by Liam McEneaneyTweet
It was a warm spring evening in the blue-collar city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the year of 1983. The factories had shut their doors, and the saloons had opened theirs. The paychecks had been passed out, and soon the drunks would be, too. On East Reservoir Avenue, in the neighborhood of Brewer’s Hill, at a run-down McDonald’s franchise, literary history was about to be made.
At a booth by the door, three classmates from Shorty Barr High School sit teasing a fourth. His clothes are shabby, his greasy hair combed across a greasier scalp, his breath reeking lightly of cheap beer. The only thing that would distinguish him from any other male adolescent American of the time is that, although he is few years older than his peers, he is also notably shorter.
Sixteen year-old Barry O’Neill, flush with cash from a part-time job at Donkey Cong, bets his diminutive classmate that he can’t eat fifteen dollars worth of Big Mac hamburgers. Although history does not record who won the bet, it can be assumed that the young man’s lower intestine lost handily.
So it was that he found himself walking through an ordinary men’s room door and into the ranks of such literary immortals as Shelley, Wordsworth, and Fagen/Becker.
This is the kind of moment on which history pivots, and we ask “What if?” What if this small fellow had not been perceived as the class dimwit, and teased as such? What if his habit of sniffing markers hadn’t led to his compulsively carrying one on his person at all times? What if an excess consumption of cheap greasy hamburgers hadn’t left him sitting in the bathroom of his local McDonald’s for so long that the manager called the police, afraid of yet another overdose death?
As it is, there is now a commemorative plaque permanently attached to that McDonald’s Drive Thru speaker, despite the franchise owner’s many requests that we remove it. For it was here, in this restaurant, in this men’s room, on the wall of this stall, that this young man first composed this immortal verse:
Here I sit,
Tried to shit,
But only farted.
These are the four lines that, to our modern eyes, are so commonplace that they’re probably embroidered and hung in a place of pride in the reader’s own home. So it’s easy to forget that in that year of 1983, they signaled a revolutionary shift in the way we look at literature and launched one of the most unlikely careers in the history of American letters. And this young man, Edgar Allen Adgar-Allan, rose overnight from the ignominy of near-high school dropout to international fame as a literary superstar.
He was born to Syliva Adgar, a temp at the Paralegal Aid Society of Janesville, Wisconsin, and Michael Allan, a town drunk. In a city known for turning out some of the all-time great drunken reprobates, Allan is still considered by many to be one of the best ever to pick up a bottle and throw it at passing cars
His career often intersected with Adgar’s and soon they began seeing each other, until it was during the Great Janesville Blackout of 1964 that they nearly simultaneously married and conceived. Although he would later be branded with the label by an assortment of bartenders, bookies, and bouncers, young Edgar Allen Adgar-Allan missed being born a bastard by a full 90 seconds.
Adgar-Allan’s parents were to later claim that they had never heard of the author and poet for whom it is generally assumed that he was named. Certainly, even the most cursory examination of the Janesville public school system’s curriculum and average test scores will lend credence to the claim. It’s also true that a carelessness of naming by Syliva’s own parents resulted in a school career filled with teasing which led to an understandable disinterest in the naming of anything that ultimately led to several family dogs dying of terminal confusion.
In any case, this combination of poor education, untreated alcoholism, and parental disinterest makes it easy to believe the Adgar-Allans’ claim that they chose little baby Edgar Allen’s name because “it would be easy to remember.” In such seemingly haphazard ways are destinies formed.
Later that year, a major career opportunity was to bring the newlyweds to Milwaukee, and, eventually, their young son came with them. In an otherwise unremarkable early educational career, one incident stands out in clear foreshadowing. During his primary school’s Christmas pageant, a fourth-grader stepped forward to deliver an impromptu solo:
Jingle Bells, Batman smells
Robin laid an egg.
Batmobile lost its wheel,
And the Joker got away. Hey!
Although only 11 years old, Adgar-Allan had spontaneously penned a classic piece of what the Norton’s Anthology of American Poetry was to term “the most pure example of American doggerel with which one can hope to be presented.“ This was not to be his last such acclaim in the pages of academia, as his poetic style, much like his liver, was destined to continue expanding and developing new facets.
Two decades later, in the fourth grade, this author was first presented by a particularly hungover substitute teacher with the information that against all odds, this (to my then young mind) hilarious bit of satire did not spring from the Earth whole, but had come from the mind of an ordinary, even pedestrian, young child, not unlike myself.
That Christmas presented to me the gift of a copy that of A Young Person’s Guide To Great American Bathroom Poetry. This led to an obsession with both the works of Adgar-Allan and the general idea that even the greatest, most wide-ranging works could still be done with the minimum of research or effort.
In any event, the impact of Here I Sit…, as the poem came to be known, can not be overstated. That is, unless one wishes to write an academic monograph that will allow them to live off of a corporate grant for years. Thus, having seen the amount of money your average liberal arts professor doesn’t make, one is prepared to give overstating the poem’s impact a real shot.
It is often said that there is great genius in moronic simplicity, and so it is agreed upon by most scholars that Adgar-Allan’s Here I Sit accomplishes more in four lines than John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn does in ten stanzas for two important reasons:
Firstly, because it is much easier to read, grasp, and dissect, allowing even the laziest graduate student to crank out an 80-page Master’s thesis on the subject with enough time to catch the best part of the Poetry Department’s annual Rimbaud-themed debauch.
Secondly, and of only slightly less importance, Adgar-Allan’s is easier to memorize, contains far fewer multisyllabic words, and can be written in big drunken letters on a bathroom wall by even the most uneducated ape. Whereas Keats’ work requires the tiniest, soberest, most disciplined handwriting to squeeze in its entirety on your typical Grecian urn, assuming a minimum of space has been given over to decoration, which your average Mycenaean potter was inclined to overindulge in.
This also led to the poem’s spreading through the city of Milwaukee from bathroom to bathroom, concurrent with a particularly virulent strain of herpes, which led to the coining of the phrase “going viral” several years before the dawn of the Internet Age. It wasn’t long before Here I Sit… spread nationally, followed soon by international sightings.
There was even a report of a Latin translation of the poem in the omnium sanctorum thermarum at the Vatican. However, this was reported by a visiting chapter of the Jewish Defense League who were subsequently deported after a night of drinking and nightclubbing led to an impromptu performance of select scenes from The Merchant of Venice atop the bar at a four-star restaurant in Travestere, using tablecloths as togas. So their account may be considered suspect.
For Adgar-Allan, there followed a period of attention, curiosity, and respect to a degree that up that point was unprecedented. There were print interviews that ranged from the disastrous to the triumphant. The late night talk show circuit came calling, although he was unable to take on any bookings as the shows all filmed in Los Angeles and, due to various legal setbacks, he was at that point unable to leave the city by car, by plane, by train, or by interstate bus.
As the publicity ramped up, so did the pressure. In interviews, “How did you come up with that?” was quickly followed by, “And what do you plan to write next?”
It’s good to stop and remember that, although Edgar Allen Adgar-Allan had achieved so much so quickly, he was still a junior in high school and, thus, subject to all the pressures and insecurities faced by any average nineteen year-old. And Adgar-Allan was as average as they come. Thus, he soon found himself creatively blocked.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see that it was only a matter of time before an idea was to pass, and when it did it would be big and messy. But would its release arrive as a solid victory? Or was Adgar-Allan running on fumes, doomed to bathe in the bitter stench of defeat? The world could only hold its breath and wait.
On October 17th, 1983, while reeling from an all-night Arby’s binge, and drinking directly from an industrial-size bottle of generic pink stomach liquid, Edgar Allen Adgar-Allan found himself stumbling into a men’s room in the lobby of the Beverly Sills Hotel. Straining and sniffing a laundry marker, inspiration struck and he composed these immortal lines:
Those who write on bathroom walls,
Will roll their shit in little balls.
And those who read these words of wit,
Will eat those little balls of shit.
Two generations removed from the debut of this major work, we may marvel at its simplicity and ingenuity, and perhaps, if we are up for an adjunct professorship, compose a twenty-page academic dissection of its self-referential self-loathing. If competition in the liberal arts field were particularly fierce that semester, one might even toss in a phrase like “metatextual narrative,” to both confuse and intimidate the reader.
Again, context is key here. This was still a full decade before the irony-rich 1990s, before TV shows like Seinfeld and Twin Peaks became cultural touchstones for the brain-dead moron masses. And while the theater and arts worlds had been experimenting with postmodernism for decades at that point, consumers of popular culture had most likely never seen anything that was on its surface so simple, and yet when more closely examined, still a masterstroke of complex, layered poesy. It dropped into the mainstream like an atom bomb, and one thing could no longer be denied: Edgar Allen Adgar-Allan could no longer be considered anything but a major artist.
But fame led to questions, and with Adgar-Allan, questions led to incoherent mumbling. Interview asked in the headline on the cover of the November, 1983, issue: “Who Is This Douchebag And Why Do We Know His Name?” Was Adgar-Allan a genius who found expression through verse for his tortured soul? Or was he merely, as the comic strip Doonesbury posited in a week-long series on the subject, a dirtbag savant? The closest thing to an answer we can find is in this fragment of the Q&A that Interview published:
INTERVIEW: I guess it boils down to that age-old question, “Why do you write?”
ADGAR-ALLAN: I mean, why does anyone write? Like, why are you writing down everything I say?
INTERVIEW: I see. So it’s about creative expression.
ADGAR-ALLAN: No, seriously, why are you writing down everything I say? It’s freaking me out.
INTERVIEW: Because… this is an interview. Did you really not know?
ADGAR-ALLAN: Where are the naked ladies?
INTERVIEW: For the last time, this isn’t that kind of magazine.
Success in media not involving bathroom walls eluded Adgar-Allen. In 1984, Simon and Schuster published an anthology of his major works, Reflections on a Toilet Waking. While it peaked at a respectable Number 3 on the New York Times Bestseller List (Novelty Publications and Religious Pamphlets), sales were disappointing.
Lack of interest in the book was ultimately chalked up to its contents, which consisted of a children’s parody of Jingle Bells, two poems that were widely available for free in the bathroom of almost every bar around the world, and a 162-page introduction by Adgar-Allan expert Professor Rupert Birtwhistle of Oxford, which the New York Review of Books described as “Stunning in its disregard for the reader’s enjoyment,” and which the Paris Review described as, “So dull that it could have been written by anyone, and probably was.”
In the winter of 1984, Adgar-Allan was nominated as a candidate for post of Official Poet Laureate of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His only competition being Rudolph Espinoza, composer of the infamous “Drink Schlitz or Die” jingle, he was elected easily, 10 votes to 2, in a record turnout for Milwaukee’s Poet Laureate elections.
Adgar-Allan’s reign was to be short-lived, however, as he was stripped of his title during his first and only public appearance in the role, at the Opening Day ceremonies for Wisconsin’s Drunk Driving Season. He got one line in to the poem he’d written especially for the occasion when he was yanked from the podium for “performing a public duty while intoxicated.” Considering Milwaukee’s municipal government at that time, this was an accomplishment in and of itself.
While the rest of the poem was lost to posterity, thanks to a live broadcast on the local news the first line lives on in literary immortality:
I’m not as think as you drunk I am…
Known as “The Line That Launched A Thousand T-Shirt Empires,” scholars have argued for decades on its place in the canon. Can it truly be considered a Fragment of a Great Poem? Or does it fall into the pantheon of American Aphorisms? The one thing all sides can agree on is that arguments like these beat working for a living.
June of 1985 saw the first decline in Adgar-Allan’s personal life, when he was booked by Shorty Barr High School do deliver a commencement speech to the graduating class, the first active junior in the school’s history to be so engaged. However, when he arrived, he found himself grabbed by security guards, dragged to the stage, handed a diploma, and physically kicked off the stage in the posterior by the principal. Thus was he graduated and thrust into the real world, much against his will.
What followed was a period of steep decline, as a string of failed relationships came hand-in-fist with a series of demeaning janitorial jobs, where on many days he was ironically tasked with painting over the very words that had first brought him so much fame. He developed a serious drinking problem, sometimes barely able to make it through a single beer. It got so bad that his regular bartender called the police after a three-week absence, worried that his most dependable customer might be dead, or even worse, sober.
Adgar-Allan’s final work came on October 13th, 1988, a little over five years after his first. This was on the heels of his short-lived marriage in Las Vegas to long-time girlfriend and favorite stripper Linda Cappollano, in a chapter known to literary historians as “The 12-Hour Elvis Wedding Chapel/Roy Orbison Divorce Court Spree.”
So it was, as if closing the loop on a cycle, that Edgar Allen Adgar-Allan found himself one last time at the same East Reservoir Street McDonald’s where his story had begun. Was he a moth circling the dwindling the flame of lost glory? Was he searching for a missing muse? Or was it simply that he’d never moved out of his parents’ home and still lived three blocks away?
We do know that Adgar-Allan was found in that same stall, sitting on that same toilet, with a laundry marker under his nose and a brand new poem next to his head. The coroner pronounced him dead of multiple clogged arteries at the age of 24, having died the way he lived; greasy, unhealthy, full of crap.
The poem produced that day on the battered metal wall of that toilet stall was removed with a blowtorch and a set of bolt-cutters and sits proudly on display to this day in an unsold eBay auction.
And perhaps we literary historians are, as one lawyer for the McDonald’s corporation so memorably put it in a deposition, “Nothing more than an insane group of mentally disturbed individuals hellbent on destroying my client’s property.”
Or perhaps we’re simply detectives, sifting through the meager scraps of the work of a genius cut down in what could generously be called his prime, looking for clues as to who he was, why he wrote, and, were he to live, where his poetry was to take him next.
Edgar Allen Adgar-Allan remains, to this day, an enigma. A literary cypher. A question mark at the end of a short and incoherent sentence fragment that could very well not even be a question.
There’s the famous Rolling Stone cover story, in which David Fricke, who had drawn the short straw in the story assignment pool that would send him to the cold hell that is Wisconsin in February, spent a day in Adgar-Allan’s life. He described the experience in the opening paragraph as “akin to wading into the shallow end of the pool hoping to find sunken treasure.”
Perhaps Adgar-Allan truly was nothing more than a dirtbag-savant. Perhaps it is foolishness to dig into his life and works in the hopes of finding anything like a deeper meaning. And perhaps we are projecting our own fears, hopes, and desires onto a slate so blank it could be called a void.
But what can’t be questioned is that this study has officially passed the minimum 3000-word count required for submission to a serious academic journal, the kind of article upon which tenured professor tracks are built.
Here, then, is the final, most personal, most mature, and most accomplished work of a guarded, childish man who accomplished anything almost against his will. This, then, is the legendary “Death Poem of Edgar Allen Adgar-Allan,” America’s dirtbag laureate:
The first time that she met him,
She found his habits strange.
And made a mental laundry list
of things that she would change.
Five months on she left him,
Having tasted of defeat.
Vowing twice as many changes
On the next man she should meet.
Fuck Linda, everyone else has.
 an Apocalypse Now-themed arcade
 pronounced səˈlīvə
 over 750,000 Janesville residents got blackout drunk on the same night, marking the second-largest such event in the city’s history that year
 wooziness from the drugs both her parents had been administered during her birth, combined with a hurry to sign all necessary forms and leave before the hospital bill arrived, led to a misspelling of Syliva Adgar’s first name on the birth certificate, as well as her legal classification as an “appendix (removed)”
 a resurgent citywide temperance movement of the early 1960s led to a disruption in Milwaukee’s town drunk development program. Allan was traded from Janesville for three prostitutes and a pack of stray dogs to be named later
 as explained in exhaustive, and quite frankly, exhausting detail by Rupert Birtwhistle, Oxford University’s Professor American Limericks and “Funny” Haiku, in his collection, Late-Night Drunken E-mails to an Ex-Girlfriend Named Cheryl (Oxford University Press, 2014)
 an affectionate term that graduate students use to refer to those who have spent less than 16 years pursuing a higher education
 “Ecce ego sit, contritos corde.
Aureus ex denario solvit, transierunt gas et solum.”
 any at all
 Playboy, September 1983, where he asked the interviewer, “Where are the naked girls?” 57 times, breaking a record set in 1974 by fellow literary lion Norman Mailer
 The Milwaukee Journal, July 15, 1983, where he asked the interviewer, “Where are the naked girls?” 38 times, less than half the number as Milwaukee Brewers legend Rollie Fingers the week before
 due to a drunk-driving incident that year, when his blood alcohol level tested at 1.2, nearly 0.2 above the legal state limit
 after being forcibly removed from a Pan Am flight that year for attempting to join the Mile High Club alone, in his seat, while the plane was still parked at the gate
 he didn’t like them
 removed from a Greyhound after getting into a fistfight with a transient who lived on the bus and bathed in the sink and complained to the driver about Adgar-Allan’s body odor
 a byproduct of America’s obsession with operatic soprano. The business was so unsuccessful that it filed for Chapters 11 and 12, as well as a Glossary
 another affectionate graduate student term
 behind Pong: The Compleat Strategy Guide for the Serious Gamer, and the number 1 bestselling novelty book of the decade, The Owner’s Manual for the Care and Feeding of Your Rubik’s Cube
 Bemelmans Bar in New York, ever the upscale traditionalist holdout, commissioned Shel Silverstein to write a series of dirty sonnets over their urinals
 stage name, Barbwire Bush
 as dramatized in the 1992 Lifetime Original Movie, “If These Stalls Could Talk”
 June, 1984, headlined, “Edgar Allen Poo: 12 Hours In The Life of America’s Dirtbag Laureate”