Hiding Between the Lines

Over the course of 20 raucous years, J. J. Jameson became a fixture on the city’s lively poetry circuit—a loud, drunken declaimer out of central casting. So his many friends were more than a little shocked when Massachusetts police came to town this spring and arrested him. He had been active in his church, loyal to a fault, unusually talented—and his writing revealed such intimate details of his life that people on the scene thought they knew him. But they didn’t know he had been doing time for murder, and had escaped. They didn’t even know his real name.

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Illustration: Lisel Ashlock

J. J. Jameson’s final poetry reading didn’t go so well. It took place on an unseasonably warm February night at Coffee Chicago, a quiet little café in Edgewater frequented by homeless people during the day and bohemian poetry fans each Friday night. Jameson drew a crowd, as always-30 or so people packed together to hear his salty, self-deprecating poems. It was supposed to be a comeback of sorts-Jameson, the loud, drunk, curmudgeonly, 65-year-old vagabond poet who had set himself up as a sort of court jester and wise fool to the Chicago poetry scene, was emerging from yet another lengthy bout with yet another attack of one of his many chronic ailments. Something about jaw surgery this time. But the night took on a somber, valedictory feel. The man of honor did not wear the foppish suit, suspenders, and bow tie he usually donned to read his poems in public; instead he was in his shabby work trousers, a T-shirt reading “Manure Movers of America,” and a brown fur hat that sat too high on his head. He wobbled a little as he approached the microphone, owing to the extra Vicodin he had swallowed earlier that night to take the edge off the pain in his jaw. He struggled through a couple of poems, but it hurt too much to talk, and the painkillers wouldn’t let his mouth form the words right.

It was going south. But Jameson, moist eyes twinkling under the café’s track lighting, with his hangdog jowls and crooked smile, didn’t want to disappoint. So he called surrogates up to the stage to read his poems in his stead. With some embarrassment, his friend Shelley Nation, a bespectacled redhead who wouldn’t look out of place at a Metallica concert, read “The Puttering Penis,” Jameson’s puzzled response to the long-running play The Vagina Monologues. As the evening wore on, Jameson became increasingly undone. There is some dispute as to whether he was drinking that night, or if it was just the pills, but he became loud and began indiscriminately bear-hugging members of the audience. He created enough of a ruckus that John Starrs, the white-bearded poet who emcees the Friday night readings, later apologized for Jameson’s antics to the woman slinging coffee behind the counter. She didn’t mind. Starrs, though, thought Jameson didn’t look so good, and made a mental note to keep in better touch. He didn’t know how much longer Jameson would be around.

When it was time to go, Jameson’s friend David Gecic, who runs The Puddin’head Press, a specialty publishing house that printed Jameson’s first and only book of poems, tried to take his keys. But Jameson grew angry-he had a starchy, willful independent streak that, like his accent, marked him as a New Englander-and he wouldn’t give them up. Gecic knew the drill. So he waited for Jameson to stumble to his beat-up Oldsmobile and followed him home to his Austin apartment. To make sure Jameson drove inside the lines, Gecic placed a blue hardhat up on the driver’s-side dash in the hopes that Jameson, looking into the rearview mirror with bleary eyes, would mistake him for an unmarked squad car. If he thinks a cop is tailing him, Gecic reasoned, he’ll drive carefully.

If he’d only known.

J. J. Jameson had been a fixture among Chicago’s so-called saloon poets for nearly 20 years. He had published a book. He was about as close to being a public intellectual as an alcoholic day laborer could become: he passionately defended labor rights on cable-access television, discussed poetry on independent radio, and lionized the memory of the Revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine from the podium of the College of Complexes, a weekly debate group that attracts outsiders and political obsessives. He campaigned for Mayor Harold Washington’s 1987 re-election, arranging for gang members in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood to drive little old ladies to polling places. He once put in a call-and got through-to Mayor Daley to push a pet project in Humboldt Park. He fought valiantly to save the Maxwell Street district from development. He was deeply involved in the affairs of his 140-member Unitarian church in the Austin neighborhood, serving as chairman of its board for one year, attending services regularly, and looking after the aging congregants. He loathed guns, and he worked with the police in his neighborhood to combat gang activity. He cultivated hundreds of often intense friendships with people of all stripes in Chicago, from Communists to nurses to chemists to established writers to teachers to bums. He was a fiercely loyal friend.

He also murdered John Pigott in Saugus, Massachusetts, in 1960. And he pleaded guilty in the death of jailmaster David Robinson in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1961. And he escaped from a state prison near Walpole, Massachusetts, in 1985, and fled to Chicago, eluding capture for two decades. On a blustery March morning a little over a month after that night at Coffee Chicago, a team of Massachusetts investigators finally caught up with Jameson. They called him by his name, Norman Porter, and took him home.

And so Jameson the poet was revealed to be Porter the killer, and together they became the Killer Poet. Photos of Norman Porter, forlorn and handcuffed, made the front pages in Chicago and Boston. In Hudson, Massachusetts, the woman who had been set to marry Pigott-she called him Jackie-when he was gunned down in a botched robbery 45 years ago celebrated the news with a cake made especially for the occasion, with “Caught” spelled out across the top in icing. In Chicago, David Gecic fled the siege of press calls-the Web site for The Puddin’head Press, complete with Gecic’s contact information, was one of the first places Googling reporters landed looking for information about Jameson-for a friend’s farm to stare into a bonfire and collect his thoughts. Both of them faced the same puzzle, but from opposite directions: How can a man you think you know to the bone end up being so radically different?

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