Saul David Alinsky. I knew the man. Slightly, it must be said - no long lunches or chats over cocktails and dinner, no strolls along Woodlawn Avenue, no meeting of minds during philosophical discussions.
Nothing of the sort. Still, I knew him.
My (now ex-) husband was Saul Alinsky's driver for a year or so in the early '70's. My husband, Barry, was a student at the Lutheran School of Theology on the South Side of Chicago at the time. As I recall, he answered an ad for a part-time driver, must own vehicle. He was hired.
Our vehicle was a Volkswagen bus, which Alinsky swore, often and loudly, was a Nazi plot to kill him. But that's where I met him. I was sitting in the back seat of that bus with my 3-year-old son, Christopher. Christopher had longer conversations with him than I did. Saul and Barry would chat about this and that. I rarely interrupted, but sometimes Christopher did.
"Be quiet! I want to talk now."
Saul would turn around, lean over the seat, and growl, "Shut up, kid. I've got 12 at home just like you hanging in the closet."
Don't ask me why, but Christopher remembers him fondly.
Most of the time, the driving was to or from O'Hare Airport, and sometimes my husband's classes conflicted with the time it took so I would drive him. I wish I could remember what we talked about. I remember having so many questions, so many ideas, so many ... whatever was in my head ... but I didn't ask, I didn't share. I didn't think any of them would impress Saul that much. I was probably right. And I can't remember any specific words of wisdom from him. I think he joked a lot. I'm sure I laughed.
I do remember meeting him one night as he came off a long flight from somewhere. He spotted me as soon as he came out of the ramp (remember when we used to be able to meet people right off the plane?), beamed a huge smile and wrapped me up in a bear hug. I was a little nonplussed, but managed to act as if this was perfectly normal. He kept an arm around me as we walked away.
"See that priest behind us?" he asked, as soon as we were out of hearing range. "He's been bending my ear for the last three hours and I just wanted to show him what I could get and he couldn't."
That was Saul. For anyone assuming that he was a socialist or a communist, he didn't like them very much. They lacked humor, he said. And he didn't trust people who thought they had all the answers.
I've never joined any organization—not even the ones I've organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it's Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what Judge Learned Hand described as 'that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right.'
I think it was sometime in April of 1972 - we were living in Green Bay, Wisconsin where my husband was working in television for the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay - when Saul called Barry from the airport. He had a couple of hours layover, he said. Could Barry meet him for lunch - or whatever it was? Barry went, they talked a while, and Saul flew away. Two months later he died.
I remember the Memorial that they held somewhere on the South Side of Chicago. It was huge. The place was packed. I especially remember one of the eulogies. I don't remember who gave it. It was hilarious, but it wasn't meant to be. The poor guy seemed to think it was up to him to rescue Saul from the charge of being an irascible son of a bitch. So he told a tale about the tears Saul had shed when his first wife died. So many tears, the man told us, that he had to have an operation on his tear ducts. I remember clutching the hand of my friend Michael, sitting next to me, so tightly he thought his bones would crack. I was terrified that I would burst out laughing. And if I did, it would be all up. I wouldn't be able to stop.
Because we all knew Saul was a softy. He was also an irascible son of a bitch. And if he was looking up from hell - where he said he would prefer to go, because the people there were his kind of people, because it surely needed some organizing - he would have an astringent word or two for his floundering friend.
So that was my friend Saul. He was one of those people you love. Unless you're on the other side. Then you tremble when you see him coming. Because you know things will change. Probably at your expense. You can thank him later.