There’s a phrase threading itself through Studs Terkel’s conversations that’s almost too subtle to notice, yet it defines the fabric. On Wednesday, Studs turns 95. In October 2005 Ted Koppel was marveling that Studs, then a mere 93, had joined him on Nightline five weeks after undergoing open-heart surgery. At the time his new book was And They All Sang, so Studs was talking to Koppel about music.
“And from there I go to Woody Guthrie doing ‘Tom Joad,'” Studs said, recalling how decades ago he used to put together a radio show called House of Wax. “In six minutes, two sides of a ten-inch record, Woody did, in his own poetic way, the whole story of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Incredible! Then I’d go [to] another thing. That’s the ethic. And the program would get letters. Not overwhelming. Some letters from a truck driver or two. Or a counterwoman. And so, to me, taste — taste is part of it, too. And I think people could be conditioned to good stuff.”
In 2003 Terkel was interviewed by Harry Kreisler at the University of California. He got to talking about a character in his book Working, a gas man who’d told him about coming across “the lady of the house” lying on her stomach on the patio sunbathing, her top unbottomed. He tiptoed up and yelled in her ear, “Gas man!” Then he’d told Terkel, “You know, I get bawled out an awful lot. But it makes the day go faster.” And Terkel explained to Kreisler, “That is what goes on in the minds of many people — ‘How do you make the day go faster?’ And so, that’s part of it.”
Terkel, who conceded to Koppel that he’s an “old lefty,” has been accused late in life of seeing the world too simply. I think there’s something fundamentally humble, antiabsolutist, and fine about the way he sees the world. It’s a world with no be-alls and end-alls, no people, causes, or ideas great enough to subsume us. Many things matter but all of them matter only so much. A lot of bits and pieces go into the making of a good life or a decent society, and the most anyone can hope to do is contribute. Nothing is any more than a part.