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At The Studs Terkel Memorial (2008)

90% of the attendees have grey hair. This is disconcerting, not on their part, but by the spotty attendance of people in the age range of 17-40. There is a long list of speakers. A neurotic New York woman of nebulous cultural import reads her dedication off a piece of paper, reciting the words in the ‘liberal radio voice’, a stiff dialect brought into being by the program This American Life. One of the following speakers, a woman in the same age range, diverges in the opposite direction. She has prepared nothing so she just gives emotionally charged account of Studs habits that hops from story to story, "And then one time…" in staccato, finishing each anecdote with a shrug that said "Oh, that was Studs!" She broke down and cried as she finished, the only speaker to do so. The folklorist Stetson Kennedy, a man in his eighties or nineties, took the podium and leaned in, wheezing in a thick drawl. He spoke of solidarity, of Studs getting blacklisted from Hollywood, of this country needing to experience real depression to buttress it’s waning character. He filibustered as if it was to be his last speech and it well might have been. Eventually the MC began to speak over him. The woman who had cried and taken too long in her speech came up and said something infantilizing, dragging Stetson away from the podium and back to his seat. I found the topsy-turvy nature of the event, obviously not a meritocracy, in a word, maddening. The stories Andre Schiffrin and others told about Studs placed him solidly in the role model category, skin thickened into jerky by the Depression and the injustice he faced as an actor. They spoke of his love for people—how he would jump out of taxicabs to catch the bus, where he could talk and meet with strangers. How he was the only white man inducted into the African-American writers hall of fame. How he spoke as if there was always a stoagie in his mouth. How when he conducted interviews with writers—he knew all their books better than they did, and brought copies of them underlined and marked up to the interviews.

There was a story about a burgalar breaking into his window while Studs was sitting in the dark in his living room. When the burgalar turned on the light, he was terrified by the sight of Studs just sitting there. Studs asked him not to run and ended up getting to know him. After a lengthy conversation he offered to give the burglar all the money in his wallet. He did this and then said,

“But that’s all my money. How am I going to live?” The burglar, pitying him, handed him twenty dollars. At some point during the presentation, I looked over at Sparky and her eyes were filled with tears. I couldn’t understand what there was to be sad about.



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