Touch and Go: A Memoir
About two-thirds of the way through Touch and Go, the new memoir by 95-year-old oral historian Studs Terkel, the author recounts a severe blizzard in Chicago in 1967, and his wife's entreaties that he brave the weather with his legendary tape recorder to collect stories of Chicagoans' communal spirit in the face of the city's winter hardship. "She wanted me to get out there with my tape recorder," he recalls. "I'll never forget how an old lady she met, shortly after the storm, had lifted her spirits. 'I fell down in the snow twenty times and I was picked up twenty times and I was offered coffee twenty times?' A long pause. 'You just can't beat people.' "
You just can't beat people: as a description of Terkel's guiding ethos, you just can't beat that. Through more than a dozen books of oral history on topics ranging from working life to war, race, and the great hereafter, Terkel has demonstrated an unshakeable faith in humanity in all its flaws and triumphs. It's this fascination with the human condition which gives his books their verve and pathos. With a sharp eye and a sympathetic (if no longer particularly sensitive) ear, Terkel has coaxed wisdom and insight from janitor and senator alike. And in an age of reality television, on which ordinary people are given a shred of celebrity for the price of their dignity, Terkel has always offered the opposite, a steadfast insistence on presenting his subjects with dignity, grace, and empathy. You come away from Terkel's books with more faith in humanity than you had before.
Now midway through his tenth decade, Terkel has, for the second time, turned the tape recorder on himself and delivered a memoir. (His first, Talking to Myself, was published in 1977.) It's an opportunity for the man that so many know and love as a peerless raconteur and irascible comedian to commit his unique personality and musings to print. The results are alternately frustrating and fascinating.
It's a real testament to Studs the man that he spends most of Touch and Go talking about other people: writers and performers he worked with, neighbors, cabdrivers, friends, co-hosts, editors, movie stars, you name it. But this generosity and "extrospection" aren't necessarily what makes for great memoir. For pages and pages of the book, Studs seems to almost disappear as he calls forth (with impressive detail) the ins and outs of this or that radio gig, TV show, or random conversation with a cabdriver. Often these are recounted with such an absence of context they descend into a parodic tangle of references: "Norm Pellegrini was my first engineer, followed by Frank Tuller, and then various others. I must pay tribute to Jim Unrath, whose big contribution was to work with me on documentaries that won all sorts of awards and public honors. Without Jimmy, none of that would have happened."
But woven between these occasionally baffling and dry interludes are colorful and compelling episodes from Terkel's life, which, at their best, read like a real-life version of The Adventures of Augie March. Terkel inhabits the same distinctive Chicago milieu as Bellow's hero, one populated by gangsters and poets, laborers and con men, street radicals and ward heelers. The book is at its best when Terkel brings this world to life, as he does in describing the doings in the lobby of the Wells-Grands, the rooming house his parents owned and operated on the seedy edges of the Chicago Loop -- a place where dishwashers, drunks, masons, and Wobblies commingled and engaged in "wild, splendiferous debates" deep into the night. It is these everyday talkers who captured Terkel's heart as a boy, and he fondly recalls his routine pilgrimages to Bughouse Square, Chicago's very own version of London's Hyde Park, where speakers like legendary radical Lucy Parsons would deliver stemwinders to the working-class crowd. "Perhaps none of it made any sense," he says of the speeches offered there, "save one kind: sense of life."
Terkel never really explains why and how this innkeeper's son with an affection for soapbox socialists ended up in the stuffy confines of the University of Chicago Law School, but, luckily for us, he left the law behind immediately upon graduation and embarked on one of the most remarkably varied careers of the 20th century. One of the chief virtues of Touch and Go is that it allows us to follow the twists and turns in a resume as long as Deuteronomy: Terkel joined the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression, later worked as a stage actor in Chicago, a radio DJ, and a jazz critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. He joined the Air Force during WWII, though his perforated eardrum kept him out of combat; after the war he became a pioneer of the new medium of television, hosting a popular (and what sounds like a truly original) show called Studs' Place, which was eventually canceled during the McCarthy years, due, most likely, to Studs' political beliefs. He wore all these hats before he wrote his first book of oral history, Division Street: America, which appeared in 1967 to much acclaim. Part of the reasons Terkel can never quite seem to stay in one gig are his avowed left-wing politics, which kept getting him into trouble with sponsors and bosses during his years as a broadcaster. "The imp of the perverse has come to possess me and has had a pretty good run of it."
Terkel's mischievous eye and self-effacing humor are entertaining, even delightful, but they also often manage to keep the man at a distance. Through all the quips and yarns, one begins to crave something more intimate and confessional. It comes, in drips and drops, like the vibrant and admiring portrait he paints of his beloved wife, Ida. Or the heartbreaking story he tells of his decision as a young boy on duty at the hotel to use his keys to help two cops nab a man and his wife who were guests in the hotel. The man had committed a robbery, but Terkel is still wracked by guilt for helping the cops pounce on him unannounced. "Because of my righteous behavior, I still see a small man in polka-dot shorts, in the presence of his sweetheart, hoisted high, an absurd and helpless baby. In his home that is his castle. Talk about humiliation.... That was 1928. I was the Good Citizen and I still feel guilty."
There's something uncommonly touching about this revelation, a depth of compassion that makes you understand all at once just why Terkel is so good at what he does. And if his insistence on putting the focus of the book on the aspirations and disappointments of the many people who cross his path sometimes handcuff him as a memoirist, it's a small price to pay for the pleasure of his company.
Christopher Hayes is Washington Editor of The Nation.