Lieberman visits Groton in farewell tour

Sen. Joe Lieberman gets a hug from his former Executive Assistant Heather Picazio of Mystic as Sen. Lieberman and his wife Hadassah stop at Norm's Diner in Groton, as part the senator's farewell tour of local diners to say goodbye and thank you to his local supporters Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012
Sen. Joe Lieberman gets a hug from his former Executive Assistant Heather Picazio of Mystic as Sen. Lieberman and his wife Hadassah stop at Norm's Diner in Groton, as part the senator's farewell tour of local diners to say goodbye and thank you to his local supporters Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012 Tim Cook/The Day

Groton — Michelle Allen, 58, is Joe Lieberman's biggest fan.

When the retiring Independent Democratic senator stopped by Norm's Diner in Groton Wednesday morning, Allen, who lives in New London, arrived early and made sure to position herself by the front door. And when the senator finally arrived around 10:45 a.m., she led the diner's patrons in a round of applause.

"I got the first hug — did you see?" she said afterward. "You don't understand. I got goose bumps."

After 24 years in the Senate, a failed vice-presidential run and hefty criticism from his own party, Lieberman decided to say goodbye to his constituents by carrying on his tradition of touring diners across the state. Since 1988, Lieberman has visited more than 130 diners in more than 60 Connecticut cities and towns.

His Senate career will end at noon on Jan. 3, when Sen.-elect Chris Murphy is sworn in.

"It became sort of my favorite way of interacting with people," he said of the diner visits.

Lieberman said his original plan was to spread out his stops — breakfast in one town, maybe lunch in another — over the days between Christmas and New Year's. But the looming "fiscal cliff" cut his schedule short, he said, and Wednesday became a four-stop tour, starting in Bridgeport and ending in Manchester, before the senator would return to Washington that evening.

He recalled it was the first time in his 24 years that Congress had been in session after Christmas.

"Frankly, to me, it's an embarrassment that we haven't gotten this done yet," he said.

But Lieberman didn't come to Norm's to talk politics. In a red sweater, navy wool blazer and gray slacks, Lieberman made the rounds to breakfasters with a white mug of coffee in hand, chatting and reminiscing.

"I'm on the farewell pancake tour," he told them.

Dan Booth Cohen, 57, and wife K.K., 52, were seated at Norm's Wednesday morning, having just taken a ferry from Long Island on their way home to Needham, Mass. Squeezed cozily into the opposite booth seat were daughters Anna, 22, Rosie, 17, and Rosie's best friend, Bri Rubin, also 17.

The Booth Cohens told the senator they were celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas this holiday season.

"That's classically American," Lieberman said.

Dan Booth Cohen has been coming to Norm's since he was a student at Connecticut College in the 1970s, stopping in with friends after the bars had closed for the night for both food and atmosphere.

"You never know who you'll find. Sometimes you'll find a distinguished U.S. senator," he said. "And sometimes you'll find rowdy drunks."

The family snapped a quick photo with Lieberman before they left.

Norm's is a textbook diner, trailer-shaped, with seafoam-green swivel stools and booth seats. A black Digital Thunder jukebox stands as tall as the door next to it, with John Mellencamp and Creedence Clearwater Revival album covers on display.

It's held its spot on Bridge Street just off Interstate 95 since the early 1950s, said Brenda Trask, 52, busy Wednesday serving plates filled with eggs and crisp bacon. Trask, who lives in Waterford, has owned the place for four years now. Its menu is a double-sided sheet of laminated white paper offering universal diner fare — milk shakes and burgers, French toast and home fries, mozzarella sticks and pie à la mode.

"It's just like coming and cooking for my family, because everybody is regulars," Trask said. "If you're not in the conversation, by the time you get done with your breakfast, you are, you know? That's how it is."

While the Booth Cohens were pleasantly surprised, others — like Allen — had patiently awaited Lieberman's arrival.

"Old school!" Lieberman exclaimed upon greeting his former executive assistant, Heather Picazio, 46, who lives in Mystic. She'd unbuttoned her gray tweed jacket to show her one-time boss her T-shirt — Gore/Lieberman '00.

Allen also had memories, fond and otherwise, to dredge up for the senator: When Lieberman ran on an independent ticket after losing a primary bid for his Senate seat in 2006, many saw his unwillingness to concede defeat as a betrayal of the Democratic Party. But Allen recited her lawn-sign slogan: "I'm sticking with Joe."

"Remember that?" she asked him.

"Oh, do I remember that," he said.

"I'm sticking with Joe all the way. And I'm sorry to see you, you know," Allen told him. "You'll get some rest now, but I'm sorry to see you go."

Lieberman said diners are "a great American institution" — a place he'd rather visit than chain heavyweights like McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts.

"They're great places," he said of the fast-food staples. But diners are special.

"You don't see the waitresses wearing shorts in December," he said, gesturing at Trask — who, with long, red nails, tanned skin, and blonde-highlighted hair pulled back into a scrunchie, was, sure enough, wearing shorts in December.

"They're not crazy like me," she said.

After Lieberman's departure, Trask said she and her customers appreciated the senator's brief visit.

"It was different — a little excitement," she said.

a.isaacs@theday.com

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