Both had been written by Delia Jean Hickey. Her long letter began:
In early March, I was assigned to complete a research comic for a class at SAIC [School of the Art Institute of Chicago]. I chose to cover the history of the St. Pat's Day Queen Contest, an event I have participated in for the last 2 years (and am sadly to old to participate in any longer).
I knew anecdotally of Mayor Daley's alleged Dago remark to '98 Queen Jen Battistoni, as my family and found the story rather amusing. I thought I would work it into my comic somehow.
Hickey's letter continues, but let's break away for some history.
In 1998 the Tribune's John Kass reported an exchange at a City Hall photo shoot between Mayor Richard M. Daley and Jennifer Battistoni, the unlikely named queen of that year's Saint Patrick's Day parade. Kass wrote that Battistoni told him she'd overheard Daley saying to a judge who was half Italian herself, "What's with the dago queen over there? Oh, I like this. As soon as we get a dago on the judge's panel, we get a dago queen."
Battistoni thought it was funny. She told Kass, ""So, I walked over to him and started in on him. I said, `What did you say? I heard that,' I told him. I was giving it to him, teasing him, and I was a few inches away from him. I said, `Who looks Irish here? What's with the dago stuff?,' I said. He got all upset and started blushing real bad. I mean, he turned red like you couldn't believe and sweating. And he started giggling, you know, the way people do when they're nervous. It was a little painful, but then I told him that I liked him and I still do."
But Kass didn't write a lighthearted column—the headline, which he probably had nothing to do with, was "Dispute Over Slur Shows How Words Can Rain On Our Parade"—and when the column ran, nobody was laughing. ""I've never said that in my life," Daley vowed at a news conference. The president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, told Kass, "If she said she heard it, she has a hearing disability, she's audio-deprived." And Battistoni, whose mother, as it happened, was a Chicago cop, said that wasn't what she'd told Kass at all. In a second column, Kass added fresh details and stood by his story. Reread those columns today and you're not likely to doubt his version of what took place.
But at roughly the same time, an unrelated Kass column landed him on much ground. This one told the story of his brother's stolen beater, which either had or hadn't been found by Chicago police and promptly stolen again—from police custody. Kass assumed the worst, said so in print, and the denials were long, detailed, impassioned, and credible. Seeing the two controversies as a teaching moment, I weighed in. At the time, Kass was just getting his feet wet as the Tribune's new page-three columnist, and I favored him with Grade A avuncular wisdom to the effect that all a columnist has going for him is his reputation.
Fourteen years later, I had no memory of either of those 1998 controversies. Delia Jean Hickey's letter brought them back. It seemed she'd been having trouble setting up the Jen Battistoni story in comic book form. The more she thought about what had happened, the less amused she was. Her letter to me said, "As a former parade queen contestant, I can tell you that contest is no joke. It is a tradition that celebrates the gathering of numerous educated, confident and therefore beautiful young women bravely putting themselves out there, not only for a chance to be queen, but to make friends and exhibit the aforementioned qualities. Winning that crown is not easy, and to see Battistoni deprived of the joy of that accomplishment thanks to a couple of big mouthed meatheads burns me up."
Struggling for a way to tell the story, she'd come across my old column on the purloined beater. In it I quoted a policewoman in the auto theft detail who'd laid into Kass in language hot enough to fry bacon. When I asked Officer Suzanne Chevalier what made her so mad, she replied, "It's like any profession. You stick up for your fellow writers, or policemen, or whatever."
This impressed Hickey. "For a bit there," her letter said, "I couldn't understand why I was (am) so obsessed with this Battistoni thing, but after hearing about Chevalier I thought, 'Maybe that's what I'm doing, I'm sticking up for my fellows.'"
The story she wanted her comic to tell, she realized, was about a queen who didn't get to enjoy her crown. It's a story that reminds me of the old Kenyan proverb "When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers." Or as Hickey explained to me, "Whether or not Daley said it and whether or not Kass lied, it became about them."
To understand what Hickey was getting at, I needed to know more about the Saint Patrick's Day Queen competition. She was happy to discuss it.
"My aunt did it when she was a teenager, and she got pretty far along. And my cousin Katie did it, and she made a couple of rounds. And then my dad said, 'Why don’t you?' I was 26, and I said, 'I'm going to school now. I have things going for me.'" But she entered.
The competition lasts all day at the plumbers' union hall, and the girls are told at the get-go that there will only be one winner, but they should all spend the day having fun and making friends. And Hickey did. She described an experience that cut her down to size and built her up at the same time.
"I felt I had the best shot. I had this little attitude," she told me. "It's OK to feel in your context that you're smart. My context was Miller's Pub, and everybody in there is saying 'You've got it, Delia, you've got it.'" But the competition took her out of her context. Instead of friends, she found herself surrounded by "serious contenders." As the competition's website explains, the judges are looking for "grace, sincerity, beauty, poise, personality and wit." It's easy to think you have all you need until you're surrounded by opponents with a whole lot more. "To win you've got to act confident with everybody," Hickey said, "and it lasts all day from 10 AM to 6 o'clock and like, the hardest part of the contest is to stand there all day long in high heels and still be smiling and not be bitching about it."
In the final two rounds, which she didn't reach, the surviving contestants talk to the judges. "It's all kind of improvised. You go up to them and talk to them and you have to make eye contact and interact without interrupting the other girls. It's like the gift of gab. This year I was really hoping get that far but who knows what they write down in their little books. So it's over for me now." She only wishes she were young enough to try again. "I sure do. I sure do," she said. "It's like, even if you don't feel you're the most confident person and you don't have the most going for you and you see people who do, it's like 'Hey, I want to be like that! I want a little more of that in my life.'"
Kass found it suggestive and newsworthy that Battistoni's mom worked for the city and Battistoni suddenly repudiated her story. So do I. So did Hickey. But when she thought twice about it, she also wasn't happy that Kass "painted himself as a hero, and her as this poor frightened girl at the mercy of this vague, evil Daley machine." Her comic turned into a tale of two "meatheads," not one, and in my eyes it became an interesting media critique: When big-shot journalists slam big-shot pols in the name of the little guy, the little guy is often the one who winds up with the bruises. Daley was reelected mayor three times after Kass's columns ran; Kass is still the Tribune's highest-profile columnist. Battistoni (who didn't respond when I tried to reach her) has her memories.
Hickey launched Station in Life, her website explains," as a outlet to channel nearly ten years' worth of waitressing experiences." At the moment she's working at Fat Cat on North Broadway, which she describes as "cool music and people my age." But for six years she worked at Miller's Pub, finally quitting, she says, "because it was just time to move. I'm going to be graduating in December, and it was one of those things where it's 'Please don’t let me graduate and still be doing this job!'"
After getting an associate degree in the east, coming to Chicago, and waitressing, Hickey enrolled at SAIC because she liked to draw but "my drawings were weird and i didn't know how to make them better." She graduates in December and understands the future offers nothing that remotely resembles a guarantee to anyone who wants to draw comic books. And yet, "I'm happier than I've ever been." Out in San Francisco, there's someone named Liz who bought a copy of Station in Life and then not only asked Hickey to be her Facebook friend but actually posted a YouTube video marveling at how wonderful the comic was.
Hickey sent me the link.
She tells me, "I called my mom and I said, 'Guess what! Some girl bought my comic I didn't ask to buy my comic.'"