By: Mark Fitzgerald
Based on what I’ve read in the newspapers and blogs over the weekend, I’m one of the few Chicago journalists who didn’t know Studs Terkel personally. I had several chance encounters with him that I look back on fondly — because each one so fit his image.
And, like so many of my generation, I was influenced by his fascinating and compassionate oral histories. His death Friday sent me the next day to the Roden branch of the Chicago Public Library for a copy of his 1970s bestseller “Working.”
I had to read one particular interview again to be sure I remembered correctly — had Studs really devoted a very long section to a Chicago newspaper copy boy who voiced his vivid fantasies of murdering the editor, perhaps with a baseball bat, perhaps with a .50 caliber machine gun, perhaps in the employ of Mao Zedong? Did Studs really record the man-boy’s plan to kidnap owner Marshall Field?
But before revisiting this weirdest oral history, my own thin bag of close encounters with Louis “Studs” Terkel.
The first time was back in maybe 1985 when pressmen and other production workers in the old Graphic Communications International Union started a strike against the Chicago Tribune that would end very badly indeed for them. I was walking by their picket around Tribune Tower when suddenly the picketers were far more animated than I’d seen them in week. They’d spotted Studs Terkel, trademark red check shirt and all, and knew they had at least one ardent supporter on the sidewalk of Michigan Avenue.
The next time was a few years later, on a witheringly hot summer evening. Before heading to the train after work, I decided to tuck into Ricardo’s, the old newspaper bar, for a tall gin and tonic. Seated at the bar I heard from behind me the unmistakable Studs voice.
“Warren,” Studs was saying, “Warren, we’ve got to get going. It’s a long way to O’Hare.” Warren was having none of it. Warren was comfortably ensconced in a cool, dark bar, a drink in his mitts.
Warren was Warren Hinckle, the legendary editor of Ramparts, who at the time was at the San Francisco Examiner and editing Hunter S. Thompson’s column.
My last encounter with Studs might give Sarah Palin chills, or at least campaign fodder. It was a couple of years ago at the Studs Terkel Community Media Awards dinner, sponsored by Community Media Workshop. Bill Ayers wasn’t there, but his wife and Weather Underground comrade Bernadine Dohrn was. Little did I realize I was “palling around with domestic terrorists” that night.
Charlie Blossom, wherever he may be now, never graduated to domestic terrorist, but he reflected the zeitgeist of the mid-1970s pretty well. Studs, in fact, titles the chapter that includes Blossom’s murder fantasies “The Age of Charlie Blossom.”
Re-reading the book 34 years later, I recognize Blossom as not that different from the seemingly endless supply of spoiled Baby Boomers who make up my g-g-generation. By way of background for Studs, he notes that he had a job in a tool-and-die factory — a damned good job to get in those recessionary years — and insisted his particular duties have nothing to do with the “war machine.” But then one day as he was hanging parts on a line and they made loud clanging noises, he realized “this was like the scream of the Vietnamese people that are being napalmed.” He quit when the factory couldn’t accommodate that objection.
Blossom landed at a Chicago daily as a copy boy. “Working” doesn’t say which one, but it’s either the Chicago Sun-Times or the old Chicago Daily News, both owned by Marshall Field at the time. (Studs later said it was the Sun-Times and that Blossom was a pseudonym.)
Blossom is like a revolutionary behind enemy lines, or maybe a Charles Manson invited into a Los Angeles mansion.
When the editor ignores the copy boy’s suggestion that the paper’s foreign editor write about a Ramparts article that the CIA was smuggling opium, Blossom does not exactly take this in stride: “He’s a really nice person,” Blossom says. “I don’t know if I would get any pleasure from shooting him up with a .50 caliber machine gun and seeing his body splatter to pieces. I’d be emotionally disturbed by an act of destruction as total as that. But I would get some satisfaction out of it, because of the rage I feel towards these guys.”
Blossom walks around with shoes held together by tape. He sits in the lotus position for minutes at a time in front of the religion editor. He talks to the flowers on the counter of the public affairs office. He smokes pot during two-hour lunch breaks, and won’t wear a shirt under his smock.
And cannot understand, Studs, he reveals, why these m—–ers are so f—-ing p—d off.
When, inevitably, he’s fired, Blossom considers his options:
“Will I smoke a joint in the city room? Will I meditate in the library? I wanted do do something to show, Hey, I’m better than you m——rs. I’m getting fired because I’m different. I don’t want to be a cipher. I was thinking, how could I show that? By kidnapping Marshall Field? By shooting him?”
In the end he settles for a zippy line: “I hope you can live with the conditions you’re creating,” he tells the editor.
Studs could have interviewed any number of now-legendary Chicago journalists at a time when the city was teeming with them. But the little guy, even when he was a little jerk, was always Studs’ key to approaching history.