After the first couple of months of storytelling, I remember sitting in the Lobby Lounge for two hours one day–and not interviewing a soul. I sketched the lobby, the bar, some patrons, the piano, some wine glasses, but everyone that day seemed too wrapped up in each other. It seemed that no one would want to wrap me into their lives or unwrap themselves for a moment to share their Pfister day with me. It wasn’t them, though, it was me, for sure. Something wasn’t clicking. My introverted side was kicking in. My wallflower self waited for one of them to approach me. And that’s how Humans of The Pfister was born.
I went home and grabbed my copy of Brandon Stanton’s beautiful photography book Humans of New York and perused the colorful residents of the Big Apple, their anecdotal secrets and wishes, memories and regrets. I marveled at his 18 million “likes” on Facebook and scrolled through hundreds of photo stories on his website. I needed an “in” at The Pfister, especially on those days when I was uncertain how to approach a patron.
Each month, I decided, I would create a list of questions to have at the ready, big universal questions that anyone could answer, ones that would reveal the humanity and diversity of the people who visited the Hotel.
- When have you felt most alive?
- What is your secret to living a fulfilling life?
- What is the number one thing that has gotten you to this point in your life?
- What is one thing that you are still working on in your life?
- When have you felt the freest?
- What have you felt the least free?
- What is the most liberating thing you have ever done?
- Does freedom come with a price?
The pursuit of Happiness
- How do you pursue happiness?
- What was one of the happiest moments of your life?
- Who or what makes you the happiest?
- What is your definition of happiness?
august (adj.) 1660s, from Latin augustus “venerable, majestic, magnificent, noble,” probably originally “consecrated by the augurs, with favorable auguries” (see augur(n.)); or else “that which is increased” (see augment).
- Who is the most venerable, majestic, magnificent, and/or noble person you have known?
- When have you felt the most “consecrated by the augurs”?
- When have you felt the most “increase”?
augur (n.) 1540s, from Latin augur, a religious official in ancient Rome who foretold events by interpreting omens, perhaps originally meaning “an increase in crops enacted in ritual,” in which case it probably is from Old Latin *augos (genitive *augeris) “increase,” and is related to augere “increase” (see augment). The more popular theory is that it is from Latin avis “bird,” because the flights, singing, and feeding of birds, along with entrails from bird sacrifices, were important objects of divination (compare auspicious).
- When have you felt like the cards were in your favor, like the stars were aligning, etc.?
- When did you interpret a “sign” of some sort and act upon it, for better or for worse?
augment (v.) c. 1400, from Old French augmenter “increase, enhance” (14c.), from Late Latin augmentare “to increase,” from Latinaugmentum “an increase,” from augere “to increase, make big, enlarge, enrich,” from PIE root *aug- (1) “to increase” (source also of Sanskrit ojas “strength;” Lithuanian augu “to grow,” aukstas “high, of superior rank;” Greek auxo “increase,” auxein “to increase;” Gothic aukan “to grow, increase;” Old English eacien “to increase”).
- When have you felt the most “enlarged,” the most “enriched”?
- How did you become the august person that you are?
- Have you ever had an epiphany? A time when the lightbulb lit up?
education (n.) Latin educare “to bring up or rear a child” and Latin educere “to bring out, to lead out, or to lead forth”
- favorite (or least favorite) education memories;
- favorite (or least favorite) teachers, mentors, guides, etc.;
- how they way they were brought up by their parental guardians and/or teachers affected who they are today;
- times when someone brought out the best in them, or lead them out of their ignorance or innocence, or lead them forth toward something enlightening;
- their own Aha! or Eureka! moments;
- “school” vs. “education”;
- what the “School of Life” has taught them;
- times when they have been a teacher, mentor, guide.
fear (n.) Old English faer “calamity, sudden danger, peril” > Greek peria “to try, to attempt, to experience”
- When were you ever in sudden danger–and how did you survive? When did you ever try something, attempt something, experience something that involved, well, fear? (Here’s where the unique stories will emerge and where we’ll all be able to connect: who hasn’t tried something new and shaken in their boots?!)
fright (n.) Old English fyrhtu “dread, horrible sight, fear and trembling”
- What do you dread the most? What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?
horror (n.) Latin horror “dread, veneration, religious awe” > Latin horrere “to shudder or bristle with fear” > Latin eris “hedgehog”
- Who knew that horror originally meant “religious awe”? In that sense, when have you ever been in the presence of someone or something that has made you think twice about your place in the universe or made you shudder in the face of its immense awe-someness and power? How are you like a hedgehog, rolling yourself into a ball for protection?
terror (n.) Old French terreur “great fear, dread, alarming news”
- What was that alarming news you received? How did you respond?
- What are you thankful for that can fit into a 1’x1′ box?
- What human or group of humans are you thankful for?
- What non-physical thing–an idea, a value, a force–are you thankful for?
- First loves?
Ok. The questions got simpler as the months progressed! But the stories the humans shared with me never ceased to amaze me with their honesty, insight, and revelation. It truly was humbling that they would share parts of their lives with me. Here are only a few:
July 2, 2016
“I felt the most alive and extremely, extremely at peace after my nine-year-old daughter was ill and needed a kidney transplant. We went to two different doctors in southern California, both of whom said she also had cardiomyopathy and recommended both kidney and heart surgery. One of the doctors told us, “Your daughter’s life is finite.” Devastated, and wanting another opinion, we went to a doctor in Brazil (my ex-wife is Brazilian) and he told us to convince the American doctors to just do the kidney transplant. So now she has my kidney and is 17 years old. Her life wasn’t finite. After the surgery, I felt super, super peaceful. I felt such presence and non-resistance–so free, so alive, so at peace. I began meditating, which brought me clarity, a sense of letting go, without attachment. I also felt joy, felt connected. I was able to live with this life energy for some time (it’s like we need to go to a mental gym where we make ourselves aware of all our attachments, then let them go), but it’s a difficult thing to maintain, just like working out. I’m still working on it.”
July 4, 2016
“I feel most alive when I feel like I’m making a progression, moving forward. Otherwise, I’m at a standstill. I measure myself to see how I’m progressing. It’s not an ‘envy’ kind of measurement. But I’m only twenty and I feel like I’m behind. We’re all born with different cards. Some people get aces, kings, or queens. Others get deuces, two’s, or three’s. I just want to feel like I have a nice strong deck in my hands.”
November 27, 2016
I overheard you talking to the pianist about what he’d give thanks for that you couldn’t see. So I looked up this quotation in case you came around. It’s from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” Without getting political, there’s a general undercurrent of people not accepting people for who they are, instead of one of love and openness. It’s not just “me, me, me.” It needs to be more “us.”
August 6, 2016
New friends Casey (l) and Sheryl (r), both from New York, just met this week at a week-long work training in Milwaukee. But they found that their ideas fed off of each other. They “got” each other. This was apparent when I sat down with them today.
CASEY: When did I feel the most august? Since the day I was born, going hard.
SHERYL: Nice, dude. Going hard.
CASEY: No, but seriously. Every day is a challenge to be more magnificent than the previous one. And challenge is a way to improve yourself instead of putting yourself down.
SHERYL: Yes, it’s a challenge of understanding yourself better.
CASEY: I give myself a warning every day never to dwell on my past. I might screw up one day, but I challenge myself to be better than yesterday.
SHERYL: It’s good to give yourself little milestones.
CASEY: And to test the waters. Each day, of course, is different, but you need the challenge to get going and keep going. Life is boring if it’s easy.
SHERYL: I don’t ever want to be bored.
CASEY: I know. I like being uncomfortable.
SHERYL: And I’d rather see someone struggle rather than breeze through life.
CASEY: It’s like this. People like to see challenges as positive and negative. Negative challenges are ones that find you, and positive ones are those you look for. And with the challenges that find you, the important thing is how you deal with them.
SHERYL: And believe me, my company provides 30,000 challenges every day! (Don’t prinT THEIR NAME!)
August 3, 2016
I feel the most august when I catch a fish. My girlfriend and I will fish up north–a lot of walleye–sometimes in Manitowish Waters or other places like that; we’ll also fish down here by the Summerfest grounds, which is cool, but it’s different from up north. I like being able to zone out and watch the water and nature. I like the waiting. It’s kind of therapeutic–you know, some people say it’s therapeutic to sew or run or whatever–and once you catch something, that therapy washes away and you’re in the moment and every second counts, even if you miss the hit. It makes you feel like you’re capable. Even if you throw it back, release it, you know that you could do it if you had to, if you really needed to rely on fishing for your food. It’s therapy leading into euphoria leading into security. That’s augustness for me.
October 16, 2016
In my experience, we always are afraid, afraid of how we’ll be in different situations. We try a lot of good and bad stuff, but then you start doing the bad things to get noticed. You don’t like it but you feel you have to do it. Sometimes you feel you might not make it doing good. That’s when you’re stuck with not much light, without some kind of life.
You have to be there to help other people because they can’t break something–the bad–until they understand the life or light. That’s where you can help: to help others be clear about the difference between the light and the dark.
August 25, 2016
I had the pleasure of sitting down with two long-time friends–one from Milwaukee, the other from Illinois–in front of the fireplace in the Lounge. One of them was hesitant, saying at first that she couldn’t think of anything remarkable or “august” about her life. So her friend chimed in: “Let me tell you about Marilyn. She’s being very shy and coy right now. So let me get started and we’ll see if she starts to feel more comfortable.” Marilyn did get more comfortable, and I quickly learned that she is an august crusader for animals, particularly cats. Marilyn wasn’t being “coy”; she was being humble. At one point, all three of us were teary-eyed. Both of them love animals so much that it was hard for them not to get emotional–even Marilyn. The monolog here is a synthesis of their two stories, in the voice of Marilyn.
I am an energetic advocate, a voice, a home for cats and other animals, especially ones who are stray or hurt in some way. The ones with no homes are some of the most vulnerable creatures, but so many people turn a blind eye to them, thinking it’ll be too much work to take care of them. But I haven’t turned a blind eye, even to the detriment of my finances, my relationships, and so on.
Since I was little, I’ve always had a connection with animals, but it was just in the past 8 years or so of my life that I began to advocate real intensely for them. Most of the cats I have I rescue off the street. They have to be cared for, spayed, neutered, and so on. I used to keep count. Conservatively, I’d say that I’ve helped at least 1,000 cats. I live in an unincorporated neighborhood in Illinois, so I have land, so it’s easier for me to take care of them. And I’ve been blessed with a good job so that I at least have money for all the things they need.
My goal is to solve the problem, but the problem is never going to get solved 100%. You’d need an army of people doing the same thing. But when a cat gets healthy or finds a home–that’s the thanks I receive. Otherwise, I don’t seek praise or thanks or attention. I just want to speak up for their needs because they can’t say or do things for themselves. So I also educate people about proper nutrition, medical care, responsibilities that come with owning cats.
We need to be stewards of animals and human beings. Not just to make ourselves or God proud, but because it’s the right thing to do.
July 13, 2016
I waited a long time to get married. My husband kept trying and trying and trying. When I lost my mom–I took care of her for four years–I told her on her deathbed that I didn’t want to get married or have kids. I wanted to travel and . . . When I think of freedom, I think of travel, of having choices. Dancing, too–that’s being free.
I finally agreed to get married. But I was firm from the first date: “No kids.” There’s asurrounding this, though. People might say you’re selfish. From the perspective of overpopulation, I think I’m being rather green by not bringing another person into this world ‘just because.’ I’m making a choice not to become a mother. There are obviously many women who choose to become moms, but what about people like me who don’t want to give into social norms?
People have told me, ‘You’re not a woman.’ But a female shouldn’t be defined by her ability to bear children. I want to be able to wake up every day and not have to take care of another human. I mean, maybe when I’m old and all alone and wondering why there’s no one around to take care of me, but . . . for now, it’s my choice.
July 22, 2016
More than anything, I treasure my friendships. I love taking care of my girlfriends. I’m married, and I love him, and that’s all fine and dandy. But as you get older, you need your friends more and more. When you’re in your 20’s, you think and talk about stupid shit. I mean, we’re not talking about deep things all the time, but you know what I mean. I love to laugh with them, tell a good, funny story–things that are really living and that are new experiences. One thing I really love to do is bike with my girlfriends (I’m a member of the advanced cycling team Velo Femmes). They make me happy. And to me, happiness is a state of freedom, of being unencumbered, with no stress, free of worry and life’s pressures.
I think I felt the most free when I stopped giving a shit what people thought. I’m not an ass or anything, but I just stopped caring what society thought I should be, what people said about my age, all the compartments people wanted to put me into. I just don’t care anymore, which has been so freeing. And I also stopped judging other people, which is a good thing. I’m interested in making myself happy instead of relying on others to make me happy. I have confidence in my own skin.
There are so many horrible things happening in this world right now: random people being shot by the police, random police shootings, kids getting killed. It makes all the little things we worry about pale in comparison.
In the end, I want people at my funeral to say good things about me not just to say good things–but because I was a good person.
August 25, 2016
Love is the most significant, energetic attribute we possess in life, but it is so elusive. Every time I’ve grasped a taste of it, I’ve realized that its flavor is so much more vast. I get overwhelmed–like I’m a cell in a giant of love. Every time you taste it, there’s some new flavor. I guess I’m a crazy, hopeless romantic, but I’m truly obsessed with this experience.
I’ve made some of the most significant life choices in the quest for this “Love.” And it’s an experiential kind of love–not the printed card type of love.
Speaking of cordials, I feel like love–whatever it is–is truth. It’s flowing from one ancient vine of grapes, and every grape is a different kind of love, and these flavors of grapes are all connected to the vine, and other vines–and they all connect to one source, one that goes below the ground where we can’t see it–and beyond. What’s beyond is so mysterious, but all this love is connected to it somehow.
August 18, 2016
When you’re young, you’re controlled and watched. But when I was about 10 years old, I was out of town in Vermont (I’m from Wisconsin) with my uncle and older cousin. And my uncle let me carry a loaded shotgun. I think we were probably just target shooting. I had an opportunity once to kill a deer with a crossbow, but I just couldn’t do it. In any case, he said, “Be careful. You could hurt someone.” But he let me carry it. Now, of course my parents–most parents–wouldn’t want me to do that because they’d think it was too dangerous. But my uncle, he never took it away. He just told me, “Be responsible with it.” And I was. I felt . . . trusted.
Fast forward. I’ve been in the commercial real estate business for almost 40 years. When I first got started, it took between 6 months and a year to accomplish my first breakthrough. It was one of those things where I was able to solve a problem that no one else could fix. And my solution went uncontested. When you’re younger and still learning, that’s a big thing. Again, I felt . . . trusted. You need to get to that point when you don’t question yourself anymore.
November 18, 2016
?אם אין אני לי, מי לי? וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני? ואם לא עכשיו, אימתי
I am thankful for the words of Rabbi Hillel (c. 110 BCE-10 CE): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? This is a core tenet of Judaism: the first question is about personal voice, the second is about community, and the last is about social action now. I live and teach by this.
Recently, Martin Buber has been popping up on my Facebook. Rabbi Hillel’s questions are like Buber’s I/Thou philosophy. I think about how I am a white woman, which automatically makes me privileged. For others, being in the minority forces them to see from another’s perspective. If you are in the majority, though, you don’t have to do that. You’ve already “won,” so you’re not expected to have to see from another’s perspective. But you have to know who you are AND how others are. You need to step into another’s shoes. That’s what I/Thou is about. If not now, when?
February 20, 2017
Rob’s instruments are his clarinet and his voice. He has played in symphony orchestras like the Milwaukee Symphony and has played with individual artists as well.
Love goes with passion–for me–and that’s music. Nothing will give me goosebumps more than performing with another person. Periodically, it’s even a mystical moment, a synchronicity of what I’m playing and what they’re playing, when we’re unified.
All of a sudden, I’m off the page, not thinking about what’s on there, and it’s like something else is leading me.
It’s like that with my husband today. Even with the mundane day-to-day, there are times when I somehow get out of my selfish part–and we’re a real pair. Frankly, it’s otherworldly.
This is what differentiates us from the rest of creation.
Here are all the other Humans of The Pfister that I interviewed: