Have you read anything by Studs Terkel? He was the epitome of a Chicago writer — a stogie chomping, whiskey drinking tough guy, with the bullshit detector always on. Looking the hard truth right in the eye without fear and with quiet, steady, understated outrage.
“I never met a picket line or a petition I didn’t like,” he once said. Like the great lyricist E.Y. Harburg, he was a lifelong, unapologetic left-winger, and his politics was driven not by either idealism or grievance, but by intimate knowledge of how real people actually live, and how government policy actually affects them.
And the best, most beautiful thing about Studs was that he went out and talked to those real people, interviewing them with great love and patience until they had given up their “gold,” as he put it… and then he used his own writer’s gifts to edit and shape their words to reveal their eloquence. He once commented that Americans have a natural intelligence and wit, which is true, but it takes a shrewd man to see that, and a great man to put his own gifts in the service of it.
When Studs was 89, about seven years ago, a young journalist went to talk to him — and found him halfway through a cigar at 10 a.m. Studs offered him a glass of scotch because, he said, it was too early for martinis. They talked about the art of turning an interview, with its garbled syntax and false starts, into readable prose. Among other things, Studs said this:
“A guy stopped me once—I did Working, and had all kinds of portraits, and one is the portrait of a waitress, Dolores Dante, she used to work at the Erie Cafe, when it was an expense-account joint. She was great. She talked about the day of a waitress. So one day this guy stops me on the street, and he corners me, on Michigan Boulevard Bridge—you know, people stop me now and then, not celebrity, just me, you know, they know me. He says listen, I want to tell ya—since I read about that woman Dolores in your book Working, I’ll never again talk to a waitress the way I have in the past. I’ll never again. Well that’s pretty good. That means I’ve touched him.”
I love ya, Studs. Rest in peace.