At some time in the late eighties (I don’t recall the year, now) our neighbors to the North, the Johnson family, made the big mid-life move North to the then booming, Roscoe, Illinois area. For me, it was akin to losing a limb to a place as far away as the Moon. Here was a family who I had grown up with; whose two daughters had been my, and my brother’s, constant companions during our formative years; who we had shared so many meals with; shared so many highs and lows that life tended to throw our way with. Here, then, was a family I would miss beyond words. The Johnson’s were what every neighboring family should be.
For weeks leading up to the move, I tried to wrap my head around the stark reality of this situation. Sure, folks and families had come and gone from the neighborhood on occasion. But none had been so important, nor so pivotal, to both myself and to the communal feel of the neighborhood gestalt, before.
As they pulled away that one final time from what had been their home for as long as I had known them, I began to allow a new panic to set in: who would live there now? What if they were boring, old, crazy, mean, and on and on? I let my imagination run amok and the longer I allowed it to do so, the more undesirable the perceived new residents became. Near the end they were octogenarian, blood-sucking, muppet-esque, Hell-beasts bent on making my life a living nightmare. Sometimes, a vivid and active imagination is not a good thing, apparently.
I need not have worried because the new residents, it later turned out, would also become a huge part of my life. Their names were Norm and Lori Keinz. In tow were also two children from Lori’s previous life, prior to meeting Norm, whom he loved and cared for as his own. Jeremy, the older of the two, was a rambunctious handful who seemed to enjoy nothing more than seeing how far he could push someone before they would finally crack. Melissa, on the other hand, was a shy, pensive, young lady who had been born prematurely and was just out of her infancy. The dichotomy was as strange as it was palpable.
Getting to know the new neighbors was something I quickly found that I was lousy at. Aside from having too many years on Jeremy to consider him a viable candidate as a playmate, I also found him abrasive and beyond annoying. Worse still, I now found myself unable to simply enter the confines of the home next door and holler for whomever I might be seeking, as had been the mutual trend for we four children for so many years. Part of my stomping ground was now, effectively, off limits.
My brother Nicholas, on the other hand, soon found much in common with Jeremy and, over the ensuing months, they became tenuous friends. As time went on, they vacillated between friendship and acquaintanceship, and are still friends to this day.
As I grew older, I began to get to know Lori and Norm in small doses. Their extended family was often present for parties – especially on the Fourth of July – due specifically to several factors: They knew how to throw a party, they had a pool, and Norm was a certifiable pyromaniac when it came to fireworks. This last bit received my immediate boyish attention – more on that in a moment.
Norm and Lori, I eventually learned, were business owners. Two, too be exact. Norm, for as inconspicuous as he initially seemed was a whiz at two things: giving people what they wanted, and being a social chameleon. Norm truly loved people and that genuine care and love for his community showed through and was, I am certain, a facet of his ultimate success. I have rarely met another like him, in this respect.
First and foremost, Norm was the owner and founder of a then blossoming alarm company, Security Alarm Co. They’re the ones with the yellow shields and blue lettering that are now seemingly ubiquitous throughout the Stateline Area. What made his company different was that it was run like a Mom and Pop operation, rather than a nationalized conglomerate of franchises. Monitoring was done locally, and he had a personal hand in every facet of the business. The positive results of this were evident in his ever-growing client base. He knew his product, he knew how to communicate with both the common man and the business man alike, he refused to use inferior hardware, and he was available whenever you needed him, unlike national and regional companies who often hired sub-par installers who didn’t put the care, time, and effort into a project like Norm did. Also, he didn’t have a call center somewhere in Oklahoma for dispatching alarms. His was redundant, in two undisclosed locations, in the Rockford Area. Norm even went so far as to take doughnuts and pizza to the local 911 dispatchers on occasion – especially New Year’s Eve – as a genuine ‘thank you’ for their assistance in making his company what it was fast becoming: a runaway success. No one else in his business could claim that sort of community-level connectivity, and his generosity endeared him to a number of folks who were rarely recognized for their hard work and specific facet of community service. I have a dear friend and a cousin who work in that very office in the here and now and – believe me – the sort of genuine acknowledgement for tireless efforts such as theirs is almost unheard of. It is a job that I could not do, and I’m grateful for their commitment.
As well as the Alarm Company, Norm was also the proprietor of Grant Avenue Foods, a neighborhood grocery and video store serving the local community. What made his store different was that he offered hot food items prepared by either himself, or his father in law, Leonard Klonicki. If the name sounds familiar, then you’re probably a Boylan Alumni. For decades, ‘Chef Klonicki’ of ‘Chef Len’, as we knew him, oversaw the feeding of the Boylan staff and student body with both expected fare and amazing dishes that had no right being in that setting. I mean, how many high schools offer Veal Parmesan for lunch? For Norm, the store was more of a hobby than a business. It was a place where he could inter-connect with the community around him, and be in a setting that he loved, as a way to relax and unwind. Some people collect things, join lodges or clubs, or play or follow sports – Norm had his grocery store.
I was fortunate to come to know Len as a treasured and dear friend outside of the confines of the school setting (a Boylan alumni, myself). He was a cantankerous, proud, Polish man who you instantly wanted to hug for no apparent reason, and who had many interesting stories to tell, so long as the Cubs weren’t playing. When the Cubbies were in action it was all business, as he shut out the rest of the world to occupy ‘The Sports Fans’ zone. Then, it was just fun to watch him, watching them. It was as humorous as it was endearing.
Every Fourth of July, Norm would indulge his other passion: blowing things up. Some folks seek out and purchase fireworks for The Fourth of July, surely. What most folks don’t do is have thousands and thousands of dollar’s worth of them culled from numerous outlets across state lines. Norm was a pyrotechnic aficionado who rarely spared expense when it came to indulging this particular passion.
It turns out, I later learned, that in a previous life Norm had been what is affectionately called a ‘Roadie’. He toured with lesser bands like Angel, but also with bigger names like Journey and R.E.O. Speedwagon. His acumen as an electrical technician was a goodly part of what led him to end up in the alarm business. It’s funny how things like that happen. I still recall one summer when R.E.O. came to town. The day afterward, he mentioned to me that he had stopped down to the Metro Centre before the show to see ‘Kevin’ (referring to lead singer, Kevin Cronin). This was when I first learned about his time as a roadie. I was so flustered – what a great experience that would have been! His response was that he wished he had known that I was a fan: he would have taken me with. I missed that boat, and never received an opportunity thereafter. Such is life.
Back to the fireworks: Norm would not just blow a few things up for a few ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’. No, Norm put on a spectacle that, I’d wager, was second only to the city fireworks in Rockford. It was that colossal and varied. As children, we all looked forward to this magical day. Norm and Lori’s family, friends, and neighbors would all come over, packing both the rear yard and the pool, cooking out all afternoon while sipping adult beverages and listening to music in the lead up to the big show. It was one hell of a good time, even for us kids. As dusk settled over the neighborhood, the ‘pre-game’ to the big show would begin with small-scale fireworks: Jumping Jacks, Morning Glories, Camellia Flowers, Silver Jets, Lanterns, Firecrackers, monster-sized bottle rockets, Roman Candles, fountains that were enormous, and so on. This was sort of the neighborhood equivalent to flashing the lights in a theater in an effort to let the patrons know that the show was about to begin. As soon as the noise and light became a constant, neighbors not already in attendance would come pouring out of their homes, finding a seat a safe distance away, ready to enjoy the communal fun that was about to begin.
Once darkness had settled in earnest, Norm paraded out showstopper after showstopper. These were fireworks that, often, cost more than I then made in a month to purchase – just for one item. And Norm had cases and cases, containing a plethora of everything that fireworks technology and advancement had to offer. Many years, police on patrol would park at the ends of our street not to arrest Norm, but to watch his show. For some reason, right or wrong, Norm’s extravaganza was so spectacular, even some of the boys in blue gave him a Mulligan as they watched in awe, as we did: a street-long community joined for one shining moment under the auspices of this single man’s love for explosive art.
Each year, Norm seemed to find some new way to outdo himself. One particular year, he had a milk crate of ‘odds and ends’ with two full bricks of firecrackers at the bottom. He lit a handful of matches, threw them in, and watched as the chaos ensued. It was something that I’ll never forget and, sadly, the milk crate met its demise that evening.
The best of the best of the best came one evening when Norm hauled out a massive, braided coil of what looked like rope – it was enormous and heavy, its length beyond reckoning. We were told that one of his alarm customer’s husbands had passed away, and she had discovered this item in her garage. Not wanting it around, and having no use for it, she had given it to Norm. What it was, in fact, was a ‘firecracker rope’ – something Norm told the assembled throng was no longer made as he held it reverently. I have no idea how many individual ‘crackers’ were in that rope but, when it was lit, it was like Armageddon in the street for a full four minutes. I have never – and probably will never – experienced anything like the deafening noise, blinding flashes, and rippling shock waves of that rope of combustibles obliviating itself. It was one of the singular events in my life that is burned into my psyche. It was just that astounding to watch. The aftermath was also something to see. From curb to curb in a twenty foot radius the remnants of paper and casing lay nearly two inches deep. Never had I seen such carnage in the aftermath of a pyrotechnic item – then or now. ‘Awesome’ doesn’t even begin to do that single spectacle justice. My kidneys are throbbing anew just thinking about the experience. I would pay an insane amount of money to relive those four, blissful, awesome minutes.
As I came of babysitting age, Lori and Norm would have me over to watch their children. Melissa was easy: give that girl a Teddy Graham, and life was bliss. Jeremy, on the other hand, was a hellion who made sure I earned my money and also, often, provoked his sister into tears just for good measure. Today, Melissa is happily married, though I haven’t seen much of her since she was a bridesmaid in our wedding. Jeremy, on the other hand, is the owner of MainfraiM Habitat for Art in Downtown Rockford, an art and framing gallery where he performs astonishing miracles with repurposed wood and items. He is also married to an amazing woman named Emily, and has a daughter who I am fairly certain may be our first woman president if she continues her precocious and intellectual leanings. One thing is for certain: for being such a pain in everyone’s ass at a tender age, he’s turned into a community-minded family man whom Rockford can – and should be – exceedingly proud of.
During my high school years, as I became more and more fluent in the nuances of computer hardware and software, Norm flattered me by asking for my assistance in doing some work on his home computer. As he began to understand my capabilities, he offered me a part-time position a few evenings a week to act as a dispatcher/operator, as well as doing some computer work for his alarm company. I was already working myself stupid but, ever the go-getter who wanted to retire early, I eagerly accepted the offer. I was tasked with dispatching alarms as they arrived at one of the central station locations (a location that, to this day, I’m happily sworn to secrecy about). I also took messages and spoke with clients who had issues, concerns, were going on vacation, etc. What was startling about my time there was that I almost NEVER received a negative call. Norm had cultivated such a phenomenal and loyal following that word of mouth continued to grow his business exponentially as the years wore on, without any real formal advertising. That’s a rare thing, but it’s a testament to his commitment to his business’ success.
A few years later, Norm and Lori moved once more. It was a sad parting, but as we all got older we also all developed and acknowledged new needs. Theirs was to find a bigger, more comfortable home to retire in, as Jeremy would be moving out. Mine was to start a home of my own, leaving the nest for new adventures. Still, to this day, we keep in touch with Lori and Norm. And it isn’t just them: Lori’s brother, Tom, and sister, Teresa, have also both been included in our life after Pauline Avenue. Teresa, especially, is a fun-loving, free-spirited, eloquently sarcastic woman who I am proud to call my close friend (even if I do give her a hard time, all the time.) Len, sadly, passed away a few years ago. I still miss his spirit, his company and, most of all, his food.
Once again, the microcosm that was Pauline Avenue had delivered into my lap lifelong friends, new life experiences, and tools and talents that would continue to mold and shape who I was then, and who I would ultimately become.