“checking out”

I guess it was seven years ago. I was in Chicago for a wedding, and at the big posh reception, my eye was caught by the avuncular little man being tottered chastely around the dance floor by a series of broad-shouldered, ripe-cheeked young women. They looked like nieces. Not that there was any family resemblance between the small octogenarian and the young, buxom, cheerful girls he danced with, just that there was no lechery or loucheness in his manner, only quiet pleasure.
And when they led him off the dance floor and let go his hands, there was always someone there to take them, someone waiting to shake his frail hand or lightly clasp his shoulder, someone to lean down and listen to him as he spoke in a voice I could never quite hear.
And, though he was surrounded by people all evening, in a way most of us would find quite exhausting, he never retreated, and I never saw him sit. More impressive, though, was the way he looked at all those who greeted him. He looked in their faces, as if he saw them, truly saw each one of them in a way few people can see.
As the evening went on, I kept glancing over at him, sure against the odds that I knew him. Then it hit me.
The little old uncle out on the dance floor was Studs Turkel.
I had just worked up the nerve to ask him for a dance…
(In those days, I was a pretty broad-shouldered and round-cheeked young niece myself, and in any case, something about his face, something in his look as if he knew and valued everyone who spoke to him, made me think he would accept.)
… So. I had just worked up the nerve to ask him for a dance when my date told me he had called for the car. We left. I never got my dance.
I’ve regretted that for years, and today I know that somewhere inside, I always thought I’d have another chance.
“The author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago symbol has died…. It is hard to imagine a fuller life.”

… he said with zest that when he “checked out”– as a “hotel kid” he rarely used the word “dying,” preferring the euphemism “checking out” and its variants–he wanted to be cremated. He wanted his ashes mixed with those of his wife, which sat in an urn in the living room of his house, near the bed in which he slept and dreamed.

He then said that he wanted his and Ida’s ashes to be scattered in Bughouse Square, that patch of green park that so informed his first years in his adopted city.
“Scatter us there,” he said, a gleeful grin on his face. “It’s against the law. Let ’em sue us.”

I hope his son follows through; if anyone belongs mingled with the soil and cement of Chicago, it’s Studs Terkel.

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