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Queer Thinker

Up in an old hotel, Jon-Henri Damski chronicled the history of gay Chicago.


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Jon-Henri Damski wasn't the only person honored by the City Council on Wednesday, June 4. He was, however, the only person honored while holding a book called The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology.

Damski sat patiently in the second row of the spectators' gallery with about 20 of his closest friends. Out of respect for the seriousness of the occasion, he took off his kelly green Cubs hat and placed it in his lap.

The other honorees included a recently departed bureaucrat from the Department of Streets and Sanitation; two west-side teenagers who had heroically rescued someone from a fire; Alfred Abramowicz, an elderly priest from the southeast side; and poet Gwendolyn Brooks, who was about to celebrate her 80th birthday.

The council slogged through its agenda as the 10 o'clock meeting dragged on until 11, then 11:30. Damski's friends began to grouse, but he'd been through enough of these meetings to know this was business as usual. Still, when Alderman Burton Natarus introduced students from a class he teaches on city government at the Latin School, even Damski began to shift in his seat.

"This is a city of resolutions and no resolve," he grumbled.

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle read a poem she wrote for Gwendolyn Brooks called "I, Too, Sing Chicago." (At least it didn't rhyme.) Finally Alderman Bernie Hansen motioned to speak. He had cosponsored the Damski resolution along with Helen Shiller.

"My fellow colleagues," Hansen said, "the resolution speaks for itself. Jon-Henri Damski is quite a character. He's probably the best Cubs fan on the north side of the city of Chicago . . . and a few Cubs fans on the south side."

Perfunctory laughter.

"But Jon-Henri Damski is also a pillar of the gay and lesbian, bisexual, trisexual community. He's always been out in front for their causes, always working hard to make sure that people are aware of everyone's lifestyles and respect everyone's lifestyles. So I think it's nice for us to say something good before Jon-Henri retires."

Damski gave a mischievous smile. This was the first time someone had said the word "trisexual" in the City Council chambers, and it was all because of him.

Damski begins each day with breakfast at Granny's, an old-fashioned diner across the street from the Belair, a residential hotel on Diversey where he's lived since 1977. He eats an egg-and-meat special that costs less than five dollars and drinks numerous cups of coffee. On Sundays, if owner Angela Nicholas hits the lottery, she serves him a free Dutch baby pancake. Damski has great affection for Nicholas, who sits at a booth near the cash register these days, smokes, and bosses people around without really running the place. He's especially charmed by her politics. In 1987 she was a fervent supporter of Ed Vrdolyak's mayoral campaign, but when television crews came by to ask her about it, she continually referred to him as "Bilandic."

Every morning Nicholas reserves a booth for Damski near the kitchen. He reads several newspapers as his "breakfast wives" sit at a nearby table and wait for him to finish. Eivor Lundberg, a middle-aged Swedish woman, and Lenore Heller, an older Jewish widow, have met Damski here almost every morning for the last eight years. Lundberg recently quit her job and is studying shiatsu massage. Heller teaches yoga and writes poetry, much of it inspired by Damski.

"We saw this big man sitting there every day, smiling, minding his own business, when we came in for breakfast," Lundberg says. "You know how it is."

"He'd always be reading a book," says Heller.

One day two years ago, Heller and Lundberg came in to find Damski crying. He'd just finished reading Madame Bovary.

"I'm very sad," Damski said. "I just buried my wife."

"That was Madame Bovary," says Heller. "She died of an overdose of something. Poison or arsenic. He had to bury his wife. We just took over."

"We'd sit here," says Lundberg. "We'd never move to his table. This is our spot. That's the husband spot."

Damski is 60 years old and dying of cancer. He was diagnosed in 1993 and since then has had to cut back his activities. But Granny's is the last place he'll give up. It's as much a basis for his writing as the gay bathhouses he frequented through the 70s and 80s.

"You stay with the folk," he says. "Things that you really know--your passions and your heart. You don't have to be large and brainy. You stay with the waitresses and the taxi drivers. You stay with the crew that brought you here, that take care of you. The left out, the homeless, and the schizophrenic--that's my base. It's not just myself talking to myself. There are actual lives and people I have influenced."

In late May the Elks Club put up a tall wrought-iron fence along the long wall surrounding its headquarters on Diversey, across the street from Lincoln Park. Damski didn't like it, but he wasn't surprised. The neighborhood, and the city, has changed a lot in two decades.

"Twenty years ago, this is where the park began," he says. "We started here. Men would be out all along the wall. All the way up from Clark and Diversey. We're talking about hundreds. You could always sleep in the park because 20 years ago, as soon as it was night, this was all gay territory, right down to the rocks, down to the harbor there. In the 70s you were home free for miles along the lake. Foster to Oak Street Beach. We just controlled this whole space. The Alexander Hamilton statue, in those days, guys went up there and cruised at night. It was a meeting hall. You didn't have the fag-bashers. They didn't come until '82, in the Reagan years, when people would start to beat you up for being in the park. But then people didn't know about us. This place was ours at night."

Damski evokes his neighborhood--a time and a place that no longer exist--in Angels Into Dust: The New Town Anthology, a collection of columns he wrote for local gay newspapers during the last 21 years. The book has just been published by Firetrap Press, a small company run by Damski's friend Michael Vore. The columns document the coming of AIDS, gay rights, and gay-bashing, as well as the movement of gay culture from the margins of Chicago society to the mainstream.

With his egg-shaped head, Coke-bottle glasses, and colorful Cubs hats, Damski waddles around the north side with an impish grin, as though he possesses some kind of secret, a lofty, philosophical knowledge about the city. But in Angels Into Dust, Damski keeps his gaze firmly on the gutter. He tells the stories of the residents of New Town, which, he writes in his introduction, "was never a real place. The name came about as a real estate gimmick, something to call a neighborhood that was between Old Town--the hippie village--and Uptown--the industrial, hillbilly, transient home for the homeless in Chicago." Nevertheless, Damski walked every inch of New Town-- from Fullerton Avenue to Irving Park Road, from the lake to Halsted--and collected tales of hustlers and losers, closet queens and drag divas, flamboyant bathhouse owners and shy teenagers. The columns weren't always successful, but the ones collected in Angels Into Dust represent a significant body of work. At its best Damski's writing cuts through the reigning stereotypes, portraying gays not as pathetic victims or poster children for abstract notions of community pride but as real people with real struggles, real relationships, and real social lives. Above all, Damski lets us know that being gay can be fun. It has been for him.

"I never wanted to write a chronology--or straight history--of gays in Chicago," he writes in the introduction. "I recognized early on that these people were mostly abandoned souls. Kicked out of their homes, churches, jobs, careers, and families--trying to make it on their own with their new lifestyles and openness. These are some of the stories of the tough New Towners: Their loves and struggles, their lives and deaths. All were of my tribe, many were my friends. Now, with so many of them gone, they seem like ghosts to me. I hope these ghost stories do justice to their memories."

Damski was born in 1936 and moved to Chicago in 1974. In the intervening years he was a horny prep-school boy in Seattle, a philosophy student of Herbert Marcuse's at Brandeis University, a writer of television documentaries for Seattle's NBC affiliate, a longtime graduate student at the University of Washington, and, finally, a teacher of Latin and Roman history at Bryn Mawr University. He is, among other things, a diagnosed schizophrenic, a self-professed dirty libertine, a dyslexic, and a lifelong iconoclast who's proud to say that he's been fired from every job he's ever had. Conversations with Damski unnerve, unravel, and take unexpected paths. Obscure references turn out to be not so obscure, while popular references wither into obscurity. Points circle around, disappear, come back, and then shoot off into unexpected, and sometimes unnecessary, directions. He takes great pleasure, as his friend Art Johnston puts it, in "tormenting the linear mind."

"Many of us are so dull-minded that we get bothered when somebody doesn't understand what we're saying," Johnston says. "It doesn't bother Jon-Henri at all. He kind of enjoys it. He doesn't have to have people understanding him for any kind of validation of who he is or what he believes or his approach to the universe. He doesn't need any of that stuff. He enjoys it when people catch on, but he also enjoys it when they look at him quizzically, like, 'Huh?' Most people who have known him have, literally, two or four or five days later--or a week or two weeks or a month later--gone, 'Oh! That's what he meant!' You can't listen to what he has to say, think about it, and be done with it. He presents things in a way that makes them stay in your mind."

Johnston owns Sidetrack, the popular gay bar on Halsted Street. Over the years he's worked with Damski on numerous political causes and campaigns. He and Damski were two of the original "Gang of Four," whose behind-the-scenes machinations helped shepherd in Chicago's Human Rights Ordinance in 1988. Damski's greatest political coup was convincing Ed Burke, a leader of the machine aldermen, to back the gay-rights agenda. Damski decided that Burke was actually a decent person who could be persuaded to do the right thing. It was an effective strategy, and it led to a real friendship between Burke and Damski. Nearly a decade later their relationship still has people scratching their heads.

Since 1977 Damski has lived in Room 317 of the Belair Hotel. His rent was initially $37.50 a week. Now it's $125. He has always just made the payments, but he's never intended to leave the Belair. "I love the mix," he writes in Angels Into Dust, "African-American, Hispanic, Jewish, seniors, and gays and lesbians. All workers, or retired workers. All on fixed incomes. I wouldn't want to write and live anywhere else. My neighbors keep me honest. We are 400 voters. I am proud to live in about the only building on Sheridan Road that voted for Harold Washington twice."

Room 317 is bounded on one side by a stairwell. On the other is the "Garbage Room," as indicated by a sign on the door. Damski has decent closet space, a bathroom, and no kitchen. The hotel gave him a brand-new double bed last year. It's covered with a blanket embroidered with the seal of the city of Chicago, a present from Ed Burke and his wife Anne. The blanket is embroidered with their names as well. Damski's other furnishings are few: card tables, a small television and VCR, and a large oak desk piled with books and papers. At the center of the desk is an Underwood typewriter, one of two that Damski has owned in his life. This is where he's pounded out all his writing. Directly above the typewriter is a magazine photo of a jamming, long-haired guitarist, with the accompanying headline "Dokken Sweats for Glory."

The walls of Damski's room, from floor to ceiling, are plastered with pictures of young, androgynous men, gay-porn stars of the 70s, Calvin Klein ads, and other, more whimsical touches, like a shot from the movie St. Elmo's Fire, in which the four male leads all look extremely gay. A whole door of Brad Pitt pictures is accompanied by a photo of a bloated, aging Marlon Brando looking out of a bay window in his Skivvies. "That's Brad Pitt when he gets older," Damski says. A photograph of Louis Farrakhan sits next to one of Tiger Woods. Dennis Rodman in a wedding dress skirts up against a fist-pumping Turk Wendell. Under a suggestive picture of Leonardo DiCaprio is this quote: "I used to look at underground sex magazines when I was younger. Yeah, it gave me weird ideas." There are lots of pictures of heavy-metal stars, rappers, aldermen, and assorted freaks, as well as photos of Damski himself, posturing and politicking, with friends and boyfriends.

The magazine clippings continue into Damski's bathroom. He's posted a copy of his City Council resolution under a picture of Timothy McVeigh from Newsweek, along with the headline "Should He Die?" Above McVeigh is Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and the Newsweek headline "Teaching Us to Die." Under the resolution is Ellen DeGeneres on the cover of Time with the headline "Yep, I'm Gay." And under Ellen is the eerie, wide-eyed face of Heaven's Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite, also from Time, with the headline "Inside the Web of Death." These pictures mostly go up for Damski's amusement, since, as he puts it, "I don't entertain much." One of Damski's hobbies is to photograph his various collages and then paste the resulting photos into a collage of their own. It's a running commentary, if not on his society then at least on what's in his head. "It's part of a continuing backdrop for my art and my bathtub and everything," he says.

Damski was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in September 1993. Since then, he's undergone many surgeries, recovered many times, and suffered many relapses. On November 14 he held a memorial service for himself in the AIDS Care Memorial Chapel on Barry. It was attended by a who's who of Chicago gay activists, dozens of friends, several aldermen, and a judge. By coincidence, Damski's wake happened the day Cardinal Bernardin died. Damski had long considered himself to be in a cancer derby with the Cardinal. He bragged, as gently as possible, about having won.

Still, he isn't getting better and has started chemotherapy. He may have three months to live. He may have six months. His doctors tell him that he could hang on for a year or two. At some point he's going to leave the Belair and move into a hospice. He says he wants a more appropriate place where people can visit him during his last days.

But Damski is bored by the cancer. There are, he says, simply more important things to talk about.

"You take out all the bad shit, and it's just a part of you," he says. "That's why, in the end, I say that I am cancer instead of I have cancer. It hardly matters what I have. It doesn't come to me from the outside like a demon. It's not something I have, it's something I am. And that's probably why I've been able to live with it better than most other patients. It's the least interesting of the topics that I talk about. They define cancer meaning destructive growth. And that's what we have in our environment, in baseball, in democracy, in the CTA system, in the way that Starbucks takes away ma-and-pa stores. In other words, we're all suffering from cancer. We're suffering from destructive growth. I believe McDonald's said the other day that they don't have a cheerful company if they aren't growing. Well, what a real terrible thing. Their hamburger alone should be enough. That's a cancer. Destructive growth. It's that sort of cancer that's a problem, not the cancer that I might have in my body. It's hardly even an interesting topic."

In the summer of 1995, Damski was fired from the Windy City Times after nine years because his columns were deemed old-fashioned by publisher Jeffrey McCourt. But Damski had worked for two gay papers before Windy City--Gay Chicago and GayLife--and soon he started writing for Windy City rivals Outlines and Nightlines, where he kept firing away at his favorite targets, like President Clinton, Mayor Daley, and the Catholic Church. Some of his columns were about his cancer, with titles like "Melanoma Melancholia." He spared his readers no details. "I have had seven operations," he wrote, "leaving me with more surgical holes in my body than John Kennedy had bullet holes."

Last year, Damski published a book of poetry, his first, called Poems for the Fourth Quarter: Virtually Incurable But Not Yet Terminal. It was distributed in medical file folders, complete with cancer X-ray. The 181 poems were not entirely about cancer. Many were about politics, others about good, old-fashioned dirty sex; still others defied categorization. Take number 23, "Rock Bottom": "At rock bottom / I'm a poet / touch my rock / feel my bottom / and you'll know it."

Damski has also recently put out a collection of his aphorisms, or "Queer Thoughts," which comes gift wrapped in a Chinese take-out container. He's also completed a 41-page essay titled "Damski's Odyssey," which is based on a close reading of The Odyssey in Greek. "The Odyssey is not a book you can read in a day or night, or even in a week or two," Damski writes. He estimates the project took him about 2,300 hours to complete.

Damski's wanderings around the city have been greatly reduced. He goes to Granny's and the Lakefront Restaurant, to the Illinois Federation for Human Rights on Halsted to catch up on political gossip, and to the Borders bookstore at Clark and Diversey, which he frequents to support its new union. He sometimes goes to the movies (he saw Dead Man more than a dozen times), but he no longer has the energy to attend heavy-metal concerts. He can't stay out much past 10 o'clock anymore.

In Angels Into Dust, Damski tells the story of a guy from Ohio named Larry Graham who came to Chicago in 1959 and reinvented himself as a queenly bartender named Sophie who preferred working in dumps like the Blue Pub or Bob's Bistro A Go-Go. "In those bars," Damski writes, "things didn't entertain you, you had to entertain each other. Most trash bars would fill up with 20 customers, and be overcrowded with 40. The idea was to have fun, party together. Take your plastic shot cups and throw them against the back wall when you were finished."

The disco era arrived, and with it Sophie's--and Damski's--glory era. Damski describes the scene: "The Bistro was the center, where the mirrored ball came down and glitter was everywhere. But around the Bistro, like satellites, another cluster of bars and spots stayed busy on Hubbard, Clark, and Illinois: Redoubt, Baton, Sunday's, New Flight, My Brother's Place, Club Baths, Barracks, Jumbo Jerry's, the Food Hole (where Gordon's is today), the Ranch, Ozone, O'Banion's, 618, PJ's, the Machine Shop. A second cluster of bars arose around Clark and Diversey: Ruthie's, Orange Cockatoo, Shari's, Big Red's, Cheeks, Dion's, El Dorado, Snake Pit, Knight Out, Virgo Out (formerly Checkmate). The Oak Tree at Rush was the all-night restaurant, where Frankie the red-haired lady was in charge."

Another all-night restaurant was the Golden Nugget, a standard-issue diner on Clark Street that in the 1970s was called Yankee Doodle Dandy. Lately Damski has only been going to the Nugget for lunch. He once wrote a column about his servers there called "Story for 100 Waitresses."

One day in June Damski sat in a booth, drinking both an orange juice and an iced tea. He wasn't feeling too well; he'd been out for more than two hours, which these days tends to make him tired. He has many memories of the Nugget, or the Doodle. To him, they're interchangeable.

"In the 70s it was the biggest chicken coop in the Midwest. It's where all the young men came. The runaways from home. To Clark and Diversey. And they met men. It was the biggest scene, and we came out together. This was a famous place, Yankee Doodle Dandy. I remember over there I saw a porn star, and a policeman came in and put a gun right next to his head. Thought he was gonna arrest him. Later I found out the cop was gay, and he was taking the porn star away to have sex. But it was like that here. You'd put your cup of coffee down, and stories would come out of people. I'd just listen. I'd sit somewhere, and the stories would come from these people.

"Cheeks was the big operation right next door. Dance club. It's funny. Alderman Burke put out one of his notorious laws where the guys, when they danced, had to have a certain length of a G-string. That was '77 or '78, so the guys at Cheeks had to put on little G-strings.

"So many places. Some were for eating and some were bars. This place was strictly eating. What made it so nice was that the Polish old men with their beads would mingle with the young men just coming into town. It was better than social service. It's where people found out about themselves. Most kids preferred to come out here on their own. It was easier. Their life was their own business then. They didn't have to go by the way of the shrink, and they didn't need a shrink because there's nothing wrong with homosexual love. A lot of people came out in this process. You just sit and you meet people. Meeting others who are like you seemed to be the best way to make it through the process. This was a big spot, such a comfortable spot open all night. They would know to come to New Town in those days. That's where you would come, from anywhere in Chicago. They would land here, but they would have to hit the Doodle.

"Then this whole area started to shut down in '79. They pushed the Yankee Doodle out. Gay men had offices up and down here. There was Dion's pizza parlor, and so many gay bars. This is the New Town I write about. And on the edge there was the Astro diner, the Hollywood diner, and the Snack 'n' Dine coffee shop. You came from prison to the Snack 'n' Dine, or sometimes you went from the Snack 'n' Dine to prison. They had 'em going both ways. Interesting people."

Those days are gone, Damski says. It's a cleaner world, a safer-sex world, but to him it's a less real and interesting world.

"I am in many ways still in good health. Heart's fine. I know there's a fatigue that comes. Then there's that crankiness. A lot of cancer patients, you get crabby, you get bitter. I am not bitter and misanthropic. I think that's partly as a defense, because you so hate the world you don't mind leaving it. I always take it or leave it with the world, so I don't need to hate it. I'm enjoying the pageantry and the scene. I don't feel bad about leaving now. I'm not that attracted to this world anymore. I don't feel that I'm leaving. I've been here. I've seen it. And I think what's coming ahead will not be pretty. It's gonna take a lot of energy to get through it, and I don't have the energy. There is no American dream. It's a nightmare. Because we've spent our resources. Used up our options. Talent. Passion.

"The other day I saw Ed Burke. And we were talking--'so this is it for you,' that type of thing. And he said, 'Well, what about it?' He was trying to say, 'Do you have a religion? Would you like to be Catholic?' He has pull. He could get me in. I said, 'You know, I'm Roman. I'm not Catholic.' It's a distinction that they don't always get. I thought it was a sweet offer. Of course, if I were Ed Burke, I would want to be a Catholic. With the kinds of things he's involved in, I would want some forgiveness. But I don't need it. That was the best thing he could offer me. Catholicism. But Ed, I'm sorry. I just roll along. Jesus was there, he's my style, but I don't like Christianity. That's cancerous. Excessive growth."

As his resolution was read before the City Council on June 4, someone motioned for Damski to move to the side of the chambers to pose for a photo with Mayor Daley.

Whereas, Jon-Henri Damski is the scribe of New Town, telling the stories of Chicago's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered communities; and . . . "How're you doing, Jon?" asked the mayor.

Whereas, Jon-Henri Damski writes with integrity and honesty, never compromising the truth as he sees it, never hiding behind the myth of objectivity; and . . .

"Quite a day, Mr. Mayor," Damski said. "Priests, poets, and perverts."

Whereas, Jon-Henri Damski is an omnivore of the mind who devours new ideas in literature, music, film, and theater, and is expert in everything from Greek myth to heavy metal; and . . .

Daley smirked. Bernie Hansen, who was also posing for the picture, had to back away. He was laughing too hard.

Whereas, Jon-Henri is in sum Chicago's quintessential queer thinker and gay writer; now, therefore, be it resolved, that we, the Mayor and members of the City Council of Chicago, assembled here this fourth day of June, 1997, express our thanks to Jon-Henri Damski for his many contributions to our city and to his community, note how much we enjoy the pleasure of his company, and wish him well in his new abode.

The aldermanic tributes to Damski began. Mary Ann Smith said something nice. Aldermen Schulter, Bernadini, and Mell followed suit. Ed Burke spoke. Then Helen Shiller, always Damski's favorite, motioned for the floor.

"Jon-Henri, welcome to our house," she said. "To truly one of the deepest and most far-reaching thinkers that I have ever known, you have most definitely deepened my own life and thought. I just want to say my hat's off to you."

Shiller later told him this was the longest speech she'd given to honor a person since the Harold Washington memorial.

The mayor turned away. Damski tucked his book back under his arm and headed toward the gallery. He made his way through a pack of reporters swarming around Ed Burke and walked past Bishop Abramowicz, who was surrounded by dozens of small children in traditional Polish costumes. Even in his bright pink pullover he passed unnoticed. He moved like a ghost through the circus that is the city he loves.

"Well," he said. "That was nice."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Jason Smith.


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