Smiler Coogan and Radio Steel

"In keeping your contrived Home firm, wax fictive.
"Entertain local mysteries;
      pull up short of Knowing Too Much
"Else you shall be forced to depend on nuns to keep God
      polished—for
"Whatever you talk much about, you shall never do yourself, nor have,
"Nor Be."

                  —the Maniac

I

And there are the bronzes and the coppers, and many
      kinds of metal, but there is only one dubbed "Radio
            Steel"—on a sign out Grand Avenue
                  way, its three-ply face hawking jobs to traffic, thus:
"Save Gas—Work Near Home and Walk
      to Your Job." Radio Steel seems
            to have an agreement with the Milwaukee Road spur
                  that cuts the road at that point:
"We'll invoke a boxcar, or three, if you'll send through a
      train, by and by, block the street, and make the motorists read our
            sign," which is exactly what the drivers do, in favor
                  of chewing their nails to nubs.
And so it's well that right there, the spur seems high-handed
      and yet so vital with movement, but its mechanism is
            on a hair more aboveboard than that of the boy I saw, one
                  fourth of July, walling Lawrence Avenue with a
                        trail of gasoline-become-fire.
(And of that same railroad spur, I can tell you that I have
      mused at its right-of-way further north athwart Belmont; I have
            asked my father of the last time he saw its grey
                  night-trains slink across Irving Park Road into
                        the spike-fenced grounds of the State
                              Mental Hospital, choosing dark in which to
                                    go there so as not to be peered at
                                          by "respectable" folk and wondered about
                                                as Possibly Insane.)
"...Work Near Home...And Walk To Your Job." How fine it
      looks on paper! But you'd live in the shadow of a
            fell Something, maybe: would the image of its whistle
                  smite thy front door in the morning when that
                        day's Sun's youngest shadows are born long?
                              Nay, separate business and pleasure, young son, or would you feel
                                    none the more bizarre in bringing home a cube of salt
                                          from the mines for your sweaty children to lick? Do
                                                not toil on a mountain and live in its valley,
                                                      else a Sunday glimpse of the summit will bring
                                                            Friday's aches to Mass.

Near either Radio Steel or Smiler Coogan's could have
      stood, then, as could it stand near any homespun
            institution, or any charmingly rumpled burg—a one with
Neighbors and the First-Prize Roses On Display—
      that classic-of-classics sign:

"If you lived here, you'd be Home by now."

II

"I have wondered about that place next door. That place
      called Radio Steel. Why do they call it that? I was
            not aware that the construction of radios
                  required so much metal—I thought that, these days,
                        the main ingredients to a radio were silicon, and
                              carbon, and Asian sweat, maybe.
"I have owned this saloon for thirty years
"And my neck has cramped solid in staring at their
      Sign, and no one has come over to offer me a
            buck for some drinks, no one has come across
                  with some 3-in-1 to oil me free of being
                        hypnotized by their Sign,
"Much less to schlepp over a cube of some fine blue
      High-Carbon for my taste—ha! How like an Atwater-
            Kent—
"Their Radio Steel."

So Coogan's place with its fug
      is replete with a Smiler agog at the Mystery just
            to the left and across the tracks:
                  Your drink, watching the traffic cruise by, and the Sign,
                        are what he knows as pleasure;
                              For business, there is an exchange of silver,
                                    compatriotism through the sad veil of ethyl, and
                                          watching for movement through the crevice of a
                                                blouse;
And he figures that if he were meant to know the rumors behind
      the faces, and the story behind the Sign,
            he'd have known 'em by now,
And this would, after all, be Home.

"This is not my Home if I cannot know everything about
      it—why such things are so named. I damn
            well feel like packing it in and jumping a freight
                  to Madrid,
"This discontent with the the way Our Things are contrived to
Seem
"Being all I am allowed to know. A philosopher type
      once came in here—and to this day I think he though he
            was a pay-telescope masquerading as a man—
                  and said he knew the natures both of beasts Radio
                        and Steel, which he'd gladly spout to Whomever It May
Concern but for the gift of a drink.
"Having such low overhead, I complied.
"'Radio's lie is a mystic-filled sky,' quoth he, 'that
      brings its Greener-Grass-Elsewhere curse Here to
            roost, with a promise of Mystery far better than
                  the routine of any familiar Home; far, certainly,
                        in a literal sense; and seemingly eternally
                              New and Now, and drawing its very power over the
                                    likes of you,
"'Through its vast inscrutability.'"

"And steel?" said I. 'And Steel,' he went on, 'holds
      you because it is forged by other humans' hands; nay,
            you so wholly acquiesce to its contrivance because
                  it can be touched, licked or sniffed, yet demands nothing. Even
                        though it is not of your particular hands, you sot,
                              it somehow smacks of Here and of Home—
"'For it is Here, utterly; and Of Us, certainly, and tangible, and it is only Steel,
      after all, pulling no tricks of distance, no promises of elsewhere, just being
            panhuman Steel, thick and good, singular in itself,
                  and alone. You gladly trust your life to Steel, eh?
"'For it waits brainlessly for purpose, to be imbued with
      meaning—Steel can be stamped, drawn, boxed. And
            how many in our Continuum of Clowns would seek to so
                  leave their Mark!'"

"And the two together?!" cried I, plying him liberally
      with more and more leveling drink.
"'A poem,' said the maniac, 'I wrote once under similar
      duress:
"'"Pecksniffian in mien, a liar-wave from Afar I knew
      cut through me like wind, and bid me wait, unsure
            of Here, and afraid. Said, 'I am real, I am
                  real; I put the bee now in thy heart, of Home
"'"'There's no Escape—'"'"

"'"'Forge a promise from Afar into metal; call it softly
      to yourself. You shall not avoid
            being swayed.'"'"

III

      Smiler'd serve you with his head sprung
            on his neck of crazed metal
                  And talk of Never Being Able to Know.
                        As the afternoon grew old, the shadow of that factory
                              would fall across his door, and in his discontent
                                    he'd sigh,
"Blindness could easily lead to wisdom."

One day, there was an altercation when one of his clientele
      tired of Smiler's forte with Steel, his ceaseless
            wondering about Radio, and the captious fellow
                  roared, "Why don't you just march across the
                        tracks and ask?!"
Said the wistful barman, "Oh, I'd be Home, oh it's hard
      to tell
            when things'll quiet down in me and cease being a
                  circus. What's this stuff about Radio Steel?—
                        the two words don't belong together. I
                              was born with a Grin—I was fated
                                    to serve Man. Movement
"Is what I dream, not what I was meant to know. If
      I had no such monomania, I should be forced to
            drink what I sell.
"And if I asked, and Found Out, then this good lounge's
      fire would fade, and I could change my personal
            metaphor to "imago cicada," fly, and you would
                  call this Coogan's Bar my hunched nymph's
                        empty shell. But
"You do not understand. You do not understand—you
      drink. Same difference. If you hadn't the ethyl,
            you would have need to understand.
"It's cheaper, though, and less wear and tear on a soul
      than is a stung heart, to drink—
"And helps my overhead!"

The fellow was somewhat mollified. "Keep thee in business, then,
      bard, and pour another round. But will
            you ever shut up?"

Said Smiler: "You could always leave, but you don't. What
      I talk about at length I shall never have, nor do,
            nor ever Be. I am well-known about these parts
                  for Hating My Lot; I am an institution of
                        Discontent in a land where to live near
                              such a celebrity, one of any familiarity
                                    at all, smacks wonderfully of Home.
Thus, you are here.
"You're not really so happy with the kids and your first-
      prize roses as it might appear? But through some sort
            of praise, both at home and abroad, you are
                  Reinforced.
"It's certain that, if you had my saloon right next door
      to your house, say, you might be tempted to ask me for
            a few shots To Go, and so risk introducing the
                  kids to ale. No. You aren't entirely happy with
                        your Lot, maybe, but through the spell of me and that
                              liar-glass in your hand, you drink, and
                                    forget, and I complain, and we all laugh.
"Keep your discontent, your Hate, here—where it remains
      liquid; where we all Laugh. And so you drink, and I
            understand. And of my bleating?"

"Consider my storied Discontent to be Radio, a
      discontent you never so voice and are therefore sentenced
            and damned to Live. It touches you;
                  you then stamp it into something Real, my
                        radio-tale of Discontent—into the Steel
                              of the nerves you think that drink in
                                    your hand shall grant you, perhaps.
"Why do you listen at all to me?—because, like Radio,
      you infer, because of the mere fact that I
            spoke up and contrived a complaint to broadcast
                  to you at all, that it was intended to be heard by
                        someone and Believed, and so you make
                              a most beautifully human mistake:
"You empower it to run all the barriers you otherwise have set before your heart—
      you believe it!
"Like Steel, though, my Story is familiar, and of Someone
      Like You, and Human, and tangible, and Here. Radio Steel. So you stamp
            it into yourself, and are damned
                  to try to Live it. And so you entrust it with the
                        expression of your Life, eh? My story? Oh,
"'Forge the idea of a promise of a better Afar into
      Your-Made-Metal.' Doesn't my story seem far more
            eloquent that you could contrive to tell? And wasn't
                  gin made by People? Yes. But there are
                        hundreds of such Radios and Steels, none
                              of them alien enough to ignore. Which of each is yours?
"Give it a name speakable by Man-Tongues. Each of
      you, now:
"'Call it gently into yourselves. You shall not avoid being
      swayed.'"

"Do you want another tale, another drink? I don't say
      I believe in God, else some far fell nun would
            see fit to step in to polish His name for me,
                  because, once having spoken such a belief,
                        I'd be sentenced and damned barren of it.
"I and my good spirits: you must come Here to kill
      yourself; you must go Home, however mean it be, to
            Live. Keep them separate; keep spirits out,
                  keep unspoken lived Love in thy house, keep
                        the lamb's blood fresh upon thy door. It's
                              obvious that I could run across and
                                    Ask, And Be Told, but that's not
                                          the idea—
"I would be miserable, then, without some sort of nurtured
      Mystery. And might you, perhaps, outside of the
            dark of my bar, consider me as Possibly Insane?
                  —but mine is not the commonplace madness
                        you see up north at Chicago State:
"My craze is more ad-hoc: it is Singular, and Here, and—
      though the same could be said of that less-singular madness—
            built, quite specifically for a Purpose, by touchable,
                  human, hands.
"Therefore, desist in thy lunges with the 3-in-1, Compatriot;
      there're no other signs I'd rather read
            than Radio Steel, and thee;
"People are built
      not of what they say,
"But of what they Know and See."

IV

Merely with the tinder of one company's odd name, a smiler
      named Coogan keeps Home firm, and its fires burning;
            waxes fictive.
Entertains local mysteries;
      appears to pull up short
            of Knowing Too Much—
"Do not drink what you sell."

"Nuns would have no jobs if we truly Believed.
"Whatever you talk much about, you shall never have, nor
      do,
"Nor ever Be."

The deal's still on, of sorts, but a sign is, after all,
      still only a sign—and painted by Men, not
            sublimated from some Far inscrutable wind. How many of
                  us would trust nothing of what our neighbors say
                        yet infer the Expression, however cryptic, of
                              The Hand Of God from the art apparent
                                    in frost?

So the traffic is a bit less irregular on Grand; the Milwaukee
      Road spur dies back, as it has been doing for
            years now, through the sleepy magician's-hands
                  of timothy, milkweed, and attrition;
And most of Chicago State is closed to the ramblings
      of the mad,
            as even they had apparently learned, in time, to demand
                  a more-decent Home through a certain kind of Silence. And they
                        are safe,
And they are gone, and there is no knowing where.

But it is not necessary to Know to be able to Love.
And no one who is from Radio Steel ever admits to
      it while at Smiler's, and he is a man who sees a
            good deal of one thing and broadcasts another, and
                  asks even less; so his loved world is safe, he knows.

Oh, prophets have their pains, their need of Children:
Smiler partook of his own Drink just once and went on
      the wagon immediately and forever thereafter. His busy heart had
            begun to buzz with an impossible drunkard's dream—
                  one involving as many signs as he could imagine
                        places to put them, too many deals to be
                              made to invoke too many fortuitous
                                    traffic-halting trains,
And just too damned many drivers to be distracted long enough
      to force them to read even a classic-of-classics
            sign.
So he sticks to his own homey guns: to the clientele of
      his handshake, his saloon, and his bleatings of Where
            and What and Who he could neither Do, nor Be;
And the Sign he speaks says to each, of their every
Where:

"If you loved Here, you'd be Home
      by now."


Copyright © 1978, 2005 by David Newkirk. All rights reserved.
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