Several weeks ago, I would have given my right arm to continue my interview over dinner with Studs Terkel, the legendary writer of the 20th century. Fortunately, he went willingly thus sparing the loss of twenty-five percent of my appendages. When I contacted Studs, I requested a simple interview, but in the back of my mind, I wanted to take him out for dinner and continue our talk over a meal, followed by cigars and after-dinner drinks. I thought that the discussion over a meal and then cigars would be more relaxing and free Studs to be more conversant. Little did I know that all you need to do is to ask him a question-and then sit back and listen to this storyteller recount his memories of most of the past century. Studs interviewed and wrote about kings and commoners-but mostly common people.
When I broached the dinner invitation with Studs, he wanted my wife and I to be his guests. I replied that he could choose the restaurant, but it would be my honor to have him as our guest. We argued politely about who was going to pay the bill, but after several exchanges, he abruptly withdrew from the battle like the Taliban and came over to my side as if I were the Northern Alliance. So, the Chicago's version of the Northern Alliance made up of Sharon, his assistant, my wife, and I went off to the restaurant of his choice. Studs' sudden surrender caught me off guard for I had already formed my next rebuttal to why it should be my treat.
I learned two things from that little sparring with Studs and his unexpected retreat. Ida, his wife who died two years ago, had told him for years that he had to learn to be more gracious with people and accept their expressions of appreciation. Throughout his life, Studs was always championing the causes of the poor or the oppressed. Having made it his life to give, he found it difficult to receive. Ida had called him on the carpet many times over this character glitch that style was so much a part of his life.
In addition, I also discovered just how much influence his late wife had upon him. He gave in to our offer as soon as he heard Ida's voice in his head reminding him of her instruction to be more gracious. It was a tender moment about which I hesitated to write, but it provides an insight into Studs' tenderness and reverence for Ida.
When we arrived at a local Italian restaurant, it was around 5:30 and hardly any other diners were around including a matre de. So, Studs leads us to a corner table like a pied piper. He obviously was heading for his table. Suddenly, from her inattentiveness, sprang a hostess who rushes up to our party with a bizarre inquiry: "Do you have reservations?" Studs wasn't inclined to respond to her request and continued to his table, but the restaurant was all but empty. I managed to say to the officious hostess, "No, but we would like to sit here in the corner." Didn't she know that this was for me the interview of a lifetime? It is hard to find good help nowadays.
The hostess was so put off by Studs seating us that she said like a kindergarten
teacher, "Well, you'll have to be finished by 7:30." Wow! She had set the
parameters for my interview. I had just doubled my interview time with
Studs-two hours at the Chicago Historical Society and now two additional hours
at the restaurant. I was hoping that Studs would be obedient and allow me to
use the hostess' allotted time.
After dinner, as the coffee was served, I heard a young gal behind me say, "Mr. Terkel?" She wanted to get Studs' autograph. He was caught a little off guard and asked the woman how she recognized him? "Your voice," she replied. We all laughed at her honesty and how true it was that Studs' voice is like none other. As Studs signed a piece a paper for the admirer, I attempted to fill the silence with my question to the autograph seeker, "Do you know who Al Campbell is?" She shook her head that she didn't. You could see that she worried that she might not have known some famous literary giant. I replied cryptically and somewhat under my breath, "Well, you will-someday."
We left the restaurant to continue the interview over after-dinner drinks and cigars, but you will have to wait for that story as do I have to wait until some literary admirer asks for my autograph.