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Touch and Go: A Memoir

Review

Touch and Go: A Memoir

Imagine yourself sitting on a front porch on a quiet summer
evening, listening to a beloved uncle recount stories you’ve
heard half a dozen times before. He rambles from time to time, and
the names of the characters sometimes blur, but the tales are rich
and populated with colorful characters, conjuring up vivid images
of bygone days. That’s the feeling one gets encountering
Studs Terkel in his delightful collection of reminiscences, TOUCH
AND GO.

The son of immigrant parents, Terkel was born in New York City in
1912 (“three weeks after the Titanic blithely sailed
into the tip of that iceberg. Make of it what you will.”). In
1921, he moved to Chicago, the city with whom his life has been
linked so intimately. There, his parents ran a series of rooming
houses and small hotels; his mother Annie, the dominant parent,
even beat up a pimp on one occasion. Studs spent his free time
hanging out among the soapbox orators at Bughouse Square,
Chicago’s low-rent version of London’s Hyde Park. Those
familiar with Terkel's streetwise persona may be surprised to learn
that he graduated from the elite University of Chicago Law School,
although he confesses that a career in the law “just
wasn’t there for me.” Indeed, his fondest recollection
of his law school days was the transfer on his trolley ride in an
area known as “Bronzeville,” where he first encountered
the blues, firing a lifelong passion for that music.

Although TOUCH AND GO follows an arguably chronological path,
it’s the frequent detours that offer the most pleasure.
Readers looking for a thumbnail sketch of Terkel’s career
should be satisfied with this sentence: “I have been an
eclectic disk jockey; a radio soap opera gangster; a sports and
political commentator; a jazz critic; a pioneer in TV, Chicago
style; an oral historian and a gadfly.” Perhaps one key to
his long life that emerges from these pages is that whatever he did
was done with zest for the task of the moment and for the people he
engaged as he performed it.

Best known for incomparable oral histories like WORKING, HARD TIMES
and “THE GOOD WAR” (Ida, his wife of 60 years, insisted
he put the title in quotation marks), Terkel’s attention
always has been focused on what he calls the “etceteras of
history,” unknown men and women to whom he has given voice
through his work. Befitting his down-to-earth style, Terkel
doesn’t reveal any sophisticated interviewing techniques.
“Respect,” he says, is the gift he brings to the
encounters with his subjects. “The person recognizes that you
respect them because you’re listening. Because you’re
listening, they feel good about talking to you.”

As entertaining and sometimes touching as Terkel’s stories of
his colorful friends and acquaintances are (the writer Nelson
Algren and television pioneer Dave Garroway make their appearances,
as does John Scopes a generation after the Monkey Trial), TOUCH AND
GO doesn’t consist merely of one man’s web of memories
spun from a litany of entertaining stories. Terkel, an unabashed
liberal who calls himself a “radical conservative,” is
harsh in his judgment of our apathetic political culture, even
going so far as to invert Hannah Arendt’s famous
characterization of Adolf Eichmann's “banality of
evil,” to accuse our age of embodying the “evil of
banality.” He writes: “Basically, there is an affront
going on, an assault on our intelligence and sense of decency. We
have a language perverted, a mind low-rated, and of course, the
inevitable end result --- forgetfulness. This is what haunts me at
the moment.” From a lifetime of advocacy for the underdog, he
has earned the right to express those blunt sentiments.

“Oh to be remembered --- isn’t that what this is all
about?” Terkel writes. By that standard he has little to
fear. At age 95, the survivor of quintuple bypass surgery and a
heart valve replacement (at 93), it’s doubtful we’ll
see another book by this remarkable man. Studs Terkel has had the
dual blessing of longevity and wonderful experiences to fill his
years to the brim. TOUCH AND GO is more than a memoir of a long
life; it is one man’s account of a life lived honestly and
well.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on January 23, 2011

Touch and Go: A Memoir
by Studs Terkel

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2007
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: New Press
  • ISBN-10: 1595580433
  • ISBN-13: 9781595580436