Wear a mask and maybe you’ll save a loved one’s life, or perhaps even a beloved business!
Point of reference, an item on the Oct. 14 news stated that Wisconsin’s COVID case rate was effectively three times the national average.
Damn people, please look out for one another. We can and must do so much better than that!
Just ask Sal Zizzo about it.
He is the owner and host supreme of the late, already much-missed Trysting Place restaurant and bar in Menomonee Falls that shuttered its doors for good Sept. 29.
Zizzo was admittedly getting tired even before the pandemic hit this spring.
He had managed successfully the brilliant pizza, beer, popcorn, fish fry, steak sandwich (a personal favorite of mine), Packer and Brewer trips, sheepshead-league hosting, special event hosting of almost any kind you wanted, and just plain meet your neighbor for a drink and watch a game emporium for 35 years.
But time, a public health fiasco and politics conspired against him as they did to so many others in 2020.
With its warm, inviting wood interior full of comfortable booths and talented, hard-working staff who seemed to know everybody who came through the door, the Trysting Place was the “go-to” place in the village for decades at the corner of Good Hope Rd. and Appleton Ave.
But in 2020, Zizzo, like so many small business owners nationwide, had to face the cruel realities of trying to make a go of things during a pandemic that has already killed over 210,000 people. Meanwhile, indifferent politicians on both the national and state level, largely on the right, seemed not to take people’s health or financial well-being seriously.
Accuse me of being a partisan if you must, I’ll accept that, but before you accuse me of being wrong, read this exceptionally well-researched and devastatingly well-written piece by Mark Johnson published in the Oct. 14 edition of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about how America, particularly the Trump Administration, failed in the face of COVID.
Meanwhile, back in Menomonee Falls when the pandemic and the lockdown hit in early spring, Zizzo did his best to save his business. In a painful measure, he laid off about 75 percent of his staff, most of whom had been with him for years, took out for health reasons the much-beloved free popcorn machine (many, many baskets worth in my belly, thank you) and tried to squeeze as much profit as he could out of the takeout business and from the still fairly new outdoor front porch which made socially distancing customers easier.
But it wasn’t enough, and to compound and magnify exponentially the horror for Zizzo, his father in Florida passed away over the summer from COVID. In fact, the last official event at the Trysting Place was a memorial event that Zizzo hosted for his Dad on Sept. 28.
The 65-year old Zizzo, who had routinely been working 80-hour weeks for many years, was hemorrhaging cash each month (estimated at about $25,000 each turn of the calendar since the start of the pandemic) and saw no way out as COVID case and fatality totals continued to rise.
In fact, in early October Wisconsin passed the grim milestone of 1,500 fatalities with new case records being set almost every other day now, above 3,200 on Oct. 13.
In response to the pandemic, idiot, craven politicians (do-nothing GOP state legislative leaders and a certain obese loud-mouthed liar in Washington in particular) politicized the common sense ideas of mask-wearing and social distancing, which are proven ways to stop disease spread, making it even harder to slow COVID down.
Further, neither the GOP-led Wisconsin legislature or the Trump Administration put out a cohesive plan to slow the spread choosing to fight with proven experts and scientists to further confuse the public.
Stupid and criminal actions, I say, because you put on a mask, you socially distance not only for yourself, but for your aging parents, your asthmatic child, or in my case, your father-in-law with COPD and your beloved sister with multiple sclerosis.
In short, because of gross misinformation, ignorance and neglect, there was simply not enough buy-in from the public statewide and nationally to bring the case numbers down and allow people to feel confident enough to go out in significant numbers to make bars, restaurants, theaters and movies profitable. All these businesses, along with travel and tourism, have been simply crushed by the pandemic.
People, this thing has hit everyone across the country in one way or another and it will take all of us to get out of it. Do your part and wear a damn mask!
On a personal note, my wife and I are big theater and movie lovers and have not been out to either since March. We like to travel, but have not been to a hotel since late last year, and we are being very careful with our limited dine out choices. We wear masks constantly.
These are first world problems, to be sure, but the wider economic, social and cultural hit of many actions similar to ours by many others has been extensive and massively depressing.
Small outfits like the Trysting Place and nationwide restaurant chains such as IHOP, Ruby Tuesday’s, Denny’s and TGI Fridays have been hit equally hard by the mess that did not need to be this bad.
A nationwide Harris Poll in July said that up to 60 percent of the American public was not ready to go out to eat yet and with COVID numbers rising across much of the country in October, the polling is certainly even worse now.
Case in point, on Oct. 10, Wisconsin Restaurant Association (WRA) VP Susan Quam reported to Channel 3000‘s Adam Duxter that one in three restaurant employees have been laid off and one in 10 restaurants/bars in Wisconsin have closed permanently as a result of the pandemic and its domino effect.
“When you’re as low as 25 percent capacity like we are now,” she told Duxter, “the cash flow just isn’t there. It’s a very low margin business (to begin with).
“…(and many) cannot survive with limited capacity.”
A month earlier, Caroline Reinwald of WISN-TV News had also spoken to the WRA and the prognosis was even more grim then.
“Right now, our numbers are estimating that in the next six months, if (restaurants) cannot start opening up and this is statewide, 33 percent of Wisconsin restaurants will not survive. If Congress is not able to provide some economic relief, 37 percent of Wisconsin restaurants will not survive,” Kristine Hillmer, president of the WRA, told Reinwald.
Further driving home the point, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in August, while unemployment overall in America had fallen from a peak of 14.7 percent in April (a rate not seen since the Great Depression) to 7.9 percent in August, unemployment in the hospitality and leisure industry (restaurants, etc.) was bearing the heaviest brunt of the economic disaster with a depressing 21.3 percent of the workforce laid off.
Compounding matters cruelly, politicians in Washington suddenly got cold feet at passing another round of stimulus relief, as the extended unemployment benefits, which kept many hard hit people afloat for months, were allowed to lapse.
This short-sighted inaction puts many in arrears with no way to pay their bills as the unemployment rate remains doggedly just under eight percent, a lousy number in any era, and an average of 800,000 continue to apply for unemployment each week.
These craven, small-minded imbecile politicians seemed to have forgotten that an unduly large number of Americans, even in the best of times, are just one or two missed paychecks away from disaster.
The Federal Reserve said back in May that 4 in 10 Americans couldn’t afford a $400 emergency and 22 percent expected to forgo payments on some bills. Those numbers too certainly remained the same or got worse over the recently completed summer from hell.
And on Oct. 15, two studies were released, one by Columbia University and the other a combined effort of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago. Using different metrics, the studies concluded that the number of poor people in America has grown by between six and eight million since the effects of the $2 trillion federal Cares Act, the first large stimulus bill, were allowed to expire this summer.
Negotiations in Congress on another stimulus are hopelessly bogged with the Democrats wanting to go large and widespread and the Republicans wanting to go smaller and more targeted. The president has been next to useless in the process, saying something different everyday.
So given all that national ineptitude, when Zizzo put out that very personal and excruciatingly sad thunderbolt of a Facebook message on Sept. 29, no one should have been surprised. He humbly thanked the many, many thousands of people who have walked through his door over the years and took dead aim at the politicians for this miserable situation that he and many others now face.
And he sent out a plea to help others in the industry who are struggling but still trying hard.
“On Tuesday, Nov. 3, vote out the politicians that so badly mismanaged this pandemic and that left work to go on vacation rather than pass the second stimulus plan,” wrote Zizzo. “Patronize and support locally owned and operated small businesses. They desperately need your help. I will miss seeing all of our loyal customers that have become close friends and I hope to see you around town helping support those that manage to stay afloat during this trying time.”
When I got word of the Sept. 29 post, it hit me like a brick.
I got there in the evening after a free-lance assignment in Jackson. It was already dark and I looked up at both the reader board message under the always cheerful and inviting sign along Appleton Avenue and then at the smaller sandwich board sign in front of the door in horror and disbelief.
Both said the same thing: “Closed: Thank you for 35 years of great memories!” I was at wit’s end as I went to the rail of the outdoor patio. Only a handful of people were inside as it was officially closed already, but I was able to catch Sal’s eye and he gracefully came out to talk to me.
Mask on, I stumbled and stammered my apologies, abject sadness and profound thanks to him, it was all I could do to keep from bawling. Zizzo, ever the master of the moment and perfect host, kept a dry eye and patiently explained everything, probably for the 500th time in the last day or so.
I was grateful for his time and dismayed by the loss for him and the community at large.
I, like so many others nationally and around the world, had worked hard to adapt to the new COVID realities. I realized how lucky my wife and I were both financially and in terms of our health as we were appalled but sometimes numbed by the overwhelming sense of loss of life, financial well-being, and just loss of hope that enveloped so many corners of the country right now.
We have and continue to do our best to support our local businesses and restaurants in our corner of Milwaukee but we all know how many favorites are hurting financially and some of them like Trysting Place are already gone for good.
The damage on so many levels to communities across the country due to this pandemic is enormous and growing larger by the day.
Because, as I alluded to earlier, what doesn’t get written about, spoken about or publicized enough is the vast and staggeringly unfair wealth gap in this country that has grown under administrations both left and right.
That truth needs to be broadcast on every platform, on every station, in every newspaper, on every website and on every Facebook news site and it needs to be addressed now! It’s embarrassing in a country of such wealth and resources as America that so many are homeless and hungry.
That simply has to change. It’s an oversimplified solution, but please, let’s tax the rich hard already!
The disaster that is the Trysting Place story is a microcosm of that larger tale because it was a site for so many great personal stories of birthdays, engagements, wedding parties, graduations, etc., over the years.
And for all the loss and waste during this misery of a mismanaged pandemic, (the list of people lost in this time has been staggering in their historical, emotional and cultural significance), it was this particular disaster, this particular closure of the Trysting Place that just about broke my heart.
Because I too have amazing stories that have their home there.
It was at the Trysting Place in late September 2008 that my self-proclaimed vaunted reporter’s sense of awareness and 360 degree view of all things going on had a big hole punched into it as my beautiful and brilliant wife pulled off a wildly successful surprise 50th birthday party for me.
The party was held more than a month ahead of my actual birthday and the look on my face surrounded by all my smiling, laughing friends in the party room was akin to Wile E. Coyote realizing too late that he had run off the cliff once again while the Road Runner had made a quick left turn to safety.
Equal credit went to my wife and all those who kept quiet around me as well as to the Trysting Place staff whose food and drink preparation that evening was a perfect grace note to one of the great, great nights of my life.
A few years earlier in that same room, there was a surprise retirement party for Menomonee Falls Hall of Fame cross country and track coach Bob Rymer that I was also a part of. Again, the staff had everything ready and old coach Rymer was perfectly and delightfully ambushed, another great memory created.
And then there was Mother’s Day 2018 where my siblings and I arranged to pick up my 93-year old mother Alice Tietz from her apartment at the Arboretum and take her out for one of the Trysting Place’s famed special event brunches.
My Mom was a smart, tough farm girl and though she needed a walker to move along, she refused help working her way through the door and the crowded bar area in front to the table in back where my family was seated.
It was a wonderful day as Sal came back to talk with us knowing all of us by name (as he did with so many others) and taking the time to thank us for our patronage, making sure everything was to our satisfaction.
The food was great as always, the staff was hospitable and my Mom had a great time. We were even smart enough to get a picture of her and my sociable, strong and compassionate big sister Robyn Turtenwald in front of the restaurant on that warm and sunny day.
That photo sits on a desk in the front hall of my sister’s condo in the Falls and always draws a wistful sigh from her, me and brother Zach Tietz whenever we pass by it, because after another great day for my Mom with relatives from her side of the family on that following Monday, she went into the hospital to address what she thought was a stomach issue.
It turned out to have been a long metastasizing cancer and was inoperable. She went into hospice at Community Memorial Hospital (now Froedtert Menomonee Falls Hospital) that night and was gone peacefully late the next evening.
My “do everything for everybody and eternal good citizen” Dad Llewellyn Tietz had passed six months earlier and as a dear female of mine said, my Mom just “missed her man” and wanted to be with him again.
So everything about that Mother’s Day will be indelibly printed on my mind permanently, because Sal and the Trysting Place made it happen in an absolutely perfect manner.
A forever memory.
And there are dozens, if not hundreds more little scraps of history I can pull from times at the Trysting Place from the last 35 years, almost all involving a beer in my hand, a fistful of popcorn or pizza in my mouth and many, many laughs and hearty hugs.
Fast forward to a rainy Monday morning, Oct. 12, 2020 where Zizzo and a skeleton crew of his staff had put much of the Trysting Place’s dynamic, community-engaged and fun-filled history on display and up for sale in the main bar/dining area as well as in the aforementioned party room.
Menus, drink signs, the quaint, soft-lit Tiffany style lights over the booths, funny holiday decorations, pots, pans, utensils, tubs and tins of commercial grade foodstuffs and t-shirts, hoodies and other promotional clothing items from bygone, simpler, more hale times were all up for grabs.
The much beloved popcorn machine sat sadly in the back of the front entryway, unused and unhappy. The ubiquitous wicker baskets that people used to take advantage of its offerings time and again were nowhere to be found.
Silent auctions were being held for some of the nicer artwork and out-front where the host station was, sat a table where people could check out and purchase a piece of the Trysting Place’s history.
A small jar, which no doubt had probably been used for raffles at special events and other similar things, was also on the table and had a tag on it asking for donations. Hopefully, people were generous sticking large bills in it, as staff members are now looking for other employment.
Up in a corner of a far wall by an unused register were a series of plaques, awards and commendations from community and business organizations honoring how well run the Trysting Place was and the outstanding citizenship of its owner. I’d like to think Sal would try to save those just to remind himself of what a raging success he truly has been.
A 1973 graduate of Menomonee Falls East, Sal had been duly and correctly honored many times for his devotion to the village. He was inducted into the Menomonee Falls Wall of Recognition in 2010 for his positive impact upon the life of the Falls.
He unquestionably loves the Falls and was at the time president of the village Chamber of Commerce. He was humbly grateful for the induction and noted in a small clipping about the ceremony that:
“Menomonee Falls is a wonderful place. People are very supportive of local businesses and they value quality and service.”
The country was just starting to come out of the Great Recession in 2010 and as Zizzo’s Facebook post noted, the Trysting Place had survived other economic downturns before, including that one, but COVID and the failure of the state and the nation to respond to the pandemic coherently were bridges too far this time around.
And it just doesn’t have to be this way, because along with the proper blame laid at the feet of politicians, we all could be doing so much better in helping make this pandemic end with masks, social distancing and by supporting other small local businesses so they don’t meet the fate of the Trysting Place.
To put this in context, I noted above that Wisconsin recently passed 1,500 fatalities from COVID. In comparison, the Oct. 14 Journal-Sentinel piece closed with this sobering thought: The country of Singapore, with roughly the same population as Wisconsin (5.8 million), has had just 27 fatalities from the disease.
Wear a damn mask!
At the closing sale, on a small shelf near a booth, were copies of a well-written story about the Trysting Place’s demise by Melanie Boyung of Conley Media dated Sept. 30.
All those who came in to take part in the sale were encouraged to take one and read it. It clearly laid out the reasons why Zizzo had to close and the sadness that his much beloved life’s work had to end, not on his terms but on those of the unforgiving world’s.
Boyung concluded with a simple but damning and devastating quote from him that should be on the hearts and minds of all Americans as they prepare to vote on Nov. 3.
“Someone (in the Legislature) should have said ‘No, we’re not leaving this room until we come up with a way to help the people,'” Zizzo said.
“We have to eliminate the politicians that are there for themselves and the wealthy.”
Remember that thought and then go out and patronize your favorite local restaurant, store or gas station.
Wear a mask and leave a big tip if you can. People behind the counter wearing masks themselves and trying hard to make ends meet will smile if you do.
In short, look out for one another people, it’s the only way we’ll beat this thing!