Everything Old is New Again

Posted by on Jan 19, 2011

The Pfister Hotel is never the same place twice…and that’s the best part. Since I have been named the Narrator, I try to bring  different friends into the Pfister to sit and watch and enjoy with me.

There are different kinds of reactions. Some have known the hotel much longer than I (I am only just beginning my fourth year as a Milwaukeean) and their Milwaukee origin stories revolve around the hotel. “I remember we used to…” begin their narratives.

Others are related to the hotel through me. “What will you write about him? Oh! What about her? What’s his name, who have you met, can you give me a tour?”

But for me, my wonderment at each person’s reaction to the hotel is the lesson I’ve learned from strangers that I can now apply to my friends. I’ve become a good listener. I’ve realized many of the travelers and hotel guests I’ve met are more than ready to talk and each of them has the greatest tales to tell.

When I sit with friends, I find I shift my senses from sharing time with a companion I’ve known for a very long time to suddenly experiencing these people as full of unique stories of their own, many I haven’t learned yet.

Two different women friends came with me to two different after-work happy hours recently. My experience was dramatically different with each. The first could barely finish a story without yelping out, gasping and recognizing with joy the tune on the piano. At one point, she confessed she was ready to stand on the table and sing along. For her, the theatrics of the hotel drew out her experience, helped her enjoy the space and her evening. The lobby was her stage, the other guests were her co-stars and she was looking for cues to share with them.

The other woman was a professional at enjoying the lobby. She’d been to the hotel many times before and knew it long before I moved to town. It was comical to think I was showing her the Pfister when in truth the opposite was true.

The passersby and people watching didn’t suit her as much as the space itself. We walked past the amazing art collection which moved her—but not as much as the framed stories of the hotel’s early years and its transformations over time. The architecture, the uses, the pharmacy, the old nooks and crannies and questions of “are they still here?” propelled her through the Pfister. The bones of the place were the foundation of her experience.

In graduate school, I read about the politics and culture of space, studied how theorists turned space into this living, breathing concept that made meaning. I understood those theoretical concepts and reveled in them.

But as I bring friends to tea, to the couches, to the art and to the amazing Gardettos mix in the lobby bar, I don’t just theorize about space. When I bring locals to this place that they already know, but I share it with them for the first time, each person’s experience is a new way to rewrite the hotel. Each person’s reaction is a new way to bring the Pfister to life.  It’s no longer theory; it’s practice.

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