A Man of Many Families: A 92-Year-Old Pfister Bellboy Returns to Charm

“My friends from back then are probably going to see the news or read this and say, ‘Wow.  That old fool is still alive?'”

That “old fool” turned 92 years old last month, on January 18th, and he was still as suave and spunky as ever when I sat down with him and his family a few days later at Sunday Brunch in The Rouge.

Casimir Piwonski was a bellboy at The Pfister in the early 1940s.  It had been on his bucket list for years to return to the Hotel and stay the night. You know, have a room to himself and access to the mini-bar. Have one of the current porters carry his luggage to and from his room, ask the concierge for directions.   I don’t know if he actually visited the mini-bar or needed to ask for directions–especially since much of his family spent considerable time parked in the Lobby Lounge on Saturday evening enjoying each others’ company and listening to Casimir reminisce–but I can quote for you what his third child, Carol Roeker, relayed in an email preceding their visit: “The Pfister is making his dream come true and you’re going to fall in love with him…you won’t be able to help yourself :)” Yes, I included the smiley face.  I think Carol had as much fun coordinating this birthday weekend as her father did enjoying it!  The family revealed the gift to him at Christmas and when I called to arrange an interview, Carol couldn’t stop rhapsodizing about all things Casimir: “Ask him about the time when . . . He’ll love to tell you about . . .”  She is so in love with her father.

I didn’t want to ask him too many of the same kinds of questions that Fox 6 had probably asked him on Saturday evening.  I’m sure I did, but the story I heard was not one about waiting upon all kinds of celebrities, but one of love and family.  Sometimes tough love, sometimes family that’s not your original family.  Take the Pfister family, for instance.

Oh, wait.  Before I fill you in on what I learned from Casimir about his time at the Hotel, let me show you a photo from back in the day:

Let that sink in for a second: the dreamy eyes; the confident, mischievous smirk; the Hollywood actor jawline; the perfectly coiffed hair.

Ok.  Back to 2017.

No, seriously.  Back to the story.

“I was 17 or 18 years old.  I was a bellboy for 6 years.”  His experience at the Hotel was a mixture of rules and competition, fair and generous treatment (“Mr. [Ben] Marcus would remember everyone’s names.”), and stories for a lifetime.  I could only gather a handful of the latter in between the dotings of his family and the delicious food on his plate.

Mr. Steve Peltzer dominated his memories for a good number of bites, for it was he who supervised Casimir and the other three bellboys: “He was rough.  He let you know who he was.  Rules weren’t meant to be broken. He would wait and time how long it took you to go up and down the stairs.  No hanky-panky allowed!”  I got the feeling that even though hanky-panky wasn’t allowed that a certain someone was going to withhold some stories.

“We’d run the stairs three or four steps at a time,” Casimir continued. “We never waited for the freight elevator–it was too slow!  We had to take the back steps, too.  Never the guest steps.”  Casimir pulled an index finger slowly across his throat.  “And no leaning against a pillar while you were waiting. But you would forget yourself sometimes!  Oh, and you had to be clean-shaven.”  He said none of this with derision, only respect for a man who expected excellence from his boys and got it.  He spoke of Mr. Peltzer as one might a parent, at once to be feared and always loved.

Casimir’s biological father, Joseph Piwonski, died when Casimir was only seven years old.  “I remember we were living on Hayes Street.  I was looking out my window and saw my mom walking up the street and I knew.  I’ll never forget that.”  A very good family friend, John Budzinski, stepped in, married his mother, and supported the family.  “That’s what we did back then.”  (His stepbrother John, who was born after Joseph’s death, sat next to him at brunch and listened intently to our conversation, interjecting every once in a while.)  Casimir knew what it meant to be part of both a loving original family and an extended community of support. He seems to have furthered this experience at The Pfister.

John Budzinski (left) and Casimir (right)

He made $8 a week and paid 25 cents for meals.  “I made my money through tipping.”  Sometimes there were added bonuses:  “There was a sailor from Norway whose ship sank in the harbor so he had to stay ashore for a while. He gave $100 to everyone!”  And sometimes there were cheapskates like actor William Boyd: “Hopalong Cassidy.  You know how he would tip us?  With a good luck charm.  A little horseshoe wrapped around a penny.  No one wanted to carry his bags!”  He also recalled several times the ladies with deep, deep purses, so deep that their gloved hands would descend into the depths, rifle gently and blindly for coins, then emerge slowly with their tip.  “They didn’t want you to see how much money they really had!”  As always, Casimir reveled in these memories, with the complete understanding that those were different times.

One entity that wasn’t a penny-pincher was The Pfister.  Describing the food the bellboys were served, Casimir said, savoring the words, “The food was–” Then he paused, pinched his fingers and thumb together, placed them on his lips, and–in a gesture more Italian than Polish–kissed them instead with a “Mwah!”  His fingers exploded open with delight, as if to proclaim “Bellissimo!”

It’s not that Casimir didn’t covet any of the affluence of the Hotel’s guests. I’m pretty sure he did his finger-kiss again when he told me that “Clark Gable had a trench coat with big lapels.  It was long, all the way down to his ankles.  It took me six months to save up for my own, but I finally got it!”  This humble industrious makes perfect sense given Casimir’s upbringing in another home away from home where, perhaps, he learned how to serve others.

“I grew up simple, poor.  But the churches,” he remembered, “were churches you couldn’t even believe.”  He was referring to the ornate glory of their interiors, I believe.  “And they never had to hire anyone to take care of the churches because all the parishioners volunteered to do things at the church: clean, fix, you name it.  My family cleaned the linens.  And I was an altar boy until I was almost 19 years old.”

However, remember that mischievous smirk in the photo above.  Service be damned if, well, adolescence doesn’t grab hold of you.  Casimir confessed: “One of the things we had to do was drink the leftover wine after church. But my [late] brother Eddie and I drank too much wine once–more than we were supposed to–and Father came in.  We were grounded!  Father didn’t want us back.  Until, of course, he needed us for Easter services: ‘Casey, Eddie–we need you.'”  This is where, perhaps, he learned the power of being needed–even if it meant later in life taking the stairs three or four at a time under the watch of Mr. Peltzer. 

He also knew that a commitment was a commitment: “I got bombed one Saturday night.  And of course the next morning we were supposed to go to church.  I didn’t want to, but my dad used the phrase ‘While you’re living under my roof.’  So I had to go to church.  But that was the last time I drank on Saturdays.  I drank on Fridays instead.”

“We were devils . . . but nice devils.”

It was hard not to be charmed by Casimir.  He made his life–heck, Life in general–sound so real and universal, even with the peculiarities of his personal story.  One could see in his face–the smoothness we see in the photograph long gone but the smoothness of his attitude toward life still strong–the face of a devoted brother and a son losing his father, of an altar boy and a mischievous kid, of an eager Pfister bellboy and a loving father to Joey, Steven, Caroline, Danny, Kimmy and Little Casey, all of whom love him back!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Harvard Krokodiloes come to The Rouge

Join us on Friday, unhealthy January 13 for a once in a lifetime experience when the world famous Harvard Krokodiloes come to The Rouge for a special evening of fine dining and entertainment.

See the Kroks in actions.

You’ll enjoy a three course gourmet dinner while being treated to the music and humor of Harvard University’s oldest acapella singing group. The Kroks bring a new energy to popular music selections from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, covering everything from classic American standards to rock and roll in a way the great Maestro Leonard Bernstein described as “warming one’s soul and enriching one’s day.”

Milwaukee is one of three US cities they will be playing before embarking on a 60 city world tour, making this evening one you certainly won’t want to miss.

Tickets are available at $49 per person. Call (414) 273-8222 for reservations.

“Like”ing Breakfast

I’m sure it’s clear to you by now, I love breakfast at the Pfister. I love breakfast food in general, of course, and can never make up my mind—breakfast anywhere for me includes multitudes of plate envy, but (as you also know) add coffee and I’m usually satiated.

I’m pretty sure my love of breakfast comes from some working class, Irish Catholic roots and a culinary (to a degree) dad. We had lots of “breakfasts for dinner” type meals during lent because they were filling sans meat (ah, the superb quality of pancakes!). Plus, breakfast food was always dad’s fallback when we were left in his care and hungry. Best French toast in the world came out of a cast iron skillet, flipped by one C.A. Ferris.

But it goes beyond food. When I was a little girl and out with my dad to go fishing, he indoctrinated me the entire routine—including the 5:00 a.m. gatherings at the local diner. Caps, camo and well-worn hands bullying forkfulls of crispy hashbrowns into moustached mouths surrounded me and waitresses who were used to the honey-baby-sugar pie calls of their regulars grinned at my ridiculously curly hair. Suffice it to say, breakfast at the Pfister doesn’t quite look like that, especially while it’s temporarily located in the Rouge Room.

But this morning, as I share the space with a businessman we’ll call Joe talk with his partner, I realized, it may not be all that different. Sure, the dress code ups the ante a bit (no one wore a cap), but the buzz and vibration of the day’s work about to begin was the same. The graceful familiarity of coffee pots swirling around the room and platefuls of crispy hashbrowns seated before regular patrons all feels very familiar.

Joe, a handsome gentleman, seems to be of an age of retirement, yet his crisp grey suit jacket tells a different story. He is working this morning, laughs so hard that his shoulders rattle upwards with every chuckle. His eyes are happy slits directed closed when the corners of his mouth turn up. He’s talking business, profits and partners, but it’s early, he’s still in good spirits.

Instead of a creaky old door and footfalls on the nearly rotted linoleum of my small town diner, eaters here descend into the Rouge like guests on a cruise ship. This breakfast is later too—these aren’t the 5:00 a.m. haymakers (then again, the sun isn’t shining yet as today spring has recoiled) of my small town. These are travelers. Work has changed. Hay doesn’t get made—trades and deals do. Market reports and scouting reports and quality reports are generated and housed in briefcases attached to attaches and carry-ons.

It doesn’t ruin my love for breakfast; the scene and Joe only remind me that it’s more universal than you think. Your first interactions of the morning set the tone for your day and the Flo of my hometown diner beckoned good fishing just as the service staff in the Rouge prep us for contemporary days in an urban place.

I’m eager for more breakfasts though, as the cafe renovations are slated to be finished this upcoming week. In fact, there’s a VIP event on Sunday, March 27 for cafe regulars and others to come and take a sneak peak at the new space before it officially opens on March 28. If you’re a regular, you’d better ask Lorena or any one of your favorite morning staffers to get you in past the velvet rope on Sunday.

As I finish my last swig of coffee, I remember it may be my last relocated cup of percolate in the Rouge and my next will be a Starbucks premium roast in the newly improved cafe, so I snap a quick picture. When the flash goes off, I hear Joe say to his tablemate, who is curious about my photographic endeavor, shrugging those gregarious shoulders of his, “Huh. Facebook.”

Moved by Memories

The holidays often make people nostalgic. Smells, capsule lighting, seasonal images…all of it can take you back to a specific moment in time. Making memories is a big part of who we are and even though we live in a world of saved images and digitally infinite Facebook messages and Gmail chats it’s comforting to know that our mind will always preserve the best and most important moments in our lives.

Roc, a long-time concierge at the Pfister, can tell you a million stories about memories. His are, of course, of guests and interactions and moments he’s been lucky enough to share, but one he told me recently moved me to tears. Every April, a woman returns to the Pfister. She comes in to have breakfast on a Sunday morning and revealed to Roc that the breakfast is more than simply physical nourishment to her—it feeds her heart, her memory.

You see, this distinguished patron was married at the Pfister Hotel in 1942 and she and her lovely groom woke the next morning to share their first breakfast together in the hotel as husband and wife. Then, her beloved shipped off to the Great Lakes Naval Station and took his place in the war and dutifully gave his life. His new bride never saw him again.

When I was little, I remember my dad telling stories one night about being a young boy, sliding down a hill with his brothers. His eyes filled with tears and he grew quiet. I asked him what was wrong and he simply said “I’m sorry, I was eight years old again for a minute there. I was gone.” That’s when I learned how memories could work on you, how they could sustain you and bring you to life. Sadly, for my father, though, many places he spent his youth are gone—torn down, rebuilt, destroyed by fire or the elements in a small town unable to save or preserve them.

The ever-young war bride returns annually, however, to relive this vivid memory in her life, this scene of smells and lighting and images. That a mind–a memory–can preserve for that long is a wonderful reminder that in our hectic, 140 character micro-blogging world, we as people still have the ability to treasure the important moments that we have been a part of. It doesn’t take hash tags or photo captions to do it, either. Merely the scene, the staff, the ways of being in the Pfister can call this memory into a lived moment again.

It’s with a twinge of jealousy on behalf of my dad that I think of her annual opportunity. I can’t imagine what she must feel when she walks through the lobby each year, but I do think it’s amazing that the Pfister still stands and opens its doors to her every spring.