Shirt Tale

“I made an appointment with the Cook County neurologist on April 29th,” Mike Bradley was saying. “Do you know when my appointment is? August 25th! And until then I take 48 aspirin a day.”

But we hadn’t tracked down Bradley to hear his troubles. Information reached us that Bradley–who made himself known to Chicago’s public-library system as Mike the truck driver–was central to an act of artistic repression involving an undershirt. “I’m slowly starving to death,” said Bradley, who like his principal adversary in this matter lives in Uptown. Bradley, who’s 41 and needs steady work, brings a book and the New York Times into the Dunkin’ Donuts on Lawrence and sits there for hours on end sipping coffee and brooding about the disintegration of America and where his tax dollars go.

The book on the table the day we met him at the doughnut shop was A Peace to End All Peace, a history of the Ottoman Empire. “They have the idea that we’re the first multicultural empire,” Bradley was saying about Americans. “We’re not, by far. The Ottoman Empire was a multicultural empire that broke into pieces. Some of the pieces are Iraq, Turkey . . . ”

Bradley, a tall, loud, intimidating man, is down on multiculturalism. He thinks if all groups played by one set of rules the nation might not fall apart and he might have a better crack at a job. That’s why he’s so angry about affirmative action, and why he supports the ERA. A few days ago Bradley entered the library’s Bezazian branch on Ainslie to find a T-shirt display going up on the walls. Bradley spotted a couple of T-shirts that offended him. One offered a red, white, and blue license plate numbered 4RU 486; at the bottom of the plate was the motto “Safe & Legal.” Bradley recognized RU 486; it’s the French drug “that shoots little children out in one piece so they can use them for parts. I didn’t really approve of it, but then most people wouldn’t understand what it meant.”

The other T-shirt, which hung above the door where no one could miss it, really set him off. There was Mike Tyson inside a rectangle and the legend “Tyson was framed.”

When Tyson was convicted of rape, Bradley, who followed the trial closely in the New York Times, applauded the verdict. “I can’t think of anything more unfair than being forced to have sex against your will,” he told us. “I know what it’s like to be helpless. I know that it’s like to be powerless.”

Bradley complained loudly to a librarian at the desk, and Chris Drew intervened. Drew, who describes himself as a homeless person living with the Salvation Army, runs the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center at the American Indian Center. This summer the center is sponsoring “Art of the T-Shirt” exhibits at five locations on the north side.

“He made several philosophical links that were not there,” Drew told us. “He claims this was promoting rape and rapists, and was detrimental to youth, and might cause increased acceptance of rape, and the library was no place for such expressions, and everybody was remiss in not eliminating it from the exhibit in the beginning.

“He was going to let the hammer fall heavily,” said Drew. “Those were his exact words.”

The security guard came over. “He wasn’t unfriendly,” Bradley recalled. “He said, ‘Come on, man, that’s just the way it is.’ He was just trying to get me to be quiet. I am sorry I caused a little fuss. But I did get my point across to everyone in there, I think.”

His point made once, Bradley did not rest. He visited his alderman. He called the National Organization for Women. He called the mayor’s office and the governor’s office and two funders of the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center–the Illinois Arts Council and the MacArthur Foundation. He called the library’s northeast district office and talked to a secretary who then wrote a memo:

“The patron does not feel that [Tyson] should be exalted at the taxpayers’ expense. He especially does not feel that anyone who rapes women should be honored like this. . . . He got into a discussion while at the branch and said that at least 10 people there agreed with him. When his ‘old lady’ hears about this, she’ll be down there with about 20 ‘biker girls in black leather.’ . . . The patron called the District Office to warn that ‘there is going to be a shock wave felt.'”

Yeah, Bradley agrees, he said all that. He told Drew, “If you want to wear the shirt, I’ll stand and fight with you for the right to wear it. But that is shoving it down my throat when you put it on a display that is paid for with my tax money. We have homeless on the street. We have all sorts of incredible social problems. We’re getting ready for a major blowout here in America. I think while people aren’t eating, we shouldn’t be paying for these displays here in America–let alone putting them up in public property.”

The Tyson shirt came down. Not that anyone at the library ordered it down or claims to be glad it’s gone. “I don’t think one person should dictate what we do,” says Bezazian’s librarian, Elizabeth Jahjah.

“I don’t know why it’s down. Librarians are accommodating, I don’t know . . . ” grumbles Wilfredo Cruz, who speaks for the library system from downtown.

“We don’t want to censor,” says Charlotte Kim, assistant commissioner of neighborhood services. “There is a Bill of Rights.”

Yet Drew perceived that life would be made easier for all concerned if he shifted “Tyson Was Framed” to an exhibit that opens Monday at the Mary-Arrchie Theatre. There’s a reason he has shows at five locations, a couple of which are private spaces. “We start out with the assumption there is censorship,” Drew explained. “We are looking for the means of accomplishing our goals in spite of that.”

Bradley returned to the Bezazian when the “Art of the T-Shirt” officially opened there and told Drew he was sorry if he’d embarrassed him, even though Drew had it coming. He also gave Drew some advice. “He said we’d better be like Milquetoast the next ten years if we wished to survive these economic times.”

Bradley was just being practical. “You don’t want to see the homeless sleeping in your doorway and see your tax dollars going for something like this.”

“One point he made which sticks in my mind,” Drew told us, “was that some of the powers that be indicate they’re willing to let the cities stew in their own problems. He felt that because of what’s coming down the tube we should be very quiet in our communications. Where we as community arts organizers feel the answer will come out of increased communication, not less communication.”

So, where do you go when you need a doctor? we asked Drew. He said County, and we asked him what he thought of it.

“I haven’t actually gone to County,” he said. “I have been lucky. I eat a lot of garlic.”

The Tyson T-shirt was designed by a young black artist named Derrick MacIntosh, who exhibits under the nom de guerre of Warp. “When I picked up that name it just seemed to fit in with, I guess, everything going on and surrounding me at the time,” Warp told us. His T-shirt means what it says. “From my viewpoint the entire situation was a setup,” he said. “It was something that didn’t happen by chance. It was set up by higher forces to break this young man’s career and life down and shut him away.”

Most of the T-shirts in the “Art of the T-Shirt” exhibit are one of a kind, but Warp printed up 100 of his. He’s sold about 40 of them at $10 apiece, one to Curtis Conner, the Bezazian’s security guard. Conner likes the shirt so much he’s talked to Warp about getting four more, and he plans to wear the shirt to the library on Saturdays when he brings his kids.

Bradley rubbed him the wrong way. “It was just the way he spoke certain words,” Conner remembers. “He would point up to the picture of Tyson who was framed and say, ‘That’s where he belongs, a convicted rapist.’ And he’d put an emphasis on it, a convicted rapist. But my opinion is, what’s a woman doing in an unmarried man’s room at two o’clock in the morning? To pop popcorn or something? I think he was railroaded.”

How much public money did your center actually receive this year? we asked Drew. About $2,300. On Bradley’s behalf we then asked him, why spend any public money on art when Cook County Hospital is so pathetic?

“The real question is, why spend money on empire?” Drew said. “That’s where the money goes. The money that’s been spent on empire has decimated all of the services to the city.”

Bradley doesn’t really disagree. “I’ll talk to you forever about weapons systems,” he warned us.

Campaign Games

This month Bill Clinton criticized a rap singer and irritated Jesse Jackson. The next few days saw Jackson protesting and Clinton standing his ground–and also returning to the front pages from which he’d been banished ever since the Democratic nomination became a foregone conclusion.

OK. Character’s a legitimate issue. If Clinton hopes to slash the deficit he’ll have to be able to look his friends in the eye and say no. And yet the media are so easy when events come along that can be played at the level of personalities that it was possible to imagine Clinton and Jackson hatching their feud to boost Clinton back into the limelight looking good. We thought of writing something that wryly pointed this out.

But events outran us. Last Sunday on This Week With David Brinkley, Cokie Roberts dismissed Clinton’s conduct as an “artifice”–an exercise in campaign strategy. Brinkley and Sam Donaldson and George Will couldn’t agree whether Clinton had picked the right fight with Jackson, but no one quarreled with Roberts’s description.

So there was journalism, turning from the solemn coverage of a big story in order to belittle it. Reporting news that you feel superior to must get to feel like a game. And as the audience for this reporting you should remember–just because the media seem to take some matters seriously doesn’t mean that you should, or that they do.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.