Poetic Justice


Norman Porter sits at a small table in a room at MCI?Cedar Junction.
He's wearing a dark green prison uniform and, at 65, he's lean and his
gray hair is long and thin and combed back from his forehead. His face
is pale and he looks tired. But in his eyes there's the dark glimmer of
a deep and restless intelligence. Back on the West Side of Chicago, his
one-room apartment is as he left it: The worn plank floor is covered
with flea-market Oriental rugs and boxes of books, CDs, and old
letters. There are tables pulled together, making one long desk for his
three computer monitors, keyboards, and a printer. The walls are
saffron, and behind a thin Japanese screen is his bed; hardcovers and
paperbacks are scattered around it, and an abstract female nude hangs
above his pillows and mattress and a  script for a documentary he
was writing about the Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World.
There's a bucket of paint under the kitchen table, some loose nails and
screws, though most of his tools are locked in the trunk of his white
Cutlass Supreme, sitting outside Shelley Nation's apartment. That's
where he parked it the morning of March 22. He'd gone over to Nation's
to pick her up to move some snow tires out of her old apartment, and
they decided to take her Taurus instead. When he climbed in, did he
feel anything different? Was there a slight change in the air? Could he
have known without knowing that this was his last day as J. J. Jameson?
That after 20 years of freedom, his true name had come to claim him?

Porter wakes in his cell at 3 every morning. He lies in his bunk a
moment, then rises and uses the toilet. He switches on the light above
the sink, opens the jar of instant coffee, and pours some into his cup,
filling it with hot water from the faucet. Metal isn't allowed, so he
stirs it with his finger, picks up his book, and begins to read. The
books in the prison library go only to the late 1990s, but he's just
finished a memoir by former congressman Tip O'Neill and a volume on
Harry Truman. Now he's making his way through a biography of American
writer Dorothy Parker. He believes she's somebody he should know more
about.

This is nothing new, this hunger to know things. Even 50 years ago,
when he was a wayward kid in Woburn, this was true: He'd hot-wire a car
and drive it hundreds of miles from Massachusetts to Civil War
sites—west to Gettysburg, then farther south to Manassas. He'd stand
there, free and far from home, and look at the monuments to the fallen,
imagine being them, so many of them just kids with guns. He didn't like
guns, and now, decades later, he hates them. His old friend and fellow
poet Shelley Nation says that in the past few years she's heard him say
at least a half-dozen times that he hates guns and wishes they didn't
exist. He wishes we could get rid of them altogether.

She probably didn't know how much he meant that, how personal it was
for him. Now that he's back behind the walls, he says he has so much
history to overcome. “Actually, it's 25 minutes of history, but I've
been overcoming it all my life.”

Those 25 minutes happened 45 years ago: John F. Kennedy was weeks from
being elected president; Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird had just
been published; and one of the top songs on the radio was “The Twist.”
Porter was 20 years old and had fallen in with an ex-con named Teddy
Mavor. To this day, Porter doesn't know why he got involved with Mavor;
he'd always worked alone, never had a partner, and was a simple thief.

But it may have begun in Woburn when Porter was 13 years old and had a
job picking up construction debris in his boss's 1932 Model B truck. It
was decent work, and he liked sweating and being outside on his own.
One sweltering afternoon, Porter got the Ford stuck in a sandpit and
couldn't get it out, so he left it there and walked home. He says when
he didn't have it back on time, his boss reported it stolen and Porter
was arrested.

His mother and father never came for him; they thought he needed to be
taught a lesson, and he was sent to a boys' reformatory for five months.

“They beat the shit out of me there.”

“How'd you feel?”

“Disowned.” He shakes his head. “Something snapped in me after that.”

“Were you angry?”

“No, anger's not the right word for what I felt. I didn't have enough
sense to be angry. But I don't think my father, mother, and sister knew
what to do with me.”

When he got out, he started stealing cars. But somehow it escalated;
somehow he found himself cruising and drinking beer with Teddy Mavor
and looking for a place to rob. It was the night of September 29, 1960.
Five months earlier, Mavor had worked at the Robert Hall clothing store
on old Route 1 in Saugus, and he knew it had a safe.

They wore long raincoats and fedoras. Tied under their eyes were
blue-and-white polka-dot bandannas. One of the men carried a .20-gauge
sawed-off shotgun and had a pistol wedged in his belt. The other
carried a pistol. But everything went wrong: The place was crowded with
customers; the store manager only had one key to the safe when two were
needed; and in no time at all one of the store's young salesmen, John
“Jackie” Pigott, was lying on the floor, blood gushing from a .20-gauge
hole in his neck.

Dottie Johnson is Jackie Pigott's first cousin. “He worked at Lynn Gas
during the day and Robert Hall's at night,” she says. “He was saving
money to get married to Claire Wilcox.” The last time Johnson saw him
alive, he'd come to her father's florist shop to pick up something
pretty for Wilcox.

Johnson looked up to Pigott. He was handsome in a boyish way, and she
was drawn to his kind and quiet nature, his faith. She felt she could
always tell him whatever was on her mind. As he was leaving, she
lingered outside with him.

“Jackie, I'm getting fat.”

Pigott just smiled at her. “Dottie, if you go to church and pray to God, God will hear your prayers.”

Even now, as she sits at her kitchen table in southern New Hampshire,
Johnson's eyes fill and she has to look away. She couldn't be happier
that Norman Porter is back in prison, that his 20 years in Chicago as
J. J. Jameson are over. Until his escape in 1985, she'd attended his
commutation hearings to do whatever she could to make sure he was
denied early release.

Another man is dead, too: David S. Robinson. In May 1961, he was the
chief jailer at the Cambridge facility where Porter was awaiting trial.
Porter and another inmate, Edgar Cook, were making a run for it with a
smuggled pistol. “Porter pointed it at Robinson,” says Gordon T.
Walker, Porter's attorney of over 30 years. “And Cook yelled to shoot
him. 'Shoot him!' But Norman couldn't. He couldn't do it.” Cook yanked
it from him and shot Robinson to death.

“I didn't kill anyone. But I did wrong.” Porter looks down at his
folded hands. “When I came here in 1961, I was a criminal. But when I
walked off in '85, I'd transformed myself. And it started with Jack
Fitzpatrick right there.” He points to a corner of the room, its
cinderblock walls painted institutional yellow. “He was the future
commissioner of correction, and he talked to me like no one else ever
did.”

“How do you mean?”

“No judgment. I didn't feel judged.” His eyes fill and he looks out the
window past tall chain-link fences to the 25-foot-high concrete
perimeter of the prison. “He said to me, 'Kid, if I could help you,
what could I do for you?'

“'I don't want to be a thief anymore.'”

Shelley Nation first met J. J. Jameson through a friend. Jameson was
working on the friend's house and soon began working on hers. He
installed new windows, hung maple cabinets, sanded and polyurethaned
her bedroom floor. He ripped out the old pipes in her basement and
replaced them with shiny new copper. And he did it all for free; he had
other carpentry jobs during the day and worked on her house nights and
weekends. He taught her how to do things, too; together, they retiled
her bathroom floor.

“You don't need any damn man, Shelley. You can do any-damn-thing any asshole man can do.”

She fed him dinner a lot. Afterward he edited her poetry. He had a good
eye for faulty grammar and excessive poetic devices. Nation was in a
failing marriage, and when it got really bad, he'd cook her a meal at
his apartment and they'd talk.

“He's a good listener. He never puts other people down, and he'll hear your story without judging you.”

She left her husband on a Monday and was staying with a girlfriend.
That Saturday she bumped into Jameson down on Printers Row, at a local
literary fair. He was wearing his customary thrift-store baggy pants
with no belt—he hated belts—a clean but untucked button-down shirt, and
his trademark skully cap with a pen lodged behind the snap above the
visor. She told him her story, and he gave her a hug and said, “Hey,
come by on Monday and we'll get you a place.”

Within an hour on that Monday he'd found her an apartment and scoured
his own for extra dishes, utensils, skillets. “Shelley, let's go get
you a bed.”

He drove her to a store that sold new and used furniture and
appliances. Jameson knew the owner, Mike, “who was wild about J. J. I
mean,” Nation says. “you can't go anywhere in this city without people
loving J. J.”

He got her a brand-new queen-size bed at 80 percent off. They strapped
it to the top of his Cutlass and drove it back to her new place. Later
he mounted a rack on his car “the J. J. way,” Nation says. He laid
two-by-fours on the roof and screwed them right in, then bolted a steel
rack to them. Inside the car, the screws stuck straight through the
fabric of the ceiling.

“He was the least-materialistic person I've ever met,” Nation says. “I mean, with J. J. it was always about people.”

Porter was given two “from and after” life sentences for his role in
the murders of Robinson and Pigott, which means that when he was
finished serving the first life sentence, he was to start serving the
second. Porter was an eighth-grade dropout and nearly illiterate at the
time, and he assumed he'd never see the outside world again, but from
his cell he took 16 correspondence courses and earned his GED. He began
to study literature through Boston University. “Literacy allowed him to
express himself well for the first time,” says his lawyer, Gordon
Walker. And Porter started writing poetry, something he's done
regularly ever since.

There's a plaintive, cantankerous tone in much of his work, and while
his verse lacks a more refined poet's finesse, you can feel a sustained
outrage against injustice throughout.

“Are you a good poet?”

“No, I am not a good poet, but I put myself into my not-good poetry and make it good performance.”

EXPERIENCE

By Norman A. Porter

When I first came here

Two hundred years ago

They took off the ball & chain

And set me into a barbed-wire brick courtyard.

I asked:

“What do I have to do to get out of here?”

They said:

“Just go through the Green door.”

My eighth-grade eyes

Counted to twenty-one Green doors

Before education wearied me.

I paused to rest . . . .   

They went . . . .

And painted the Green door Brown.

Porter became more than a model prisoner; during the tense months after
the riots at Attica state prison in upstate New York, the inmates at
Norfolk, where he was then incarcerated, organized a prison strike, and
Porter became a liaison between inmates and the warden's office.

“He saved lives then,” says Walker.

Porter was head of the lifers' group, he wrote a prisoners'
constitution, and, at one point, started a prison newspaper,
Inside/Outside. “He was always doing something constructive,” Walker
says. “Some say he kept his nose clean in prison just to get early
release. But look, 20 years in Chicago, and he didn't commit one crime.
Not one.”

Jameson did get a ticket for driving the wrong way up a one-way street,
and he bounced a check he eventually paid, but sometimes he'd drift off
awhile, too. Sometimes he'd drink himself into a hole he wouldn't crawl
out of for weeks. It first got real bad in the late '80s. He was
drinking two or three pints of vodka a day—Dimitri's, which he'd buy
cheap at Zimmerman's package store on West Grand and North Wells. “I
guess I was killing the pain.”

“Pain from what?”

“Me—me and my family.”

But even then, sipping himself into oblivion, he tried to keep his mind
engaged. With a pint in his overcoat pocket, he toured the Polish
stockyards and free museums: the Swedish American Museum, and the
Chicago Historical Society on North and Clark. He'd listen to the
lectures.

“Why lectures?”

“I needed explanations. I wanted an explanation to things we do not understand.”

And he often had to explain himself. “You wouldn't see him for days or
weeks,” Nation says. “But then he'd just show up. One day he plopped
two of his teeth on my kitchen table and said the pain was so bad he
had to drink and pull them out with pliers. A few times he said to me
he wished he was as good at taking care of himself as he was other
people.”

There was a prostitute who worked the corner in front of Jameson's
apartment building. One night she propositioned him and he told her she
needed to stop selling her body, that she should get herself into
church and off the streets, and he helped her get a job working at a
local grocery store.

Denise Buckman is 27 years old and has known Jameson for over five
years. “J. J. is the most sweetest person I ever met,” she says. “He
really stuck his neck out for me.” Buckman wanted to start a daycare
center for working families in the neighborhood. There used to be a
center in the basement of the Third Unitarian Church, but it failed and
the church leaders were reticent about supporting a new one. Jameson,
who was chairman of the church's board of trustees, convinced the other
members to get behind the project. He gave Buckman constant advice. He
was at each of 27 safety inspections of the space and did all the work
himself to bring it up to code. He designed and produced the facility's
fliers, letterhead, and envelopes. “Every month he'd come in and count
the kids. He knew all their names and they would run to him: 'J. J.! J.
J.!'”

Buckman started with three children and soon was caring for 50. The
place was such a success that she opened a second location, which
Jameson helped her secure. Last year she was named one of Chicago's
Entrepreneurial Women of the Year, and Jameson helped write her speech.
The ceremony was at Navy Pier and Mayor Richard Daley himself was in
attendance.

“J. J. called me Sweet Pea or Scooby-Doo, and he was always correcting
my grammar. For my birthday one time, he ran across the street to his
apartment to get me something. He came back with a little candle with
some dust on it he'd wrapped in tissue paper and put in a gift bag. He
was sweet like that.”

Martha, who asks that only her first name be used, remembers his gifts,
too. She's a university professor and has published several books of
poetry. In the late 1990s she and Jameson were a couple. She wrote a
chapbook of poems for him. And he gave her things; he'd be working on a
house and the owners would let him keep whatever he'd find between
exposed studs or in crawlspaces or under subfloors, and he'd give them
to her: bits of jewelry—trinkets, really—and a small leather purse.

Porter's voice takes on a deeper resonance. “We became human-being
lovers and then we became man-and-woman lovers. I loved Martha so much
I had to leave her.”

“Why?”

“I'd have to tell her who I was. You can't do that to a woman. I'm glad I didn't.”

“Why not?”

“See, I would tell nine truths and one lie and I had to leave Martha because I couldn't tell her that lie.”

Martha sounds relieved to hear this. She's married now but never knew
why Jameson just disappeared. “I fell in love with his kindness and
gentleness and that he wasn't at all pretentious. He told me, 'I don't
have any money, Maatha.'” She mimics his New England accent.

“He was a ball of energy,” she says. “And not one day with him was the
same as another.” She'd go to his place, and they might get into his
car and go to junkyards to look for parts or he'd cook her a meal from
whatever was in the fridge. “He was a good cook, and he constantly told
me stories.” It's strange, she says, because many of the stories she's
hearing about him now he'd already told her: that he grew up in
Massachusetts, and his dad was called Dutchy even by the kids, that he
learned carpentry from his father, who was very strict, and when his
parents died, he couldn't go to the funeral. She didn't press him about
the reason, though she knew it hurt him. “But he just went on helping
people,” Martha says. “It seemed there was always some new person in
his life he was helping come out of alcoholism or get a job or
something.”

Porter's exceptional prison record earned him unprecedented support
from law enforcement officials; at his first commutation hearing, in
1975, the very man who had prosecuted Porter, Middlesex County District
Attorney John J. Droney, testified that he was not opposed to Porter's
release. David A. Haley, former deputy commissioner of correction,
spoke on Porter's behalf. “I had never testified for an inmate before
or ever again after that,” he says. “This was so unusual to have
somebody from within the administration testify for an inmate that I
had to get official permission from Frank Hall, the commissioner, who
testified for him as well.”

“Why did you do it?”

“Because over the years Porter had shown evidence of good citizenship. I thought he'd turned his life around.”

“What do you think of him now?”

“Well, I don't condone his escape, but I'll go on record as saying I don't believe he would be a danger to society.”

Governor Michael Dukakis commuted Porter's life sentence for the
killing of David Robinson. Porter might have been freed then, but he
had yet to start serving his second life sentence. “And,” says Walker,
“you can't be commuted from a sentence you aren't serving.”

Porter began serving the second sentence, but it was two more years
before the next scheduled hearing. It was set for February, but then
came the howling snow of the blizzard of '78, and the hearing was
postponed. That fall, Dukakis was unseated by conservative Democrat
Edward King, and one of Governor King's first official acts was to
cancel all commutation hearings on the docket.

Norman Porter was transferred to a minimum-security prison, where he
earned more than 60 weekend furloughs. Walker says, “He visited his
parents, attended a writing group, and he always returned to prison on
time.”

By 1983 Dukakis was back in office; Porter's commutation hearing was
scheduled for December 1984, but by now District Attorney Droney had
lost his reelection bid, and Frank Hall was no longer the commissioner
of correction.

But Dottie Johnson was there.

“The room was packed with people,” she says. “All there for Porter.”
When it was her turn to speak, she took out a black-and-white
photograph of Jackie Pigott, smiling into the camera in a coat and tie,
and set it on the table. She then took from her purse his high school
graduation ring and placed it next to the photo. “The entire room went
quiet. Nobody said a word.”

When it was Porter's turn to speak, he told them he was truly sorry for
what he'd done, that after 24 years in prison he had changed. But then
he told them something else: He said he never pulled the trigger on the
gun that killed Jackie Pigott. The commutation board took this denial
as evidence he was not completely rehabilitated, and Porter was sent
back to the prison, where he fell into a dark depression.

PAROLE

By Norman A. Porter

Carefully transposed

In dragon dress

A yellow butterfly

Took me on wing

And gallantly stowed me

Amongst the larvae

Of life's next dream.

I tried to be patient

And await my birth

But there were stirrings

Of a pupa passion for a new life.

I graced the cocoon, an imago,

In benediction of an escape artist

And fled the bondage

Of the yellow butterfly.

One year later, on a bone-cold day in December, he stepped on a bus just outside the minimum-security facility and slipped away.

For important poetry readings, Martha says, Jameson would put on his
best thrift-store clothes: a white button-down shirt, bow tie, and
suspenders. “He'd say, 'We have to get gussied up, Martha. Let's get
gussied up.' He takes poetry very seriously, and he felt it was his
mission to get all voices heard. If somebody got up there and was
anti-anything, he'd let you have it. He'd lean over to me and whisper,
'It's a screed, Martha. It's a screed.'”

“What do you think of his poetry?”

“He writes like I did at 16 or 17. . . . No, I wish I wrote that well
then, but I do wish he'd draft more than he does and didn't tell story
at the expense of poetry. He'd say the opposite about me.”

Many of Porter's poems are political. One of his heroes is Thomas
Paine, an intellectual father of the American Revolution and one of the
first to introduce the idea of social security for the poor.

CITIZEN TOM PAINE

By Norman A. Porter

Your birth was questioned.

Your death is certain.

Your life transfigured all.

No live “The United States of America”

Without you.

No death to monarchies everywhere.

And, god, too, assigned his proper place.

Still every new life blessed

From citizen to country.

How soon we forget

Who our ancestors are.

We nourish on the fruit of your labor.

We breathe air free from tyranny.

We trod on soil not owned by divine right

Nor claimed by kings or queens.

We live by the rule of law however imperfect

With tragedy we have forgotten you,

Tom, I apologize.

Nearly every Saturday night in Chicago, Jameson attended the College of
Complexes at North Lincoln Restaurant over on Lincoln Avenue. For more
than 50 years, this diverse group of left-leaning intellectuals has met
to discuss issues as varied as its members, and on April 2, Jameson was
to have led meeting number 2,704, whose topic would have been “Nelson
Algren's Chicago/Has Much Changed? J. J. Jameson's Singular Analysis of
Social Issues in This City.” He never made it.

On March 22, Jameson loaded Nation's snow tires into the trunk of her
Taurus. He suggested they give them to the janitor at the Unitarian
church. Then he said their mutual friend Deb had sent Nation a kiss,
and he leaned over and gave her a peck on the cheek.

“I didn't know it,” Nation says. “But it was my goodbye kiss.”

At the church, she waited in the car for Jameson to do what he did all
the time: go give somebody something. “It's strange I stayed behind,”
she says. “Because normally I'd go with him. But something made me
stay.” Ten minutes later, Jameson was being led onto the sidewalk by
two men in suits, his hands cuffed together behind his back. “His face
looked so forlorn and I was so worried about him. He said, 'Shelley,
you go on.'”

Buckman was just returning from a walk with all her kids. “I saw these
men leading J. J. away. His back was to me. I thought, 'Did he get a
ticket?'”

Not long after Porter's arrest and extradition, Gordon Walker visited
Chicago and addressed Jameson's colleagues at the College of Complexes.
“Some were asking, 'Well, who is this double murderer?' I told them
that, first, Porter is not a vicious killer, and he didn't remake
himself out here; he remade himself in prison and came out here the
same guy as before. Norman tried to work with the system, but it failed
him and he walked away from it.”

Nation's voice rises: “All my friends who've met J. J. are worried
about him now. The one girlfriend who never met him said to me: 'You
must feel so betrayed.' But no, J. J. never lied about who he was. He
was that. He'd made his transformation already.”

Spread out on Dottie Johnson's kitchen table are stacks of news
clippings from the crime and trial, copies of court documents, photos,
stories about Porter from the early years till now. And there's the
framed photograph of Pigott.

“Do you think Norman Porter has changed? Is rehabilitation possible?”

She looks out the window at the maple tree in her yard. “No. I think he's lied to himself so much that he believes it.”

Shelley Nation's going to write a poem about Jameson's Cutlass outside
her apartment, the homemade rack on the top, how the inside of the car
is filled with books of poetry and work clothes and newspapers, most of
them damp and moldy. There's mildew forming on the floorboards,
advancing on something Jameson bought and never got around to using: a
bottle of mildew remover.

“J. J. would love that, the irony.”

A deep-chested correction offi-cer motions Porter to the door. Porter
stands, his hour outside his cell now over. His shoulders slump
slightly, but his eyes are clear and focused. “I fell in love with
being a citizen. I fell in love with it.” And then Norman Porter,
a.k.a. J. J. Jameson, clasps his hands in front of him and is led down
the long concrete corridor for the longer walk back to his cell, back
to where he started so many years ago, before he'd metamorphosed from
criminal to what he became, before he discovered all the words inside
him and all the good work he had yet to do, the gunshots of a cool
September night still echoing through his head.  

ADVERTISMENT