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The Trouble With Studs

November 23, 1986|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

Barbra Streisand, born and raised in Brooklyn, was 14 years old before she paid her first visit to Manhattan, or so I was scandalized to hear some few years ago. What a benighted childhood! I thought. What cultural deprivation!

Until I remembered that, born and raised in Chicago, I was 16 years old before I learned of the mere existence of the University of Chicago. And it wasn't cultural ambition but a track meet that took me to the great campus, the stately Midway, and to crumbling Stagg Field where Enrico Fermi achieved history's first sustained chain reaction.

The meet lasted all day. I ran early, lost, showered in an athletic building that looked to me like a church, and spent the rest of the day wandering, dumbstruck. Building after building publicly consecrated to endeavors that, in my experience, had never commanded anything larger than a shelf or, at most, a room. You could lose yourself in those buildings. BOTANY: a whole building for it!

I had a ham sandwich in my athletic bag and, in a corner of what must have been the lettermen's club, feeling as out of place as I probably looked, I ate it. A motto on the wall read, "Not the laurel but the race! Not the quarry but the chase!" A consoling line, by rights, for a defeated quarter-miler but not for one who did not know that quarry could also mean prey.

I offer this incident, paradoxically, as a credential, hoping that, however corrupted by travel and softened by Southern California, I may yet be judged dumb enough to debate Studs Terkel about Chicago. You see, you can't outsmart Terkel. Try, and the man takes his stand with 3.5 million simple, decent, plain-spoken Chicago folks and, figuratively speaking, faces you down. No, you can't outsmart him, you have to outdumb him. How? Easy: When Studs was 16, had he heard of the University of Chicago? You bet he had, the sissy. He even graduated from it. Not only that, he even went to law school there.

So that's how you get him. You say:

"Hey, Studs, how'd yer pals down at the UC like yer new book? How'd yer buddy Saul like it? He's still hangin' around the campus after all these years, right? Well, I guess that's where you guys feel at home. I notice he didn't mention you in his Life magazine story on the city, but hey, nothing personal, right?

"So, anyway, how'd they like the little book? Yeah, little. That's what I said. Them pages is dinky for $15.95, and the whole thing got started as a Chicago magazine story, right? But no offense: For a serious intellectual guy like you, people are gonna have to pay. What do they think this is, a charity ball?

"But Studs, you gotta admit, them pictures is pretty goofy. Don't get me wrong: I know you didn't take 'em or nothin'. But the Wabash El? Whoever took a picture of the Wabash El? With the Blackhawk restaurant underneath, I got heartburn just thinking about it, ha ha!

"But they go for that stuff at the UC, right, Studs? Pictures you don't know why the guy took 'em, just a bunch of nothin', not even focused right. But if that's what they like down there, what can I say? It takes all kinds.

"Studs, can I say something personal? I never could figure out your taste in people. Florence Scala! Studs, seriously, how many more times are we gonna have to hear about Florence? The great savior of Greek Town, but, Studs, them coffee houses was on their last legs before the expressway went through. The Greeks was all movin' out anyway, out by Columbus Park. If you coulda took a vote and asked everybody, 'Do you want Florence Scala to save the old neighborhood?' you know what they woulda said? 'She can have it!' is what.

"I know, I know, there's a lot of other people in the book besides her, but they all sorta talk like her, who was in my completely personal opinion a true nut. You can't fight progress.

"Trouble with you, Studs, you got too much sense of history for your own good. On top of that you act like a tourist in your own town: North Side, South Side, West Side, it's ridiculous the way you run around. You want to be a real Chicagoan, settle down! Find yourself a nice quiet neighborhood somewhere, and stay put for a change, geez.

"And another thing, you want a nice quiet neighborhood? Move to the suburbs! You know the definition of a true Chicagoan? A true Chicagoan lives outside the city limits. 'I'm finished with that city. They can have it.' There's the voice of the true Chicagoan. You won't catch no true Chicago guy moping around some dump of a coffee shop that used to be so great except the owner moved away or some building or other that was supposed to have so beautiful of an architecture except they tore it down. Smarten up, Studs. This is Chicago."

History will record that Studs Terkel failed to smarten up. His "Chicago" (Pantheon: $15.95; 148 pp.; superlative black-and-white photography throughout) is enough to make any born Chicagoan sigh for home. It is also enough to make anyone who grew up hearing Terkel monologues on WFMT cry for respite.

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