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.

When Is This Nightmare Going To Be Over?

When Is This Nightmare Going To Be Over?

On November 8, 2016, I settled into an election night victory party in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. The first bit of bad news came over the TV early: Indiana Democratic Senate candidate Evan Bayh lost. Wizened political operative Keith Lesnick flashed a guttural look, “That’s bad.” 

Fourteen hours later, fellow campaign volunteer Susan Keegan and I drove home to Chicago. We had no victory, no trophy, no good news. What we did have was despair, hopelessness.

Years before, in April 1992, I returned from a grueling 90-hours a week job in the Bill Clinton primary campaign. A psychiatrist treated me as if I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Within a few weeks, Hillary Clinton came to Chicago to speak at a women’s forum. I stood alone in the back of the room, away from the crowd. Someone came to me and said Hillary wanted to see me backstage. She greeted me with a teary hug, said she was sorry I left the campaign, asked if I would consider working at the Democratic Convention in August. I told her I was too tired, that I wouldn’t survive. She understood, thanked me for all I did to get the campaign off the ground and assured me her door was always open. We parted as friends, equals really. When I later worked in the Clinton Administration, I saw her many times. My admiration for her superior intellect increased, always undergirded by her unscripted and genuine kindness toward me. 

I felt a thousand little cuts during the 2016 campaign, watching her withstand the cruelest name-calling and ugly attacks not only by her opponent but by my own friends. For months after the election I felt like she died, like I died, like the country died.

At the end of that bleak November, I looked out over out my MacBook Air, watched three crows bounce from bare tree limbs to the ground and back—caw, caw, cawing at each other about their Thanksgiving dinner. I believed they knew me, saw me looking at them. They restored me, enlarged my soul, allowed gratitude to seep in, grateful for them if nothing else. I wondered for the millionth time since election day what Hillary was doing.

All of a sudden, something popped up in the corner of my screen: “White House forced to reverse course on Trump’s golfing.” I instantly broke off communing with my wild pets and opened the link to this urgent story. I don’t dislike golf, but I’m not interested either.  th-3  th-4Unknownmsnbc-logo_0  However, I had involuntarily begun to relinquish my time to so-called breaking news. I clicked. The next thing I knew a little box appeared with a photo of a pair of shoes I coveted. Hmmm, I wondered if those were on sale. I clicked. As I lifted out of my chair to take a break, I saw two pop-ups I had to read first:  “Is a ‘deep state’ subverting the presidency?” and “Bald Eagle Population Booming In Chicago.”  

It’s two years later and this compulsion, this savage addiction is my sentence for seizing the fantasy that something is going to happen to reverse the outcome of the election.

Any day now.

Bring On The Border Collies

Bring On The Border Collies

On cloudless Saturdays in the early aughts, I sloughed off my dead weekend chores—grocery shopping, haircut, the laundry. I chose the beach. I’d fill my backpack-chair with a bottle of water, mosquito spray, dog treats, a beach umbrella, Vanity Fair, and a small purse.

I’d strap the chair to my back, grip Usher’s leash and walk across Michigan Avenue through the bee-buzzing garden leading to the Oak Street Beach underpass. I’d hurry past the watery underground restrooms, holding Usher tight to keep his nose off the ground. We’d climb the cracked cement stairs landing on the maniacal bike path that gripped the edge of the beach.

During mid-week Junes, Park District beach workers spend early morning hours bulldozing clean sand over the previous winter detritus. Seagulls argue over the gleanings, anticipating the arrival of their human garbage dumpers.  

Usher and I would dodge the slipstream cyclists and jump down into the sand that swallowed up the sound and stench of cars on Lake Shore Drive. We’d set up shop at the shoreline. I faced my chair away from the sun to protect my ultra-violated skin, screwed the umbrella to the armchair, and settled in with my magazine. Usher dug into the sand under my chair and rested. As the beach turned to follow the sun, I’d stretch, take Usher for a swim and reposition my chair. 

Nearly every week I’d have lunch with a friend on the shady deck of the Beachstro Cafe. The hamburgers were lousy. But we sat with our backs to the skyscraping neighborhood, at the water’s edge, hearing nothing but the lake licking the sand and seagulls singing over the water. 

We might as well have been on a Bahamian island.

One day the lifeguard rushed over to me on the beach, “get your dog out of the water!”

“Didn’t you see the red flag? No swimming. E. coli. It’ll make your dog sick.”

I packed up immediately, ran home and gave the poor guy a bath.

Chicago beaches are tested for e.coli every day in the summer. In the 2000s, high concentrations showed up regularly, indicating a saturation of fecal matter. DNA studies showed the e.coli landed on the beaches from seagulls and washed into the lake. 

(Huh? It was in the sand, too?)

The press reported there was a 24-hour delay in test results so at that time, when the beach closed due to water contamination, it meant we had been exposed the day th-1before. The Chicago Park District solved the problem by hiring Border Collies to chase the gulls off the beach. 

A dime-size major ecosystem disrupter has recently multiplied in the Great Lakes. The quagga mussel hitchhikes from the Ukraine on ships moving through the St. Lawrence Seaway, siphoning and digesting microscopic food, including e.coli. These good-guys/bad-guys may have put the collies out of business.

My beach days were over the day the collies started shooing away the gulls. Usher didn’t mind, but I was constantly reminded of bacteriological threats. I don’t know if the quagga have made the beach safe now, but the Chicago Park District has abandoned their Border Collie program. 

I, however, have found simply watching the water reflect the ultramarine sky from the crazy bike path is just as idyllic.


Do you have nuisance birds? Wild Goose Chase, Inc. uses Border Collies to humanely control Canada Geese, seagulls, pigeons, sparrows, starlings and others. Contact them here.

Taking The Blinders Off

After separating from my mother in the 1960s, my father grifted around Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with a string of girlfriends in swanky neighborhoods—Manhattan, Palm Springs, Brentwood and Palm Beach. A lawyer, he engaged in non-contractual legal work negotiating contracts for labor unions.

He eventually bought a coal field on a railroad spur south of Terre Haute, a semi-legitimate business with headquarters in Chicago. He registered the business as Great Lakes Coal Company. Loan guarantees from the State of Indiana paid for equipment to strip and haul the coal from the land. Once he had the equipment financed, he had leverage to obtain bank loans for mining operations.

The price of coal dropped in the 1980s, and when he could no longer make a profit, he shut down the company and walked away from his financial responsibility to the State of Indiana. With the help of a La Salle Street lawyer, he concocted a scheme to defraud the banks holding his loans, starting with hiding his assets in a trust.

I was named one of the beneficiaries as well as the trustee.

My father directed me, as the trustee, to stash $500,000 in a Canadian bank he’d found for this purpose and subsequently to invest $250,000 of the stash with his broker. I signed a lot of legal documents, blinding myself to what the consequences of my own actions might be. He bragged to me and his closest friends how he was getting away with cheating his creditors, the State of Indiana and the IRS. Breaking laws came easy to him, doubled down with the aid of a high-powered attorney. I trusted that he’d keep me from legal harm. I secretly feared he’d harm me in other ways, however, if I didn’t go along with his scheme—by cutting me off, not from his money, but from his approval. That fatherly approval seems to have been an ancestral deficiency, masked as love. It has caused permanent fissures in my entire family and led to my own fits and starts in psychotherapy.

He flew to Las Vegas, checked into Caesar’s Palace and pretended to gamble away his money to provide an alibi to bank investigators for why he was broke. Florida th-11homestead laws protected his property from creditors, so he moved from Chicago to a get-away home in Palm Beach where he could live with his new girlfriend and her little boy.

“I’m done with Chicago,” he told me, “I can’t stand living in a town where a ‘queer black man’ is the mayor.” He’d repeat that forcefully to friends over the phone adding, “There’s nothing here for me anymore.”

When Harold Washington was running for mayor I never heard my father express prejudice or bigotry of any kind about him. But he was obsessed with saving face, not from family and friends, but from future marks. So after Washington won the 1983 election, my father used sudden hatred for the Mayor to concoct a dramatic reason to get out of town before the creditors closed in and exposed him. He seemed to embrace his manufactured prejudice. He knew his wealthy friends would nod in solidarity. And they did.

Perhaps that is the genesis of  blustering bigotry—the need to hide from a completely unrelated truth.

Like cheating your creditors.

White Room Valentine

White Room Valentine

The all-white ceiling, walls, sheets and blankets, sealed the room in purity. My pain-free body, surrounded by downy pillows, laid on a pressure-sensitive mattress. A wall of windows showed off the unobstructed Chicago skyline three miles away. 

I had a new knee. 

“Ceramic,” said the surgeon, “like Corning Ware.” 

The nurse floated in, smiled, said my name and schooled me on the morphine drip. She set graham crackers and apple juice ever so carefully on my shiny spic-and-span tray, showed me how to operate the TV, and placed my phone within reach.

“Did my doctor put me on the VIP floor?” I asked.

“Oh no,” she laughed. “This is the floor for all the orthopedic patients. You just lucked out with the view.”

 The midday sun laid itself down on the city, my city, silhouetting the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building. I drifted in and out as Lake Michigan peeked into the downtown streets and into my outstretched heart. Such joy. Comfort. Bliss. The phone vibrated at my fingertips, jiggling me awake.

“Hello? Regan? This is Joe.” 

Ah, my son. He’s calling to ask how I’m doing. 

“I hate bothering you like this. I’m in the hospital with my Dad. I don’t think he’s gonna make it.” 

I’d been divorced from Jim, the only man I ever loved, for about 45 years. We’d met in a Jersey Shore bar in the 1960’s. I lived and breathed politics. He was on scholarship at Princeton and was the first boy I knew who read the same books I did. He proudly proclaimed himself a Democrat when the rest of us were simply anti-war.

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Lifeguarding in the summer, he loved the ocean, birds, rock-and-roll and beer. We were born for each other, but drinking and drugs destroyed our marriage. We divorced and I got help. Jim became helplessly addicted to marijuana. By the time he got help, his brain was fried. Between the irreversible brain damage and advanced diabetes, he could not survive on his own. Rather than house his father in a full-time care facility, Joe brought him to live with Joe and his family in a Chicago suburb.

I saw Jim once in a while—at Christmas, the grandchildren’s high school graduations, birthdays. He always recognized me and engaged in conversations about politics. Watching local news on TV all day left him thinking he lived and voted in Chicago.

“About the mayor’s race. Who should I vote for?” He asked. “I don’t like that guy Rahm.”

One last time Jim tried to shake off his dementia. He scheduled a cruise, making all the arrangements himself. Joe gave the ship’s nurse a detailed description of his father’s condition. She guaranteed his safety. But barely off the coast of Florida, Jim slipped into a coma and was airlifted to a Ft. Lauderdale hospital. He never recovered.

Joe and I talked until my painkillers wore off. Dusk overpowered the room. I banged the morphine pump, screamed for the nurse and wept for my long-ago lost love.

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

Gifts and Omens from the Polar Vortex

In 1982 newspaperman Paul Galloway made arrangements for me to volunteer on the Adlai Stevenson for governor campaign. Paul wrote features for the Chicago Sun Times and knew the campaign press secretary. It’s best to have a reference when volunteering on a campaign or you’ll get stuck answering phones or standing on a street corner passing out brochures. I was entrusted with driving Nancy Stevenson around to her scheduled events. She is one helluva quick-witted woman. I’ve never known any two people as funny as Paul Galloway and Nancy Stevenson. At the end of every day, I’d have hilarious conversations with Paul recapping the day’s events. He’d brief me on the serious issues of the campaign that I had missed while I was out with Nancy. Once in a while he’d relay bits of gossip about Adlai’s opponent, Jim Thompson, that he’d overheard in the newsroom—confidentially, of course, but I told Nancy everything.

Paul scheduled time with Nancy on the campaign trail because he was writing an article on the candidates’ wives. At the end of that day, as we dropped Nancy off, we doubled over out of the car barely able to recover from the previous sidesplitting eight hours. When the article appeared a few days later, a campaign staffer asked if we had given Paul an aphrodisiac because he wrote more of a love letter to Nancy than a journalistic objective feature story.

When the 2019 Polar Vortex was on its way to Chicago at the end of January, I decided to spend  the forced hibernation writing about my time in the ’82 Stevenson campaign. But my first draft notes were blank. I could remember very little about it. In writing memoir, when I sit down with a particular theme in mind, memories rise up. Other memoirists say the same thing; it’s why we call it bibliotherapy. Incidents hidden somewhere in the hippocampus come forward.

Not this time. No specifics of what-I-thought-were-memorable days with Nancy Stevenson and Paul Galloway. It’s as if Paul took the stories with him when he died ten years ago. Like they are his to tell, not mine. This has made me profoundly sad, not only at the lost memories, but at the loss of Paul.

And so the day before the Polar Vortex I figured out how to tee up the full 18 hours of  The Marvelous Mrs. Mazel on Amazon Prime. I threw half-a-loaf of stale bread cubes onto my 4’x10’  third floor balcony to nourish the house sparrows, finches and occasional chickadees that frequent my suet feeder. Then I shuttered myself in and Dapped all the fullsizeoutput_4cb7little 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: -23 °. I awoke to a thick film of silver ice covering all my windows. There were fractal peek-a-boos to the outside world near the balcony door handle and around my hardy geraniums on the indoor windowsills. The ice curtain shut me out of the humanity moving around behind the windows across the street, buses and cars on Lake Shore Drive and any fool pedestrian walking about in the feels-like-minus-40 degrees. The windows emitted a dazzling cold so I grabbed some goose down, hunkered down far away from the frozen glaze with Henry the dog and cuddled the TV remote.

My binge-watching was interrupted by a thrashing whomp, whomp whomp, on my balcony. Then another. And another. Then two more. I rose to inch toward a clearing in the frosty glass. A murder of crows had come to visit. 

The American Black Crow measures 20 inches long with a 3-foot wide iridescent wing span. The crow and its cousin, the raven,  show up in every ancient mythology as bad omens of storms, disease or death. Native American tribes believed the crow had the power to talk and was a stealer of souls. Recent research suggests their cognitive abilities are as sophisticated as chimpanzees. If they look you in the eye, they will remember you, follow you down the street and caw to you when they’re hungry, like wild pets.

As the arctic blast began serrating its way from the North Pole down toward the Lower Forty-Eight, the goal of every bird in the Midwest was to gorge themselves, find a safe 51281615_10218858609480733_4258526774826106880_nplace and stay 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: -21°. The ice wall on one of my windows melted enough for a small lookout. I prayed to the crows, “Come back. Please come back.” They first landed mid-morning. A mighty set of black wings fluttered a plumped-up body onto the balcony railing and the rest followed, plucking for leftovers. They flew off and came back. Again. And again. And again. I remained still throughout, trying to lock eyes with the leader. Was this a bad omen? Come to steal more memories?

In the late afternoon the temperature rose to minus-2 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 Fresh Coast

The Fresh Coast

When some people speak of the Midwest

They talk as if she’s the jilted cinderella 

Whose prince neglected, and I must defend her,

Not always cold, no oceans or mountains, sister,

But 600,000 sandhill cranes wade in her water.

The east coast comes to play sport, play act, pay 

To play, play around, play the innocent, put in play.

The west coast comes to run by, run. 

They say nothing eventful happens to her.

Then they blame her for Trump.