Monday, 15 December 2008

A Life Played by Ear: Studs Terkel

I’ll never forget my first face-to-face with Studs Terkel. I had assigned the paperback edition, just out, of Terkel’s 1974 book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day And How They Feel About What They Do (an absolutely central text in my syllabus of Am Lit). When I read in the Inquirer that he was coming to speak at Penn’s Annenberg School of Communication (of which I was a founding faculty member), I called Terkel cold at WFMT-FM in Chicago. Could he be free for an evening before or after his Annenberg lecture to field my Beaver College students’ eager enquiries? (They loved the book because Terkel raised such essential life questions in an educational system that practically ignored such issues.)

I never needed to use my Annenberg “clout” to seal the deal. He replied enthusiastically that he’d love to learn from my students how they felt. “How about the night before?” he asked. “Meet my flight on USAirways at 6 p.m. O.K.?”

I mumbled affirmatively, caught off guard by his instant acquiescence, and hung up. I turned to my girl friend, Kate Britt, a Holy Family undergrad, who already had an anguished look on her face, guessing I’d ask her to pick up the celebrity at Philly International. Shy as she was sweet— i.e., very— she mentioned another student option. But after some grumbling, she complied. I knew the Great Empathizer would have her eating out of his hand in nano-seconds.

And he did. When Kate arrived at the front door with Studs, she was wearing a beatific smile, completely at ease. Now she, he, and I formed a mini-receiving line. First there was Steve Harmelin, the best American civ student I ever had at Penn, who wrote an astonishingly mature 98-page thesis on Finley Peter Dunne, the Chicago newspaper wisecracker. Steve went on to Harvard, became Princeton professor Eric Goldman’s gofer in the LBJ White House, and ended up where he is now: managing partner of Dilworth Paxson.

They were deep in an analysis of a current legal flap in Congress when the Penn Africanist Margo Plass popped out of a cab delivering her from her aerie on Rittenhouse Square. When I got back with two drinks, they were already having a go on how much good or bad flowed from Picasso’s infatuation with African sculpture. Before I succumbed to the genial cacophony which Studs generates wherever he goes, I heard him making an appointment with a student to tape her experiences as a lesbian in an all-women’s college.

He never quit, even on his mostly horizontal 96-year-old’s bed, from which he wrote his most interesting book yet, Touch and Go: A Memoir (The New Press, 2008) with Sydney Lewis, a very attentive amanuensis. In it, Studs never stops questioning his worlds and the inhabitants thereof. Old Terkel troopers will find much here that’s familiar from his 15 other books, not to forget for lucky Chicagoans all that pervasive FM and TV exposure, which he puts in sharp focus, telling how long and pervasively he has been harassed by the FBI and other poor substitutes for an honest-to-god egalitarian life.

There’s a lot about his wife Ida, the social worker who dampened Studs’s instant utopianism whenever it screwed up his life unnecessarily. Too little about his life at the U. of Chicago Law School. A lot of meaty stuff about his radio soap operating, somewhat less about his TV extemporizing. I’d give a left nut to be able to find video and audiotapes of those unrehearsed broadcasts. Some tape was lost through last-minute evidence dumping during the McCarthy Red scare.

As Terkel admits, there was not a little “touch and go” in his play-it-by-ear life, as he winged it. To me— a Catholic conservative lad hijacked to Socialism through reading the National Guardian in graduate school— Terkel’s slower nurturing of leftie stances through serving in worker hotels and attending the radical hoopla in nearby Bughouse Square was a better education.

Chicago is where I shucked my Holy Rosary tight-ass Catholicism as a swabbie at Great Lakes boot camp in 1944. Studs and the Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg (he was in the last Bauhaus class, 1933) helped make a man of me by their examples. Studs— who died October 31 at the age 96— and Bert taught me how to look and ask questions. Far better than squads of sinecurial professors.

You don’t get to choose your parents. But if you’re lucky, you get to choose two tutors. Every visit to Chicago was a quick rerun of their main lessons. Touch and Go can touch you where such deep changes are made.

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