Norman Petri, 1990
It is a well-worn cliché to refer to any human being as “unique.” For one thing, it is almost never true. Considering these three deaths, you might say that Hilliary was an unusual boy in some ways, but really there are many surly, slightly anti-social boys, and many of them are quite sarcastic and entertaining, and many of those have strong interests in building motors and going fast. Unique? No. The type is personified by James Dean. And Ray, certainly he had unusual powers of social interaction, he was charismatic, and he had considerable musical talent. Unique? No. Paul McCartney is the model. But Norman? Norman was unique. I seriously doubt that the world had seen his precise likeness before, or that it will ever see it again.
I met Norman around the turn of the year 1976, shortly after my relocation to Los Angeles. Norman was a transplant too, from Cleveland. We were in our mid-Twenties. We hit it off immediately, for reasons that would not be immediately apparent to anyone.
We worked in the warehouse distribution center for a chain of record and tape stores. Norman lived with a friend in a rented house surrounded by factories that had only day shifts. They thought that it was perfect, because there were no neighbors to complain about noise. Live music and loud record playing were involved. In the living room there were three armadillos. One taxidermy stand-alone armadillo; one taxidermy armadillo fighting a taxidermy rattle snake; and one armadillo handbag. Every Thursday they would buy the Recycler and look for new armadillo items. The entire house was furnished with gaudy, overstuffed second-hand furniture. There was a blow-torch on the coffee table. The rooms were hung with posters from Fifties science-fiction movies, of which both of them had extensive collections. I say extensive, the roommate’s collection was complete. For all of the important movies he had the poster, both one-sheets, and all of the lobby cards. His want list included only better examples of things of which he already had a less-than-perfect example. Norman’s collection included many foreign posters. Like the Italian poster for “This Island Earth,” or the French one-sheets for “Forbidden Planet.”
Between them they had four or five thousand record albums, mostly punk and trance but with a rich vein of movie soundtracks. Henry Mancini and Enio Moriconni were big favorites. Oh, etc, etc . . . is this to be all about Norman’s life?
Maybe a little more information. After a couple of years, Norman moved back to Cleveland, because Los Angeles was just too square for him. Cleveland had a great rock scene in the 1970’s. It is also important to know that Norman was a devotee of old style amusement parks and wooden roller coasters. In Cleveland, he worked two jobs for nine months out of the year so that he could take off during “coaster season,” traveling around to visit all of the happening wooden coasters. He and I were both letter writers. He was the most conscientious letter writer that I’ve ever known, he actually had a checklist of people that he wanted to write to every month. Usually I received not just a letter, but a brown envelope with brochures from amusement parks, plastic bags from hip record stores, napkins from weird diners, a bit of everything.
And I should mention that Norman was a Fat Fancier. He himself stood over six feet tall and weighed a bit less than 130 pounds, he looked like you could fold him up and fit him into an attaché case. He was bone white, with longish black hair, and with a demeanor that the medical professionals call “low affect.” His long term girlfriend weighed in at over 500 pounds. Oh, and Norman was a smoker, that will become important in a moment. He smoked one or two packs of Marlboros every day and at least an ounce of reefer every week. He had kept up this pace since his teens.
Is it possible to die suddenly from lung cancer? Norman managed it. He was a very shy man, and always less than comfortable in the real world. With friends, listening to records, getting loaded, he was very personable and almost cheerful. But let the social situation become at all new or uncertain and he went into full retreat. So it’s not unexpected that he hated to go to the doctor, preferring to ride out all of life’s maladies on his own. This may or may not have been his downfall.
I got the opportunity to visit him in 1990, after a two year close friendship followed by a twelve year intense correspondence. My family and I were to fly to Toronto and make three visits within two weeks; to friends in Guelph, Ontario; to my aunt in Buffalo, New York; and to Norman, who lived at the time in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Our correspondence was still strong, and he had never mentioned health problems, but when I called him to tell him of the trip he blurted out that he was too sick to take visitors. He said that he had terrible sciatica, that he had had it once before, but that this time it was really laying him up, he couldn’t do anything. I said, no sweat, we’ll sit around, get some take out, we just want to see you. He allowed that something like that could work. It was the last time that we spoke.
Two days before we left for the trip, Norman’s girlfriend called me. “Norman’s dead!” she screamed into the phone without warning, with the full power of her tremendous bulk. She explained, in between huge sobs, that Norman had finally gone to the doctor, had been diagnosed with lung cancer, had been admitted to the hospital immediately, and had thereupon died. He was thirty-seven-years-old.
I’ve had other friends and relatives die on me, but these unanticipated deaths really do hit a little harder, don’t they? It comes as a shock, and with the finality of the grave. They stand out in memory, probably because they remind us that any day could be our last, or thereabouts.
So fare thee well, Hilliary, Ray and Norman. I miss you all, if not exactly every day, certainly on a very regular basis. Thank you for your friendship. May your souls, and the souls of all of the faithful departed, rest in peace, amen.