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Studs Terkel: United States of Alzheimer's

John Simkin

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Interesting article by Gary Younge about Studs Terkel in today's Guardian.


About 25 years ago, Studs Terkel was waiting for a number 146 bus alongside two well-groomed business types. "This was before the term yuppie was used," he explains. "But that was what they were. He was in Brooks Brothers and Gucci shoes and carrying the Wall Street Journal under his arm. She was a looker. I mean stunning - Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus and carrying Vanity Fair."

Terkel, who is 95, has long been a Chicago icon, every bit as accessible and integral to the cultural life of the Windy City as Susan Sontag was to New York. He had shared the bus stop with this couple for several mornings but they had always failed to acknowledge him. "It hurts my ego," he quips. "But this morning the bus was late and I thought, this is my chance." The rest of the story is his.

"I say, 'Labour Day is coming up.' Well, it was the wrong thing to say. He looks toward me with a look of such contempt it's like Noel Coward has just spotted a bug on his collar. He says, 'We despise unions.' I thought, oooooh. The bus is still late. I've got a winner here. Suddenly I'm the ancient mariner and I fix him with my glittering eye. 'How many hours a day do you work?' I ask. He says, 'Eight.' 'How comes you don't work 18 hours a day like your great-great-grandfather did? You know why? Because four guys got hanged in Chicago in 1886 fighting for the eight-hour day ... For you.'

"Well, he was scared and nervous and the bus was still late. I've got this guy pinned up against the mailbox. He couldn't get away. 'How many days a week do you work?' I went on. Well, then the bus came and I never saw them again. But I think that every workday morning she was looking from the 15th floor of their apartment block to see if that mad man was still there."

His speaking style owes more to jazz improvisation than classical (very loud jazz improv as he is quite deaf). He goes where the stories take him. And if you're prepared to go with him, it is quite good fun. His book is written just as he speaks - an anecdotal pot-pourri. In conversation, he may mention famous people, such as the late Mahalia Jackson, who was the first gospel singer to perform at the Carnegie Hall and sang at both the March on Washington and John F Kennedy's inauguration. She refused to let a McCarthyite enforcer intimidate Terkel off her radio show at CBS. But he is just as likely to tell stories involving everyday characters he met along the way. Like "one-arm" Charlie, who had no teeth and dipped his toast in milk to make something called "graveyard stew". As an aside, Terkel tells me that Charlie lost his teeth or his arm or both (it was not entirely clear) in the Seattle strike of 1919.

Terkel mentions the strike as though it needs no explanation - I later discover that it was over postwar wage controls - and, if there is a theme to his new book, it is his frustration at America's historical illiteracy. Gore Vidal has branded the US the United States of Amnesia. Terkel characteristically goes one step further, calling it the United States of Alzheimer's. "We forgot what happened yesterday. We know all about Paris Hilton. We know about that. But what do we know about why we are there in Iraq?" At one point in his book, he asks: "Do I have to be 94 years old to remember these names? Are they otherwise erased from history?"


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  • 9 months later...

"things are at the brink.......the dumbing-down of the politcal IQ of America has fallen below '0'; political morality well below zero. Ethics even below political morality. Values below that........"


Although we view the political landscape from different prisms, I couldn't agree more with the above assessment.

For those of you who aren't here now, it feels like the country is engaging in a national-level American Idol contest.

People seem to make their voting decisions based on soundbites and media spin.

I think that Obama and McCain are the worst race (from a quality of candidate standpoint) since 1972 (for the record, I pulled for McGovern in that race).

Obama and McCain showed who owns them when they dutifully embraced the $700 billion bailout/sellout.

Don't think that the lobbyists and special interests who contributed $600 million to Obama aren't looking for something in return, as would be the case with McCain if he were to win.

Obama pledged to take public campaing financing when he was running against HRC, but he repudiated that promise when he secured the nomination.

The current political dynamic is repugnant.

Everything is bought and paid for, and the voters are pawns.

Edited by Christopher Hall
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During the 1940s Studs Terkel became a familiar voice on radio working as a news commentator and disc jockey. He also acted and appeared on several television programmes. In 1949 Terkel began his own television show, Studs' Place, an improvised sitcom where he played himself as a restaurant owner.

After being investigated by Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, his contract was cancelled. Terkel refused to give evidence against other left-wing activists and was therefore blacklisted and prevented from appearing on television. He later recalled: "I was blacklisted because I took certain positions on things and never retracted... I signed many petitions that were for unfashionable causes and never retracted."

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