Norton

| January 7, 2018 | 0 Comments

Norton was a tall, thin, African-American gentlemen with short-cropped hair that was mostly gray with black highlights. He spoke softly with a rich vocabulary. He would have been in his mid-late 60’s when I first met him and worked with him. You could say he looked like Morgan Freeman but taller. He never married and had no children. He and his family moved to Chicago from the South in the 1930s. Despite being from Mississippi, he spoke with a Chicago accent. He moved at about the age I was when I met him. He loved the Cubs and Mayor Daley. In that order.

In the early 70’s my father bought gold at around $40 an ounce. This was shortly before President Nixon took the US off the “Gold Standard”. By 1980, gold was trading at around $550 an ounce and my father started to make jewelry out of the gold he accumulated. In his prior career, he was a photographer. Studio, weddings, bar mitzvahs, in-your-home baby photos, you name it. He said half the weddings he shot, the people never came to look at the proofs. And he had to use film, develop the negatives and print the proofs. Not thumb drives. There was a cost up front greater than a memory stick today. Slowly he gave up retail photography for retail and wholesale jewelry and diamonds.

But a part of the photography business remained; a service that would print images on oval ceramic tiles to be placed on cemetery headstones. While my father haggled with the public  and other dealers about the cost and value of a watch, ring or diamond, Norton worked in two small rooms behind and out of site of the jewelry showroom with their bright glass counters to make the merchandise sparkle.

Summers in junior high I went to work with my father. Which meant I actually went to work for Norton. My father wasn’t going to teach me the gold business for many more years.

Norton had a “light” room and a “dark room” to shoot the images onto the ceramic tile. I stayed in the light room mostly since the dark room was, well, dark and small and no one trusted me to actually make the pictures appear on the ceramic ovals.

My job was to move boxes of tiles, prepare them to accept an image through a series of steps to “shoot them” as my father would say and, perhaps most importantly, scrape off pictures that weren’t high enough quality and wouldn’t be seen by the family. This meant trying to recover silver from the film emulsion to reuse for another picture.

Norton was a perfectionist. The slightest flaw in the process or the image quality and he would start all over. Norton was a patient man who was meticulous and saw to it that his work “would last a long time” as he would tell me. For lack of a better word, Norton listened to a folk music radio station. Lots of Gordon Lightfoot and Harry Chapin-type songs; The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Cat’s in the Cradle stand out in my head.

The tiles had likenesses of mayors, other politicians, tradesmen, laborers, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, blue and white-collar, Jew and gentile, black and white or color. Some would be used locally, some would go to other parts of the country.

Wallenda HeadstoneWhen Karl Wallenda, daredevil and patriarch of The Flying Wallendas fell to his death at age 73 from a high wire stunt in Puerto Rico, a cousin in Chicago brought a photo to my father. After glancing at the photo, my father had me take it to Norton “to shoot” for shipment Florida.

I don’t recall my father and Norton really speaking to each other that much. My father would give him a photo or perhaps a negative and Norton would produce a ceramic oval tile for placement on a headstone.

I gather my father paid him in cash but I don’t remember any fallout over money, sick time, hours or the quality of his work. He would send a Christmas card to our house every year but I don’t really recall my father and Norton having long discussions.

By the early 80’s the oval ceramic tiles for headstones business had slowed down. I was no longer going downtown with my dad and boxes of the tiles started to line a wall of our garage. Over time some equipment and supply found its way there too. Cameras, developer trays, sinks, jars of chemicals. One day Norton came over to the garage and took some of the equipment and supplies. The chemicals and tiles remained behind.

Perhaps the jewelry business had replaced the need for this side business or perhaps the cost of doing business was too high to stay in business or competition had squeezed out my father and Norton or demand for the service went down. Or a combination. It’s one of the little questions I never asked my father but wish I had.

I never saw Norton again after he loaded up a small pick up truck with photography equipment.

Those summers in the back of the jewelry store putting pictures of dead people on oval ceramic tiles (or more commonly taking off those pictures) eating corned beef on rye sandwiches watching the elevated train along the Loop above Wabash Avenue out the window with Norton taught me many lessons.

Patience. I still struggle with this but realize its importance. Hard work. Doing your job and doing quality work, particularly when no one is watching. If it was good enough for Norton, it was good enough for my dad and I don’t recall my father ever doing “quality control” on his work.

And, for every business, particularly small businesses, literally two small rooms without air conditioning or heat, needs a Norton. A guy who can actually run the business. Do the work. Deliver the goods. Receive the job and ship the order. Without being micromanageed or micromanaging. Someone you can trust “to shoot” and not risk an upset customer because the work wasn’t done right.

I also learned I like corned beef on rye. And do not like folk music.

 

 

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