As part of a committee planning events to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Studs Terkel's birth next month, I'm sort of in charge of the rededication of the Studs Terkel Bridge, May 12. A bad thing happens to you when you get involved in publicly celebrating a personal hero: You start losing the private intellectual connection that once drew you to the man in the first place.
Leading up to the big day—you should come; we're actually planning a fiasco, and so the only thing that could go wrong would be for order to break out—I'm hoping to write a few things to rekindle my own relationship with the stuff Studs wrote.
Chicago made a liberal of me. But what does "liberal" mean? That I'm pro-civil rights? More than anything else, my political conscience is pinned to a single story, from Studs Terkel's 1973 memoir Talking to Myself.
Louis Terkel was 11 in the summer of 1923. His mother had sent him to a resort in South Haven, Michigan in the belief that the clean air would be good for his asthma. The lonely young man spent much of his time listening to the radio and watching the married couple who owned the resort:
"They put in a good twenty-seven-hour day in a vain effort to please their suddenly sybaritic guests: small merchants, salesmen forever scuffling, marginal entrepreneurs, assorted wives, children, and flatulent grandchildren. The country air has a magical effect on these petit-bourgeois. They have become khedives, caliphs, sultanas, princesses. Regally impatient and demanding. Rarely has anyone suffered such bullyragging as the unlucky couple."
The pair were kind to the boy. They also happened to be quiet anarchists. Young Terkel saw how they were treated, and by whom.
An early August morning, 1923. The guests have had a much too hearty breakfast. There is a lounging around and a satiety that is beyond the merely vulgar. An occasional belch. A discreet fart. Somebody makes a joke. Somebody laughs.
"Have you no respect? The President is dead."
Sudden silence. It is not so much the tragic news of Warren Harding's death. We knew that yesterday, moments after it happened. It is the judge who has spoken and when he speaks you'd better listen. He is Mount Pleasant's most prestigious guest. His pockmarked face in no way diminishes the awe with which he is regarded by the others. He is a municipal court judge and a good friend of [Chicago] Mayor William Hale Thompson. He is very patriotic.
How come there is no American flag being flown from the porch? he demands to know. There certainly should be one at half-mast this morning. There was none on the Fourth of July, you say? … Some people don't know how lucky they are to live in a great country like this. You know who I mean. Heads nod. They turn toward the couple on the grass, some distance away. The judge has been staring in that direction.
The couple that runs the resort is resting. The grass is as good a place as any. I saw them but a moment ago flop down into it. They chat softly to one another. …
The judge announces that at eleven o'clock everybody is to stand at attention and face east. One minute of silence in tribute to our late President, Warren G. Harding. The Judge appears angry about something. I think it has to do with the couple on the grass. The Judge takes out his gold watch. He is counting off the seconds. Eleven o'clock, he announces. The guests are standing up. …
It is an impressive minute. Except for one thing. The couple on the grass. They are seated. Not so much seated as stretched out. They appear not to notice what's happening. The man lies, belly down; his chin is cupped in his hand, his eyes are closed. The woman, reclining, her open arms pressed downward on the grass, her head tossed back, is gazing up at the sky. They are out of some French impressionist painting.
Impression: a bone-weary man and woman, delighting in this precious time out. Rest. The Judge nods.The minute is up. We plop back into our seats and hammocks and swings, having paid our respect to a departed statesman; more to the point, having abided by the Judge's wish. He is nobody to cross.
"Those Goddamn Bolsheviks."
The Judge is glaring in the couple's direction. …
The same Judge, Terkel adds, who later went to jail for bribery.
I live my life trying to avoid being neither the judge nor the beleaguered couple. Not the suddenly sybaritic guests, nor even Studs Terkel, the sometimes caricatured folk hero the 11-year-old boy would become.
I live my life trying to be the boy, Louis: clear-eyed and just.
Trying. Trying. Trying.
(It shouldn't be this hard.)