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Harold's Coney Island

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Harold's Coney Island in downtown Rock Island has been closed for almost two years, but whenever I pass a hotdog stand at a ball game, a mall, a 4-H stand at a county fair, I am instantly back at Harold's, brightly lit against the dark wintry afternoon, sitting on one of the eight stools, watching the hot dog in its steamed bun disappear under spoonfuls of relish, minced onion, dark mustard, and dripping chili sauce, a concoction no one was expected to eat with dignity. Had a tie or a blouse escaped without at least a spot or two, Harold would have felt he had failed.

Not that many ties or blouses ever came into Harold's. Harold's customers were mostly regulars who arrived each day at appointed hours to eat the same lunch or dinner as they always did: the soup and sandwich they could afford on social security or their railroad pensions or even a welfare check. Many lived alone in one-room furnished apartments carved out of old mansions and walked to Harold's because they had no car.

Harold's regulars came not only for the hot dogs, but for a moment of community. At Harold's there was always someone who would listen and sympathize with the lady whose children never wrote, and nod in understanding as Joe explained, as he did every day, how he was fired when he reached sixty. Even in the dead of winter, with early darkness swirling across the street, Harold's Coney Island was a refuge against the storms, brightly lit, heavy with the smells of life: onions and fries and hot dogs.

Frequently, fancy people from up on the hill—those of us in ties and blouses—discovered Harold's and made trips there regularly, though we never became regulars. We told ourselves it was because of the hot dogs, and they were good, but I suspect some soul in us envied the regulars and their small community of stools, their give and take so different from our cocktail conversations.

Of course, we never admitted that. We called Harold's "just a quaint bit of local color"—and left when we were through to drive back through the dark and windy afternoon to our offices and cubicles. Brighter now, thanks to the dabs of mustard on our ties.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.