November 1, 2008

Studs Terkel, 96, R.I.P.

Louis "Studs" Terkel--author, radio host, activist--passed away at age 96 just 4 days before the election he'd been hanging on to witness. The Chicagoan spent his entire career, and life, championing community activists, so it's no secret he supported the only Chicago-bred community activist running for president. Still, Studs saw much change during his lifetime, even though people have been saying things like, "What's the point? What can I do about it?" for the past 96 years.

I first heard of Studs Terkel less than a decade ago when someone compared a story I'd written (but never sold, so I self-published it) to Studs's writing. It was about a donut baker, who happened to be born to Russian Jewish parents, just like Studs. The story was less about the wonderfulness of donuts and more about what a fasinating life this man who had been making donuts for 40 years after being drafted into the Korean War where the Marines made him a baker. Whereas one high school teacher compared my short fiction writing to Raymond Carver, who I discovered I'm no huge fan of, the Studs Terkel comparison is now one of the greatest compliments of my life.

He wrote over a dozen books and I've yet to make my way through most of them, but his titles include "Chicago," "Working," "Race," a memoir called "Touch and Go," and his first book in 1957, "Giants of Jazz." My first read was "Chicago," and page after page, all I could do was marvel how the author turned banal people into fascinating characters, intriguing people into commonplace ones, and above all, anthropomorphized Chicago into a living, breathing person, one with a great many faults but at the end of the day, someone you pulled for, someone you'd want to get a beer with.

"Giants of Jazz" isn't about how to listen to Duke Ellington or Billie Holiday, it's about what makes Satchmo, Bird, and Trane who they are. It's staggeringly great and makes it impossible to listen to Dave Koz or Kenny G over Louis Armstrong, even though the music is what should do that anyway. Kinda like, say, maybe, choosing Sierra Nevada Pale Ale over Bud Lager.

In my own writing, I did not set out to be the next Michael Jackson, the world's preeminent beer writer who sadly passed away last year. Nor did I set out to be the next Studs Terkel. That my first book, in my greatest grab for pride, somehow melds the inspiration I draw from these two great men who lived lives richer than the Rockerfellers, is what I hope said book will be remembered as.

I don't know if living another 60 years or writing another 12 books is in the cards for me, but if I do, every book and year lived will be spent drawing inspiration from Studs Terkel.

(If you haven't read him, I advise going into your local, independent bookstore to find any of his works. Otherwise, you can find them here on Amazon.)

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