Grant Pick had been writing for the Reader for about a quarter of a century when, at the age of 57, he died of a heart attack walking home from lunch. That was three years ago last week. In many ways, Grant was the writer who best defined this paper. As he liked telling journalism students who read his pieces and asked where the news pegs were, “There is no news peg. The people are the news.”
That’s a story told by his son, John Pick, in the introduction to The People Are the News: Grant Pick’s Chicago Stories, a collection compiled by his family and just published by Northwestern University Press. As John explains, Grant had book ideas constantly percolating in his head, but none was ever quite the right idea. An anthology was the right idea.
Almost everything in the book first appeared in the Reader. I’ve gone through it and adapted, from much longer articles, three stories that I hope do justice to the curious nose that led their author through the streets of Chicago. Regrettably my favorite piece of all, “It’s Insanity!”—a 1998 account of an eviction suit that led to a four-and-a-half-year legal battle and a 42-day trial, involving a Greek immigrant couple, a former boy evangelist turned country singer turned magician, his ex-go-go dancer wife, and a high school dropout turned lawyer—defied condensation.
On Thursday, February 7, at 6 PM, John Pick will lead a discussion of his father’s work in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater. The panelists will be Alex Kotlowitz, Hank Klibanoff, and myself. The public is invited. —Michael Miner
From “Brother Bill,” June 1, 1990
In 1983, when Bill Tomes showed up at Saint Malachy’s, a onetime Irish parish now serving the Henry Horner Homes, the church was converting its gymnasium and garage into a shelter and soup kitchen. A year earlier, Mother Teresa had sent Saint Malachy’s six nuns from the Missionaries of Charity. “Bill told me he wanted to work among the poor, too,” remembers Father Stephen Mangan, pastor of Saint Malachy’s at the time. Tomes volunteered at Saint Malachy’s a couple of days a week, staying in the gym at night to keep it safe.
Soon he became a pastoral associate at the church; he received room and board and, eventually, pay. He took over a room on the third floor of the rectory. The small room contained a chair, a bed, and a television, but Tomes removed them. “I wanted to participate with the poor,” he explains. “I wanted to give up material things as a sacrifice.” Over the four years Tomes called the room home, it was bare except for a telephone and a rug, on which he slept.
Tomes did odd jobs for the church, like helping to restore the stained glass and pink marble in the sanctuary, but in time “he started working the neighborhood,” says Father Mangan. One day Tomes came downstairs to find Mangan completing the church bulletin. “I’m going to call you ‘Brother Bill’ because you need some form of religious identification,” Mangan said. When Tomes pointed out that he wasn’t a member of any religious order, Mangan replied that he was a brother in the sense that “everybody in the world are brothers and sisters,” Tomes remembers.
He assumed a hooded cassock made entirely of blue-jeans patches. Mangan encouraged Tomes to wear his cassock constantly. “That might save you,” Mangan told him. “People will perceive you as the salt of the earth. They are victims too.”
His first day at Henry Horner, Tomes strode the length of the project. The teenage boys there had never seen anybody like him, and the next day, according to Tomes, the council of the Disciples gang took a vote on whether he should be killed. “But they thought I was a good guy and agreed to protect me,” Tomes says. “We thought he was crazy,” says Demetrius Ford, a Disciple who has since gone to work at Saint Malachy’s. “What the fuck would you think?”
Odd as Tomes seemed, it became clear to the kids that here was a nonjudgmental, friendly, even helpful presence. “Brother Bill hung around,” says Demetrius Ford, “talking to people, taking ’em to McDonald’s or out to the sand dunes. He became just Brother Bill. He’s cool, a nice man of God who is out for peace.”
“Other people might want to change these kids,” Tomes says, “but I recognize them for who they are, and for how great they are as children of God. They need to respect themselves; it’s when they don’t that they shoot at each other.” Tomes never issues advice except when asked. “I give information, is all,” he explains. “I don’t make a recommendation except if I think the person is ready to follow my bullshit anyway.”
Passive intervention has become Tomes’s signature. When gangs are fighting, he stands between them to still the violence. One summer afternoon a half-dozen years ago, Demetrius Ford recalls, some Disciples and Vice Lords were shooting it out on the blacktop behind two buildings at Henry Horner. “Bill just came right up through the middle,” says Ford, who was standing on the periphery. “Nobody wanted to hit a white-man priest and go to jail for any murder, so there was a cease-fire.”
In 1984, Cardinal Bernardin asked to meet Bill Tomes. Tomes made such an impression that Bernardin put him on Catholic Charities’ payroll as a consultant. The agency allowed him to expand his turf to include Cabrini-Green as well as Henry Horner.
“I went to a Cobra Stones building, then a Disciples building, and I got . . . um . . . a cold reaction,” says Tomes, recalling his first day at Cabrini. “Some drug dealers gave me the silent treatment.” The one bright spot was an encounter with a young man named Elbert O’Neal, a Cobra Stone who lived with his mother and siblings on the 15th floor of 1150 N. Sedgwick. “You are a sign from God,” O’Neal told Tomes. No, Tomes said. “Yes, you are,” said O’Neal. “God sent you as a sign so I’d change my life.”
O’Neal became Tomes’s protector. “Elbert was the only kid who welcomed Brother Bill to Cabrini,” says the boy’s mother, Bessie O’Neal. “Elbert would take him into our building and keep the other young men from doing anything to him.” At the outset the gang members took Tomes for “a crank out to get their money,” says Darryl Webster, a Disciple. But in time, Tomes was again accepted.
The most dangerous turf at Cabrini-Green was long said to be Hobbie Field, an expanse of blacktop near adjoining buildings ruled by three separate gangs—the Disciples, the Vice Lords, and the Cobra Stones. On warm-weather afternoons and evenings, battles would break out there with bottles, pipes, and sometimes guns. In 1986, Jerry Drolshagen, a Jesuit seminarian, was skinned on the arm by a bullet while with Tomes at Hobbie Field. “We were with Vice Lords,” says Tomes, “and some Disciples ambushed us. We went back that same night to show we weren’t afraid.”
Tomes remembers all the dead, the troublemakers as well as the blameless. Laketa Rodgers, for example, perished on August 5, 1985, at Cabrini-Green. She was nine years old. “She used to run out to us; she was so sweet,” says Tomes. “She was killed out on the blacktop. Some gang members were shooting at each other, and she got hit. Afterwards, I went to see the boy that killed her. He didn’t mean to do it. He got 80 years.”
In August of 1986, Johnny Bates, who was 21, was shot on a seventh-floor balcony at Henry Horner. He tumbled into the stairwell, crumpling on the landing a half floor down. “He gave out the most horrible scream you ever heard in your life,” says Tomes. “I got to him five minutes before he died. I tried to prepare him for death. ‘God loves you,’ I told him.”
In December of 1988 a 25-year-old named Sammy Hatcher was gunned down in an entranceway at Cabrini. Tomes baptized him with a handful of snow before he was hauled away to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, brain dead on arrival.
Aron Buckles, a Disciple, used to call to Tomes across Hobbie Field. “Brother Bill, give me some love,” he’d say, and Tomes would respond by putting one fist on top of another, which is the gang symbol for love. “Aron was a tough guy, but we were close friends,” Tomes remembers. “He wanted to go straight. They killed him for trying to leave.”
In the spring of 1985 Tomes’s protector, Elbert O’Neal, told him he expected to die soon. “Oh no, Elbert,” Tomes sighed, but O’Neal was convinced. O’Neal was trying to keep his distance from the Cobra Stones, and various Stones were leaning on him. It was a bad situation that concerned Tomes all the more when he found out that O’Neal had received a college grant. One afternoon, O’Neal interfered with some toughs beating up another young man in the lobby of O’Neal’s building. One tough, Washington “Snake” Green, pulled a gun and shot O’Neal in the mouth, chest, and stomach.
Tomes rushed to Henrotin Hospital and found his friend in a coma. For two weeks Tomes stayed with O’Neal, passing the nights on the floor by his side. Because he thought O’Neal would want it, Tomes baptized him using a rag and water from the sink. O’Gorman delivered the last rites, and after O’Neal died the funeral was held at Saint Malachy’s.
Washington Green was finally apprehended in Wisconsin and charged with O’Neal’s murder, Tomes went to visit him at the Cook County Jail. Green, 21, entered the visitors’ room, saw Tomes across the bullet-proof glass, and turned on his heel.
From “As I Lay Dying,” July 25, 1997
“Dying is very hard, the hardest thing in life,” said Dr. Roger Bone in May, a wasting figure lying on what he anticipated would be his deathbed in a lakefront high-rise. “It’s certainly the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me. I have pain. I can’t do bodily functions. Tumors are all over my body. If I walk, I worry that I might slip my hip out of joint and never be able to walk again.” But Bone insisted on making his last days as productive as possible. “I could stay in this bedroom and scream, but that doesn’t seem a very constructive way to spend one’s final days,” he said. “And this can be a tolerable, even a good time.”
In 1984 Bone arrived in Chicago as chairman of internal medicine at Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s Medical Center, supervising 15 specialties. At six foot two, he was a towering presence, with a pleasant yet formal demeanor and a near photographic memory. “I worked 14-to-16-hour days because work for me was play,” he said, “and I did that more at Rush than anyplace because I had the power base and the resources to develop what I wanted.” He oversaw research, lectured widely, directed training, and recruited top doctors.
In 1993 Bone, frustrated with cost cutting at Rush, responded to an offer to become president of Toledo’s Medical College of Ohio. He and his wife (and high school sweetheart), Rosemary, settled into a brick colonial house on a bluff over the Maumee River. At 52, he had a satisfying marriage, two grown, productive daughters, a salary of nearly $400,000, and a national reputation.
That Christmas Day he fell while unpacking books, and blood turned up in his urine. Days later, during a long meeting on campus, he experienced riveting back pain, and when he went to the bathroom his discharge now consisted only of blood and blood clots. An exam revealed a cancerous tumor the size of an orange in his right kidney. A surgeon removed the kidney and an adjoining adrenal gland, and Bone felt the problem had been solved. “I went back to work within a week,” he says. “I thought to myself, I’m cured. I had hoped the tumor had been totally resected. The initial scans were negative. You might as well be an optimist.”
But in October 1995 a routine chest X-ray showed that the cancer had metastasized to his lungs, which were now filled with two dozen small tumors. Bone read the X-ray and realized, at least intellectually, what his prospects were: “With renal cell cancer the survival rate is only 1 percent.”
Bone returned to the house on the bluff. It was 4 PM on a warm Friday. He took off his coat and tie, sat in a lawn chair, and shared the news with Rosemary. She handed him a glass of lemonade. “Suddenly the lemonade became the point,” Bone said. “I tasted the sweetness of the drink, and though I felt my life passing before me I tried to savor the moment.”
From the outset Bone confronted his dying as an experience to put to use. He’d already written articles for the Journal of the American Medical Association, where he’d served as a consulting editor. After he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, but before he learned it would kill him, he sent the magazine an article of a different sort.
In it he offered four cautionary observations: “1. Good health is often taken for granted; however, it is the most precious commodity one possesses. 2. One’s spouse, children, family, and friends are the essential ingredients that allow one to endure an experience such as a serious and unexpected illness. 3. When faced with death, one recognizes the importance of God and one’s relationship to God. 4. The things one does throughout one’s life that seem so urgent are, most of the time, not so important.”
After realizing he was dying, Bone wrote three more essays for JAMA. “I saw death more times than I can count,” Bone said in his final essay, which appeared last December. “I always thought that death caused a collapse of the dying person inward upon himself. The dying person appeared to be little more than a shrunken shell lying in a hospital bed. Physical collapse meant that there was a collapse of mental and spiritual being as well. I know now I could not have been more wrong.
“Death has opened my eyes to life—literally. Since learning that I have a terminal illness, I believe my mind has expanded and its appetite has become insatiable. I want to know and experience everything. I feel at times what Thomas Wolfe described when he first walked into the New York Public Library: I want to grasp everything, read every book, listen to every piece of music. I believe that I will walk toward death with that same quest to know.”
The Bones moved back to Chicago in April 1996, renting an apartment with sweeping views of the lakefront. “Maybe through what I say people can come to a greater appreciation of this part of life,” he said when I first visited him last April. “Not to be morbid, but there are things to do in advance, things to consider.” He was lying under a blanket in a four-poster bed, the curtains drawn against the light. A lamp with a burgundy shade cast an eerie glow. A small fan on the nightstand cooled him; a wheelchair stood in a corner. By now there were tumors in Bone’s right hand, in his right shoulder, and in his lungs: fluid on his lungs had to be drained periodically by a nurse.
When asked how he occupied his days, Bone said, “I can sit in the other room. I watch television and talk to my wife. The reading is much less now, since it’s hard to concentrate. Sometimes I look out the window and see people jogging, like I used to do. Now that my body is racked with pain I realize that vitality is such a precious gift.”
Not everyone is like Cardinal Bernardin, who referred to death as “my friend” and believed he was moving “from one state of existence to another”—in the words of his oncologist, Ellen Gaynor. “Still, for many of us there’s a new focus on a belief in something greater out there,” says Larry Burton, the head chaplain at Rush-Presbyterian-Saint Luke’s. Bone read the Bible diligently. He wanted to discuss what he’d read and heard; one afternoon he talked about how Leviticus anticipates modern-day germ theory. Burton comforted him with metaphor by inviting him to think of his dying as a Sabbath: after his labors he could rest and reflect on the fruits of his creation.
Last October Bone was invited to deliver the convocation at the annual meeting at the American College of Chest Physicians in San Francisco. He wasn’t sure he’d be fit enough to speak, so he videotaped his remarks. Dressed in a red tie, white shirt, and dark suit, the doctor looked gauntly into the camera. “I spent my life thinking about medicine,” he said. “Medicine was everything to me, as it is everything to you.” But he told his fellow doctors this: “Take time to be with family and friends. Take time to reflect on nature. Take time to contemplate the fullness of life and to acknowledge death as a natural consequence.”
Bone drew a portrait of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the car salesman protagonist of the Updike novels, perishing in an intensive-care unit—white skinned, downcast, tubes running out of his body. Angstrom’s wife, upon seeing him, nearly vomited in “a crushing wave of sorrow,” said Bone, and continued, “Harry’s life was absorbed with the need for something more. Thus, the greatest tragedy in Harry’s death was the missed opportunity for a personally fulfilled life. What I hope is that Harry’s life is not typical of most of us. Definitely, I would want Harry’s life not to be like your life .”
From “Bosom Buddies,” January 11, 2002
“Some of us, like Robin, are what’s called primary transsexuals, and they want nothing more than to be girls,” Katie explains. Katie, on the other hand, calls herself a “secondary transsexual.” She dresses in women’s clothing several times a week, yet enjoys coming home to a supportive wife. “When I was a kid, cross-dressing would have gone over like a lead balloon with my parents, obviously,” she says. “For years I had a pastime on the side. But I’ve raised my kids, and now it’s my turn. That’s really what this comes down to.”
Katie Thomas (not her real name) is a retired salesman who lives in a western suburb. When she first began cross-dressing in public a year and a half ago, she named herself after Kathy Levine, a QVC home shopping network host. “Kathy Levine epitomizes my idea of a feminine woman,” she explains. But she met so many Kathys at the Chicago Gender Society and at the Society for the Second Self, or Tri-Ess—a group for heterosexual cross-dressers—that in the end she settled on Katie.
Two or three days a week Katie, who’s in her early 60s, goes out as a woman. Some effort is required. She shaves her beard with a Gillette Mach3 razor. She also shaves her legs and upper chest and tweezes her eyebrows. To create a bust, says Katie, “you can use anything from sweat socks to old panty hose—just so it won’t be rock hard when somebody bumps into you.” She favors silicone forms designed for women who have had mastectomies—she’s found they pick up the warmth of the body.
It takes Katie about an hour to get ready. There are nails to attach (“Contact cement works best as the adhesive”), makeup to apply, and a woman’s watch, a crystal-encrusted tennis bracelet, rhinestone wedding bands, and a fluffy blond wig to put on.
The clothing comes from Field’s, Carson’s, and Nordstrom. The shoes are from Payless and DSW Shoe Warehouse. “I believe in sales,” says Katie. “In my business life, I never paid $1,000 for a suit. I made sure I grabbed one for $300. It’s the same today. Paying more just isn’t necessary.”
She favors slacks, blouses, and blazers, having noticed on a visit to the mall that women out for the day generally avoid dresses. When she does wear a dress it’s a size 14. For special occasions she has five sequined cocktail frocks and a full-length nutria fur. All told, she guesses she has $4,000 worth of women’s clothing in her closet and spends $100 a month to maintain herself as a woman.
“This is not a cheap hobby,” says Katie.
Leaving the house, she gets into her late-model sedan, which is parked either in the attached garage or out on the driveway. “If the neighbors know, they know,” she says. “Now, I assume that the lady across the street must have an inkling, but what are you going to do? I made up my mind that I’m not hiding anything. If a neighbor came up to me and asked, I’d say, ‘Yes—it’s me. This is the way I am.’ Actually, I’m fairly sure the old lady does know. She’s a sweet lady. I’d love to have lunch with her.”
To Katie, nothing much beats a chatty conversation over a light meal. “What interests me are personalities and relationships. To talk about the Bears, and who’s up for a trade, bores the hell out of me. The only thing that separates me in personality from a natural-born woman are my genitalia.”
On her days out, Katie hits the suburban malls, does lunch, and sees a movie. So far as she knows she’s never been recognized as her male self or even picked out as a cross-dresser. She’s worked hard to adopt feminine traits—mincing steps, fluttery hand motions. It also helps that she’s not especially tall. “With heels on I’m still under six feet,” she says. And she avoids one common mistake—the thick makeup, high hair, and short skirts that make some transsexuals look trashy. She learned her lesson the time she pulled into a gas station wearing a tight blue blouse over a leopard-skin skirt. A galoot came on to her. “He said he wanted to talk,” says Katie, “when all I wanted to do was get to the ladies’ room.”
As a man, she applied for a credit card in the name Katherine, supposedly a daughter. Along with a driver’s license that pictures a pleasant-faced bald man, she keeps an identification card with a photograph of herself and an explanation on the back: “Katherine A. Thomas is a male to female transgendered person who presents as a female. This is a natural expression of her personality and a requirement of her ongoing transgender therapy.”
She’s never had to show the card. For that matter, she’s never had any therapy. “For 100 bucks an hour, I can buy an awful nice outfit,” she says. v