Why Studs Terkel Will Always Have A Fan Club
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Finally, I want to say a word about Studs Terkel, who died on Friday at the age of 96. Terkel is variously described as an author and oral historian, a radio personality. All of that, of course, is true, but I think of him most of all as the poet laureate of working people. And by working people, I mean people who work with their brains, for sure, but also with their hands and their bodies. People who stay on their feet all day long, people who wear uniforms, or might as well.
I come from a family of people who wear uniforms to work and badges and nametags. And that was before 9/11, when lawyers started wearing them to get into their doorman-monitored buildings. So I think I know what I'm talking about when I say that this is a country that romanticizes working people in ads for pick-up trucks or beer and the songs on country music stations and the all-but-forgotten love for 9/11 first responders or the new love for Joe the Plumber.
But romanticizing working people is not the same as respecting them. After all, this is a country where real wages have stagnated in the last decade, where between 40 and 60 million people go without health insurance during the course of the year. And you better believe that a very great many of these people work, or they are the children of people who work - taking care of kids, doing hair, fixing cars, cleaning office buildings, building those buildings. But they don't make enough money for health insurance, or they work in jobs where it just isn't part of the deal.
I had an experience last week that made me think about all of this again. I was having one of those weeks that make you as a homeowner wish you lived in a dorm. We had a gas leak, the dishwasher broke, the icemaker and half the electrical outlets in the kitchen stopped working. And one of the twins - I still haven't figured out which one - decided the front-door lock was a nice place to store gum he or she should not have had. And yes, except for the gas leak and the electrical, there was nothing huge. Between the two of us, my husband or I could probably have fixed everything. But I kind of wanted stuff done this century, if you know what I'm saying.
So in came the appliance repairman, the electrician, the guys from the gas company, and the locksmith, and for good measure, the guys who sweep up the chimney. I noticed something when I asked if they needed anything, and most of the time it was coffee. Because after they finished up, for most of these guys, it was an hour-and-a-half commute home. And why? Maybe some of them needed five acres for their horses, I don't know. But I bet for most of them, it was that the median home price in this area has long since outpaced the median income.
So not for them the gleaming new condos with granite countertops I see going up every day on my comute to work and theirs. For them, it's 90 minutes each way in one of those pickups that the car companies are selling even as they steadily cut back on the benefits for the people who used to work there.
So now we hear that the newly famous Joe the Plumber, he of the campaign trail, has an agent and is in line for a record deal. And why not? It's not for nothing, I think, that kids with a teaspoon of talent are willing to stand in line for hours and allow themselves to be humiliated by Simon Cowell for a shot as an American Idol. Why not stand in line for a chance to be special and admired when you see your parents work hard their whole lives and end up with a shaky retirement, at risk of going bankrupt from a serious illness or just treated like one of life's suckers while Congress and the White House fall all over themselves to bail out the big banks?
Anyway, in books like "Working in Hard Times," Studs Terkel talked to, and even more important, listened to working people. He listened to them talk about how they felt about their work, their lives and their dreams. The candidates have done a lot of talking this election year, and I guess that's what we expect them to do. But how many of them can say they really listened?
Goodbye, Studs. We miss you already. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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