A Narrator’s Farewell Part I: The Early Months

Posted by on Apr 28, 2017

Dear Readers–

The past year has taken me places I could never have expected, which was exactly what I had in mind when I decided to quit teaching English last June after 22 years.  I knew that my dedication to my profession would preclude devoting serious time to any new pursuits or new projects, whatever they might be.  (Teaching, if you didn’t know, can be a 24/7 job. It’s all you think about.)  It was fortuitous, then, that I accepted the position as the ninth Pfister Narrator a month before my school year was finished–a sign of good things to come.  My summer was filled with a new kind of writing assignment, something quite foreign to me, given my usual summer writing, which consisted of researching and writing curriculum and responding to students on our summer reading blog. Instead of a writing teacher, I was now a writer.  In fact, I remember the first time I told someone that I was “a writer” in response to their query, “What’s your job?”  I was in Toronto to do a marathon relay and a new friend casually asked the question and I casually, without even thinking about it, replied.  I surprised myself–but in a good way.  I knew that I had found something new, something that, if I worked at it, could stick.

Before I explain how it took me a couple of months to get used to this new “job,” I would like to thank a few people, beginning with Donna Basterash, Executive Assistant to the General Manager, and Cassy Scrima, Director of Marketing for Marcus Hotels & Resorts, for their support and encouragement throughout the year.  They had faith in me that I would provide a creative portrayal of the life of the Hotel during my residency.  I hope that I did.  Thank you, too, to Colleen Maxwell, who assisted me with social media, and Rachael Kohlenberg, who kept me informed about the hundreds of events on the calendar.  Thank you to Chef Brian Frakes and his team for providing my writing workshops with delicious hors d’oeuvres and vineyard libations each time.  And thank you to former Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson for her friendship and insight and support–always.  Finally, to the Hotel Associates who made my residency fun and funny, smooth and effortless, especially bartenders Valerie, Thomas, and Ellie, Concierge Helga, and banquet staff Muny and Matt: thank you!

On April 21st, I gave my final performance as the Narrator, with a two-hour reading of some of my favorite pieces, including twenty creative pieces written not only by me but by some of the participants in my writing workshop series Plume Service.  I called the performance “The Ink Runs Dry,” and I was assisted by and thank wholeheartedly fifteen readers, including former Narrators Anja Sieger and Molly Snyder and the Plume Service authors.  It was so much better sharing the stage with them that it would have been if I was the only one reading for two hours (even I would have bored myself!).

So now, in four installments, I offer you the pieces that we read that night, with short introductions for each.  They serve as both digest and fond memory–and a chance for you to visit them for the first time or revisit them if you have been following my blog over the year.

The ink runs dry.  Enjoy.  I know I did.


p.s. Here is the only existing photo of the evening, courtesy of pianist Mark Davis:

No one could figure out how to go “full screen.”

PART 1: The Early Months

“My Nemesis” | May 1, 2016 

It wasn’t easy at first.  I had to learn to trust my instincts.  I had to learn to take chances.  I had to learn how to navigate a room full of strangers.  This was the first piece I wrote after my first visit to Mason Street Grill, where my friend and colleague (I was still teaching at The Prairie School) Jamie Breiwick was playing trumput with pianist Mark Davis.  

I know the trumpet player,
so I head toward him,
accidentally intercepting
the snap of his 1-2-3
with a handshake-hug,
then, embarrassed, take a seat
at the bar to strategize
how best to write the song
of this Mason Street crowd.   

What I don’t know is this room yet:
a bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.

The portamento of the familiar trumpet
guides me, glides me from table to table:
two women crack up over selfies,
a man leans into his conversation
with a woman who sits near
another man politely slicing
a tenderloin as another one–
my nemesis–
tells the bartender coyly,
“Oh, you talked me into it.”

I know the trumpet player,
but I also already know my nemesis,
my competitor, because I can tell
he’s been here for awhile
and already gotten used to
the polyrhythmic beat of the bar and the band,
the bustle of dark wood, cool leather,
dim ceiling dinner din.

He has beaten me to a bench near a bookcase
in the corner between the kitchen
and the exit, as valets enter and leave.  
He sits there, visible but secretive,
writing in a notebook.
I had seen him see me come into the bar,
felt him eye me knowingly,
writer to writer,
as I removed my phone and stylus,
moved to the loveseat in front of him,
and alternately sipped my whiskey
and jotted notes about the music.

If we were both going to narrate the Pfister,
then at least I would be closer to the band.
But I worried my words were his words,
only more cliche:
“Sprinkling staccato keys.”
“Punctuating, gallivanting, tumbling.”
“Skipping trumpet.”
“Pulsing pluck of guitar.”

I feel his competitive words behind me,
his seasoned bluesy ear
that was probably writing
more than gerunds,
his comfortable rapport with the bartender:
“Oh, you talked me into it.”

And then my suspicions are confirmed
when the music stops and he approaches the band
before I can, with another drink in hand,
like a reporter, a critic, to confirm their names
and read an excerpt–he’s pretty forward–
from his review, which, I am shocked,
uses words like “derivative” and “painful.”

But neither the trumpet player who I know
nor the piano nor the guitar seems to mind.
Instead, they augment the dinner din
with ironic chuckles and slap my nemesis on the back.
Defeated, I wonder how he has glided so easily
into their blues, gotten to know this room
so confidently.

It’s been such a long time
since I’ve observed and listened,
written unhindered by the looming
deadlines of anxious clocks.
Dragged along by the melancholy tug
of the blues, I realize now that I allowed
my mind to wander and create a character
out of a corner bench, a notebook,
a glance, and “Oh, you talked me into it.”

To insert and assert myself into the lives
of these Mason Street strangers,
I will need to become my own character,
learn to interrupt their dinner din,
blend my pitch with theirs,
emerge from the dark wood and cool leather,
and smile myself into their lives
as cooly as my fantasy nemesis,

who, it turns out, is a prolific drummer
who’s known the trumpet player longer than I have,
who’s known rooms like this longer than I’ve been alive.

“We Are a Corporation”  | May 13, 2016

Mother’s Day Brunch was almost a bust–everyone was, well, enjoying a quiet meal with their moms, so why would they want to interrupt that to talk to me? Until, that is, I approached a crowded table and asked if I might ask them a few questions.  Within a few seconds, I had a glass of champagne in my hand and was seated with them.  Within a minute, a woman at the table named Maria would hit on me repeatedly (I’ve never been so embarrassed!), and after an hour, we had written poetry together, downed more glasses of champagne, and I felt like I had a surrogate family.

This family was hilarious and warm and inviting.  They were loud and obnoxious.  We laughed, we cried (really, we did).  They called their family a “corporation,” and, indeed, they worked together like a unit.  I was happy to share the brunch with them.  Here’s an excerpt:

A Puerto Rican family with American roots in the South Bronx and Manhattan’s Lower East Side dominates a table toward the back of the ballroom.  The matriarch, MERCEDES, is sitting at a table during the annual Mother’s Day Brunch, an empty seat to her left, followed clockwise by her niece DANA (daughter of LIZA and NICK), her daughter MARIA, daughter LIZA, LIZA’s husband NICK, their other daughter KELLEY, and KELLEY’s husband MIKE.  

Somehow, we decided to write a poem together.  I pulled a sheet from my notebook and invited someone to propose a first line.  From there, we would pass the sheet around the table so that each member of this family could lend his or her voice.  

Almost instantaneously, Nick said, “Under the spreading chestnut.”  We were all surprised by the “chestnut” reference (who comes up with “chestnut” in the first line of an impromptu poem?).  But then he changed his mind: “Oh, no.  We can’t use that.  That’s from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem.”  I’d never read it before but discovered that it is the first line of “The Village Blacksmith,” which turns out to have a beautiful reference to the blacksmith’s mother and whose first line reads “Under a spreading chestnut tree”).  Putting on my English teacher hat, I assured him that our poem would contain an allusion to Longfellow, a line lifted partially, borrowed honorably.  All eight of us, with Longfellow as the ninth, would co-write a new poem.

Once the sheet had rounded the table, I prepared to recite our words to a rapt audience.  But we were all surprised when Mike said he wanted to open our poetry reading with his own poem, a lengthy one he’d written for his wife Kelley a while back, featuring a mixture of formal language and modern references to black holes and the galaxy.  “He just sent it to me in a message one day,” Kelley told us, to which all of us responded, of course, “Awwww.”

Under the spreading chestnut,
a mother’s love goes far.
And we breathe a sigh of relief
because we know how beautiful you are.
Your beauty is like the sunset–
so pure and full of wonder.
The love we share will never die–
let no man put it asunder.
Look toward the stars, behind the thunder.
Hide your dreams from those who seek to plunder.
But show them to the Lord above
who’s under the spreading chestnut
where a mother’s love goes far.

“You Can’t Take My Bones” | May 30, 2016

As much as I never looked intentionally for celebrities (in fact, I always seemed to miss them) because I wanted to talk to, you know, regular people, sometimes I’d happen to talk to someone who was so “regular people” that I never would have guessed he was a nationally known news anchor for CBS–or guessed that he, or anyone for that matter, would share with a complete stranger like me such beautiful sentiments.

I want to still have rhythm.  I want to be able to still keep a beat.

Rhythm isn’t just something physical, like being able to walk straight. It’s that sweet cadence that you possess.  It’s music, which you get to interpret.  It’s really everything.  

It’s like this: imagine your favorite band, your favorite song . . . without rhythm.  This is going to sound silly, because I was really young and didn’t understand what the song was really about, but it was Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”  My father would play that song all the time.  It was good.

Well, my father John died when I was ten years old, on Father’s Day.  But he used to say, “You can’t take my bones.  You can take away anything else, but you can’t take my bones.”  He was holding on to the one thing that was his connection to the earth.

Rhythm (snaps his fingers three times) connects everything.  Everything. You know how when people say “My rhythm’s off”?  That means something’s not right.  Some kind of connection.  (smiling) It aligns with the universe. It keeps everything in sync.

“Cordials of Wisdom” | June 28, 2016

I could never tell if bartender Valerie was just toying with me or whether she was truly serious, but it didn’t matter.  I just loved hearing her observations, her musings, her 40+ years of memories of the Hotel.  And I always appreciated it when she’d make the first move and introduce me to someone at the Lobby Lounge bar–she was like my “wingwoman” in many situations.  (Of course, there were also those times she’d say, “Did you talk to so-and-so celebrity?  Or so-and-so really interesting person?  Oh, no?  They just left.”  I had failed.)  One evening, I asked her for some “cordials of wisdom” so I could record them for perpetuity:

On the Art of Conversation.  “Allow the other to begin in one direction, like a straight arrow; allow them to take the lead.  Create the space where this freedom is possible, then begin to fill in the open spaces with yourself.  Follow the arrow down one path or the other path.”

On Keeping It Simple.  “Too many ingredients in a drink confuses the tastebuds.  Too many ingredients with dozens of other ingredients in them creates mud.  To avoid the muddle, in a drink (or life), keep it simple.  Complement simple ingredients with one or two others so that you can taste each one separately; if you’re lucky, then one flavor delights at the beginning, then gives way to another, with a flourish at the end.”

On Representing Your Places Well.  “Whatever places you represent, present them well.  Creating a relaxing atmosphere, a cordial experience, an unforgettable memory–this is who we are at The Pfister Hotel, for instance.”

On How Your Perception Directs Your Course.  “If you think that that black cat crossing your path is going to give you bad luck, then it’s more likely that you will have “bad luck.”  Your belief will affect the course of your day, making you more apt to identify “bad luck” when you might not have before.  Have you ever heard, however, about someone looking forward to a white cat crossing their path?”

in part II: humans of the pfister

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