So Ma, how did you get to be ninety years old?

Hello all, this intro is from your current Pfister Narrator, Jonathan West. It’s with the greatest of honors that I share with you this Guest Narrator post today from my immediate predecessor, the inimitable Anja Notanja Sieger.  While I was out of town over the holidays, Anja recently spent a lovely tea time with some special ladies who believe that celebrating a birthday is not merely a once-a-year affair, but something that you should put on your calendar at least every month.  I think you’ll enjoy Anja’s tale just as much as I did.

Every month Margaret’s daughters take her out to celebrate her birthday, because once you turn 90 you have to celebrate your birthday every month. This month they’re having teatime in Blu.

DSCN4114Juan, the tea master wheels a cart over to the party and initiates us:

“I am going to pass thirteen tea jars to you so you’ll have a chance to smell and select the one you’re going to be drinking.” He unscrews the jars and hands each to Margaret first, “This is the 1893 Rose Melange… Chinese oolong green tea, very light on the palate… German chamomile blossoms, a very soothing and relaxing tisane… Cinnamon plum… Hibiscus with a blend of berries and mango flavors… Tangerine ginger… Earl grey with a blend of lavender flowers along with bergamot oil essentials, it has a brothy flavor to it along with an amber color… This one comes from Sri Lanka, a Ceylon, stands very well with milk.

One of Margaret’s daughters interjects, “Which one goes best with champagne?”


DSCN4060 DSCN4059 DSCN4055

Juan smiles and continues, “A white tea infused with peach blossoms… A green tea from the region of Pu-erh… Chocolate chai, it has cacao nibs, coconut shea beans, yerba mate, dried dandelion roots, cardamom, vanilla and long pepper… This one here is making an appearance for the season, it is called: Cocoa mint… And lastly a black tea infused with sencha vanilla bean, very aromeric and flavorful.” I’m not correcting aromeric to “aromatic” as I relish how Juan jumbled the word into something more enticing and elevated to the world of the senses than the usual phrase.

DSCN4103I am one of nine women gathered for tea, and impressively, none of us orders the same tea, and Margaret doesn’t even want tea. After sniffing hearing the described virtues of all thirteen varieties she just wants a hot chocolate. After nine decades she really seems to have a grasp on what she desires and has no trouble asking for it. Meanwhile, Margaret’s daughters ask her, “So Ma, how did you get to be ninety years old?”


“I got to go to college because in the summer I would work for a restaurant in the Wisconsin Dells.” Teenaged Margaret started work on the first day of the summer and for three months she’d never have a day off as a waitress. “That was the rule,” confirms Margaret. After graduating from The Milwaukee State Teachers College, she taught first grade for thirty years until she retired. Margaret taught jillions of kids how to read, including her own grand niece who had learning disabilities. She didn’t even quit her day job once she became a mother to Art, Jane, Tom, Nancy and Barb. There was only one bathroom, no shower. On Saturday nights the children took their weekly bath before shining their shoes.DSCN4072

Margaret liked to sew. She made Halloween costumes, a Santa Claus suit, lovely dresses for her daughters and granddaughters, teddy bears and kangaroos for students to hold at rest time at school, table runners, aprons, seat cushions, and matching swim trunks for her boys. They were striped and long before long swim trunks were popular, but they were made long so that they could grow into them.

DSCN4064Sitting beside Margaret is her great-granddaughter Lauren, who just turned 13. Lauren aspires to be a surgeon and likes going deer hunting with her brother, Margaret’s only other great-grandchild. In the summertime when Lauren was little she’d come visit Grandma Margaret on Lake Winnebago, a very algae ridden lake. “I’d come swim and then rake her seaweed,” explained Lauren.


Margaret has splendid health, her only ailments being mild Parkinson’s and severe gluten intolerance. It is revealed that I am united with Margaret in that we both have celiac disease. She found out she had it when she was 70, and before the diagnosis they suspected she had intestinal cancer. After the diagnosis she got a bread maker and lived. I found out I had celiac when I was 21 and before the diagnosis I took three naps a day. After the diagnosis I spent year subsisting off of avocados and zucchini until my gut healed, and I too lived.


I admit I’ve always avoided teatimes because I assumed it would just be a sort of gluten fest, cookies, crumpets and lady finger sandwiches wagging at me in a taunting chorus, “No, you can’t have this, no, no, nyah-nyah-nyah!” So I am amazed when a tiny tiered platter of gluten free delicacies are set out just for Margaret. I am amazed again when she requests that I sit beside her and share the hors d’ouevres which were made specifically for her and none of which happen to taste even remotely gluten free. Thank goodness. Included on the platter are these pita slices with dallops of hummus, and the pita even has that powdery surface I recall from years ago when I last ate gluten. This is pure miracle.DSCN4081

Margaret goes straight for the chocolate covered strawberries, while I prefer the cucumber sandwiches and savory items. Margaret has a sweet tooth, and her favorite ice cream is white chocolate with raspberries from Kelley’s, a creamery outside the town of Eden that boasts something like 106 different flavors including chocolate covered potato chips and a thanksgiving dinner flavored concoction known as “turkey lurkey.”

DSCN4067After spending seven decades as a reading teacher and matriarch, it appears some caretaker instincts are ingrained, such as turning the platter just so that the very able bodied twenty-something kid beside her can have a slightly easier reach to the cream dalloped pastries. “Don’t burn yourself on this tea kettle, it’s hot,” Margaret warns me.DSCN4073

I am told that Margaret is having the time of her life. She plays dominoes, and is known as the “bingo queen.” She recently moved to her own condominium, and now for the first time in her life she lives alone and on her own terms.

Sevens And Apples


Right now in the Mystery that is the Pfistery,

there is a basket out in the lobby

a tisket, a tasket of apples,

all sized small


to keep inside my blazer pocket


my pocket’s apple is named King David

cause I’m told these are King David’s Apples

an heirloom variety individually selected

by the hotel’s own king executive chef, Brian Frakes

who has decreed them the Hotel Apple

for the month of November you can taste

the Pfistery essence for yourself

it has a deep red flavor that doesn’t go all the way

down the dark path with declarations of feral passion

in the way heirloom red apples sometimes will,

this one stays sweet and neat, with a dry flesh

that would be good sliced thinly over oatmeal,

or as they do it here, served with duck

probably similar to the way my family served it

seven generations ago in Poland

I’m thinking of this ’cause

Chef Frakes told me King David’s sibling,

the Arkansas Black apple was discovered

in 1893, the same year this hotel first opened,

which was approximately seven seeds ago,

as he put it,

“If a seed is approximately 20 years,

we are now in the seventh seed at the hotel.”

I’m reminded of a poster in the bathroom

of my college’s liberal arts building,

that had a picture of wilderness,

and a quote about making all decisions

with consideration for those

who will live on this planet

seven generations from now.

Screen shot 2014-11-20 at 1.53.31 PM


I am in my 27th year of life,

my seventh month

as the seventh Pfister narrator,

the voice the comes up behind

three guests from Dallas

to describe the Victorian painting they are looking at,

a scene, “The Eternal Apple of Eve,”

two friends peeling apples, peeling with laughter,

a painting that was bought by Guido Pfister,

the man who planted the first seed of the Pfistery

that feels so luxurious to explore on my own,

passing the rooms where meetings have been held,


candies half unwrapped on the table,

notes taken on the complimentary pads,

complimentary pens strewn, chairs pushed back,

the intensity of multiple thoughts,

has yet to be swept away by the staff

I hear coming down the hall with their cart,

so I leave to inspect the 23rd floor

and run into the Dallas Trio again,

yes, I am the disembodied voice that narrates

the window view for these three flight attendants


who are unaware that they are admiring the world’s only

inland freshwater sea.

These flight attendants take three-day trips every week,

before Milwaukee they stayed in Canton, Ohio,

“It was almost as good as this,

but this, is a step above even that.”

They tell me there is nothing so historically grand

in all of Dallas

the only thing that comes close

is the Pyramid Room,

a hotel still in its first seed.


I could end the story here

but then I’d miss how

on this day of apples and sevens

I was passing the elevator when

Peter, the concierge, asked me

if I was following him

to get his apple.

I did not know he had an apple,

he did not know I was thinking about apples,

but he stuck his arm out

as the elevator doors began to close

just his head and hand could be seen,

His head told me, “It’s a Jonamac!”

His hand held it out for me,

I accepted it so he would not be guillotined.

This is a comely apple.



A yoga instructor and a fashion designer walk into the Pfister. They are from Portland. This is not a joke. Well, generic maybe it is. Kimberlee and Ashley pose with baby Quinn in front of the painting of kittens in a basket. Quinn wants to hold my hand (and her mother’s hand) so that she can walk down the hallway backwards. They inform me that walking backwards is a metaphor. Everything is a metaphor. I already observed and wrote about this (we think alike!), ed but they point out to me how the marble steps look just like salami. The meat steps look downright appetizing though they are vegans. “They just need to add some olives to these steps.” I think about the sandwiches my Italian-American mother packed for me as a kid and remember that there is an olive relish that tastes really good with this kind of salami (I have determined the steps are made of capicola my mother’s favorite salami, not genoa which is my favorite) but I cannot remember the name of the relish.

Hey, I need a refill on this tea I am drinking.


In the café a woman wears a watermelon t-shirt and dines upon a fruit cup. On the table beside the fruit cup is a banana. Her sweater is pink and looks ripe. Her name is Donna.  She lives in Chicago but has come to stay at the Pfister every summer for the past 29 years to attend Festa Italiana. The woman is FBI, full-blooded Italian, third generation. She doesn’t know the language and has never visited Italy, but she does know that the fried calamari at Festa is delicious. But at Festa even the nightly fireworks are delicious.

Every summer she and her family will rent 3 or 4 rooms at the Pfister. This year her two daughters and their families will join her. A total of nine grandchildren will be present. To amuse the kids, Donna buys unusual graphic t-shirts (such as the watermelon shirt she currently sports that has tiny cartoon ants crawling on the sleeves) at Festa and only wears them once a year when she stays at the Pfister.

Donna’s husband is a retired restaurateur, but she says he is running a stand at Festa that sells military sweatshirts (he donates the proceeds to the USO), stuffed olives and giardiniera. GIARDINIERA! Hey, that’s the name for the stuff that I was thinking of a half hour ago! If you are like me you are wondering if the restaurant that Donna’s husband owned served Italian cuisine. It did not. He owned Moon’s Sandwich Shop, a popular inner city Chicago diner that has been around since 1933. It has 18 stools, a line of people waiting to sit on those stools and closing time of 2:30p.m. “It looks like a broken down pawn shop, but they make everything fresh everyday,” Donna reassures me.

We Are The Larvae Eaters


“Next year we we’ll have 120 pounds of honey coming outta the two hives, rx ” says Brian Frakes, Pfister head chef and as of this year, beekeeper. He takes me up to the roof; where 24 stories above the ground the bees await their sugar water refill. He lights the burlap in his smoker and climbs into a suit. I ask him how long the smoke sedates bees and he replies, “Twenty minutes. My understanding is it doesn’t actually sedate them; it stops them from being able to do their panic communication with each other. Therefore sedating them.”


So far he’s only been stung once and yes, hospital it was as bad as he feared, “I did not like it. I was more upset with myself because it was my fault. I was by myself and he was riding on the back of me, I didn’t notice him and I pulled off my suit like a sweater.” When Brian went out of town for two days one of the banquet cooks, Marco suited up and fed them “Which was very brave of him, because no one is jumping out of their skin to mess with the bees.” Brian’s trick for checking if there are any bees on him when he is up here alone is to “Look at my shadow and see if there is anything flying around.”


He points to the hive on the left, “These bees are very kind and very productive, and that’s why they are further along. But these bees on the right? These bees are always mad!” The same variety of bee resides in both of the hives but like most families each one is a little different. Which family did the bee that stung him come from? “I don’t know it was someone that was outside, but I’m going to say yes, the bees that stung me came from the mean family. Let’s not say mean, they are very aggressive, protective.”


Lifting the cover off the protective family he warns, “They are possibly coming to attack you.” I step back, and indeed, a bee flies straight towards me, gets near my head and then hurdles back to its hive. Will the protective bees’ future offspring be as passionate? “Just because grandma was nuts doesn’t mean all her children will be.” Brian scrapes the excess honeycomb. “Wax. That’s the bee business. They need a place to make a lot of babies.”


With the recent Pfister bee media frenzy, Chef Frakes put some of the honeycomb into a clear container so that the reporters could get close to it. Later he stored the container with the comb in his office and was watching as one of the bee larvae came to life. “It finished the larvae process and turned into a bee in one of these containers rather than in the hive. It was born anyways! Pretty incredible. It gave me chills.” He also ate one of the unborn larvae just to be weird and primal. “It was creamy and a little crunchy. Not overly pleasant, but not horrible either.”


I ask so many questions about his larvae eating that he invites me to try one that he’s been keeping in his office. It’s cold and wet on the tongue, and reminds me of buttered corn-on-the-cob.


Talking art, storytelling and friendship

They weren’t sure if they wanted to talk to me and I don’t blame them. Their lives are busy and consequently they get to spend so little time together. And they don’t know me.

But slowly, carefully, Muriel and Susan opened up to me.

We talked about art, but mostly, about friendship. And like all cherished friendships, Muriel’s and Susan’s 22-year friendship is a mosaic of similarities and differences.

Muriel grew up in Wisconsin; Susan in Illinois. Today, Susan lives on the South Side; Muriel is in the North Shore. They have different marital statuses. Muriel is single by choice; Susan has been married for years.

But their similarities are plentiful. They both love visual art, writing, theater and …

“We both really like to have fun,” says Muriel.

On this particular day, the ladies are having fun in the Lobby Bar after a visit to the art museum. It’s become an annual tradition, one they usually do during Super Bowl season. This year, however, Muriel had family obligations and they had to postpone it.

They have other connections to the Pfister as well. They attended tea at Blu. They are also both fans of former Pfister Artist In Residence, Shelby Keefe, and visited her studio.

So what makes a good friendship? I ask them, after asking myself this very question a thousand times in the past three years when it came time in my life to reevaluate my relationships. (But that’s another blog.)

“Someone you can count on no matter what’s going on in your life not to judge you. Someone who is there to listen if nothing else, but even more than listen, to be responsive. It’s so basic. Just somebody you can count on,” says Susan.

“It’s really nice to have a girlfriend,” says Muriel.

“Especially when you’re married,” says Susan, laughing softly.

Somehow we start talking about the local storytelling group, Ex Fabula, and New York-based storytelling group, The Moth. We all attended storytelling events in the past – I actually competed in and won an Ex Fabula story slam earlier this year – and marvel at the newfound popularity of storytelling.

People are flocking to public spaces just to hear stories? This is wonderful, but a little suprising. Is it backlash to technology? Is it because people have forgotten how to really talk to one another? Is it because strangers, like us, don’t usually open up?

We live in a society based on asking forgiveness when we provide too much information and we watch reality TV but don’t want to disclose honest, personal information.

We post our breakfasts but not our fears on Facebook.

“I used to work here,” Muriel offers up at one point in our conversation. She goes on to share wonderful stories of working at the Pfister Cafe, then called The Greenery, in the late ‘70s. And then we share more stories, these were off the record. (Sorry.)

Oh, the things we learn when we listen. The things we say when we think someone is listening. Really listening.

A Pfister Take on “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas”

Each year, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Pfister Hotel holds its annual tree lighting ceremony.  Featuring cookies and crafts for the kids, the fabulous carols of the Bel Canto Chorus, and a special appearance by the jolly ol’ man himself, this year’s ceremony was as memorable as those past. But did you know about the work that goes into setting up our tree?  For hours prior to the ceremony – starting on Thanksgiving day, the tree is tirelessly assembled by a fantastic group of people.  And just to give them their due, we’ve captured all of that work in a minute and a half.

Twas the night of Thanksgiving
And all throughout the hotel
Holiday magic was happening
Compliments of Santa’s Secret Decorating Elves

The Pfister tree went up overnight
To the amazement of staff and guests
The elves were frantically working
Scurrying back and forth I can attest.

As Friday dawned bright and early
The lobby was full of holiday decorations
The garland, the bows, and the ornaments,
The last minute preparations.

For soon the lobby would be full
With children squealing in glee.
Santa would soon be arriving
To officially light the Pfister tree.

The Bel Canto Chorus began signing
Their voices in perfect tune
The carols they were lovely
And they helped set the right mood

The radio then buzzed

Omar than made the announcement,
The crowd hushed to hear him say

The doors then burst open
Santa marched down the lobby aisle
Up to Omar he strode,
With a jolly laugh and big smile

Santa said with a grin,

The crowd and Santa cheered with great glee.

The she was aglow
As were many the faces
Santa visited with each child
Sticky hands and sticky faces

The day it was grand
The Pfister tree shines so bright
Merry Christmas to all
And to all a good night.

By Michelle McCarragher

Every Three Seconds

“You want to know about Indian culture?” he asks with a raised brow.

I pick up my pen, square my shoulders, and give an affirmative bring-it-on nod.

The lobby lounge is relaxed after a full day of visitors and tourists trafficking through the hotel. I’m having an evening coffee at the bar and my guest, Murali, is unwinding with a glass of whiskey. His flight from India touched down only a few hours ago. He’s in the t-shirt business and his work carries him all over the globe: Sri Lanka, Australia, Europe, Japan, Singapore. He’s in Milwaukee for the first time.

“I left home for work as a young man. I have traveled with my work ever since,” he says.

An exporting entrepreneur in his early 40s, Murali tells me that he lives in the southern region of India now,400 kilometers from his native city.  With his extensive travel schedule, I ask how often he gets to his home village.

“Every year,” he says. His dark eyes are piercing and certain.  “I travel home every year to worship at my temple. It is wonderful.”

Murali tells me about the full day at his home temple, with 150 families together from sunrise to sunset. He even clears napkins from the bar and a tray of mixed nuts to illustrate the generations and linkages of men who worship with him.  He continues worship traditions in his new city, of course, but explains how each region of India will have varied approaches and styles.

“There are 24 states in India and more than 24 languages,” he says.  “Even 60 miles away, there is a different language.  The celebrations are similar, but will look different from region to region.”

“After living away for so long,” I ask, “does your native city always feel familiar when you visit or oddly foreign?” Murali has been cordial with me so far, but understandably guarded. He lets his first smile peek through when I ask about “home.”

“My native city is always home.” Murali says.  He pauses for a moment, his face becoming serious again, and adds, “Things do change where green fields are now homes or shops. Everywhere in the world, things are becoming commercialized. Still, we appreciate tradition.”

I ask about these traditions and Murali lists just a few of the festival celebrations from his culture. There’s a River Festival, a Sun Festival, a festival for studies and a festival for the harvest.  Each month, he says, there is a different celebration with a different focus, and even a different food.

“Each celebration is regenerating,” he says.  “If you think about it, the total of these celebrations are essential for human beings,” he says.

“Which is your favorite?” I ask.

“Diwali,” he says, taking my journal and pen to write the title correctly.  Diwali, Festival of Lights, is held in November or October and is India’s biggest and most important holiday of the year. It is named for the rows of clay lamps that Indians light outside their homes to symbolize the inner light that protects us from spiritual darkness.

“Every family will have new dress, there are firecrackers and sweets, servants get bonuses, brothers will visit sisters. It is a time for families to come together,” he says.  “The first Diwali after a couple is married is a big celebration for the entire family. The first Diwali with my own wife was in 2000. It will always be my favorite.”

“As a kid, did you value these traditions,” I ask, “or did you learn to really appreciate them once you were an adult?” Murali didn’t hesitate: he’s always cherished his culture and traditions.

“In my childhood, we woke up at 4:30 in the morning to be at the temple by 5am.  We all were there, praying to God,” he says. “We all prayed with the same movements. We had the same ritual of exercise.  We all eat our evening meals on a new banana leaf.  There is even a way to lay in the bed. Yes, these things create a culture, but they are also essential to the body.”

I think about his world, and the certainty it suggests.  I can admit that I have wrinkled my modern and Western nose at the notion of tradition, focused too intently on familiar expectations won’t exist or might be forbidden elsewhere in the world.  In talking with Murali and witnessing the joy he holds in simply describing his traditions to me, I’m better able to appreciate the sense of foundation and purpose that occurs he gains from a culture steeped in prescription and rich tradition.

The more Murali tells me about his village, holidays, rituals and memories, the more relaxed and talkative he becomes.  He speaks from a grounded place, a clear understanding of his journey through the world.

“Ancient priests wrote many things about timing. Every second, for example, three people are born in the world,” Murali says, settling back against his chair, his eyes fixed on mine. “The destiny and the ancestry of those three people can be charted by the sun and the stars.  The people born just one second later will have a different destiny. Our ways are ancient. This is what we believe.”

As much as our cultures may differ, I learn that Murali and I share quirky similarities.  First of all, we were born only eight days apart. Secondly, we are both raising preteen girls.  Third, we both have surrendered our memory to digital gadgets.

“When I started my business, I kept 200 phone numbers in my head,” he says. “Now with the mobile phone, there’s no need.”  I laugh because the only number I have committed to memory is my mother’s.  (If I ever lose my digital address book and find myself in an epic crisis with only one permitted phone call, I’ll have to cross my fingers that she’s not in the audience of a stage play with her ringer silenced.)

“The young people now are a digital generation,” Murali continues.  “Anything they need to know, they pick up their phone and have an answer in seconds.  We used to memorize everything.”

I ask if he uses technology readily or reluctantly.  “Oh, I use it,” he says. “I have to. For business, conversations that used to take a week or two weeks happen instantly now.”

I ask if he uses programs like Skype to talk with his daughter while he’s on the road.  Murali loosens his second broad smile.  “Whatever it takes,” he says.  “Every Sunday when I am home, she asks questions about my travels. So many questions. I miss that.”

I smile. Love and family are certainly universal concepts … and food.  Murali turns to greet a delivery person with a fragrant bag of takeout.

“Food from my country,” he says to me with a smile.

I begin to pack my things, and thank him profusely for his time and generous cultural lesson. Murali finishes paying for his dinner and settles his bag atop the bar.  He turns his attention back to me and gives a slow nod.

“You are most welcome,” he says.  “Next time, I will tell you about Indian food.  That will take an entire day.”


Kevin Bacon Meets his Match

In three characters or less, can you connect yourself to the popular actor Kevin Bacon? How about if I give you six characters? Or, we can go back to the standard version of the game (that was actually made into a board game, by the way) and ask that you use six movie actors and their films to draw a line between Kevin Bacon and what ever actor whose name you draw.

The Pfister should design such a board game. They can give Mr. Bacon a run for his money as more than A Few Good Men have passed through these hallowed halls. I’ve met people in the hotel who have had life long experiences here—beginning as a child, they have had traditions built around pizza, the holidays, the lions (now available as stuffed souvenirs in the new gift shop), teas and brunches. I’ve met those couples who share a regular date at the hotel or who met there. Others are introduced to the space through work, and name badge still attached testify “oh, yeah, I’m glad they booked the program here! I’ve never been here before!”

But in conjunction with my plein air tribute to AIR Shelby Keefe, I have to say, my favorite “Six Degrees of Pfister’” comes when the six degrees unite Milwaukee, past and present, local and newbie, to the hotel from outside its walls.

 Recently, I’ve met a young woman who just moved here from out of town. I invited her to join me at a dinner for a group of the oldest women in town—oldest women’s group in town, that is. Since 1894, the AAUW Milwaukee Branch has been creating historic moments and hosting speakers.

As this Newaukeean met with those steeped in the city’s history, recommendations for where to go, who to meet and what to join flew. As testimony to her own efforts at building roots, the Newaukeean explained she had participated with another professional organization she’d joined in town…at an event at Blu, “at the Pfister Hotel, have you ever been there?”

I couldn’t help but smile. I shared my Narrator card. We talked about the beauty of an event that starts during daylight hours and extends into evening and what happens to you when you witness that from 23 stories above the city. There are no Tremors up there, but great stories about times when Joan Rivers and the gang got Footloose. I explained my role and all that I’d seen so far in my tenure—I warned her “Many who report to you on Milwaukee are Flatliners, but don’t believe them. Sit at the Pfister and watch how much we love our community and how many people continue to return to it time and time again.”

I realized it’s not my new city anymore, it’s hers.

The Pfister has been my Kevin Bacon. Either someone says to me “hey, have you ever stopped for a drink at the Pfister? We were just there, it was great” and I have to explain it’s my home. Or, I become the lever for someone else, “You work with the Pfister? I was just invited to an event there and I’ve never been!” It’s the perfect connector in the city and it’s never had a flop. I dare you to play the game—are you at least three degrees from the Pfister Hotel? What’s amazing is, whether or not you’ve realized it yet, you are.