By Michael Miner
As a pub, O’Rourke’s survives on Halsted Street. As a state of mind, it remains now and forever in the old spot at the corner of Orleans and North Avenue, on the fringe of a ghetto that’s also gone.
“That was a unique moment in time and space,” says filmmaker Mike Gray, who left Chicago for the west coast in 1972. “Jesus, to be able to walk into that bar on a casual Thursday and find four or five of the top columnists in the city arguing with each other. And Black Panthers in a back booth. And gorgeous, intelligent babes with something to say. It was an electrifying moment. I’ve certainly never run into anything like it, and I’ve only read about it in books by guys like Hemingway.”
Nancy Watrous, who’s in the film and video business, was introduced to O’Rourke’s years ago by her boyfriend, photographer P. Michael O’Sullivan. “There were fights,” she says, “that were not fistfights–they were verbal encounters–that were just incredible there.”
“Second City over on Wells was then full of really amazing satirists,” says Gray, “and they were all genuinely politically hip and funny, and they were in there all the time. So there was this cross-fertilization of the press and the arts and the working class. That’s important too–it was a working-class pub.
“It was a helluva spot,” he says, “and there was revolution in the air.”
Here is the air he breathed. On a December morning in 1969 he entered the west-side apartment where Black Panther leader Fred Hampton had supposedly shot it out with police a few hours earlier. He stared at the bullet holes, saw they all went one way, and realized Hampton had been assassinated. “The footage we shot in there resulted in 14 indictments,” he says. Later that day a friend paged him and warned him not to go home–police who wanted their hands on his footage were waiting. So Gray booked a flight to the Bahamas, and then he and his wife headed for O’Sullivan’s place to lie low. “He was living on the second floor of a town house on Burling,” Gray remembers. “He buzzes us in. I look up at the top of the stairs, and he’s standing there with a .30-30 and he says, ‘They’ll never take us alive.’ He was always good for a laugh–and a brave little motherfucker.
“He was tough as nails. Funny and charming and wonderful. And many of those traits he still has.”
Looming from the west wall of O’Rourke’s were huge pictures of Yeats, O’Casey, Behan, and other symbols of free thought. The Irish cause was taken seriously there, and O’Sullivan offered it far more than lip service. A former paratrooper turned news photographer, he began visiting Ireland in 1966, going behind the lines of the Irish Republican Army, and in 1972 he published Patriot Graves, a record of these travels. Many of its pictures were unique, and some were indelible, in particular the photo of a British soldier who’s pointing his rifle squarely at O’Sullivan’s lens.
O’Sullivan was on his way to O’Rourke’s one May evening ten years later when his motorcycle hit a pothole and flipped. His skull smashed against the curb. When he came out of a coma three weeks later he’d lost his power of speech and his memory. Though he and Nancy Watrous lived together, he didn’t know who she was. He didn’t know his daughter Siobhan, who was in ninth grade.
“There went the high school years,” says Siobhan, looking back. And Nancy Watrous says five years went by before her life felt like hers to live again. During those years, she says, O’Rourke’s was her “safe house–a place where something as horrific as this could happen and it couldn’t make you feel bad there. I’m not talking about the drinking there. I’m talking about the companionship.”
The months O’Sullivan spent in hospitals and rehabilitation centers restored a large portion of his memory and autonomy. Eventually he was sent into the world lacking a third of his brain and the ability to say anything beyond the words “yes,” “no,” and “boy.” Penniless, he went to live with a sister in the suburbs and then with a brother in Michigan, but neither arrangement worked out. He needed to be near his old haunts and his O’Rourke’s friends, and they stepped in.
“The Irish have a saying, ‘Don’t put too fine a point on this,'” says Norris McNamara, a marketing consultant who used to shoot pictures with O’Sullivan for Life. In other words, enjoy the sausage and don’t ask how it’s made. O’Sullivan’s friends found ways to give him as much independence as he could manage. Public guardian Patrick Murphy patronized O’Rourke’s; though he hadn’t known O’Sullivan well, they had friends in common, and he took pleasure in defying convention.
“All federal and state money has been geared toward institutionalization,” says Murphy. This made no sense to him, because it’s often cheaper, not to mention more humane, to provide wards of the state with private shelter. Neither a juvenile nor hopelessly old and incompetent, O’Sullivan nevertheless became a ward of Murphy’s office. And when Murphy successfully sued the Illinois Department of Aging to make it extend Medicaid to wards of his office who could live independently, O’Sullivan began receiving about $1,800 a month. “By being creative,” says Murphy, “you hopefully keep someone in the community.”
Don Rose, a political consultant and renegade most of his life, happened to have friends in City Hall. Another miracle occurred when O’Sullivan rose overnight from the bottom to the top of the city’s waiting list for Section Eight housing. He soon was moved into a federally subsidized apartment in a near-north high-rise. But more needed to be done to keep him there. Another $6,000 to $8,000 a year had to be found to support him. So Gray and McNamara organized the P. Michael O’Sullivan Benefit Trust, a hat into which his friends pledged to pitch their extra dollars. “There was a mailing list of 200 people, of which 50 or 60 were annual contributors of one kind or other,” says McNamara. “Others just wanted to stay up to date on it. Mike Gray would get a newsletter out every year. Really, that was the glue of the friends of Michael–it was our interest in staying up to date with each other.”
O’Sullivan became a boulevardier, says McNamara. He took his meals in familiar restaurants and walked through familiar neighborhoods listening to Dylan on his Walkman. “He was kind of formidable looking,” says McNamara. “Black beret and camouflage jacket. Backpack, camera, all kinds of shit around his waist. That was pretty good protective coloring in the city. He looked fierce.” Rounding out the effect of a man with a past was the patch O’Sullivan now wore over his right eye. The accident had severely damaged his vision. It had also left him moving very slowly. “He used to get hit by cabs every now and then,” says McNamara. “But Murphy felt–and we all felt–that if he wants to be out and independent that’s the risk he takes. If it happens every few years that’s the price he pays.”
Three years ago Gray’s newsletter, “O’Sullivan’s Times,” brought the donors unsettling news. “It was an explosion of rage, I guess,” Gray reported. “Not hard to understand if you can imagine being trapped inside a phone booth with only an incoming signal. Blind rage, or perhaps rage focused on some detail that might escape the rest of us. Whatever the reason, O’Sullivan brought his cane down hard, squarely on the console in the lobby of his apartment building, then picked up one of the shattered fragments and threw it at a couple of elderly tenants on the other side of the lobby.
“Norris always has the decency to wait until after the sun is up on the west coast to call with news bad or good. He told me the building manager was hysterical and talking about eviction, and that would be a disaster. The whole effort to keep O’Sullivan living independently in the city hinges on that rent-subsidized apartment.”
Elsewhere in the newsletter, McNamara warned that the fund was running into trouble. A decade on, some donors had died, and others had new priorities. Pledges for 1997 exceeded $6,000, enough to meet O’Sullivan’s needs, but less than $4,000 had actually been contributed, requiring Gray and McNamara to make up the difference. “Unfortunately,” he warned, “I can’t continue covering the deficit.”
O’Sullivan weathered the storm. Last year Gray came to town and videotaped him at home and out and about–horsing around with a waitress at his favorite restaurant, basking in the bright clear air as he skimmed in a sailboat across Lake Michigan. “Boy, boy,” he exclaims. “Boy, boy, boy,” in his mysterious language of one word and infinite inflections. Gray has edited the footage into an eight-minute tape that will soon be sent to contributors to the O’Sullivan trust to show them where the money’s gone.
But since the tape was shot, the picture’s changed. O’Sullivan made more trouble in his building, which decided to evict him. He began having seizures that threatened his balance, and he required constant observation until his medication was adjusted. The trust fund continued to diminish. And O’Sullivan’s daughter, Siobhan Harvey, now tells me his favorite restaurant moved and went upscale and he’s not welcome there anymore.
Because of the seizures, Murphy’s office moved O’Sullivan to a hospital and then to a nursing home in Rogers Park. He’d been there a matter of days when, on the evening of Friday, July 7, he walked away.
Harvey and Watrous and their husbands, along with many of O’Sullivan’s other friends, went out looking for him. Two days later he turned up at Division and Ashland. Why he was there no one can say, but Harvey thinks he might have been trying to return to his apartment and veered right instead of left at the fork of Clark and Ashland. “When I talked to him about it,” says Watrous, “he seemed to indicate that at night he had just laid down on a bench or something. He laughed about it. Mike has this giggle, you know–a manly giggle. I don’t think he indicated that he was scared.”
Murphy’s office fought O’Sullivan’s eviction in court, but not out of any belief that O’Sullivan belonged back in his apartment. When he was finally sent packing he’d won a small cash settlement. O’Sullivan shuttled between his sister’s and his daughter’s homes for a while, and finally was installed in another nursing home in Rogers Park. “He hates it,” says Harvey. “It’s awful. We all know about the nursing homes, but until you go there and have a relative there, it’s unbelievable. Half the people are senior citizens who are older and need help, and the other half are nuts. So dad has no one to talk to. And he’s not allowed to leave there unless he has someone to sign him out. So he lies in his bed smoking cigarettes.”
Everyone who cares about O’Sullivan, who’s now 60, wishes to believe the situation is only temporary. But if there’s a solution to his predicament, his daughter is now the one expected to provide it. She speaks of taking over from Murphy as her father’s legal guardian and, with her husband, Sean Harvey, buying a three-flat somewhere where they and her father could live and still have a rent-paying tenant. Last weekend McNamara dropped by, and she signed papers giving her control of the P. Michael O’Sullivan Benefit Trust, which at the moment has nothing in it.
On November 18 prints of O’Sullivan’s photographs will be exhibited and auctioned off at Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center. This benefit is being organized by Harvey and her friend Deirdre Fennessey, an officer of a 13-year-old group called the Irish Freedom Committee that she says supports the families of Irish political prisoners. It’s a changing of the watch. Fennessy doesn’t know the past leaders of the benefit trust, though it’s listed as a cosponsor of the event, and they don’t know her or her organization.
McNamara has told Gray that there’s a movie in O’Sullivan, and Gray agrees. “I’ve never been able to encompass it,” he says. “I didn’t know how to end it. But I’m definitely hoping this story will make it into a script. The way people stepped up and came through was just–not unique but…” He pauses, searching for words.
“Yeah,” says Gray. “Awfully decent.”
Those Unexplored Lands to the North
There was a story to tell when Pierre Trudeau died two weeks ago, and the papers dutifully told it. Headlines recalled him as “dashing,” “flamboyant,” “colorful”– language befitting a former prime minister vaguely recalled in this country as a symbol of the go-go 70s. The New York Times ran by far the longest obituary I saw, and the Sun-Times coverage was more thorough than the Tribune’s, no doubt thanks to its two new editors from Vancouver.
But the Sun-Times’s Zay Smith cut to the chase in his Quick Takes column: “News item: ‘MONTREAL–Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, a flamboyant and charismatic political giant who led the country through some of its most tumultuous events…’ Name one.”
That the American press wasn’t bothering to tell a larger story didn’t occur to me until I received a letter from my sister, who two years ago moved to Vancouver. “A propos of nothing,” she began, “Canada has just come out of a period of national mourning unlike anything I have experienced since Kennedy. For five days there was nothing on the news, any media, except Trudeau. I had admired him before, but I grew to respect him tremendously over the last several days and I learned, over and over again, what parts made the man.
“The funeral, the national grief, the spontaneous demonstrations of respect and affection (in a notoriously undemonstrative country) were exceptionally moving and encapsulated an entire nation that normally functions in distinct, separated pieces. A giant Castro stood with little Jimmy Carter on the steps of the Basilica in Montreal, both honorary pallbearers, smiling and chatting with each other (remarkable), hugging the Trudeau children. The President of Greece was there, Prince Andrew, the Aga Khan, several heads of state. (Even movie stars–usually a sure draw.) It was an exceptional time.
“And where was the U.S.? (Jimmy Carter came as a private citizen and friend, as did Castro.) The local ambassador showed up. He has to. I did not even see Trudeau’s death in the NY Times news of the week. Canada is only a few miles up the road, our largest trading partner, and special friend, and yet other than a few packaged words from Clinton, nothing. Some friend! I understood for the first time why so many countries think we are arrogant. It’s not rudeness, it’s the lack of respect.
“I have been straddling the fence here, reading all the U.S. magazines, following the debates, hunting down my absentee ballot, but I am starting for the first time to feel Canadian.”
The Canadian papers published special sections that struggled to understand the convulsion their country was going through. Down here I saw no articles or columns or–until last Monday’s Tribune–editorials that even mentioned it. However much a nation reveals itself by its mourning, the subject doesn’t make for quick and easy copy.
How many serious mistakes can be made in one brief picture caption? The New York Times might have set a record September 30 with this: “An Israeli policeman and a Palestinian on the Temple Mount.” The one-column picture displayed a howling policeman, truncheon raised, and at his feet a bloodied youth.
But the location was not the Temple Mount, something that might have been deduced from the gas pump in the background of the picture. No filling stations mar Jerusalem’s holiest site.
The youth wasn’t a Palestinian. He was Tuvia Grossman, a Jewish student from Chicago who moments before had been pulled from a taxi in an Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem, stabbed, and beaten. The policeman wasn’t menacing Grossman. He was yelling “Back off!” to protect him from his assailants.
These errors were quickly and forcefully brought to the Times’s attention by Grossman’s family, among others. Four days later the paper ran a correction, but mistakenly said the youth had been attacked in the Old City. Last Saturday the Times started from scratch. It reran the picture, correctly captioned it, and accompanied it with an article detailing what actually happened to Tuvia Grossman and how the mistakes were made.
The photo had been captioned and distributed by the Associated Press, whose Jerusalem bureau received it from Zoom, an Israeli photo agency. The caption provided by Zoom was in Hebrew, and it came in garbled; in the confusion during the uprising, the AP never got around to calling Zoom for clarification. An AP spokeswoman told me that assumptions were made about the story the picture told, and the assumptions were wrong.
And so was the original Zoom caption, for that matter. The AP spokeswoman said Zoom had identified Grossman as an Israeli ambulance medic.
The Times wasn’t alone in its blunder. According to the AP, several other papers also ran the picture and an erroneous caption. One of them was the Chicago Tribune, which published the picture in some of its Sunday, October 1, editions and ran a long correction a week later.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry/Lionel Fluker/Siobhan Harvey.