Alan Dugan and Discontent
by Adam Halbur
Sometimes I wonder if it is discontent with the politico-economic atmosphere that makes up capitalism or with being uprooted from my pastoral upbringing or the result of genetic inheritance that makes me move like an Alan Dugan from job to job. Since graduating from university, I have worked in a laundry dumping bags of soiled bed pads, in a tempered glass factory on 12-hour night shifts, at a weekly newspaper, at an insurance auditor’s, and as a university ESL instructor—though nothing as interesting as “making plastic vaginas to demonstrate diaphragm insertion.”1 Personal idiosyncrasies aside, even with the better jobs out there, it’s difficult to function in a work world where creative abilities, or any hard work for that matter, is devalued with de-empowerment, increased workloads, inflation, and rising costs of living, including for unnecessary consumer goods we are induced to buy. In addition, many of us are made to endure extremely dull tasks to “maximize stockholder return” while having been deluded our whole lives that we can make a difference in an age watered down with heroes. It’s no wonder, then, in my scattered wanderings to pin down some sort of qualified life, I occasionally dream myself into one of those coveted impossible-to-get low-paying temporary position-with-no-benefits teaching poetry, a position that requires five book publications and the ability to teach an upper-division literature course in Victorian poetry. Needless to say, I never quite fit the mold, and I can’t help feel teaching is as regrettable as everything else—including publication of a book. So I end up back where I left off, like a Dugan, waking to this “daily accident”2 called life. Dugan is inconsolable, and no more so than in “To a Red-Headed Do-Good Waitress”3 —an apt protest to this eat-or-be-eaten American Dream.
Dugan is bitter even before he gets started, calling the waitress a do-gooder in the title of the poem, which is addressed to her. Nobody likes a goody two-shoes, somebody that does nothing as wrong as smoking and drinking, both Dugan’s demons. At the same time, he paints her incongruously as tyrannical; the waitress is a red-head, and in an age where even the attendant at Greyhound will call the cops if you start complaining you’ve been mistreated, you know she means business. She is a do-gooder, and Dugan plays along whether he likes it or not:
Every morning I went to her charity and learned
to face the music of her white smile so well
that it infected my black teeth as I escaped,
and those who saw me smiled too and went in
the White Castle, where she is the inviolable lady.4
Instead of painting the waitress as the damsel in distress he goes to save, Dugan makes her part of the world all around which distresses. As a result, her charity—patronage is popular among the better-off in America—does not relieve Dugan’s stress, but belittles him further; he learns his lesson for having the audacity to be down and down on his luck. Dugan, continuing to play with clichés as he did with the oxymoron “Red-Headed Do-Good,” must now “face the music.”
It’s as if the waitress’s glittering smile, as white as the restaurant’s exterior, makes him feel he has done something wrong by not brushing with Colgate, and his black teeth in the third line that hadn’t bothered him before actually start to fester, and I imagine hurt, prompting his flight. The situation is far more ironic knowing Dugan once attempted a greeting card business, and he is obviously disgusted with America’s need to neatly package everything in smiles and cliché, loosely labeling those of us who are not playing along and enjoying ourselves Negative Nelly or depressed. Everyone else in the stanza is playing along except Dugan, and when they see him, they smile as inappropriately as the waitress and go in, of all places, a White Castle, America’s first hamburger chain that brought consumers back to beef in the 1920s with porcelain-white sanitation after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.5 Back inside, the waitress is sacrosanct, robed no doubt in spotless uniform and emitting no body odor, a mock queen for a fast food outlet of a greater empire.
There is still an urge in me to feel some sort of sympathy for this do-gooder, obviously trained to spit out her gum before her shift and who is just doing her minimum-wage job. But her autocratic posturing, though perhaps unintentional, in Dugan’s eyes, makes the deprived suffer the American Dream they will never be part of:
There cripples must be bright, and starvers noble:
no tears, no stomach-cries, but pain made art
to move her powerful red pity toward philanthropy.
So I must wear my objectively stinking poverty
like a millionaire clown’s rags and sing, “Oh I 6
That cripples not only have to accept their impairment, but have to be happy about it, reminds me of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Christy Brown in My Left Foot.7 In the film, Brown is born with cerebral palsy into a poor working-class family. Day-Lewis’ character struggles first to speak then, with only the use of his left foot, to become an artist and writer and to find a loving relationship with a woman, the latter which never happened for the real Brown.8 It also brings to mind Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim,9 a cripple and a noble starver, “no tears, no stomach-cries, but pain made art.” Dugan’s sardonic humor is thick here. And again, we have the oxymoron, the “powerful red” waitress showing “pity” bordering on “philanthropy”—what one hand gives the other takes away. And Dugan plays along like a Horatio Algiers’ character in the Ragged Dick series,10 though his derision is rife in the words “objectively stinking poverty,” poverty that should not draw attention to its misery, and “wear…/millionaire clown’s rags and sing,” seeming to mean he should put on a proper show for his supper. For me, his disdain is even more strongly felt because of stories my grandmother told me about the time she spent at the Taylor Orphan Asylum in Racine, Wisconsin,11 when my great-grandmother, who had been born into the hard life of Lithuanian immigrants, was sentenced to the Industrial Home for Women (now the Taycheedah Correctional Institution) for “delinquency” under the classification of “procreation, all classification of moral turpitude.”12 With chores, bullying, and just being alone at the age of 6, Grandma said she never felt like singing like orphan Annie,13 especially when the older girls fed her salt sandwiches when she complained of being hungry. She certainly didn’t feel like an individual, the “I” that Dugan ends the last line of this stanza with.
So what does that leave us readers with? Plenty of nothing:
got plenty o’ nuttin’,” as if I made
a hundred grand a year like Gershwin, while
I get breakfast every day from her for two
weeks and nothing else but truth: she has
a policeman and a wrong sonnet in fifteen lines.14
We now know that Dugan is actually referencing “Porgy and Bess,” the second part of the borrowed lyric being “and nuttin’s plenty for me,” and the song ends with “No use complaining. I got my girl, I got my Lord, and I got my song.”15 Dugan, on the other hand, continues to complain, making use of an idiomatic “as if…,” and then juxtaposes with sweet mockery white George Gershwin’s wealth—which translated into “a 14-room duplex with a gymnasium, an artist’s studio and space for his own paintings and art collection”16 —to Gershwin’s happy-go-lucky Porgy singing in the window of a black slum called Catfish Row during a sweltering South Carolina summer. Dugan feels an affinity for the impoverished Negro. He has no wealth, but also no song and perhaps no Lord. He only has the girl, even if she is a red-headed do-gooder bordering on brunette. But after all this time, while he surprisingly had secret hopes that the smiling waitress actually had feelings for him, that his breakfast was “for two,” the truth comes out. The third line of the stanza turns and indicates the affair lasted only “two / weeks” as the waitress reveals she is either married to a cop or sweet on one. And Dugan, perhaps a romantic at heart, is left with this imperfect love poem, a sonnet with fifteen lines where there should be fourteen. As an unsentimental yet soft-hearted American heterosexual male poet, I know exactly how he feels. Every time I saw Cindy Crawford in those Pepsi ads17 as a boy, I had secret hopes, even though I knew the disgust in the tanned faces of girls at summer amusements and service counters when they caught me checking them out.
The joke is doubly on poets, as least for the likes of Dugan. He brutally sees the world for what it is, then harbors secret hopes that it’s more, only to have those hopes dashed just as he was softening. But really his perceived pessimism is a giveaway that he cares about the world more than he lets on. Beneath society’s painful distortions of fake smiles, clichés and dollar values, there is the simple beauty of just being. The painful reality is that there is always the distortion, this anybody-but-nobody-can-win hope called the American Dream. Trying to find my own bearings in it or escape from it, I have moved not only from job to job but country to country, Japan and the United States and to the far reaches of these, and recently on trips to Paris, Guam, Nepal, and Thailand. I find, however, that wherever I go, the politico-economic atmosphere (with poverty often more severe) and the patronizing smiles (put on for tourists) follow. Our world is globalized, and whether we like it or not, we share a common plight. We can continue on like Dugan through Poems, then Poems 2, Poems 3, Poems 4, Poems Five: New and Collected Poems, Poems Six, and finally Poems Seven: New and Complete Poems, but at some point, I feel there must be a learning curve. In the words of cultural critic Slavoj Žižek, “things cannot go on the way—OK they can five, 10 years,”18 but if they go on much longer than that, many of us may not want to live in the world that will result in 20 to 30 years, a world with ecological catastrophe and more walls and weapons and medication and gene manipulation to keep at bay the undesirable of this world. As we bring to our mouths our burgers, White Castle, Culver’s, or MOS (Mountain, Ocean, Sun) Burgers, whether inside the store or outside, say, on a graveyard bench,19 we have to ask ourselves what really nourishes us. What sustains us? What is sustainable? Then, what kind of community or personal action is needed or not needed to bring it about? Perhaps there is still a chance for greatness. Even Dugan won the National Book Award twice and the Pulitzer once. The sure bet is perhaps in the struggle—to never quit begging the question, and not feeling we have to be enjoying ourselves all the time. Maybe that’s what Dugan did.
1 Alan Dugan, quoted in David Mehegan, The Boston Globe (28 November 2001), http://www.sevenstories.com/book/?GCOI=58322100759090&fa=reviews (last accessed 26 April 2012), para. 11.
2 Alan Dugan, quoted in “Biography: Alan Dugan,” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/alan-dugan (last accessed 26 April 2012), para. 3.
3 Alan Dugan, “To a Red-Headed Do-Good Waitress,” Poetry (April 1962), p. 3, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/100/1#20588742 (last accessed 26 April 2012).
5 “White Castle (restaurant): History,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Castle_(restaurant) (last accessed 26 April 2012), para 1.
6 Alan Dugan, “To a Red-Headed Do-Good Waitress,” Poetry (April 1962), p. 3, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/100/1#20588742 (last accessed 26 April 2012).
8 “Christy Brown: Death,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christy_Brown (last accessed 26 April 2012).
9 Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Chapman & Hall 1843), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm (last accessed 26 April 2012).
10 “Ragged Dick,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragged_Dick (last accessed 26 April 2012).
11 I have on file a photograph of the Taylor Orphan Asylum, Racine, Wisconsin, received upon written request to the Racine Heritage Museum. Another photograph can also be viewed at the Wisconsin Historical Society website, (last accessed 26 April 2012).
12 From photocopied documents describing reasons for incarceration at the Industrial Home for Women, received upon written request to the Taycheedah Correctional Institution, Taycheedah, Wisconsin, circa 2004. The Home had opened in 1921 with its stated purpose being in the late 1920s “to correct and remove evil tendencies, strengthen morale, develop character and under certain well defined rulings, to aid these women to return to the community as desirable citizens.” Committable offences are described as “in the three general classifications of delinquency: punitive, namely assault against the person; procreation, all classification of moral turpitude; acquisitive, larceny, forgery, etc.”
14Alan Dugan, “To a Red-Headed Do-Good Waitress,” Poetry (April 1962), p. 3, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse/100/1#20588742 (last accessed 26 April 2012).
15 George Gershwin, “Porgy and Bess,” quoted in “Oh, I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'” (Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1986 with Willard White as Porgy), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qf6WLrMIsMA (last accessed 26 April 2012).
16 “George Gershwin: Gershwin’s Music,” (ArtsAlive.ca, National Arts Centre, Canada), http://artsalive.ca/en/mus/greatcomposers/gershwin.html (last accessed 26 April 2012), para. 11.
17 Cindy Crawford, soft drink advertisement (Pepsi 1992), http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B02DGmkqDDU (last accessed 26 April 2012).
18 Slavoj Žižek, quoted in Carl Chen, “Slavoj Žižek: Leftist, paradox, WTF?” (Yale Daily News 20 April 2012), http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2012/apr/20/slavoj-zizek/ (last accessed 26 April 2012), Q&A 8.
19 A photograph of a man contemplating life in a graveyard with White Castle fast food was featured on the White Castle homepage: http://www.whitecastle.com/ (last accessed 26 April 2012) and is stored on flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/timemachine1948/6087124127/ (last accessed 26 April 2012).