Norm, I Hardly Knew You But . . .
. . . you have certainly left an impression.
Once upon a time, a man named Norm ran a bar in San Francisco. Popular rumour, one of many, has it that he ran away from home to join the French Foreign Legion. Collecting souvenirs of war-time feats the bar became almost an ode to the military adventures of a Flashman. Except Norm went a little further. He also collected motorbikes, and bicycles with engines, which he hung from the ceiling of this bar. Illuminating this cave of wonders was the soft, jewelled tones from the many Tiffany lampshades dotted throughout.
We stumbled upon this bar during our first visit to San Francisco and have happily stumbled out of it on many occasions since. The food, so so and beside the point, the draft beers better and with Lagunitas IPA fresh from the tap, what’s not to like? Adding good company with a warm, spirited nightcap rendered the pleasures of life to its utmost simplicity.
The bar, Eddie Rickenbacker’s, 133 2nd St, was also Norm’s home. No dashing, jolly maître d’, Norm was an invalid who lived in the front corner of the bar in the relative comfort of an old recliner rocker, wearing headphones. Hooked up to an oxygen cylinder. At a certain point in the evening he would call to one of the young waitresses to put him to bed, the staff doubling as nurses. Bed was the old sofa in the window of the bar and he would be moved from sitting-up to lying down, covered with a blanket where he reposed in restful slumber, the nearby piano player playing on.
The bar also boasted a resident cat along with a ditzy waitress or two but where would a bar such as this be without at least one ditzy waitress. The latest, apparently, was sacked at least three times by Norm. The other girls kept the place going and for all of them, the bar job supplemented their day jobs. From towns in Indiana and Ohio, San Francisco for them was the beacon city, New York looming too large and too forbidding.
Reviews on yelp.com provide an interesting mix, all the way from high to low – and who am I to interfere with an opinion or two? However, given the choice of seeing out my days in a nursing home or clinging to the stay at home and stay in my bed, I know which one I would choose. That Norm’s home was a bar makes it his choice and what is care in the community if the community ceases to care? Old age with ill-health is isolation enough and if our buying a hamburger and a drink keeps people like Norm going, well, charity begins at home and Norm managed to bring it home to him for as long as possible. Some might even suggest he pulled it off as long as he did because health and safety stayed away but that is another matter . . .
We popped into Eddie’s this week, the first time in a few months. Norm’s absence in the past was often due to his being away having dialysis. This time, no armchair, no sofa, no Norm. Norm died of a heart attack four weeks ago, before he was due to go into respite care. His ashes sit in an urn under the stairs at the back of the bar.
Sitting at the bar, enjoying a Lagunitas, we heard from the barmaid the story of Norm’s journey to eternity. Another couple came to the bar, wanting to know what happened to the man in the corner. Soon, another man popped in explaining that he often walks by at night and waves to the man in the corner “but he hasn’t been here for a while, is he ok?” He is so sorry to hear the news. The barmaid comes back to us, it is late, she is tired, and this is a story on constant re-wind.
A story she is happy to tell. As difficult and cantankerous as he was, she knows he had the “best damned nursing care in town.”
More history at sfgate.com