I always thought of Calvin as Norm on Cheers.
Norm, how’s the world treating you?
Fellas, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and I’m wearing milk-bone underwear.
I met Calvin at the restaurant in El Segundo, California, where I performed tableside magic every Friday evening for 16 years. Stick ‘n’ Stein was strictly a neighborhood place. The walls were festooned with photos of ESHS sports teams from every decade, baseball great George Brett (who was an ESHS star), and owner George Stevens surfing at local beaches from the 1960s to the 1990s. Residents called the town Mayberry.
The food wasn’t fancy, but there were huge portions. The shrimp in their Shrimp Scampi dishes were at least double what other restaurants gave you. Their nachos were like an oversexed South Pacific volcano. Their schooners of beer rivaled the volume of actual tall ships. Every so often, I’d field a complaint about the food–old rolls or tasteless fish–but nobody ever complained that they were getting small portions. Besides, the food wasn’t the point. Hanging out with locals you’ve known for decades was.
In the mid 2000s, Calvin began coming in to the Stick every Friday evening, and everyone immediately began thinking of him as Norm. Cal was like a cartoon character. He was perhaps 150 pounds overweight, to start off with, and wallowed behind thick horn-rimmed glasses. Not only that, but after finishing work at his school-district job, he would sit at the same seat every evening at the end of the counter, right next to a huge television. He would spend the entire evening there, arriving around 5:30 pm and staying until after 9 pm. And to make things more convenient for him, he bought his own remote control and tuned it to the restaurant TV. For all intents and porpoises, that was his TV.
Needless to say, Cal didn’t eat healthy. He feasted on barbeque ribs, buffalo wings, French fries and onion rings smothered in ketchup, salads dripping in dressing, and anything else that was oily or sweet. And while he ate, he would compulsively channel-surf.
And man, did Cal have execrable taste in programs. Rotten-tomatoes-hurled-at-the-screen bad. The worst. Sometimes, he would watch a Bruce Lee movie (which I consider the male equivalent of an inferiority-complex boob job), then flip to an old Clint Eastwood movie (never Clint’s good post-1990 movies, but the cartoonish early stuff: Make my day, ahole!), then flip to Ice Station Zebra (which the insane Howard Hughes was obsessed with), then to a Pauly Shore comedy, then to “Jeopardy.” And Cal was always talking back to the television. He would repeat memorized dialogue from his lowbrow movies verbatim with the actors. Why anyone would memorize large sections of Ice Station Zebra is a mystery to me.
Still, we loved Calvin. He was our own resident eccentric. He was smart, and there’s a whole other story to that, which I will tell in a later post. And then there was the most important motivator of our love: Calvin was there all the time.
As a daily fixture at the restaurant, Calvin began to feel proprietary over his own personal seat at the counter. One fateful day, Cal walked into the restaurant at 5 pm to the sight of somebody sitting in his seat. He stood at a distance, glaring at the customer. Finally, he asked the waiter an angry question.
“Why is that guy sitting in my seat?” he said, an edge in his voice.
“Because he came before you,” the waiter answered.
“But you know I eat here every day. You know that’s my seat.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Tell him that place is reserved.”
“We don’t take reservations.”
“Tell him to move.”
“Can’t do that.”
That sent Cal through the roof. He demanded to speak to the owner, George. When George arrived, Calvin pointed at the offending customer, who was still not aware of what was going on.
“Why is that moron sitting in my seat?” he asked.
“That’s not your seat. You can take any seat here that’s not taken.”
“Why are you insulting me like this?”
“I’m not insulting you. I like you. You’re a nice guy. You’re a great customer.”
“But that’s my seat! I spend hundreds of dollars here every month. You make a lot of money off of me. You’d think I’d get some special consideration for that.”
“You can sit anywhere else,” George said, gesturing with his arm to the rest of the empty seats. “Anywhere. Take your pick.”
But George wouldn’t chase off a paying customer, and the standoff was complete. Just like Gary Cooper in High Noon, a stand had been made. Just like Bruce Lee in New Fist of Fury, the hero had reluctantly stepped up to the challenge. Just like Chris Farley in Tommy Boy, Cal had to go away to make an important point.
For days, we didn’t see Cal. The story of the confrontation made the rounds among the employees. Everybody debated the rightness or wrongitude of his position. Every Friday, I would show up and the Calvin Memorial Seat would be empty, or worse yet, occupied by somebody else. We quietly wondered if The Calvin Years were over.
“You know, there’s a guy who usually sits in this seat,” I would say to a customer who would sit there, and then I would tell the whole hilarious story. It was a great punchline.
Norm! Come back! We miss you!
And the new customer and I would yuk it up, but beneath it all, I wondered about Cal’s fragile personality. I wondered where he was.
Finally, after three weeks, Cal returned. I saw him standing in the foyer of the restaurant, a pile of papers wedged under his arm, eying his beloved seat, which was, thankfully, empty.
“I think George got the message,” Cal said smugly. “He paid a price.”
And with that, Cal returned to his beloved spot, took out his remove control, and began flipping through the channels again. He was back.
[Read second installment of this post here]