Two months ago, Tori and I visited the annual Printers Row Book Fair. If the Super Bowl is my personal holiday and the season finale of “Mad Men” is Tori’s, then the book fair is our personal holiday, a weekend we celebrate together. We’ve missed only one show in the five years we’ve known each other (we went before we met, too), and it’s hog heaven for nerdy, bookish thirtysomethings. Every year we go, we follow the same routine: arrive around 10am; walk the entire fair, one stall at a time; stop at Standing Room Only for a burger or chicken sandwich; walk the entire fair again and decide on books we weren’t sure about the first time around; then either head for home (if the weather is foul), or go to the Harold Washington library to see Studs Terkel.
For those of you who know little or nothing of Studs, let me define him in the briefest way possible: Studs Terkel is the patron saint of Chicago, the last of a long line of Chicago legends that included Jane Addams, Mike Royko, Harry Caray, Saul Bellow, Jack Brickhouse, James T. Farrell, Nelson Algren, and Bozo the Clown. Although never a fan of many of the city’s more powerful folks, he has carried an unconditional love and respect for Chicago for most of his 96 years. He is also an unabashed leftist who openly fought McCarthyism and his blacklisting with the fervor of an American patriot. He not only survived but thrived as a radio host and writer. He has never stopped working; his latest book, an autobiography, was published in 2007, when Studs was 95 years old.
Every year, Studs can be seen at the Harold Washington Library during the Printers Row Book Fair, chatting with an auditorium audience about his career, the city, its sleazy politicians, and contemporary politics. He is always flanked by two writers for the Chicago Tribune, Rick Kogan and Liz Taylor, who are technically there as discussion partners but whose job is to ask Studs a question and turn him loose.
His aforementioned love of Chicago permeates his every story. Chicago has been variously called “The Windy City,” “Hog Butcher to the World,” and the “City of Big Shoulders,” none of which can be described as beautiful. Chicago was and is pug-ugly, and Studs celebrates that ugliness with the fervor of a true fan. Like the late Mike Royko, Studs sees the diamonds in the dog turds and will write about both with equal enthusiasm.
When Tori and I first saw him together in 2003, he was slow on his feet and hard of hearing but clearheaded as ever. The “discussion” format was simple: Kogan and Taylor would alternately toss a question at Studs, who would then take over, spilling decades of Chicago and American history one story at a time. When Studs would reach a punch line in a story, Taylor would smile and Kogan would lift his head in laughter. The audience weighed in on his every word, as did Kogan and Taylor, who have heard many of his stories before. After all, they love him too.