An American Treasure: Studs Terkel

If 20th-century America were a play, Studs Terkel would be the narrator. Imagine a dark stage. The audience is hushed. Then, in a spotlight, Terkel is revealed. He is seated on a stool, dressed as himself: red-checked shirt and red socks, rumpled blazer, half-smoked cigar, white hair dancing straight up in the light, a tape recorder slung over his shoulder.

He introduces us to people he has interviewed -- both the famous and the unknown -- in his long, idiosyncratic career as an actor, disc jockey, radio and TV host, and writer in Chicago. We meet Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bertrand Russell, Marlon Brando, Kurt Vonnegut, Mahalia Jackson, Cesar Chavez and a parade of housewives, steelworkers, war veterans, industrialists, Hiroshima survivors, social workers, political hacks, firefighters, immigrants and waitresses. They've all told Studs their stories. As the play begins, he speaks these lines from his own memoir, "Talking to Myself."

"Each morning, as I shuffle down the alley, shortcutting my way to the bus, I mumble, curse, sing snatches of arias, pop songs of the twenties, and hymns. Occasionally if the wind is with me and God smiles, I run into kindred spirits: the old lady in the long, tattered black coat, lugging her brown shopping bag; the nasty old man shaking his fist and hurling lightning bolts at the heavens; the young fat man, lonely, slovenly, furious, and hurting; the chortling one of indeterminate age. My crowd."

Terkel has heard the stories that make up the larger themes of 20th-century America: the dangers of capitalism, the virtues of community, the mixed blessings of technology, and the shame of racism, but also, and importantly, the basic goodness of people. It will be a long evening in the theater and harrowing at times, but in the end, an astonishing optimism will shine through, because that is how we find Studs Terkel in his ninetieth year. After all he has seen and heard, in a century full of every horror and wonder 90th mankind could invent, he still has hope. In fact, he's writing a book about it.

Born Louis Terkel in 1912, he grew up in his mother's boardinghouse on the northern edge of Chicago's Loop. In his memory, the lobby of the Wells Grand Hotel was always full of men who "laughed, argued, drank, swore, and, on occasion, swung out wildly." There was John the Baptist, Joe Cline the carpenter, Joe the baker, Doc Mooney, the two Harrys, John Barkie, who called all women "the daughters of Eve," and Civilization, the crazy Serb, who gave young Louis a cure for shortness. (It didn't work.)

Terkel went to the University of Chicago law school, inspired by his hero, Clarence Darrow, lawyer for the underdog. He was active in pro-labor movements in the 1930s, found work as an actor and a reporter. In the '50s, he was blacklisted, excluded from jobs for his liberal views. The tape recorder was his constant companion. Everywhere he went he taped interviews, which he aired on his radio programs and which later became the basis for his books.

"Interview" is not the right word for what happens when you put a microphone in front of Studs Terkel. You can say why you've come and squeak out a few questions, but he is "The Interviewer" and you are "the listener." Best to start with a simple question: "Studs, do you miss being on the radio?" (He quit his radio show in 1998.) The answer is a breathless, 35-minute-long rollercoaster monologue. Sit tight and try to take it in: The Wells Grand, the Great Depression, the Federal Writers' Project, his wife Ida, radio dramas, Woody Guthrie ("I haven't forgotten your question!"), Dave Garroway, anti-Jim Crow rallies, the Red Scare, the F.B.I. ("I was scared shitless"), South Africa, radio station WFMT. It's a masterly performance and he does not forget the question. The answer, when he gets to the end, is "yes and no."

Studs Terkel has by now written 10 books of oral history, including "Hard Times" (about the Great Depression), "Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do" and "The Good War" (about World War II), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

And last year, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth and Hunger for a Faith," in which 63 people tell him their thoughts about death. Some believe in an afterlife; some don't. Some are ready to go; some are not. "People do want to talk about it," he says, and despite the fact that he can talk like there's no tomorrow, he is still hungry to listen. His books are the evidence, and two more are in progress: "The Listener," profiles of singers and musicians, and the book on the front burner, which is about hope. He's doing the interviews now.

"There's a saying in Spanish, 'Hope dies last.' That might make a good title," he says.

"There's something wonderfully hopeful about a 90-year-old man starting a new book," I say.

"Well, that's hope, but of course that's foolhardy, too," he says, smiling. "What the hell, it's been a pretty good run."

I try to ask him the questions he says he will ask his subjects: When were you most hopeful in your life? Or least?

His answer is another historical romp, this one a survey of the American mood in the last 80 years. But who better to ask? Terkel has always been out measuring it, hearing America in its own words. When the country was hopeful, Studs was hopeful.

He remembers V-E Day in 1945. Victory in Europe. He and his wife were having drinks with friends, celebrating Ida's birthday, when a radio broadcast came on CBS, Norman Corwin's "On a Note of Triumph," a now-legendary celebration of the end of the war. The program concluded with a prayer from Corwin's pen: "Lord God . . . post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend...."

"It was the most fantastic high moment!" says Terkel, "Maybe I'll start the book with that."

The '50s were a low point, he says, full of suspicion and fear, but he remembers the '60s as a decade of high expectations, wonderful in its way. He went to Alabama with his tape recorder for the march on Selma, and he was tear-gassed in Chicago in 1968, at the Democratic convention protests.

He laments what he calls our "national Alzheimer's disease. We don't remember the past, as a nation," he says.

If Terkel's own mood reflects the nation's, what is it that gives him hope today? The answer is another long story, beginning with a man he once interviewed named C.P. Ellis. "I pick up the paper one day, and I read that his guy who was once the exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan is now on tour, advocating unions for janitors and I think, Well, I gotta get this guy."

He tells how Ellis, born poor and white in Durham, North Carolina, struggling all his life to feed his family, felt shut out of American society, but when he joined the Klan, he says, he felt like somebody.

"BINGO!" says Studs. "When I heard that phrase I thought of Jesse Jackson!"

Studs goes on to tell how C.P. Ellis began to change, got involved in a local school issue and reluctantly, gradually, worked on a committee with a black activist named Ann Atwater, whom he had come to despise. Over time, though, after many small epiphanies, he realized they shared a common concern for their children, common goals as human beings.

"You asked me about hope," says Terkel. "That gives me hope." After nearly two hours of talk, he has grown quiet. He leans toward me. "People can change -- that gives me hope."

Studs Terkel draws optimism from other human beings. After having spent 50 years face-to-face and heart-to-heart with women and men who trust him enough to pour out their dreams, he is a vessel, a conduit. "And here's where the average -- so-called -- person comes in," he says.

He recalls a blizzard in 1959, unlike any before. "It was unbelievable. So the wife says, 'You gotta go outside with your tape recorder.' She's exhilarated, see? There are no cars. The cars are all buried! The people are all walking! They were falling on the snow and they were laughing! It's like they were liberated!"

The next day, on the bus going home, "Everybody's talking and this woman says, 'You know, I can't believe it. Yesterday I fell down in the snow twenty times, and all twenty times I was picked up and offered a cup of coffee,' and then she says, 'You can't beat people.' I love that phrase. 'You can't beat people.' See, there is a decency in people, but all this SHIT, all the cars and the pollution and the fights -- I'm not gonna blame the consumers because that's an easy way out -- but we're taught to think the guy behind the desk, the official man, is a better man than I am, 'cause if I were good, I'd be there, and yet, basically, there is decency. Of course there's the other, but both are here!"

Studs Terkel has trusted his gut, believed in people, and searched for truth instead of facts. As a result, at 90 years old, he is comfortable with ambiguity and change. We don't expect to find a man his age chasing down ideas and people just to satisfy his curiosity, but he has never been an intellectual housecat. He's a tomcat, sniffing around the sidewalks and in the back alleys.

"Uncharted territory is what I like," he says. "Like Magellan."

Neenah Ellis is a radio producer and writer who lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.

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