Studs Terkel’s death at age 96 reminds me of a story.
My mother had just finished reading a paperback copy of “Working,” Studs Terkel’s astounding collection of interviews with ordinary Americans who happened to struggle along in extraordinary lives. “If you’re going to be a writer, you should read this.”
As with so many things, she was right.
Not being from Chicago and not recognizing the author’s name, I eyed the red cover with skepticism. Then I opened the meaty book jammed with short interviews and began reading about people I knew and passed every day on the street. I also read about lives a boy could only wonder about. Cops, firefighters, garbage men, secretaries, waitresses, hookers. They were all there, all treated with respect, their small individual voices resonating from each page.
I read it from the middle to the end, then front to back. I was reminded over and over again that there were stories all around us, that most men and women do lead lives of quiet desperation, and that some manage to keep their sense of rumor in the worst of times.
I’ve cracked the pages of “Working” many times over the years and added “American Dreams: Lost and Found,” “Division Street: America,” “Coming of Age” and some others.
Some people will focus on Terkel’s liberal politics and the fact that there was a time he was considered “un-American” by people history has shown to be the most “un-American” among us. For my money, he was a great American. He spoke truth to power and was a street reporter with an uncanny ear for the better part of a century.