By Diana Wright
Moving among a small army of volunteers navigating aisles of neatly stacked cereal boxes, crates of oatmeal, and dozens of jars of honey and tomato sauce, Lori Cannon pauses repeatedly to ask her clients, "How do you feel?"
The question is usually casual enough, but when Cannon asks it the response may foreshadow death. Everyone who enters the north-side grocery where she works has been diagnosed as HIV-positive. Most have AIDS.
Cannon appears inured to the vast despair that surrounds her. Her voice is heard above all others, and the people who fill the grocery seem to feed off her every word.
Her words--cutting, uplifting, acerbic--have defined her role as a grande dame of Chicago's gay community. But inside, Cannon says, she feels nothing.
"There are a lot of us walking dead in Chicago," says Cannon. "I'm one of many people suffering from battle fatigue and shell shock."
Cannon became a familiar face around town when she helped organize the histrionic demonstrations of ACT UP/ Chicago, the organization led by her best friend, Daniel Sotomayor. A nationally syndicated cartoonist, Sotomayor targeted politicians he felt were indifferent to the suffering and devastation of the AIDS crisis. As a leader of the gay community's angriest fringe, Sotomayor orchestrated elaborate and outrageous public demonstrations with Cannon at his side, criticizing a City Hall both considered numb to the problem.
But Sotomayor became discontented with ACT UP's lack of focus, and since his death in 1992, the organization has lost much of its political influence and press appeal. In recent years Cannon's voice has become less public. Some say her involvement with Open Hand--the group she helped found in 1988 that delivers meals to any HIV-positive person who needs them--has signaled a shift to a smaller world view and a concern with more basic projects.
"I don't consider getting out 1,300 meals a night to people with AIDS small," she says, still sounding a bit angry. "My focus has never been direct action. That was my avocation. Taking care of people who are sick is what I have always done. It's what I know."
Anyone who thinks Cannon may have lost her focus or passion should witness her daily trials at Open Hand's Grocery Land, 3902 N. Sheridan. She's always working. When she does leave the center, it's often to visit a friend in the hospital. She goes to more funerals than most people go to movies.
Her emotions are strong and erratic. One minute angry, the next cracking jokes, Cannon manages to greet each person who comes through the door. She knows which medications they are taking. She knows how much government aid they are receiving.
"Lori is an exquisitely complicated person," says Victor Salvo, a gay rights activist from ACT UP. "Danny inspired people to put their bodies and energy where their mouth was. He had no patience for organizations that bred bureaucracy. Lori has a conscious and an unconscious desire to keep Danny alive and to fulfill his desire to help people. In many ways she is last in the line of defending the humanity of people with AIDS."
In its day, ACT UP showered former governor James Thompson's AIDS advisory council with 50,000 pink triangles and demonstrated dressed as corpses and blood-covered surgeons. Whether such tactics brought about a deeper national commitment to curing AIDS is a matter of debate. Today, Cannon's annoyed that the thrill of controversy has lost its power in the gay community.
"Look at the mainstream activists of today," she says. "I refer to them as late-joiners and wanna-bes. They are apologists, and that angers me."
Cannon's fiercely protective of those she loves. This means she's also protective of the dead--such as Sotomayor, whom she speaks of in the present tense.
In 1995 the NAMES Project quilt panel honoring Sotomayor was removed from the World AIDS Day exhibit at the State of Illinois Building at the request of the governor's office. The panel contained a Sotomayor cartoon mocking an indifferent President Bush. Cannon led a group of demonstrators to the governor's office and demanded the panel be put back up. In a statement to the press, Cannon and Salvo said that as creators of the panel they felt Governor Edgar's attempts to censor Sotomayor--"because his message is a political embarrassment for Republicans"--only proved he was right all along.
Cannon's a large woman in her mid-40s with flaming red hair and brightly colored shirts obscured by large chunks of plastic jewelry that clink as she moves. A bisexual, Cannon was drawn into Chicago's organized gay and lesbian community during her tenure as the "bus driver to the stars"--driving the theatrical troupes of national touring productions. Cannon says she used the route-mapping skills she acquired as a bus driver to plan Open Hand's meal deliveries.
Her days as a bus driver belong to what she describes as a carefree, sometimes destructive era in the late 70s and early 80s, when she belonged to "the inner circle."
"I was one in an unruly group of people that gave extravagant parties, vacationed together, and knew all the 'right' people," she says. "Then it all changed. The carpet got pulled out from all of us when AIDS struck. Nobody knew what was happening."
She speaks endlessly of the friends she has lost over the years. And she is angry that there has been so little progress in finding a cure for the disease. After Sotomayor died, Cannon felt completely alone.
"Because she has such humor and dignity, I don't think people are aware that she's a very sad person," Salvo says. "Her life is a continuing grieving process."
The Grocery Land center on Sheridan Road is one of three in Chicago run by Open Hand. The clients are considered "disposable" by society, Cannon says. "Very few people really care about another dead faggot or another dead junkie."
To Cannon the irrational fear of AIDS is as rampant as ever. And she doesn't think the message of prevention is getting out.
"Nothing is working," she says. "They say they're turning it into a manageable disease. I say the hell with that. Find a cure."
Her passion is massive but her personal goals are modest, as she works the phones day after day ordering food and obtaining new vendors.
"The volunteers and I are proud of our work. Years from now, if the plague is over, at least I can say that I helped to feed people," she says, almost softly.
She has surrounded herself daily with sickness and despair. "Is it morbid?" she asks. "Is it a gift? The fact is I don't kid myself with psychobabble. Once someone dies in your arms, you can never be the same."
Jon-Henri Damski, a columnist for Night Lines and Outlines, has known Cannon for 18 years. "She's not afraid to get her hands dirty," Damski says. "She deals with everyone the same as soon as they walk through the door. Her goals are good and her actions are practical. These aren't extraordinary tasks, but her commitment and passion is so strong, it's unbelievable."
Her devotion to the care of others was learned at a young age. "I was always taught that the healthy take care of the sick," she says.
A look at Cannon's eccentric childhood provides a sort of map to her psyche. Her father, Lee Cannon, was not a presence in her childhood. He worked in the film industry in California, while his family lived back in Chicago, and then he suddenly decided to devote himself to the cause of Native Americans. Yet Lori Cannon's parents considered themselves together, and she and her mother and her two brothers made several cross-country trips to visit her father on the Navajo and White Mountain Apache reservations in Arizona.
Eventually family tragedy brought Lee Cannon back to Chicago. When Lori was a teenager her older brother, Jules, suffered serious brain damage in a motorcycle accident. A few years later, her younger brother, J.H., died of heart failure.
"At the age of 14 I had my own apartment in Champaign, where Jules was a student at the University of Illinois," she says. "I would be part of his therapy sessions on weekends so my parents could take a break and come back to Chicago to take care of my little brother."
Jules's old college roommates went on to Harvard Law School and then started their own firm in Chicago, where Jules has worked as an office clerk for almost 20 years. "Sort of like Benny from L.A. Law," Cannon says.
A couple of years ago Lee Cannon suffered a stroke and a massive heart attack. He's now in the care of his wife and of Lori.
Cannon admits that rage and bitterness keep her going. She finds it nearly impossible to get through a conversation without denouncing one injustice or another. But Salvo emphasizes Cannon's perception, reinforced by Sotomayor, that rhetoric alone has little value. She is bound to her work.
"There are people who really dislike her because she shoots from the hip," Salvo says. "She's not always right. There are times when I really disagree with her. But she does more for people in one day than most do in a lifetime. So I don't put up with criticism of her."
Cannon sets aside very little time for herself. Occasionally she goes to a movie. She regularly gets her hair done. She values personal privacy too much to discuss her own health. But she seems fit, and she never misses a day at the center. Still, friends worry that she's working herself into exhaustion.
"Her only recreation is getting her hair done," Salvo says. "When Lori stops getting her hair done, I'll know the end is in sight."
Many speak of her as a warrior and remember the "old Lori" flamboyantly trotting around the city, making her voice heard. When this summer's Democratic National Convention is mentioned she hesitates, then blurts out, "Of course I'll be there! What better time than when the whole world is watching the city?" She laughs loudly. When she recalls the old days, her mood changes quickly from euphoria to despondency.
"Several years ago I would walk down Halsted and all I would see were ghosts. Now, the memory of those ghosts is starting to fade--that really scares me."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.