Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Listening Closely to Your Town,
Or Why Feagler Ain't No Royko

'Dick Feagler is to Cleveland what Jimmy Breslin is to New York and Mike Royko is to Chicago.'
--from a back cover blurb of
Dick Feagler--Is it Just Me?, the most recent book collection of his columns, originally quoting Cleveland Magazine

Some years ago, I became obsessed with the idea of profiling Mike Royko, the reigning voice of the Windy City, Chicago, where I had recently lived for a year.

The guy just flat out fascinated me. The voice was unmistakeable Chicago, all midwestern nasal inflection and Polish-American working class. His columns-with all their hokey devices, like his penchant for quoting his fictional/composite buddy "Slats Grobnik"--hooked me, as they had hooked millions of readers before me. As I began reading more about him, I became even more interested. He'd learned his trade not the way succeeding generations of yuppy reporters had, by going to school to study "journalism," but by staying up all night to read a book about journalism in preparation for an interview the next morning for a position writing for the paper at his Air Force base. After he became a household name, a national voice, the Washington Post tried to lure him there, with no luck. He turned them down flat, telling them that all the material he would ever need was right there in his hometown of Chicago.

But amid all that scattered backround I picked up about the guy, I also noticed that no one had ever seemed to be able to gain enough access for a comprehensive, warts- and-all profile. That's what I hoped to write.

I had been lucky enough, before and since, to get to know and even write about several other veteran writers I lionized. Looking back now, I realize that it was a crucial part of my self-education, of my learning curve as a writer. I wanted to get inside these eminent heads and better understand how they saw the world and how they pursued their craft. I knew I'd emerge with plenty of ideas I could quickly put to use myself.

It worked with everyone but Royko, who remained the elusive quarry, the one who got away. And yet in one brief telephone exchange with him I still learned something crucial that I've never forgotten.

One day, I decided to call him to ask for an interview. I dialed the main number for the Chicago Tribune, asked for his office, and waited to be switched over, expecting an assistant to take the call. Instead, the columnist answered himself, gruffly barking into the line, "Royko here."

I was taken aback at first: after all, I'd learned through some of that background research that he employed two fulltime research assistants. Why didn't they screen his calls for him? Before I got off the phone (after he had politely but firmly declined my request for an interview) I had to ask him about that. To this day, I remember his answer as if he had told me just moments ago. "Because I've never been able to train someone to listen for what I'm listening for."

I've thought of that pithy answer of his many times in the years since, because I think it explains, in the simplest possible way, what separated him from most of his competitors, how he remained fresh and interesting even after decades of doing the same thing. The fact that he was still reporting, still listening after all those decades (and especially to average people, readers who would call to congratulate or excoriate him, or perhaps offer a story tip) kept him fresh. That freshness worked its way into his writing, which in turn had its effect on readers.

Plain Dealer columnist Dick Feagler has been a household brand in Cleveland almost since 1963, when he began working at the erstwhile Cleveland Press, the working man's afternoon paper. For much of that time, he could write like a dream. He understood the town as few others did, deftly tapping into its soul before spinning prose poems on deadline.

But the years haven't been kind to his work, despite outward appearances. He's ubiquitous--besides the thrice-weekly PD column, he has a weekly show on PBS affiliate WVIZ and regularly makes appearances on NPR affiliate WCPN. Regional book publisher Gray & Co. has helped raise his profile immensely by publishing four book collections of his columns, which allow him to regularly barnstorm the region, doing book signings and other public events, which are only thinly disguised chances to hawk his books.

Perhaps because he's spent so many years playing the rubber-faced common guy columnist on local TV, a medium to which he was first lured during a long newspaper strike, he's come to internalize that cartoon version of himself. I remember once sharing an elevator with him after one of his talks, and he couldn't stop manically yammering to the two other people in the elevator about nothing much. They rolled their eyes at me, as if to ask for help in escaping this crazy person. Royko occasionally went on the tube too: I remember him on the local Chicago news, calmly sitting behind a desk, cracking not the first glimmerings of a smile as he cooly dissected whatever issue he was being asked about. He also wrote books, but rather than warmed-over collections of his columns, he wrote a book-length study of municipal corruption that's still considered a classic today.

And yet, without his even sensing it, perhaps, the torch has passed. Feagler is no longer the pre-eminent voice of his town, and I think it's because he's been too busy talking and playing a part to really listen to the town anymore (for years, a note at the end of his column invited readers to leave voicemail messages for him; at least it was truth in advertising, making it clear there was no chance you might get ahold of him in person) . For national audiences, Harvey Pekar better embodies Cleveland's tortured soul, with Feagler hardly registering beyond the region. Want proof? When Michael Feldman's popular national NPR show Whad'Ya Know? came to town, it tapped not Feagler, but his fellow PD columnist, the Pulitzer-winning daughter of the working-class, Connie Schultz, to stand in as the voice of the town.

Don't get me wrong: Royko was anything but a perfect man. By some accounts he didn't finish life strong. Less than a year before his death, the Wall Street Journal reported on its front page that his drinking problem had lead to much trouble, including ugly arguments with traffic cops who pulled him over on suspicion of DUI, incidents in which he tried to bigfoot them with his celebrity. But I've long since forgiven him his imperfections. He taught me something about journalism and the art of listening that I'll never forget.

How I wish the pretenders to his throne could somehow manage to learn something from his work ethic.


At 12:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John: I have to admit that I rarely read Royko. Certainly, he probably captured Chicago and Chicagoans, as Feagler also sometimes did Cleveland and Clevelanders.

I'd have to ask, and maybe you know, did he write much about racism and the problems of blacks and about low income people, with passion in a city rampant with both?

At 12:40 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Now that you mention it, Dr. Bartimole, he didn't touch on that much in his column. But that amazing book of his about Boss Daley certainly diagnosed how and why the urban political machines of the middle 20th century got away with ignoring, or at least papering over, those problems. And remember, he was a man of his time and place. The fabled Chicago Reporter--which still exists, and which is related by bloodline lineage to our own Catalyst Cleveland, which covers schools--surely covered that beat like crazy toward the end of his career.

At 1:03 PM, Blogger Jill said...

Nice post, John. Thanks for sharing.

At 1:09 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for visiting, Jill.

At 1:21 PM, Blogger George Nemeth said...

Loved Royko. Read him every chance I could. Loved Slats too.

Your description about him being Chicago is dead-nuts. Anyone spending anytime there knows it like the know the wind blowing down Lower Wacker Drive.

Nice work, John.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

George, thanks for stopping to comment. But note for your virtual female fans: you look even better in person. You, too, Jill...

At 11:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, this is just my opinion, but you are amazing.

I may or may not have said it before, but you have just a wonderful grasp of things.

I truly admire your perspective and your prose - you are an absolute gem on the Cleveland writing scene.

Keep it going! Just awesome.

At 8:19 AM, Blogger Daniella said...


I appreciate this post very much even though I must admit I have no idea who Royko was but your portrait drew a strong image in my mind.

It is also a reminder that writing is a contact sport.

At 7:44 PM, Anonymous Dan McGraw said...

I went to school and lived in Chicago during the late seventies and people were always talking at bars and restaurants about what Royko was up to that day. Love him or hate him, they were talking about him. And newspapers have lost that. After all the consolidation so that most cities are one-newspaper towns (one only one entity that looks for news), publishers do not think about content as a reason people pick up the paper or go online. They still think people come to them for the ads. Thye still don't get that people find ads elsewhere now. Hence, they have no dinstinct voice, and the publishers and the business side have not thought about content for such a long time they are incapable of making good judgments. The internet or platform access is not killing them. They are killed because they have nothing much of interest to put on the platform. And they still don't think voices like Royko's had have any real value.

At 2:31 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

How sadly true, Dan. And how interesting that the two best pieces of writing I read this week were by former Cleveland Edition people.


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