About 25 years ago, Studs Terkel was waiting for a number 146 bus alongside two well-groomed business types. "This was before the term yuppie was used," he explains. "But that was what they were. He was in Brooks Brothers and Gucci shoes and carrying the Wall Street Journal under his arm. She was a looker. I mean stunning - Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus and carrying Vanity Fair."
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."
The occasion of the interview is that Mr. Terkel has a new book out entitled Touch and Go.