Sunday Bookchat

January 26, 2008

The great journalist, historian and raconteur Studs Terkel, whose new memoir is called Touch and Go, talks about the time he decided to chat with the well-groomed couple who’d been studiously ignoring him at the bus stop for several weeks:

Terkel, who is 95, has long been a Chicago icon, every bit as accessible and integral to the cultural life of the Windy City as Susan Sontag was to New York. He had shared the bus stop with this couple for several mornings but they had always failed to acknowledge him. “It hurts my ego,” he quips. “But this morning the bus was late and I thought, this is my chance.” The rest of the story is his.

“I say, ‘Labour Day is coming up.’ Well, it was the wrong thing to say. He looks toward me with a look of such contempt it’s like Noel Coward has just spotted a bug on his collar. He says, ‘We despise unions.’ I thought, oooooh. The bus is still late. I’ve got a winner here. Suddenly I’m the ancient mariner and I fix him with my glittering eye. ‘How many hours a day do you work?’ I ask. He says, ‘Eight.’ ‘How comes you don’t work 18 hours a day like your great-great-grandfather did? You know why? Because four guys got hanged in Chicago in 1886 fighting for the eight-hour day … For you.’

“Well, he was scared and nervous and the bus was still late. I’ve got this guy pinned up against the mailbox. He couldn’t get away. ‘How many days a week do you work?’ I went on. Well, then the bus came and I never saw them again. But I think that every workday morning she was looking from the 15th floor of their apartment block to see if that mad man was still there.”

Terkel knows how to tell a story. He also knows how to conduct a great interview. He’s interviewed the great, the near-great and the not-so-great, and I mean interviewed them, not just propped himself up Charlie Rose-style while the subjects talked. Which makes the audio collection Voices of Our Time a fine companion for your long daily commute.

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With Congress and the White House talking about economic stimulus — i.e., corporate giveaways and tax cuts — it seems only appropriate to check in with David Cay Johnston, author of Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You With the Bill). He is interviewed above by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! Johnston also recently spoke with Bill Moyers, and the talk was eminently worth hearing:

BILL MOYERS: There was a stunning section in your book where you say these new rules that have come about in the last few years help Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers, MBNA, that’s the big bank holding company, and Citibank exploit the poor, the unsophisticated, and the foolish because these lenders can now charge rates and impose penalties that were illegal, even criminal, a generation ago.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: You know, we used to put people to death 500 years ago for loaning money for interest. And for a long time the government regulated the kind of interest that you could charge. And then we had a Supreme Court decision in 1978. And the Supreme Court in that said, you know, ’cause the way the law’s written we’re basically undoing the usury laws in this country. And Congress, pay attention, you need to do something to address this. Well, Congress did. Discovered it was a fabulous way to milk banks and related companies for campaign contributions. And they did for years and years and years and years. Now you turn on your television and there’s Gary Coleman, the former child star, promoting a loan where they’ll put the money right into your bank account over the telephone, calling in on the telephone, at 99.25 percent interest. Almost two points a week. When I wrote that I was thinking about a mob guy who was a loan shark and what he would have thought because he spent some time in prison for loan sharking if he were still alive about these ads where now big corporations are doing what he used to do. Except they don’t break your legs, they just take your house.

I’ll bet you’re thinking, how awful, I can’t wait until the Democrats finally get real control over the government again. Johnston has a shock for you:

I love to trot this one out when somebody goes, “Oh, you’re from the New York Times. You must be, you know, pro-Democrat or liberal or whatever.” I’m the guy who broke the story and reported on the fact that Bill Clinton gave the super rich, the 400 highest income people in America a big tax cut. They were paying 30 cents out of each dollar of their income to the federal government when he came into the office. When he left, it was down to 22. Bush has lowered it to 17. Now, first of all, notice you’re probably paying more than 17 cents. May well be paying more than 22. But Bush gave them an eight cent tax cut– I’m sorry. Clinton gave an eight cent tax cut and Bush only gave them five cents.

If you decide to buy a copy of Free Lunch, why not pick up the paperback edition of Johnston’s Perfectly Legal as well?

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Sylvester Stallone makes gore-spattered movies in which he pretends to be a guerrilla fighting the brutal regime in Burma. Burmese author Saw Wai really does fight the brutal regime in Burma, and he does it with . . . love poetry? Read this Associated Press story about how a Valentine poem got under the skin of a dictator.

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Michael Gray, author of a splendid biography of blues master Blind Willie McTell, notes the anniversary of the death of folklorist John Lomax, whose field recordings captured the work of pre-war blues musicians. And mark your calendars for the April 15 paperback release of Gray’s The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia.

One Response to “Sunday Bookchat”

  1. Caveat Says:

    I love Studs Terkel. Working has always stuck in my mind, along with Henry Mayhew’s London, as a masterpiece of reporting – and a lot harder to do than it seems.

    Thanks for the heads-up.

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