Friday, August 22, 2008
Mike Royko lives again!
For the last week, my old stamping ground, the Chicago Sun-Times, has been re-publishing decades-old columns by the late Mike Royko.
Old newspaper columns usually enjoy the half-life of a stray electron, but when they are by Royko -- America's last great daily newspaper columnist -- a surprising lot of them are worth rereading.
It's a smart move. The Sun-Times has chosen columns that celebrated the actions (or antics) of ordinary people and has made an effort to discover where these folks are today. In a couple of cases so far the result is anticlimactic, but in the larger scheme of things that doesn't matter. It's good to see Royko's stuff again and lament the sad facts that no one writing today could carry his water and that no corporate newspaper would employ a difficult personality like him today. He was a great talent, and he was also a mean-spirited drunk.
It's not costing the paper a dime to publish these columns, which they own -- not the writer's estate. That's a cool move in these budget-constricted times. And it's a way to catch the eye of geezers who remember Royko and perhaps get them to buy the paper again, although the younger generation won't care -- it's never heard of him. (Nor have a surprising number of young journalists.)
On Aug. 14 the paper published a 1979 column about a Polish immigrant with such poor English that the cops arrested him instead of the brutes who mugged him, endangering his efforts to get a green card. (He was eventually naturalized and returned to Poland, where he died some years ago.)
The Aug. 15 entry is a hilarious 1981 story about a homebound commuter who accidentally jumped a freight train and was carried 180 miles into Iowa, where he was arrested as a suspect in a cop shooting. (He successfully explained it all to his wife and is now a 54-year-old Chicago handyman.)
The 1979 column that ran Aug. 18 is oddly lame for a Royko column -- it concerned a veterinarian who made golf club handles from bull pizzles. (The business failed, but the vet is still alive in Minnesota at age 84.)
Many SUV owners today will identify with the Aug. 19 column, in which Royko -- who had just bought himself a gas-guzzler -- discusses the shame of driving a big car during a fuel crisis in 1979. (No follow-up needed to that one.)
The Aug. 20 column, from 1982, chronicled the troubles of a cop who favored gun control in the editorials he wrote for a police newsletter, running afoul of loud and well-organized pro-gunners and losing his writing job. (He regained it almost immediately, thanks to the column, and retired as a lieutenant in 1997.)
Yesterday's column, from 1979, told what happened when a Bloom High School teacher assigned his students to write letters to Royko after he savaged fan behavior at a rock concert. With glee Royko quoted illiterate and abusive passages, so embarrassing the school that the teacher was nearly fired. (His career survived, and today he's retired and teaches part-time at St. Xavier University.)
Good stuff for the most part. But you'd better hustle to read the foregoing columns, for the Sun-Times keeps them online only for a couple of weeks and is too broke to maintain an archive.