Nearly every weekend, some Sunday afternoons, and at big Boystown events like Market Days, you can find a feisty 74-year-old woman selling buttons out on street corners and in gay bars up and down the North Side. As she periodically has to remind her audience, the money isn't for her. Patricia Latham, better known as Patty the Pin Lady, is legendary for a 25-year career of volunteer work that saw her raising over $50,000 for AIDS services, and perhaps even more.
For anyone, this would be remarkable, but for the last 8 years, Latham has battled stage 3 melanoma. No matter: she's scheduled her life to be able to make her weekly rounds, getting up late, leaving her house at five pm on the weekends, hopping on the Clark bus with her walker, and only coming back home when she's tired, usually around midnight or one am.
"I try to keep up with what's going on! I can't lay in bed just because I have cancer!" Latham explained. "I try to get out and do things. I have so much more work to do. I told God, I can't die today, I got too much work to do."
What on earth kickstarted such a unique, serious commitment to AIDS fundraising? Latham pinpoints a friend she made while living in Hawaii in the late 1980s. "I met this guy, James, a gay fella, and we became good friends, and he had HIV and he died in 1991," she explained. "His family would not take any money. They wanted to do it all on their own. So I was really kind of ticked off about it, and I was talking to a police officer, and he said, why don't you get some AIDS ribbons, Patty?"
Following his advice, she bought a dozen red ribbons from a supplier. "They said, 'ma'am, you're going to need more than that," she recalled. "I said, 'I don't know anything about these things.' [The police officer] took me down to Halsted and Roscoe, and he said, 'now you stand right here and do not move, I'll come back in an hour and get you.' I sold them all, I made $20. I was so excited, my god, $20. I called the company and I ordered a couple dozen, and it took off like hotcakes."
Her police-officer friend then took her to Open Hand Chicago, a food pantry that assisted HIV and AIDS patients at the time. While depositing her first $20, Latham had an idea that became her ticket to success.
"I told them, 'You know, why don't you give me a letter saying that I gave you a $20 donation today? That might get me into the bars.' And it sure did. I'd come through every day and sell my little ribbons and talk to people and meet people and tell them about Open Hand Chicago. They had a lot of programs, and I stayed with them for 22 years."
Open Hands evolved into Vital Bridges and eventually became part of Heartland Alliance. For the past few years, Latham has continued her fundraising with Gay Liberation Network.
In the early days of her fundraising, she credits the recently departed Chuck Renslow with helping introduce her to the lucrative leathermen market.
"He broke me in, during the leather years," said Latham. "He told me what to buy. There's a lot of different things about leather that I do not know. But when they had International Mr. Leather… 'Now, Patty, you buy this flag, you buy these handcuffs.' I used to make thousands of dollars in three days! I couldn't believe it! They wanted those things."
Bartenders and doormen at the various bars also made sure she got access to their patrons. "Everybody took me underneath their wing," Latham explained. "The bartenders all helped me, the door guy at Eagle, they all helped me. They knew I was honest. If I was not, they would not allow me to sit out in front and come into the bars. I don't steal, I gave the money to Open Hand, and I got a letter every month. And they noticed that all the people liked me. Which means a lot to me of course, and to the community. Anyone that talks about me, they talk about me highly."
Although over the years her fans have told Latham to "market herself," it took a while for the natural entrepreneur to find the right strategy. In the end, it was obvious.
"One guy says, 'you know, you're the Queen, Patty, why don't you make up a button says you're the Queen?!' Oh, they went like hotcakes! One week I had 100 buttons, they were gone," she remembered. "Every time I get an idea, I make more buttons, and off I go. I carry them around with me, I go into the bars, 'any more new buttons?' Oh, they're thrilled. I've been doing that lately, on the side, Sunday afternoon. People snatch them right off of me."
She called Rogers Park's Jackhammer her "mother bar", although she doesn't always get there these days. It doesn't really get busy until 2 am, she explains, by which point she's worn out. And well ... the atmosphere isn't always conducive to a sale.
"I see them in the corner touching one another, I just walk right by with my candy dish," Latham said of the preoccupied leatherman clientele. "It gets crowded in there, there's no room for me, I just sit outside." Even so, Latham is an enthusiastic saleswoman for the bar's monthly naked party. As she puts it, "Everyone should try it just once in their life."
Younger patrons, raised in an era where AIDS is not a death sentence, don't take Latham's quest quite so seriously. "They don't know what I'm doing,' she said. "I've told them 100 times, 'What is that about? AIDS? I don't know about AIDS.' When I was doing the AIDS program, [I'd hear] 'Oh, they have cocktails for that.' I said, 'You better wear a condom.' [They would say] 'Oh, you're old.' I said, 'Yeah, I'm 74, lived that long, I don't have AIDS, I never caught any kind of sexual disease.'"
She remembers one of the young men who scoffed at her advice. "About a month later, I see him, he says, 'oh Patty, I'm so glad to see you. I got AIDS, oh my god.' I gave him a big kiss and I held him. He was crying and crying, and said, 'I wish I would have listened to you, you told me about the condoms. I thought you were just some old lady out here!' I said, 'I am an old lady out here, I tried to warn you and you didn't listen to me.' That was about two years ago, he's doing better now. But if they have the condoms on the table for something, you take them! Have them in your wallet: when you meet somebody, put them on! I've been out here for twenty five years, young man! I'm not just some old woman walking around with a candy dish."
Even the older generation occasionally needs a reminder of her mission, though Latham can count on her fans to deliver. Once, as she sat outside Progress Bar on a Sunday afternoon, a man accused her of robbing the community of thousands of dollars over the years.
"I made him really mad," she gloated. "I said, 'Sir, excuse me, you have your story wrong. It's not thousands, it's millions!' He went insane. Two guys heard me and gave me $20 apiece, and were they mad—'We love our Patty, leave her alone!' That Sunday I made over $300 just sitting there from 4 o'clock to 7:30."
But, overall, she's slowed down on her Sunday afternoon collection. "Things are tough, I'm not going to sit there like I'm begging, because I'm not begging," she said. "I just stopped going because they're just not giving as much. I don't have time to sit there and do nothing."
The community is mindful of Latham's health. "They're very good to me with the cancer, you know," Latham says. They don't like to talk about it—I don't like to talk about it either. They ask me, "how's your cancer?" I says, "I don't know about today, maybe tomorrow I'll feel better." They say if you need something, call me. I don't like to bother them, you know."
Latham counts herself lucky that she has a devoted friend, Jenny, who does everything from take her to the hospital for treatments to clean her house. "She doesn't want money," Latham marveled. "All the boys love her in Boystown and the doctors, too. 'How's Jenny? What do you mean? I'm the one that's sick!' She is a godsend."
Help like this lets Latham get back to her work. She's clearly proud of her time with Gay Liberation Network, collecting funds she she says the group uses to print flyers and obtain march permits. With her health, Latham isn't a marcher these days, but she's enthusiastic about GLN's mission.
"We fight for your rights and we march and tell people what's going on in this world," she explained. "For Black Lives Matter, we got 1,000 marchers or more and we closed down Lakeshore Drive. Black lives do matter and we need to take care of them, too. God made everybody, you know?"
Her most popular product at recent marches is, perhaps unsurprisingly, "Dump Trump" buttons. "I sold more of them than I did for Hillary," said Latham, who voted for Clinton. She's amused by the negotiations a "Dump Trump" button sale involves.
"I hate to put a price tag on Dump Trump, because I don't know the buttons are worth," Latham said. If I say $3, 'why so much?' [I say] make a donation if that makes you feel better. Then they give me a $5 anyhow! Or a $10 or 20. I've gotten as much as $50 for Dump Trump."
Latham said she regards her volunteer fundraising career as a duty, and while she might have gone to incredible lengths to fulfill it, it's a duty she feels resides with everyone.
"I enjoy serving the community," she said. "You gotta get out and you gotta do things in your community. You may not have money to give, but you can do something that's productive. You can give up an hour of your time. Get a benefit going, raise some money, do something. Anything that you think you might like to do to help somebody. God gave you a life to live and you have to live it to the fullest, whether it's serving the community or doing something at work to help somebody, or buying a lunch...anything to do to say that you contributed today. You are a gay man or a gay woman, get out there and help the people who need it the most. And you will feel much better about yourself."