11/26/2013 11:18 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2014

A Studs Terkel Thanksgiving

I could do Thanksgiving alone. Lots of people do that.

Hanging up the phone, I could barely remember why she cancelled. Something about "needing space." But I was already getting ready to be a frozen turkey dinner tough guy. Remembering, from experience, that a shirttail doesn't work when you pull the hot tin tray from the oven.

There really wasn't anyone to call. It was Wednesday. Thanksgiving was tomorrow. I had already begged off on invitations from my two aunts because I had expected an out of town guest. And it wasn't like I had a phonebook full of friends to call.

Or even a scrap from the corner of a phonebook page.

This was back when people used phonebooks. A different time. Back when Chicago was a grid of streets and alleys colored only in history and shades of gray. Especially in the slippery shadow winds of November. Not like today when rainbow flowers spill out of the dividers between lanes of traffic and thousands upon thousands of trees have been planted.

Back then. The very late 1970's. Chicago was no longer the brooding black, railroad cross road muscle of manufacturing soot. The air had lightened to gray. There was a woman Mayor. A tough Irish lady named Jane Byrne had electrified the city by actually winning. Instead of stacking the souls of poor people straight up into the sky in housing projects, she was going to go spend a week in a housing project, Cabrini Green. Just over the line that marked where I felt safe to walk. I didn't know what I thought about her moving in to Cabrini Green for a week. But I knew it was different.

There was a sense that something was just about to happen in Chicago.

Late that Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, the city felt deserted. As if all the people had somehow been sucked into airplanes, like the one she would not be on, and blown out to Grandmothers' houses over a million different rivers and woods.

Best way to make sure I was ready for my Thanksgiving alone was to go for a walk. Having come from a family of walkers, I pretty much believed that going for walk was the way one got ready for anything.

So in the early grey glowing twilight, I set out into the empty streets and sidewalks, rounding first the school where I was a special education teacher. It had only been a few hours since we had closed up the education shop early. But people need touchstones when they walk and back then the school was mine. The school was one of the beating hearts of a neighborhood called Uptown.

In his classic book Working, Chicago legend Studs Terkel wrote about the school.

Back then, there were also streets in that neighborhood that were best not walked by all. But I had learned those streets trailing the guy who had hired me to be a teacher. His name was Pat. He started the school up in the late sixties himself. He started it as what was then called a "Free School." But as the neighborhood and the needs changed over the years, it became a special ed school.

The thing I loved about a classroom of 25 kids, teaching all subjects, was that in special ed, the kid came first, then came the subject. So if a kid started bouncing a basketball in the middle of social studies, I could coax the dribbler into a game of catch and then lead us all back to social studies as the ball flew back and forth. I didn't have to worry so much about rules.

Most important was that school didn't end at the walls of the classroom. Sometimes when kids didn't or couldn't show up in the morning, I'd follow Pat east on Montrose Avenue, turn left at Beacon, run to the back of a building while Pat started ringing doorbells. And then as the kids came rushing out the back door, I'd corral them and we'd all trudge back to the school.

But, on that long ago day before Thanksgiving as I walked east on Montrose, crossed Clark Street and looked north into those very same streets, even they seemed somehow deserted. As if a lonely tumbleweed could go blowing right through. No sign of any of my kids.

Still not dark, I wasn't yet ready to hole up alone for the holiday in my little yellow kitchen with the round table. So I kept walking towards the lake.

When all else fails, keep walking towards the water.

Walking alone would be good practice for being alone. I was still glad I hadn't attached myself to some gathering or another. The only thing worse than being alone was being alone in a crowd.

I could do Thanksgiving alone. Lots of people do that.

There was plenty of beer, football games, food I didn't know how to cook. Frozen dinners that were no problem. This was back in the time when a person could hum songs with lyrics about books and poetry and those were brand new thoughts.

Still walking, almost to the Lake, I turned right on inner Lake Shore Drive. And that's when I saw him.

As the last of that grey light was just about to fall, I saw the bright red and white checked shirt, like a walking beacon of hope, underneath the open gray raincoat.

Walking alone. Just like me.

It was Studs Terkel. Of course I knew who it was. Every single person in Chicago would know who it was. I had grown up in a house where Studs Terkel was always on the radio. I had to say something. We were the only people on the street. I had to say something. And I did have a connection. I really was a teacher at a school in his book. So I took a deep breath.

"Good afternoon or evening Mr. Terkel."

"Well good afternoon young fella. What brings you out on to these streets today?"

"Oh just walking." I told him my name and said, "I'm a teacher. I work at the Southern School. Pat hired me. I saw you come in once for a Board Meeting, but we never met."

"Ah a teacher!" he smiled in the deep warm gravel of a voice I had only heard on the radio. And if Pat hired you, you must also be a good teacher. Pat's in my book Working you know."

"Yes sir. I know. My copy of the book is very well read. And thank you sir. I guess I'm learning as I go. Schools over for the holiday now. Kind of empty out here."

"Ah," said Studs Terkel. "Empty? No. Keep listening. It's not empty at all. Especially for a young teacher. You just keep listening young man. You just keep listening."

The exchange took 5 seconds. It was more years ago than I care to count.

But I can tell you that even after all these years I still remember how good that frozen turkey dinner tasted.

And how not for one moment that Thanksgiving did I feel alone.