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Q&A, Part Two: STUDS TERKEL

Highlights from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

Studs Terkel in his Chicago home, Oct. 2005 / Photograph by CHRIS STRONG

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Friday, January 06, 2006

What follows is an excerpt from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue

For more information on this issue, click here

BEHIND THE BILLBOARDS
(EXCERPT)

The Stop Smiling Interview with Studs Terkel

By Danny Postel and JC Gabel

Studs Terkel is “as much a part of Chicago as the Sears Tower and Al Capone,” a BBC journalist once remarked.

Indeed, just as tourists to the “city of the century” throng to the skyscraper's observation deck and make their way to one or another of the gangster's old haunts, many a writer has pilgrimaged to the Uptown home of Chicago's legendary oral historian, where the following interview took place.

Stop Smiling: You knew Nelson Algren well. [Algren is the author of Man with a Golden Arm and Walk on the Wild Side]

Studs Terkel: I have a million memories of him. He would host these epic poker games on Friday nights at his place on West Evergreen [in Chicago]. He knew decks of cards. There was a Bohemian barber there, a Polish lawyer, and there were these two guys: one was a defrocked cop, and the other one was an Indian. They called him Chief. He was a Blackhawk. They were sitting next to each other. They were turning up the table. Nelson was convinced they were cheating. Dave Peltz was in on this. After losing, Peltz hands them a check for $200. “How do I know it’s good?” says the Chief. And I said to him, “It’s okay, Chief.” He knew my voice because I was a disc jockey, so he takes the check and says, “If it’s okay with the disc jockey, then it’s okay with me.” Nelson Algren tells Peltz to cancel the check. These guys were crooks. He couldn’t prove it. You can’t do that. So the next thing you know, he gets this call from a guy named Grenada who’s a failure in his family. And the one time he wins, the one night, this guy tells him, “Nelson Algren said not to pay you.” So the next thing you know, there’s a brick that smashes into the window at his house. This guy Grenada was so happy to get paid, he took that $200 and spent it (and more) on everything. He was redeemed.

I said, “Nelson these guys are desperate. You told Dave not to pay ’em.” Nelson lived up on the third floor. He wasn’t scared. He had this baseball bat. “If they come up here,” Nelson said, “I’ll clobber ’em with it.” “What if they have a gun and shoot you dead?” I said. “Nah,” he said, “They would never dare. I’ve got the club.” Nelson was a bit on the crazy side.

He was arrested a couple of times. His stories covering crooks and defendants are amazing. “The Captain Has Bad Dreams” is a wonderful example of this. So Nelson is riding in the backseat of a car with these two guys. The two crooks couldn’t even shoot straight. So the cops stop them, and in the backseat are also 300 Sinatra and Judy Garland records. “What are you guys doing with those records?” says one of the cops. “Oh,” says one of the crooks. “We love Judy Garland.” “Three hundred albums?” the copper says. “Yeah, we love her, we were going to give them out to our friends,” the one crook says. The cops, of course, put the cuffs on them. They took the two of them away, and Nelson says to the cops, “What about me?” “Get outta here,” they told him. He couldn’t get arrested.

SS: Why do you think Algren left Chicago?

ST: It’s a long story. He left because he felt that people gave him a rough time. They didn’t really. He was always recognized by the critics here. He finally wanted to leave, so he went down to the Gulf of Mexico, then to San Francisco, and wound up in Hoboken, New Jersey. You know where he ended up? Sag Harbor, New York, where all the writers lived. Nelson was honored by all those writers who were there: William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut, E.L. Doctorow, Peter Matthiessen. I couldn’t be there, because I was on my way to China. It was 1981. They honored him. He was something special. Mailer wasn’t crazy about Algren, but he admired him. He called him “the talented nut.” Nelson had trouble with women all the time. People really liked him.

SS: He was a big boxing aficionado.

ST: He followed boxing regularly, and wrote about it. I went with him to the Rainbow Gardens. He could really write about boxing. One of his most poignant stories is “Depend on Aunt Elly,” about a girl who has a hard life. She was a hooker. She hangs out looking for some attention and affection. She was hanging out with this fighter. She found it in him; he found it in her. They were living together the best they could. He describes the fights of this guy. When she was in prison she’d met the fighter. She had to pay money to the madam Aunt Elly. She was corrupt. Aunt Elly would follow her and betray her, trying to ruin her life. And one day the fighter found out that she kept a secret from him. He was hurt. And that hurt was so deep, they split up. They were good for each other.

The one Kurt Vonnegut liked the most was called “Stickman’s Laughter.” It’s a beautiful love story. Banty has this old woman living with him. Banty wants to be a big shot, and he’s got to watch out not to drink too much. He goes to Bruno’s bar, and he has a drink. He’s waiting for the woman. She’s not home yet – she’s visiting her mother. He has another drink, and another. Finally Bruno the bartender says to him, “You’ve had enough.” So he has another drink, and wanders into the casino, a gambling joint. He’s playing dice, and he’s winning big, but he’s drunk. So finally he puts in all his winnings and loses everything, and he comes home, and she sees him, and she knows what happened. “Where was you?” he says. “Where was you?” “I was visiting my mother,” she says. And then he starts sobbing on the floor.

Nelson wrote about the lower depths of Chicago. Saul Bellow is a great writer, but not all of his books are about Chicago. The Adventures of Augie March is Chicago. They’re about the University of Chicago and liberal Jewish professors having trouble with their wives. After his death, there was a tribute to Nelson, and someone remarked that if only Nelson had written about liberal college professors and the troubles with their wives, he would have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.


For more of our interview with Studs Terkel, see Part One of the online excerpt


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