TO: Mike Royko
FROM: An admirer
Dear Mr. Royko:
Over the years, I have received many letters from readers. Quite a few begin this way. “I’ve never written to a columnist before . . .”
Tell you the truth, Mr. Royko, neither have I. It took your death to get me to write you now.
I thought it was important, even if you can’t read this letter, because what you wrote in your column, year after year in several Chicago newspapers, was very good. It set a bar in this business. Few of us ever pulled our heads as high as that bar, let alone our chins or elbows, but the effort was important. You inspired it.
I had hoped to meet you when I was younger, when I read your collection books until they were tattered and frayed at the edges. Then I made my way in journalism, got a column of my own and met people who knew you in Chicago.
“What’s he like?” I asked.
Invariably, the answers were bad. “A grouch,” some said. “A jerk,” said others.
And I decided that meeting you might shatter a certain picture I had in my mind. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want anything spoiling the joy I felt in reading your column, especially one of your “good ones.”
You know which ones I mean. When you gave it to the bureaucrats, when you exposed some nutty yuppie trend, when you exposed the justice system for what it is — a towering inferno of confusion.
I remember one column where a cab driver chased a guy who took off without paying his fare. The cabbie tackled him, and the crook sued him for assault — and won. I was infuriated when I read that. But that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?
You always found stories like that. Everyday people suffering everyday lunacy. It’s what we all should be doing in this business. Not writing about things under our own roof, not contemplating our navels. People. Real life. In 40 years you never ran out of subjects. I wonder where all those people will go now?
A pox on New Yorkers
You never needed big words. You never forgot that buying a newspaper does not require a college degree. So you used no flowery phrases. No Shakespeare. Despite that — or maybe because of it — your sentences always hit home.
Like the way you described your hometown, Chicago: “It was built by great men who demanded that drunkards and harlots be arrested, while charging them rent until the cops arrived.”
Or why you disliked New Yorkers, “most of whom are intellectual con men, professional wise guys, or self-pitying whiners. Furthermore, most of their legendary cab drivers sound dumb.”
You loved endings; nobody did them better. You knew a great column is like a rainbow with a pot of gold at the bottom.
So you wrote that advice column when Charles and Diana got married, a serious piece right up to the last line: “Remember: squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom.”
Or the column about the right age to start drinking: “If they think they’re having fun, they’re not old enough.”
Or, my favorite, the column about the thug named Adolpho who had allegedly raped a woman. Adolpho was a gang member. (“I’m not sure which gang,” you wrote, “The Insane Idiots, The Moronic Madmen. . . . It doesn’t make much difference. A spray can is a spray can.”) Adolpho had a gold chain pierced through his private part. And because the victim, in her trauma, could not recall this chain, the man was set free.
In your final line, you suggested justice might only come if the price of gold went up, and “a thief will grab Adolpho’s gold chain and run like hell with it.”
I still laugh when I read that.
A fitting tribute
You were not without your prejudices, but a columnist never is. You were, at times, chauvinistic, pro-alcohol, anti- youth. But people knew where you came from. You wrote how you felt, not what you thought people wanted to read.
Like the time you wrote about John Belushi, who was an old family pal and who called you “Uncle Mike.” The night he died, you wrote a heartbreaking column. And when people criticized you after his death was found to be drug-related, you fired back. You stood by your friends.
You dealt with crime, politics, sex — even sports. I still have a column you wrote about baseball, which began: “A former New Yorker was talking to me about how great the Yankees are, how they will win, blah, blah, blah, so I told him to shut his big fat New York mouth.”
How could anyone not read the second paragraph of that?
You defined what a column should be — not about the writer, but about the subject, and the point. So I would like to leave you with a final appreciation. And in the spirit of your kicker endings, Mr. Royko, I try my best right now:
Anyone can fill up space in a newspaper. Very few can leave a hole.
You will be missed.