What would Studs think? by Ed Vulliamy

Obama may now be Chicago’s favourite son, but to many the city’s real iconic figure is Studs Terkel, whose writings and broadcasts brought working people’s stories to an international audience. Ed Vulliamy recalls a day with the legendary chronicler of ordinary lives.

As Studs Terkel marched towards the reception desk of the Chicago Tavern Club, the girl behind the counter was already getting his tie out from under it.  Well, not his tie exactly; the one the club kept for him, since they were obligatory in those days, and Studs did not own one. “What’s the point of a goddamn tie?” he rasped, as, for the umpteenth time, she helped him do it up.This was some years ago, and we were meeting for lunch to talk about Chicago. Studs Terkel, who died at the age of 96 just four days before Barack Obama was elected, was the champion of vernacular democracy, a kind of documentary Steinbeck. And the generous genius of “Toikel” – as he was addressed – is that, unlike most people, he listened. That is how he gave voice to the real-life characters in his books, those he called “ordinary people who have done extraordinary things”.  

It is strange in retrospect that a city known principally for duplicitous power play and big-mouthed banter should have had as its icon – until Barack Obama was elected president – one of the straightest-talking Americans of all time, who was also the country’s greatest-ever listener. But then, as Studs wrote: “Janus, the two-faced god has both blessed and cursed the city-state Chicago . . . Our double vision, double standard, double value and double-cross have been patent ever since the earliest of our city fathers took the Pottawattomies (Indians) for all they had. Poetically, these dispossessed natives had dubbed this piece of turf Chicagou. Some say it is Indian lingo for City of the Wild Onion but some say it really means City of the Big Smell.”

Nelson Algren’s description of Chicago back in 1956 had played to the same theme: “Not so much a city as a vast way-station where three-and-a-half million bipeds swarm with a single cry: ‘One side or a leg off, I’m gettin’ mine’ . It’s every man for himself . . . Chicago forever keeps two faces, one for winners, one for losers one for hustlers, one for squares, one for early risers, one for evening hiders.” Chicago always was, and is, the capital of work, the leveller of men, city where the dust from the “subway” system – elevated above the streets on pillars of rusting but sturdy iron – showers down as the “El-trains” rattle and lurch overhead. Chicago is also the capital of real America. If you regard this country as made up of the South, two coasts and the vast real-life rest, then Chicago is the capital of the rest. “Chicago,” says Terkel, “is the country. Chicago is a metaphor for everything.” Now, Chicago is the seat of the presidency. Barack Obama runs the White House with one major modus operandum in common with George W Bush, whose principle was that if Texas has to be part of the union, then he might as well try and make the union Texas. Obama’s dictum is that since he and Abraham Lincoln, the president who led the union in the civil war, both came from Chicago, then the union might as well be Chicago. And one cannot help wondering: what would Studs think?…

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