NORBERT BLEI

6 01 2022

Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant
Sister Bay, Wisconsin

By Jenna Goldsmith

Before Americans were obsessed with the Swedish practice of fika, Norbert Blei was perfecting it at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik in Sister Bay, Wisconsin.

“I must go to Al Johnson’s for coffee . . . for conversation, camaraderie, my late morning break,” Blei declares in his 2002 essay “Counter Culture.” But it had snowed all night in Sister Bay, so much so that the road from Blei’s home to his beloved coffee counter at Al Johnson’s was impassable. 

Blei’s destination sits at the bottom of a hill, the focal point of Sister Bay, which is itself a hub of the scenic Door Peninsula. The restaurant, which began as a humble operation—just breakfast and dinner, cooked, served, and bussed by Al Johnson himself—is now a bustling terminus for locals and vacationers alike. It is not uncommon for diners to sit down for a meal of Pytt I Panna (Swedish hash) a full two hours after putting their name on the waiting list. Servers dress in traditional Swedish dirndls, just as they did a half century ago, and the food is served on dishes from Persgrund, Norway. During the summer months, there are goats on the roof. 

No matter how many times I visit Al’s, I never stray from my usual short stack of Swedish pancakes, Swedish meatballs, and lingonberries (and lots of coffee). Though he has been gone for nearly seven years, I inevitably find myself staring at the coffee counter nestled in the restaurant’s northeast corner, hoping to catch a glimpse of Norbert. I like to picture him there, hunched over a cup of coffee and a folded-over Door County Advocate, or his manuscript in progress, knowing full well that if he were actually there, I wouldn’t have the gumption to approach him and risk interrupting his beloved fika. Still, I play this hologram game. I ask my mom to describe to me for the hundredth time my eccentric distant cousin Chuck Clemensen, another counter sitter, who Norbert called “Wall Street Charley.” “Well, Chuck was tighter than the bark on a tree,” my mom would remind me. “He died with the first nickel he ever earned, and he claimed to know the original recipe of Coca-Cola because he worked as a chemist for the company.” Chuck frequently fika-ed alongside Norbert and Al. I imagine they spoke about Door County’s rapid transformation, influx of vacationers, and their shared history as native Chicagoans.

Though I never met Norbert, I feel that we are kindred spirits, tied together not just by our mutual Chuck, but by our alma mater Illinois State University, our vocations as writers, and our love of counter culture. As of late, I can’t help but relate to the ambivalent Norbert of “Counter Culture” sitting in his warm, safe home, debating whether or not to brave the elements for fika at Al’s. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, my own writing practice relied heavily upon a coffee counter down the street from my apartment in Bend, Oregon. This practice, along with many others, has been completely upended. And though I think of myself as flexible—professional enough that I can work anywhere—my writing life has suffered. I find myself wondering how Norbert would have fared without the respite of the safe, welcoming coffee counter at Al’s. 

Norbert eventually made it to Al’s coffee counter that snowy February day. Did I ever really doubt him? Even February in Wisconsin is no match for fikasugen.

Jenna Goldsmith is the Assistant Director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Illinois State University. She is the author of two chapbooks, Genesis Near the River (blush books, 2019), and Suppose the Room Just Got Brighter (Finishing Line Press, 2021). Her poetry can be found in New Delta Review, Tildé, and Sheepshead Review. In 2019, she was honored to be named a Mari Sandoz Emerging Writer by the Story Catcher Literary Festival at Chadron State College. Learn more about Jenna at jennalgoldsmith.com.





Blei Scholarship Named

24 08 2021
Audrey Viste (left) with Pete Thelen, an organizer of the Norbert Blei Memorial Scholarship. Submitted photo.

Audrey Viste from Gibraltar Schools was selected as the 2021 winner of the Norbert Blei Memorial Scholarship. Viste was recently presented with the award by one of the Scholarship Committee’s long-time members, Pete Thelen, a well-known Door County musician. Viste said she plans to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design this coming September.

The Norbert Blei Memorial Scholarship is a $1,000 scholarship offered annually to a graduating Gibraltar Area Schools senior in honor of the memory of well-known, local writer Norbert Blei. Blei was a committed lifelong writing teacher, a talented writer and author, and a lover of words and the literary arts. His career began in Chicago, where he was a contemporary and friend of urban writers, newspaper columnists and media figures like Mike Royko, Studs Terkel and Harry Mark Petrakis. — By Door County PulseAugust 20th, 2021





Poetry Dispatch * On Norbert’s 86th Birthday by Jude Genereaux

22 08 2021

There are so many of us who miss this man …

Due to turn 86 this Monday, August 23 … I can’t help remembering how the bower of “old age” rankled Norbert. He didn’t like it. His ambition and desire for “more” stayed with him; even as physical possibilities limit what we can do in our 70’s, 80’s, Norbert had unending visions of what he wanted yet to accomplish.

That in itself amazes me, now that I find my own intentions to accomplish tasks or travel or create — slow. As his family & friends, and now the archivists, research and categorize the prolific output Norbert left for us, the only word I can accurately use to describe it is: staggering. The list of articles, published work, blog contributions and treatises on a myriad of topics, plus sixteen books in print, boggle any writer’s production.

From his years growing up in the Cicero neighborhood, through to the waning years, Norb’s energy was revved by his surroundings and community. Whenever local events called him to contribute: as Ellison Bay planned to commemorate the stewardship of its “Grand View”, who did they call upon to speak the words the rest of us felt, but Norbert, of course. Same when the “Pioneer” store in our little town was restored after a tragic collapse in 2006. Christmas Eve pageants, readings in Newport Park, programs of “Passages”, kick-off for the “Annual Read” and his infamous Clearing workshops through 2012 – all were made bountiful by his voice and the emotions Norbert brought forth.

So how do we carry on without him? Foremost — we “find him in his books”, as he directed us to do. And in our hearts, where he will always be. ~ Jude Genereaux

Everything That Was Broken

-has forgotten its brokenness.

I live now in a sky-house,

through every window the sun.

Also your presence.

Our touching, our stories.

Earthy and holy both.

How can this be?

but it is.

Every day has something in it

whose name is Forever.

~Mary Oliver





April 23rd ~ By Jude Genereaux

23 04 2021

As yet another black marker arrives on the calendar, the years now come to eight since losing your physical presence in our lives, Norbert.

What will make this one different is sharing with you a goal long envisioned. Your loyal friend John Nelson keeps your legacy in mind, and much as he’s always promoted your work, he’s gathered a few of us to put our heads together to bring substance to that mission.

John and I’ve long talked about getting some of Norb’s work back in print, but in this now 8th year of his absence, John has put this dream in motion. Calling upon fellow publisher, teacher, writer Al DeGenova (who carries on Norb’s teaching tradition at The Clearing each summer) and introducing a young writer, editor and entrepreneur – Norb’s grandson, Corbin Buff of Montana, the four of us have begun the rather boggling task of sorting, choosing and planning to publish “The Norbert Blei Reader.”

With the blessing of the family, the goal is to gather some of Norb’s finest selections in both fiction and notable non-fiction, articles and stories published in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Milwaukee Journal, as well as local Door County news outlets. Sixteen books of published work and his unstoppable contributions to news sources and blogs, the amount of Norb’s archived work is nearly incomprehensible to imagine; the sifting and choosing is huge!

Our aim is to celebrate the depth of your passion for the written word, Norbert, and your unending pursuit to put it out there! To commemorate and honor the legacy of beauty and art you’ve left for us, by bringing together the first “Norbert Blei Reader” … a book, a collection of your finest work.

The immersion in your words is a joy to review and re-live … though I also confess a great heartache; it’s not easy to relive the loss of your presence. It is so huge. Remind us again – we will find you in your books. Always.

“Find these people, who believe in what you believe. And if you can’t find them, then go ahead and print the work yourself. You won’t be the first. And you’ll be in good company. It’s important. You’re important. Someone out there is waiting for, may desperately need whatever it is you have to say.”

-Norbert Blei “Adventures in An American’s Literature.”

~ Jude Genereaux, April 23, 2021





Dear Norbert by Jude

24 08 2020

Dear Norbert –

It’s a strange year you’re missing Norb, this 85th of “You Should BE Here With Us” year. Admittedly, this is not one you might chalk up as having “missed” … for seriously: I can’t see you wearing a mask (though I know you would.) But you should be here.

You should be here for the love those of us who miss you in our daily lives will always carry for you. You should be here for “dinner out” at one of our favorite places (some remain intact) – and there would be CAKE! You should be here for all the right reasons.

I confess, there are some changes here on this beautiful island you don’t want to know of. Some that you predicted have come to be, but others that were unforeseen seem rather shocking. Knowing we can’t stop “change”, those of us left behind hold on to all that is yet wonderful and rare here, knowing what the real treasurer of Door County is. We would celebrate this Happy 85th Birthday day driving down favorite roads, walking the trails by the old house with our good dog Ivan (who still runs out to find you in the Coop when we get near the holy grounds) and celebrate the quiet of the dark night and empty fields. If you were here.

Flowers will be with you on this day, poems will be read and memories will fill our hearts. Because, dear Norberto’: You are with us, always.

Love, Jude

 

Norbert Blei / Portrait by Emmett Johns





Today would have been my father ‘s 85th birthday … Chris Blei

24 08 2020