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Curtain Call With Terkel | The Nation

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Curtain Call With Terkel

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I seize upon and try to make likely to happen all of the good accidents of timing. And if you get these good accidents of timing, suddenly you've got Nijinsky.
   (William Saroyan)

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

Also by the Author

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, blasphemes not only Islam and Hinduism, but Thatcherism and the advertising industry. He's unkind, too, to V.S. Naipaul. For this they want to kill him?

John Leonard, former literary editor of The Nation, died November 6 at 69. From the archives, his iconic piece on Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize win, in his honor.

So, at age 87, Studs sees stars. We are more accustomed from his previous books to being introduced to citizens who never show up on Face the Nation or Ted Koppel or Charlie Rose; whose names somehow never achieve the Rolodex or Speed Dial of the soundbiting vampire-bat producers of TV newsmagazines or the charity-balling trend editors of those monthly slicks not to be usefully distinguished from their own scratch-and-sniff ads for vodka and narcissism; who go to their early graves unwinked at by the basilisk peepers of Leno or Letterman, unconsulted by a Cokie, Sam, Dan or Oprah, unSallied and unGeraldoed; who were never infamous enough for VH-1 to wonder whatever happened to them and are insufficiently kinky to qualify for freak shows on alien abduction or satanic abuse; who are not numbered among the unabombers and technoblabbers on the all-chat channels; who are less thrilling than the Capital Gangbangers, the mellowspeak salesmen and other blow-dried gauchos on the cable/pampas walkabout, singing the mediascape into pale/male pixels.

To be sure, in Division Street: America (1967), Hard Times (1970), Working (1972) and The Good War (1984), Studs talked to folks whose names we recognized, but the larger point was to listen to those who hadn't been heard--whose signals had been buzzed and jammed by the celebrity culture's static cling. In American Dreams: Lost and Found (1980) Joan Crawford, Vine Deloria, Jesse Helms, Ted Turner, Jann Wenner and Coleman Young spoke to him about fame, love, money, justice, food, grace, neighborhood, respect, a big score and a successful sting, but mostly we heard from workers of steel and promoters of wrestling; miners, nurses, loggers and cabbies; Wobblies and Nisei; cops and cons. Ramona Bennett, for example--a schoolteacher and tribal councilor of the Puyallup Indians--had this lesson to deliver:

When I went to school, we learned history so we won't make the same mistakes. This is what I was told. I know damn good and well that if American children in school had learned that the beautiful Cheyenne women at Sand Creek put their shawls over their babies' faces so they wouldn't see the long knives, if the American schoolchildren learned that Indian mothers held their babies close to their bodies when the Gatling guns shot and killed three hundred, there would never have been a My Lai massacre. If the history teacher had really been truthful with American children, Calley would have given an order to totally noncooperating troops. There would have been no one to fight. There would have been a national conscience. The lie has made for an American nightmare, not a dream.

And in The Great Divide (1988), while Victor Reuther and Art Spiegelman were included in his conversation about the whereabouts, after Ronald Reagan, of our old ideals of social justice, more often the symposiasts turned out to be pilots and Teamsters, ministers and dentists, social workers and radio engineers, commodities brokers and real-estate agents, sellouts, burnouts and NYPNS ("Neat Young People in Neat Situations"). They testified for the most part to states of mind like greed, doubt, anger and absence of memory, as if we had forgotten the Depression, never heard of the Civil War and never read the Bill of Rights. On the other side of this "Divide" was the past we'd lost as a caring country. But there were pockets of resistance and renewal--organizers of union locals and community action, doctors committed to low-cost healthcare, teachers who refused to quit the inner city, a police chief acquainted with the social pathology of crime and a sanctuary movement for refugees from death squads. We were read another lesson by Jean Gump, the grandmother who spent eight years in prison for defacing a nuclear missile:

As inmates, we're property. We belong to Mr. Meese, we belong to the Bureau of Prisons. A month ago, a young woman had come here from another federal institution. She had been locked up for fourteen months without seeing the light of day. On arriving here, she was so happy to be out in the sun-light, she lay down and got herself a sunburn. They wrote a shot--that's an incident report. The shot read: Destruction of government property. Her skin, okay?

Likewise in Race (1992), we heard from psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, novelists Charles Johnson and Frank Chin, In These Times reporter-editor Salim Muwakkil and Afrikaner traitor-to-his-class Rian Malan. More often, though, Studs was in the streets, on foot, because he's never learned to drive. Or in barbershops, talking to firefighters and paramedics, hairdressers and evangelists, carpenters and software salesmen; ex-Communists, ex-priests, retired domestics, black separatists and Ku Klux Klanners. Or bluffing his way into a South Side housing project, up the stairs and into kitchens where nobody imagined that a capital-gains tax cut was a miracle cure for moral fatigue, social paralysis and economic catastrophe, whereas almost everyone, white, black, brown, yellow, agreed that race relations were worse than they had ever been, even during the sixties riots, probably because of the go-go greedhead years combined with a drug epidemic. (Louis Farrakhan came up a lot, but so--as if in counterpoint--did Big Bill Broonzy's country blues.) Still, they all had jobs to find, children to raise, neighborhoods to save and a nation to recover from its waste of humanity and scruple.

And they included people like Mamie Mobley, who, when her son died in 1955, quit an Air Force job, went back after seventeen years to college, graduated fifth in her class and taught in a South Side grammar school for the next quarter-century. During a teachers' strike, the Blackstone Rangers brought Mamie Mobley coffee and sweet rolls on the picket line. Of course, the son this mother lost happened to be Emmett Till.

Finally, in Coming of Age (1995), Marvin Miller, Norman Corwin, Jacob Lawrence and Uta Hagen have their say, plus John Kenneth Galbraith. ("I'm deeply accustomed to giving advice that is not heard.... Even if you don't succeed in reform, you do succeed in making enough people angry to make it worthwhile. Even if I don't expect that identifying something wrong, something insane, is a solution, I'm prepared to irritate for its own sake.") But these are people who have always had their say. More compelling, in and out of retirement homes, are the librarians and press agents, public interest lawyers and bird-watching pacifists, farmworkers, jazz musicians, street vendors and environmentalists, Gray Panthers and black Quakers (one a Luddite who contemplates going around like Carry Nation, "chopping down fax machines"), an admiral, a judge, a homicide detective, two Congressmen and two accountants, a settlement-house landscape painter, a Mattachine Society activist, a Physician for Social Responsibility, a whistleblowing former intelligence agent, a blacklisted recovering alcoholic and the usual excess of schoolteachers and union organizers--all over 70, more than a few almost as old as the century, none of them cute.

But who could resist Gertie Fox: "I'm really 131 years old, but I've been knocked down to seventy-seven. When I go to the K-Mart, the blue light goes on and the bells ring. I'm a real bargain." Or Bob Schneider: "When people ask me what my job is, I say, 'I'm a social engineer, self-employed.'" Or an unidentified "portly woman" Studs meets in Manhattan: "I sang Brunhilde in Germany, and I sang Kundry in Parsifal at La Scala. Without an agent. Are you interested in music? The story of my life is unbelievable."

He is interested in music. In all these books, brave songs become cantatas; noble voices mass to choral movement.

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