A Man and His Xerox
We have a weakness for journalism at its purest: one man, one ego, one typewriter, a Xerox machine, and a roll of stamps.
What's in it for you? we asked Bill Leahy, who has been sending us Leahy's Corner each month since last June. "What's in it for me is the fact I don't have any regular staff position on a paper," Leahy answered. "I don't have an outlet for my Chicago writing."
So is this a vanity operation? we pushed him.
"I don't know how I can entirely say no to that," Leahy allowed. "I'm certainly publishing my own stuff, that's for sure."
But rightly treating the question as an accusation, Leahy then sat down to defend himself in a letter. "It is a long tradition for writers to start their own publications," he informed us. "The tradition is even stronger in Europe. Such publications are a very strong part of literary and political history, even in Chicago. . . . So your questions about my purpose of starting LC puzzled me. What is different about LC is the use of my name and the fact that most of the writing will be by me. The subjects are somewhat unusual also. But there is no great mystery to my intents. I am writing in a very solid tradition.
"To this must be added the fact that censorship American style is very strong for those who do not live in the political middle ground. Chicago is murder on such writers. I think that happened in our history because of all the great writers here who simply slaughtered the corruption and pretensions of political leaders. Sinclair Lewis, Algren, and many others.
"None of this makes much sense to writers who live comfortably in the liberal tradition of writing. Liberals are quite comfortable with the assumption that leftists and conservatives have no right to see print. Of course, conservatives have greater access to money. Serious leftists frequently have to produce not only the writing, but the means of publication as well."
Leahy's Corner is five sheets of paper printed on both sides and stapled together. One more sheet and postage would climb past a quarter. Circulation, said Leahy, "is in the low hundreds," much of it delivered to the daily newspapers, where he wants to be noticed. "I am correctly considered to be hard left," said Leahy.
Hard left! We hadn't heard that phrase in 20 years! William Leahy is 55 and obscure. Almost all of his work up to now has been done for such publications as the Irish Times of Dublin, the Guardian of New York, Second City, an underground Chicago paper of the early 70s, and Fra Noi, the local Italian-American monthly.
"The kind of stuff I want to do in Leahy's Corner is stuff from the bottom up. I want to see things closely on the street if I can. I think a good example would be the CTA story where I wanted to itemize as much as possible what actually happens on buses and trains. Chicago journalists used to do that a lot. But stories are rarely covered now if they're more than a dog's bark away from the Wrigley Building."
The CTA is one of Leahy's favorite subjects. Writing less like a hard leftist than like a middle-aged rider who takes his life in his hands every time he boards the 152 bus, Leahy has filled page after page with his adventures.
"I can say without qualification," wrote Leahy in the November issue, "that the students who act most decently are those from Lane High School. The worst, by far, are from Gordon Tech. . . . Those buses going further west, probably to Schurz High School, feature female students who scream about their own 'cunts' and 'asses.' Because I use the bus mainly to shop, I can get off when the screaming and brutality become unbearable. How bus drivers can work . . . I cannot imagine. The police never enter the buses."
The same issue favored us with Leahy's thoughts on what Jesse Jackson should do next. December brought a short story, a review of the Goodman's Romeo and Juliet, and a commentary on overcrowding at Cook County Jail. Like any modern paper, Leahy's Corner tries to be grazable, and it is no more above patting itself on the back while striking the ingratiating note than huge dailies published by hard centrists.
"As the Irish say, not to worry," wrote Leahy. "We are privileged to live among the Plain People of Chicago, who have praised Leahy's Corner for its recent CTA expose, which beat out all other publications on the current problems."
What's more depressing than to feel yourself a writer and have nowhere to publish? It's frustrating enough when you're 22, and if you get to be 55 and find yourself in this fix the pain has to be immense. William Leahy did something about it and we salute him.
"I know the pitfalls," he said, "so what I'm doing is starting very modestly, depending on word of mouth. I call it a publication without production values. It's for people who read."
Leahy told us, "I have my own sources, long-standing ones, some surprising ones. And I'll do contests, publish my own writings. I don't have one trunk--I have six or eight of them.
"I hope for this to go on, by the way, about ten years or so. I'm in it for the long haul."
Does Harold Washington live?
Our sources say he does not. But they haven't seen Elvis either. The Sun- Times is hedging its bets. It doggedly refers to Chicago's first black mayor as "former Mayor Harold Washington." When reporters who are pretty sure he died 14 months ago write "the late Mayor Harold Washington" the copy desk changes their copy.
The matter was called to our attention when Rich Daley announced for mayor. Page one of the December 6 Sun-Times identified young Daley as "the eldest son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley." Yet on page two Sneed revealed: "Sun-Times political editor Steve Neal tells Sneed that former Mayor Harold Washington told him in 1985 that Rich Daley was his most likely successor."
"It diminishes his standing," complained an irked (white) reporter. It is one thing to be "late," with its belongs-to-the-ages ring, and something less to be "former," which is what every public servant is who got booted off the gravy train. "It's politically motivated," said the reporter, predicting the Sun-Times would tout Richard M. shamelessly in the '89 mayoral derby.
What are we to think? We called Lillian Williams, a black political reporter who would have sniffed out the plot if there was one. Williams didn't know what we were talking about. Good. This meant that what we'd spotted was not an editorial thumb pressing on the electoral scales but a burst of new theory from every newspaper's philosophical seat, the copy desk. We looked at back issues, and found that more often than not, Richard J. Daley was a "former" mayor too. Then we called the chief of the copy desk, Paul Wagner.
"There's no hard and fast rule on it," said Wagner. "Generally, I think we avoid 'the late' if we're referring to somebody whom all our readers would know is dead. We wouldn't say 'the late John F. Kennedy.' Our tendency is to say 'former' rather than 'late' but we don't do it all the time. Frankly, I think there are times when the context would seem to dictate one way or the other. I don't know when you'd stop saying 'the late,' You don't say 'the late Abraham Lincoln.' You don't say "the late Franklin Delano Roosevelt.'"
When to stop employing "the late" is a question as deep as they come in usage debates. The manual in our office, The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, reports that "the use of late in referring to a person recently deceased has been standard since before Columbus made his first trip to the New World. There is no precise time element involved. . . . As a general rule, late is used in reference to persons whose death has occurred within the twenty or thirty years just past."
Our manual doesn't deign to notice "former." Webster's says it means "having been previously," and our position remains to use it when someone hasnt died. But we should add this: if "late mayor" is right and "former mayor" is less right, it is nevertheless less wrong than "late former mayor" and much less wrong than "former late mayor."
At this level of complexity, no one should expect total agreement.
"If anybody's looking for a hidden meaning and agenda, there isn't any," Wagner said.
We believe him. We know pure reason when we see it.
The Official Explanation
Our nominee for the winter's most inscrutable remark: Bill Bradshaw, athletic director at DePaul, explaining in a halftime interview why his school had switched from Big Ten refs to Missouri Valley refs. Bradshaw said DePaul had no beef with the Big Ten, but "We thought we could get some officiated games that would better reflect our program."
We had no idea what Bradshaw was talking about. But it sounded to us as if DePaul had some beef with the Big Ten. We got on the phone and wound up talking to associate athletic director Bob Grim. Sure enough. "We have some big games and the Big Ten has some big games on the same weekend," Grim said. "We felt there may be times we may not be getting a top crew. We just want to protect ourselves." He pointed out that besides the Missouri Valley, DePaul has also tapped the Association of Mid-Continent Universities this season.
So anyway, next time Joey Meyer leaps up screaming "You call that charging call a fair reflection of the DePaul program!" you'll know what that's all about.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.