Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Studs and Me—A Centennial Remembrance

Studs in his element--a Bug House Square rally in 1989.

Note:  Portions of this entry were adapted from a post from May 1, 2008, the day after Studs Terkel died.

Today marks the centennial of the birth of Lewis Terkel in 1912.  But Louis evaporated long ago, about 1938.  The Jewish Brooklyn-to-Chicago transplant who found his true education among the patrons of his parents’ working class Wells-Grand Hotel and at the nearby free speech Mecca of Bug House Square adopted the name of the pugnacious Irish anti-hero of James T. Farrell’s novel.  And Studs he was ever after.

They are celebrating today, fittingly enough, at the Newberry Library in the heart of Stud’s old neighborhood and overlooking Bug House Square itself.  The program begins at 6 PM with a reception starting a half an hour earlier.  If you are in the neighborhood, drop by.  I wish I could.  Here is what they say about the festivities.

Celebrate the centenary of Studs Terkel with writers, activists, reporters, historians, and artists Terkel inspired. Alex Kotlowitz, Alison Cuddy, Penelope Rosemont, Alma Washington as Lucy Parsons, Steve Mosqueda and Sean Benjamin, David Roediger, and Ed Sadlowski will reflect on how this expansive and generous public figure moved them and shaped their work.

Heather Radke, a freelance audio recorder, will share clips of people who have shared their own memories of Studs Terkel. Bucky Halker and Jon Langford will provide music. Come and remember Studs together, with good stories, music, and food.

Co-sponsors include the Illinois Labor History Society, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, the Chicagoan, Haymarket Pub and Brewery, the Pocket Guide to Hell, Chicago Publishes, Charles Kerr Publishing, Chicago Metro History Fair, the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, the Swedish Bakery, and the Newberry Library.

This program is free and open to the public; no reservations are required. 

It seems like every breathing human being in Chicago has a Studs Terkel connection and story.  Here is mine.

It was the summer of 1969.  The original Mayor Daley was pursing an aggressive policy of urban removal, as activists called it, bull dozing vast swaths of neighborhoods, including the rapidly changing neighborhoods on the North Side.  After a block of working class housing and neighborhood store fronts at Halstead and Armitage was razed, the city announced plans to allow a private developer to build a swanky, indoor private tennis club.

Neighborhood groups led by the Young Lords Organization, a radicalized Puerto Rican street gang allied with the Chicago Black Panthers and community organizing factions of the SDS sprang into action.  After contentious meetings with city officials, the last at near-by Waller High School, turned confrontational complete with police arrests and beatings, community members seized the plot of land one night and announced plans to construct a park molded on the famous Berkley People’s Park built the year before.  Hundreds of people were mobilized moving rubble with their bare hands, shovels and wheelbarrows and laying out future playgrounds and gardens.  Protestors slept on the site to protect it from seizure by “the pigs.”

I was a brand new member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), whose Chicago Branch shared offices with the General Organization Headquarters in space over an Assyrian restaurant just four blocks north of People’s Park on Halstead.  I helped bring the branch into the coalition building the park.  Besides joining in the physical labor and sleeping over some nights, I was asked to call local labor folks to secure trucks to haul debris out and topsoil in and to try and get some heavy equipment.  Amazingly, I was able to do so.  I even got a guy to drive a grader over to help scrape and level the land, “to hell with what the boss thinks,” he told me. 

Soon I was also helping dealing with the press, who seemed more comfortable talking to “that hippy kid with the cowboy hat and goatee,” than scary, purple bereted Young Lords.

Two or three nights into the excitement, a small guy chomping a cigar and carrying a bulky portable tape recorder showed up.  I didn’t know who he was.  He didn’t look like the regular press—not even the slovenly members of the daily press in that pre-journalism school era.  He looked—and sounded—more like the guy at the corner stool of every shot-and-a-beer joint in Chicago.  Someone brought him over.  “This is Studs Terkel.  He’d like to talk to you.”

We sat around a make shift fire sitting on chunks of broken concrete.  We talked for nearly two hours while young guys from the Lords huffed typewriter cleaning fluid out of paper bags and passed 4-for-a-dollar quarts of Meister Brau.  Studs asked questions.  Lots of them.  He leaned in close, eager for the answers.  He listened.  He nodded.  He asked more.  It was the best, deepest interview I ever gave in my life.  Studs was excited by the project, like he was any time “the little guy stands up.”

A few weeks later, I met him again at street party/pig roast hosted by the Young Lords outside their converted church headquarters on Armitage.  The crowd was loud but festive that Sunday afternoon.  The police presence heavy and menacing.  Studs had his recorder handy.  He introduced me to his wife Ida.  I asked her to dance.  I jerked around to the hot Latin rhythms like a spastic Irishman.  I don’t think I actually hurt Ida, but it must have been close thing.  She laughed.  He laughed.  Ever after when he would see me he would call me “the kid who danced with Ida.”  Not long after that dance the police, as was the custom in those days, dispersed the crowd with tear gas and night sticks.

We saw each other over the years.  At least once I was an in-studio guest on his WFMT radio program, talking about the IWW.  Mostly we saw each other at rallies and protests, left wing social events, on grape boycott picket lines.  I particularly remember a 1971 Six Hour Day Rally on May Day, where he spoke with passion from a wagon on the site of the speaker’s platform at the Haymarket rally of 1886.  

Sometimes we saw each other at periodic attempts to revive the free speech traditions at Bug House Square.  It was a thrill for me to mount the soap box with Studs and a dwindling handful of old time Bug House Square orators in the audience.

Of course, I read his books—great books because he knew how to get out of the way and let real people tell real stories.  After Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections of Death, Rebirth and Hunger for Faith was published I was pleased to be invited to be one of the readers of selections from the book as part of a special service at the Congregational Unitarian Church in Woodstock.

When he died Studs’s and Ida’s, who had preceded him in 1999, ashes were mixed and scattered at Bug House Square.  “It's against the law,” he told an interviewer “Let ‘em sue us."

I will close, with Studs’s own choice for his epitaph, “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”

No comments:

Post a Comment