A Reunion With Radical Kiera

Until today, I hadn’t seen my friend Kiera in nine years. The last time I saw her we were having one last group sleepover at my house the week before we each moved out of Milwaukee to seek our higher educations in other cities. I went to Missouri for the Kansas City Art Institute and Kiera went to Oakland for the College of Creative Studies. Kiera has been living in Oakland ever since. Understandable, Oakland is a balmy paradise full of bookstores and coffee shops, and it is easy to navigate without a car. Unfortunately, the gentrification of Oakland will soon force Kiera to move out. The soaring rents will soon match those of San Francisco where the average one bedroom apartment is $3,000 a month.

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Here we are at a school dance back in the day.

 

Keira tells me that this could be a good change because she would like to live somewhere quiet where there is lots of space between the houses. However, Kiera is conflicted about this idea because she a city girl. I recommend Detroit to her because whenever I go to that city it has a quiet feel due to all the boarded up houses, but remains a city where only those possessing much grit survive. She agrees with me but says she probably won’t be moving to anywhere in the Midwest since her boyfriend, Snow, doesn’t like cold weather!

 

Kiera tells me about how one time Snow and his father went skiing and got separated on the hill. Snow’s father started calling for his son, “Snow! Snoooow!!!” and people looked strangely at this man who seemed to suddenly realize that the world around him was covered in snow.

 

Kiera joins me for a meal at the Pfister café. She surveys the menu and starts to laugh when she sees it offers a salad called a “cheeseburger bowl,” featuring a hamburger with cheese on a bed of lettuce “Only out here,” says Kiera. I ask what the “only out there” regional equivalent would be in Oakland. “Maybe if you asked for the simple arugula salad, with just arugula and tomatoes.” We are sitting in one of the café booths and it reminds us both of hanging out late at night at 24-hour diners in high school. Kiera laments that Oakland has a scarcity of 24-hour establishments.

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That’s a lot of men in one room.

 

We walk around the hotel imagine what it and the city were like when it was first built. Kiera takes her time, reading every plaque and investigating every painting and photograph. We stop in front of a picture that was taken when President McKinley came to the Pfister. There must be 2000 people in the room, and we try to find even one woman in the crowd, but don’t see one, not even a maid. We both say how we cannot fully grasp what life was like back then.  Although I do look at over my contemporary, Keira, and (using my hundred year old filter) observe that she wears her hair very short. Radical! Kiera wonders if any of her ancestors from her dad’s side are in this photo. The German side of Kiera’s family had some influence in this town back when Milwaukee was considered “the gold coast” prior to the first World War.

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One more thing: Radical Kiera is just back from competing in Art Prize, a national juried art show in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Here she is modeling a nine-foot wearable art piece that she designed with five other collaborators.

This Was During The Depression

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DSCN6948Eleanore ate salad at the Mason Street Grill last Friday,

in honor of her mother,

a woman named Blanche,

“she was a honey”

born around 1892.

When honey Blanche grew up

she worked for a time making

the most popular salads at the Pfister

so great were her salads

that President Teddy Roosevelt

asked to meet his salad maker

so he could kiss her hand

and from that

Blanche learned how approachable lawmakers are.

Eleanore has frequently called them up too

to advocate on behalf of the poor.

Somewhere in the attic

Eleanore has the phone number

of former Senator Kohl

who by the way, I saw again

just the other day

in the lounge

so the next time I see him

I’m to tell him

Eleanore says “Hello,”

another word her father had to learn

after arriving from Poland.

“My mother was born on the boat,”

says Eleanore but soon changes her mind,

“No! She was born and then rode the boat.

She was sick all the way,

vomiting over the side,

I certainly give these immigrants a lot of credit

they were all getting sick not just her.”

Blanche’s first job was caring for a doctor’s child

she took the streetcar to work.

There were three children:

Eleanore’s older sister, herself and then Florence.

There was also her brother, Norman

who died at age three from infantile paralysis.

Eleanore was in kindergarten at the time

but had to drop out.

Even Buster could tell Norman was sick,

that dog would pick Eleanore up from school

and they would run down the alleys together

until they arrived at her house on Archer Avenue.

Across the street

was the butcher shop

the boy whose family owned the shop

was Eleanore’s playmate and eventual husband.

On the corner of Archer and Kinnickinnic was a big lot

owned by the plumbing store guy

who told the kids that they could play football

or baseball there

any time they wanted

and so they did.

Eleanore wore jeans,

played sports with boys,

a tomboy

unlike her sister, Florence

who would stand in front of the mirror,

primp her red-brown hair and announce,

“I am going to Hollywood.”

Anytime Eleanore had a date

she’d introduce the fellow to her family.

So many boyfriends dumped Eleanore!

Once they saw Florence

they started dating her instead.

“She was strictly a Hollywood type of person.”

This was during the depression

people ate horse meat,

everyone knew when Al Capone was coming to town,

they went to the streets to watch.

In 1931 there was an older lady with a hat

who owned “a big hunk of luxury,”

an electric car!

The kids used to line up and watch with mouths wide open

as she clambered the high step to get in.

Eleanore’s father planted a Victory garden for his family

where Cudahy High now sits

it was like a cemetery with different plots

for families growing tomatoes.

To this day Eleanore still gardens

at her nursing home in Oak Creek.

“I’ve had a beautiful life,

and these are all of my friends,”

Eleanore gestures at all five of her friends

also gardeners

who joined her to celebrate her life.

It’s not her birthday

she turned 96 last January

but on this August day she’s presented a birthday cake.

Someone pulls away her salad,

Eleanore protests, “I’m not done with that!”

but covers her mouth in shock and delight

when she sees a cake and one burning candle set before her

instead of singing we watch Eleanor eat her dessert

with the fire still going till the last bite.

Staying on the Ride

It’s such a surreal feeling to interview your replacement. Sure, try I’m being a bit dramatic—I’m not interviewing them and when I took the job, I knew I’d eventually be replaced but there’s nothing I have to like about it.

Well, I do like the tension I felt walking into the meeting room at the Pfister as I was about to comment on and discuss the many applicants for the next Narrator position knowing the same discussions had included me just months ago. My vow was to say very little (you should know, that’s always my vow, it rarely works) and listen long, but I found I was so excited to talk about what I liked, the ideas that circulated among the applicants and to carefully detect how it worked last time with me on the table in a pile of paper instead of in the chair casting votes that I’m sure I reached “vehement” at certain points.  

Most of the applications covered the required bases, but I did learn something from the unique portions of each. I learned that there’s so much I’m taking with me and so much I’m leaving out. I was interviewed for a video blog piece as part of the process and when asked what advice I would give the next Narrator and the words flew from my mouth. Have no expectations.  All the narrators proposed a plan, had ideas for how they’d get people to talk, which stories they were in search of and I realized my plan has already been shattered—for the better.

For every person I do approach or who sits down next to me, many times, there were three behind them with tales just as interesting. Every blog I’ve written about dancing daughters and Santa lap-sitting grandmothers and celebrities was reduced to 400 words and I’m walking away with the rest of the story. What I’ve given here and what I’m taking with me differ vastly and that’s one of the only parts of my proposal that has stuck.

They asked me what I hoped to get. I told them I wanted to be talking about this experience forever. Mission accomplished. I know I understood the undertaking and I’m here to tell you, our top six finalists for the job understand it too. They all wrote about what they hope to find in the guests they share space with at the Pfister. They all had an eagerness and openness about how they’d capture it and report it. Most of all, they each seemed to want it for themselves. They all (myself included) wanted to seek out the people, seek out the histories, the feelings, the human connection that comes with just sharing a moment with people.

Just the other day, leaving the hotel, I was on the elevator with a pair of women who didn’t get off when the door opened at what I thought was their floor. I smiled toward them and shuffled aside to give them room to exit when one in the pair begrudgingly said “No, sorry. We don’t know where we’re headed; we just like to ride the elevator.” Without even thinking that it was just a polite joke that people make to be social (a lot like the “I’m doing well, thank you” standard answer to “Hello, how are you?”) I instantly replied, completely seriously “Oh, I know! I love riding the elevator. I’ve met some fun people here! Stay on, you’ll like it!”

And as the doors closed after my exit, I wondered…did the pair think I was nuts or did they get it?

Be excited…any one of the six finalists for narrator gets it. I rest assured of that.

Embodied History

 

Each time I walk into the Pfister, someone in front of me is stumbling around, slack jawed, gazing up at the beautiful ceilings. But it’s not just the carpets and paintings that create the pomp of the Pfister. It’s the rich history the staff preserve simply by being present, available and ready to share their stories. Customer service isn’t just about getting guests where they need to be; at the Pfister it clearly includes cataloging moments that add to the opus and depth of the soul that passes through the hotel.

For this reason, I’ll be publishing the stories the staff at the Pfister are so willingly sharing with me.  Just as these tales didn’t occur in a moment, neither will their retelling. As the staff are each a segment of what makes the Pfister whole, here, too they will be presented in segments. I cannot capture a Valerie or a Roc in one blog, so watch for their rich remembrances over time, helping to make this tale whole.