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Curiosity and a Cat Named Studs

Legendary Chicago writer Studs Terkel celebrates 95 years on May 16, and a new book this fall

BY Laura S. Washington

"There's an ironic, and very funny secret to my success: my ineptitude, mechanically."

By the time you read this, Studs Terkel will have had a big birthday. On April 16, a month before he turned 95, I visited his stolid brick home in Uptown on Chicago’s north lakefront. While he’s had his “ups and downs” in recent months, his eyes still twinkle with the promise of more stories to tell.

He waved me over to his customary spot, a rumpled chair in a sun-drenched corner of the living room. Studs was suited up in his trademark red-checked flannel shirt and red socks. A hefty stack of newspapers and magazines spilled over a table nearby. Perched perilously atop it sat the final manuscript of his upcoming (and first) memoir, Touch and Go, just back from his publisher, The New Press.

Studs says much of Touch and Go was dictated over the telephone to Sydney Lewis, an author and his longtime assistant. The book, a tribute to his abidingly sharp and perceptive recall of history, is dedicated to his son Dan, also a writer.

The inexhaustible nonagenarian has penned more than a dozen books, among them Working, Hard Times, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good War. His oral histories and singular radio interviews chronicle a crazy quilt of stories–those of celebrity icons, but even more compelling, the tales of ordinary people.

This is Studs’ story. Touch and Go spans the 95 years of his life mosaic: vaudeville performer, radio DJ, vaunted storyteller, historian, rooming house denizen and advocate for the downtrodden.

That spring afternoon, he gave In These Times a sneak preview.

Ninety-five. Did you think you’d make 95?

I’m genetically a cardiac case. My father and my two brothers died in the ’50s. I have lived 50 years longer than my two brothers and my father. My heart’s OK, that’s the amazing thing.

When is the book coming out?

It’s coming out sometime in September.

Oh, that’s not too long. So you have to stick around for that.

This is it.

So this is your life story, finally.

There’s an ironic, and very funny, secret to my success: my ineptitude, mechanically. I can’t use a machine, or drive a car. And I make mistakes on the tape recorder. Now the tape recorder was important to two Americans, I think, more than anyone else. To myself and Dick Nixon. I call Dick Nixon and me the New Cartesians, as in Descartes [Rene Descartes, the 17th century philosopher and mathematician]. The Latin phrase is cogito ergo sum–“I think, therefore I am.” In the case of Dick Nixon and me, it’s, “I tape, therefore I am.”

In my place, I tape therefore they are. Now who is the “they?” The “they” are the non-celebrated celebrities, the people who have never been asked about their lives before.

You wrote about people like that in Working.

My subjects helped me. Here’s a guy, comes in with a tape recorder and I goofed up. And so when I goofed up, they helped me. Now that’s the secret. To feel needed. I needed them. For the first time in their lives somebody said, “I need you. You count.”

You had a long radio career.

I became a disc jockey before the word disc jockey was used.

But mine was different.I would play anything. A Caruso record, something by a Brazilian composer, Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues,” the Duke’s [Ellington] “Black and Tan,” Billie Holiday, of course. And then the country blues singers.

Tell me more about the book.

The hero of the book is Einstein.

He’s the hero of the book?

Except he is also the villain. He’s the villain for ironic reasons. Because an old guy said to me, “Einstein, the great heart, the great mind of the century, came to us from the future. We weren’t ready for him.” He was the one that suggested, to [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt, that the bomb be made. The atom bomb. Enrico Fermi does the unthinkable, splits the unsplittable, the atom.

But Einstein never dreamed it would be used on human beings. And then he said, and this is how the book ends; he said, “I don’t know what the weapons of World War III will be”–he wasn’t thinking about Iraq–“I know the weapons of World War IV–sticks and stones.” Sticks and stones.

What is he saying? He is saying we can blow up the world. They can blow us up, too. Because science is universal. Sticks and stones. He’s saying our ancestors had fur hides on their backs and clubs in their hands. And our descendants will too. They’ll come out of the cave trembling, with clubs, and out of the tribal memory will come things like Shakespeare and Mozart.

What did they call you before they called you Studs?

My name is Louis. And I became part of this labor theatre group. I was reading Studs Lonigan, by James T. Farrell. James T. Farrell talked the Chicago street talk. And so that played a big role in my life.

Let me ask you something. You’re an old radio guy: Don Imus?

Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly. Don Imus is just one of them. He happens to be stupid. They all are! That’s one of the things I have in the book–the lack of yesterday, of memory. The big thing that bothers me is the lack of history. Gore Vidal used the phrase, “United States of Amnesia.” I call it the United States of Alzheimer’s. We forget what happened yesterday.

Take this story. You know I walk to the bus. Bus number 146. They know me in the neighborhood. They know I’m a writer. They know me as the old guy who’s garrulous. I talk to myself. [Laughs.]

So one day there’s this one couple, they ignore me completely. So my ego is hurt. And I say, “The bus is late.” And I say, to make conversation, “Labor Day’s coming up.” And the man just turns and looks at me–Brooks Brothers, under his arm, the latest Wall Street Journal. And she’s a beauty. Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s. She’s got Vanity Fair in her hand. And he turns, looks at me, and says, “We despise unions.” And then he turns away.

And I said, “You what?” And the bus hasn’t come yet. “Do you know that in 1886, ‘87, four guys got hanged? How many hours a day do you work?”

He says, “Eight,” reflexively. I said, “How come you don’t work 18 hours a day? Four guys got hanged for you. Did you know that?”

They think I’m crazy. They’re scared. (Laughs.)

Now I’ve got him pinned against the mailbox. He can’t get away. “So how many weeks do you work?” No bus yet.

So finally they get onto the bus, and she looks out the window, and he says, “Is that guy nuts?” And that was the last I saw of them. This is Uptown–the haves and have-nots. I’ll bet they live in a condominium. Maybe the 15th floor.

What about Barack Obama? Do you think he’s going to make it?

He’s remarkable. At this period, at this time, it’s so dramatic and hopeful. Of course he’s cautious about certain things. There’s certain things he has to weigh. He’s obviously very brilliant.

See, the word “liberal” has become like the word “communist” in the Cold War. In conversation people used to say, “not that I’m a communist.” Now, it’s “not that I’m a liberal.”

John Kerry–one of the heroes. He was against the Vietnam War. He was on my show. And he’s apologizing saying, “I’m not a liberal.”

“Then what the hell are ‘ya?” Finally I say, “Well, the label means nothing,” because I knew some Reds in the past who did some great stuff. The point is, it doesn’t matter what name you’re called. It’s what you do that counts.

I call myself a radical conservative. Radical–look it up in the dictionary. It means, getting to the root of things. Now, I’m a conservative because I want to conserve the potability of our drinking water. I want to conserve the non-polluted air we can breathe. I want to conserve the First Amendment to the Constitution. And I want to conserve whatever little sanity we have left.

Is there someone you never had a chance to interview that you regret?

George Bernard Shaw. Mark Twain. I almost got W.E.B. Du Bois.

What about young people? There are a lot of historical figures in this memoir.

Well, that’s the point. I’m a Rip Van Winkle guy. I don’t know what the Internet is. What a website is. What a blog is. “Blog,” to me, is the Flintstones. You know, Neanderthal. Blog. Or someone who’s talkin’ in tongues. Website reminds me of Robert the Bruce, the leader of the Scots. In one of the wars against the British, for independence, the troops are chasing him. He runs into a cave, and he sees a spider, making a web. And he maneuvers himself behind the spider and the web covers him, and the British troops can’t find anybody there, except spider webs. So he survives, and makes it.

That’s what the word website means. I don’t know anything about these new words.

These new words are changing the world.

That’s the interesting thing. A new way of getting at things. That’s how Howard Dean became known. And that’s a good, hopeful sign.

What do you want your tombstone to say Studs?

On my tombstone? Because of my curiosity, my tombstone is very simple: “Curiosity could not kill this cat.” That’s it. And I think we’ve come to the end of the course. For me, I think so.

No more books?

No. You sound like my publisher. That’s it!

Laura S. Washington, an In These Times contributing editor, is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC 7-Chicago.

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