Returning to Chicago three decades later

30 years ago, I worked for Harold Washington, brought the Cubs good luck and lost a friend to AIDS. Now, I'm back

By Joan Walsh

Published April 15, 2013 2:00PM (EDT)

I'm driving cross-country with my dog, Sadie.
I'm driving cross-country with my dog, Sadie.

My previous dispatch from my cross-country road trip driving Miss Sadie to New York left off as I headed to a baseball game – my San Francisco Giants just happened to be in Chicago, and I’d bought great tickets, between the Giants dugout and the bullpen. It turned out to be the perfect place to marvel and kvell and lament and celebrate my life since I left Chicago, not quite 30 momentous years ago.

Chicago isn’t technically along I-80, but I had to make the detour, since my trip west to San Francisco 28 years ago began there. I knew I could stay with my friend Jim Rinnert, who has an amazing house with his partner Brent. Long ago they gave me an invitation to stay with them that wouldn't expire.  Jim and Brent are dog people – they always have several adorable, eccentric rescues, and they were excited to meet Sadie. “You’ve always been a dog person – without a dog!” Jim tells me once he sees me and Sadie together. It's true -- I loved Jim's dog Bo when he used to take him to In These Times. The company of a dog compensated for the sometimes delay in paychecks. And Sadie utterly loved Jim and Brent.

Their dogs Yoda and Gracie didn’t quite welcome Sadie like Max and Malie had in Boulder. Rescue dogs can sometimes be more territorial. I found myself slightly ashamed once again of having this expensive hypoallergenic designer doodle – my daughter and I have asthma, OK? – while my friends rescue near-dead pets from the streets of Detroit (literally, that’s where they got Gracie) and Sadie clings to me when Yoda tries to hump her. Toughen up, Sadie, I want to say. Instead, I pull her up on my lap.

I got to Chicago in 1983 at the peak of Harold Washington’s historic campaign for mayor. Everyone at In These Times volunteered on the campaign, and this block of buttons reminded me how long Jim has been a progressive in Chicago – not just a Washington button but Jane Byrne too, when she seemed a step up from the Daley machine:

Besides the thrilling Washington victory, the other highlight of 1983 was finding Wrigley Field and the Cubs.  They were still lovable losers, but bleacher tickets were $3, In These Times only published every other week (and sometimes paid us that way), and we spent a lot of  “lunch hours” out there drinking beer and loving the hapless Cubbies. Jim didn’t care about baseball, but he liked sun and beer and his goofy work friends, and he would occasionally humor us and tag along.  He worked as our typesetter at In These Times, and later the art director, but he was an artist, a writer, a theater person, with a larger life full of plays and movies and books and serious people and old friends. He was also my first close gay friend, and I think I had a little straight-girl crush on his boyfriend Tommy.

Just a year after I got to Chicago, though, the Cubs were a changed team. The lovable losers were winners. We all upped our game attendance, and they actually made the playoffs for the first time since 1945. By then, Tommy was dying of AIDS, a still somewhat mysterious and thoroughly horrifying disease. These things are weirdly fused in memory.

The Cubs went ahead 2-0 in the five game series, but lost in the fifth and final game. Tommy died the weekend of the playoffs, and his wake was the night of that final Cubs loss. A group of us ferried over to the gathering, at the Michalek Funeral Home (blocks from where Sadie and I are staying with Jim and Brent), red-eyed and trying to reckon with whether we're bad friends for even caring about the Cubs' crushing loss on such a devastating day. I walked out of the brief service that night to sob in a friend’s arms, knowing some of my grief was for the Cubs, and crying harder because of how weird and shallow that seemed. Now that I’m older and I think baseball is the great timekeeper, ironic for a timeless game, my jumbled grief makes sense. There was only one 1984 season, and it ended suddenly, and horribly.  Tommy had only one life and it was a good one, but it ended horribly and much too soon.

So there I was dragging Jim to a Cubs game for the first time since that excruciating year. How strange was that? And we didn’t even have the sunshine of the summer of 1984; we sat in an increasingly cold, driving rain watching the Giants play poorly – at least til near the end -- against the Cubs. It was so cold, catcher Hector Sanchez (down in the bullpen catching relievers) was wearing a face mask.)

Sitting with Jim, I took in the moral complexity of my position at Wrigley Field. I’m a former Cubs fan who’s now a Giants fan. A slightly guilty Giants fan at Wrigley Field. But amazingly, I managed to meet some other former Cubs fans turned Giants maniacs. They happened to be the parents and siblings of our relief pitcher George Kontos, who grew up in Niles, a typical Cubs lover, who was named Chicago Major League Player of the Year. Also in our section were seven San Franciscans in Chicago for a bachelor party, and though they were somewhat inebriated they weren’t obnoxious, but totally sweet.  One snapped this photo of me and Jim, right by the Giants bullpen.

The Giants were down 2-0 in a depressing game, but Kontos came in to pitch the bottom of the 8th. And sitting next to his family, suddenly all that mattered to me and Jim and the bachelor-party San Francisco boys was that Kontos pitch well. This is why I love baseball; it can be so personal; your whole experience can turn on an emotional narrative. We were all members of the Kontos family for a half-inning.

And he pitched his heart out, retiring the side in order.

Then the Giants took the lead in the top of the ninth, a slippery, rain-sodden inning of odd umpire calls and magic, and Kontos was in line for the win. And I was going to see my favorite player, closer Sergio Romo. Here he is, warming up.

When I told Jim that against all odds, we were going to get to see the Giants' amazing closer, he smiled and asked: “What’s a closer?” I explained the role quickly, but noted that the Mexican-American Romo was wearing an “I just look illegal” T-shirt at our World Series parade – and even Jim had heard about that. But really: He was sitting in the cold rain with me at a baseball game not even knowing what a closer is. That’s true friendship.

It all felt too good to be true. And it was. Romo blew his first save of the season. Kontos had been about to get his first win, but his family was sweet and gracious. And so was he, tweeting:


When I Tweeted that I’d sat with his great family, and he deserved the win, he tweeted back:


There I was, immersed in my old Chicago life but connected to my San Francisco Giants via Twitter. You can love multiple cities, can’t you?

* * *

Unbelievably, I woke up to snow the next morning -- what is going on with my weather karma? -- but the gorgeous white shimmer on the roofs and in our garden melted by the time I hit the road. Once again, it was hard to leave: Sadie and Yoda had learned to tolerate one another and Sadie loved Jim and Brent’s yard. Jim made me a protein smoothie for the road. I am blessed.

Here are Yoda and Gracie either recovering from Sadie’s visit, or moping now that she’s gone. We’re not sure.

We made it to Clarion, Penn., that day, and when you cross into Pennsylvania, the signs start teasing you by telling you New York City is 402 miles away. One more day in this car, and then New York, and Nora and Sadie reunited, and me figuring out whether I can not only love two cities, but somehow live in two cities?

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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Baseball Chicago Driving Miss Sadie In These Times Major League Baseball San Francisco Giants