Writers cheat death. Briefly. Sometimes.
That doesn't mean they don't die. They do. The writers themselves that is. But that their work echoes for a while. If they're good. And lucky. Not most writers. Most writing barely lives on the page the day it's published, never mind has any hope of lingering.
But writers who are good enough and lucky enough ... like Studs Terkel, who died almost a decade ago—the 10 year anniversary will be this Halloween — but whose name came up twice Tuesday.
The first was a reader, asking me to recommend Terkel books. That was easy: "Working." "Division Street America." "The Good War." That'll get you started.
The second was at lunch, with my pal Tony Fitzpatrick, stopping back in Chicago between stints in Paris, shooting his excellent TV series, "Patriot." We talked about art and the French and acting and politics and food and Chicago.
Then conversation drifted to Studs. Tony was a particular friend and admirer—"Hope dies last," the title of Terkel's book on political action, is tattooed on his forearm. We talked about him, about his clash with the late Steve Neal.
Our conversation made me want to hear Studs' voice. I knew him, casually, and was a guest on his radio program on WFMT. But I only interviewed him once for a column, after he was robbed in his home, and I suspected there was more to the crime than the witty tale making the rounds of the media.
The first couple of times I read Studs Terkel's brazen demand to a burglar who had broken into his home and stripped him of $250—"Hey, now I'm flat broke; give me 20 bucks!"—I smiled at the 87-year-old literary lion's quick-witted bravado. The crook gave Studs a $20 bill. Tough old bird. Nice little story.
But by the third reading —and the line has, since Mike Sneed broke the story in her July 22 column, appeared in nearly two dozen newspapers and magazines all over North America —I began to wonder: Was it all really that simple, or could there be a less attractive crime story hidden behind the neat tale? A home invader rouses an elderly couple from their bed in the middle of the night. The husband is confronted by the crook, who robs him. Sure, he got $20 back. But did the event really have the fun, flip quality the quote suggests?
"It had an amusing touch in retrospect, not during it," said Terkel, in his Uptown home. "It happened so quickly, I couldn't believe it. I had turned the lights out about 9 o'clock. I kept a little TV on, watching the Sox game—the Sox lost to the Brewers. Near midnight it was.
"The hallway light goes on. I think it's my wife going to the bathroom. I reach out to say something, and I touch her. She's there. So it's not she. A figure is coming toward me, a figure in the shadows, coming toward me. A tall figure."
Even at that point, Terkel—as most people would—clung to the hope of a benign explanation.
"I think: It could be my son. He has the key. It turns out to be somebody else. A guy. I reach for the light. He rushes to me and turns out the light, his hand over his face. He was as surprised as I was."
The burglar kept shouting, "Where's the money? Where's the money?" But Studs couldn't hear him.
"I'm practically deaf," he said. "I have hearing aids, but I take them off at night. He's saying something, but I don't understand it. I keep saying, 'What is it you want? Keep cool. Take it easy.' "
Was Terkel frightened?
"I guess I was," he said. "It was too sudden, too dreamlike. I went to get my hearing aids in the bathroom. He follows me and turns the light off, his hand still over his face."
Terkel worried about the safety of his wife, Ida, who has not been in the best of health lately.
"I didn't know what was going to happen," Terkel said. "If he's desperate. . . . I told him, 'Wait, take it easy. This woman is not well.' "
Criminals are sometimes placated by money. Terkel, who went to the currency exchange earlier that day, produced a roll of cash. He handed it over, realized he was busted and made his request for something back. He got a 20.
Terkel nearly said something that, for him, is even more telling than the witticism that has been so widely quoted.
"I almost said, 'Thank you,' " said Terkel. "He hands me money, and I feel grateful. I think I might have said, 'Thanks.' "
Terkel, an old-school leftist, finds a certain irony in that.
"That's the free market for you," he said. "It was my roll of bills a moment ago; now it's his roll of bills, and I'm asking him for a handout."
(I should mention, in the slim chance that a reader or two might not be familiar with Terkel, that he is the nation's great chronicler of the common people. Even those who question his politics must admit that his classic and best-selling books, such as Division Street America and Working, placed ordinary people into the context of history long before it became fashionable. I think The Good War is among the best books ever written about World War II.)
None of that mattered to the burglar. Unlike when Terkel was mugged in the 1980s—which also made the papers—the burglar didn't seem to recognize him before fleeing.
Terkel, his anger up, followed the burglar, until he saw an accomplice downstairs in the kitchen.
"I'm hollering, 'How did you get in? How did you get in?' " Terkel said.
And then the moment came that I had suspected was there, obscured by the cool and satisfying brio of his oft-quoted request.
"Then I got scared. Right after that," he said. "The fright comes later, when you think of what might have happened."
Fear, and anger.
"Of course you feel angry. I was mad I lost 250 bucks. It's an invasion of your privacy. For some reason I was cool, but maybe that was my protection, my masquerade."
The burglars had pushed in a broken-down kitchen air-conditioning unit. There's a new one there now, securely bolted. And the Terkels keep a light on downstairs while they sleep.
"Keep cool and keep the lights on," advised Terkel. "What's the old song: 'Let a little light shine'? The detective said (burglars) don't like any sign of life in a building. Keeping a radio on is great, too."
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 1, 1999