Friday, February 3, 2012

Dear Mr. Pennycuff

Our neighborhood lost a dear friend and activist this week. John wasn't your average revolutionary: He created change through decency and an open heart. He'd been a member of ActUp back in the 80s, and he and his partner Robert were long-time advocates for marriage equity. We were lucky enough to be invited to the local reception following their first wedding in San Francisco (California eventually nullifed their license, so they went back and married all over again once the law allowed).

The Chicago Tribune had followed them to cover their experience, but what we remember even more than those media snippets were John and Robert beaming among the family and friends, journalists, and elected officials who gathered to cheer them on. It was in this good company that they enjoyed their first dance --John towering over Robert, but leaning down so that even physically, they were equals.

I remember John on rototiller duty when a group of us gathered to put in a rogue community garden at our local train entrance, a derelict patch of land more likely to see empty malt-liquor bottles than the perennials blooming there today. He took the toughest job with a smile on his face. It's what he did, always.

He and Robert often told stories about a kooky neighborhood corner store, Ziggy's, where you can order a Polish sausage or jalapeno poppers but also buy a gallon of milk (best to check the expiration date). John and Robert were frequent customers, as were some bratty junior-high kids who would toss homophobic slurs in their direction. So Robert and John took on a campaign to help Ziggy understand the importance of a welcoming, tolerant environment. This is how an old-school, German greasy-spoon owner became an unlikely advocate for gay rights, at least in his tiny corner of the world.

John went on to work for the local Chamber of Commerce and later the alderman's office. He became the face of the farmers market, where he sat at the welcome table every Sunday. It wasn't uncommon to see him walking back and forth from the market back to his apartment above the rotisserie-chicken place -- maybe they'd forgotten pens or needed some extra change. John was almost always on foot, walking with that familiar gate, baseball hat forever on his head, torso hunched forward like a guy who was never entirely comfortable with his size. Very recently, he and Robert got bicycles, and they'd be seen taking their inseparable rides through town, in awe of the rapid change in the neighborhood, eager to keep it honest.

We went to John's visitation yesterday. It broke me up. John and I weren't terribly close, but we'd known each other for a very long time, and it was easy to adore him. He was keen with eye contact and quick with a hug. He and Robert raised money annually for a local playlot, though they had no children and as far as we knew, no plans for them. The photo above is from one of those fundraisers.

Hundreds of snapshots of John dotted the funeral home last night: He and Robert with Mayor Daley, he and Robert with Rod Blagojevich, he and Robert with Rick Garcia, Deb Mell, and countless other gay activists, but mostly he and Robert -- with family, at parties, holding hands, much heavier than today, in Halloween costumes, at rallies, at science-fiction conventions, in kitchens, and quietly in love after decades together.

It was an open-casket wake, and John's body lay still and waxen, hands folded with his wedding ring prominent on his left hand. It was John, of course, but almost more a replica of John -- lifeless, nearly pretty -- in a way that made me wish it was all a lie, and there would be John, peering from behind a curtain, whispering to himself in disbelief, "They like me. They really like me."

We said our good-byes and held tight to Robert. It's hard to imagine him without John by his side, but he held strong, and he'll persevere.

Regret always comes with losing someone. We didn't have enough time. We didn't appreciate him enough. We should have chatted more at the market, told him how much we admired his work or valued his friendship. We should have sent him a Christmas card, as he and Robert sent us every year. Why didn't we buy more raffle tickets? Why didn't we have them over for dinner?

But in John's case it's a little bit different. It's not that we never realized how much we loved him. It's that we realize it harder now.


tracy said...

What a gorgeous tribute! What a lovely life.

leslie said...

So sad to lose someone so good.