DEATH GAINS A SMILE

Writing as a 65 year old man who grew up as a boy in Chicago, I noted two days ago the untimely death of a 64 year old man who grew up as a boy in Chicago. Mike Royko was his name, and we shall not see his like again. For thirty years, his voice was almost the sole organ of humor, pomposity pricking, and gently savage satire in American newspapers. A mixture of sentiment, cynicism, and truth permeated all his writing, and he exposed stuffed shirts in all walks of life. Yes, there are rich stuffed shirts and there are poor stuffed shirts: Royko justly treated them all the same by holding them up to the ridicule they deserved. He was everyone's mirror, mirror on the wall, and threw back our lies and self-deceptions, reflecting each wart and imperfection with incisive wit. For his pains and honesty, he was venerated by anyone capable of smiling at himself and the whole human race, and fiercely hated by those who couldn't.

Erudite New Yorkers and sophisticated San Franciscans don't grow up with the earthy and often bawdy humor native to a Mike Royko. Working underage as the bar-tending son of a Polish saloon owner, he developed an appreciation of dialect and the wry humor that later set his writing apart from that of everyone else. Better yet, he had the humility and malleable ego to make fun of himself and his own faults, which were legend. He took in stride the Pulitzer prize in commentary awarded him in 1972, and for most of his life never took himself seriously. Drink and women were both a joy and a burden to him, and in that he had the sympathy of every man-jack who boasts of normality. A sinner is most understanding of another sinner, and in this Royko gained almost universal popularity. He proved each day, five times a week, the adage, "Laughter is the best medicine," and was merciless in uncovering bureaucratic flacks, unethical power brokers, and the many disparities between common sense and our body of law. His straight-man routine as the foil of Slats Grobnick, that working man marvel of street-wise Polish wisdom, always left the reader shaking his head at Royko's parable for the day. No man since William Saroyan better wrote of the human comedy, not by thundering from a pulpit but by poking fun at himself and all of us.

Perhaps all of us Chicago boys think alike, but both Royko and I failed to understand the touchiness and incivility that has grown to dominate our culture and our society. People look for imagined slights and have lost the ability to take a joke on themselves, their ethnic group, their profession, their sex, or their religion. The lawsuit has replaced humor and common sense. America has fragmented into hundreds of strident groups that eagerly advance their own causes, while understanding nothing of those of their fellows. The sense of a larger community composed of immigrants melted down and ultimately melded into self reliant, freedom loving citizens who provide religious and cultural tolerance for all, has vanished. To an unfortunate degree, we have lost compassion for anyone except ourselves. But what I have just said from the pulpit, Royko voiced through the garbled syntax of Slats Grobnick, and his words stuck where mine will vanish. That was the quiet genius of Mike Royko.

None of us is perfect, and neither was Royko, but he amply made up for his shortcomings by his ability to see humor in the most desperate situations; he pointed out man's inhumanity to man while he made us laugh. If there is a celebration in the afterworld at the coming of a mortal, the laughter still rings and the angels of heaven have been brought closer to the devils of hell by the impish Royko humor that links them both.


Sam Orr sorr@metrolink.net
World Traveler
and Philanthrope
(Location Unknown)