous occasion that also confirms that my wife and I are older than dirt (well, I’m dirt, she’s nothing but dew spotted rose pedals), my wife Paula and I gave careful consideration to our schedules and made certain that we would be separated by no fewer than 900 miles the day of our anniversary. If you’re reading that last sentence out loud, clinic it helps to infuse it with a lot of pointed irony.

I chose not to despair while my bride was off doing some work in her motherland of New Jersey despite my constant concern that she and Bruce Springsteen are finally making their own sweet music after several years of their obvious infatuation with each other. As a matter of full disclosure, that concern may actually be my own paranoia over kicking beyond my coverage in terms of my spouse because as far as Paula and I know, Bruce Springsteen has only ever met her in his dreams.

Nevertheless, I didn’t want to spend my 14th wedding anniversary soaking my pillow with crocodile tears. I chose to take action and make a plan. Given the feelings of joy I experienced as my 14th anniversary came and went, I wanted to share my simple 5 Step Solution to avoid eating macaroni and cheese out of the pot on your wedding anniversary when your spouse is out of earshot. Follow these to the letter, and you’ll avoid the embarrassment of spending the day watching the full DVD set of Murder She Wrote that you have hidden behind your old record albums because you don’t want anyone to know you have them (the author claims NO personal knowledge of that, of course…uh uh, not me, and stop staring at my Angela Lansbury t-shirt).

  1. Arrange to stay at the Pfister even though its 10 minutes from your house. I can’t stress this enough. STAY OVERNIGHT AT THE PFISTER. I write about the Pfister, and I spend many hours a day roaming the halls, but I had forgotten just how magical it is to spend the night. The moment you make the decision to book a room, your spousal separation tears will dry up. You will feel like you are in a magical wonderland where the shower makes you feel cleaner than you deserve to be and where plush robes hang elegantly from a hanger in your hotel room closet. Robe time is great. Really great.
  2. Bring a couple of friends to Mason Street Grill and eat like your steak is calorie free. Mason Street Grill means business. They challenge you with the gorgeous food that comes from the kitchen. It’s one of those good challenges, you know, something like, “I challenge you to be utterly fabulous.” I accepted the challenge and my friends and I just let our forks slide from plate to plate. We might have removed our belts, but a true gentlemen never tells.
  3. Wake up early and spend some quiet time in the Pfister Club Lounge. There is a reason that the Pfister Club Lounge is on the 23rd floor. It is simply because it is as close to heaven as you can get without actually being there. The Club Lounge is a quiet place offering good coffee and snacks with a killer view of the city.
    The view from the club lounge taken after my twelfth cup of great coffee.

    In short, it is the perfect place to avoid doing some great writing. I avoided writing an entire novel from 5:30-8:30am. I could spend every waking minute there avoiding so much. It is my happy place.

  4. Share the experience with your 9-year-old daughter. In my case, sharing my anniversary with my 9-year-old daughter was welcome but non-negotiable. My wife was out of town, my older daughter was at camp, so it was just me and the kid who is undeniably a shorter version of me. My daughter Carmela beat me to the bed as we entered our room and found “American Ninga Warrior” on the television quicker than you could say, “Oh my goodness, this pillow is like a cloud filled with delicious butterscotch pudding.”
    My daughter has no problem relaxing.
    My daughter has no problem relaxing.

    We are peas in a pod. Carmela, a rather formidable competitive swimmer, also taught me how to swim the breaststroke in the Pfister pool. She’s tough, let me tell you, tough.

  5. Reach into your briefcase to find this note. IMG_3494_adjusted
    You share your 14th wedding anniversary with a 9-year-old who is all the best parts of you and your wife and it’s possible you may shed one or two tears. I won’t over explain this one, but I will admit that this note is going into that special box of notes and cards I have tucked away.

(Please note, this post is alternately titled How to Make Your Spouse Weep When It’s Your Wedding Anniversary and She Can’t Stay at the Pfister with You and You Tell Her What a Great Time You and Your Daughter Had.)

Follow me on Twitter @jonathantwest for more smart remarks and snappy retorts.

A birthday celebration sparks good conversation with a banker

During my first month as the Pfister Narrator, I have already spent a lot of time hanging out at the Lobby Bar, Cafe and Blu, talking to guests and hearing what brought them to the hotel.

Recently, for the first time, I went to Mason Street Grill. It was my birthday and it seemed like a fun, celebratory place. Plus, a couple I interviewed for my second Pfister blog said it had the best happy hour in the city.

I do not take such words lightly. And so I went.

I ended up not taking advantage of the great happy hour deals which offer everything on the bar menu for $5, but sat in the restaurant side instead. You know, ‘cuz I was the birthday girl and all.

I’m not one to photograph my food for social media, but I was in cell phone shutterbug mode during my entire meal. The lobster and salmon were incredible and the barbecue shrimp appetizer – which was recommended to me by former Pfister narrator Jenna Kashou – looked like an art piece. The drizzle design reminded me of an intricate henna design an Indian bride might have adorned on her hands or feet the night before her wedding.

Somehow, after my meal, I found a small window between gluttony and food coma, and struck up a conversation with Mason Street regular and another happy hour enthusiast, Tracy Meeks.

Me: So what brings you here tonight?

Tracy: I’m here for happy hour. I love the food and the drinks here. And the music. I come once or twice a week.

Me: Do you work Downtown? (He’s wearing a very nice suit and tie.)

Tracy: I work at Seaway Bank.

Me: I know where that is. Next door to the Fondy Market, on Fond du Lac. So did you move here from Chicago two years ago when Seaway took over the space? (It was formerly Liberty Bank.)

Tracy: You know your history. Yes, I did move here two years ago from Chicago when the bank opened.

Me: How long have you been in banking?

Tracy: Since 1989.

Me: So why should someone consider banking at Seaway?

Tracy: It’s a small community bank. We’re friendly. We know our customers. And you will always get a person on the phone.

Me: So do you ever go to the Fondy Market?

Tracy: Every Saturday in the summertime.

Me: You a vegetable person?

Tracy: Yes. I love squash, cabbage.

Me: Do you like to cook?

Tracy: I do. I like to make lots of things. Especially crab cakes with asparagus and a glass of beer. Not wine. I’m a beer drinker. And I like Scotch.

Me: How was your transition, moving from Chicago to Milwaukee?

Tracy: It’s been good, Milwaukee’s nice. I call it a very northern suburb of Chicago. I love my lake view here in Milwaukee. I love the people of Milwaukee. It’s a northern city with southern hospitality. It’s a diamond in the rough. A lot of people who live in Milwaukee don’t know what Milwaukee really has to offer but those of us who come in from the outside really see it.

Me: What do you miss about Chicago?

Tracy: I still go there often. I miss the night life. Chicago is a fun city to enjoy yourself. But in Milwaukee you can really relax. And there’s good music here, too.

Me: What else do you like to do when you’re not banking?

Tracy: I like running, riding my bike at the lake. I like music a lot. Jazz, Blues. And I like to vacation. I’m not much of a sightseer. I like islands and resorts where I can lie on the beach and relax. I also have a 19-year-old daughter who’s a college student in Iowa. She’s staying with me this summer. She’s out with her friends tonight. And so I’m here.

Me: Do you like sports?

Tracy: I love sports. I’m a Bears fan, of course, but I bought season tickets to the Bucks. Great season. Ended too soon, but still a great season.

Me: Where did you grow up?

Tracy: I’m from Waterloo, Iowa.

Me: Do you still have family there?

Tracy: I was just in Iowa two weeks ago for Mother’s Day. Saw my mother and my grandmother and had some good home cooking.

Me: What kind of home cooking?

Tracy: Soul food. Duck, turkey. A lot of greens. Dressing.

Me: What’s one thing your mom or grandmother taught you that you’ve carried through life?

Tracy: Be respectful to your elders.

Me: What is one of your life mantras?

Tracy: Get out and have fun. You only live once. You might as well enjoy it.

#MKE Foodies Take Over Mason St. Grill

In case you need any more proof that digital media is changing the way we do everything, here is a story of a food group that started on Twitter. Digital followers turned real-life friends, #MKE Foodies now meets offline once a month at a restaurant in Milwaukee to dine, enjoy and discuss food. And that pound sign, that’s called a hashtag in Twitter speak, allowing people to search and follow the same topics.

They call themselves “Food lovers making a difference in Milwaukee.” Food bloggers Lori and Paul Fredrich lead the group that also raises money for local charities. It started in 2010 with 25 food bloggers and has now grown to 50-75 people per event – foodies, not just bloggers.

“This is the second time we have been to Mason St. Grill. It was so popular, registration was full after one day,” said Paul. Events are free  and open to the public, but they do require registration and collect a suggested $5 donation at each event for a selected nonprofit. Usually it’s a food-related nonprofit, but Wednesday night the cause was Optimist Theatre, who presents Shakespeare in the Park.

Lori and Paul Fredrich

There was an electric buzz in the room. Succulent seared meet, juicy red wines, warm glowing lights  – these are the sights and smells of Mason St. Grille on a winter night. The jazz music was purring like a happy cat.

Restaurants are able to craft their own specials, depending on what they want to showcase to the group. Mason St. Grill was offering free wine and draught pours, and free appetizers for #MKE Foodie members.

“We like to chose locally owned restaurants and if they use locally sourced food, that’s a plus,” Paul explains. “We typically chose American fare, though next month we are trying sushi and we hope that goes over well.” Find Paul and Lori’s recipes and musings, along with more information about #MKE Foodies at their award-winning Burp! blog.


Alivia and Elly

There was no dance floor so they created their own. Their dance moves were abstract, like the jazz. They were show stoppers – at just two feet tall. Who were these two little angels dressed in matching zebra print and ruffles at the Mason Street Grill? “People often mistake them for twins,” says Stacey, their mom. “They love to perform for others and make people smile and laugh. They are best buddies.” Elly is two and her sister Alivia is one – they are 13 months (to the day) apart and they’ve got serious rhythm.

Elly and Alivia
Elly and Alivia

Like trying to grab a slippery fish out of water, Stacey chased after her daughters as they continued to gyrate and giggle. She finally grabbed a hold so she could introduce me to these little dancing machines.

Goldberg Family lives in Chicago, but has been back and forth to Milwaukee ” so many times, we have stopped counting” in the past three and a half years. At just two years old, Elly has been to the hospital more than I have (and is probably a lot braver).

Because Stacey was 39 when she was pregnant with Elly, doctors recommended a more thorough “level two” ultrasound at 20 weeks of pregnancy. Doctors thought at the time  that Elly would be born with a congenital lung disease referred to as a CCAM (congenital cystic adenomatoid malformation) so the pregnancy was closely monitored. There was a growth of unhealthy tissue mass in Elly’s left lobe of her lung.

“Prior to Elly’s birth, we met with specialists both in Illinois and Wisconsin. We were incredibly impressed with Dr. Casey Calkins at Milwaukee’s Children’s Hospital. His broad knowledge, experience with this type of condition, and wonderful ability to connect with the children and families made him, without doubt, the number one choice for Elly’s medical journey,” reveals Stacey.

Miraculously, Elly came into this world asymptomatic, but needed a CT scan shortly after birth to determine the specifics of the mass, which they determined was a pulmonary sequestration. “It  is even more unique in the sense that it is a mass of nonfunctioning lung tissue that lacks normal connection with the tracheobroncheal tree and receives an anomalous blood supply and in Elly’s case, to the aorta,” said Stacey, although she might as well have been speaking Greek. She is no doctor herself, just (most obviously) an incredible mother committed herself to her daughter’s care.

Imagine being 40, four months pregnant and taking your 6-month-old baby to have the lower left lobe of her lung removed.  Dr. Calkins performed a thoracic surgery that created just two small incisions on her left side of her body. Both the physical and emotional scars from the surgery are minimal and quickly fading.

Milwaukee has become a special place for the Goldberg family throughout their journey and tonight they are celebrating the holidays together as a happy, healthy family at the Pfister.  Though they love Dr. Calkins, The Goldbergs were ecstatic to learn in July that Elly would no longer be under his care, without further follow-ups. Elly’s left lobe has been replaced with healthy lung tissue because the smaller the lung, the quicker it regenerates.

Stacey remarks, “We have found our new ‘home away from home’ at The Pfister. What a special place. The people in Milwaukee are delightful, warm, and so friendly. Milwaukee provides a big city feel, at a level that meets the needs of everyone.” The Goldbergs will most definitely be back to Milwaukee in 2013, under much happier circumstances.






The Modern Day Businessman

It’s a Tuesday night in November. Truth be told, there’s not a whole lot going on in Milwaukee. Luckily, there is always a friend to be found at the Pfister. It’s dinnertime, so I pop into Mason Street Grill.  A lone man drinking martinis – this must be the traveling businessman.

David Howard is on the road Monday-Friday almost every week selling natural beverages. Reed’s brand ginger beer is the flagship product. “No way, that’s one of my favorites!” I blurt out. He hates being away from his two little kids, but he tries not to focus on it.  He  pulls out his smartphone to brag, and rightfully so. Two pairs of enormous brown eyes stare back at me from the screen and I gush.

Originally from Detroit, David really likes Milwaukee and passes through a few times a year. This trip he is pushing Kambucha, that funny fermented drink that is taking health food stores by storm. He’s thinking of snow crab tonight. And about the great massage he just got at the Well Spa. Those are comforts a man deserves for a week away from family.

He puts a piece of shrimp on a bread plate and nudged it my way. “You must be Italian,” I say  “Well, Israeli” he replied. “Oh yeah, we Mediterraneans love to share food. I come from a long line of food pushers,” I admit.  We both crack up at the truth of that statement and reflect on our own families.

David is eager to hit the town and begins grilling me when I tell him I work for a radio station. I give him some suggestions for live music on the East Side and I am on my way. I didn’t want to bother David for a photograph so I am going to plug for his delicious Reed’s Ginger Beer, which aside from its healthful properties, is fantastic mixed with rum or whiskey.

On my way out, I stopped by the lobby bar and a traveling salesman of a whole different caliber stops me in my tracks.

“Oh hi, I saw you earlier. Yes, yes, it was you sitting over there, right? May I join you at the bar?” He didn’t even stop to take a breath and before I had time  to respond,  he was moving his things to the seat next to me.

Bayard offers me a handshake and a sip from his hearty glass of cognac. One sniff and I feel lightheaded. He drinks it with a side of tea, something I have never seen before.

Bayard sells insurance. Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls is one of his big clients so he likes to visit The Pfister when he’s in town. We talk about the opulence of the space and my role as the narrator.”Everyone is a storyteller,” he insists, which certainly is true.

From Conneticut, but born in Beirut, Bayard has a lot of stories to tell. I learn about how his great-great grandfather founded  the American University of Beruit in 1861. As his family history unfolds, he peppers it with words in Arabic and brags about how he can haggle with taxi drivers like a true Arab. His family continues to support work in the Middle East, but they are all back here in there states.

As the evening winds down, I bid Bayard adieu and he urges me to keep on telling stories. “It must,” I smirk, “You too – we are all storytellers, right?”


October Gallery Night and “The Art of Marcus”

This October’s Gallery night was a particularly special one, not only for Timothy and The Pfister, but for associates across all three properties owned by our parent company, Marcus Hotels.

“The Art of Marcus”

Some incredibly talented artists from here at The Pfister Hotel, The InterContinental Milwaukee & The Hilton Milwaukee City Center gathered together on Friday, October 19th in the Rouge Ballroom for a special exhibit entitled “The Art of Marcus.” Featuring twelve artists, and over 40 pieces of work, this special exhibit curated by current Pfister-in-Artist, Timothy Westbrook.

Featuring work across numerous mediums from fabric, to ceramics to painting, photography and more – Associates had a chance to display an often hidden and unknown side of their talents beyond their roles as hotel employees and members of the Marcus Hotels family. We posted early about all of the participating associates here.

As part of the event, Timothy created 5 awards in the following categories that were announced by Marcus President & CEO, Greg Marcus towards the end of the post-Gallery Night reception:

  Viewers Choice –
 Best in Show, Pfister Hotel –
Best in Show, InterContinental Hotel –
Best in Show, Hilton Milwaukee City Center –
Best in Show, Overall –

Best in Show, Overall winner, Charles Nickles will have his own exhibit at Gallerie M in the Intercontinental Hotel in early 2013

Sponsors of the event included Utrect Art Supplies and Digital Edge Copy & Print Centers.  Prizes across the categories included a Utrect supply bag, gift certificates to Digital Edge, Profolio Art Portfolios and more.

In all, four individuals were thrilled to have been recognized in the award categories, including the Pfister’s own Alison Barnick as Best in Show, Pfister Hotel and Charles W. Nickles as Viewers Choice and Best in Show, Overall.

As part of his Charles’ awesome honor (and probably the part we’re most excited about), Charles will have his own exhibit hosted at Gallerie M in the InterContinental Hotel.

Joshua Hunt took the award for Best in Show, InterContinental Hotel and Daryl Stoll won Best in Show, Hilton Milwaukee City Center. 

Timothy Westbrook, Artist-in-Residence

All the while curating and coordinating the “Art of Marcus” event in the rouge, Timothy’s studio was jam packed through much of Gallery Night as visitors stopped in to see his progress to-date.

Featuring several of his dresses from the RunUp 2012 event at the Pritzlaff Building a few weeks earlier, and his in-progress unicorn costume for Halloween, there was really no shortage of conversation to be had for visitors to the Westbrook studio.

A personal highlight by many were the awesome PBR shoes that Timothy had made for a PBR Art Show that occurred on the same night as RunUp 2012.


All and all the evening made for a fantastic turnout, with arguably the best Gallery Night reception we’ve held at the Pfister yet.

You can check out our full gallery of photos from the “Art of Marcus” event over on our Facebook page (and you don’t need a Facebook account to see them). 

To Tell Our Truth, pt. 1

It’s like hearing a song from your past in the car speakers beside you at a stoplight, or when a favorite book cover winks at you from behind the fingers of a fellow traveler.  An artificial familiarity, but comforting just the same.

A table of professional African American women, still in their heels and lined skirts, sit at a high cocktail table in Mason Street Grill.  

I greet them with hugs right away. We’ve worked, volunteered or socialized in many overlapping circles through the years.  In spite of Milwaukee’s size, I always describe our city as a “big small town.”

I excuse myself to the bar, wanting to survey and observe the room for while.  To my left, two co-workers compare gossip notes about a mutual colleague. Both have their elbows folded on top of the bar, one with his button down oxford folded back at the cuffs. A group of men in polo shirts to my right boom at one another about sports scores, tee times and microbrews. In the back, I count ten hair tosses and three cackling laughs by a voluptuous blonde and wonder if the guy she’s with might need rescuing.

Near the front entrance, a woman stands alone peering out onto the street.  She’s dressed simply but elegantly in a pencil skirt and patterned chiffon blouse.  Ten minutes, twenty minutes pass and she’s is still standing there, waiting.  I weigh the logistics (and crudeness) of chatting with her until her date arrives, or not. I take a photo of her silhouetted against the sunlit window, crafting a story outline in my head.

But the table of sistas gathering behind me tugs at my attention like a moon over ocean tides.

I finally give in to my indulgence and head over to their table. Michelle Hinton, the common denominator of these friends, is in the middle of an animated story about a recent fundraising event.  She has a rich, dark complexion and razor sharp wit.  I ask her about the last time her group got together.  She’s beginning to tell me about the Wig Brunch she’d recently held for her birthday when the waitress comes to check on us.

“You guys should really put the sliders on the happy hour menu,” Michelle says sweetly.

“One of our other favorite spots, which shall not be named, has their sliders for happy hour,” agrees Johnna Scott, her voice filled with good humor. “Can you see if we can get them anyway?”

The waitress cheerfully agrees, also confirming their order for another round of mimosas.

Michelle is a state director for the American Cancer Society and Johnna is an executive for Mosaic Communications, a boutique PR and marketing firm. “All of us travel a lot for work so getting together is tough sometimes,” Johnna says. “It’s not always the same group.”

“I make it whenever I can,” adds Azure’De Williams, a communications manager for the American Heart Association.  “This revives me in a lot of ways.”

The fourth woman, Michelle Mason, is a managing director at ASQ.  She has been in Milwaukee for only a few years and came to rely on informal gatherings like this one to get her true bearings on the city.

“Networking for work is one thing,” she said, “but I need a network of black women when I’m off the clock to help give me balance, too.”

“I need this,” Michelle says.  “I don’t know how other Black women get by without reconnecting like this, but I need it.”

Then it hits me.  I’d resisted joining their table because it felt like an “easy win.” As we begin to thread one topic to the next, I realize that relaying this experience will be more challenging that it initially appeared. How could I recreate the true pulse our broad conversation without also communicating the subtext? That would be like reporting from some family’s holiday dinner about Uncle Jimmy having a new wife.  If only the family understands that Uncle Jimmy had been an avowed bachelor, a visiting dinner guest might not appreciate the profound weight of his news.

Similarly, without some ticker tape of our shared “understandings” as black women, this happy hour round table could lose much of its depth.  Like any other demographic of people, African American women share a complex knitting of “truth” and “fact.” Truths would be our individual perspectives, as they have been shaped by our collective reality, or the facts.

 According to Department of Education, black women earn 67 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to blacks, as well as 71 percent of all master’s degrees and 65 percent of all doctoral degrees. There are more black women than black men (24 percent to 17 percent) in the professional-managerial class. As of 2007, 70 percent of professional black women were unmarried. Black women are five times more likely than white women to be single at age 40. ~Washington Post

 The waitress returns with the champagne flutes and sliders.  The ladies are jubilant and appreciative.

“We meet up all over the place,” says Azure’De.  “Service like this will keep us coming back.”

 And they’re an attractive demographic for advertisers: black spending power is estimated to reach $1.1 trillion, according to the State of the African-American Consumer Report. ~Los Angeles Times

“She’s our foodie,” teases Michelle. Azure’De smiles and responds with a loose shrug of her shoulder. “I’m glad to have her, though. I can’t always get people to try new things, or to spend a few extra bucks. I want to do more than just go eat at Red Lobster.”

Johnna gasps, “Girl, I love Red Lobster…”

We all laugh, adding our own ad libs and funny footnotes. Soon, the jokes unfold into sobering social commentary.

“We’ve just gotten so used to settling and recycling the same ideas,” Azure’De says. “It makes me think I’m crazy for wanting something more.”

I say, “I agree.  What’s more frustrating is that our young people grow up thinking that the way things are is they way things will always have to be. Complacency breeds some of our biggest problems.”

 African Americans have the highest rate of total TV usage, according to a 2011 Nielsen report — translating to an average of seven hours, 12 minutes each day, two hours above the U.S. average. ~Los Angeles Times

“It’s tough to expect folks to care about ‘being part of the solution’ when they’re struggling to pay their bills and can’t find a job,” says the new Michelle. “It’s rough out here for black people.”

 Since the end of the recession, the overall unemployment rate has fallen to 9.1 percent, while the black unemployment rate has risen to 16.2 percent, according to the Department of Labor. Unemployment for college-educated whites is 3.9 percent; for college-educated blacks it is 7 percent.~Chicago Sun-Times

“We’ve got to stop accepting status quo as a standard,” I say. “We’re raising kids who won’t know how to fight for what they want.”

“I say it’s the community’s fault that our education has deteriorated,” says Michelle. “We used to show up at the school, stay on top of our kids.”

 Black students are more likely than White students to have lower-quality teachers. In high schools with 50 percent or more Black enrollment, 25 percent of the teachers have neither a college major nor standard certification in the subject that is their main teaching assignment (math). The percentage for schools with White enrollment of 50 percent or more is 8 percent. ~Educational Testing Service

 “We have to stop being victims, too, though,” says Johnna.  “I’ve still got that ‘hood girl in me but, at some point, you have to decide what you want for yourself, and not just accept what’s handed to us.”

“Or what’s not handed to us,” says Azure’De.

 The rules remain the same as in 1956 when C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite described the exclusively white, male, and Christian makeup of the leading members of America’s political, military, and business institutions. Indeed, the diversity “forced” upon the power elite has given it buffers, ambassadors, and tokens through the women and minorities who share its prevailing values. Discrimination is still widespread, and the ascension of different groups, albeit uneven, depends on four factors: class, education, assimilation and skin color. ~Mother Jones


To Tell our Truth, pt. 2

…continued from “To Tell Our Truth, Part 1”


“We have to do more of this!” new Michelle says, gesturing to our tabletop of appetizer plates and empty glasses. We nod and toast in agreement.

 A 2007 American Bar Association report titled “Visible Invisibility” describes how black women in the legal profession face the “double burden” of being both black and female, meaning that they enjoy none of the advantages that black men gain from being male, or that white women gain from being white. ~Washington Post

“When I first moved here I was baffled to find out we have three black chambers of commerce,” says new Michelle. “I was, like, ‘Really? Three? Is the city that big?’”

“No,” says Azure’De. “It just feels like our only choice is to fight for a small slice of pie instead of sharing it.”

“The old black guard needs to get out of the way and make way for these young professionals coming up,” says Michelle. “The more they hang on, the more good talent we lose to other cities.”

“Where would they go?” I ask, referring to our veteran black leaders. “There’s no succession of power for them. They don’t get invited on to boards, absorbed into corporations or get to reinvent themselves into consultants.”

 In the last decade, 98 percent of the nation’s population growth was due to increases in the black, Latino and Asian populations. Together, women, racial and ethnic minority men already comprise 66 percent of the nation’s population. White men overwhelmingly dominate boards of Fortune 500 companies, holding three-quarters of all seats. Fortune 500 boards are less diverse than Fortune 100 boards. ~Huffington Post

“I had a woman crying in my office once,” says Michelle. “She was so frustrated that she couldn’t get the information and support she needed. It wasn’t from whites, though.  It was black women who wouldn’t give her the time of day.”

“Let’s be honest,” Johnna says.  “When we do try to connect and support each other at the job, we get followed around and looked at funny for having ‘secret meetings.’”

Secret meetings! We all shake our heads at the familiar suspicions.

“Remember, when I told you about the woman walking back and forth past my office when we were in there?” Johnna says, referring to her previous agency. “She wanted to know soooo badly what we’d been talking about. I should’ve told her ‘you.’”

“I’m tired of folks asking me if I’m mad, too,” Michelle says. We shake our heads a bit more, laugh a bit less.

 Scholars at the business schools at Duke University and Northwestern University conducted a study that showed black women in a corporate setting faced less of a backlash from the survey participants for dominant behavior than white women or black men. The reason appears to be that participants expected black women to be strong and accepted that type of behavior from them. ~Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

“Dasha, how have you been received in this role for the hotel?” new Michelle asks me.  “You’re the first African American Narrator, right?”

I had to pause and give this an extra thought.

“I don’t doubt that more than a few guests have been caught off guard,” I say.  “I’m a complete stranger walking up to them in a hotel asking them to tell stories about themselves.  To be fair, I think the idea of a hotel having a program like this blows them away way more than the fact that I’m black.”

“And you speak so well,” Michelle quips, sending us all back into laughter and more head shaking.

 The problem is that popular culture and the media glorify and foreground Black women in so many caricatured and undignified ways that Michelle Obama appears to be more of an anomaly than she really is.  In the African American community, we are accustomed to seeing good looking, intelligent, well-educated Black women. ~Dr. Marilyn Mobley, Case Western University

“We should have our own TV show,” Johnna says.

“As long as you’re not talking about having us throw drinks on each other,” I say.

The majority of what we, as a community, celebrate in the media, isn’t worthy of our women. Not the ones that I know and love. ~Essence Magazine

Individual black women are more likely to be viewed as representatives of their race by the majority culture.  ~Bitch Magazine

“Listen, there are plenty of white women acting a fool on television every night,” says actress Holly Robinson Peete. “But there’s a balance for them. They have shows on the major networks—not just cable and not just reality shows—about them running companies, being great mothers, and having loving relationships. We don’t have enough of that.” ~Newsweek

 “Girl, no,” Johnna says.  “But I want to host the segment on entertainment.  I still try to keep up with what’s ‘poppin.’”

“I would want to tell stories for all the silent voices,” says new Michelle.  “Regular black women living regular lives.  That’s who gets ignored, the vast majority of black women who are living between the extremes.  Those are important stories to tell, too.”

There are menfolk circling our table now.  Michelle’s husband. A colleague of Azure’De.  The fellas in jazz trio have begun to play near our table.  It’s time for me to float away to another soft seat of the hotel.  As I hug all the women and pledge to join an upcoming happy hour respite, new Michelle asks the question swelling in my mind:

“What are you going to write about all of this?”

“I’m going to try and capture the range of everything we crammed into forty-five minutes,” I say.

Mostly, I think to myself, I’m going to do my best to tell our truth.


As a society, we know very little about the psychology of Black women, a group of 19 million people — seven percent of the U.S. population. The way they experience the workplace, the complexities of their romantic lives, the challenges they face as mothers and grandmothers, their spiritual and religious practices, these and so many other aspects of their lives are largely unknown to the wider community. Being ignored and poorly understood likely explains why so many Black women today still feel profoundly unhappy about their place in society. ~ Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, authors of “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America”  (HarperCollins Publishers)

Going Somewhere

It’s early evening. The downtown streets are still basked in sunshine and summer dresses. Bursts of citrus colors, flirty fabrics and bare shoulders breeze past the open patio windows of Mason Street Grill.

Inside, the lounge hums with an eager energy. Friends fill the space with animated banter. The largest group, four well-dressed couples, cluster along the bar. I imagine them relieved to abandon To Do lists and attaché cases for the evening. Perhaps they’ll enjoy a steak dinner inside the restaurant.  Maybe they’ll go dancing.  However their night unfolds, it is clear they’ve decided to do something.

The jazz trio reaches the end of its first set, and the crowd begins to thin. I notice them then, seated at a low table.  They are absorbing the entire room now: the mahogany paneled walls, the grand piano, the sumptuous curve of the bar, the glint of men’s expensive watches, the dimming light and the pervasive sense of Going Somewhere.  They were just a couple of teenagers.

Onteria and his girlfriend, Victoria, are graduating seniors heading off to college in the fall. They were being treated to a well-deserved celebration by one of Onteria’s mentors.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college,” Onteria tells me.  Clearly, having earned a full scholarship to prestigious Morehouse College in Atlanta.  He is handsome with an infectious smile.  He tells me he’d like to study Psychology or Physical Therapy.

“How about you?” I ask Victoria, who’s heading to Tennessee State University, another HBCU favorite.

“Nursing,” she says without effect, “if I don’t change my major or something.”

“Don’t stress about that now,” I say. “Sixty percent of college students change their major at least once.” The handy stat was lodged in my brain from years of delivering college readiness presentations to high schools and college freshman.

Victoria regards me thoughtfully.  She’s slender with elegant features.  Her eyes are sharp, and I’m not sure if she’s assessing or evaluating me.

We talk about plans for their last few months in Milwaukee before landing on the topic of all the uncertainties waiting for them at the edge of summer.

“I’m not sure what I’m afraid of,” Onteria says, that smile curling around his words. “It seems like we were just in 10th grade.”

Victoria considers before speaking, “I hope it’s all going to be worth it.”

Like 60,000 other Wisconsin graduates, Victoria and Onteria will decide whether their studying, late nights, aggravating teachers, deadlines, stressful rules, afternoons and weekends spent in workshops, tournaments and clubs and worrying about every possible thing in order to spend years away from home under grueling university study and agonizing personal reconstruction will, as promised, be worth it all.

Her statement hangs in the air.  Onteria looks at Victoria and Victoria looks at me.  This is not the time to fan out platitudes.

“I won’t lie, honey.  You might go through years of school and still not find a job. Or get a job you might have gotten without the degree.  But luck is really about being prepared when opportunities happen.  College puts you in the path of ‘lucky’.”

I pause.  She keeps her eyes on me.  I continue.

I tell her how the most fantastic lessons will happen outside the classroom:  dealing with that one chick in her dorm, negotiating extra credit, managing family drama from a distance, really stretching a dollar, surviving a breakup with the one, competing for internships and balancing heavier counterweights and freedoms.

“No matter what happens, you will be more,” I say.  It’s one of my mother’s favorite affirmations. “At the end, you will know what you’re made of. You’ll have struggled, stumbled and stood up over and over again.  And, yes, you’ll make lifelong friends.  Job or no job, you’ve earned the chance to have a college experience strengthen you.  That, I promise, will be worth it.”

Those eyes, they were glistening now.

“Please tell me those are happy tears and I didn’t make you feel worse,” I say.

She finally gives me a shy smile.  “I’m okay,” she says.  “It’s just kindof a lot to get used to.”

“You will,” I say.  “No one expects either one of you to be expert college students in the first week.  Figuring that out is part of the journey.  Make sure you enjoy it, though.  College is your last stop before full-grown adulthood, and let me tell ya …”

We laugh and guide the conversation back to summertime, me eager to be the listener again. The kids drift back to their own conversation and I fall into one with the mentor. As she talks, I watch Onteria and Victoria chat and tease near the patio windows.  It’s dark outside now, yet they are still two bursts of sunlight.  They, too, are filled with a sense of Going Somewhere.