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Fall Books Special: A Queer Eye, an Open Mind

A new anthology, and a new appreciation, for local gay writer Jon-Henri Damski

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Nothing Personal: Chronicles of Chicago's LGBTQ Community, 1977-1997 Jon-Henri Damski, John Vore, editor; Albert Williams and Owen Keehnen, coeditors (Firetrap Press)

If you knew nothing about Jon-Henri Damski beyond the old columns collected in the new anthology Nothing Personal, you might be befuddled by how his friends remember him: "A sweet old man," says Lori Cannon. "This quirky oddball guy who walked around in a necktie and a Cubs cap and was middle-aged and not particularly good looking . . . the most unthreatening guy you can imagine," says Albert Williams. "He was thought to be a weird street character," says Art Johnston.

Or as I wrote myself in 1995: "As a man with a $115-a-week room in an SRO and a net worth of $308, he trusts the world to be kind." I was writing about Damski in '95 because the world had just reminded him it wasn't. He'd been fired by Windy City Times, where he'd thought he'd been promised a job writing his column for the rest of his life. After all, he was dying—melanoma killed him on November 1, 1997—so the publisher wouldn't have to put up with him much longer.

Friends rallied round, as they always did, and Damski was quickly picked up by the opposition, Outlines, whose publisher, Tracy Baim, told me she didn't even like his column. "It doesn't matter whether I am [a fan] or not," said Baim. "It matters that he has a community out there that reads him. He's got a unique voice, that's for sure."

Damski's final column, published a few days before he died, was about how great sex is.

When he wrote, he was not sweet and not unthreatening. Damski identified himself as queer, which in his writing seemed to mean free to be fearless and carnal. "Gays and cops have an attraction and fascination for each other that is not easy to explain," he noted in a 1980 column. "They often relate to each other in the realm of fantasy. Many gay men would like nothing better than to have a cop for a love. A cop to serve, and a cop to be their special protector. Many gays are turned on by uniforms, guns, handcuffs, a man who knows how to use his strength and power, knows how to show his masculine sensuality . . .

"And many cops are more than routinely fascinated by gays: even the Marilyn Monroe sissy type. The pressure and frustration of being the big tough hero, a marriage growing stale; years to go before the pension comes; tired of doing society's shit work, dealing with scum bags and garbage; and training yourself not to feel . . .

"Yes, there are cops who would like to put down their blue armor. Would like to have a young man lie next to him; and bring out of them something their wives can't do as well: bring out the young man still inside them to have and to hold. Hercules should, now and then, sleep with Narcissus: for the sanity of both."

Damski wrote at one time or another for pretty much every gay paper in Chicago—Gay Chicago, GayLife, Windy City Times, Outlines. The recently published Nothing Personal: Chronicles of Chicago's LGBTQ Community 1977-1997 collects 476 pages of columns going back to the late 1970s, when he began showing up in the gay press of that day—bar rags designed to be thumbed through for the adult services ads and tossed aside. (The title, taken from the name of his first column, in Gay Chicago, seems awfully anodyne for Damski. Other book titles were bandied about, including the far more head-turning "Men + Boys ≠ Death.")

Damski engaged the barroom crowd in a running meditation on who they were and how they ticked. "There is a great and undeserved premium, in the gay world, placed on being a boy, or looking like a boy," he wrote in 1977. "Boys have been worshiped from Narcissus to Dorian Gray. Gays seem to want, or want to be, the perpetual boy. . . . A lot of gay men hate themselves, because they look like men, and are in fact men."

Audacity was Damski's great strength as a writer and empathy his great strength as a thinker. When Danny Bridges, a teenage male prostitute who doubled as a police informer, was murdered in 1984—his dismembered body was found in a Dumpster—Damski was compassionate. "I live an open gay life," Damski wrote. "And what happened to Danny Bridges in no way represents what I call gay or life." He noted that a neighbor had called Bridges a "generous boy, loving, kind-hearted and willing to give to everybody." Damski called him too generous, too willing to give his body to other men and boys, too willing to give their names to the police, too willing to tell "the story they wanted to hear" to any journalist who asked for one. He was an "easy mark" with a death wish, Damski concluded. "He wanted not to be. His death drive was stronger than his life force." And no one could protect him.

I cite this column on Bridges to begin my demonstration of something attractive in Damski's work. Damski could reach a conclusion without marrying it. His mind was probably too open—and, some would say, too unmoralistic—for mainstream media work. A housepainter and suspected serial killer named Larry Eyler (subject of a 1992 Reader story by John Conroy) was accused of murdering and dismembering Bridges; and as Damski wrote a series of columns on Eyler's trial in 1986, he had second thoughts. By then he'd heard more about Bridges from "my sources on the street," and he'd modified his opinion of him. "Bridges was not an innocent victim," Damski wrote. "He was a hustler, a punk, and a smooth manipulator of adults. He gave adults what they wanted to hear, and took from them what he wanted to have: sex and money."

Damski was more intrigued by Eyler, who was "getting what he deserved" yet posed a question: to what extent was he presumed guilty simply because it had been made clear, in court and in the media, that he was a "homosexual"? "I know the difference between homicidal and homosexual," Damski wrote; "but the public mind does not." Measuring Eyler in court, he concluded that whereas the arrogant John Wayne Gacy had been a "Top Cat," Eyler was at best a "Top Mouse" who seemed relieved to be a "caught mouse." Damski had to fight an impulse to shrug him off. "Unlike Gacy, an outsider from us, Eyler was an insider clone," he had to remind himself. "His little mousy body in black vest was a regular in our bars. The little mouse used to hide in our crowd."

In 1992 Eyler's new lawyer went back to court to ask for a new trial and Damski wrote more columns. His thinking continued to evolve. By now he'd begun to suspect that the little mouse's "sugar daddy," a college professor Eyler had claimed was Bridges's actual killer, might actually have had a lot to do with it. "The weakest part of the police and prosecution story on Eyler has always been that Larry is a 'pedophile,' a 'chicken hawk,'" Damski wrote. "Bridges was not Eyler's type. Ironically, Eyler was more Bridges' type, the kind of guy Danny cruised for pleasure. . . . If Eyler got caught up with Danny Bridges, he was either doing it for someone else, or couldn't stop Bridges' advances. In other words, a situation where Eyler was the patsy or fall guy."

As for Bridges, by now Damski seemed sure he had him cold: "When Danny told his roommate, 'I know Larry (Eyler) and I can handle him,' he was boasting about himself. He was a top guy in his world; he had cops, journalists and well-connected professional men all willing to kiss his ass for his favors. With all his clout, I am sure, Eyler didn't scare him. He must have thought he had Eyler by the balls. Word from him could send Larry back to jail."

The preface to Nothing Personal by Albert Williams—a Reader theater critic and veteran of the gay press who decades ago copyedited Damski for GayLife—calls the Eyler columns the book's centerpiece. In them we feel Damski's mind churning to make sense of a character he had every reason to reject (he suspected Eyler had murdered someone Damski knew) yet felt compelled to place within the context of gay experience. Eyler died of AIDS in 1994, and an editor's footnote in Nothing Personal tells us that his appeals attorney, Kathleen Zellner, then released information implicating him in 21 murders. Also in 1994, John Wayne Gacy was executed and Jeffrey Dahmer was murdered in prison. In a column called "Closure," Damski wrote that the three serial killers represented "three generations of our experience." Gacy "was the homosexual clown of the 1970s. Closet case to the end . . . so full of self-denial that he had no self." Eyler "represented the co-dependent mode of the 1980s . . . always had a partner to lean on . . . never lived alone, and probably never acted alone." As for Dahmer, "no one had ever told him how he could hold another boy's hand in an act of love. Male-to-male puppy romance turned evil."

Damski presumed to understand evil. What journalist does that? But it was the burden Damski took on, being someone who knew that as a queer, he was evil himself in some eyes, by definition.

Late in Damski's life he made a new friend, a young writer named John Michael Vore. "Cognitive diversity" united them, Vore e-mailed me this week, "as I have ADHD+Asperger's—and it is a Damskian theme!" Vore proposed an anthology, and he and Damski put it together in time for Damski to bask in acclaim for his authorship before he died. This collection of columns was called Angels Into Dust: The New Town Anthology, and Vore was already talking of a second, bigger book. With the blessing of Art Johnston, owner of the bar Sidetrack and Damski's best friend and executor, he packed up Damski's boxes and files after Damski died. But when he left town the second book went the way of Vore, which was to parts unknown.

A few months ago, out of the blue, Vore e-mailed Art Johnston with a tale of woe. After various misadventures, Vore found himself living in a Motel 6 in Livermore, California, about 35 miles inland from Oakland. Damski's literary remains were safe and sound inside a storage locker—but Vore, alas, was so far behind on the rent that the owner of the locker was threatening to break in and throw everything out. If that happened, the second book, 12 years late as it was, would never appear.

Johnston flew to Oakland. "I didn't know what I'd find," Johnston tells me. He found the entire Damski archive, which he promptly secured by paying the locker people $255 for two months' back rent plus a month more. Vore insisted to Johnston that he was finally capable of buckling down. "He'd been thinking about it for years," says Johnston. "He says, 'Art, I think I'm ready. If you put me up for four weeks, I can finish the book.'" It took seven; Williams pitched in on the copyediting. His wind up, Vore also put together three volumes of Damski's poetry: Fresh Frozen, Eat My Words, and My Blue Monk. Carrying the imprint of Vore's Firetrap Press, but printed by an outside press that will run off copies as orders come in, they were all done in time to be offered for sale Sunday, November 1, at the Gerber/Hart Library at a program held in Damski's honor on the anniversary of his death.

Vore managed to ship Damski's papers to Gerber/Hart, but he didn't get there himself, though he'd e-mailed Damski's friend Lori Cannon from Lincoln, Nebraska, to say he was on his way. On Monday Vore Facebooked me with an explanation:

"I wanted to be there, but couldn't find a place to stay in Chicago, on my way in from Lincoln, where—believe it or not—I was actually stuck in a ditch Saturday AM; after sleeping in the car with Lotus and Kibbutz (my 2 cats), I tried to turn it around and got stuck in between a dirt road and a plowed-over field. And then for the next 3 hours, just made tracks—a few inches forward, a few inches back, with the tank on empty, no more cash, and cell phone out of minutes . . . and waited for the howling winds of Lincoln to harden the wet ground. And then used the last folded box leftover from sending all items to G/H under my front right tire to finally escape!"

On Tuesday he added, "Art didn't just 'commission' four new books—he interrupted a homeless, jobless, penniless cycle for me, which has resumed."

Cannon calls Vore's life the stuff of a Damski novel—had Damski written novels—which is to say a life of constant sorrow, yet to the unblinking but accepting Damski a tale well worth telling. Damski had a rare gift for validation. Consider "Chic Tolerance," a piece he wrote in 1979 that's provocative even today. In it Damski warned that polite society was beginning to accept the homosexual, but patronizingly—"as some kind of social eunuch" who could be as gay as he pleased so long as he kept it in the bedroom. Society considered homosexuals useless, when you got down to it, because they "don't reproduce the species."

Someone else would have muttered that not everyone has to be a parent, then put in a good word for gays as adoptive parents. Damski allowed that "many homosexuals . . . feel very ashamed" that they don't have children.

But he didn't and they shouldn't. No, he wrote, we don't reproduce. Homosexuals "are absolutely different . . . they can be both asocial and sane." And because of that difference, they don't bear children but they possess "an almost prophetic understanding of the family and society."

My guess is the bar crowds who started this column liking what Damski had to say about chic tolerance finished it as I did, having no idea what he was talking about. With Damski, that was always a possibility. But he was clearly insisting, as he always did, that gay life must be lived and judged on its own terms.   

Read excerpts from Jon-Henri Damski's work:

"Ella"
"Man's Country"
"The Lone Wolf"
"Autopsy of an Unknown Person"
"On to Banality"
"The Life and Times of Sophie"

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