"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
"Whatever you talk much about, you shall never do yourself, nor have,
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."
"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-
"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
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
"This discontent with the the way Our Things are contrived to
"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
"'"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
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
"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
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
"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
"'Call it gently into yourselves. You shall not avoid being
"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
"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,
"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."
Merely with the tinder of one company's odd name, a smiler
named Coogan keeps Home firm, and its fires burning;
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
"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
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
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
And just too damned many drivers to be distracted long enough
to force them to read even a classic-of-classics
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
"If you loved Here, you'd be Home
|Copyright © 1978, 2005 by David Newkirk. All rights reserved.|