MAY 16, 2012 7:51PM

Studs Terkel's 100 Birthday

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May 16th is the 100th anniversery of the birth of Studs Terkel.

And Studs? 

 He's still here . . . . .

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Reposted  from 2008.  

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 This man IS Chicago.

Or at least what's best about Chicago.

And when he died an hour ago in his home near the lake about 6 blocks from where I write this: the reverberations of sorrow began pulsating out through the city, casting a dull November grey on what was once, just a moment ago a brilliant yellow maple leaf day lit by a warm autumn sun.

Studs said he wanted to see the Cubs win the world series and Obama win the presidency. I guess his seat for that show will be somewhere else.

But in the sorrow. In the bone wrenching, rain drenching, grey cloudy sorrow, I can still hear his voice.

That gravely scratching wise rascal of a voice as Studs starts climbing the golden stairs -- delighted in the fact that there ARE golden stairs, -- how happy he is to have been wrong -- but that's not important now. What's important is the story.

Because now, He'd have friends to help him tell the story.

See that's the thing about Studs. He had friends.

And the story would most often start with Chicago.

"Chicago?" He'd start. "Nelson?" --he'd say to Algren -- "tell um bout Chicago."

Then he'd turn to the crowd--and because he'd listen, we'd hear Nelson start the story of how Chicago came to be:

Till between the waters and the wind
Came the marked-down derelicts with the dollar signs for eyes.
Looking for any prairie portage at all
That hadn't yet built a jail.
Beside any old secondhand sea.

"So why are we here, Mr. Algren?"

And Nelson would shout back from the other side of the tavern table:

"To reveal our backstreets to the indifferent stars"

Then from somewhere ---as if you just heard these two guys talking and totally on your own had the thought yourself: this is really what it means to love a place. Love it so much you are the place. Then just as that thought whizzed through your mind, Studs would be off on a word jazz riff quoting his friend Nelson:

It isn't hard to love a town for its greater and its lesser towers,
its pleasant parks
or its flashing ballet.
Or for its broad and bending boulevards, where the
continuous headlights follow, one dark driver after another, all 
night, all night and all night.
But you can never truly love it till you can love its alleys too.
Where the bright and morning faces of old familiar friends now wear 
the anxious eyes of strangers a long way from home.
A midnight bounded by the bright carnival of the boulevards and dark 
girders of the el.
Where once the marshland came to flower.
Where once the deer came down to water.

There are volumes of Studs' sitting over on that shelf---or any bookstore—where he illuminated some corner of the world by asking some questions.

And knowing a whole lot about how to edit.

And those questions fed the stories.

And if you were really lucky, maybe you'd hear a story like this.

A story where you were never really sure where the words stopped and the music and dreams began. Beyond any boundary of space or time:

"This story began not far from the spot where Chicago's Kennedy Expressway paved over the Algren apartment at 1523 West Wabansia Avenue.

"Just a bit north of that long buried apartment where Nelson Algren and Simone deBeauvoir, huddled together, would wander home from the corner tap on winter nights, huddled close, their steps in unison on the cold sidewalk.

"Years pass, the echo of those same footsteps pauses-

"And an image of the Virgin Mary appeared on the concrete wall beneath where the Kennedy crosses Fullerton Parkway.

"Obdulia Delgado, the first known person to see the image, was on her way home from work at the hospital. And as she drove down Fullerton Parkway beneath the Kennedy, traffic thundering above on the concrete artery connecting O'Hare Airport with the towers of downtown Chicago; she looked at the wall and immediately pulled on over.

"Drawn in salt stained runoff from the highway above, if you put it next to an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe you'd have a pretty close match. It was the Virgin. Her image on the wall.

"Viewed through the lens of a camera the image becomes even sharper, the lines distinct and close to clear.

"Obdulia Delgado saw this right away and then she fell to her knees and began to pray."

Studs would stop right there.

Then he'd take the story elsewhere---maybe something like what Charlie Parker would do with his horn, as he continued--

And then---because this is Chicago, forever and always a cross roads; while Obdulia knelt and prayed and the traffic zoomed by and roared overhead--- at a train station just a little bit south near the loop, a tall, serene and radiant black man carrying a battered saxophone case stepped down off the train and through the railroad steps of smoke and time. He paused.

Finally, in hearing Obdulia cry, having found that one perfect sound he had sought during all his time on earth; John Coltrane found his way to that underpass, knelt down next to Obdulia to lift his gleaming golden horn from its battered case, stood up tall, closed his eyes and began with the two perfect bell shaped notes of a piece he called:

Dear Lord.

John Coltrane's "Dear Lord" echoes out from that underpass, along with the news of what Obdulia found on the wall, that perfect sound heading off towards Division Street.

Nelson Algren hears Coltrane's howl and he wanders up to Fullerton to have himself a look.

A slight bespectacled man, a counterpoint to the massive presence of Coltrane, Algren stands off to the side to watch the fun begin. Knowing now that when he shows up: others will follow; Algren listens and he watches and remembers a letter he tossed off once to a man, a Korean War vet who wrote to ask about what it was like to write "Man with a Golden Arm." Algren replied to the man:

"But there were never days when I felt I wouldn't complete it. I knew that, unless the army got me again or a Buick bumped me, I'd get a story put together, because I had the parts to put together. My self-doubts weren't concerned with whether it would be completed, but only whether it would say anything, and say it well, as nobody else could ever have said it, when it was done. All those things came true, to a limited degree, so I feel it was a lucky book, and a lucky time now past, and I was lucky to write it."

Algren smiles ruefully to himself, standing underneath that bridge -- knowing now that it was not about the luck. And when Algren chuckles, Coltrane stops for just an instant and joins in the laugh -- seeing Coltrane smile, much less laugh—like some sort of miracle or something!

Studs takes a breath and continues:

"In that instant of the pause and the chuckle: two new Chicago wanderers: this time from the South Side join in underneath that bridge. Appearing first with a scowl, till somebody from the crowd that is beginning to build around that image of the Virgin shouts out, 'Yo Studs Lonnigan, you kissin the old dump goodbye?'

"When he hears those words, James T. Farrell breaks out in a crooked Irish grin, and as soon as Farrell smiles a new piece of music, dredged up as if the land itself, the dirt and the sweat and the layers of time could come bursting through the cement in a four bar blues, massive guitar, as unlikely a companion for James T Farrell than you could imagine, but still the voice of all the earth itself -- McKinley Morganfield--Muddy Waters growls,

C'mon baby don't you want to go?
C'mon baby don't you want to go?
Back to that same old place.
Sweet home Chicago

"As Muddy Waters just roars, the crowd grows even bigger. A weary wandering con man, over there in the corner by himself, 57 year old Harry stumbles in from the deserted bleachers of a cold September Cubs game, his last name L-U-M tattooed in prison purple on the back of his hand. Created by the Chicago writer Bill Brashler who stands over in a corner, arms folded, watching his character watch the growing crowd.

"And just as Harry looks down again at his hand, another Chicagoan steps out of Miller's Pub underneath the El Tracks on Wabash, and joins the pack underneath the expressway. His belly full of beer and more gut level smarts about what mattered to people than the next six generations of baseball executives would ever even dream of, Bill Veeck hobbled over to join in the crowd.

"With Veeck now present and accounted for, it was most certainly the party.

"And because in Chicago the music can be endless along with being timeless---Muddy Waters yielded the stage in this street shrine to an elf of a man who reached just about as high as John Coltrane's waist. Steve Goodman walks up to Coltrane, looks up, grins and says, 'Hey, how's the weather up there?' And once again a miracle. Coltrane laughs again!!

"Then Goodman strums:

The streetlights are on in Chicago tonight
And lovers are gazing at stars
The stores are all closing and Daley is dozing
And the fat man is counting his cars!

And when the crowd gets to the chorus of "Lincoln Park Pirates"

Hey, hey blow um away!
The Lincoln Park Pirates are we!

A new line forms underneath that bridge with the Virgin on the wall: and a parade begins to form!

Deep beneath the Kennedy Expressway above: every single St Patrick's Day Parade -- all the politicians, all the floats. All the marching bands. It's a parade! And on the reviewing stand—there he stands -- The Mayor. Richard J Daley!

Look him straight in the eye and all the political power is no where to be found. It will be back. But not today.

Look him straight in the eye and what do you see? You see a kid. A great big kid who gets to watch a parade! Someday, the Mayor thinks.. .someday my kid will be here too. Not yet. But someday.

Now the place is overflowing. The parade marches thru then back then around every square inch of that underpass with the Virgin on the wall. A slight pause to catch a breath and then just when you think it is about to wind down---still another voice. This one lifts up the corn fields of Iowa, the woods of Wisconsin, the rich farmland of southern Illinois, the pure crystal tones and unlimited range of Bonnie Koloc joining those who come before her and are now gone -- even though she's very much here She sings:

I've got to believe
In all my love songs

And as the power of THAT voice soars up and out encompassing everything and everyone who even thought about what was going on underneath the expressway next to the image of the Virgin Mary -- Bonnie Koloc gives way to a voice whose origin is now off in the shadows of the bridge and time standing next to Coltrane.

From the very deepest part of the faith, from the very kernel of the faith, a gospel sound of Mahalia Jackson:

We are traveling in the footsteps
Of those who come before
But we'll all be reunited...

Then Mahalia is surrounded by Pops Staples, Mavis Staples and her sisters all there too, joining in as if were a picnic in that big side yard next to the family building on the south side and you could smell the fried chicken . . .

Oh when the saints
Go marchin' in
Oh when the saints go marchin' in!

And as they all parade together, swirling in and around the expressway underpass, dancing Chicago spirits all, it is the same song, segued over to the Weavers, a crazy haired Woody Guthrie marching along right next to Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman, Lee Hays, and Ronnie Gilbert and look, there's Win Strache up there, his deep full tones leading Jeff tweedy, Roger McGuinn, and everyone who ever even thought about picking up a guitar at the Old Town School of Folk Music. . .

Some say this world of trouble
Is the only world we'll know...
But we'll all be re-united...
On a new and sunlit shore

All hands clapping now the music and the words just resounding! That white haired crazy man in the fedora---Saul Bellow right in the middle of it all still writing, drawing out some grand idea he'd scribble down later at his desk in Hyde Park later while the flocks of blindingly yellow wild canaries blanketed the trees outside his window.

And over there. There's Royko holding a softball, pushing out the door of the Billy Goat on to the darkness of lower Wacker that melts into this same darkness underneath the bridge with the Virgin on the wall. Royko delivering the words every single day for years and years, he stands now with the others, tossing a softball up and down and looking for a game.

The music comes up again and--- Pete Seeger leads the crowd! The voice is unmistakable.

Oh when the saints!
Go marchin in!

And it's only now that this national treasure of a man in a red checkered shirt , Studs Terkel, thinks ---was it just last night that Pete and Woody spent the night on Ida's and my kitchen floor?

Studs Terkel leaves one memory and flows into another. He walks over to where Obdulia is praying, cocks his head and smiles.

Then he shuffles to the east, a strange, old man shuffle that is somehow, someway strangely young and sprightly at the very same time.

Studs Terkel walks out from underneath where the Kennedy Expressway crosses over Fullerton Parkway, Studs Terkel walks into the blinding, brilliant light of the sun coming up over the lake to the east---waves his arm motioning us all underneath and around that bridge to follow him.

And we do.

Studs Terkel lifts an ear and grins as he walks into that all encompassing, flowing light of an endless new Chicago morning. "Welcome to Chicago!" he says with a grin. "Curiosity" he tells us, "did not kill this cat!" And then he asks:

This is Chicago. Listen! Can you just hear all that music?

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Comments

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Roger, it would have been wonderful if he had lived to be 100! 1971 and The Great American Dream Machine on Channel 13 in NYC...that was the show where I first saw him and thought he was so cool! Thanks for this great tribute to him!
John Coltrane agonized over 'the right reed.' We should all come this close.
Studs at 100... Happy Birthday!!
D---I remember that show. It was here too. Cool!

Stacey--Exactly.

jmac--Yay!!!


Frank---Me too!
Great tribute to a great man. Can't help but wonder what he would have to say about the lot of the poor working stiff today. R
Gerald---had that same thought!
In 1981 I was 23 years old and pregnant with my second child and living in Birmingham, Alabama. There was a report about books that had been banned in one of the local libraries because they were offensive and Studs' book "Working" was one of them. So that meant that I was going to find it and read it. It's an amazing book. A series of interviews with people from every job you can imagine talking about their work and their lives. The apparently "offensive" part was an interview with a prostitute. This book changed my life and my willingness to let other people make decisions for me. Thank you, Studs!
D--Thanks for that! "Working" also includes a school teacher who hired me for my first teaching job. Studs was on the Board of the School. Didn't know then I was in the presence of greatness. I know now!