Chicago, Mike Royko

“Like a famished alley mutt, he digs away at the bone of truth”

Jerry Griswold

--

Chicago is most often called the Second City by people prepared to drive six hours rather than spend a weekend in their own part of the Midwest. Chicago also is a city where holding opinions is confused with intelligence, contrariness is taken as proof of individuality, and the metropolitan style seems hopelessly frozen in an era when everyone wore hats.

As proof of this last observation, consider how Mike Royko is presented by his publishers in his recent collection of columns (Sez Who? Sez Me!): cigarette butts spilling out of an ashtray, filthy coffee cups everywhere, a ratty cubbyhole they call an office, and a newspaperman in a crumpled shirt hunching over an old Remington typewriter. His beat is Chicago, and he knows more about barroom hangouts, backroom politics and bureaucratic pettiness than any palooka on the street. He has a heart of gold, a ready hand for the Little Guy and the love of a whole city.

Come on, I find myself saying, this is beginning to sound like a Bogart movie called “Dead Men Don’t Eat Quiche.” Nonetheless, mention soon is made of the stockyards, the old neighborhood, Nelson Algren, Ben Hecht, and all the rest so tiresomely familiar that one can only blush when Studs Terkel is dragged out to say that Royko is “like a famished alley mutt, he digs away at the bone of truth.”

To be sure, Royko acts the part, too. Consider: “So, I urged him to go back to his native Greece and find a nice girl who knows nothing of checking accounts, Bonwit Teller, property laws, Gloria Steinem, and tennis clubs.” Or “It was said that if Duke (a barroom dog) licked your hand, you could die of blood poisoning.” Or “Her late husband died of a Sudden stroke some years earlier while moving furniture. A night watchman in the furniture store had surprised him, and during the tussle he gave Billy Tom a terrific stroke on the brow with his club.”

On my part, I confess an uneasy suspicion of individuals who have bought into a stereotype, whose lives so lack flexibility that it is impossible to envision them outside their chosen cliche. And it is impossible to imagine, say, Royko transported to California, stripped of his cigarettes and rumpled shirt, put into jogging clothes and pushed…

--

--

Jerry Griswold

Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.