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Bodies of Grace Notes

I wish I’d digested the dictionary definition of “somatic” before attending a community poetry writing workshop at Access Living. The non-profit organization advocates for an inclusive Chicago that enables people with disabilities “to live fully–engaged and self–directed lives”. Part of their mission is to generate programs that give voice to creatives with disabilities. I met my writing teacher, Beth Finke and her guide dog Whitney, at the door of the poetry workshop one evening in early June. 

When we entered the room, someone shouted, “Hi Beth!” and it became obvious the greeter attended one of Beth’s writing classes. I can’t go anywhere these days where I don’t run into a current or former student of Beth Finke’s. We sat on either side of a BethFinke-WritingOutLoud-525x8-CoverDesign-245x373young woman artfully made up with dark eyebrows, eyelashes and exquisite dark purple lipstick. Stephanie, her name tag read, had a white cane leaning on her chair.

Stephanie turned to me, asked in a low voice, “Is she the author of Writing Out Loud”?

“Yes, she is. Have you read it?” 

“I’m listening to it now.” 

Our blue-jeaned leader identified himself as Matt, a poet and artist with an intellectual disability, schizophrenia. Invisible disabilities are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and spoken of freely at Access Living. They include conditions like chronic pain, chronic fatigue, intellectual and psychiatric disabilities and chronic dizziness. I belong.

Matt tried to describe somatic poetry, using the work of poet CAConrad. He said writing somatic poetry is a bodily experience. All his words following that beginning were Greek to me. They bunched up together, slipped and slid all over each other like a fast-forwarded recording. I mulled my exit strategy. 

CAConrad invented soma(tic) poetics. It involves writing “rituals” like this:         (SOMA)TIC POETRY EXERCISE (abbreviated)                                                                         Wash a penny, rinse it, slip it under your tongue and walk out the door…get your pen and paper and write about POVERTY…”

1A CAConrad photo by Jason Dodge
Poet CAConrad

Conrad describes himself as “the son of white trash asphyxiation whose childhood included selling cut flowers along the highway for his mother and helping her shoplift.” I can, more or less, relate to this life, but not to his writing.

Matt instructed us to write a “ritual” or a somatic poetry exercise, like CAConrad’s. I choked out a few deep breaths and copied the style of the CAConrad ritual. We  ended by reading a few of our rituals aloud. One woman, who sat in front of the signer, described what she was hearing. Stephanie, the dark-haired beauty with the white cane, wrote about throwing her glasses out the window then frantically digging through the dirt to find them. I wrote about the best way to die.

Soma(tic) Ritual. Here & Now.  Find a small bible on your shelf. Look up passages on the best way to die. Read one out loud in the elevator as you descend to the lobby. Announce to the doorman that you are a preacher now. Consecrate him and circle out. Recite passage after passage walking down the street to the birds and the bees. Ask the guy sitting on his steps to read a passage to his big black dog. Go to the park and tell the mother with her stroller you are practicing the best way to die. Read a passage to her baby. Assume the position of one who is reducing the weight of the here and now. Make your voice move words into the trees so they know the best way to die too.

Later, when I couldn’t sleep, I clicked on “somatic”: relating to the body, especially as distinct from the mind. Ahh. We came together with distinct bodies using our distinct voices—diverse souls creating our own flash community. A perfect grace note to Access Living’s mission.


The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990. Special thanks to Marca Bristo, founder, president, and CEO of Access Living who worked tirelessly to draft and win passage of the ADA.

It Pays To Know The Right People

It Pays To Know The Right People

Inauguration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot 2019

I hopped on the number three bus at Chicago and Michigan Avenues having no clue when to pull the cord for the Wintrust Arena. It was 7:30 A.M., too early for rush hour but people dressed in their finest stepped up at every stop as we moved on down the avenue. There was no mistaking the Wintrust bus stop. The cross streets swarmed with jaywalkers, Uber poolers, truants, bus trippers, policemen, VIPs and parkers from the garages. Parades of citizens streamed toward the entrances lining up for the eight o’clock opening. Volunteers in blue “Bring In The Light” t-shirts hoisted colossal signs pointing to the ADA entrances.

“What’s going on?” asked the bus driver.

“Lori Lightfoot’s Inauguration,” I said.

“Oh! The new mayor!” he said. “Great day. End of the Machine.”

Inside the Arena, old friends who’ve fought entrenched politicians for decades worked the event. Hi, Regan! Hi! Hi! I heard victorious voices all around helping me and other revelers find our way. They directed me to two seats, eight rows from the stage. The personification of old-style politics, the Daley clan, took their seats behind me. Even they couldn’t stop the trickle of joy dripping from their upended well-oiled machine.

A Chicago policeman came running over to say hello. Matt Baio and I have known each other since we both worked for Speaker Michael Madigan in the late 1980s. Matt’s official post is guarding the inside entrance of City Hall. We’ve seen each other every time I’ve marched into that building protesting the previous mayor, or bought a dog license, or renewed my senior bus pass. I greeted him laughing, anticipating he’d be tickled about the new mayor.

“Matt, I just finished writing a book and you’re in it,” I said.

“What? No way! When’s it coming out?” 

“Early 2020. But I changed your name to protect you.”

“Is it about the time you asked me to be Bill Clinton’s driver?”

Yes, it is. And we had a riot reliving the story of what Matt, the silent navigator, overheard at the wheel in March 1992 during Illinois’ presidential primary.*

“Is it too late to use my name? It won’t hurt me. I’ve never been in a book. I’d be proud. Use Matthew Baio. I’ll buy a bunch and pass them out at City Hall. I gotta go tell my daughters. I’ll be over there by the stage if you need anything.”

My friend Peter arrived via train and bus from the far southwest side of the city. A security guard said he was ticketed for the bleachers and prevented him from joining me. As it turned out, I was also ticketed for the bleachers. I had been inadvertently led to the VIP seats. I eyeballed Officer Baio through crowd. After a brief kerfuffle including murmurs on the security guard’s walkie-talkie, Peter and I secured our prized seats. Reverend Jesse Jackson’s bodyguard sat down next to us keeping eyes on The Reverend in the row ahead.

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Reverend Jesse Jackson and Peter Feldman

After the elected officials paraded onto the stage and took their seats, the diminutive powerhouse, Lori Lightfoot, was sworn in and came to the microphone. The articulation of her vision for Chicago hit every issue. And right smack in the middle of her speech she highlighted a fear I’d expressed to her during a meet-and-greet in a friend’s condo at the beginning of her campaign. 

“I’m looking ahead to a city where people want to grow old and not flee. A city that is affordable for families and seniors,” she said.

Was it because we were so close that Peter and I felt as if our new mayor was talking directly to us? Would we have sighed with relief feeling she actually cared about us if we’d been in the bleachers? I don’t know. But I do know that it still pays to be friends with the right people in Chicago.

_______________________________

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Officer Matthew Baio Lori Lightfoot Inauguration May 20, 2019

 

*To find out what Matt overheard, go to City Hall and ask him. Or, even better, read my book I Want To Be In That Number, due in early 2020.

Murder of Writers

Murder of Writers

England’s WildPoplars honored me with an invitation to join the Murder of Writers collective in her online “Bird Garden”.  Her fluttery description and the story itself follows. 

Regan Burke flew into my window through one of the three blogs I follow (this is a self-imposed limit): Center for Humans and Nature. It slightly bends my own rules as it’s a series of essays – rich, thought-provoking, humbling in their quality. This post is like the best short story – it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and plunges you into a different world demanding some kind of resolution. Along the way it surprises (another reason to admire it) and it made me smile. It illustrates how nature so often asks us to reflect on phrases we occasionally find ourselves farting!

The piece also flew me where I will never get to – a City apartment during Canada’s big freeze, reminding me of the company of corvids. I’m delighted our exchange of e-mails and reading a preview of this post inspired Regan to expand her original piece into this even more captivating short story!

“Grey Crow Morrigan” for the Murder of Writers in the Bird Garden

Whenever I settle my fingers onto the keyboard to write a chapter of my memoir, I have only a vague idea of where I’m headed. I pluck away at simple sentences until mental snapshots start to bubble up from an underlying current swirling with all the original emotions like debris from a dislodged beaver dam.

The publisher of my book, I Want To Be In That Number, thinks comparing my sister to a garbage-eating crow needs a few particulars to support the claim. I concede the point. When the 2019 Polar Vortex was on its way to Chicago at the end of January, I decided to spend the deep freeze at home writing about my strange and estranged sister. I opened my MacBook the night before the weather-forced hibernation to get started on revising my manuscript

I snapped shut the laptop, wallowed in self-pity for a while, then figured out how to tee up Amazon Prime with the full 18-hour series of The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel, a cheery antidote to agonizing over pilfered memories. I threw stale bread crumbs onto my 4’x10’  third floor balcony hoping to nourish the house sparrows, finches and chickadees before they huddled together in eaves and cracked soffits to wait out the cold. Then I shuttered myself in and Dapped all the little crevices around the balcony door that were spritzing air into my not-so-insulated living room. That was the extent of my preparation for the coldest two days ever recorded in Chicago.

Day One: Minus 23 Fahrenheit: I awoke to a thick film of silver ice covering all my windows. There were fractal peepholes to the outside world circling the balcony door handle and outlining my hardy geraniums on the indoor windowsills. The ice curtain blinded me to the humanity moving around behind the windows across the street and any fool pedestrian walking in the feels-like-minus-40 degrees. The windows emitted a luminous cold so I grabbed a goose-feathered blanket, hunkered down far away from the frozen glaze with Henry the dog and the TV remote.

My binge-watching was interrupted mid-morning by a thrashing whomp, whomp whomp on the concealed balcony. Henry, an old West Highland Terrier is unfazed by nature’s surprises. He remained in his sleepy stillness.

I rose to inch toward a clearing in the frosty glass.

A murder of crows had come to visit.

I once told Josh Engel, a crow expert at Chicago’s Field Museum, that I’ve tried everything to attract crows to my balcony, including bits of raw chicken.

“You don’t have to do that. They’ll eat anything. Try peanuts,” he said, “just a handful. They forage.”

The American Black Crow measures 20 inches long with a 3-foot-wide wingspan. The crow and its cousin, the raven, show up in every ancient mythology as bad omens of storms, disease, or death. Indigenous tribes in the US Pacific Northwest believed the raven was a keeper of secrets that he doled out to help or harm men, women and children. Eskimos thought the crow could steal souls, a Faustian trickster. Flying around all of North America, they scavenge garbage and munch on mice, insects, seeds, fruits, leftovers in the country, suburbs and cities. They’re smart. They hide their food and come back for it. Research shows they don’t forget a face. If a crow looks you in the eye, she will remember you, follow you down the street and caw to you for attention, like a wild pet. If you’re aggressive toward her or her family, she’ll call her friends over and they’ll all yell or even dive-bomb you.

One summer I monitored a group of black-crowned, grey-backed crows on the southwest coast of Ireland. The Eurasian Grey Crows flapped about the bee-buzzing fuchsia hedgerows surrounding the Crow’s Nest Cottage a mile up the hill from Roaring Water Bay. They settled on dead branches of a crab apple tree near the terrace where I had my morning coffee. I’m not a birder, but enough of a bird lover to know these tuxedoed beauties were not something I saw in the trees around Chicago.

In Irish folklore the Grey Crow is called the Morrigan, a female foreteller of doom. I learned from Hibernian folklorists the name Morrigan is derived from the word “maere” connoting terror or monstrousness as in night-mare. Maere is my sister’s name. The “rigan” in mor-rigan translates as queen, as does my name, Regan. Maere-Regan equals Mor-Rigan, or the nightmarish queen.

Dear god. Was the spirit world telling me I’m lashed to the monstrous Maere forever? 

The Morrigan bewitched me every morning of my month-long vacation. She lunged for the leftovers I threw out for her: plaice, red potatoes, asparagus, allowing her brood to pick up her scraps. I tried staring into her eyes, but she demurred, a typical cheeky Irishwoman playing hard to get. Or was this a shapeshifter, my sister reminding me she turned her back on me thirty years ago saying I was too fat and poorly dressed to be in her
family?

Since I’ve come up blank in trying to write vignettes and anecdotes about Maere, I feel safe imagining the Morrigan simply stole the memories; that she’s trying to save herself from whatever nasty old childhood narrative I may expose in my book.

As the arctic blast began serrating its way from the North Pole down toward the Lower Forty-Eight, the goal of every bird in Chicago was to gorge themselves, find a safe place and remain still to conserve the calories heating their bodies. The weather should have kept the crows out of sight.

Instead, it brought them to me.

Day Two: Minus 21 Fahrenheit. The ice wall on one of my windows melted enough for a small lookout. I abandoned Mrs. Mazel and placed a chair well away from the clearing to observe the crows without startling them. I prayed. Come back. Please come back. They first landed late-morning. A mighty set of black wings fluttered a plumped-up body onto the balcony railing and the rest followed, a family of five, dipping to the balcony floor for leftovers. They flew off and came back. Again. And again. And again. I remained still throughout, trying to lock eyes with the alpha bird. After hours of transfixation, out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, I trembled. Uh-oh. Were these bad omens? The Morrigan, come to steal more memories?           

In the late afternoon the temperature rose to minus two degrees. I strapped Henry into his dreaded boots, packed myself in layers of cold weather gear and set out. We clipped along the crackling tree-lined sidewalk.  A crow cawed overhead.

Again. And again. And again.

The Polar Vortex ice curtain melted after the two-day blast moved to the east, opening up my quasi-natural bird blind. The cautious crows kept their distance when I was moving around inside. For days afterwards when I walked Henry in front of my building, they called to me. I watched them fly from the elms to the light poles to the ginkgo tree until they reached my balcony and dropped onto the deck to scrounge for the handful of peanuts I keep there.

One day, a few weeks after the first visitation, I walked out of my kitchen and spied a crow perched on the balcony. I froze. We locked eyes. He wiggled on down the railing and jumped into the balcony floor foraging for those peanuts, then flew off. Is it possible I bonded with this ominous creature I love so much?

It reminded me of a time I was in Los Olivos, California, visiting my friend Cappi. I noticed a gregarious Magpie couple nestled on a shed in the garden of a gift shop. Magpies are large black and white birds, the most intelligent of the crow family. They never fly over to the Midwest where I live, so I was quick to go round and have a chat with them. They yack yack yacked back to me. I was so enchanted that poor Cappi had trouble moving me on. We had been poking each other inside the shop to ask how to get 9c06b374-84d4-4609-b1ce-4a29cdb444cbto Michael Jackson’s ranch, each too embarrassed to admit our curiosity. Cappi finally pulled it off and we drove five miles up Figueroa Mountain Road to Neverland for a look-see. MJ had been dead for about two years then. We managed to snap each other’s photos in front of  Neverland’s iron gates, just as the guard came along to shoo us away.

Two Magpies yacked and magged at us the whole time from the olive trees overhead. They followed us all the way back to town, swooping down on the car and yelling, as if they were chasing us away from some danger at Michael Jackson’s ranch.

“Cappi! Look! They’re protecting us! Look! Look” I yelled over and over. Cappi averted her eyes. She was terrified.

Los Olivos, a historic valley town in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara was established in the 1880s by a young farmer who planted 5,000 olive trees on its ridge. This is wine and olive country, a perfect place for late lunch. We sat outside in the afternoon chill at the Los Olivos Cafe, one of the dining spots in the movie “Sideways.” I had hoped those Magpies would join us before the sun dropped behind the mountains, but they returned to their perch behind the nearby garden shop. Cappi, a perfect host who never balked at my entreaties to mingle with California nature, hated the cold. Wrapped in her serape, she was just grateful she didn’t have to duck away from birds while we savored our olive-oil drenched capellini.

Years ago I bracketed metal plant hangers to my balcony railing and hung bird feeders from the hooks. The small birds entertained me into the summer months until one day I got a call from the building manager. A resident and chronic complainer (maybe more than one) reported that as she was walking up the sidewalk to the front door she felt bird droppings on her head which she was sure came from my third-floor balcony. The manager and I laughed that it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person. Nonetheless I had to remove the bird feeders. How will crow droppings, five times the size of sparrows, look on the sidewalk below come spring? The new building manager will be hit hard. He vapes under my balcony.

Crows may be harbingers of doom, mythical tricksters and stealers of souls, but every species I’ve encountered has captured my heart, not my soul. If they’ve stolen the bad memories of my sister, I forgive them for all of it.

I gladly delete that chapter from my book.

Stranger from the Natchez Trace

Stranger from the Natchez Trace

St. Louis is categorized as an urban, damp, subtropical climate. My family moved there in the mid-fifties for about a year. Air conditioning, a novelty in mid-century America was treated like a passing fad in St. Louis. It’s the hottest place I’ve ever lived.

Summers for a nine-year old came with mixed blessings. During the day, people opened their windows, turned the fans on or sat outside in the shade. On the plus side, I liked being able to see my mother through an open window, to call to her, hoping she’d express kindness and pride in whatever I did to try to impress her. On the minus side, I didn’t like that she could overhear my outside conversations and arguments with friends or sisters.

My parents never made friends with neighbors or with our friends’ parents, like others did, but for some reason they introduced a stranger into our family the summer we lived in St. Louis. Lucien Gaudet appeared without notice or explanation. My father worked in an office everyday or traveled but Lucien Gaudet didn’t work with him or have a job. The few friends my parents did have were old Georgetown University classmates. An Ole Miss alum, Lucien Gaudet, with his dark curly hair and slim athletic build cured his voice on Mississippi’s Natchez Trace, far from any experience of my parents. To them, Lucien Gaudet represented a charmed South that exuded a Gatsby-like idyll of white-suited straw-hatted men and linen-and-lace women who lazed under wisteria vines drinking Gin Rickeys all day. 

He taught me how to read notes and find them on the piano. I imagine my sisters received special attention from him as well because all three of us liked him. He brought us a Dalmatian puppy from the Budweiser farm. We wanted to name the dog after him but he suggested we name her after his mother, Antoinette. Tony for short.

Lucien Gaudet and my mother drank together. Drinking buddies, they were. My older sister thinks she saw them in bed together. To escape the heat they sat on the back steps drinking cold beer. She made him laugh and he made her happy.

One day I could no longer stand swatting Mississippi River mosquitos away from my perspiring skin. I took my bike out to get relief. After a spin around the neighborhood, I rode into the driveway toward the back of the house to show off my skills in front of my mother and Lucien Gaudet, hoping for a compliment. I rode on the outside edge of the pavement to give myself a wide berth. As I turned my wheel to circle around, I felt the tires slip on the sandy grit splayed around the shoulder of the asphalt. My front wheel slid fast and hard like a dislocated knee and I went down. I skidded along the pavement with my bike and scraped the side of my thigh and calf.

“Don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for you,” my mother shouted, “Get up!”

Lucien Gaudet didn’t say a word. They blinked and turned back into themselves to a place I didn’t belong. 

And I, I felt sorry for myself.

The Women in My Family

My cousin, Therese, called me in Chicago to say my mother, Agnes, was in the hospital in New Jersey.

“You’d better come,” she said, lovingly snatching the decision right out of my hands.

On the way down the Garden State Parkway from Newark Airport Therese gave me the lowdown. All my mother’s organs collapsed at the same time and she keeled over. Emergency workers attached her to a ventilator at the nursing home and took her to the hospital. She was brain dead.

Life support. Two words that say someone must make a decision about life and death.

'We can't pull the plug until the paperwork is finished.'None of my three sisters called to inform me about Agnes. I don’t know if I spoke to them as I made arrangements to fly to New Jersey. They all lived on the east coast: Maere in New Jersey, Gael in Connecticut and Stacy in Vermont. Cousin Therese had called Stacy who remained in place, waiting to hear.

Agnes looked surprisingly peaceful, considering she’d lived her last five years in dementia and the previous fifty-five years in an alcoholic haze. I picked up her hand and noticed her freshly painted nails. Therese answered the question on my brow.

“I took her for a manicure three days ago,” she said.

My mother’s chest rose and fell as the ventilator pumped oxygen into her body. The nurse looked in and said, “You can talk to her. She can hear you.” She can? That made no sense. She hardly heard me with a live brain and certainly wouldn’t have wanted me to talk to her dead brain. Don’t be an ass, I could hear her say.

But, just in case, I whispered, “It’s Regan. I’m here.”

Therese left to care for her own family, and I waited alone for the doctor. He gave me the medical information—alcoholic brain syndrome—and said the hospital would require signatures from all four sisters to turn off the ventilator.

I called Stacy and Gael to make arrangements for them to fax their signatures. Maere, who lived nearby, said she’d come to the hospital. By the end of day she hadn’t shown and I couldn’t reach her.

I overnighted with Therese and spent the next two days at the hospital trying to contact Maere. Finally I told the doctor she was unreachable.

“We’ll have to proceed without her,” I said.

His measured response said Maere had been pleading with him every night on the phone to keep her mother alive and that she was sure my other sisters would want that as well. That threw the disposition of my mother in contention. So now the hospital required all the sisters to be present to sign, witnessed by a hospital employee.

They all came, each with different emotions.

Gael was angry that Agnes had disrupted her life. Stacy was happy to help but had to rush back to Vermont. Maere scowled at me. At the funeral, an old bartender friend confided that Maere sat at his bar those days before Agnes died, crying,“my sister’s trying to kill my mother.”

When the nurse turned off her artificial life, something tickled my spirit.

Agnes. She heard my whisper.

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Lori Lightfoot Everywhere

Lori Lightfoot Everywhere

Small souvenir dishes clutter the top of the old painted dresser next to my bed, overflowing with hair clips, earrings and obsolete campaign buttons. “Lori Lightfoot for Mayor” buttons spill out of their dish and take on a life of their own. The badges slip between pages of books, stick onto errant scarves and slide into the sock drawer. When they’re discovered I exclaim almost out loud, “what the heck…?”

When Chicago’s 2019 mayoral campaign heated up in the fall of 2018, I grabbed a half a bag of buttons from the Lightfoot campaign. A few times every day someone noticed the Lightfoot badge on my coat, and said something like, “I like Lori.” I’d then unhook my button and hand it to them. I carried extras. Whenever I slipped my hand into my pocket or dug to the bottom of my purse, I pricked my finger on one of the pins.

A month before the end of the campaign, I volunteered in the Lightfoot office making calls to arrange details for her appearances. I’ve worked in campaigns for fifty-five years and no matter how popular my candidate was, scheduling an appearance at an event

was always like pulling teeth. With Lori, as soon as I announced why I was calling, the person at the other end fell all over themselves to accommodate her. I returned a call to a business-oriented non-profit group who wanted Lori to meet their Board.

“How many Board members will be there,” I asked.

“The whole board,” he said. “About seventy.”

“Is this a regular Board meeting?”

“Oh, no. We’re pulling it together just to meet her.”

Right then, I knew she’d win.

The Lightfoot office was full of young workers with names I’d never heard before. Some were experienced, most not, but they had everything under control. After a few days, I left the office with another bag of buttons. I’d be more useful walking around handing them out to anyone who expressed interest.

One day I ran into a machine politician who asked if I was helping Lightfoot.

“They don’t know what they’re doing over there. I can’t get anyone to return my calls.”

Of course they did know what they were doing. Lori Lightfoot ran an outsider campaign, untethered to old-time Chicago politics. The staff wouldn’t know—or care to know—political operatives tied to the old Democratic machine.

On the way home from a mayoral forum one evening, I hopped on the 151 bus. A young man dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black tie sat next to me. I recognized the uniform.

“Are you on your mission?” I asked.

“Yes, I’m a member of the Mormon Church. Do you know about the Prophets?”

I said I knew a little about them.

“Most people say Jesus will come again when all the world is wicked. But I believe Jesus will come when the righteous become valiant.”

And then he got off the bus.

Hm. Yes, that’s how I’d describe Lori Lightfoot: righteous and valiant. Maybe I should start looking for Jesus.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Returning home from work one evening I found my houseguest, Jim, wearing my almond-colored wool cardigan. I had fallen for the horn buttons on the shawl-collared sweater at the Saks Fifth Avenue sales rack a few months before. Jim was on the small side, and in those days I was large but not yet extra large. It fit him. He was out of work, out of money and out of luck.

Jim had been caught in a leather bar in the one of the last police raids of its kind in Chicago. News outlets had stopped publishing names of raid victims in the mid-seventies. But in 1983 some obtuse Sun-Times reporter or editor or publisher had decided to let one last story rip through the city to sell a few more papers, and, in turn, destroying the lives of the closeted men.

The day the story broke Jim called to say he’d been fired from his job. I left work and hurried to his apartment. He put the paper in my hands, folded to the story. I questioned why he was in that bar. 

“Regan, I’m a homosexual.”

We had been inseparable friends. I had no clue, no suspicions, no wonderings. And there I was, feeling my deepest sympathy for my best friend, yet unable to conceal my shock. I had no words of comfort. I didn’t know how to be the same friend I was the second before he told me.

The oversized couch in my second-floor one-bedroom apartment was the perfect landing for my old friend. When he lost his apartment, there was no question that he’d stay with me until he could get his life back on track. The problem is that I couldn’t keep our friendship on track. At first I welcomed his coming out. Giving free voice to his homosexuality put him on a pink cloud of joy. 

I always thought he’d been too traumatized by his marriage and divorce to date other women. Now he was suddenly talking about dating men. He was so happy in his new freedom to tell me the details. I feigned interest, but after a while I couldn’t stand listening. I resented the sweater-wearing incident but brushed it off. A few days later I came home to Jim wearing one of my dresses.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said.

“Is this how it’s going to be? You’re going to start wearing my clothes?”

I did mind.

My dear funny sophisticated friend had transmuted into his true self. I had no room in my experience for this new kind of man and hated my own callousness. The next day I returned home and Jim was gone. He took a room in the Chicago Avenue YMCA but would not return my calls. Then he disappeared. I searched for him for almost ten years. His family eventually reported he was living in Washington. When he finally called I flew to him. AIDS had ravaged his body. I made amends without reliving our past.

We watched the first days of the Clinton Administration during Jim’s last days in the VA hospital where he died.

Jim wasn’t the first, nor the last, to come out to me, just the biggest surprise. He had been in the Army and Clinton’s campaign promise to repeal the ban on gays in the military gave him reason to contact me at the last. He wanted to celebrate what he thought was the beginning of the end of discrimination against him. 

Jim died before Congress betrayed him by enacting legislation to keep the gay ban policy in place. In the end Clinton was forced to compromise with Congress and directed the Pentagon to “don’t ask” military applicants about their sexual orientation, and for those in the military, “don’t tell” you are gay. Forcing homosexuals into their military closets was infuriating. In 1993 it seemed we had come so far. But I understood. It was my same sentiment when Jim came out to me ten years earlier: it was ok to be a homosexual, just don’t talk about it. 

Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell was finally repealed in 2011. In 2019 Chicago overwhelmingly elected a mayor who is married to her wife. And a man announced his candidacy for the President of the United States with his husband by his side. 

I march with Jim in love and spirit in saluting these and other saints who refuse to allow themselves to be excluded from American life.