First published in the L.A. Free Press on May 19, 1972, this piece is excerpted from Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1944-1990 by Charles Bukowski and edited by David Calonne, to be published in September by City Lights Books. Copyright 2008 by the Estate of Charles Bukowski.
I was born in Andernach, Germany, August 16, 1920, the bastard son of an American soldier with the American Army of Occupation. At the age of two, I was brought to the U.S. and after a couple of months’ stay in Baltimore I was brought to Los Angeles, and after maturity (?) I bummed the country at random, back and forth, up and down, in and out, but I always returned to Los Angeles, and here I am today, living in a falling-down front court just off the poor man’s Sunset Strip. If anybody is an authority on the scene, I ought to be, though granted, the scene has filtered down through days and nights of wine and beer and whiskey, and perhaps a desperation that has twisted my perspective a bit, but I was here, am here, and speak of it...
The Alvarado street scene, alone, is worth retelling, even though my material dates from 15 years ago. I imagine there have been changes but that the changes have not been rapid. Or have they? It was just a weeknight ago I was sitting in a nudie bar on Sunset, with girls grinding their boxes at me. But that area between 3rd Street and 8th Street on Alvarado and the bars running up and down those streets have hardly changed as much. It is the poor man’s area, there across from the park, where they sit waiting on luck, waiting on death. It is the second skid row of L.A.
I opened those bars and closed them, fought in them, met women in them, made the old Lincoln Heights jail a dozen times. There is a whole section of people down there, who live on air and hope and empty returnable bottles and the grace of their brothers and sisters. They live in small rooms, always behind in the rent, dreaming of the next bottle of wine, the next free drink in the bar. They starve, go mad, are murdered and mutilated. Until you live and drink among these, you will never know the abandoned people of America. They are abandoned and they have abandoned themselves. I joined them. And among all these, there are women, most of them harpies, but here and there, women of body and mind, alcoholic, mad. I lived off and on with one of them for seven years; with others for shorter periods. The sex was good; they were not prostitutes; but something had fallen out of them, something in life had made them incapable of love or of caring. Police raids on our unpaid-for rooms were not uncommon. I became as violent and could curse as well as any of those ladies on the wine. Some of them I buried, some of them I hated, some of them I loved, but they all gave me more wild action, albeit it was mostly bad, than could fill the lives of 20 men. Those ladies from hell finally put me in the L.A. County General Hospital, all the way to the critical list, and coming out, I retired from Alvarado Street, but if you’d like to try some, I imagine the same breed nourishes the death wish down there...
After a bad marriage I decided, well, hell, I might as well be a writer, that seems easiest, you say anything you want to and they say, hey, that’s good, you’re a genius. Why not be a genius? There are so many half-assed geniuses. So I became a genius.
My first thought was to stay away from writers, artists, creators, feeling that they could take one off the path with the misdirection of their ambitions. After all, a good writer need only do two things well: Live and write, and the job is done. In Los Angeles it is possible to live in total isolation until they find you, and they will find you. And drink with you for days and nights, and talk for days and nights. And when they are gone, others will come along. One doesn’t mind the women, of course, but the others are definitely consumers of the soul.
One of the first to find me was M.J., the well-known beat poet of the ’50s, mostly out of New York City, well, Brooklyn. M. just came beating on the door. He was no longer a young man and he had been writing a long time. I was even older and I had just begun writing. Well, that was fair. I had a hangover.