When I was a kid in Milwaukee, there was a guy, a couple of years older, who used to sit around Mr. Vielie's drugstore doodling on napkins. He'd start by drawing what looked like a free-form sundae, say, complete with a cherry on top, and add a hubcap behind it and a plate under it and a frame around it and then in any blank space he'd draw in strange landscapes full of checkerboard lakes and craggy-but-melting mountains, with weird birds hovering over mysterious blots you didn't want to look at too closely.

I don't recall his name any more, or know what he's doing now. If he's anywhere near Washington, though, he ought to hie himself over to the Hirshhorn to see the Saul Steinberg retrospective exhibition, because he's one person who would understand what Steinberg meant when he said "The doodle is the brooding of the hand."

He'd probably understand, too, why some hands - his own, in its way, and M. C. Escher's, and especially Steinberg's - might brood if they're indentured to a mind and an eye so untrammeled.

Steinberg's comic strips, for example, are comic strips, with a series of sudden things happening in them, though pity any editor who tries to put them in the funny papers or any parent who's asked to explain what's going on in them.

In another drawing, a single line is, successively - reading from right to left - the top of a high, arched railway bridge with a train crossing it; the edge of a table that holds a sheet of paper, a bottle of ink and a vase with one flower, a clothesline with half a washer-load hanging on it; the junction of a building and the sidewalk (we're looking down at someone staring up); the surface of a lagoon faced by Venetian palaces that never were and occupied by strange gondolas and a stranger steamboat; the horizon in an otherworldly desert where one of Steinberg's two-legged alligators dwells; part of a geometrical statement; and a line being drawn by a self-satisfied draftsman.

There are many familiars in the show, images one remembers as covers or casuals in The New Yorker: the view from Ninth Avenue, with the rest of the world a series of Hudson-wide strips (Jersey, the rest of the USA, the Pacific) and, finally, three lumps: China, Japan and Siberia; the ascent from absurd to nonsense; the series of crossings from March into April, with signposts pointing toward summer, the pyramids of a boostery progress, the bureaucratic documents of some undiscovered age or world and the landscapes presided over by vaguely menacing rubber-stamps floating in the sky.

There are also many lesser-known drawings, as well as a too-large, I would say, collection of masks and a slightly repetitious series of tables. Still, I must admit that the table with all the different-sized rulers on it, suggesting that there are multiple measures - variously valid, equally accurate and uniform in their officialness if in nothing lese - is one of my favorites every time he does it.

Much has been made of Steinberg's secretiveness, often citing his masks and his reluctance to explain the worlds he weaves, but what has always struck me more was what the artist calls his "cacography," the pictures of a peculiar, harsh dimension that few of us see, recorded with a vastness of vision and a disciplined distance that few artists woud match. And the fact that, once Steinberg has mapped it for them, so many people recognize that dimension.

The show's catalogue contains - mainly in the chronology at the end - some of his more conventional drawings, showing that he can draw things the way other people see them.

That's why the answer to "Why doesn't he draw things the way they are?" is probably "He does."

And maybe that's why the dog in the familiar picture that closes the catalogue - the one standing on a turtle who's walking away from where the dog is looking - has that tear running down his cheek.

Or maybe he's just sad that the question keeps coming up.