Saturday, November 1, 2008

Rest in peace, Studs Terkel...

Well, it was inevitable.

Even forces of nature must pass. Tornadoes eventually wind down, tsunamis settle, fires are subdued and then, finally, diminish into a few burning embers and then - sssst - out. Something that you could not imagine ever ceasing - so powerful and vital and brimming with swaggering, stunning force - eventually defies our expectations and fades away, either in an extended rumble or a final flash of raw potency. In any case, it is gone, and so, now, is Studs. Like a force of nature, he left us marveling at his abilities, his prowess, his performance. Unlike a force of nature, we watched with smiles on our faces. (I would say that unlike a force of nature, he did not leave destruction in his path, but that's not true: he punched his tough fist through pomposity, ripped holes through bigotry, tore into hypocrisy. More than anything, he chewed up and spit out misanthropy. So he did indeed have a role in destruction, but it was of that very worthwhile kind, something I would be proud to take a few bites out of myself.)

Studs Terkel...First of all, that voice was a reverie for me each time I would hear it. That slightly clipped, nasally, whispering then loud, deeply resonant, words-tumbling-out, words-slowly-and-carefully-chosen, muscular, unique and exquisite force of nature was a marvel to me, something I could never turn off no matter what subject on which it was gloriously pontificating. (I'm sorry if this seems overly dramatic, but, truly, this is what he meant to me.) His voice was also a vehicle that transported me in an instant back to my Eastern European grandfather, who did not sound like Studs, but he was of Studs, if that makes any sense. My grandfather was also hardscrabble, a working class lover of humanity in all its various walks, and, like Studs, did not give a good goddamn about appearances or pretenses. When I would see Studs with his flannel checkered shirt, shuffling, flat-footed gait and unadulterated enthusiasm for the wonder of it all - that this child of immigrants could flesh out ideas with Big Thinkers, that he could hold court with opera divas and shopkeepers and civil rights workers and Method actors for a living - I would think of my grandfather. My papa was not famous and he never wrote a book (perhaps never even read one), but he had what Studs had: that spark, that voracious enthusiasm for life, that unquenchable thirst for understanding. When I would see footage of Studs on the number 147 bus - he never drove - talking with his fellow passengers, flirting with the women, making them blush and laugh, I couldn't help but imagine my much more soft-spoken grandfather in his little gray wool cap alongside Studs, smiling in camaraderie. Studs kept my grandfather alive for me that much longer (he's been gone more than twenty years), which is, by itself, a gift to me.

But back to that voice. Listening to his old recordings on WFMT is like going back in a time machine, to the halcyon Edward R. Murrow days of journalism and radio, and it is a reminder of the pure immediacy and intimacy of that voice in a box, just you and that person on the other side of the box. I rarely listen to the radio these days. When I'm writing, I can't listen to anything, and when I'm in the car, my son and I both go more than a little batty at the sound of a commercial, let alone a whole stream of them, and I can't bear for him to hear the news about car bombs and terrorism, so NPR is out as well. Because my days are most often radio-free, I cannot speak to the medium's current state but listening to Studs' recordings is probably like comparing an excellent dark chocolate with a Hershey bar: infinitely more rich, more satisfying, almost a completely different substance. The way he didn't settle for the superficial, the way he gently helped his guests dive deeper, the way he never took the easy way out, how he was respectful but never reverent, always passionate, this, sadly, I think is a thing of the past. Virtually all media these days are enraptured with the quick soundbite, the pat homily, the scatological teaser that debases us all. For someone with the quick wit, compassionate heart and indefatigable curiosity like Mr. Terkel possessed, radio, at least when he came of age, was the perfect fit with that voice. What a luxury those hours he spent delving into the heart of a subject were for all involved. I hope and pray that we will find a way back to such civilized, honest and challenging discourse again.

Last, two stories about Studs and me.

When my son was about six months old, I was at City Hall at the request of some friends who had organized a press conference on a building, the old Wiebolt's department store on Broadway, they were trying to develop into mixed-income, multi-use property. (They lost and it was turned into a Borders, leeching on my lovely Women and Children First feminist bookstore on Clark Street.) They wanted someone with a child there and I was happy to help out. I didn't realize that Studs Terkel had also been invited and when I saw him, he was sitting on a bench in the marble hall, his fedora on his lap, by himself but with people fanning out around him. I gathered up my courage and sat down next to him, my son in my lap. I usually try to give celebrities space - not that encountering them is such a common occurrence for me - but having touched my mortality a short time prior with the birth of my son (another story for another day), I realized that I did not have time to waste. I also didn't know how long Studs would be around and when I'd have another opportunity. So I sat down next to him and I thanked him for all his work, mentioning in particular a radio interview I'd heard of him that had really touched me (detailed below). He was very hard of hearing at this point, it would have been 2002, so he asked me to repeat myself a few times and seemed a little grumpy about his hearing loss, understandably. Then he turned his attention to my son. At that precise moment, my son reached over and took his famous fedora from his lap, and he placed it on his own head, causing Studs to laugh in delight. (My son never did anything like this again in his babyhood.) He asked me for my son's name, which I am avoiding telling here for my various reasons, and he told me that was a great name, that his friend, Helen Schiller, a liberal Chicago alderwoman, had a grandchild with the same name. Then he took my son's hand and said, "He's got a hell of a grip. Look at this kid," looking up at his admirers around him with a big grin. I handed him back his hat and I thanked him again, then he was promptly whisked off to speak. I was touched in a way that I could only imagine a handful of famous people affecting me and it is something I will always be grateful to have experienced.

Second, an experience with him in a box, on the radio in my car. I had gone to the grocery store, unaware that I was newly pregnant, a few days after September 11th, that bleary-eyed, hazy, horrible time. I was listening to him speak with Richard Steele on Chicago's WBEZ on the terrorist attacks. I sat there for twenty minutes, crying and deeply inspired by his voice, his words and wisdom. In the days when the lunatics of this country were standing out on the streets chanting, "U!S!A! U!S!A!," the letters painted across their cheeks like we were in some kind of goddamn football game, calling for blood, demanding that we bomb Them, of "our country, right or wrong," he called for circumspection and intelligence, to take this grave situation and use it as a time to turn ourselves as a nation around, into a nation of peacekeepers, of humanitarians. In the last few minutes of the interview, he said something that, honest to goodness, I had to gasp out loud at and I jumped to jot down in my cookbook, it meant so much to me. He said, "Dissent, honest dissent, is a natural American attribute." I hold this deeply in my heart and even today when the pull to maintain the status quo starts circling above me like a hungry buzzard (it isn't often, but it happens), I remember his words and think to myself, Hell no! The buzzard always disappears in a flash.

No, curiosity did not kill that cat. May this next journey for Studs be as rich and deep and marvelous as his earthly one. Right now, he's probably lining up the best interviews imaginable: Einstein, Gandhi, Emma Goldman, Plato, Michelangelo, Proust, Joan of Arc, Jesus. Not to mention more fascinating common folk than you can shake a stick at.

For tonight, I will sign off as Studs did on his radio show: Take it easy, but take it. I'll take it, Studs. Thank you.

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