Hanging up the phone, the balding man peers over his newspaper-strewn desk. ``What is this again?'' he asks gruffly. He scowls at the thought of talking about himself. ``You ask,'' he says finally, ``and I'll answer what I want.''
So begins an hour-long chat with Mike Royko -- newspaper columnist, consummate Chicagoan, crusader against everyday injustice. Five days a week he churns out short essays for the Chicago Tribune. In recent weeks, readers have been treated to: the story of a man who refused to pay 40 cents on a jammed toll road and went to court about it; the nuisance of people who, trying to reach AT&T, forget to dial 1-800 and reach Mr. Royko's office instead; the trials of giving up cigarettes, which the chain-smoking
columnist is now trying to do.
For 22 years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist has tickled and taunted readers with his views on the world. On this particular day, he talks at length about covering Chicago.
``If all four television stations -- their news departments -- went on strike, it would have no impact whatsoever on the way we cover news. But if the newspapers suddenly shut down, there would be panic in the newsrooms of the television stations.''
Commenting on the Chicago Sun-Times, which he left abruptly when Rupert Murdoch bought it two years ago, Royko says, ``They were a bunch of thugs. . . . They tried all their tricks and it was a total disaster. It's still a very cheap newspaper.''
With this kind of bluntness, Royko has attracted a growing number of readers -- he's now syndicated in 374 US newspapers -- and they respond in interesting ways.
A county bar association in Nebraska so liked a column blasting a state Supreme Court decision that it made Royko an honorary member. After several Royko columns about people calling his office for phone service, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts wrote in to say that his own office number was frequently confused with a seafood restaurant. (AT&T, perhaps embarrassed by the publicity, took out a quarter-page Tribune ad in October to apologize to Royko.)
``I don't have any particular crusades,'' Royko says. ``Very often events decide what you're going to write about.''
Like toilet paper. Wade Nelson, a former Royko assistant, recalls the time the columnist received two rolls of toilet paper in the mail. A lawyer was charging that the city's county-court building stocked a softer brand in the judges' restrooms than in the public facilities. When Mr. Nelson checked it out and found it was true, Royko ran a column on it.
``The reader will sometimes get the impression you're shooting from the hip -- which isn't a bad impression to give, because that means you're reading pretty briskly,'' Royko says. ``But behind the column of that type, there's generally a pretty thorough job of reporting that protects you from having to be sued for libel or having to apologize.''
``He's absolutely the consummate reporter,'' says Daryle Feldmeir, a former editor of the Chicago Daily News, where the column began in 1963. ``I'd walk into the office and say: `When are we going to be in court?' `Forget it,' [Royko would answer] `I've got so much on the guy.' ''
In the heyday of Chicago's political machine, Royko took frequent potshots at the city's politicos. His 1971 book, ``Boss,'' detailed the power of Mayor Richard J. Daley and helped elevate Royko to national prominence. It was an era Royko clearly enjoyed writing about.
``It's not as much fun [today],'' he says of the current battles between Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and his arch foe, Alderman Edward Vrdolyak. ``Neither of them have a position that's unique in American politics. Daley did. Daley was in modern times the last of the old-time bosses and, in a sense, the first of the modern, big-city managers.''
Some readers note a change in Royko's writing. ``There are very few people who have done so well for so long,'' says Ralph Otwell, a former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, where Royko worked after the Daily News folded in 1978. But, ``I liked Royko much better when he was a little more of a reporter. . . . He became a columnist who just commented on the news rather than digging out the news himself.''
Often gruff to outsiders -- he dubbed the Australian-born purchaser of the Sun-Times ``the Alien'' -- friends say Royko is warm and loyal to those he knows.
``The public doesn't see it. And he probably wouldn't want them to,'' says Mr. Feldmeir. ``He's a pure Chicago ethnic. These are his roots and he doesn't forget it.''
What is Royko's place in American journalism?
``He's a very, very exceptional journalist, with an uncanny ability to think and feel along with his readers,'' says James Hoge, former editor in chief at the Daily News and the Sun-Times and currently publisher of the New York Daily News. ``Mike has a . . . common-sense view of the world from the perspective of the little man.''
Royko -- ever the healthy cynic -- takes the accolades in stride. ``You really can't take flattery or criticism too seriously,'' he says. ``We're talking about a newspaper column. Costs two bits. . . . I'm just part of it.''
Fellow Chicago Tribune journalist Bob Greene talks about his new book, ``Cheeseburgers,'' Page 23.