IN 1972, when I saw fellow Los Angeles Free Press writer Charles Bukowski's book in the window of a bookstore in West Hampstead in London, my first reaction was one of jealousy. The book was called Notes of a Dirty Old Man, the same title as his column in the paper. It was a City Lights book, with Bukowski's amazing pocked alcoholic face adorning its cover. I viewed Bukowski as only doing a limited shtick--he rarely came into the office himself, but I knew all about him because my friend Judy Lewellen, the city editor, used to go pick up the column. I guess I hadn't understood how popular Bukowski was getting until I was confronted by a book display in London. Years later, I came to realize that this guy had paid far more dues in his life than I had.
He was more than just a good offbeat columnist. Everyone knows about Bukowski, who for many years was able to walk the decaying, slummy streets of Los Angeles--as a mailman, a hobo, an alcoholic on Skid Row --while his writing was beginning to sell by the thousands--in Europe. But it really wasn't until the movie "Barfly" in 1987 that his hometown began to take him seriously.
Bukowski had lived in Los Angeles since 1923. His parents brought him to L.A. from his native Andernach, Germany, when he was two. For most of his young years he was an unknown: a day laborer, a postman, and, for more than a decade, an out-and-out Skid Row bum. He ended up with his stomach hemorrhaging at Los Angeles County's General Hospital where the doctors warned him that unless he stopped drinking he would die. Characteristically, the minute Bukowski was discharged, he found a bar. He never apologized for his drinking; he reveled in it. "Two things kept me from suicide - writing and the bottle," he said. He began writing seriously in the fifties.
"To have the nerve to attempt an art form as exacting and unrenumerative as poetry at the age of 32 is a form of madness," Bukowski explained. "But crazy as I was, I felt I had something to say, as I had lived with degradation, and on the edge of death ... what had I to lose?"
This was a scene from a local coffeehouse around Los Angeles City College in the mid-'60s. The author took the picture.
In the '60s, the poems turned into a raunchy, outrageous and often hilarious prose column, "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," in the "underground" Los Angeles Free Press. "Notes" described the misadventures of Bukowski's alter-ego, a fellow named Henry Chinaski. Bukowski's turf was the underbelly of L.A., mostly downtown and Hollywood.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights published "notes" in 1969. Most of Bukowski's later books were published from the West Los Angeles garage of publisher John Martin, who issued Bukowski's first novel, Post Office, in 1971, under the Black Sparrow imprint.
I was saved from writing about Bukowski from interviews with friends and former lovers by one of the world's greatest eccentrics, and a good friend of mine from the Xanadu coffee house. Gene Vier was one of those rare people who either knows everyone in the world, or knows someone who knows someone. He didn't know Bukowski directly; but a couple of his good friends, Laura and Frank Cavestani, just happened to be drinking partners of Bukowski's. If I showed up at the official premiere of "Tales of Ordinary Madness," featuring Ben Gazzara as Bukowski at the Encore Theatre in Hollywood, Vier assured me I would get my chance at least to go out drinking with Bukowski--if not actually interview him.The night arrived cold and rainy, and none of what unfolded seemed to hold much promise. Bukowski was immediately mobbed hardly had he walked in. Bukowski planted himself at a counter to sign books on which the movie was based; and before he began, he loudly protested and with mock gruffness called his fans shit. Then he'd tug at a gallon of Gallo.
My then wife Nigey (Lennon) and I later joined Vier, the Cavestanis, Bukowski and Linda in the rear of the theater, near the door. We were told that Bukowski might want to slip out early. I was also warned not to bring any tools of my trade, such as a tape recorder or a pen and paper. In fact, I was warned to refrain from asking interview-type questions, that is, questions about literature or modern poets or politics. Bukowski had already been drinking heavily even for him that evening, he said.
Bukowski played movie critic that night as the film cranked on. While a beautiful prostitute lay down on his bed, the real Gazarra-Chinaski character just kept typing at his desk, Bukowski yelled out, "If that were me I would have stopped typing long ago!" As a scene in a flophouse rolled by, Bukowski cried out that "I've never seen a flophouse as empty and clean as that one." When someone shushed this damn drunk, he taunted, "Hey, I'm the guy they made the movie about. I can say anything I want to. You shut up."
Toward the end of the film, a woman strolled up the aisle past Bukowski and told him that she loved him but was bored by the movie. He responded by saying he would give her his phone number, but he was too drunk to get even that much accomplished. He kept asking Linda for a pen and paper, but she was not being very cooperative.It was raining as if it were the end of the world when our entourage finally left the theater. We headed toward a bar several blocks away. This was familiar Hollywood territory to Bukowski. As we walked past the old Monogram Studios on Melrose Avenue just west of Van Ness, Vier was leading the way, but Bukowski caught up with him and put his arm around Vier as if they were long-lost friends. We couldn't hear what Bukowski was saying, but he was obviously on his way to a state of total inebriation. As we were lining up, waiting for a break in the rain and traffic, Bukowski suddenly made a dash for the middle of the street. He was choo-chooing drunkenly, going in circles like a locomotive on a fast track to nowhere, looking back at us yelling, "Hey, I thought you guys would follow me wherever I go." A car was bearing down on him through the darkened, rain-slicked street, and Frank and Linda both ran out and dragged Bukowski back.
Eventually we made it safely into the bar, a rather typical blue-collar bar with a loud jukebox, torn red vinyl booths and a pool table in the back.
We headed for the rear where it was less crowded.Nigey and I sat directly across from Bukowski, who began pounding on the table and demanding booze. Red wine appeared out of nowhere and more drinking began. A Judy Garland song from a 1931 movie crooned its tinny heart out on the jukebox. This occasioned a monologue from Bukowski about how he was a creature of the forties, "no make that the thirties, maybe even the twenties." From there, his monologue made its way to some halfhearted comments about all the women troubles he was having: Bukowski's books are always full of women troubles. None of this appeared to disturb Linda, who was sitting by his side, seemingly oblivious to this patter which she had no doubt heard many times before. Tired of us by now, Bukowski looked over to the pool table where a couple of working stiffs were playing. "The dead pool table of nowhere," he said. He got up and wandered over to the duo workers. , pulling himself out of his chair and meandering over to their direction. From where we were, we could hear Bukowski trying to explain to the pool players that he was "a celebrity now, because a movie had been made about my life." Suddenly he returned, sat down across from Nigey and I and said, "I hate intellectuals."
"I'm the toughest guy in town," he said, looking right at me--the first time he would utter the phrase that would become his refrain in each of the three bars around Hollywood that we journeyed to that night. I made some sort of barroom reply, and Bukowski quickly backed down. We talked a bit, and Bukowski seemed to warm up. "You have an honest face, a good face, but behind it is a lot of bullshit, in the way you have dealt with people," he said to me. This undoubtedly was true of most of us in this life, I replied. "See what I mean," Bukowski rejoined. "All of mankind means nothing. Mankind is all cowardice. Has no courage. So let's drink."
Not much more time elapsed before everyone agreed it was time to move down Melrose to Lucy's El Adobe, the Mexican restaurant made famous by Jerry Brown, the eccentric but significant California governor. who used to go to when he was dating the likes of Linda Ronstadt.
In a few minutes, Bukowski was out of his seat and loudly demanding more booze. The management said no, which, of course, made Bukowski even angrier and more incessant in his demands. I jumped in with a compromise. I ordered three beers, and handed them to Bukowski. He quieted down for a while, happy with his liquor. Soon he was entertaining us with vulgar references and jokes about his and Linda's sex practices. Then he suddenly eyed a group of big, muscular punks in the next booth. He cried out loudly, so that they could hear too. "Hey, look at the fags," he said. "Look at the fags."
Bukowski paid the bills at all four or so places we drank and ate. Bukowski was generous. He bought us all a fine bootie of expensive red wine and got serious enough to first apologize for preaching, and then observe, "You guys are looking for a hero. I don't want to be your hero."By now the conversation was lagging. Bukowski and Linda were bickering. He'd throw oral barbs her way, and then make up by kissing her, or mussing her hair. Then he fell completely silent. He slid away from Linda, and chugged his way rather precariously to the bar."Oh, oh, I hope Papa will be OK," Linda said with obvious concern.
We talked a while more with Linda and Laura, and then made our way up to the bar to say goodbye to Bukowski. He put down his racing form, and put his hand on Nigey's arm and bade her farewell with an impromptu poem. Then he did the same with me. I bent over to hear what my poem was, but I heard only a phrase or two, and mostly mumbling. Outside the bar, I asked Nigey if she had heard what her poem had been. She, too, had had the same problem--whether it had been poetic and sonorous she would never know, for it had been unintelligible.We also said goodbye to Linda, who seemed sad to see us go.
I wanted to know more about Bukowski as a man and a lover. I asked Pam Miller, who was once his lover. He borrowed her as a character in "Women." Is Bukowski really a violent womanizer who loves them and leaves them, which he does in his books? I asked. The answer, was: absolutely not. She said Bukowski was a soft pussycat, jealous and possessive of his women, "and needing women far more than they needed him." When Bukowski was courting Pam and they were living apart, Bukowski would leave poetry in her back door whenever she hadn't called him for a day or two. Pam said that Bukowski was kind to her personally but very unkind in print. "He took a lot of poetic license. He always pictures himself as a Romeo living a lot more dangerously than he really did.
"Actually, he's an extremely introverted, cynical, asexual kind of man," she said. "He was a severe alcoholic in his mid-fifties so he wasn't that active, even though he continued to write about his sexual experiences." Still, she said coyly, "sometimes he was a good lover--I would give him a four-star rating." She giggled embarrassingly.
This article is adapted from Lionel Rolfe's "Literary L.A.," whose other books are available at Amazon's Kindle.