After a massacre took one of their own, the Highland Park ‘Cheers’ became a pillar of support and healing
Each week, 88-year-old Stephen Straus filled the seat with his jovial personality, quickly befriending strangers at the game in Highland Park, Illinois.
« My husband Steven and I had a great night out at Norton’s Bar just over a week ago with this amazing man, Stephen Straus. That night we made a new friend! He shared stories about his workout routines, how he was still riding a bike many miles a day,” she said.
« The three of us shared laughs together as we ate and drank. I remember how lively and kind he was…and totally committed to life. »
Since then, the restaurant where he brought so much joy has become an epicenter of support for those young and old seeking solace amid despair.
“My job here is to make people happy”
Blurring the kitchen, bar, and patio is Israel « Izzy » Velez. He’s part bartender, part server, and the occasional back-up manager. But Velez prefers a much simpler job description:
« My job here is to make people happy. »
On this night, his work is more necessary than ever. It’s the day after staff and regulars learned of Straus’ death.
It’s also Wednesday — a night when Straus and Velez would usually catch up under the backdrop of Chicago’s athletic paraphernalia covering the white brick walls.
Velez looked at the empty bar stool where his longtime friend should be sitting.
« It’s difficult, » Velez said, growing emotional. « He was a very, very, very nice man. »
But then Velez quickly recovered. He wanted to give customers a sense of comfort – a friendly refuge from the grief enveloping the city.
« I have to show my happy face, » he said.
On the other side of the restaurant, he began to greet customers.
« It’s Michael. It’s Bobby, » he said, waving to the far corner.
And soon he was gone, reconnecting with those who needed an Old Style or a cold Corona, a « Norton » burger or a plate of ribs – and the warmth of a familiar face.
To heal, support must go both ways
Jonathon Levin and his daughter, Becca, wanted to get closer to the epicenter of the attack — not to see the overturned lawn chairs and abandoned strollers that littered the crime scene, but to support affected businesses nearby.
« We didn’t know what was open or not. So we literally said, ‘Let’s drive to Norton and see what’s open because everything’s been blocked,' » Levin said.
« When we saw it was open, we said, ‘We have to come here. We need to support our community. We must be here. « »
Although Levin had visited Norton several times, a strange feeling washed over him as he approached the area where so many lives had been viciously taken.
« As a resident, it’s scary. It’s sad. But we have to move on. We have to keep going, » Levin said. « And part of continuing is embracing everyone, supporting everyone and encouraging everyone one step at a time. »
« Make sure you have shoes you can run in »
On the terrace of Norton, a few blocks from the scene of the massacre, Maya Stolarsky celebrates her 15th birthday.
She lives near Deerfield, but her family has deep ties to Highland Park. Maya’s mother, Amy, grew up here. Her younger sister, Eden, 12, loves going to the creperie in the city center now cordoned off with police tape.
« That would be disturbing, » the teenager said. « I would definitely think about it. It would always be on my mind. »
Shortly after Monday’s massacre which also left dozens injured, Amy Stolarsky knew it was time to give her daughters some grim advice about attending public events.
« What did I say? » Stolarsky questioned his daughters at the dinner table.
« To always make sure you have shoes you can run in, » Maya replied.
Stolarsky would never have imagined giving this advice to his daughters. « That’s a disgusting thing that I felt like I had to say out loud, » she said.
But while a parade full of families and children can escalate into a scene of carnage, her daughters need to be prepared for any scenario.
Eden, the 12-year-old, said she understands the importance of taking precautions. But she’s not going to live her life in fear.
In fact, Eden is already planning to go to the Highland Park 4th of July Parade next year — « to be there in one place and support » the community.
Residents of Highland Park mourned more mass shooting victims…and now their own
A few blocks from Norton’s, a memorial honoring victims of gun violence sits across from the Art Center.
For weeks, residents of Highland Park walked past the exhibit, which opened last month, and mourned those who have been wantonly killed across the country.
« When you see these things happening, especially with the mass shootings, I keep thinking, ‘This will be the end. This news will end that cycle,' » Stolarsky said after Maya blew out the candle on her birthday sundae.
« And it hasn’t happened yet. I’m still waiting for it to happen. »