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  • Writer's pictureArnie Bernstein

A Night with Studs Terkel

Note: "My Night with Studs Terkel" will appear in the upcoming book Carbituaries, coming soon from Everything Goes Media.

In March 2012, after 11 years and 159,000 miles, it was painfully obvious we had to say goodbye to our 2002 Subaru Sport Impreza. We'd been told the previous September that our axle was beyond repair. The car should hold out through the winter, but don't push it pass April. By February the death knell was sounded in the form of metal on metal carillon emanating from the steering column. We bade the car adieu. In a metaphorical way, I felt like I was shooting Old Yeller. We bought the silver-gray beauty in the spring of 2001. After just two weeks of ownership the car received its highest honor in all of its miles. It began when some friends who were in town asked if we wanted to join them for dinner with one of their old pals, a certain Mr. Studs Terkel. How fast could I say "yes?" I grew up in a household where Studs Terkel was viewed as a god for us mere mortals. When I was in high school, I used to call him up at his home radio station, WFMT in Chicago, and ask him questions about his books. I was a green fourteen-year-old with a squeaky voice, but Studs was always gracious and kind to my adolescent pretentiousness.

From left to right: Studs, me with hair & beard, my late, great Subaru Impreza

My Dinner with Studs

At dinner Studs held court, albeit he couldn't hear a word. "I'm deef!" he announced as we sat down. "D-E-E-F!" He downed a martini, then another, regaling us with his old stories. The one-way conversation was interrupted throughout the night as other diners stopped by our table just to say a few words to Studs. Each time he smiled with grace, nodding with feigned interest at sentences he could not hear. At one point, I noticed someone walking swiftly through the restaurant, glancing at our party, and with obvious intent to avoid any word—heard or unheard—with Chicago's iconic raconteur. I whispered to my friend, "see that guy who just passed? He's a former Republican governor of Illinois and a hardcore conservative." We both laughed. Clearly, Ex-Governor I Won't Name Him was not a fan of the fiercely liberal Pulitzer Prize winner at our table. Dinner wound down, Studs drank his last martini, and it was time to call it a night.

The Dream Made Flesh Via Transportation

Then came The Great Moment: our friends told me that I'd be driving Studs home. I fled to the valet stand to get our car while in my brain old tape loops emerged, replaying my naïve adolescent analyses of Working and Division Street: America that Studs had so patiently listened to all those years ago. Now, however, as he waited for me to return from the valet for that ride home, Studs's patience as exhibited in one of those ancient conversations was long gone. My wife told me later that as they were waiting, the many martinis had done their trick. She could barely contain herself from laughing while Studs barked out time and again, "Where is Bernstein with that car? I have to pee!" As we drove home Studs once again held court…and this time in the backseat of our new car, for an audience of two. I shouted questions about literary figures he'd interviewed and he weighed in on their merits and personalities. All too quickly we arrived at Studs's house. I helped him out of the car and then to his front door, making sure Studs got in safely to take that much longed for pee. I returned to the car and announced that although the Subaru was just two weeks old, we would have to buy new one: driving home Studs Terkel would be the pinnacle this car's life and it could never be used again. It now must be consigned to our garage for contemplation and homage to its greatest night.

Requiem for a Subaru

Of course, that was not the case. We drove it the next day and many days after that. Now the car was dying, and Studs was dead nearly four years himself, having "checked out" (as he referred to death) on Halloween, 2008. The time had come. Our old Subaru was traded in and replaced with a brand spanking new Honda Crosstour. I'm sure that beautiful old Subaru Sport Impreza was stripped for parts, its remains smashed against other vehicles in some anonymous scrapyard. But it is not unceremoniously rusting. I imagine Studs's melodious gravel grinder of a voice echoing from our old backseat, forever serenading other ancient automobiles with his signature signoff: "Take it easy…but take it."

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Copyright 2021 Arnie Bernstein

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