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MARY PAT

Story by Heartland Alliance October 8th, 2014

thE NAVY CHEF

My mom was born into the depression, and she was a homemaker. When I was seven, she taught me how to bake and cook and honestly, I was really good at it. Just about that time she also gave me a little camera, and I just loved that thing, tinkering around with it every chance I got. Both the kitchen and the camera gave me a chance to channel my energy into art, and they both stayed with me, even today.

When my mom taught me my way around the kitchen, I don’t think that becoming a Navy chef was what she had in mind, but that’s what I did as soon as I got out of high school. After my term of service I went to college, came back to Chicago and got a job. I hated that job, but it paid the bills. It was then that I started holding little salons in my living room, inviting my friends from the gay community and we’d talk, share a drink, laugh. It revitalized me but it also opened my eyes.

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it was the 80's, AIDS WAS HITTING HARD

It was the 1980’s then and AIDS was hitting hard. We didn’t even know what it was at first, but once we had a name for it, it didn’t matter much. In the gay community, our friends, brothers, lovers, so many people were getting sick. I started volunteering with Vital Bridges, which is a program that then delivered food to the doors of those living with HIV and AIDS (it’s now a food pantry and nutrition counseling service but serves the same people) – it’s now part of Heartland Alliance. When I was there I made my mark just like I always have – I started baking again and snuck a cookie in with peoples’ meals. My mom was right. Never under estimate the power of a cookie. It can make all the difference in the world when you’re stuck at home, sick and alone.

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LISTENING

It started with volunteering, but soon it felt like everyone around me was getting sick, so I took care of them. Whatever they needed, I was there. That’s what friends do right? They take care of each other. I spent a lot of time at bedsides in those days. A lot of time just listening to people and helping them make their transitions into whatever awaits us on the other side. It was a big weight on my shoulders, but I still had that camera, and you know, that was what saved me.

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Photographer for gay rights

I’d walk around and take art photographs of things I found beautiful in the world, just walking, sometimes for hours. And as my eye for photography grew, I found myself with more and more opportunities to use it. In the 1980’s the gay rights movement was growing and I used that camera to show what that looked like. I photographed the pride parade, I was there at gay rights demonstrations. That’s not all, though. I found myself at black tie balls, I photographed political events, the list goes on. I made a business out of it, and it went well for a long time. But eventually it slowed down, and when it did, so did my income. I was paying every dollar towards rent. It was looking like I was going to become homeless.

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LIVING WITH DIGNITY

It was through the gardener in my building that I heard about the building I live in now – Town Hall Apartments, which was built by Heartland Alliance. It’s affordable housing in the Boystown neighborhood, with services nearby and onsite for LGBT seniors. I didn’t think I’d get in, but he encouraged me apply, and I did. I got in.

Being here has made all the difference to me. I can afford my rent again, and I know it’ll stay that way. The community of friends I have here is one of the most supportive I’ve ever had and I can live safely and with dignity. I’ve spent my whole life trying to provide those things to the people around me – safety, support, and dignity. It feels great to have it for myself. And of course, to have a beautiful kitchen to bake in, and a new neighborhood to photograph.

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Footnote: Photography by Ally Stewart, Story by Melissa Spear
Chicago, IL, United States
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