I always thought of Norman as a surprise. He was this bear of a man, who might have been a Viking warrior at a different time. He was farm-boy strong. I learned that many years ago when he accidentally put a Roger-sized hole in the baseboard of our mutual friend Bill Anderson’s apartment.
He had that young man with the gray-to-white hair as long as I’ve known him. He wore it well. I met him, as did a few of us gathered at his funeral, at FantaCo, the comic book shop shop on the first block of Central Avenue, where Broome and Bill and I all worked at some point in the 1980s or ’90s.
I specifically remember the surprise party that was thrown for Norm on his 30th birthday party. Almost all the presents had a bovine theme.
He was this farm boy with a sometimes goofy grin, who was book smart. I could always count on him to make, sometimes unsolicited, great recommendations about what to read, which is why he was so good at the Book House in Stuyvesant Plaza or its Troy location, Market Block Books, where he worked for many years.
It was difficult to try to explain Norm Nissen to other people, except to say that Norman was the GUY. He was the best man for Carol’s and my wedding in 1999. You WANTED Norm Nissen to be your best man. Not only did you KNOW he wouldn’t forget, or lose, the rings, but that he would be a steadying influence on the nervous groom.
I had a shed that needed deconstruction a couple years, and of course, he had the tools, which he brought to me. He brought this young man with him, who had a beard and a deep voice. It turned out to be his son Sam. I can’t keep track of the number of times Norm mentioned that Sam and I were roommates, when I was in the midst of a romantic breakup in 1994, and that Norm and Jay let me stay in Sam’s room for a couple of weeks.
Though I only needed the tools for less than a month, he hadn’t picked them up until nearly a year later. Norm and I sat on the front porch of my house, just talking for over an hour. He was my sounding board, as he always had been.
Norm was such a sweet guy. A couple years ago, my wife and I were talking with our friend Bonnie, who, unfortunately, died last year. She worked at the Bruegger’s Bagels in Stuyvesant Plaza, and she was going on how nice the folks from the Book House were, but ESPECIALLY this guy named Norm.
For a lot of years, we played racquetball, three, four, even five times a week, at the Albany YMCA on Washington Avenue in Albany, only a block from the comic book store. We played regularly from the late 1980s until March of 2010, when they, most unfortunately, closed the place. We played sporadically at Siena after that, but it wasn’t the same.
You get a sense of a person when you play racquetball with someone regularly. A friend of Norm’s, who I know as well, wrote on Facebook that he was going to miss the big galoot, and I appreciated the sentiment. Still, I looked up the standard definition of galoot, and it is “a clumsy or oafish person”. The example: “I was expecting the big galoot to trip over his own feet.” Yet, in his racquetball prime, he was surprisingly quick and agile, and smart.
We used to play this guy who made questionable calls in his own favor, a minister, as it turns out. This used to irritate ME. But instead of getting upset with him, Norm would redouble his effort to whup him on the court.
For a number of years, there was a coterie of us who’d show up at the Y, Danny, Charlie, Mike, Alan, Tyrone. Depending on numbers and arrival times, we would play one-on-one, or three of us in a game of cutthroat, or four of us playing partners. Norm was facile no matter what the game. I loved as a partner, because we developed an often unspoken strategy of how best to cover the court.
Norman was funny. He laughed easily. His humor tended to be self-deprecating, and it was almost never mean. Recently, he was talking with my wife. He had indicated that his daughter Abby was going to go to Europe with a friend, but the friend got sick, so now Abby’s going with her mother. Somehow my wife thought she meant going with the FRIEND’S mother, rather than Abby’s mother, Jay. They both laughed for five minutes.
You know how you say you’re going to get together, but you never do? Well, my wife arranged so that Norm and Jay, and my family got to finally go out to eat this past March at the Old Daley Inn. We had a marvelous time. I paid, only because I had a vague recollection that I probably owed him dinner from some racquetball bet. We played pretty evenly most of the time, but when wagers were made, he was almost always victorious. We agreed that, once he had knee surgery, we could get back to playing again; alas, it was not to be.
Norm was this sweetheart of a guy. The only time I could predictably get under his skin was to start singing the song Norman by Sue Thompson – peak Billboard position # 3 in early 1962. It went “Norman , ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh. Norman, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm, hmm.” He HATED that song; his aunt told me she used to sing it to him when he was young, and he hated it even then. Listen to the song Norman HERE or HERE.
Finally, Norm was a great hugger. The problem now is that I could really use one of his bear hugs right about now.
Norm Nissen died last week in his sleep at the age of 57. Here’s a lovely article in the Times Union, written by Paul Grondahl.
Invocation of Peace by Fiona Macleod, read at Norm’s funeral.
Pictures from May 15, 1999 – TOP: Norm giving the toast; BOTTOM: my brother-in-law John Powell (d. 12 Feb 2002), my college friend Mark, me, and Norm.