AIDS Jim Pickett: Man on an HIV/AIDS mission

Published: September 7, 2011

Jim Pickett is a man of many chapters. The walls of his downtown Chicago office are decked with paintings and photos spanning the nearly two decades-long career of a late bloomer. In one corner hangs a rainbow flag with the word "PACE" printed in bold white letters adjacent to a school globe perched atop a shelf of books and knickknacks. Photos of heroes and mentors that shed light on the advocate we know today are carefully fixated on the wall.

"I used to be the syphilis guy," said Pickett, "I was the crystal guy and now people call me the AIDS guy." These are not exactly nicknames a normal professional would boast about. But Jim Pickett has been fighting for change for years. And the names he has picked up along the way are whimsical trophies for the battles he has fought.

His family is aware of his work. They know that he does what he loves and has opportunities because of it, such as traveling, hence the globe ( "I still have to be like, ‘where exactly am I going?’" joked Pickett ) . But they remain casually aloof to the details, "I don’t think they totally get it," he said, "I don’t come home with the latest rectal microbicide report and say ‘rectal’ 20 times at the dinner table." Though his family reminds him that they are proud of his work, Pickett doubts they could describe exactly what he does. "These are topics we didn’t talk about growing up," he added.

Let there be no confusion: Pickett’s family in Wisconsin have been very welcoming to his partner of four years, Kevin Jack, despite their hazy understanding of Pickett’s advocacy. Jack and Pickett met outside a coffeeshop in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood in an act plucked right from the silver screen of a romantic comedy. "We caught each other’s eye … did the whole eye thing … I like to joke that he was stalking me," Pickett said.

Pickett grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, the eldest of two sons in an average hardworking American family. His father was an accountant, who dealt primarily with corporate finances, while his mother was a stay-at-home mom—until he and his brother were old enough for her to pick up a part-time job.

Pickett came out at the ripe age of 18 in 1984 when the first wave of HIV/AIDS hit America. He started out as a business major at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and transferred to Marquette. "I had no direction," Pickett recalled. While at Marquette he majored in everything from communications to theatre, linguistics and English ( "there might be something else in there," he added ) .

"Just before I got into college they asked me to take a computer survey to elicit my interests and give me career goals," said Pickett, "So I did it. It’s long. It took hours. And it spit out two top things: one was a minister, and the other was a social worker."

"At the time, I was disgusted!" scoffed Pickett. "Now if I look back, I am doing something in between. There’s a little bit of both in the work I do."

Pickett drifted through college, floating from one major to another. "I thought, ‘I can’t be in school and keep changing; I don’t know what I’m doing!’" Suffice it to say, Pickett was very unsure as to what he wanted to do or where to go, but he knew that he had to leave Milwaukee.

"I was wild at that age," said Pickett. "When you’re wild in a small town you end up getting kicked out everywhere and you can’t go back. You burn your bridges. There are not many other bridges to cross." So he moved to Chicago with nothing and got a job waiting tables.

Pickett’s expectation for a sense of direction did not surface quickly. Waiting tables had no clear path for the young college dropout, but he began advancing at work rather quickly. "I got management level jobs in hotels and restaurants, but I knew that wasn’t my calling. I didn’t like it," he said. "I didn’t want to be worried about salt and pepper shakers and horrible mothers of brides my whole life. I didn’t want to serve people in that way."

In the early 1990s, a week before Christmas, Pickett was working at a prestigious Gold Coast hotel where he managed a private dining staff of nearly two dozen. After a heated argument with another manager at the hotel ( "while we had an event," he noted ) Pickett found himself without a job. "It was the best thing that happened to me because it re-calibrated me."

It was a rare moment in Pickett’s life. He gained direction: "I said [ to myself ] , ‘I want to be professionally gay … I wanted to work in the gay community.’ I was going to figure out how to do that."

That was what led Pickett to GAB’s doorstep … literally. Having been a fan of the magazine and a regular reader, Pickett was aware that they had been looking for columnists. "It was a very sassy weekly," Pickett recalled.

GAB ( originally called Gag and then Babble before its final name, GAB ) was a weekly rag published between the eras of the zine and the blog. Poking fun at Chicago’s gay nightlife, the magazine was quite successful during its time before folding in early 2001. "I was a fan of their magazine because it was a very refreshing change from what was out there … it was funny and it was biting."

Pickett did not have a computer or a typewriter so he handwrote the first satirical column while lying at the beach. He decided to pull from his own experience as a waiter. "I had this character when I was waiting tables called Ms. Margie. It was an underneath character. I had a friend who was Brenda … both of us guys." Pickett and his colleague happened across nametags one day with the names ‘Margie’ and ‘Brenda’ while working an event. The two threw the nametags under their tuxedos and took on another identity to get through the day.

"Margie was this fierce waitress," Pickett detailed, "she was the best waitress ever and she was also a gorgeous, glama-zon model. So I thought, ‘I could make a column out of this.’"

"I snuck up to their office and I slid [ the column ] under their door and I ran down the stairs like a total geek. It was so queer in the wrong way of being queer," said Pickett of showing up on GAB’s office doorstep. "I just thought, ‘well I hope they think it’s funny, I think it’s funny!’ I laughed when I wrote it." A couple days later the publisher called Pickett asking for Ms. Margie and wanting to know if she would like to write for GAB.

"It was called ‘Poop Stains with Ms. Margie,’ because Ms. Margie not only was a fabulous waitress—she could be a model if she wanted to be, but she followed in the family’s footsteps of the service industry—but she was also obsessed with poop stains." Pickett admitted that waiters, especially, tend to be crude in their humor, noting, "It’s the stupid crap to get through the kind of work you have to do. You just play these games with each other."

For every column, Pickett’s hook for Ms. Margie was a run-in with her or someone else’s poop stains. According to Pickett, it fit the magazine perfectly.

Writing for GAB led Pickett to selling advertising and, eventually, editing the magazine, two things he had never done before. With his ability to learn on his feet, Pickett was able to turn his work at GAB into a full-time job. "It was not a great living … not an adult living, but a fun living. Working for GAB was not about being a serious adult. It was too much fun."

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