The job of writing newspaper columns doesn’t come with instructions, just deadlines that fly at you in your sleep. I used to read Royko and Jimmy Breslin and try to break down how they did what they did, but I couldn’t crack the code. How could they make a word stand up on the page, or a thought linger? How could they say so much with lines so spare?
They knew the places they wrote about, and that was part of it. But only years later would I learn their real secret: They knew who they were, and they knew why they wrote.
Royko was a man’s man, as they say, a guy who loved baseball and bars, believed in his city, backhanded its fools and celebrated its anonymous heroes, always with wit and tough-minded certainty.
…It’s an interesting thing, the way a famous city columnist — whose very public job was to make readers feel like they knew him — kept his family life private. Maybe Royko understood the better story was out there in the neighborhoods and in the hopes and fears of others. When you fall back on family for material, you sacrifice them to your selfish needs and cut off your own escape from the public glare.
Or maybe there’s a darker explanation as to why Royko did not write about the woman who had so consumed him as a young man. David Royko suggests his dad got caught up in the superstardom that came with decades of writing five columns a week in a city he owned, and his marriage to Carol Duckman was not “a rosy extension” of his heartfelt letters to her.
It could be that Royko discovered he adored nothing more than the pressure of filling empty space, on deadline, to the cheers of a city that adored him. Those were love letters, too, all those thousands of columns, the brilliant ones and the forgotten ones too.
The job is a thrill, but a wise man once advised me not to overdo it.