When you’ve been writing newspaper columns for decades, you develop relationships with some of your readers.
Not buddy-buddy have a beer every Thursday night, but friendships that transcend the years and even shift from platform to platform. When I was a full-time Gazette columnist, sometimes writing every day of the week, I had a long list of regular readers on whom I counted for story ideas, feedback, occasional criticism.
There were, needless to say, regular detractors as well, the readers who would thunder on daily at three times the length of one of my columns and expect me to read every word. But the people who sustained me were the discerning readers who actually had something to say and let me know what they were thinking, first through the Gazette’s email system, then on my personal email, then (for the most part) through Twitter.
(My most touching experience as a columnist was when I went to clear out my desk at the old Gazette building on St. Antoine because the company was moving to St. Catherine and Peel and found an entire drawer stuffed with letters I had received after I gave up writing a daily city column. They left me in tears.)
Every columnist has good readers and bad. And by good, I don’t mean uncritical – just that they have something to offer and (especially in the world of sports) that they take a wide-lens view rather than pounding away on a single team.
Norm St. Germain was one of the good ones. Norm and I went way back to the Gazette’s email system and perhaps longer than that. Looking back, it seems to me that Norm was always there, dropping the occasional note.
The oldest letter from Norm I can find now is in my email. It’s from January, 2010, and it wishes me a happy time making snow angels with my youngest son, who was four years old at the time. The next was sent at the time the Vancouver Olympics were about to open.
“As we used to say when the parents left us alone for the weekend,” Norm wrote, “let the Games begin.” With Norm there was always a bit of humour, a bit of wisdom, a perspective that was always welcome.
Norm was a Canadiens fan, I suppose that goes without saying, but the teams he seemed to care about most were the New York Yankees in baseball and the New York Giants in football. Perhaps he had lived in New York for a time, as I did. For most of our acquaintance I was a Red Sox fan, so there was a lot of friendly ribbing back and forth, especially when the Sox actually managed to win a World Series.
Our view began to converge as I became more and more disgusted with the Red Sox, beginning with the firing of Terry Francona. When Aaron Judge arrived in New York I started pulling for the Yankees, a team I had hated since 1957, and Norm was instrumental in my conversion. (He was not so successful converting me to the Giants, a team that has simply bored me to tears since forever.)
All this, and to the best of my recollection, we met only two or three times, always when Norm turned up at my book launches. I was pulled a dozen ways at these events, and Norm, a big, shambling guy almost as tall as me and twice as wide across the shoulders, would wait his turn so I could sign a book for him and we could talk for a few minutes. There was always the unspoken assumption that one of these days, we would actually sit down over a beer and talk awhile but it never happened.
I knew a few personal details about Norm, but not much. He had been through some hard things, as most of us have, but he didn’t bang on about it.
Over this past summer, I noticed that I hadn’t heard from Norm for a while. But it happens. Some people write almost daily, some you don’t hear from for months before they resurface. With no sports in action, it didn’t seem particularly odd.
When the Yankees took the field once again (albeit it in a bizarrely empty Yankee Stadium) I was surprised that Norm wasn’t weighing in with his usual pungent takes, so I sent him a DM on Twitter to ask why he had fallen silent.
Norm didn’t always get back to me right away, nor I to him, so I didn’t think much of it when he didn’t respond. But when I still hadn’t heard from him a month later, I dug out his old email address and wrote to say that I hoped he was still in good health.
Again, I received no response. So Monday evening, at the point when his Giants began to unravel in the second half against the Pittsburgh Steelers, I looked again to see if Norm had anything to say about a team whose failures had come to seem like his private curse. Once again, there was nothing from Norm on Twitter or anywhere else.
Finally, I did what I should have done months earlier and searched the name “Norm St. Germain.” And there I was, at 10 o’clock on a Monday evening, cursing “damn damn damn damn damn” over and over.
Norm St. Germain had died May 16 at the age of 75. What I found was his obituary, in the newspaper where I once worked, the paper he once read. I was left to curse the universe and curse myself for not trying sooner to find out why Norm had stopped writing. In one of his last tweets, posted in March, he had bemoaned the fact that Chalet Bar-B-Q in NDG had canceled its delivery service and he was going to have to break the news to his wife.
One of my best and most faithful readers was gone, without ever mentioning that his health had been poor or that time might be short, probably because that was not his style. And I was left to ponder the strangeness of our social-media age, in which some relationships endure for years or decades and eventually take on real meaning even though they consist of little more than a few squiggles on an iPhone or a computer screen.
Rest in peace, Norm. I’ll think of you every time the Yankees play.