A Seat at the Bar With Studs

When you grow up in Chicago, when your people are historians and class conscious labor historians at that, well, Studs Terkel is on your radar.  And I am all the richer for it.  My writing pal Andy asked me to blog about meeting a writer that inspires at a bar.  What might that look like?  I chose Studs.  It had to be Studs.  Won’t you join us?

Tap, tap, tap.  “Mr. Terkel?”  Nothing.  Shaking shoulder gently, “MR. TERKEL, SIR?”

“Why are you calling me Sir?  Sit down already.”

The two times I met Studs Terkel were late in his life.  Both times he was wearing his signature red checked gingham shirt and a navy sport coat with gold, faintly nautical, buttons.  He is different than the Studs I imagined.  Smaller and older.  And definitely more hard of hearing.  Is that rouge on his cheeks?  He looks mischievous, curious, tired, oddly elf-like.  But then he opens his mouth.  It is Studs alright.

Studs Terkel, through the years, through the words.
Studs Terkel, through the years, through the words.

Studs Terkel was the consummate Chicagoan.  Russian Jewish, faintly like my husband’s origins.  He had the wide features of someone from Eastern Europe and the big ears I remember from my own Eastern European roots.  For about two minutes this summer Mary Tyler Dad and I seriously considered naming our baby Studs, as it met our requirements of a Chicago inspired moniker better than most of the others up for consideration.

But no.  There would be no Baby Studs in our life.  Instead, I would be satisfied with his words.  His many, many words.

A few things you need to know about Studs before you share a drink with him:

  • He was an oral historian, recording the stories of maids and presidents, newsmakers and bus drivers.  None of these stories were more important than the others.  
  • He was what I fondly refer to as a character.  I have known a few characters in my life, and I love them all.  In my book, a character is a person who is so consummately themselves, so completely who they are, that they present the same way no matter who they are with.  They will conduct themselves the same way with Snoop Dog or Charles Schulz.  There are not enough characters in this world of ours.
  • Like a good social worker, Studs Terkel intimately understood the relationship between the micro and the macro, the everyman and the dignitary, the haves and the have nots, the atheist and the true believer.  He wove this knowledge into everything he offered those who were lucky enough to partake — his books, his interviews, his radio shows.  Studs saw value everywhere in everyone.

“I’ve got to say, I am honored to sit here and drink with you.  What’ll you have?”

(This is where I get to imagine what a man like Studs Terkel might drink.)  “Well, first of all, stop with all the Sirs and being honored.  Let’s just sit and talk, okay?  I’ll have a decaf, barkeep.”  (I bet Studs in his prime was a Schlitz man.  Or, no, a Scotch drinker.)

And this is where I start to gush, clumsily trying to explain why I understand his words more than most, why I, too, get it. I puff up my lefty street cred.  How I am a social worker by trade, how my Dad used to spend Sunday afternoons driving us through both the projects and the fancy pants North Shore suburbs, wanting to teach us that we have more than some and less than some, how my sister is a labor historian and is my hero and taught me from the age of eight about things like feminism and classism, how one of my favorite life mantras is “folks is folks.”  Studs holds his hand up, the international symbol of enough, already.

I do that.  I gush sometimes when I get excited.  It’s a flaw, I know.

“Tell me something I want to hear, ” Studs said.

And then I tell him how his books have kept me company through the years, how the people he introduced me to have never left me.  When I read Race as a young adult, I better understood the deep and profound segregation in Chicago, our shared city.  When I read Working in high school I vowed to find work that was meaningful to me in my life, still without a clue what that might be.  When I read The Good War as a new social worker in a retirement community as a way to better understand the experiences of the men and women I was now working with clinically.  And how I kept reading to better understand my older clients — My American Century and Coming of Age:  The Story of Our Century by Those Who’ve Lived It.  

Again, Studs held his hand up.  “Enough about me.  I know what I’ve written.  This is not a job interview.  You,” he said, “I want to know about you.”

This flusters me.

I am lost.

So that’s what I tell him.  “I am lost,” I say.  Because it’s true.  And we talk about cancer and we talk about how I am no longer a social worker because my own sadness is too much to bear other people’s sadness in any way that would help them.  I tell him I no longer read books, that cancer took reading away from me, and that, ironically, it brought writing to me.  I told him that some days I am so lonely and some days I am so self-centered and some days, most days, I miss so much of my life before cancer.  I told him about motherhood being my anchor and my hope.

We talked a lot about hope.  And religion.  And faith.  And life.  And death.

And then he left.  And I paid for his coffee and my gin.  And on the way home, I stopped at a bookstore and bought Hope Dies Last:  Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times, because I suddenly want to read again.

Thank you, Mr. Terkel, Sir.

Studs and Chicago go hand in hand.
Studs and Chicago go hand in hand.

This is one is a series of posts about writers who inspire and sharing a drink with them.  They are catalogued here. 

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