Studs Terkel, a literary legend at 80, may be just now hitting his stride

May 06, 1992|By Frank J. Prial | Frank J. Prial,New York Times News Service

CHICAGO -- The Mercedes came tooling down Michigan Avenue. It swerved to the curb and a white woman in her 30s poked her head out the passenger side window.

"Mr. Terkel," she called. "Oh, Mr. Terkel! We read your book. We loved it! Thank you so much."

The little guy on the sidewalk smiled and gave a sort of half bow as the car drove off.

Two blocks farther along, a young black bicycle messenger was waiting for a traffic light to change. He saw the little guy and his eyes lit up.

"Hey," he said. "Hey, Studs. I got your book. I'm going to read it, man."

And so it went: a fellow on the bridge over the river, the clerks in the cigar store, the man at the dry cleaners. "Hello Mr. Terkel." "Hey, Studs."

Was there anything unusual in all this, the little guy was asked.

"Nah, everyone around here knows me, that's all."

Studs Terkel was on his way to lunch at Riccardo's, an old hangout about a 20-minute walk from his office on East Wacker Drive.

"This used to be a newspaper joint," he said as he entered. No more. Solid business types filled the room and lounged at the bar.

"Have the whitefish," Studs said. "It's my favorite here." He had the whitefish. Also a martini on the rocks and a couple of glasses of red wine.

Riccardo's -- and the whitefish -- unleashed a flood of reminiscence. "There were a dozen papers once. Everyone turned up at the bar. Algren and I used to sit right over there," he said. "Sometimes Mauldin would join us. The sessions would go on and on."

But times had changed. "I come in with Royko once in a while," he said, "or Bill Newman from the Sun-Times, but that's it. My luncheon companions -- two guys. And even Royko is from a younger generation. I go by wars: he's Korea, I was World War II."

Studs Terkel is 80, and there are those who would say he is at the pinnacle of his career. His latest book, "Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession" (New Press, 1992), has received immense critical acclaim.

Also, it made him the commentator of the hour last week, appearing as it presciently did just six weeks before the Rodney G. King verdict and the riots that followed it.

His radio interview program, now in its fourth decade, is more popular than ever.

He is short, about 5 feet 5, and walks with a slouch that makes him look even shorter.

His uniform -- he rarely varies from it -- consists of rumpled slacks, a blue blazer over an open-necked red-checked shirt and a red sweater with socks to match.

His thinning hair, once black, is almost blond. He combs it by running his fingers through it.

"Race," like the earlier books, is an exercise in oral history. Each interview is transcribed, usually into about 60 pages of text, then edited.

"It's like prospecting," he said. "The transcripts are the ore. I've got to get to the gold dust. It's got to be the person's truth, highlighted. It's not just putting down what people say."

His next book, he said, will be about elderly people who still make a difference in their communities.

"There are a lot of wonderful, feisty old people around," he said. "They can be tough, they can be effective, they can make a dent. They don't care, they have no more ties."

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