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Chi Lives: Alan Cahn, the druggist who can't say no

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Listening to the caller on the other end of the line, Alan Cahn looks distinctly surprised. "Houston! How did you get my name? Uh-huh. Really? Houston?"

A pharmacist with a tiny storefront at Thorndale and Winthrop, Cahn might have the most popular pharmacy phone number in America. Besides being swamped with Chicago customers, he regularly gets calls from AIDS patients from one coast to the other, though Houston is a new city for him. Most privately owned pharmacies in Chicago might have a half-dozen AIDS patients, but Cahn's files bulge with the names of a thousand.

He has some of the lowest prices in the nation for AZT, one of the few legal drugs available to fight the effects of the AIDS virus. His prices for Levkovin, Nizoral, Zidovudine, and other drugs for AIDS patients are also low. Because Cahn buys these drugs in bulk, he can save 25 to 30 percent on them.

Thin, dark-haired, Cahn rarely stands still. While the Houston caller holds on, Cahn dashes around his pharmacy gathering price lists, jotting down information. Then he gets back on the phone. A New Yorker by birth, Cahn still has a rapid-fire delivery, spitting out words almost faster than the human ear can process them. The caller must be getting it all, though, since Cahn doesn't repeat anything.

AZT he's selling right now for $1.30 a capsule. The average is around $1.60. Since patients must take about 400 capsules a month, Cahn is underselling his competition by $120 a month. The savings are substantial.

Since this caller is from out of town, Cahn gives him the 800 number of Project Informed, in California, for information about AIDS. "There's a lot of misinformation out there," he tells the guy. "These people will settle you down a bit." Had the caller been from Chicago, Cahn would also have given him the phone number of the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic, which specializes in treating patients who have tested positive for HIV.

He wraps up the conversation by saying: "Don't take aspirin or Tylenol; aspirin thins the blood, and taking that with AZT can cause blood problems. . . . You don't want to compound your problems. Take Nuprin or Advil instead." There's a pause. "Always check with your doctor."

Through a national network of connections, some of which Cahn still hasn't figured out, his name circulates among persons being treated for the effects of AIDS. A doctor in Fort Lauderdale has all of his prescriptions filled through Cahn. The Chicago artist Gabor, who died last year, regularly sent customers to him, although the two men never met. "I talked with him only by phone, yet he was one of my biggest supporters. Life is funny that way," Cahn muses.

"I've become like a focal center of the AIDS community, and I cannot charge a lot of money," he says. "I've come to feel an obligation. I suppose that's the best way to put it."

At one time Cahn owned six pharmacies, most of them on Broadway in New Town. Since the area has a high population of gays, he began getting many requests to fill prescriptions for AIDS patients.

As his AIDS customers increased, Cahn says it became nearly impossible to keep tabs on all six pharmacies and find the time to be with his wife and two daughters. Two years ago, he sold five of the stores and consolidated his operation. Cahn's Save-Rite storefront, located east of Broadway near the Thorndale el stop, is "nothing to look at," he says, "but it's clean and it's safe."

Looks can be deceiving, but I still parked right outside, and I didn't linger on the sidewalk. I figured Cahn didn't put big black bars on his door for aesthetic reasons.

Walking inside, I was surprised at how compact everything was. Cahn's work space is about 12 feet long and maybe 5 feet wide. The rest of his store would occupy a couple of aisles in a Walgreens.

Cahn works alone, except for a friend who helps fill orders a few hours a week. He puts in a 12-hour day, Monday through Saturday, usually ending his day by dropping off prescriptions for those too ill to make it into the store.

Cahn says he's one of the few pharmacists he knows who fills prescriptions "on assignment," which means the patient doesn't pay; instead, Cahn gets reimbursed--he hopes--by the insurance companies. He yanks open a file drawer. "See this? This is incredible. There's over $100,000 in orders here that I've filled, and that people throughout the United States owe me for."

It's money he may never see. "Trust is involved, and the truth is, a lot of my customers don't even bring in a signed insurance form when they come for their medicine. They say they'll mail it. I have to trust the customer, and that's probably where my heart and soul lies," he says. "You have to feel compassion, especially when you see some people come in. The patient does get real sick, and then you see such a change in physical being that you virtually cry. You can't help it. You get to know people as human beings."

Last year, Cahn was given a Friend for Life award from the Howard Brown Memorial Clinic, cited for his "generosity of spirit" and for never denying needed medications because someone could not afford to pay.

"I'm from the old school of pharmacy. I got into this business in 1962. The pharmacy role was traditionally: you come in, you get your tetracycline, and you leave. I never expected to be in the critical-care business," he says. "I'm a traditional retail druggist. Suddenly I get into this critical-care business, and either you're stone cold or you gotta have a heart.

"That's what happened to me . . ." A young girl enters the store, and Cahn instantly breaks off our conversation to devote his attention to her. No, he tells her, her grandmother's prescription won't be filled for another two hours. He's got to get some information from the doctor. Can she come back that afternoon? As she's leaving, Cahn calls out, "Say hello to your family for me."

Without missing a beat, he's back into our conversation. "I saw this one customer, I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a year and a half ago. He came in, and I called his doctor and said, 'We got to do something for this guy!' He looked terrible, like he hadn't eaten in days. I grabbed a couple cans of food and began feeding this guy. The next day he went into the hospital.

"See, I can't just let them walk in and walk out. I feel like they're a part of my life and I have to do something to help." I rest my arm on his "payment-pending" file drawer and ask if he's ever been stiffed by a customer.

"Sure, the dirty stinkers," he says. Dirty stinkers! Even angry, Cahn can't seem to muster much resentment. "One customer in Skokie got a check from the insurance company and told me, 'I need the money for something else.' It happens, but very rarely. The community understands what I'm doing. Generally in the homosexual community people are very educated, and they want to be fair with me. I have customers who will only come to me now, and have me taking care of their grandmothers. They know I will do whatever it takes to help them out."

A blond man dressed in a three-piece suit enters the pharmacy. It almost looks as if he might be lost, standing just inside the front door nervous and very pale. But he's clutching a small square of paper. He smiles when Cahn turns and recognizes him, and seems a little relieved once they shake hands.

Some words are passed between them, and the man wanders down one of the aisles where canned food and paper products are stocked, still looking a little lost. "The whole thing in my mind is compassion," Cahn says, immediately getting to work on filling the man's order. "You have to have compassion when you're dealing with people."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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