Our Dear Friend Norm

This is a passage about a man named Norman. Let me re-phrase that… Our Dear Friend Norm.

Norm started out as a friend of my father’s — they met when they both worked as pressman at R.R. Donnelley’s — The Lakeside Press. Donnelley’s was once a giant in the printing industry, churning out Chicagoland phone books, Sears catalogs, Sears Wish Books, magazines, sales circulars, and more.

Norm and Dad eventually began to carpool to work together. Norm lived just one Chicago neighborhood west of ours — in Mt. Greenwood. On countless weekday (and weekend) mornings, Norm drove toward our home in Beverly, where he picked up Dad before they drove together to work.

Like most carpools, the fellas shared the driving duties. Sometimes Norm drove his car, with Dad in the passenger seat. Sometimes Dad drove his car. For the most part though, Dad’s cars left a lot to be desired since they weren’t the least bit luxurious. I remember one winter in the early ’80s when Norm had had enough of driving in Dad’s dingy yellow beater with no working heater.

Norm didn’t mince words with his cohort: “I’ll drive myself to Donnelley’s until you work out your car situation.”

I once had the fortunate opportunity to join Norm and Dad’s carpool, for about three weeks back in ’82. I had just graduated high school and landed a temporary job downtown on south Michigan Avenue. Dad told me I could ride with him and Norm… they left at 6:40 a.m. sharp, since their shifts started at eight.

For three weeks, I sat in the backseat, while Dad and Norm took turns driving. They had their routine down… take Halsted north to 87th Street, head east and hop onto the Dan Ryan. Keep in the local lanes, since their exit was at 22nd Street.

The two men didn’t talk too much during the car rides. I remember Norm read from a huge book he brought along, while Dad navigated the side streets. “I don’t think that old guy ever sold one newspaper,” Norm remarked, watching an elderly gentleman standing in the middle of 87th and State, holding a stack of Chicago Tribune newspapers in one arm — the Sun Times in the other.

“Hmm,” Dad replied, looking from the paper vendor and eyes back on the road.

That was about the extent of their morning conversations.

Norm was pretty hip, though. Cooler than Dad — or so I thought at the callow age of 18. For music on our car rides, Dad chose classical music on WFMT radio, which I found quite dull. One morning I tried listening to WLS — Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger was playing. Except Dad promptly turned the dial back to his favorite channel.

Howard, what are you doing?” Norm cried, winking back at me in the back seat. “That’s the number one song this summer!”

Achh!” Dad replied. The radio stayed tuned to Dad’s favorite station.

And that was the gist of our morning drives.

Eventually, I reached the end of my short stint at my downtown job. That night I indulged one too many times in plates of brie and crackers being passed throughout the office party room. Glasses of champagne were available. LOTS of champagne.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to say No to the cocktails. The next morning, as I joined Dad and Norm in our daily carpool, Dad warned Norm. “Don’t mind Heidi this morning. She’s a little off her game since last night.” I simply groaned in the backseat, as it seemed Dad hit every pothole on the way in. Norm chuckled at my plight. “Next time invite us along,” he advised me with a grin.

I should stop for a minute and describe Norm. My dad was tall. Norm was even taller. I’d peg him at somewhere near six foot, four inches. Imagine a cross between Tom Selleck and Hal Linden. I’m sure you can picture it. Yessiree, the females took notice when Norm walked into a room. I was no exception.

Norm was a great friend to Dad. They worked together, joked together and drank together. It was Norm who convinced Dad he wasn’t crazy when my father announced he wanted to purchase a 1939 Mack fire truck.

“Howard, you need that fire truck,” Norm counseled him.

“Dorothy will wring my neck if I come home with a fire engine,Dad returned.

“C’mon,” Norm urged, grabbing his keys off the bar. “I’m drivin’.”

The next afternoon, Dad drove home his fire truck, with Norm in the co-pilot seat, working the siren button on the truck’s floorboard. They were a sight to behold, as my younger brother and I watched, dumbfounded, as the two of them drove down our street in Dad’s newest purchase. Siren blaring, neighbors staring. Dad and Norm happy as a couple of eight-year-old boys.


Dad and R.R. Donnelley Colleagues – enjoying the fire engine

Norm was a generous soul. So generous, that he and another buddy managed to drop off a 12-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower in our backyard. They didn’t ask for permission, since the donation came about about 1:30 in the morning. The two had been out and about when they “found” the metal tower and were certain that it belonged in Dad’s backyard. This time, free flowing beer may have been involved.

Mom found the statute the next morning, when she came down at 6:00 AM to make the morning coffee. There the giant statute sat, in the middle of our yard, bold as could be. “Howard!” she called upstairs. “I think someone left a package for you.”

Dad couldn’t be more tickled. So much so, he kept the Eiffel Tower right where it was and went so far as to wrap it in colorful Christmas lights in December. It made a for a festive beacon in the winter season.

Eventually, Dad retired from Donnelley’s, and their carpooling days ended. He and Norm managed to continue their friendship outside of work, even going so far as to buy a boat together so they could enjoy the waters of Lake Michigan.

Several years later, Donnelley’s shut down its Chicago operations. Norm (and hundreds of others) were left without jobs. Norm was struck hard, since he had a family to support: a wife, son and two daughters. He took a bold step and changed careers. He went back to school and earned his realtor’s license, and foraged a successful path for himself.

I was one of the lucky ones to call Norm my realtor. When the time came for me to find a new home for myself and my six-year-old daughter, I called on Norm. It was an honor to have him escort me through different homes, as he was patient and took the time to determine my housing needs: good schools, close to transportation, parks, shopping.

There was a particular condo he showed me that still sticks out in my mind, 20 years later. My daughter and I met Norm at a residential building, where he brought the keys to the condo unit for sale. We entered the front door of the home and stepped from the foyer into the living room.

Across the length of one entire wall was a mural. This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill painting of a bucolic country scene. Instead, it was a full blown rendering of the owner, as she lay completely naked on a fur throw. I can definitely say the woman wasn’t the least bit modest. And the fur throw did nothing to shield certain images.

Out of the three of us standing in that steamy room, I wasn’t sure which one of us felt most uncomfortable. It was rather strange, standing there with my father’s handsome friend, along with my young daughter.

Norm was the first to blush. “Umm, let’s check out the kitchen area,” he suggested, as he walked away. “I’m outta here,” my daughter announced, and she followed Norm into the kitchen. I took one more glance at the womanly figure before me. The artist didn’t miss a thing. Not a single thing.

I turned and joined the others in the kitchen, where I found Norm and my daughter opening and closing cabinets, turning on and off the faucets and even discussing the finer details of upgrading to granite countertops.

It is now 20 years later. Unfortunately, my mother called with the sad news this week: Norm had passed away. I was struck dumb when I heard the news about a vibrant, hardworking and caring individual. It was as if a final chapter had closed. First my dad. Now Norm. Two friends together once more.

There are so many ways in which to describe this wonderful person. Handsome, funny, intelligent.

Practical joker. Boater. Proud Union member. Family man.

These are my stories of Norm. Friend to my dad. My family. And myself. My family will never forget him.

Thanks Norm. Rest in peace. And say hello to Dad for me.

Norman Christensen

Thank you for reading – PIZZA FOR BREAKFAST

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Pizza For Breakfast

A writer sharing stories of life: its hope, humor and pitfalls. All blended beautifully together.

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