When AIDS activist Lori Cannon ran into Jon-Henri Damski and his friend Richard Cooke last Thursday on Broadway, her heart sank. "Jon-Henri's face had as always that curious little whimsical look," Cannon told me. But Cooke was grimly shaking his head. Damski is 58, and he went under the knife a year and a half ago; Cannon's first thought was for his health.
"Jeff McCourt's fired me," said Damski.
"What!" said Cannon. "How did that happen?"
By phone, said Damski. McCourt told him nobody read him anymore.
I know Damski by phone, letter, and column, and I like him. I liked him the time he wistfully told me he was cranking up once more to take on Mike Royko--a writer he in many ways identifies with--because no one else would. I like him now when he's reflecting on his anomalous career as a "queer" writer at a "gay" paper. I like him because he chatters and wears a Cubs hat and because behind his sometimes loopy arguments is a mind that overcame dyslexia to study Greek and Latin and teach the classics at Bryn Mawr. And because 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.
Ten years ago this September McCourt and Bob Bearden led a staff mutiny at the now defunct Gay Life and founded Windy City Times. Seven months earlier Gay Life had dropped Damski's column; now Bearden, who was one of his closest friends, gave him a job as columnist, saying it was his for life. The new paper boasted that Damski had returned to the gay press.
Bearden died, but McCourt kept the promise. But by several accounts, a few years ago McCourt began thinking out loud about dropping Damski's column. McCourt kept hearing that it would be a dumb thing to do.
"He's always been very envious of the power and the persona that is Jon-Henri Damski," Cannon expounded. "By that I mean Jon-Henri has fame, recognition--mostly he has friends, and that's something Jeff McCourt doesn't have. Jon-Henri has a certain power in political circles, in the gay community of course, in the AIDS community. McCourt has always been resentful of anyone with those qualities."
Like Vernon Jarrett, Damski was a columnist who for better or worse became a player. He built not only the obvious relationships with Bernie Hansen and Helen Shiller, but others you wouldn't expect, with Ed Burke and Richard Mell. Back in the late 80s he was one of the "gang of four" who maneuvered a human rights ordinance through the City Council.
"He has a sense of history--cultural history as well as gay history--and he's not a good-old-days person," said Windy City Times contributor Andrew Patner. "He was writing about Nirvana when kids had never heard of Nirvana. He wrote a beautiful column on Kurt Cobain when he died. What he's so great at is finding the gay in life in general. He could find the gay in Richie Daley. And he has an understanding of the city and race relationships in the city that nobody has in the gay press and almost nobody has in the mainstream press.
"And he's got a moral sense and a moral center. That's another thing that makes him so different. If the line is that people were not reading him, that's total nonsense. It was one of the great acts of creative generosity that Jeff McCourt supported Jon-Henri's work and life, but he got his money's worth out of it."
Gays who know McCourt think he acted impetuously, and they think they know why. Damski's pal Richard Cooke writes a gossip column in a lumpen gay weekly called Babble. Cooke's incessant heckling of Windy City Times has driven McCourt nuts.
Last Tuesday Cooke ran the following item (the typography is all his): "The WINDY CITY TYMES miGht be losing asst. eDitor JENNIFER VANASCO caUse she say"s that edItor ROY DE LA MAR, is reaLLy ROY DE LA LESS . . all he dOes is gossIp on the phOne all day and dOesn"t get any wOrk done."
Two days later Damski was out.
"Jeff McCourt is obviously an idiot," Cooke told me. "Jon-Henri and I have known each other for years. He hinted at one thing when I started this nine or ten months ago. I put something in, and there was a backlash. And from then on he has given me nothing. Nothing! But I have a mole there. That's the thing--Jeff thinks Jon-Henri was giving me information. I have a person there giving me information, and I will continue getting information from that person. I'll prove that in the next few months."
"This is not about Babble, nor Babble's gossip pages," McCourt told me. "Journalism is a changing, evolving thing. I'm publishing the paper for people who read the paper this week, not for the people who read it ten years ago. Nothing's forever. My readers aren't forever. Things change."
He went on, "There is absolutely no mole in the offices of Windy City Times. I have a wonderful staff that I completely trust. Any suggestion of such a mole is a figment of Mr. Cooke's overzealous imagination."
Damski called me three days after he was booted. "I was waiting for the shock to settle," he explained. "My attitude now is I feel like a fired-up man, not a fired man. I'm not a disgruntled ex-employee. I was a gruntled employee. I believe a gay paper is a community trust. He believes it's a piece of private property.
"There were disputes," he allowed. "I'm a queer voice inside a gay newspaper. But I was there to give the left point of view. He had the rest of the paper. I take the rougher side. I don't do the higher executives. I do a lot of points of view from street people. People much like myself, who are out of school, out of work, out of luck, and kind of out of this world. And it doesn't necessarily mean we're communists or any of these things.
"I'm not in personal distress. The last time I got in a rough spot, between Gay Life and Windy City, the hustlers took care of me. They told their sugar daddies. I'm sort of an Oscar Wilde with a lumpen twist. I have a voice, an American voice, a Chicago voice. I offend highly educated people at times. I have no debts. I pay the rent. I go out--people give me food. That's the way I live. Shoes are a difficult thing. For three years I was needing a winter coat. Someone heard what I was saying--an airline steward--and the light went on. "You need a winter coat?' "Yes, I could wear that old blue thing.' I like this life. I'm not about to jump to a job, work for Bernie Hansen. That's not the answer to this situation. If I were Jeff I'd have kept me on. I do my work, I'm an unembarrassment. Now he's made me an issue."
Lori Cannon told me, "All of us have banded together to make sure his rent is paid--about ten of us, different members of the community--to make sure there's a roof over his head. We don't want his life disrupted. He likes the universe he's created there at the Belair Hotel. It's the world of the SRO, and he doesn't have to explain that to anybody."
Road Trip for Upski
William Upski Wimsatt sticks his thumb out June 8 and leaves town to promote the second edition of his no-longer-so-amusingly-titled collection of essays and whatnots, Bomb the Suburbs. There are fancier ways of going on a book tour than hitchhiking, but Wimsatt's publisher, himself, refused to spring for them.
Last Friday Wimsatt, who's 22, copped a Lisagor award for a piece on wiggers ("white kids who identify themselves with hip-hop") that the Reader carried last year. Saturday night he spent behind bars. He and some friends had gathered at the 95th Street el stop to hold a public reading. The cops looked into his bag and took umbrage. "Basically the crux of their problem with us was the name of the book and what they thought it represented," says Wimsatt.
The bust (not his first) put the book tour in a new light. "Before when I've hitchhiked I got a ticket once from the cops. Usually they tell you to get the fuck off the highway and check your bag. Now when they check your bag they'll see Bomb the Suburbs."
When the cops let him go Sunday morning he walked home to Hyde Park. "It's scary," he says. "Just as scary as you're taught to believe it is." On the other hand, "It's not scary at all. It's like a nice, beautiful neighborhood, a lot of it, with nice, beautiful people who were nice to me. I had some gangbangers say some things to me, but I said things back."
This brings us to Wimsatt's Bet With America. He's going to go into towns where he thinks he can sell a few books and distribute posters that say, "I want to make a bet with America. I'm betting my life."
The deal is, he'll walk the worst streets the locals have to offer. "If I get killed, I lose the bet," the poster says. "If I win the bet, you have to consider what I say.
"I believe that running away from the people we fear--what I call the suburban mentality--is the source of our deepest problems in America, from violence and drugs, to the economy, to the mediocrity of our public life.
"I'll be coming to your town soon to visit your most feared neighborhoods, and to talk about my new book Bomb the Suburbs, which discusses creative ways to overcome the suburban mentality in all of us. Please come see me when I'm in town (if I haven't already lost the bet)."
Wimsatt told me, "Our whole lifestyles are built around fear. Where we live. Where we don't live. Where we go. Where we don't go. Who we consort with. Who we don't consort with. I try to be a student of not provoking people's hostility, and so far it's worked."
More bleeding at the Sun-Times: Husband-and-wife investigative reporters Tom Brune and Deborah Nelson are leaving in a month for the northwest. Nelson, who's president of the national Investigative Reporters and Editors, was recruited away by the Seattle Times; Brune will be out there with her "looking for a new situation." He said, "I hate the word "situation,' but I think it's the proper term to use."
A namby-pamby Tribune editorial took no position whatsoever on the Supreme Court's ruling this week that state laws setting term limits for federal office-holders are unconstitutional. But this fecklessness didn't stop whoever blithely wrote the headline: "Wisely, the court kills term limits."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Yael Routtenberg.