Here’s a story I heard Studs Terkel tell years ago. Better friends may have heard it a dozen times, and perhaps it’s somewhere in his books. To those who can repeat this story better than I can, I apologize.
Studs ran into an old buddy of his — we’ll call him Eddie — on the street. Eddie was glowing, and Studs asked about his obvious good fortune.
“Ahh, Studs,” he said. “I met this amazing woman. She’s half my age, but she likes me, God knows why, and she’s got me going places and doing things I haven’t done in years. She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’s passionate, she laughs at my jokes, and I’m just the luckiest man in the world.”
“Eddie, you got it comin’. Enjoy every minute, my friend,” said Studs, who knew Eddie’s life hadn’t been easy. They parted, and several months went by before Studs ran into him again. This time Eddie didn’t look so good.
“How’s that romance?” asked Studs, and Eddie shook his head. “It’s over, Studs,” he said. “I had to let her go.”
“Aw, hell, that’s a shame,” said Studs. “So she wasn’t what she cracked up to be?”
“It isn’t that,” Eddie said. “She’s sweet, she’s affectionate, she’s the best thing that ever happened to me. But Studs — “
“What was it, Eddie?”
And Eddie continued, sadly, “She doesn’t know the songs.”
Nobody lucky, or unlucky, enough to live to the age of 96 can expect to be mourned by anybody who knows the songs. Nobody but Studs Terkel, who kept learning new songs and replenishing his life and remained always the youngest man in the room.
The Reader home page is linking to a column based on a conversation I had with Studs in 2000 when I ran into him at Midway and gave him a lift home. The funny thing is that until I reread that column I had no recollection of what we talked about in the car. What stuck in my mind was simply the sight of him standing there, with his bag, outside a side door in the ratty gloom of the old Midway. It was close to midnight, and he was 88 years old then, and nobody was picking him up and he wasn’t in the taxi line either.
Studs didn’t drive. As he told me another time, in another context, “I depend on the kindness of strangers. Kids with cars.”
If you happen to read that column of mine from 2000 you should know that the Sun-Times comes off worse in it that it deserved to. At the end of the column of I wrote a week later, I set the record straight.
And if you read and enjoyed Mike Lenehan’s interview with Studs on the process of translating spoken English into written English — it’s on our home page — you might be interested in a column I wrote back in 1994 on his interviewing techniques. Here was his method, far more radical than you might think, for dealing with authors: “First of all, I read the book.”
A friend who grew up in a vast Irish Catholic family, remembers listening to Terkel’s daily interviews on WFMT and discovering a world of the mind. He has a particularly keen recollection of Terkel’s 1961 interview with Leo Szilard, the nuclear physicist who proposed the Manhattan Project to FDR. Szilard, a Jewish Hungarian refugee, wound up sharing the patent on the nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi.
But after the war, Szilard was so appalled by the thought of what atomic weapons might lead to that he abandoned nuclear physics for molecular biology and wrote a collection of short stories, The Voice of the Dolphins, in which he wrestled with the ethical issues these weapons posed.
Studs’s interview with Szilard introduced my friend as a teenager to the concept of moral choice. You didn’t get that from the Church? I asked. He was surprised I’d even ask. No, he said, the Church just told us what to do.
As an interviewer, Studs belonged to the school of you gotta do what you gotta do. He told me how he’d finagled a story out of his own wife because he knew it was a good one that would fit beautifully into one of his books. (He changed her name.) “So that’s part of it,” he said. “That’s part of it. That’s guile, in a way.”
It was a phrase he used often, and I concluded “that’s part of it” opened a door into his soul I would enter by when the time came. But the time didn’t come. Instead he turned 90, and many more birthdays followed, and on his 95th birthday last year I was happy enough to say what I wanted to say while he lived. Which is simply that Studs understood we live in a world of parts and they are all we know. Strange and various are the parts, while the whole is vast and incomprehensible, and any attempt to reduce it so it slips neatly into our skulls is dangerously absurd.