If I'd never known Pat Colander, so much less my life would be

If I'd never known Pat Colander, so much less my life would be
Pat Colander, 1952-2019

It was the early 1970s and there was one writer in town, Pat Colander that I simply couldn’t get enough of.   Her writing in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine and the Chicago Reader was magnificent and intelligent and creative.  Whatever she wrote about, I wanted to write like that; I was envious of her talent and her industriousness and I wanted to be just like her.  I wanted to meet her.  And I wanted to be her best friend.

One night in November, 1979 I got my wish.  I was separated from my first husband, and on a date with Tribune editor Denis Gosselin.  We were sitting at the “Star” table at Riccardo’s (at Rush Street and the river, the most “elegant” in those days of the places where journalists hung out) and the table happened to be next to the stairs down to the pay phones and the bathrooms.  Suddenly, a woman on her way down to make a phone call stopped to talk to Denis, who was one of her former editors.

It was Pat!  Glory be!  In the flesh!

She spent a lot of time with us that night, trying to connect via the pay phone downstairs with her date for the evening, Richard Driehaus. Yes, that Richard Driehaus.  She’d just written a huge cover story about him for the Reader.  And they were getting together.

So we were her sounding board as she went up and down the stairs trying to connect with him, sitting and talking to us at our table in between calls.

And Lordy, we hit it off.  I told her of the enduring admiration I’d had for her, not holding back in the least.  When we parted, she said we’d get together soon.  And I was in heaven.

“How about tomorrow night?” she asked, explaining there was a guy she was really interested in who she was meeting at another journo hangout–O’Rourke’s, in Old Town, on Saturday night.  She wanted me to come with her.

His name was Paul.

So I met her the next night, and it turned out, her “Paul” was a good friend of mine from high school!  Another layer of cement to bind us together.

I told her about a guy I had a crush on, who was at the bar that night, too, and who she had known well from the Tribune, and she said, “Interesting choice, I think I can help you with that.”

And from that night on, to one degree or another, we shared everything we felt, did, loved, hated, and everything else about our lives until she died earlier this year:  boyfriends (of which there were many), marriages (of which there were some), divorces (a few of those, too), our kids, jobs (lots of them), her grandkids, the deaths of three of her brothers that shook her to the core, the influence of her grandmother in her life, our mothers–and a big smattering of politics.  And the arts:  i.e., we committed ourselves to seeing Wagner’s Ring Cycle over four years together.

We discovered we overlapped one year at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, my last, her first, although we never met during that time.

I spoke about freelancing to the journalism class she was teaching at Columbia College.  Years later, I taught there, as well–also journalism courses.  When I became a lawyer, almost 15 years into our relationship, she became my “client” when she bought a house from a friend.  Oh, the wrangling I had to do when the title company discovered–quite erroneously–two IRS liens.  Again, another crazy situation that bound us together.

There were moves to different neighborhoods (including her two moves to the suburbs–and one across the border to Indiana), many of which intersected for us.  And off and on,  we were neighbors in Lincoln Park, Uptown, Downtown and the South Loop through a substantial part of our lives together.  And sometimes I’d say, “Aren’t we just like Lucy and Ethel?”

But that domestic comparison never really appealed to Pat.  (Re:  Pat on domesticity:  she was a very good cook, but….one night we were over at her house for dinner and there was something crunchy in the casserole she made that didn’t belong.  It was broken glass from the bottom of the casserole dish.)

Would Lucy and Ethel be drinking dirty martinis at Billy Goat’s in the middle of the afternoon while discussing things?  (I thought so, if it was the 1980s….)

She dated Paul–eventually marrying him and having two kids, Charlie and Ida, who always called me “Aunt Bonnie.”  And I soon followed up with another marriage–to a Paul, as well, and having my daughter Molly, only 10 months younger than Charlie.  Pat knew my Paul well from the journalism world, too, and they’d been neighbors–just like I knew her Paul in high school.  So when her Paul and I went to our 20th high school reunion, her Paul and I could kibbitz with our old pals while my Paul and Pat could kibbitz with each other.  It was a nice arrangement all the way around.

One of her obituaries described Pat as always telling everybody exactly what she thought of everybody, never holding back, including the person of whom she was speaking.  That was true–but it was always constructive. And I was often the recipient of her opinions, not only about others, but about me.

One day almost 40 years ago, Pat told me I was “disintegrating.”

She said I needed a new reporting job (I was freelancing).  I always did what she said because she was always right.  So I went down to the famous City News Bureau of Chicago at 188 W. Randolph–where almost every famous writer in Chicago worked at one time and where my application sat with thousands and thousands of others.  I got there just as Adlai Stevenson IV was quitting his reporter job to take a TV reporting gig downstate.  Since I happened to be there, they hired me on the spot to replace him.

That was how you got a job at CNB in those days.  You had to be in the reception area when someone quit.  Pat knew this and knew I had to be there to get a job there (they never looked at the application file)–so that I could start a new phase in my life and stop disintegrating.

The next day, and for the next year, I covered every major news story in Chicago, from Mayor Byrne to the visiting Vice President Bush; not to mention every infamous murder case that came down the pike in Chi-town. I was there for everything.  I left a year later when I was the broadcast editor because I was pregnant and pregnant people weren’t allowed to work at CNB.  Too rigorous.

Speaking of being pregnant, I never spent a penny on maternity clothes. Pat gave me all of hers, and I wore them every day.  And I gave them back to her before the birth of Ida.  Neither of us at the time had any interest in clothes–although to be fair later in life Pat did become a fashionista–but the maternity dresses she bought were very nice; so for a few months while we were pregnant, we dressed well.   And she let me keep one:  the one I got married in.

She’d commiserate magnificently, but when she thought I was wrong, she’d tell me in no uncertain terms.  She was a true friend.  I told Pat one day when my daughter was a baby that I felt my stepdaughter was taking advantage of us by getting her father up in the middle of the night every night to pick her up at work and drive her home (and sometimes even to a bar), and Pat said “I’d do that for my kid, and you would, too.”

Another time, when we’d taken our toddlers, Charlie and Molly and the two Pauls to see Mr. Rogers at the Auditorium Theater, Molly acted up.  Pat had no hesitation telling me to take her out into the hall until she behaved.  I did.  And Molly did.  And that was that.

Pat was well-known for several magnificently researched true crime stories throughout her career.   Her most famous was about murdered heiress Helen Brach, which she turned into a fabulous book called “Thin Air.” (Helen Brach had disappeared into thin air.)  For her book party, she had little t-shirts made for Charlie and Molly that said “Fat Babies Love Thin Air.”

During the writing of that book, we talked several times a day, so much that I felt I wrote it with her.  Charlie stayed with Pat’s neighbor, Mrs. Matos during the day while Pat wrote and researched.  All of her stories of mysterious murders–from the death of Playboy’s Bobbie Arnstein to the Tylenol murders–she’d never tell anyone who she thought did it.  But I did get it out of her a few times.

Not long before she died, she compiled some of her crime stories in this book .

At some point the New York Times hired Pat to do several articles.  She had a very special father-daughter relationship with managing editor Arthur Gelb.  One story was about Oprah.  When it came out, Oprah sent her a handwritten thank-you note in which she said Pat’s story was very “inciteful.”  We laughed about that for a very long time.

We also loved dissecting Anna Quindlen’s work when Quindlen began writing her weekly New York Times column called “Life in the 30’s.”  We were both incontrovertibly jealous of her.  Pat because she had a regular column in the New York Times, and was probably close to Gelb, too.  And me, because I was trying to perfect the art of making columns out of personal minutia, something that Pat rarely did.  But when she did do it from time to time, she demonstrated pure perfection.  But she didn’t particularly believe in it–like I did.

When I finally won the jackpot and got a Sunday column in the Chicago Tribune that was a cross between Anna Quindlen and Erma Bombeck, when Pat and I would talk on Sunday afternoon and the subject of my column came up, she’d say, “My mother liked your column today.”  And I’d say, “Mine did, too.”  That was Pat’s way of saying she really didn’t approve of me doing this sort of journalism.

During the better part of her career, Pat became an editor at many places in the Chicago area and in Indiana.  And she always provided plenty of meaningful and lucrative work for her friends, including me.  I think with her ideas, commitment and care for us all, we did some very fine writing for her publications, and got the accolades to prove it.  She got us nominated for all kinds of awards.  And we won quite a few.  What stood out, though, was that she understood the publishing business–the bottom line–as well as she understood the journalism itself, which was a very rare combination in those days.

Once, I got a letter from Pulitzer Prize winner and former Chicago newspaperman, Tom Fitzpatrick,  who told me I was going places and that I was demonstrating great talent–after he read a very long profile I did of an up and coming star at the Suntimes, Dave Hoekstra.  The idea was totally Pat’s, for a publication she started that was to be like the Chicago Reader called the Naperville City Star–and I did the piece the way I thought Pat would.  With as much artistic flair and serious contemplation of what a rising star like Hoekstra (who grew up in Naperville) meant in a bigger context.

Her story ideas always worked for me.  Even if I struggled for one reason or another.  Because like all good editors, she knew me better than I knew myself.

And she was loyal.  She saw the bright sides and the silver linings. When a Chicago Tribune editorial writer wrote an op-ed, poking fun at me during a run I made for judge in 1998, comparing me to Marilyn Monroe, Pat said my quotes made me sound “very intelligent.”

She was strong and agile, too.  One night, in her mid-40s, she climbed over a tall wrought iron privacy fence that surrounded my house in order to get to her car, which she’d parked in my garage; she didn’t want to disturb me so late, she later explained.  To this day, when I look at that fence, I still can’t believe she did it.

One time Pat wanted me to meet her at the Art Institute; she was going to do a story for a suburban paper she was working for about the last person to enter the incredibly popular Monet exhibit, which was closing that night at 8 PM.  “Why don’t you do the same story for the Reader?” she asked.  I was a regular contributor there, as Pat had been several years before.

So we grabbed a quick dinner, headed over to the museum and stood there until Michigander Gene Suuppi walked in at 7:46 PM.  The last person.  We followed him around and got his story, and we both went back to our respective homes to write it up.  Pat was always generous with ideas and knew we’d have a good time doing this together.

Pat also had a talent for spending money.  The less she had, the more she spent.  She wasn’t reckless or irresponsible, though.  I think what she was saying was that at some point she’d make back whatever she was spending.  And she was right.  She did.

She gave gifts that were meaningful no matter what the price. Like beautiful wedding, housewarming and baby gifts, not to mention showers for brides-to-be and expectant mothers.  Once we were on our way to Riccardo’s to meet a friend and I stopped at Walgreen’s to redeem a thirty-cent coupon. And I knew what she was thinking:  “Wait’ll I tell everyone about this!”

At some point, Pat met a guy named Jeff at a friend’s vacation home in Michigan and they fell madly in love.  She’d been divorced from her Paul for a while.  I never saw her so happy with anyone as she was with Jeff.  They had a horrible car accident one night and Pat was hospitalized and almost died.  But she recovered and she was given more time with which to enjoy Jeff’s love.  They got married in the living room of her enormous condo in the South Loop on a Friday afternoon in 1997.  Just a few blocks away from my house.  The coolest wedding I ever went to.

When Pat moved to Indiana with her new husband Jeff (who was retiring from the Chicago Police Department)–and moving so fittingly to Miller Beach, the resort area in Gary where the late writer Nelson Algren had a vacation home at one time that Simone de Beauvoir visited—our friendship changed dramatically.  My Paul used to ask, “How the hell can you be on the phone hours on end every day for decades and now hardly ever?”

(In fact, we spent so much time on the phone for so many years, that when we got together in person, it felt  surreal.)

But she had a new life in a beautiful new house on Lake Michigan where love and work came easy and I understood.  We were always there when we needed each other.  She’d visit Chicago and we’d have lunch or dinner and chat and we got all the news and told each other about new feelings we were feeling about things.  And new things she was doing–like going back to school.  And how our kids were doing.  (I think I got more involved in Charlie’s wedding than Pat did!)  And sometimes I’d visit her there and we’d have a great time eating and talking and visiting places.

But it was true, things were different.  Pat and I were getting older and we were happy and content and we were dealing with new challenges. We both joined a lot of boards and became involved in many different causes.  It harkened back to when we started a committee at my house in 1994 to get women journalists involved in the 1996 Democrat convention in Chicago.  Pat outdid herself on that one.  And we became involved with a lot of things after that.  (It totally makes sense that she’s the one who introduced me to Facebook in 2009–she always understood that sort of new thing–which I have loved ever since.)

We were maturing.  But we still held decades of our lives in each other’s heads.

But there was one thing she always mentioned in those years.  She downplayed it.  A little cancer here and a little cancer there…she’d point to a spot on her neck or somewhere near her chest, here and there.  And she’d say, “I’m not worried.  Don’t worry, they got it and I’ll have some treatment.”

And next time, she’d say the same sort of thing, but all was well.  Always a little something.  Nothing to worry about.  Or even think about.

So I didn’t.

Until she died suddenly in January.  From “complications of cancer and treatment,” Charlie explained.

It was just like Pat to downplay, and be optimistic and not worry about anything she couldn’t control.  Her Catholic faith hovered over her more than people realized.

The day she died she took with her her half of our long and very meaningful friendship.  It surmounted disagreements, things that maybe we’d never really understand about each other, distance, time and even other friendships we had that may have satisfied other needs we had that we couldn’t fulfill for each other.

Her love of work and how she pushed me to always be better at love, parenting, writing, my “career,” relationships–by advising and by example–are a lasting gift I have from her for the rest of my life; that I will wish forever I could share with the rest of hers.


Postscript:  I was very glad and very proud to talk about Pat on Dave Hoekstra’s Nocturnal Journal program on WGN Radio, along with Pat’s sister Marian, her childhood friend Marilyn and her Chicago Reader editor Mike on Saturday night, May 18.  Here’s the podcast….

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