I normally keep my writing short. But this installment is different. It captures the first time I really met Norman, listened to him, observed him. There’s no shortchanging our first breakfast. So it’s a bit longer than a five-minute read and I’m okay with that.
But we are three “chapters” into this and you may be wondering when Norman will share some advice. First, if I wanted to cheat the story, I’d write a single article and call it something half-clever like 10 Tips I Learned From Norman or something. Then I’d post it like clickbait on Medium and be done. I’m not that clever.
Second, he had already given me some of the most important life advice. I cut it out of the last post and put it at the end of this one – an extra.
Most importantly, Norman deserves the story. So I’m drinking my coffee and writing our story.
Now back to breakfast.
“Well, you helped out the right guy yesterday.” His words buzzed through my head, stuck on repeat like 1-877-cars-for-kids. I went home that night tired from working another 16-hour day, but excited to wake up the next morning.
Meet me at The Cottage. Five-thirty. Meet me at The Cottage. Five-thirty. I sent him a script sample and then barely slept. At four-thirty I popped out of bed and got ready. I like to be prompt… to a fault. In grade school, I thought I heard the school bus coming down the street and was so terrified I’d miss it that I ran out of the house with no socks, no shoes, and no backpack. My dad sprinted after me wearing nothing but his robe. I hate being late.
The inlet was only a ten-minute drive, but I left my apartment at four-fifty. How hard could it be to find? It’s one road. I drove down Broadway and turned onto Inlet Drive with the window rolled down so I could see the restaurant signs. Eateries, homes, and docks lined the streets. I passed Red’s Lobster Pot and Shrimp Box. No Cottage. I spun around again. No Cottage. I turned off of Inlet Drive and went to Channel Drive. Maybe he meant this side of the inlet. I passed Wharfside and Spike’s. No Cottage. It was five-fifteen. Sweat drops sprinkled my forehead. This was before GPS and before smartphones. I had a flip-phone but I didn’t have his number. I looped again. Nothing. It was five-thirty. Panic. Instead of carefully canvasing all the signs and driving slowly, I sped up and threw my head in circles trying to find the place. Five-forty-five. Shit.
At six-fifteen I noticed a tiny building right in front of the Norma K. – a fishing boat. The Cottage. It looked like a shed. I wiped the sweat from my face, parked my small truck, and ran inside. “You’re late,” said Norman. He sat at a table pressed against a window in the front of the restaurant. He was dressed for a day at the office – creased khakis, a green sweater, and polished loafers.
“Good, you’re still here,” I said. “This place is impossible to find.”
“Now that you know it, you’ll not go anywhere else.”
Six tables filled the small, square eating area. A countertop stretched the length of the restaurant and behind the counter three coffee pots sat steaming on top of an old, blue oven. The kitchen was on the other side of the dining area, separated by a narrow doorway and a curtain.
“Sit, sit,” said Norman.
“Coffee, hun?” asked an older, heavy woman.
“Sure,” I said.
“And a refill for you.” She poured piping hot coffee into Norman’s mug. “Stop badgering the kid, Norman. Company is pretty rare for you.”
“I have friends. This is normally my thinking spot, though.”
“Milk or cream, hun?”
“Milk,” I said.
I sat and he sipped his coffee. “You could have driven here last night.”
“You live close enough. If I have to meet someone in an unfamiliar place, I find it a day or two before the meeting… if I live close enough. Almost never late.”
I didn’t’t argue. He made a great point. The night before I could have driven from Marlin’s to find The Cottage. They’re less than five-minutes away from each other. I wanted to argue, though. I hated being late.
“You’ll find I don’t shut up with my ideas,” he said. “I’ve been coming here for thirty-years. Place hasn’t changed.”
“We haven’t, but you’ve turned into a grumpy, old geezer,” said the woman from behind the counter. Don’t look offended, hun. We love him like family.”
“You’d think the service would get better,” said Norman. “They’re hostile.” He laughed, licked his lips, and drank his coffee. “She feeds a lot of the fisherman that work out of the port here. They love her, too.”
“I’ve never even heard of this place. Brittany grew up here and she never heard of it,” I said.
“Now you can bring her.” He stared out the window for a second, something he did from time to time. Just ejected himself from a situation and stared. It wasn’t age. It was intentional. “I read your script. It’s funny. I didn’t expect funny.”
“You’re an old soul. I figured it’d be serious,” he said.
“I’m old?” I said trying to show my terrible sense of humor.
“You write everything by hand. That’s old.” I laughed at him. “I don’t even do that and I’m nearly a ghost,” he said.
He ordered his regular – eggs over easy – and I ordered what would become my regular – plain cheese omelet with rye. Norman sipped his coffee and said, “I’ll be fine all day as long as I’ve had my coffee. So you want to write. Without thinking, what do you want to write?”
“History shows or documentaries,” I said.
The woman dropped our breakfast on the table and we dug in. Well, I dug in. Norman ate with proper manners. He tucked his napkin into his sweater and pulled in his chair. For a minute, I wondered how I wound up at a breakfast table with this guy. I wondered who the hell he was. I wondered if he could really help or if he was just some loon who walked the marina and befriended anyone who’d say hello. “You said you were the right guy,” I said.
“I may be. But you have to do your part, too.” He wiped yolk from his lips. “You have homework.”
“Okay. For what?” I asked.
“I told you I’m a writer.”
“You mentioned it.”
“I’ve been writing my whole life. Since I was your age. Wrote every chance I got. And I made a career out of it. And I still have a few friends in the business.” He leaned toward me and looked at me with a serious face. “You ever hear of 60 Minutes?”
“Of course,” I said. I couldn’t tell if he was joking.
“I’m good friends with the creator. You helped me out. Now it’s my turn to pay it forward.”
“Norman, I carried your groceries. You don’t have to -”
“I’d still be carrying those darned heavy bags. Regardless, I’ve noticed you sitting and writing. You have the dedication for this business. You need to break into it. But first you have to do some homework. Then I’ll hit my network.”
“Fix up your resume. Make it sing. Make it tell a story.”
“I’ve not done anything in the business yet. How am I going to do that?”
Norman smiled. “You want to be a writer,” he said, “writers tell stories. We look for the story in everything. Could be a resume. Could be a deck. Or a screenplay. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and tell a story.”
I wanted to stay with Norman at that table all day. But I had to make my ten bucks an hour at the marina or else lose my apartment. So I stood up and reached into my pocket for my wallet.
“Stop,” said Norman. “You can pay when you get your first writing job. Now go to work.”
“Thanks,” I said. I opened the door and then turned to him. “60 Minutes? Really?”
“Really. Tell a story.” He smiled at me. “Meet me here in three days. Same time. On time.”
I laughed and left.
While we chatted on the bench, a herring gull cawed overhead and then landed on a pylon just a few feet away. It stared at us like it had heard a dinner bell. Norman smiled. “I love living here,” he said. “Even if the gulls are a bit demanding. Elizabeth can be demanding sometimes. Just sometimes.” He looked at me. “You have an Elizabeth?”
“Well,” I said. “Not married yet. We’ve been together for a year and change.”
“Do you know yet?”
“That’s a long enough time to know.” He smirked and leaned back into the bench. “You going to be in my shoes in forty years?”
“Oh that,” I said, “Yeah, I know. Just not sure if she knows.”
He laughed. “She knows. Women are smarter than us and they know these things well before we do. They’re smarter than us with most things.”
My first lesson and one my wife proves every day.
I had to search my notes and journals to find his wife’s name. He talked about her, but I only met her once briefly when I picked him up for breakfast. She walked slowly like Norman. Her skin fair and hair almost black. She was dressed like an ambassador’s wife – pressed pants, a pale pink sweater, a broach, and makeup. But I could have her name wrong. And that’s the way it was between Norman and I. We shared bits about our lives but we stuck to boundaries established in those early days. We focused. We learned from each other. But mostly I learned from him.