My assertion since pretty much the moment I met Norman Amemiya was that he was a genius too wrapped up in cosmic thoughts to notice that he’d, say, left an open bottle of Coke in the front pocket of his pants before sitting down, or locked his keys in his running car parked in a fire lane during a thunderstorm, or left a mysterious streak of something like coal soot in a ring in my bathtub.
(All of which he did actually do, plus causing at least two vehicle fires.)
Not many people believed me when I said he was a genius, but they’d never seen him calculate figures in his head like I had or heard the bizarre connections he made between pop culture artifacts that he assumed were deliberate easter eggs. He helped me program my Apple II+ to draw a Mandelbrot Set that took eighteen hours to render. He could always be relied upon to say something utterly deranged but also utterly wise.
Plus, the astounding flamboyance of his many bizarre fuck ups couldn’t possibly be the result of simple error or incompetence. They had an…ambition to them. They didn’t happen from trying too little but from trying too much.
He died four years ago, and I only found out last week.
That’s exactly something he’d do.
I met Norman during a perfect storm of awkwardness when I was in the eighth grade right after my parents divorced. My friend Mike took me to Norman’s house to meet him, but he stopped me on the front porch of this wooden cottage concealed in a lush carapace of foliage and said, “Hey, he can be a little weird, so don’t act surprised.”
“Okay,” I thought. I knew weird. After all, Mike and I played Dungeons and Dragons and dueled with PVC pipe swords behind his mother’s pet store.
We knocked on the door and a hunched Asian man came staggering out onto the porch. He was wearing something like a pilot’s jumpsuit unzipped to the waist with the arms tightened around like a belt. Underneath was a yellowing undershirt. He had thick smoky glasses, slick black hair, unkempt eyebrows, and a walnut shade of skin.
“Hello!” he shouted in a voice that I can (and do) mimic to this day, one that can only be mastered by raising your voice to a high nasal tone and crunching one side of your head into your shoulders like someone with a wry secret to share.
I don’t know if I fell back, but he definitely took me by surprise. He was way older than we were, though my guess at the time was maybe in his 20s. (He was 32.)
He welcomed us in.
Things Norman Introduced Me To, in No Particular Order
- My friend William Simmons
- Role-playing and wargames like Toon, Traveller, Paranoia, Car Wars, and Illuminati
- Conventions, especially Necronomicon in Tampa
- Space Gamer magazine
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
- The movie Dark Star
- Dr. Demento
- Weird Al Yankovic
- Monty Python
- Fractals, the Mandelbrot Set, and Conway’s Game of Life
- The Prisoner
- Twin Peaks
That last one staggers me to type. He recorded the episodes for me off of broadcast television and the first time I saw the show, it was shrouded in otherworldly static like it came from a far off place.
At his heart, Norman was a combination of David Lynch and Yoda, a person who found the wisdom in weirdness.
We started an ad hoc science fiction and gaming club, meeting at his house once a week. That stopped, though, when I came to the door one time and overheard his father yelling at him for having guests over so often. I could hear Norman flinching from blows, and I skulked back home to invite him over to my house instead.
My mother was worried about an older man who wanted to play games with middle schoolers, but when she met him she could tell that whatever strange thing he was, it wasn’t a child molester. She let me go to conventions with him, and it was a rare week that his powder blue Volkswagen pick-up truck wasn’t parked in our driveway with its Don’t Panic and Libra bumper stickers on the back.
In fact, I’m pretty sure that the force who drove my abusive and violent father from our lives for good was a limping, hunch-backed science fiction fan.
My father used to stop by often after the divorce, mostly to steal tools and poke around the house for things. Sometimes he’d bring a gift for me, trying to convince me to come live with him instead (thus becoming a source of child support payments instead of the recipient of them).
One time, I was terrified to see him slow down in his car to visit when Norman’s truck was in the driveway, but when my father saw it, he peeled away and never came over again.
So yeah, it was Norman who delivered the coup de grace to my lingering father with his +2 Sword of Being Mistaken for My Mother’s New Boyfriend.
Norman had a wide variety of strange physical tics, from his high-pitched nasal voice to a curious tendency to fall asleep at random times, including behind the wheel of a moving car. The most significant was a limp, greatly pronounced by his fast loping walk.
The way he got it may be the quintessential Norman story.
Norman had wanted to be a physicist, but years of bullying at various schools (including community college) had driven him away. He made money by selling games at conventions and by mowing lawns in his neighborhood, usually towing the mower behind his bicycle from yard to yard.
Near his house was a wide blind curve for a two-lane highway, and Norman began pedaling across one day without seeing or hearing the speeding college kid in a BMW coming his way.
(Insert your own observations about class and privilege here.)
Norman remembered nothing about the actual collision, but his memory restarted when he awakened in a knotted heap jammed into the sunroof of the car. His leg was broken in several places, and he spent months in the hospital rehabilitating. He walked with a cane for years and then simply with the limp.
That story used to make me laugh a lot more than it does these days.
Though I relied often on Norman for rides, I have to admit I sometimes worried as a teenager about being seen with him.
One time, we crossed into the busiest intersection in our town and halfway through, I heard the thump of his accelerator pedal falling off the lever onto the floor. I instantly tensed, worried about being caught by all those watching eyes.
Without saying anything and in one fluid motion, he reached behind him, pulled out a length of wire, threaded it through the screw hole in the accelerator pedal lever, and pulled on the wire to drive us the rest of the way home.
I always used to marvel at Norman’s ingenuity, but then I realized he’d learned it from an extraordinarily shitty life, some of it the result of his own choices (being terrible with money and unambitious for work) and some of it the result of being weird and smart and Japanese in a place that didn’t much like those things.
Norman came to my mother’s wedding, and afterward we went to Waldenbooks at the mall. On the way back, a drunk sunburned man in a sports car swerved in front of us and I squinted at him through the windshield, trying to figure out what his problem was.
He saw that, did a U-turn, and ran us off the road. Then he came up to my open passenger window and hit me flat-palmed in the face.
After he drove away, Norman wailed, “Why did you provoke him? Keep a low profile. A looowwww profile!”
That’s how he survived.
Norman wasn’t a saint. He was strangely unabashed about his interest in porn, especially of the animated variety. When he stayed at my house later in our lives, he’d wake up before dawn and watch cartoons loudly on TV. He liked to poke around in cabinets and had an uncanny knack for eating foods my significant others were hiding for themselves.
And I wasn’t always a great friend to him in my annoying teenage years. I got him a job with the inventory service I worked for in high school, and the men would call him “Hopsing” and make merciless fun of him. I wasn’t above it either, though much more rarely because at heart I admired the things about him that they thought were funny.
He met me at the apex of my teenage assholery, and he tolerated me listening to the same song over and over again on a road trip or running role-playing games by my own warped sense of story. He accepted me for that and I accepted him for all his weirdness, too. I was impressed by his lifelong fight against the way you’re supposed to live in favor of the way he wanted to.
In the midst of a melodramatic high school breakup, I asked Norman for a ride home. When I got in the car, I asked him, “Norman, does good triumph over evil?”
He considered that (probably in the context of a lifetime of bullying and pressure to be whatever passes for normal), and he said, slowly, “Yes. And at the very least, good triumphs over bad.”
When I learned the other day that he died from complications from undiagnosed diabetes, his ant-like passion for sugar and his sudden sleeping spells and his curious mental fogs began to make sense. Still, I hope his weirdness wasn’t simply a set of symptoms but a chosen rebellion against a world that wasn’t good enough for him.
I’ve tried my best to keep up the fight ever since I met him, and though I can pass as normal a little more easily than he could, I’m still a saboteur in enemy country and always will be, thanks to him.