“DON’T TRY” reads one more flat tomb stone at Green Hills Memorial Park in Rancho Palos Verdes. Not just any corpse resides here though; it is the final resting place of Charles Bukowski, one of America’s most soulful and productive street writers. What he did for the word in American poetry is only comparable to what Jimi Hendrix did to expand the vocabulary of the electric guitar. He made the impossible possible, growing beyond pretentious University ‘poetry’ and the writing trends of the times. Bukowski transcended conformity and expectations, being chained to neither etiquette nor impotence. In this process he found and forged his own voice; a voice that continues to influence and inspire writers a world apart to this very day.
This last odyssey started when I received a letter from my local book store informing me of a bus tour of Charles Bukowski’s life here in Los Angeles, California. I was bewildered; “How the hell do they know I love Bukowski…? Oh yes, the purchases I’ve made, it is a book store after all…” I laughed with the old writer’s phantom. Can you imagine the story? What would he say? Former postal worker and world-renowned drunk who did not want to work a day job, yet too scared to quit, fulfilling his destiny as literary genius? “People want to see my old stomping grounds? Save your time, buy some booze or go to the bar… no money? Then go to your local library…”
None of the aforementioned points and assumptions about Bukowski’s life desecrates his memory or identity as a true individual in thought and art. He was dedicated to his work, having some 110 odd books in print, with more coming off the press posthumously. But finding his voice and growing to become one of the most productive street writers did not happen suddenly after one hang-over morning; it was no ordinary affair with the neighbor’s wife
Though Bukowski is disregarded in some literary circles by academic critics, no one can come close to his legacy or his methods of going about his work. Whether he was writing about his mundane life as a government employee, excited drunken gambler or rising literary hero, Bukowski had a way of painting the agony to perfectly capture whatever threads of life he needed to make his work complete whether it was insightful, humorous, shocking or tragic. He is one of my favorite street poets, and of all the drunks and crazies that have somehow slithered out of this abyss, he was the one who created the most profound impact on my life. I knew I had to buy the ticket, take the ride.
In the spirit of Charles Bukowski, I was thinking of getting drunk before the tour….but what would become of the story then? Yes, drunken writing is better left for the amblings of midnight poetry. I opted for the usual routine; crawling out of bed and starting the morning with three pots of coffee and two packs of cigarettes. I made my down to the book store by 11:45 A.M. and after talking briefly to our friendly tour guides, we were taking the ride downtown to find Bukowski’s Los Angeles.
Most of the people on the bus looked like the same people Charles Bukowski wrote about; the people he didn’t understand… conventional beings with conventional dreams who looked like they lived soft and leisure lives. I was surprised. For being fans of one of the literary world’s most original cynics, everyone was so damn cheerful. But I knew it can’t be judged that way, after all, who really knows what secret horrors a smiling face can be masking. Is it sincere, or are they hiding something? Did the Night Stalker smile like this before he ambushed his prey? Either way their countenances belonged, both beautiful and ugly, helping to make the day as one. The bus roared on.
We were riding in a 57-seater behemoth that was upholstered with unsightly pink, green and gray cloth seats. There were TV’s hanging over head that played clips of Bukowski’s poetry readings and interviews. Our eccentric tour guides talked about Bukowski’s life, writing, and the way in which he found himself and his voice. It was announced that we were heading to the United States Post Office Terminal Annex in down town Los Angeles. The Annex is where Bukowski worked for eleven years of his life before fearfully quitting. He was delving into a world of possible failure to pursue his unknown destiny. Bukowski was to become a legend known as the “Poet Laureate of Skid Row.”
Somewhere in this mess, I gave up, knowing that it was impossible to entertain the heart long enough to make sense of it. This project was massive; the history and culture of this city’s canvas and how it and the artist fed off one each other was too daunting of a tale to tell. I had spent half of the day just gazing out at Los Angeles’ average cracked-concrete street scene daydreaming of the potential of a careful surgeon’s work with paper and pen. I knew that there was great power contained in all this, but the words were not coming and when they did, they could not be placed or balanced. No line was checking out like I asked it to and when I said ‘dance’, they disappeared. Dejected, I gave up. Hours later, the solution drifted in on a lost dream stitched together with dead hope.
We had visited Bukowski’s old haunts, many of which were torn down. We talked about various pieces of his life, but there was only so much to go on. It was clear that Bukowski’s Los Angeles is largely gone and going and what is left is being constantly reinvented; the question is for better or for worse? These were the ghosts of experiences that were to be flames behind Bukowski’s back; a poet with a rare gift to capture man’s true nature… the savage, the beautiful, the obscene. He had his own way of doing it too; for something to be profound, it does not need to take up a lot of space or time.
Furthermore, Bukowski could transform the ‘average’ street scene and all its attendant happenings into something completely separate and new, a raw and invaluable gem; a lively entity that could hold booze all on its own. He held his voice down to the earth, amongst and not above. He became, in my eyes, the voice of this city. Whenever I ask the concrete jungle for an answer or listen to the gentle hum of the freeway at three in the morning; I don’t hear the mayor, I don’t hear the busy people or the shining stars, what I hear is the poet. Renovation and new politics step in from time to time and I forget what it sounds like all over again, but it is always there waiting for me.
Not all cities have such voice though, and this reinvention is nothing new. The histories of our oldest cities in this nation are being dusted away, swept under urban developments and remodeling signs. Main Street just isn’t Main Street any more. Depending on what old-timer you talk to, or if you look with the correct angle of the mind’s eye, you can almost see the splendor of yesteryear’s city-scapes. The lights, the liveliness, the excitement, the reality that has been cleaned out by Christians and Capitalists, substituted with trendy night club scenes and the same rotten pop song. Bukowski in different words, perhaps…. Now he might say something like “Capitalism my ass, you slobs killed art!” As a fellow street writer, I can only speculate.
But with the right voice to explain, one might actually be able to understand what they are born in to. In my case, there was the rotten belief that I had missed the excitement of the past, the notion that I had been born too late and there were no more worthy movements to be a part of. What I learned is there is always the movement of one, and in a place like LA that shifts its persona, values and appearance at the blink of an eye, the movement can forever remain as one. There will always a steady voice to remind me of the city’s one true nature: change. Yes, Bukowski’s LA is no longer Bukowski’s. It’s something else, and it belongs to a new generation. The voice still remains here, hidden maybe; to be found under new construction and sloppy graffiti, behind the fences and hiding in the fallout of condemned buildings…
In one article, what can I say about an over-seer such as Bukowski? A life time of beauty and suffering that makes for excruciatingly romantic pain and poetry can not be summed up in any news print. I’ve always detested those who try in vain wrap up the entire life and creative body of a super-mutant creative force in some sort of comprehensive article or book. With a lot of finesse it can be touched upon possibly and maybe even briefly explained, but even then it falls short. Anything much more is impossible, anything much more is arrogance.
Bukowski was a real anti-hero, a well deserved slap in the likes of Heratio Alger’s face. He was the last of a dynamic and inventive species, a soldier armed with new weaponry forged by Providence itself and an individual that only comes around once a millennium. No matter how hard one tries, there is just no carefully organizing and packaging such a versatile artistic tempest.
It’s better left to true nature, poetry and wine:
The last of the Skid Row Bars is waiting to be closed
and the bums still sit outside of Los Angeles Central
with their bottles in brown paper bags
and the library is waiting for one more fire
one more budget cut
to bid Los Angeles eternal good night
Far exceeding imitation dreams on Bunker Hill
past Los Angeles’ hunger
and the craze of the barren desert of East Hollywood
through bloody and broken chains
and bus stops made all around the country
Through expectations left behind with your ticket stubs
you found your voice, and you lent it to this impoverished city
Beyond the seedy side, bathed in a palm’s shadow or
glowing in brash sunlight or sleeping noisily through out the night
onward, to the mythic place where
its Stars, its Politics and its Attractions
all shine as a beacon
to let the world know that this is the place to be
and its call is heard and the people come
but your Los Angeles is gone
what’s left belongs to someone else
and for them it’s too late
The commercial that is life here
is no more than a shallow feeding frenzy
And there is not enough to go around
The bars are closing, the hookers are disappearing
and there aren’t many places left to shoot new films
They continue to drain the life out of this city
and you were right old man,
“No rose will ever grow here again”
With this, I consider my debt to a long-time friend and influence repaid.~
The bus tour is great! For more information on the Haunts of a Dirty Old Man, as well as other bus tours to the secret heart of LA; visit Esotouric’s official webpage at http://esotouric.com/
For additional information on Charles Bukowski, check out the numerous resources at your disposal including the library, book stores and the World Wide Web.