I met my good friend, Flats Slobnik—tuck pointer, softball shortstop, and professional Chicago everyman—at our favorite watering hole, Brzbchynski’s Tavern on Pulaski and Lower Wacker Drive. Karol Brzbchynski, a 300-pound ex-steelworker who resembled two clenched fists smashed together, manned the bar as usual, serving up shots of whiskey and mugs of Old Style garnished with kielbasas as big as your forearm. As we spoke, our buddies Cozmo Jamoke and Gerk Wuzniak were stomping the hell out of Mark Dollyhay, a 26-year-old grocery store bagboy who’d gotten handsy with Gerk’s teen daughter, Gerkia. Over the sounds of Dollyhay’s yelps, Flats said he was feeling nostalgic.
“Hey, remember Mike Royko?”
Sure. A giant in American journalism, Pulitzer prize-winner, and a true Chicago personality. I read his column faithfully from age 15 until he passed away in 1997. In fact, I just finished the latest collection of his work, The Best of Royko: The Tribune Years (Agate). Many writers, including myself, look to him as a paragon of style, wit, and guts.
“Yeah, I was just thinkin’ he’s been gone, what, 20 years now? And he’s due for a…whattyacallit? Retrospective.”
I’d say so, and this book is probably part of commemorating Royko two decades on. Not to be hyperbolic, but he was the quintessential newspaper columnist—up there with Jimmy Breslin, H.L. Mencken, and Molly Ivins—and the last of the old-style newsmen. If you cut Mike Royko, he would have bled ink.
“That’s gross. Why’d you wanna cut the guy for?”
Just an expression. If Royko had occasion to bleed, it would have been red, Chicago-American, utterly human blood—rich with empathy for the little guy and the downtrodden.
“And more’n likely 80 proof,” added Flats.
The man was known to tipple…and grouch..and quarrel…and act like a perfect ass now and again. He was also widely respected and fairly beloved, because he was the real deal, turning out a well-crafted and researched column a day every weekday. Royko wasn’t a flack for this or that political ideology, or a brand-flogging careerist. Not like some columnists I could mention.
“Whyncha mention them, anyways?” inquired Flats.
Well, this review is a parody/pastiche of Royko’s style, and he was loath to mention fellow journalists by name. Maybe it was like the old circus clown adage: “A knock is as good as a plug.”
“Yeah, but you’re writing this. Come on, just one columnist? Just between you and me?”
Oh, very well. Brooks, Dowd, Douthat…
“Yeah, I see your…”
Tierney, Kristol, Kristof…
“I get the picture, but…”
Cillizza. I mean, come on. What the hell? Cillizza. Cillizza.
I banged the bar counter with my fist.
“Geez, enough already!”
You asked. And I was just about to get to the Chicago columnists, like that cranky fellow who took Royko’s spot, but not his place. Whatsisname…
“I think he spells it K-A-… Uh, is there a Z in there?”
Again, I shrugged. I shrug a lot.
Anyway, these days more columnists prefer MoDo to Royko. Name-dropping, horse-race announcing, bad prognosticating, political soap-opera-writing access journalism. Read one of their twice-a-week columns and you’ve literally read them all. Certainly, Royko rehashed jokes, made too many “in MY day” pronouncements, indulged in bogus sociology, overdid the author surrogates…
“Hey!” said Flats. “I resemble that remark!”
Sorry, present fictional company excepted. But my point is, he didn’t cheat. Every day he produced a fresh column that didn’t sound like it was punched out by a Pundit-Bot™. No easy task when you produce 8,000 or so columns over a 30-odd-years career. You try talking for 30 years, or even 30 minutes straight and not repeat yourself. The Best of Royko reminds his old fans of the man’s originality, humor, and insight, while smoothly introducing him to folks who weren’t around during his heyday. His son, David Royko, curated the collection, and he has a good eye. He gathered a mostly evergreen group of columns—some remain relevant today, while others give an inkling of what was to come, locally and nationally. Royko was inarguably the sharpest knife in the drawer. Hell, he was a whole set of steak knives.
“Hoo boy, you were sweet on the guy, weren’t you?”
I’ll admit it: my Holy Trinity of essayists would be John Waters, Mencken, and Royko.
“Okay, but the guy wasn’t God though. Come on,” said Flats.
I don’t mean literally, Flats. But objectively speaking, yeah, the Royko connoisseur—or would that be the Roykonnoisseur?—knows his absolute best work came from his happy days at the defunct Daily News. If you can dig up the old collections like I May Be Wrong, but I Doubt It and Slats Grobnik…
“Yeah, hey, what now?” asked Flats leaning in to listen.
Sorry, no relation. Anyway, Slats Grobnik and Some Other Friends, do so. Or just check out The University of Chicago Press’ 1999 collection, One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko. Naturally, get a copy of his Daley bio Boss for Mike at his vintage bare-knuckled best. Early Royko was one stiletto of a staccato sentence after another; noir patter that resurrects all the sights and sounds and smells of old Chicago. A plethora of great takedowns of the corrupt goons, bureaucrats, and politicos who grow like toadstools in Chicago’s cracks and dark places
“Yeah, but what about that book you just read?”
I certainly recommend it. His wit and wisdom are present in abundance, and if any writer makes you feel like he’s right at your elbow, it’s Royko. This book strictly contains his Chicago Tribune stuff. Royko went from the Daily News to the Sun Times before ending up at the Trib, a work environment to which he never fully acclimated. But he endured and progressed, and as he got older, the bite and tussle remained, but he grew more fecund.
“Hey, pervert, this is a family bar!”
My apologies. I’m just saying his prose grew richer. Mostly. Sometimes he played the crank, the fuddy-duddy, or the know-it-all too often. But he was a craftsman, and at his best it was a joy to see him work. A few jewels turn up here. Bits like “In Many Ways He Earned His Wings”—his 1995 eulogy to Leslie Q. Lubash, a buddy since his days in the service, whom he thanked in the acknowledgements of Boss. Royko describes the stand Lubash took against a batch of Deep South racists in the 50s as the two returned to their base on a segregated bus. And “‘Good Old Days,’ Bad Old Attitudes,” an acidly ironic bit where his imaginary friend Slats…
“Not me,” said Flats.
Not you. Where Slats talked about how the 1990s Republicans’ pitch for “family values” appealed to him because it would bring back the days of spousal abuse, keeping women in the kitchen, and ostracizing illegitimate kids, all of which Royko, in his surgically sarcastic way, decried.
If I’m being honest, the book doesn’t offer anything as bring-you-to-your-knees powerful as his “A November Farewell”—the 1979 encomium he wrote to his wife Carol, who died at age 43—or as acerbic and funny as “Mary and Joe Chicago Style”—his take on the Holy Family coming to town for Jesus to be born, and finding only bureaucracy and misery—but there’s still largely good to great stuff here. The Vatican may want to consider making him the patron saint of Chicago, his main corroborated miracle turning out five columns a week.
“But the guy wasn’t so saintly after hours, hey?” said Flats.
Oh my, yes. Royko was a flawed creature, and it’s fair to revisit his nadirs as well as his summits to understand his work. People remember the hilarious tough guy who outsmarted and beat up every bully on the playground, before leaving to hit dingers in his softball league and guzzle drinks at the Billy Goat. In many ways, he was a perfectly imperfect personification of the City That Works.
On the other hand, while researching this, it’s amazing how many stories I encountered describing some fan coming close to throwing hands with Royko after encountering him. He got in trouble on-stage and off-, and dug in deeper when he should have dug out. Despite the book title, Mike Royko wasn’t always at his best. You can’t separate the wise curmudgeon in print from the real-life grouch.
“Huh,” grunted Flats. “Think he ever considered releasing a ‘Worst of’ before he died?”
Nonsense. He was pragmatic and had a wife, kids, and house in Winnetka to maintain. Per his son, he wanted to sell books, eventually retire, and write comic novels. Of course he didn’t get the chance to, dying of an aneurysm at age 64. More’s the pity for us.
“But what would it have looked like, you think?”
Sadly, it wouldn’t be slim. Plus, it’s hard to decide what’s bad versus silly or inconsequential or simply meh. He wrote prolifically about many subjects. Despite the collective memory of Royko the slayer of city hall dragons and diehard Cubs fan, he wrote plenty of goofy, slice of life stuff and corny bits on, say, hair loss, pranking people who called his office looking for the phone company, wacky fashions, and how much he hated small dogs. It got funnier when the the angry letters poured in, and he turned up his sarcasm to 11—claiming to enjoy baked Lhasa apso and such like. But even the nonsense was adequate, if dated now. Not the worst—just in-between piffle your mom clipped and mailed you at college. That’s what moms did before e-mail, incidentally. However, a true “worst of Royko” would catalog his bad moments, clumsiest routines, lowest jokes, and stubborn insistence on pushing stereotypes—though some show up in this collection.
Consistently, he wrote plainly, clearly, and with humor, and so-so Royko was often better than just about anyone else’s best. That remains one of his more impressive feats. Nowadays, you might get a column or two a week out of the New York high-hats, but Royko was a warlock, creating passable, unique, funny prose five times a week. And yet…remember Bob Greene?
“Why’d you remind me?”
Greene churned out a column a day too, mostly by recycling bits, chumming up with celebrities, whinging about “lost” America, revisiting his tepid Boomer youth, and getting his readers to write his columns for him. One week it was nothing but lists of happy thoughts folks mailed in. Every time Royko used a line from a reader’s letter, he answered it with two to three funny ones. Every day was original. Like I said, he didn’t cheat.
But there are columns I’m sure his fans would prefer people forget. Like his notorious, poorly conceived parody about Pat Buchanan that proved the validity of Poe’s law. Or when the Oklahoma City Bombing took place in 1995, and, in his anger, he advised bombing random Middle Eastern targets until “they” handed over the perpetrators. Then we found out the very non-Middle-Eastern Timothy McVeigh was behind it. One imagines how Royko would have reacted to 9/11.
“Probably would’ve advised rounding up and shooting Okies, maybe.”
Indeed. Then there were the digs at gay people. The book offers a mildly amusing bit on Chicago mayor Harold Washington mispronouncing potpourri during a conference as poopery. Mike took the time not only to suggest it was slang for a washroom in a gay bar, he called a local gay publication to confirm it, being told, “If that’s some kind of April fool joke, it isn’t funny.” Seems Mike still thought it was and ran it, which was unworthy of him.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Flats, “I hear ya. Folks need to remember that stuff too.”
Of course, all those lame Dr. I.M. Kookie and Asylumism bits should appear, lest we forget.
“Hey! Hey! Show some damn respect for the man’s memory!”
You’re right, I went too far. But credit to his son David, who compiled the anthology. Amidst the heart-tugging, knee-slapping, and nod-generating fridge door fodder, he included his dad’s wartier moments.
“Ah geez, like that time he got a DUI in Winnetka and ended up resisting arrest and calling them cops fa…”
I held up a hand, stopping Flats from uttering the epithet.
Yes, he didn’t endear himself to “the gays” that day either. The Reader’s Michael Miner interviewed him afterward, titling the column “Who’s Destroying Royko’s Rep?”.
“Seems like Mikey was doing a pretty good job of it himself.”
Yes, sir. And he wrote a beaut of a mea culpa through his column—truly humble and self-flagellating—that his son includes in the book. Today’s creeps could learn something from it. But the Miner piece concentrated on who leaked the arrest report to the press, and seemed to be talking to a Royko more annoyed than contrite, ending with a grudging apology for the slurs—“If gays and lesbians think they deserve an apology, OK, I apologize.” Perhaps Miner was being ironic with that headline.
Well, frankly I was surprised his son included a particular 1987 column, when a teen girl called him looking for the suicide prevention line. He went the tough love route—really just the tough route—telling her, no, she shouldn’t do it, but it didn’t affect him either way if she did, provoking a dramatic outburst in the girl followed by her hanging up. The rest was an account of Royko’s father-in-law’s Job-like life—losing a son and daughter, then eventually both his legs to diabetes—and optimistic attitude despite it. Inspiring, but I wonder what happened to that girl. I mean, when dad Royko says, “This might sound harsh” and son Royko provides a prologue saying “Yes, this one is harsh. Maybe too harsh.”, it’s a good bet it’s way too harsh, and padding it like that says you want to be harsh but don’t want blowback. Intentionally or not, you’re playing to the weed out the weaklings crowd. Maybe, later on, she said, “He’s right. It doesn’t matter”, but not for the better. I hope not.
Think the original column was harsh? Royko’s son didn’t add the following week’s “Death Wish? Then Spare the Self-pity” readers’ letters column. A couple of Northshore kids and a social worker argued one’s teen years are a difficult time of development, and being, well, old, Royko lacked perspective. That column practically snarled, and he curb-stomped them with the Greatest Generation’s trusty Depression/WWII/“I knew guys who faced death every day in Korea, and WE didn’t ponder suicide!” argument. He was joined by a couple of letter-writers who shared the terribly original idea that these “Nort’side” kids needed to get ditch-digging jobs, enlist in the army, or visit a vets hospital to see the courageous limbless warriors there. He should’ve thought that one out.
That was bad Royko: the reflexive crank. The old dude who worked hard and slaved to make a better life for the young, then hated them for it. For a guy who had a whole tool shed of writing techniques, he got out the sledgehammer more than once. Sometimes he wasn’t amusingly sarcastic. Sometimes he was just a dick, and it suggested the hangover lingered or his corns were acting up that day.
Sorry if that seems harsh.
In his honor, I refuse to mince words. Royko was always good, but he got extra crotchety in his last years. His logic, reasoning, and empathy were often replaced by a reactionary, “get the hell off my lawn” mindset that was always there, but usually presented in a measured, humorous, self-deprecating way.
Sometimes he typified another, more unpleasant Chicago. It’s a place where you decide that, sure, people knocked their kids around when they screwed up, but you turned out okay, so maybe there’s something to walloping people into goodness. You see the local criminal element of your youth as classier then today’s thugs, because they only engaged in light assault and battery and robbed other neighborhoods; gentleman bandits by comparison. Nobody in your neighborhood wore white sheets—eh, maybe someone scrawled an epithet on the sidewalk in front of a new black family’s home—but there was an amiable prejudice practiced by you and your fellow whites. You called your Polish friend a polock, he called you a mick, and you both called Vinnie down the street a ginzo. It supposedly “didn’t hurt nobody,” and you wonder why all the historically crapped-upon non-European ethnicities can’t just play along. I remember the bizarre lesson of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino: we can all achieve mutual respect if minorities meet old white bigots 99 percent of the way.
The vexing thing is, for a very long time, Royko managed to be old-fashioned and progressive, admitting things can change for the better. At his best, he was driven by common sense and fairness. He may have been a grouch, but he had ethics, calling out things we’ve only just started fighting. He recognized Fox News’ poison from the beginning. He covered racial profiling in Chicago and the ‘burbs before people had phones to record every interaction with the cops. He dabbled in stereotypes, but was consistent on battling discrimination. He preferred hootch, but saw the hypocrisy of the prohibition on pot. He thought returning abused kids to negligent and violent parents was insane, regularly fighting to dump judges that ruled that way. At his best, fairness and squareness formed the arch of Royko’s opinions.
But that’s why it’s weird that a guy with a soft spot for battered kids thought randy teens could be fixed with a slap in the face. Many of Royko’s pieces culminate in him reminiscing about the palliative effects of applied violence. Such as the time he got mugged, and was ashamed he wasn’t like his dad, who ran over a would-be thief with his milk truck (“I’ve Fully Paid My Victim Tax”), or his beefy firefighter brother-in-law’s “hilarious” threats of torture and murder to any boys who might besmirch his daughters’ honor (“A Slap in the Face of All Dads Is Recanted”). But the aggressive and regressive jokes were dated even in his time. As you read through The Best of Royko, you sense a man realizing the world often wanted little to do with his early ideals. But Mike had the confidence of age and the bully pulpit, so he roared.
“And he had lots and lots of straw men,” said Flats.
They all turn up in the book. Featherbrained Ivy Leaguers (“At Age 350, You Can Expect Senility”), shrill, politically correct liberal women (“Don’t Blow Smoke—Just Get Even”), any entertainer who wasn’t Fred Astaire (“Fred Astaire Was a Class Act to the End”)—Michael Jackson didn’t even measure up. Too much crotch-grabbing.
“Hey, don’t forget th’ Yuppies,” said Flats.
Ah, yes, the Yuppies—an interchangeable term with “Baby Boomers”. They were recurring faceless characters in his columns—unless he caught a real one being huffy and making a scene in a public place. Then he was merciless. Yuppie is also a collective term some old Chicagoans still use to describe the new young people in town, viewing them as invaders even though they’re mostly adult kids returning to the city years after their grandparents white-flighted—or is that white-flew? It’s weird to read Royko’s accounts of revisiting his Humboldt Park childhood home in the 80s (“Some Numbers Will Just Kill You”), when it was a crime-ridden druggie hangout, knowing gentrification was just ahead. He probably appreciated the turnaround, but hated it, because the yups brought it about. I don’t recall any of his writings on gentrification. I imagine he wanted renewal, but seeing his old working class ‘hoods turned into hives of boîtes, cafés, and charcuteries…I can imagine him saying, “No. Not like that.”
Facetiously, it seemed like there was more than one Royko at work on the column. Some folks considered him a wishy-washy liberal. Others thought he was a goose-stepping fascist. They were right, and wrong. Royko had as many layers as the onion that gave its name to his city. He was the common-sense guy, who could love the American flag but wanted gun control; who did his duty for his country, but never fell in love with war. Honestly, how many Roykos were there? Going back and forth between One More Time and The Best of Royko: The Tribune Years, I wondered if it was the same guy. Or guys.
You notice inconsistencies. In “Alderman’s Brain Is a Museum Piece,” he covered a 1988 Art Institute kerfuffle, in which a student displayed a painting of Mayor Washington in women’s underwear at a private art show, and Alderman Ernie Jones tried to have it taken down. Royko tut-tutted and indicated it wasn’t the alderman’s job to remove or say what’s art. Then we have “Young Artists Have Plenty to Learn,” back when artist Dread Scott, an Art Institute student at the time, displayed What Is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag? The work featured an American flag on the floor, and visitors could either stand on or beside it while writing their thoughts in a notebook. US vet groups and politicians were up in arms. (Side note: I actually saw the piece, and vets stood in line, taking turns refolding the flag if anyone put it back on the ground. Kind of anticlimactic, actually, and I think it made Scott’s point.) This time Royko suggested the Art Institute should hold its students to “standards of quality and decency and judgment,” equating letting Scott do such a thing with a med school allowing students to perform brain surgery, or a dean of journalism permitting a student columnist to write about the joys of pederasty.
“Jeez. I’m against disrespectin’ the flag too,” said Flats, “but that’s a leap.”
He often exaggerated for humorous effect, but still, not great. Of course the easy answer is, the first piece allowed Royko to bash a favorite target, Chicago aldermen, while the second let him trounce another favorite, supposedly pampered kids. But those bits were separated by just one year. Oh, and there are other Roykos too.
“More!?! Did Mike fall into a mimeograph or somethin’?” said an astonished Flats.
Maybe. Just one more example. Was the guy who wrote “Cops Threaten Law and Order” after being chased down by Daley Sr.’s nightstick-swinging boys in blue during the 1968 DNC the same angry coot who argued in 1984’s “Some Numbers Will Just Kill You” that we need more cops on the streets to tackle the gangs?
“Well, people change.”
People change, sure, and as folks grow older they often grow more conservative—Studs Terkel notwithstanding. Mostly it’s because they feel they have more to conserve. Maybe moving to the more conservative Trib—that bastion of squareness—infected him. Maybe Royko was just tired, and he thought the city he knew, imperfect as it was, was slipping away and becoming something worse. Maybe he felt responsible, then began to think someone else was responsible.
Why’d he get so crotchety? He didn’t. He always was, but his healthy cynicism metastasized along the way. At a guess, he was sick of being mugged, watching old political grifters replaced by new ones, seeing public morals and social mores fall, hearing the never-ending rain of bullets, and so on. I imagine him spending his life fighting the good fight, but eventually realizing it wouldn’t be fixed by the time he shuffled off. When that happens, you either give up, press on, or go full-on cranky pants, sliding into demands for stronger measures like the death penalty (though he went back and forth on that), more cops (though he wanted smarter, better-equipped ones, who honored their oaths), telling the young to nut up and shut up (though…actually, not much change on that one), and so on, and so on, again and again. I recently watched several videos of him speaking on news shows and elsewhere. It’s amazing how jaded and ornery he was, and at 50 he looked 70. He only seemed happy discussing softball.
“Geez, Kelly, this is a regular hatchet job! You read the book, right?”
Cover to cover. And it’s not a hatchet job, it’s an attempt to discern what made Royko great regardless. Remarkably, as I perused The Best of Royko, I remembered reading many of the columns the first time around. After 35 years, whole paragraphs have stuck with me. As I read One More Time and this book. I noted that while there may have been two or three overlapping classics, Royko’s output was such that you could read him for months without repeating a story—hell, a sentence, or, for that matter, an opinion or attitude. If most of us were to chart our thoughts every day, we’d be amazed how much our minds mutate. Royko was consistent, except when he chose not to be. Which was refreshing. At times, but not others.
“What the hell are you talking about?” asked Flats.
Give me 35 years and 8,000 columns and I can explain it better.
“Nuts to that,” said Flats. “Come on now, bring it home.”
Fine. I am not a fan of blind hero worship, but as a writer the man was nonpareil. Dozens of fine literature folks secretly, and not so secretly, would likely give up any number of body parts to write as succinctly and as lastingly as Royko. He was, as Hunter S. Thompson once described himself, a primitive. No profound academic or writing lab background to speak of. He learned in the trenches, and developed a style and voice that was inimitably Chicagoan, American, and him.
I remember someone arguing that Royko was an asshole, but he knew he was an asshole, which made him great. Which is dung. I say Royko was strongest when he knew he was capable of being better. Check out the gut-punch in “Windshield Wiper Lets in Some Light”. He scowls and waves off a kid wiping car windows at a Clark Street corner, then realizes later it costs him nothing to be kind. Closing sentence: “Then I went in the men’s room, looked in the mirror, and saw the biggest reason for it being a lousy, stinking morning.” Pow. Vintage Royko.
He was one of those writers who was so damned good, even detractors held off on criticizing him—and still do. But I wonder how long he would have lasted today? He enjoyed a pre-Internet journalism career for a very long time—passing away before everything became measured in clickthroughs, retweets, and likes. Imagine a time when someone had to bother writing a letter, stick it in an envelope, lick a stamp, and walk down to the mailbox; time since shaved down to nothing through e-mail and comments sections. It granted him a lot of power. He could decide whether or not to run your comment in his column, and he always had the last word, which meant, back then, he was always “right.” Now you can hurl invective at your least favorite columnists day and night. I’m not sure how Royko would have reacted to that. One pictures his perplexed then enraged reaction to an influx of “LOL U R GAY (Poop emoji)” comments beneath his column.
“Ah, you know he’d put his legmen and sources on it; track the troll to his home; ring the bell; then punch him in the mouth.”
I can’t see it. That’s an awful lot of teeth to rattle.
“Yeah, and his knuckles would give out, ruining his softball game. Mikey would never sacrifice that for journalistic integrity.”
Ultimately, I pondered, what did Mike Royko leave behind, will it last, and how will he be remembered? What fate do most columnists experience when they’re no longer there to feed the 900-word beast? Mencken wrote as much and more than Royko on politics, music, literature, society, and beyond. In the public’s mind, all we have left of him are cynical aphorisms turned into macros by those who fancy themselves rugged individualists. I remember a few of Molly Ivins’ digs at George W. Bush—something about “all hat, no cattle,” right? And poor Jimmy Breslin—I see only David Berkowitz’s doughy face. But Royko…?
You know, I road trip with my family a lot—mostly to state and national parks and small towns. One commonality is that every place has a local poet, philosopher, or lesser-known member of the literati, whose fame rarely escaped their region’s borders. I hadn’t heard of a single one of them, but they were locally venerated because they captured something ineffable about their home turf.
And that was Royko—Chicago’s grumpy old sage king. A cantankerous, courageous, sacred and profane knight in rumpled armor who personified a Windy City spirit and character we don’t see anymore. Most of the columns will age, but some won’t, because Chicagoans won’t let them, and because the best ones remain funny, fair, and true. Let’s just say he was a complete, flawed, but fully emerged human. A walking Windy City blizzard of intelligence, wit, anger, prejudice, compassion, bravery, crankiness, disgust, poetry, and passion. In short, a Chicago original.
We sat quiet for a while.
“So?” Flats finally asked.
“Aren’t you going to close out with a zinger the way Mike always did?”
Do I dare? He made it look easy, but it ain’t. Let’s just raise a glass to the man.
We clinked our bottles together.
“What a dick.”
But a complex, empathetic, and hilarious one.