I met the great oral historian and journalist Studs Terkel when I was 18 years old. I didn’t know much about Studs back then, only that he was a writer and a pretty famous one, and since I wanted to be a writer, too, it was probably a good idea to go see him.
I was a freshman at a college in Erie and deep into my angsty young-writer phase. I was partial to black velvet knickers, which I wore with knee socks and a fez I found at Goodwill. I’d quote Jake Barnes from Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” (“Isn’t it pretty to think so”), and I’d try to drink boilermakers (unsuccessful) and smoke cherry cigars (unsuccessful) and use Wite-Out to smudge the birthdate on my ID so I could hang out in old-man bars.
This was the 1980s, which explains some things and not others.
I hadn’t yet read Joseph Mitchell’s “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,” but I’d read enough Hemingway to believe old-man bars were where I’d find my own lost generation.
I was convinced of this the time I met a one-armed man at The Decade in Pittsburgh. He was very drunk. He took a match, lit it off a cigarette, and held it in front of me.
“People,” he said, “make matchsticks from the mysteries of trees.”
I thought this was very deep, and maybe it is because I remember it all these years later.
Still, I leaned over and blew the match out, one sigh-laden puff.
I tried my best to cultivate a snarky world-weariness à la Dorothy Parker back then. But I was prone to giggling and while I was sharp-tongued, I was about two beats slow on the Parker scale. Giggling in knickers makes world-weariness difficult. It makes faking an ID in old-man bars nearly impossible.
Most of the time I looked a lot like what I was—confused.
I’d grown up in a working-class mill town outside of Pittsburgh. “It’s not work,” my grandmother would say, “if it doesn’t show in your hands.”
My hands were smooth. My boyfriend’s mother tried to get me a job as a hand model for the J.C. Penney catalog. My parents had given me privileges they never had. I studied poetry in college. When people asked me what I wanted to be, I was embarrassed to say “writer,” so I said “Barbara Walters,” which seemed more practical, especially in the years before “The View.”
Studs Terkel, when I first met him, confused me, too. He showed up in his trademark red-checked shirt and red socks. His hair was thick and white and pushed back from his face, which was open and friendly and looked the opposite of world weary. Studs was always very excited about people, their stories, their hearts. He was excited about the world and everything in it. He was not embarrassed of this.
“My birth,” he said when he took the podium, “was a momentous occasion. I was born the same day the Titanic sank. The Titanic went down, and I came up.”
This, I would learn, was the way he always introduced himself. He also always rode the bus because he wanted to be with people and hear their stories. He always wore the red-checked shirt so people would recognize him and talk to him. He loved his wife, Ida, and he loved the sound of the human voice above all things. He had the kind of laugh that shook his whole self out.
His critics would call him sentimental. I, like thousands of other people who would be changed by Studs’ work, would call him something else. Human. Humane. Real. Studs Terkel didn’t play at being a writer. He was one. He wasn’t morose, weighted down by gravitas, black-rimmed glasses and a serious scarf. He looked more like my Uncle Tony after a few beers.
My Uncle Tony had been a steelworker and numbers runner. He used to slip me sips of Iron City beer and tell me that, if I’d just let him pick me up by my ponytail one time, it would toughen me up. My uncle was a storyteller who liked to hear stories back.
Before Studs Terkel, I’d never met a real writer. I didn’t expect one to seem so familiar.
“You’ll hurt your eyes,” my mother would say when she’d catch me reading too much. “You’ll get ideas.” Like the ideas I already had about writers and writing.
I hadn’t yet read Studs’ book, “Working,” though I knew about it. A year earlier, Studs had visited a high school in nearby Girard, when parents and some administrators there led a movement to ban the book.
In “Working,” Studs lets people talk in their own voices about their own lives. He interviews steelworkers, waitresses, housewives. One chapter features an interview with a hooker, which had the Girard folks’ panties in a twist. In 1982 in Girard, Studs said he’d come up to see what made the people there tick. He said he’d come up to encourage students to work hard, live honest lives, and read.
A year later, he was back in Erie, to do it again.
I went to see Studs at the urging of my writing teacher, a patient man who thought maybe it would do me some good to spend some time with Studs, who I would learn was very patient and good himself and who wouldn’t call me out as the idiot I was.
Most of my early writing years were like this—groping around in darkness, with this book or that book the only light in the mine.
Later, after Studs’ reading and talk, after he patted my hand and told me “You’ll be fine. We all will be, you know,” after I watched him shuffle out of the auditorium, I read “Working” for the first time.
I grew up with work—my father was a machinist, my mother a nurse, my Uncle Tony and so on. I started waitressing when I was 12. I worked for my grandmother, a 250-pound woman who ran the kitchen at the Trafford Polish Club.
At 18, I believed that, to be a writer, I needed to abandon everyone and everything I knew. I needed to have experiences, a word I’d italicize with my voice and an eye roll. I believed I needed to go to Paris like Hemingway and have my own moveable feast.
No one had yet taught me to write what I knew. Even if they tried, I wouldn’t have listened. I believed that my life, what I knew, was too ordinary and small to be worthy of art.
But in Studs’ work, there were these voices, so familiar to me, voices exactly like the ones I’d listened to when I was small and could hide under my grandmother’s dining room table during Sunday dinners, all my aunts’ and uncles’ legs around me, fences that held me in and gave me a framework I wouldn’t understand for years.
I’d listen to my Aunt Peggy talk about her mammogram—”Don’t laugh,” she’d say to my Uncle Bus, “You wouldn’t like it if they made grilled cheese out of you.” I’d listen to my mother talk about her patients—the one who threw the bedpan, the dying one who saved popsicle sticks from her meal trays and made them into beautiful sculptures. The men didn’t talk much. Maybe it was because they thought no one would be interested in their stories from the mill and the machine shop, or maybe it was because work had worn them down and they were too tired to talk and so their stories were lost with them.
What Studs taught me: It’s important not to lose those stories. Everyone’s life matters and is worthy of art. There is no such thing as an ordinary life.
And the most important thing, maybe—don’t be a phony.
I teach college now, so it’s important for me to remember that last one. Every semester, I teach Studs’ work to my students and try not to tear up when I tell them my favorite Studs story. It’s about the time he was mugged on the streets of his beloved Chicago. I don’t know if the story’s really true or not, but I believe it. The story is, the mugger jumps Studs. Studs and the mugger are rolling around on the ground. The mugger’s going for Studs’ wallet, but Studs wants to talk.
“So how many of these jobs do you do a day?” he asks the mugger. “How much do you get for a job like this?”
Another thing Studs taught me: World-weariness is for chumps. Stay curious. Know yourself. Be true to yourself. And be grateful.
In “Working,” Studs has a chapter on Mike Lefevre, a steelworker like my father and uncles, who talks about his dream job:
“I’d like to run a combination bookstore and tavern. (Laughs.) I would like to have a place where college kids came and a steelworker could sit down and talk. Where a workingman could not be ashamed of Walt Whitman and where a college professor could not be ashamed that he painted his house over the weekend.
“If a carpenter built a cabin for poets, I think the least the poets owe the carpenter is just three or four one-liners on the wall. A little plaque: ‘Though we labor with our minds, this place we can relax in was built by someone who can work with his hands. And his work is as noble as ours.’ I think the poet owes something to the guy who builds the cabin for him.”