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A category of one

Albert Dickens: the coolest cat in the newsroom

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I suppose this story starts in the fall of 1977, when I got a job as a copy boy for the Chicago Daily News.

I was 21 years old, just out of college and bursting with enthusiasm about making my way as a journalist.

Think of me like a character in a 70s sitcom: “You’re gonna make it after all . . .”

The editor who hired me—a sourpuss named Signer—tried to bring me back to earth. This copy boy job, he told me, is the bottom rung of the ladder. You’re an office go-fer—don’t even think about working your way up to reporter.

I said: “Yes, sir—I understand.”

I thought: Yeah, right, Signer—just you watch.

In those days, the Daily News and the Sun-Times were owned by the Field family and shared space at 401 N. Wabash Avenue—where what’s-his-face’s tower is currently located. 

As a copy boy I wandered among giants—Mike Royko, Ann Landers, Roger Ebert, and Kup. I tried not to gawk.

But even with all these journalistic superstars, the guy I most wanted to emulate was Albert Dickens, a relative unknown editorial assistant in the sports department.

I’d received notice about Albert from Josh, a high school friend who had a summer job at the paper. I believe Josh’s assessment went a little like: “Albert Dickens is so fucking cool!” Truer words were never uttered.

Smart, erudite, hip, funny, handsome, impeccably dressed (shirts always pressed, ties neatly knotted), Albert was by far—no doubt about it—the coolest cat in the newsroom.

By the time I got there, he was closing in on 40, but he had a younger vibe. A Black guy from Iowa, he’d graduated from Drake University, done a stint in the Army, and had traveled all over the world.

As far as I was concerned, he was overqualified for the job he had. He should have been a professor or something. The man seemed to know at least something about everything. 

Pick a topic, any topic—Freud, wine, farming, whatever—he had something learned to say. I mean, Albert would wisecrack in Yiddish. How a Black guy from Iowa knew Yiddish, I’ll never know.

Plus, he had a sneaky sense of humor and a lusty appreciation for dirty jokes and bawdy limericks.

As time went on, Albert and I became friends, and he’d occasionally invite me to his apartment, a studio on the second floor of a walkup around Dearborn and Huron.

Albert was neat and had an eye for art. It was a real bachelor pad—he was unmarried. I half expected a Hollywood starlet or two to walk in at any time.

He had a booming stereo system and a vast collection of jazz, opera, and classical albums. He’d pop on a record and fire up a joint. I’d be like—man, this is living.

As for proving old sourpuss Signer wrong, well, the Daily News folded just six months after I got there. Hey, don’t blame me—I was just a copy boy. After that, Albert and I went our separate ways.

Fast-forward 41 years . . .

I started my podcast at the Sun-Times office in the West Loop. And I walked in to see Albert—after the Daily News folded, he’d moved over to the Sun-Times. He was closing in on 50 years in the newspaper business, with no plans to retire.

I wasn’t going to mention how much older we both looked from our glory years. But Albert—ever the wise guy—couldn’t resist: “Benny, what happened to your Afro? You used to have such wavy hair. Now it’s waving goodbye.”

Ha, ha, ha.

As you might imagine, I’m writing this because Albert has died.

I read the news last Tuesday in a couple of bittersweet remembrances in the Sun-Times by Steve Greenberg and Rick Telander.

Turns out, Albert was gay—guess that explains the lack of Hollywood starlets in his bachelor pad. He’d spent 36 years in a relationship with James Cubas, a master tailor who died in 2016.

It also turns out that a friend of mine—Kevin Spicer—had been Albert’s lover in the 70s. I didn’t know that until I saw Kevin’s Facebook tribute to Albert. Man, this world is just too damn small.

“I met Albert at a Johnson Publishing reception back in ’78,” says Kevin. “I was working for the Defender as a reporter. The next time I saw him—I was riding my bike along the lakefront and I saw this man throwing a boomerang. I’m thinking—a boomerang? And then—wait a minute, that’s Albert.”

As Kevin and I swapped tales, we realized our times as friends of Albert’s overlapped. In other words, there’s a chance I’d have been walking out of Albert’s apartment as Kevin was walking in: “If only the walls could talk, right?” says Kevin. “Too bad you can’t interview that apartment.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Albert in the last few days—about him being a Black gay man in the sports department back in the 70s. About all the casual racist comments he must have heard—not to mention the not-so-casual homophobic ones.

Looking back, it never occurred to me Albert was gay. I was just a sheltered kid from Evanston—what did I know about gays? Or anything else, really.

“There are so many hidden histories about Black people and gay people—especially gay, Black people,” says Kevin. “People come in all different flavors and shades. Other people want to put you in categories. They want to assign you a role. But Albert was Albert—he was in his own category.”

To that let me add one last thing on a personal note . . .

The coolest cat in the newsroom, Albert was remarkably friendly and encouraging to a copy boy on the lowest rung of the company ladder.  v

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