In the middle of the cornfields in Central Illinois, at the intersection of Interstates 74, 55, and 39, is a place where the residents are 'Normalites'. Move there, and you'll be surprised by the mix of normal and abnormal that you'll find, and you'll soon get a great deal of pleasure from the reaction of people in places like New York, when you give them your address over the phone.
The Story Behind the Name
Normal was first settled in the mid-1800s when it was known as North Bloomington. In 1857, it took the name of Normal in honour of Illinois State Normal University1. The University retaliated later by dropping Normal from its name, leaving the town forever stuck answering the question, 'You're from where?'
Normal blends right into another town called Bloomington, with the standard confusion of streets that change names in the middle of a block. Since these Siamese cities look like one larger city2, residents of Normal tend to refer to it as Normal-Bloomington; residents of Bloomington call it Bloomington-Normal; residents of Leroy call it Central Illinois; and TV stations call it 'The Heart of Illinois'.
Illinois State University is in the centre of Normal with a population of over 20,000 students, which keeps downtown Normal active and prosperous, unlike many downtown shopping centres in similar communities. When the university finishes its session for the summer, you can gradually see the local kids retake the corners in downtown Normal, acting like it was theirs all along.
In downtown Normal, go one-half block north of Beaufort on Broadway, then duck around the alley behind Franzetti's and go to Scramblette's, where you can order a beer or an omelette (or both) from early morning until early morning (try the Scramwich - pure cholesterol and very tasty). Another great place for breakfast during the morning hours is Zorba's, acclaimed for years for their grease and low prices. For good coffee, pastries, and vegetarian sandwiches, try the Coffeehouse and Deli downtown, where you can sip your coffee for hours in comfortable chairs, while studying, reading the Sunday paper, or chatting with friends.
The Normal-Bloomington community is ranked 15th in the nation in per-capita eating out, so don't try to get a table at a restaurant on Saturday night. Unfortunately, most of the myriad of eating places around are part of the standard group of chain eateries. Normal-Bloomington is also home to the first Steak 'n' Shake in the world. However, there are quite a number of non-chain places if you look for them. You can get some outstanding Italian food at Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano. For cheap and filling Italian food, go to Avanti's, and get the bread - it's made with so much sugar it almost qualifies as dessert. There are tons of good steak houses and mediocre Chinese restaurants. If you're not happy with the selection, wait a week - another restaurant will open. For delivery pizza, try Micheleo's, while Jimmy John's is best for delivery sandwiches.
For 50 cents, you can pick up a copy of the local Daily Pantagraph, which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a newspaper. Read anything written by Dan Craft, and use the rest to line your bird cage. If you are a masochist, or looking for an excuse to commit suicide, try reading the letters to the editor.
If you want to know who made the honour roll in 6th grade, or where you can get a plumber for $6 per hour, pick up the weekly Community News Shopper. There is also a free student newspaper called The Daily Vidette.
For good jazz, blues, and National Public Radio programming, check out WGLT-FM 89.1, which is the Illinois State University FM station.
You can watch the Normal town council meetings on Channel 10, which is as entertaining as watching cheese mould, but less biased than Fox news. Other highlights on the local access channel are high school sports, church services, and shopping. If you're deciding between cable and dish, don't worry about that 'missing local programming' argument because the local programming in Normal is nothing to write home about.
For a community in the middle of nowhere, the cultural opportunities are excellent. At the core of these artistic resources are programmes at Illinois State University. Illinois State Theatre produces outstanding theatre and dance that has been recognized regularly by the national American College Theatre Festival and the American College Dance Festival. The theatre department also produces the Illinois Shakespeare Festival each summer with over 13,000 visitors from around the world. The music department produces over 200 concerts and recitals each year, and the art galleries present extraordinary exhibits, from works by Illinois State students to top international artists. Tickets for most university productions range from free to $12, plus the cost of parking tickets and towing charges.
Despite a relatively conservative community, the arts at Illinois State have been extremely varied and often controversial. The Theatre Department produced both parts of 'Angels in America' uncut which has not been possible in many other similar-sized communities. The University Galleries presented an exhibit by controversial gay artist David Wojnarovich which New York Galleries were afraid to touch, prompting the New York Village Voice to send a reporter who titled his article 'Queer in Normal'.
In addition to the cultural opportunities at Illinois State University, there are several community theatres, dance companies, orchestras, art galleries, and more. The Normal Theatre downtown shows art films and classic movies, and neighbouring Bloomington has Illinois Wesleyan University with its own theatre, dance, music, and art presentations.
If you stand atop Watterson Towers in Normal, you'll be at the highest point in Illinois between Chicago and St Louis. You'll also be standing on top of a dormitory.
For a short while, Normal was home to an organization called Normal NORML, which later changed to Normal Students for a Sensible Drug Policy.
Constitution Trail is a wonderful bike-walk trail on the former path of one of the railroads that extends for miles through Normal-Bloomington.
The Town of Normal gets a significant part of its revenue from the police, so it's best to drive no faster than 34mph in town. Be particularly alert coming down Main Street from the North, at the point where the speed limit changes from 40 to 30, and anywhere along College Avenue, east of downtown.
Normal-Bloomington is home to Beer Nuts, and also Katherine Beich candies, which owns the Guinness Book record for manufacturing the world's largest candy bar, which is 25 feet long and 7,200 pounds in weight.