Interview with Norm Fabian
by Jake Silverman
March 20, 2012
If anyone here at Uncle Steve's deserves to interviewed, I'd say that our dear friend Norm Fabian, the club's official bartender and occasional a cappella Lebanese lounge singer, is that person. Plus, I haven't been able to think of another interview candidate these days, so I suppose Norm will have to do.
Norm and I have been friends for a long time. He's a couple of years older than me, old enough to make him like a big-brother figure to me. I've benefitted immensely from his quiet wisdom, selfless humility, and unwavering enthusiasm for supporting Uncle Steve's. Quite honestly, if it hadn't been for Norm, there's no way I could have kept things going at this club on my own, and the roof probably would have caved in ages ago. I think it no exaggeration whatsoever to say that Norm has been the heart and soul of Uncle Steve's for many years now.
Before I present the transcript of our recent interview, I'll give you more background information on Norm. He was born in Lebanon in the 1950s and grew up speaking only Arabic at home. From an early age, he took an interest in cooking, and from his mother he learned how to prepare many delicious Mediterranean recipes. He regularly attended his local mosque growing up, and to this day maintains his Muslim faith, but now considers himself to be more of a cultural Muslim than a practicing one.
When Norm was in his early twenties, in the mid-1970s, his visa application for immigrating to the United States finally came through. There's a long story behind that, and it involves family-based visa sponsorship and such, but the upshot is that Norm had his chance to come here and he took it, in spite of not being able to speak a word of English at the time. He arrived in Chicago, where he went to live with an uncle who ran an olive-oil wholesale center. Norm got right to work at his uncle's business, and picked up his English here and there, much of it from listening to the Perry Como albums in his uncle's music collection.
From that era, there are some awesome photos of Norm at a Chicago-area disco club. He looks kind of like John Travolta in those shots, except with a somewhat more substantial waistline. You can see that he had that night fever thing going and was staying alive, staying alive. I'll need to ask my good friend Joe Minsk to scan those priceless old pictures of Norm and upload them to his Facebook account one of these days.
In the early 1980s, Norm applied for and obtained American citizenship, and around that same time he decided to leave Chicago and take a job in Cleveland at an industrial parts manufacturing plant. Although he appreciated his uncle's generosity and kindness, Norm felt that it was time for him to strike out on his own and get his own place. However, after a few hours working at the Cleveland plant, which proved to be a much less pleasant work environment than his uncle's wholesale center, Norm came to deeply regret this decision, but by then it was too late. Still, as is customary for him, Norm did his best to make the most out of a depressing situation.
In the early 1990s, the Cleveland plant where Norm was working was shut down, just like so many others in that long-suffering city. In a way, Norm was kind of relieved, because for a long time he had been feeling trapped in a job that he had never particularly liked. At the same time, though, it was kind of scary for him, since his uncle in Chicago had sold his business and died, and it didn't seem that Norm had anywhere to turn except the unemployment line.
Norm collected unemployment benefits for as long as he could, and when that ran out, he realized that he would have to leave town. He took all of his stuff out of his apartment and put most of it on the street, and stuffed the rest into his car. Then he set off driving, not sure exactly where he was going to. His car was in bad shape and could only go forty miles per hour at top speed, so he stuck to the two-lane roads. He didn't have a map to guide his journey, so he just picked route numbers that corresponded to familiar verse numbers from the Koran, which he had memorized as a young man.
Somehow, Norm ended up in Duckworth and decided to stop and eat lunch at Cheng Lee's China Super Takeout Express. Shortly after Norm had placed his order, Uncle Steve walked in, and the two struck up a conversation as they were both waiting for their food. At that time, Uncle Steve had just gotten the club up and running and he heartily invited Norm to come by that evening to catch a show. Figuring that he had nothing better to do, Norm accepted. It would turn out to be a momentous decision.
When Uncle Steve found out that Norm was homeless, he immediately invited him to "crash at my place as long as you like," an offer that Uncle Steve liberally extended to countless others over the years. Norm discovered that it was indeed possible to live off a steady diet of hardly anything but Schlitz malt-liquor beer and Doritos for months on end. Norm was invited to "smoke some strange stuff" and "take some strange pills," but politely declined because "that's just not my thing since already I feel guilty to just drink the beer." These days, even though he is the club's bartender, Norm pretty much doesn't drink, since he's "never really liked it all too much."
Those were fun times for Norm, but eventually he figured that he ought to look for a paying job again and find his own place to live. Fortunately for him, Terry's Propane Service in Bratwurst needed a welder, and as luck would have it, Norm had learned how to weld at the plant in Cleveland. Norm is still employed at Terry's, and since then he has transitioned into other responsibilities there. For a good while now, he has been their accountant and has been handling the main office phone. But he can still weld a joint in a pinch if needed.
Anyway, right after getting his job at Terry's, fate once again intervened on Norm's behalf, since it turned out that a locally-based mobile home distributor was going out of business, and they had this double-wide that they absolutely had to get rid of at a rock-bottom price. Norm went over to check it out, and explained that he had no credit history. But they didn't care, since they knew Terry personally, and figured that Norm's job was credit enough. He signed on the dotted line, and before he knew it, he had a place to live.
Norm and I met around that time and became good friends from the very start. We both shared a deep appreciation of Uncle Steve and his club, and vowed that come what may, we would help keep the dream of Bratwurst's live music scene alive and kicking. That resolution was most definitely put to the test when Uncle Steve was arrested and went to jail a few years back. But I'd say that we've passed that test with flying colors so far, and in all honesty, most of that is owed to Norm's untiring and self-effacing efforts. I've just been following his noble lead.
You may have noticed that I've made no mention up to this point of Norm's love life. He did date some women over the years, but nothing significant came of it, and for the most part he was just on his own. But then, as chronicled in my webpage updates, he met Catherine, proposed to her, and she accepted. So, he's been happily married for some time now, and good for him.
Anyway, here's the interview:
Jake: So, Norm, tell me, how has married life with Catherine been?
Norm: Oh, Jake, you know, she is a beautiful, beautiful woman. She is like a rose. Every morning, I wake up, and there she is in the bed next to me. Very good, you know, dream come true, all of that. Just like the Disney fairy tale, very magic.
Jake: So, can you tell us how you and Catherine met?
Norm: I think everyone can read that on your webpage because you tell us all about it, but I will put my version also. First, you and me start the restaurant at Uncle Steve's with Lebanese cooking. Catherine was there with her friends for hearing the music, but she comes back in the kitchen because she was hungry, so I give her some couscous, and she says she likes it a lot, how do you make this, so I show her. And right then I fall in love big time but I don't say anything, you know? So, I say, Catherine, you want to make couscous regular for me, and she says, can I eat some of it, and I say, eat all you want, so that seals the deal, like they say. That's how we start working together in the kitchen.
Jake: Now, there is a significant age difference between you and your wife. Has that been an issue for you?
Norm: Oh, no, no, Jake, no issue for nothing. She is young and beautiful, and I am mature and robust, like a strong tree with thick branches. She is like new fresh flowers on my branches, the perfect compliment.
Jake: Nicely said.
Norm: Thank you.
Jake: So, how old exactly is Catherine?
Norm: You know, Jake, I am not sure, but I think she is somehow in the middle of twenty and twenty-five, maybe about that.
Jake: And you?
Norm: Ha, ha, ha! Me? Old enough!
Jake: So, getting back to how you two developed your relationship. She started preparing couscous for you.
Norm: That's right. And she did a very good job. Everybody says, wow, this is the best couscous ever. She did it right every time. I knew right then she was very special. And I find out that she loves Cody Ferguson with the Travis band, so she made a fan club for him, and I join.
Jake: And that was just to be close to Catherine, am I right?
Norm: Yes, of course, Jake. Maybe you think I love Cody Ferguson?
Jake: I don't know, Norm -- just wanted to be sure.
Norm: I want Catherine to think that, yes, so we can spend more time together at fan club meetings. I did that for her and paid club dues. I don't know what she did with that money but I don't care, love is more important. She talked about him all the time, but I keep on saying to myself, she is young, he is young, this will pass, this will pass, be patient -- Norm, you will be the man for her. And I believed in that because I believe in true love, I really do. Everyone but you, Jake, they say, Norm, you are a fool, she is a bad girl, she is almost a prostitute, I say, put soap in your mouth and clean up your dirty tongue, she is an angel. And I was right.
Jake: And you asked her to marry you.
Norm: Yes, Jake, I asked her, but I didn't just do it just all right away like that. I first wait for the relationship with Cody to end, right after Bert is splashing beer on the bass guitar of Cody and it is a burning fire and he gets a big electricity zap. I thought, oh no, he will die, but then, he says, go away Catherine, and I was so happy. That was the divine intervention. And then, I tell Catherine, I will take you to Duckworth for a special dinner so maybe you forget about Cody now, because she cries an ocean of tears, very sadly. We eat dinner at Little Caesar's because she loved the pizza with double pepperonis, and Travis is working there, and I tell him before in private, sing for her that great 1960s song called "Never My Love," and he is singing it right there after he brings the pizza, and he tells her that he is singing it on behalf of her secret admirer, so then she had a happy little smile for just a second when she heard that, and I think that maybe she knows it is me. That was very nice because Travis is a pretty good singer. I am thinking, okay, I am going to do this.
Jake: And you did it.
Norm: Oh yes, Jake, I did it. But not right away, no. I had to be patient, very patient, because still she is not ready. I am seeing that. We work again together some more time at the club and she is very quiet now and she stops insulting me. Before, she insulted me all the time. You remember that. She said I have too much gray hair and is saying I smell bad and that I was an old man and she doesn't love me. But she was getting used to my special smell, I could tell that. And then, one day, she buys a men hair treatment to change color for my gray hairs. I say, why do you buy this, she says, I have to look at you, I want to make you look better, I say, do you care about me, and she says, kind of, but just like a friend, so don't get any big ideas, and I smiled at her very big and her face just turns a little tiny bit red, and that's when I know that I am progressing some. But I am still not there.
Jake: What was your breakthrough moment, then?
Norm: I don't think there is one big moment, Jake. You can see that it is happening day by day. But maybe I think that one very important night is when after we clean up the kitchen at Uncle Steve's together, and everyone goes home, and she says to me, I don't want to stay with Andrea anymore, because you know she was living at the house of Andrea.
Jake: I'd heard that Andrea kicked her out, actually, because she was putting her cigarettes out on her furniture, and Catherine's cats were soiling her carpet.
Norm: That's not true. People will say bad things, you know that, Jake. It is nothing except jealousy. They are not happy like you are, so they want to murder your happy feeling.
Jake: Anyway, she told you she didn't want to live with Andrea anymore.
Norm: Yes, Jake. And I ask her, where you can stay, and she says she doesn't know. And then, I offer her the couch at my house, and she says, okay, but you stay in your bed and I stay on the couch, and if you bother me, I tell the police. And she stays with me for two weeks and I don't bother her not one single time. She finds out about me that I am a true gentleman.
Jake: Wow, that's amazing, Norm. I thought that she didn't move in with you until after you got married.
Norm: She tells me not to say it to anybody. I keep it a secret.
Norm: So, anyhow, you can see that this is the power of true love, Jake. It can make all the things possible. And then one day, she says, well, Norm, you are alright, you are a nice guy, you are good to me, and I like to stay here, this is a nice place, but my cats are at the shelter and I want to pick them up before they make them go to sleep, so I can bring my cats here? I say yes, so now we have all these cats, and she is very happy, and that makes me feel very good. And then that night, I am asleep in my bed, and I feel something next to me, and it is Catherine, she is in bed next to me, and I say, I am not a big religious person, but this is not done, and I say, here, you take my bed, I go to the couch. I think that is surprising her a lot. Then, a few days pass by, and then so suddenly she comes out of the bathroom very naked! Oh, she says, there is no towel in the bathroom, Norm, get me a towel. I bring her a towel but my hand is very shaky and she laughs and laughs and laughs and takes her shower. I think that my eyes got burning when I look at her incredible body with no clothes. I have to sit down at the table to try to calm down for awhile and then I am feeling more relaxed. And then that night, she is standing at the door to my bedroom, and I wake up and see her, and she says, Norm, I cannot sleep. She says, Norm, we cannot live together like this forever, and she opens up her bathrobe and there she is again just like Allah made her. I get up and very gentle I close her bathrobe for her and I reach the back to tie it for her and she kisses me in the mouth, and I feel like my mouth is burning with fire, but I move in reverse very slow and get down to my knees, then I hold her hands, and I ask her to marry me, and she says, marry you? Norm, I am going to bed, she is saying, and there I still was on the floor on my knees and thinking about what happens and she went back to the couch.
Jake: You must have wondered if you had ruined it all by that point.
Norm: I never worry about that for one minute. I plant that seed in her mind and it just needed some time to grow. After a couple of days, we eat breakfast in the kitchen and she was smoking her cigarette, and she looked at me and says, okay, Norm, you win. And I say, win what? And she says, you know. That afternoon we go to the county courthouse and sign the papers and then she sleeps with me in my bed. And I was really glad about that because we did everything the right way.
Jake: Wow, Norm, you sure did.
Norm: I am a very happy man, Jake. To be married is very good for me. Catherine is the best thing in my life.
Norm and I discussed some other things, mostly related to his experiences working with me at the club, and a few comments about his dealings with Admiral Porkliver. However, since most of that information has already been thoroughly covered in my previous posts, I've decided to leave it out here.
I hope that you feel as happy for Norm as I do. He's been on his own for so many years. Catherine, if you read this, my message to you is to be good to Norm, because you'll never meet another man to equal him even if you live to be a thousand years old. Also, you made a sacred promise to him, and that really should mean something. It means a lot to him, for sure. You should feel the same way, if you know what I'm saying.
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