“I got fired,” he said over the phone one spring afternoon in 1979.
“What? I’ll be right there!” I sprang from my desk yelling, “I have an emergency” and bolted out the front door of the Ontario Street hotel where we both worked—he at the front desk and me in the back office.
Jim Cummins and I were nascent members of Alcoholics Anonymous and I feared the worst—that he was drinking again. Lately he had been showing up too late for work, taking too many smoke breaks and wisecracking about too many hotel guests.
Jim’s furnished one-bedroom on Delaware had lower-floor gloom characteristic of downtown Chicago apartments. The coffee table, overstuffed brown couch and chair blended together into the beige carpeting. A glass ashtray loaded with butts sat atop newspapers strewn all over the coffee table. No beer cans. He hadn’t shaved. His shirt was wrinkled and hanging out of his trousers but otherwise he looked the same guy I’d seen two days earlier.
“Sit down and read this,” he said, handing over a Sun-Times opened to an article buried in the back of the paper. The blunt headline read, “Gold Coast Leather Bar Raided”. The article contained facts about the location, the owner, a description of the leather get-ups and the names of eleven men who were arrested. Jim was listed. I read, then read again, looking for an explanation. Abruptly I burst out laughing and fell headlong into uncontrolled hysterics as I slid off the brown overstuffed.
“What the hell were YOU doing there?” I said from the floor.
“My dear, I’m a homosexual. I was participating.”
“You are NOT! What? Were you looking for someone?”
Jim said he thought I would giggle at the news but he didn’t expect he’d have to convince me he was gay. We talked long into the night about the history of his secret. He had been expelled from the seminary for improper behavior, served in the Army, was married, had a child, divorced, worked in the newspaper business, was an actor, voted Republican—all the while hiding his true nature. Beer and gin helped wage the battle against his Irish-Catholic guilt until he hit bottom and sobered up.
When our employer, the hotel manager, read the article he promptly called Jim and fired him. Jim joined others from the raid in a class action suit against the city, but he was gone before it came to trial. Mayor Jane Byrne ended police raids on gay bars after her 1979 election, the same month as Jim’s arrest.
Jim stayed sober but had a difficult time landing another job. He started dating, tried but failed to form a lasting relationship, lost his apartment and lived on my couch for a while. I lost track of him. He’d moved to Washington DC where he cooked meals for homebound HIV patients. In 1991 I visited him at the Veterans hospice in Washington, the day before he died of AIDS. He’s the only dead person I ever said good-bye to.