Closer

Norm’s is the kind of restaurant where across the street there is a long car wash, a 12-unit apartment building, a donut shop open most of the hours Norm’s is open, a strip mall with a “Luxury Day Spa” between the cigarette store and the cut-rate auto insurance broker: “Free SR-22 Filings!” the sign says.

It’s the kind of place where you order a Pepsi and might get a lemonade or even milk; when the spinach salad with ranch appears it comes with Italian so you ask for a side of ranch.

Where the plastic ramekin is 2/3-filled with cocktail sauce on the not unreasonable view that the last third would only be wasted and even if it won’t nobody’ll complain or nearly no one.

They put plates down potatoes first so you have to gaze at the entrée from afar. All the steaks are cooked the same — vaguely — no matter how you request it, which conjures the notion anything is possible, even if it’s that same thing, always. If a steak hits  the floor on the way from prep pan to griddle, no worries: heat kills bacteria.

If you get the porterhouse you fight the gristle for control of the bone.

The beans — there had been a brief and terrible discussion by ownership that they should call them haricots vert — are wax. The root beer is 80% reliable. There are ice chips in the chocolate sundae, melted butter under the beans the color of rust. Gravy is either scalding or just about defrosted.

The burgers don’t quite smile on the plate but some do manage a toothy grin; one or two can’t get past grimace.

*

Three cooks.The one in charge wears a toque and a colorful scarf. Plates move from grill or griddle to heat lamp and metal to table or counter as if conveyed by belt.

Red plastic bowls for French fries or fried fish whose chain-link look, looks like a mini and upturned Victorian-era hoop skirt … toothpicks with bright and bling-y cellophane tips …

A stack of “to-go” or “could-I-have-some-more” syrups sit in a tub next to a dispenser that looks like it could also hold iced tea. Yesterday’s pecan pie propped up in its case a creamery cup’s throw from tomorrow’s tower of coffee filters filled, lean precariously into and seem to leer at the blinking machine.

*

Guy to the left comments on my book, chuckles easily about Dostoevsky as light reading. I confess I hadn’t read it in college; I don’t know if it was assigned either but there it is.

I ask after and he recommends the spinach salad in front of him. It’s a new upgrade. Norm’s of late has several — sautéed mushrooms, baked potato toppings — after new owners bought it 22 months ago, new owners with turnaround experience and a real estate focus.

Norm’s was not troubled but the family was ready to sell.

The guy on my right says he got the pancake stack, comes in every other night to do so. I’d thought at first he might not have ordered food but he says he’s employed by the school district and stops in on his way home. I offer him the spinach salad with Italian but he’s only eaten half the stack and says he’s stuffed.

*

A floor show I remember from Norm’s past once included a man having a seizure. My scoutmaster helped him; my dad called the ambulance.

My dad is the only man in America I’ve ever known to eat liver and onions; I think I saw a few in England do it once.

It was $4.99 Tuesday nights at Norm’s. Fridays had the fish fry. Thursdays — to get the weekend rolling — was all-you-can-eat ribs.

These were dinners, mind, soup and salad. Once they tried to make that one or the other. Now that was an uproar. Came with a small sundae as well, though I think you could get pudding.

We went to Norm’s often back then.

Now the Super Schooner Sundae alone is $4.99, with too-thick fudge and the ice shards.

Once a man, not my father, sent his Salisbury steak back for “less pink.”

*

We had “our” waitress, whose name was Terra. She hadda been a saint to take us every time — we’d leave if she wasn’t working her regular, 2 to 10 p.m. shift — or maybe she took us because it was her job, and I think I’ve heard of servers figuring out how to be too busy.

And I recall an edge to her as well. My dad probably liked that; I think my mom just liked having someone to talk to.

*

A Black waitress on-break asks the Hispanic hostess next to her at the counter if she heard what Donald Trump’s son said today. She didn’t.

The white manager tells a muscular Asian server in a black MMA t-shirt, “Welcome to graveyard.”

One white server is working his way through Cal State.

The busboy they call Rambo whistles Mexican pop tunes and calls into being mild curses and slightly stronger innuendo in Spanish, navigates aisles like Andretti.

He lugs metal ice buckets from the machine in the back to the soda area in front. A manager — a facilitator of the food flow, it seems — does this too.

In the back there is a double-wide industrial dishwasher the spray nozzles of which must occasionally be cleared of nuts from the chocolate sundaes and bits of shrimp tail and pickle relish from the tartar sauce. Rambo sees it’s time to do this when the glasses load comes out chocolatey grey.

There is an efficiency that comes up just short. The stainless steel is never completely clean and can’t be; counters are wiped free of crumbs, but not with a wet rag that would also get the butter residue; the door to a drawer where they warm the rolls is a little off-kilter.

Things that are seeping get fixed first but not necessarily fast — a kind of restaurant triage — and things that aren’t have to wait until there’s time.

*

The crew could be counted on to party a little after closing, smoke a little weed, maybe, in bent, pin-pricked aluminum cans, if Norm’s ever closed but the sign in front loudly, proudly, Googy-ly proclaims they never do.

And you think … not even just this once?

*

The morning crowd is likely all about “More coffee, hon?” and turnover and tips that back in the day were measured in coins and even now are unlikely to be much improved.

And the price of the Bigger Better Breakfast has only doubled in 30 years. This is not bad — roughly the rate of inflation — if you do the math.

And most get more coffee hon, and she will try to sell groups on the plastic carafe of orange juice just as one would for wan white wine at dinner now.

Specials of the soup-and-half-a-sandwich kind come for lunch and you can get them to-go if you are a busy person and who isn’t.

*

A brief and terrible show called “Men of a Certain Age” of some years back shot scenes in a Norm’s restaurant — product placement? authenticity?

Andre Braugher’s character in the show sold cars, like Norm Roybark, who founded Norm’s in 1949.

When the show was cancelled a Norm’s restaurant post called for people to “ban together” and bring it back. It garnered 51 shares on Facebook; a page has 8,747 likes.

The show offended for 22 episodes — two years, or 3% as long as the 67 years Norm’s itself has been around.

*

Most staff and customers, even the guy on the bench outside — who is not a smoker but the man who is there all night, every night — look nothing so much as rote.

Most but not all.

Two guys sit at the counter across and to the right, on the other side of the cash register: one has dyed his hair black and wears the nose ring and the other looks a little odd.

A guy in a black beret and a black trench coat walks in. He maybe thinks it is New York City and Schrafft’s or Hollywood and Schwab’s. If we were not in Orange County but in Iowa, where there are no Norm’s as far as I know, he would be a guy in a cowboy hat and a J Peterman duster in as much of a delusion about his Marlboros as the fellow here might be for Gauloises. He would think it El Paso. Or perhaps Schrafft’s or Schwab’s.

An old couple comes in. I imagine their sleep patterns altered by an adult son who lived with them for a time and kept different hours and who has moved out, again, finally, mostly, for now, but the man and wife, who are celebrating their 48th anniversary, because at that number you celebrate them all, every one, every year, can’t seem to get their body clocks ticking properly. Or maybe they just like Norm’s.

A woman is barefoot.

Occasional family travelers.

Several baseball caps; a few readers.

More than one person wears pajama bottoms.

There’s that game where you grab stuffed animals with claws, except that you don’t because nobody can do that game, except some can and I once knew someone who could.

*

 

It takes several moments for the server to take the check and my money. Norm’s is one of the last place’s on the planet where you bring the check to the cash register to pay. Then you have to go back and leave the tip or you have to have already done so.

*

I pay cash, in case.

The bathrooms are not advised.

There are still people coming in the door when I leave.

*

The parking lot is packed just before Midnight when most people feel like they should be getting home and the high school football game crowd is beginning to finish up, and then, again, after 2 a.m., when the bars close.

A trucker deadheading it is parked in one back corner, a cop in his car in another.

The parking lot security guard thinks of asking the cop how he became one but he chats with the homeless guy instead.

There’s one “Norm’s To-Go Customer” parking space for that lunch crowd and another element of the new ownership, but just the one.

 

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