Many of you might know me only through my byline on the masthead or, if you're a bit older ( and drunker ), by my time in the bars as editor of Nightspots. Hey, I WAS that guy from the magazine. But if you have never really met me, I'm about to tell you something which may shock and appall you: I, Kirk Williamson, am a huge nerd. Okay, so no shocked faces out there? I suspected as much.
But so many people say they're a nerd without the track record to back it up. I can prove it, because in terms of specific nerd taxonomy, I am what is called an obsessive nerd. Try to make small talk with me a party and I'll plod along, half-interested and anxiety-ridden, until you bring up one of a few topics I am obsessed with and then say goodbye to your friends, because you are mine. I hope you poured yourself a big drink; you're gonna need it.
Within the last decade, one of the primary nerd-out topics that has constantly been on my mind is genealogy. I was raised by my mother and my grandmother, an imposing Sicilian-American woman whose parents ( and their parents and their parents and ... well, you see where I'm going ) all came from the same village about 35 miles outside of Palermo. My grandma shared this passion for genealogy and was the keeper of all the family history. After she passed away in 2007and I realized that almost everyone from that generation was gone or on their way outI logged onto ancestry.com and that kicked off a deep fascination with my family's past. I was able to trace that side of my family back at least eight generations on many branches. Last year, I even took a bucket-list trip to Sicily to visit the very town that my ancestors came from. Looking out every morning to the peak of Mt. Calogero, as my people had done before me for hundreds of years, was a grounding and eye-opening experience.
My people had always been simple folk. Farmers, fishermen, dutiful Catholic wives. The type of people not typically written of in any great detail in history books or newspapers. When they came to America, they sold produce from horse-drawn carts and got thankless jobs in filthy factories, all to fulfill the American promise. Even down to my generation, most in my immediate family work to live. No CEOs or inventors or really any profession that brings joy or fulfillment.
In the past year, my attention was brought to the storiesor rather, the lack thereofof two of my great-great-grandfathers, Salvatore Quattrocchi and Salvatore D'Angelo. Within two weeks, I had discovered that each of these men were put into unmarked graves here in the Chicago area, their families having been too poor to afford a more honorable burial.
Mr. D'Angelo lived with his family on the defunct Purple St., in what is now the campus of UIC. The neighborhood was blighted with crime-filled saloons and barrels of toxic waste, which I imagine contributed to his death in 1906, leaving my then 13-year-old great-grandmother fatherless.
Mr. Quattrocchi had come to America ahead of his two very young sons and wife, who was already widowed. He died here, alone, in 1892, and for all I know, none of his many decendents here in Chicago ever knew where he was buried, much less that he died here. It turns out, he's a mile away from my apartment at Calvary Cemetery in Evanston.
After a vigorous fundraising effort, I was able to afford a proper grave marker for Mr. Quattrocchi. I was not able to raise enough for Mr. D'Angelo's, but he's only been dead for 114 years, not 128 years like Mr. Quattrocchi. His day will come.
Their lives were not so remarkable as to merit documentation. They lived, loved, probably yelled a lot ( because Sicilian ) and their memories were left to disperse into dust, leaving no trace. I've tried to rectify that and to tell their stories.
Since the announcement of the final issue of Windy City Times, I've been forced to assess what exactly it is I have been up to in the past two decades at the paper. I can list individual memories and try to extract lessons like some mad fabulist, but I am too awestruck by the general lessons I've learned.
What can seem like a day-to-day grind reveals much deeper truths when you get a chance to step back and view it as a continuum. For as much as I grumble about deadlines and incorrect margins and develop neck pains from stress, I've come to the realization that this job has been everything to me. It's not only given me a chance to tell the stories of Chicago's LGBTQ communityin many cases, stories that may not have been told, lived by people who may not have thought themselves worthy of documentationbut in so doing, I have found real fulfillment and connection to truth. It is the fruition of the unsung efforts of my ancestors, who perished in anonymity so that I could write this essay today.
Okay, so maybe they may not have foreseen the whole gay newspaper part, but I'd like to think they would have found some slice of pride in it all.
You may have noticed that earlier in this essay, I referred to my ancestors as "my people." When I think back on all of the wonderful souls I have worked with and for and in the service of during my time at Windy City Times, I can only regard you all as my people, as well. And as much as I've nerded out about telling the stories of those who came before me and shared my DNA, it pales in comparison to the stories I have been even a small part in telling about you. My people.
And that's my story.