March 2012

Mary Mann

nonfiction

Studs Terkel's Chicago by Studs Terkel

"Vass you ever in the Louvre?"

"What is it?"

"The best art museum in the world."

His civic pride is challenged. "We got one here on Michigan. The one with the lions. Don't tell me about art."

This prickly interaction between an immigrant from Vienna and an unnamed inebriated Chicago resident -- brought together by the 1967 unveiling of a Picasso statue in Chicago's Civic Center Plaza -- aptly describes the tone of fierce, stubborn pride in Studs Terkel's Chicago, an ode to his home of eight decades.

The art museum that the inebriated man is referring to is the Art Institute of Chicago, a building near the banks of Lake Michigan with a rooted solidity appropriate for the Midwest's sovereign city, a place that has, in Terkel's words, been "molded by the muscle rather than by the word."

The conversation between immigrant and local is one of the lighter moments in a book that dips in and out of deeper, darker themes. Poverty. Racism. Violence. And the vehicle that powers the other three: corruption, from the cops to the mayors to long-established aldermanic council.

"Some very fine old Chicago families," a woman who was wronged by the City Council quotes wryly in the beginning of the book, "the nicest people in Chicago."

Any true telling of Chicago must have this dark and light dichotomy because Chicago is, Terkel assures us, a two-faced city, "both blessed and cursed." Having moved there as a ten-year-old in 1922 and lived there until his death in 2008, the Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian has seen it all, from the days when his mom ran a rooming house and turned a blind eye on couples who "appeared without baggage" to political rallies that included "hootchie-cootchie dancers" and live elephants. What he hasn't seen he's rooted out over a lifetime, interviewing former mobsters, social workers, factory employees, and homeless men, to list but a few.

Even when abroad, he collects impressions. When he mentioned that he was from Chicago in Sicily, an old woman made a gun with her hand, pointed it at him, said "boom," and cackled. Al Capone is still synonymous with Chicago to most of the world. The mob had his hand around the city for decades, and Terkel was there to bear witness.

Terkel's own memories and his interviews with others are woven together in a nonlinear ramble through the back alleys and front streets of Chicago. This can make Studs Terkel's Chicago confusing to read. Sometimes we have no idea where Terkel is, and sometimes he gives us the details down to the cross streets and the description of the sign outside. Sometimes the year isn't clear, and sometimes it's down to the minute. A few pages require reading twice, just to confirm whom he's talking about -- himself as a child or another little kid entirely?

It's a lot like wandering in this big, rambling city itself, and the ideal reader would know a thing or two about Chicago, and maybe about Terkel as well, before sitting down with this book -- or face getting helplessly lost.

That said, it's hard to begrudge the whole book a few fuzzy details when jump-off-the-page characters are the tradeoff, like that great restaurant we never would have found if we hadn't gotten turned around. Terkel casually introduces us to one-eyed Harry Harper; Johnny Da Pow; Shorty with the Racing Forms; Eva Barnes, whose laugh shakes the walls of her house; and his brother, who felt it his bounden duty to sleep with every broken-hearted hospital nurse in his mother's boarding house.

All these characters live and work and grieve and laugh in Chicago, because, as a former resident of Appalachia, Billy Joe Gatewood, says: "Chicago, hit's a place you can labor an' work an' make a livin' at."

This is exactly what Studs Terkel did, until his death at ninety-six in the city that he loved and loathed -- a fitting tribute to its two-faced disposition. For all the crime and poverty he shares with us, there is an equal amount of art and humor, and most of all: hope.

"Chicago now? It's still in the throes of being born."

Studs Terkel's Chicago by Studs Terkel
The New Press
ISBN: 978-1595587183 
144 pages