On Sunday, I went to a memorial for Studs Terkel, that human dynamo, our nation’s greatest listener and talker, the one person I just couldn’t imagine dying. After all, the man wrote his classic oral history of death, Will the Circle Be Unbroken? at 89, and only then did he do his oral history of hope, Hope Dies Last. The celebration of his life went on for almost two and a half hours. Everyone on stage had a classic story about the guy, one better than the next, and Studs would have been thrilled that so many people talked at such length about him. But he wouldn’t have stayed. Half an hour into the event, he would have been out the door, across the street, and into the nearest bar, asking people about their lives. And the amazing thing is this: they would have been spilling their guts. He could make a stone talk — and not only that, but tell a story of stone-ness that no one had ever heard before or even imagined a stone might tell. His death is like an archive of what was best in America closing; his legacy lies in oral histories that will inform the generations.
Unfortunately, his remarkable oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, may prove all too hauntingly relevant to our moment. In fact, in the midst of the ceremonies, the radio host Laura Flanders pointed out that, in Studs’s beloved Chicago, a group of more than 200 workers from United Electrical union local 1110 were sitting in at their factory. After the Bank of America had cut the company off from operating credit, the execs of Republic Windows and Doors shut the plant for good on just three days notice without offering severance pay. The workers responded by demanding some justice and "blocking the removal of any assets from the plant" until they got their "rightful benefits." Shades of the 1930s! As John Nichols of the Nation writes, "[They] are conducting the contemporary equivalent of the 1930s sit-down strikes that led to the rapid expansion of union recognition nationwide and empowered the Roosevelt administration to enact more equitable labor laws. And, just as in the thirties, they are objecting to policies that put banks ahead of workers; stickers worn by the UE sit-down strikers read: ‘You got bailed out, we got sold out.’"
If this isn’t a message from and about a changing nation, I don’t know what is. And, by the way, the fact that the President-elect supported their demands at a news conference on Sunday indicates not just that change has indeed occurred, but that messages sent from the bottom en masse don’t go unnoticed by canny politicians at the top.
Until this second, who would have predicted such a thing? And who can imagine what version of hard times we will face? All I know is that, if Studs, who made it to 96, to the verge of the historic election of Barack Obama, were alive today, he would have recognized a moment of hope when he saw it and made a beeline for Republic Windows and Doors, tape recorder in hand. He was, after all, a man who knew that anyone can hope in good times, but that, in bad times, to feel hopeful you have to act, you have to take a step, even on an unknown path. And he was a man who also would have taken it for granted that the lives of the workers in that Chicago factory were at least as complex, deep, dark, surprising, fascinating, confusing, and remarkable as any among Washington’s elite or the movers and shakers (down) of Wall Street.
In one of Studs’s interviews, the chief of the trauma unit at a Chicago hospital, talking about how a doctor should deal with the family of a young person who has just died traumatically, says that, when he introduces himself, "they won’t even remember my name. Sit them down. Sit down with them. Look into their eyes. If you can, hold on to them and say, ‘it’s bad news.’ And they’ll say, ‘Is he dead?’ Or they just look at you. You have to use the word, you have to say it: ‘He’s dead.’ If you say he’s ‘expired,’ he’s ‘passed away,’ they don’t hear that… It’s very important to put yourself into their shoes, but you’ve got to say the word ‘dead.’ You’ve got to give them the finality of it."
Well, Studs is dead. And it’s hard times without him.