A repost, because somehow the subject of Mike Royko came up on Twitter. For many years he was my father’s favorite columnist. I remember him handing me the Opinion section more than a few times, saying, “Royko’s got a good one today.” Sometimes I got to return the favor.
For quite a few years, one of my favorite things in the newspaper was the syndicated column by Mike Royko. I loved his writing, and his style has come to mean “Chicago” to me in a very real way. Royko was also a favorite of my father’s, and one year for either Christmas or his birthday I gave my father a collection of Royko’s columns. I spotted another collection – or maybe it’s the same one – on the shelf at the library the other day (One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko), and I’ve been dipping into it with great pleasure. It’s a voice I’d forgotten about.
Royko’s writing, more than anyone else’s, evokes a newspaper for me. Often when reading him I can almost see him there, at a desk in a corner of some big newsroom in a big building in downtown Chicago, his typewriter keys clicking away while he smokes. I actually don’t know if Royko was a smoker, but his columns evoke an era when smoking wasn’t quite the demon it is now. His writing is the writing of a guy who haunted local taverns, and reading him makes me think of the smell of newsprint.
Royko was also perceptive and, in some cases, prescient, as when he wrote of Rupert Murdoch in 1984: “No self-respecting fish would want to be wrapped in a Murdoch paper.” I really wish he was still around right now; in this world of FOX News, a voice like Royko’s would be invaluable. He’d only be 79 today, if a brain aneurysm hadn’t struck him down in 1997. I’d love to know what Mike Royko would make of the state of journalism today, and the fact that one of the most important political commentators of our day – two of them, actually – are hosts of shows on a comedy network.
Royko could write gorgeous, lyrical prose, though, and this column of his — from November 22, 1979, on the occasion of the sudden passing of his first wife – is a prime example. I love how delicately he chooses his visual descriptors, which details to include and which ones to omit. I love the lack of proper nouns, and that he didn’t write this in the first person. The short sentences and short paragraphs are a Royko trademark, but they add up to a larger, and deeply beautiful, portrait in words of a beloved person gone too soon. A more loving tribute would be hard to think of.
The two of them first started spending weekends at the small, quiet Wisconsin lake almost twenty-five years ago. Some of her relatives let them use a tiny cottage in a wooded hollow a mile or so from the water.
He worked odd hours, so sometimes they wouldn’t get there until after midnight on a Friday. But if the mosquitoes weren’t out, they’d go to the empty beach for a moonlight swim, then sit with their backs against a tree and drink wine and talk about their future.
They were young and had little money, and they came from working-class families. So to them the cottage was a luxury, although it wasn’t any bigger than the boat garages on Lake Geneva, where the rich people played.
The cottage had a screened porch where they sat at night, him playing a guitar and her singing folk songs in a sweet, clear voice. An old man who lived alone in a cottage beyond the next clump of woods would applaud and call out requests.
One summer the young man bought an old motorboat for a couple of hundred dollars. The motor didnt’ start easily. Some weekends it didn’t start at all, and she’d sit and laugh and row while he pulled the rope and swore.
But sometimes it started, and they’d ride slowly along the shoreline, looking at the houses and wondering what it would be like to have a place that was actually on the water. He’d just shake his head because even on a lake without social status, houses on the water cost a lot more than he’d ever be able to afford.
The years passed, they had kids, and after a while they didn’t go to the little cottage in the hollow as often. Something was always coming up. He worked on weekends, or they had someplace else to go. Finally the relatives sold the cottage.
Then he got lucky in his work. He made more money than he had ever dreamed they’d have. They remembered how good those weekends had been and they went looking at lakes in Wisconsin to see if they could afford something on the water.
They looked at one lake, then another. Then another. Cottages they could afford, they didn’t like. Those they liked were overpriced. Or the lake had too many taverns and not enough solitude.
So they went back to the little lake. They hadn’t been there for years. They were surprised to find that it was still quiet. That it still had no taverns and one grocery store.
And they saw a For Sale sign in front of a cedar house on the water. They parked and walked around. It was surrounded by big old trees. The land sloped gently down to the shore. On the other side of the road was nothing but woods. Beyond the woods were farms.
On the lake side, the house was all glass sliding doors. It had a large balcony. From the outside it was perfect.
A real estate salesman let them in. The interior was stunning – like something out of a homes magazine.
They knew it had to be out of their reach. But when the salesman told them the price, it was close enough to what they could afford that they had the checkbook out before they saw the second fireplace upstairs.
They hadn’t known that summers could be that good. In the mornings, he’d go fishing before it was light. She’d sleep until the birds woke her. Then he’d make breakfast and they’d eat omelets on the wooden deck in the shade of the trees.
They got to know the chipmunks, the squirrels, and a woodpecker who took over their biggest tree. They got to know the grocer, an old German butcher who smoked his own bacon, the little farmer who sold them vine-ripened tomatoes and sweet corn.
They were a little selfish about it. They seldom invited friends for weekends. But they didn’t feel guilty. It was their own, quiet place.
The best part of their day was dusk. They had a west view and she loved sunsets. Whatever they were doing, they’d always stop to sit on the pier or deck and silently watch the sun go down, changing the color of the lake from blue to purple to silver and black. One evening he made up a small poem:
She told him it was sad, but that she liked it.
The sun rolls down
like a golden tear
What she didn’t like was October, even with the beautiful colors and the evenings in front of the fireplace. She was a summer person. The cold wind wasn’t her friend.
And she saw November as her enemy. Sometime in November would be the day they would take up the pier, store the boat, bring in the deck chairs, take down the hammock, pour antifreeze in the plumbing, turn down the heat, lock everything tight, and drive back to the city.
She’d always sigh as they pulled onto the road. He’d try to cheer her up by stopping at a German restaurant that had good food and a corny band, and he’d tell her how quickly the winter would pass, and how soon they’d be here again.
And the snow would finally melt. Spring would come, and one day, when they knew the ice on the lake was gone, they would be back. She’d throw open all the doors and windows and let the fresh air in. Then she’d go out and greet the chipmunks and woodpeckers. And she’d plant more flowers. Every summer, there were more and more flowers. And every summer seemed better than the last. The sunsets seemed to become even more spectacular. And more precious.
This past weekend, he closed the place down for the winter. He went alone.
He worked quickly, trying not to let himself think that this particular chair had been her favorite chair, that the hammock had been her Christmas gift to him, that the lovely house on the lake had been his gift to her.
He didn’t work quickly enough. He was still there at sunset. It was a great burst of orange, the kind of sunset she loved best.
He tried, but he couldn’t watch it alone. Not through tears. So he turned his back on it, went inside, drew the draperies, locked the door, and drove away without looking back.
It was the last time he would ever see that lovely place. Next spring there will be a For Sale sign in front and an impersonal real estate man will show people through.
Maybe a couple who love to quietly watch sunsets together will like it. He hopes so.
Yeah, I miss Mike Royko.