Who Was Haroon Paryani?

Last week’s edition of Gay Chicago ran something creepy. It was an ad that began “Help Us Fight Cab Violence! Have you had a memorable, unusual or bad experience with a cab driver?” If you had, there was a number to call and a Web site to visit. In passing, the ad mentioned that on February 4 an “unfortunate incident happened between a cab driver and a Lakeview resident.” The ad didn’t say what, though presumably it was a choice example of abusiveness.

The Web site, endcabviolence.com, revealed that a particular cabbie was the focus of the crusade’s concerns. “Haroon Paryani–a history of violent & aggressive behavior?” it wondered, and alongside Paryani’s picture asked, “Has this man threatened you or made you feel uncomfortable? Have you witnessed him being aggressive or threatening to someone else? Are you not sure? We want to hear about it and talk to you. . . . Any info shared will be kept completely private & confidential.”

The ad didn’t accuse Paryani of being violent, aggressive, or threatening. It just raised the possibility. One other thing it didn’t do was point out that since February 4 Paryani has been dead. Early that day he got into a screaming match with a fare near the corner of Briar and Cambridge in Lakeview, fell face first into the street, and was run over by his own cab. The fare–Michael Jackson, a policy specialist in the sexually transmitted diseases division of Chicago’s public health department–allegedly took the wheel, drove over Paryani, backed over him, and then drove over him a third time, dragging his body into the intersection. Jackson turned himself in to the police later that day, and he’s now in jail, held without bond.

Neither the ad nor the Web site mentions Jackson or drops a hint as to who’s behind the campaign. Jackson’s life partner, John Castronovo, told me the Web site “is a collaborative effort of the friends of Mike Jackson, a group of over a dozen.” When I asked if he was part of the group, Castronovo replied, “I’m a friend of Mike Jackson.”

The general manager of Gay Chicago had told me the ad was bought by someone he wasn’t allowed to name. Was that you? I asked Castronovo.

“The person who took it out asked to remain anonymous,” he said.

But for all the secrecy–gay champions of a gay accused killer can get a little paranoid–Castronovo insisted there’s been “absolutely no intent to seem devious in any way.”

Maybe so. But gay activist Rick Garcia told me that when he saw the Web site he felt like throwing up. “This is sort of like taking out an ad that says ‘End gay violence!'” he said. “And when you click on the Web site there’s a picture of Matthew Shepard, and the questions are ‘Has this kid ever flirted with you?’ ‘Has this kid ever tried to pick you up?’ ‘Has this kid ever made you uncomfortable?’ This is disgusting.”

I passed along that comparison between Paryani and Shepard, the gay college student who was robbed and beaten in Wyoming in 1998 and left tied to a fence to die. (His two killers were sentenced to life without parole.)

“All I can say,” Castronovo replied, “is that everybody has different views, and I would understand if some people found it offensive. But once the truth is known, I hope it would be a lot less offensive.”

What truth?

Castronovo told me to talk to Jackson’s lawyer.

When I asked Thomas Breen about the Web site he said, “I know it’s causing a lot of consternation.” But had I seen the Mike Royko column? “I think that will explain what’s going on here,” he said. “I know what’s going on is intended in good faith.”

He faxed me the column, which ran in the Tribune on December 6, 1989.

“I’m not sure what the ethnic background of Haroon Paryani is,” Royko wrote, “but based on a pending lawsuit, it’s likely that he is not an Alan Alda type.” The suit had been filed against Paryani and Checker Taxi by Josine Plooy, a model and real estate student. By Royko’s account, she and her roommate, Lisa Christiansen, climbed into Paryani’s cab and noted that the meter was running before the cab drove off. They protested.

Royko went on: “Paryani turned around and screamed, ‘You bitches, you’re going to pay.’ Plooy then demanded that Paryani stop the cab. Paryani refused and shouted, ‘You bimbos, I’m going to make you pay.'” The two women jumped out when the cab slowed for a red light at Clark and LaSalle. “Paryani then got out of the cab, tackled Plooy, dragged her across three lanes of LaSalle, and proceeded to slam her against his cab. Paryani slammed Plooy against the cab for several minutes, shouting, ‘You bitch; you bimbo, you’re going to pay.'” According to Royko, Paryani attempted to stuff Plooy back into the cab, slamming the door on her legs. Plooy and Christiansen managed to run to safety when a passerby pulled a gun.

The suit dragged on. At one point Paryani acted as his own attorney and filed a brief in longhand. “This is my answer,” he wrote. “All the allegations of woman is wrong. She abused the public service–abused me beat me up–said the most bad words against me & my appearance–this is the case of discrimination & theft both.” He concluded, “Rodney King had scars & videotape. What do I have. You know what I got ‘God.’ I am sure He will help me.”

A verdict awarding Plooy $300,000 in damages was overturned on a technicality, and then she, Paryani, and Checker settled out of court.

“That’s where all this is coming from,” said Breen. “In fact, people were originally telling us that this guy had been very mean to several other customers.” Breen’s job is to save his client, which means giving a jury reason to believe that whatever Jackson did, he was provoked. Breen said he hadn’t seen the Web site and had nothing to do with it, but he won’t ignore what turns up: “I’m interested if there are any leads, but I’m doing a more traditional investigation.”

Girl With Itch Scratched

Kayla, a little girl with a genital rash, is at the center of Bruce Norris’s new satire The Pain and the Itch–and when Tribune drama critic Chris Jones saw the play at Steppenwolf, Kayla troubled him.

He thought a child was the wrong character to carry so much of the play’s metaphorical weight. Moreover, Kayla took him out of the play. A new parent, he found himself wondering about the little girl playing the part, especially in a scene where Kayla lifts her dress a little so her grandmother can see the rash. “What did she know? What did she feel? What was she told?”

Jones wrote a critical essay about The Pain and the Itch for the July 24 Tribune. He fretted beforehand. A lot of people he respected had seen the play and had no problem with it. He realized that just a month earlier he’d written a piece accusing Steppenwolf of getting stodgy on its main stage while Red Light Winter in the Garage Theatre offered not only characters who were “young and live on the edge” but the “unmistakable whiff of danger.” So here he was attacking the dangerous show Steppenwolf had just opened on the main stage–as if any theater that lives on the edge won’t go over it once in a while. Jones believed he had something to say that was valid, but it was only an argument, not a cause. As he told me later, “It wasn’t really my intention to sort of change anything.”

But that’s what happened. “There was an enormous response from readers–30 or 40 letters–and most had seen the play and agreed with me,” says Jones. The Tribune also received a long letter from Michelle Dolan, the mother of one of the two little girls who alternated in the part. The following Sunday the Tribune carried the letter in its entirety.

Dolan wrote that Norris’s “dark comedy . . . is completely lost on my daughter.” The swearing was nothing little Darragh hadn’t heard before; the shouting was what she’d decided grown-ups have to do when they’re onstage. As for the itch–her daughter surmised “that maybe Kayla, too, was on the swim team” or else used the wrong shampoo. In short, Dolan’s daughter brought a “different reality” to the play, and it protected her. Dolan wrote, “My daughter acting in the play works because her experience is overwhelmingly positive.” But she didn’t want to belabor the point lest she seem defensive–“which I am not in the least.”

Point, counterpoint. Issue aired. But there had been and would be more. Two days before Dolan’s letter ran, Misha Davenport had weighed in at the Sun-Times with an article headlined “Child acting or abuse?” Davenport observed that “no one in his right mind” would call The Pain and the Itch appropriate for children, yet a key role was being played by a first grader (Dolan’s daughter) and a kindergartner. “Not surprisingly,” the show “has left many theatergoers feeling squeamish.”

On August 4 Jones was surprised to get a call from Dolan. She was releasing a statement. After she and her husband had been “twice blindsided with negative articles” they’d demanded that Steppenwolf speak up and “defend their production and us as parents, and protect our reputation.” They felt Steppenwolf hadn’t. “Instead, they threatened Darragh’s career, and when we still persisted, she was released.” Her daughter was out of the show.

As the original blindsiding critic, Jones thought it was odd that Dolan had called him. (“I wouldn’t have,” he told me.) He asked Steppenwolf for its side of the story, and the theater said Darragh’s parents had asked for unacceptable changes in the production and created an intolerable “uncertainty” about their daughter’s participation. On August 5 he published a story he took no pleasure in. Jones pointed out to me that his original essay had named neither of the young actresses playing Kayla. “If you do that,” he said, “to some degree you’re doing what you accuse the theater of doing”–exploiting a kid. He wanted to explore ideas. But this story was full of names and charges and bruised feelings. The ideas had been left behind.