Studs Terkel tries to stem our national memory loss

February 24, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

STRICTLY AS advertised, Studs Terkel comes to talk. He sits there Tuesday evening, at the Bibelot book store in Pikesville, in blue blazer with red sweater and red-and-white-checked shirt beneath it, with tufts of white hair bursting from the center of his head like the sprouts atop a pineapple, and he's off and running before they even turn on the microphone.

"What I know about technology," he mutters as they wire him for sound, "you could fit into Tom Thumb's fingernail." And then, "They talk about electronic hardware today. To me, hardware is a hammer, it's pots and pans. And software is pillowcases and Turkish towels and ... "

And he's off.

Logorrhea, he says he has. In layman's terms, it's somebody who keeps talking without coming up for air. "I free-associate," he says. "Where was I? I forgot." He's laughing when he says it, but it's an occupational hazard of cross country talking.

Studs is 87 and forgets nothing. He has a glorious history of writing and interviewing, of thinking and acting, and of tape recording the voices of people nobody else seems to hear.

"Only one guy outtalked me," he says, looking back on a conversational lifetime. He pauses for an actor's beat. "Marcel Marceau. I couldn't get a word in."

On this night, he has no such problem. He's arrived to discuss his new book, "The Spectator: Talk About Movies and Plays with Those Who Made Them." But it's an odd accounting, for Studs. Mostly, he's made a career out of conversing with ordinary folks about the crossroads moments in their lives, their hard-time struggles in war and the workplace, and learning to get along with the people who live next door but arrived from different places of the heart. This one's about show folk.

"They call me an oral historian," he tells the crowd of about a hundred people at Bibelot. "Actually," he says, "oral history precedes the feathered pen. Now, the tape recorder -- I've made more use of it than anyone but Richard Nixon."

Or Linda Tripp, he might have added. But the reference is still a nice one. Nixon's already fading in the national memory, which lasts about a minute and a half. Never mind, Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? How about: Where have you gone, John Sirica and Elliott Richardson? Where have you gone, day-before-yesterday's lessons?

Memory is one of Terkel's passions. In Tuesday morning's paper, in an interview with Rafael Alvarez of The Sun, he calls it our national Alzheimer's, then repeats the line on Marc Steiner's midday radio program, and says it again at Bibelot.

We're drowning in information, hunched feverishly over our little computers that bring the world to us in numbers and financial growth patterns and stock market fibrillations. But the world moves so frantically now, and so confusingly, and everybody's in such a rush to cash in, that nobody slows things down, nobody connects this hour to the last one, nobody seems to remember.

Terkel is one of our great rememberers. To those who notice youth fading in the rear-view mirror and want to believe that yesterdays still count for something, that they issue storm warnings just off the coast of our consciousness, Studs is a comfort.

He tells us that the things inside our memory banks are worth holding on to. Somebody in the Bibelot gathering asks what he believes is "the common man's most momentous event." He thinks about it for half a second: the trade unions of the '30s, he suggests. And then he's off on a story about today's young professionals, oblivious to history, who sneer at organized labor.

He mentions Ronald Reagan and the air-traffic controllers. It was Reagan's first bold act, dumping these folks when they struck for more time off. With all that frenzy in the skies, all that constant pressure, Studs says, they only wanted more time to rest, to compose themselves, to make things safer for those who fly.

"And Reagan won the applause of the whole country," Terkel says, "by getting rid of these people. The very people, by the way, who had voted overwhelmingly for him. And they were striking for rest."

He mentions a couple at a bus stop in Chicago, young corporate types dressed for the hustle. He says he tried to engage them in conversation. "The fellow looks at me like Noel Coward watching a speck of dust on his cuff," he says. He asks them about unions.

"We despise unions," the fellow says. He asks them how many hours a day they work. Eight, they say. He tells them their grandfathers probably worked 18.

"Why?" he asks. "Because there were men and women who got their heads busted so you could work eight hours instead of 18."

The young couple fled in some disarray, he says, the victims not only of their own shallowness but of our national Alzheimer's. We run so fast to keep up with today that we forget yesterday. That's why Studs Terkel's such a gift. At 87, he remembers a lot of yesterdays and connects them with today.

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