Bukowski's L.A. Scene
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.
“Bukowski, you got wheels?”
“Yeah, but let me get a beer first. Want one?”
“No, I’m on the wagon.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Listen, I got beat up two nights in a row. I got beat up in ’Frisco and the next night I’m down at Barney’s Beanery and I get into another fight. This guy’s a pro. He beats me so bad I shit myself. I had to wipe off with a newspaper. No place to sleep...I want you to drive me to Venice...”
“This guy’s good for a twenty.”
On the way down M. told me how they “owed” it to us. We’d paid our dues, he said. Yeah, Henry Miller used to tap these rich guys when he started. All artists had a right.
I thought it would be nice if all artists had a right to survival, but my thoughts were that everybody had, and if the artist didn’t make it monetarily, he was in the same shape as anybody else who didn’t. But I didn’t argue with M. He was no longer young, but he was still a powerful poet. But somehow in the poetic circles he had become locked out. There were politics in art as well as anywhere else. It was sad. But M. had gone to too many literary parties, he had fallen for too many suck plays, he had crept around too many Names simply because they were Names; he’d made too many demands at the wrong time and in the wrong way. As we drove along, he pulled out a little red notebook of “taps.” All those names were good for a tap.
We made Venice and I got out with M. and we went up to a two-story house. M. knocked. A kid came out.
“Jimmy, I need a 20.”
Jimmy left, came back with the 20, closed the door. We got back in the car, drove back, drank all afternoon and night as M. talked the poetic scene. He had forgotten he was on the wagon. The next morning it was beer for breakfast and out to the Hollywood Hills. Another two-story house. M. had to beat on the windows. A house full of cats and kittens, the smell of cat shit dominated. M. got another 20 and we drove back. And drank a bit more.
I saw M. off and on. Now and then he gave a poetry reading in town here. But they were ill-attended. He read well and the poetry was good, but the hex was on. M. was marked. The taps were running out. Then he found a girl who took him in. I was happy for M. But M. was like any other poet: He fell in love with his women, perhaps too much so. He was soon on the street again, sometimes sleeping on my couch, bitching against the fates. Since nobody would publish his books anymore, he began to mimeo his own copies. I have one here now: All American Poets Are In Prison. He inscribed it for me:
By the Grace of the Gods
Sometimes we can still raise it.
Show it to me he yelled. Show it
to me. Man I’m trying to find it.
Take it easy. Here man here it
is. On the palm of his hand was
a speck of white seed. I don’t
come as often as youse do he
said. Here man you want to see
my cock, Here it is standing like
a tree naked in the asparagus
Then M. began writing songs. I have a book of his songs somewhere.
“I’m going up to see Janis Joplin and show her my songs,” he said.
I felt it wouldn’t work, but I couldn’t tell M. He was such a romantic, he had such hopes. He came back.
“She wouldn’t see me,” he said.
Now Janis is dead and M., last I heard, was swinging a mop in Brooklyn, working at last — for his brother. I hope M. comes back, all the way back. For all his Name hang-ups and panhandling, there are worse poets on top right now. Maybe all American poets are in prison. Most of them, anyhow ...
Then there was N.H. of the Paris Beat scene, the Tangiers scene, Greece and Switzerland, the Burroughs gang . .. N. appeared along with myself and another poet in a recent Penguin Modern Poets series. Suddenly he was down at Venice Beach, rotting on the shore, no longer writing; complaining of a decaying liver and been looked over by an aged mother he kept well-hidden. Often when I went to see N., young men would come knocking at his door. Although his liver was decaying, it was evident that his pecker was well in order. N. was supposed to go both ways, but I never saw any women about.
“Bukowski, I can’t write anymore. Burroughs wouldn’t talk to me anymore, nobody wants to see me. I’ve been put down. I’m on the shit list. I’m finished. I’ve got six books ready, and nobody wants to touch them.”
N. later claimed that I had axed him with Black Sparrow Press, a publisher of most modern American poetry. It was untrue, but this was N’s mind state. Every visit to him consisted of listening to his bitching about how he had been blackmailed out of the scene. Actually I had asked Black Sparrow to publish him, feeling that he deserved it.
“You’ve never done anything for me, Bukowski.”
One would like to think that creation does its own work, but N. had forgotten that I had written a foreword praising him for his work in a special Ole magazine edition of his poetry. N.’s persecution mania became so bad that once, after N.C. and I paid him an hour’s visit, we had to run to the elevator and once the door was closed we began rolling on the floor in laughter. We were afraid to go out the front way for fear he would hear us and his feelings would be hurt so we ran it down to the basement and rolled on the floor there, laughing for five minutes among the boilers and spider webs and dankness.
N.H. was still a damned good poet. But it was sad the way they could go, ranting. I suppose we’ll all go, ranting. The poetry, the prose climbing the walls like snakes; our suicide mirrors showing gray hairs and gray ways and gray talents. N. had lost his European backer. Things were not so well. The poets would visit him once, then stop. The Free Press offered him a job of writing reviews, but N. didn’t follow it up. Educated, talented, knowledgeable, he was rotting. He admitted it. I told him he could find it again.
Once, another poet and I visited him and suggested a round of drinking, but N. said he had been invited to a party, a special invitation. Would we like to come? Why not? we asked. He had the address. When we got there it was a benefit for somebody, admission $1. We got in the back way and stood around listening to the band. I found a gallon jug of wine and began drinking it. I talked to a couple of women, kissed one, walked around.
Then the poet I was with asked me, “Do you think anybody knows you’re Charles Bukowski?” It was an interesting thought. I walked up to a girl. “Listen, you know I’m Charles Bukowski?” “Charles who?” she asked. The poet with me laughed. I asked several people if they knew I was Charles Bukowski. “Never heard of him. Who’s that?” “Charles Bukowski. Is that Tiny Tim’s dishrag?”
I drank the rest of the wine, and when the benefit was over I ran down to the bottom of the stairway and blocked the exit. “Now you people, this is to let you know that I am Charles Bukowski. Now before I let you out, I want you to say, ‘I know you. Charles Bukowski!’ Now say it!”
“Come on, man, let us out of here!”
“Bullshit, man, let us out of here!”
“Come on, Charles, don’t be an asshole,” said N.
“All right, say it!” I screamed. “Say that I am Charles Bukowski and that you know me! Now say it!”
I had 150 people blocked on that stairway and inside. Then the poet next to me said, “Bukowski, the police are coming!”
I was gone fast, running down the streets of Venice West, N. and the poet running behind me. Yes, N. and I were both having bad days and nights. But last I heard he was making a nice comeback, going to ’Frisco and putting out a magazine, and I’ve lost the flyer but I believe he’s printing Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Burroughs, all of them. He’d finally gotten away from Rose Ave., down there around the parking lot, the soulless hippies sitting on the cement benches, starving, bumming, trying to steal from that Jewish grocery store and waiting for Tim Leary to tell them — Drop out, to what? But Leary isn’t there. Just the seagulls and the waiting and no creation ...
Ah, then there was Mad Jack the painter. A woman was taking care of him, a young woman with a fairly large house. Jack had the whole basement to himself, his paintings spread on the cement down there. I think they were rather good, done with India ink scratches in black and toned up in these blobs of yellow applied with a brush. There were hundreds of them, and almost all of them looked alike.
Jack always had a bottle of wine in his pocket, port, and he was always drunk or getting drunk. He seldom bathed, and the mucus ran from his nose and dried in black designs above the lip and mouth. Even his beard was dirty, and he screamed when he talked, always something melodramatic and just a bit stupid. I had to drink to bear up with him. As I said, though, the paintings were good and I forgave a lot for that. I suppose his girl thought the same way, and he probably ate her up pretty good too. Or so he told me.
I’d go over there and get drunk all night, smoking a bit too, and some pills. I don’t know what the pills were, we threw it together, and there was a piano there and I don’t know how to play the piano, but I played it. I played it like a drum, for hours, getting these strange sounds that I don’t think anybody ever got off a piano before.
One night we all went out for drinks and we were screaming back and forth at each other on the streets and in the liquor store, his girl was along, and this guy came back with us, he thought we were interesting, but the guy started bragging how he’d killed guys in the war, and I told him that didn’t take any special merit, that was sanctified, and that it was much more of a thing to kill a guy out of the war.
“You don’t like me much, do you?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I said.
He left. When he came back he had a gun belt and holster on. He walked over to me. He pulled the gun and put it to my belly.
“I’m going to kill you,” he said.
“I’ve got this suicide complex,” I said. “Go ahead.”
“A little. Death isn’t easy. Shoot. I don’t think you’ve got the guts, killer.”
He put the gun back in the holster. We never saw him again...
Mad Jack was always coming around to my place for the touch, 15 cents, 10 cents. Enough to round out a bottle of wine. He finally became a bit boring — in spite of his paintings. A certain type of genius can be awfully dull. In fact, most genius is dull most of the time until they are ready to explode into their art. The vocally brilliant ones are always the fakes. Anyhow, I got to avoiding Jack. Then I heard he had an exhibition and sold some of his paintings for $6,000. He flew to Canada and drank it all up in the same bar within a week. Then he was back at my door, begging pennies.
Someday he’ll be rich on his paintings, but he’ll still be walking around with dried snot under his nose and a bottle of wine in his pocket, and all those screaming little dull melodramatic things he does will be looked upon as ultimate and precious brilliancies.
Then there’s big T.J. up in Echo Park. I don’t think he’s written a new poem in 10 years, he always read the same ones over and over at poetry readings. T.J. has a problem... Anyhow, he’s a huge man, a sort of myth. He used to hang out at Venice West when it was going strong, you know, the naked girls in bathtubs, the Holy Barbarians, in a sense, the whole sick scene that had to fade because it was based more on a play of creation than real creation, but it all counts, like gas stations and weenies and Sunday picnics, so let’s not get bitter; anyhow, T.J. used to sweep in from the walk into one of those places and with one swing of his arm knock five guys off their stools. Then he’d look for a table to put his chess set up on and brush those guys to the floor too. Then calmly sit down, light his pipe and begin his game with his partner.
You can see T.J. now up in Echo Park, scrounging around in trash cans looking for his special junk. T. is a great junk collector. His place is full of junk, you can’t sit down. A tape is usually playing. Among the junk sit thousands of books, some of which he has read. He is a special expert on Adolf Hitler. His walls are covered with photos and clippings and sayings and nudes and paintings. It is a crass confusion, and T.J. sits in the middle of it.
“If I ain’t happy,” he says, “life ain’t worth living.” His work of 10 years ago is some of the best work done in our time. It is classical and erudite, and it moves easily and contains knowledge and explosions. T.J. doesn’t work. T.J. doesn’t do anything. How does he make it? Ask her. Ask L.
The strange ones keep coming around. They all want to drink with me. I can’t live with them all or be nice to them all or even find them all interesting. But the types are all alike in one aspect — they are disgusted with our present way of life and living, and they talk about it, some of them almost violently, but it is refreshing that all of America hasn’t swallowed the common bait.
Not all that come by are artists (thank the purple liverwurst Christ), but some are simply strange. L.W. He’s been a bum for five or six years, lived in the flophouses, missions, rode the freights, and had some interesting stories of the road.
He came by. And he was a good actor. He acted out his past experiences, playing the parts of different characters. He was intense and serious but quite humorous because the truth itself is more often funny than serious. L.W. would come at 4 in the afternoon and stay until midnight. Once we talked for 13 hours and had breakfast at Norms at 5 in the morning.
L.W. was an artist who had no outlet for his art except a vocal expulsion of it. I got some stories out of L.W., which I used to my own advantage. Not too many. One or two. But he got on the repeat kick, especially when other people were around. I’d have to listen to the same stories twice over, thrice over. The others laughed, as I did the first time. They thought L.W. was great.
What got me was that L.W. told the same stories word for word, never altering. Well, we all do it, don’t we? I began to weary of L.W. and felt it. I haven’t seen him in some time. I doubt that I will. We have served each other. ...
There are others. They keep coming. All with their special brand of talk or living. I’ve drawn some good ones, these Los Angeles characters, and I suppose they’ll keep coming. I don’t know why people bring me themselves. I never go anywhere. Those few who arrive are dull, I dispose of them quickly enough. I’d only be unkind to myself if I did otherwise. My theory is that if you are kind to yourself, you will be truthful and kind with others, in that certain way.
Los Angeles is full of very odd people, believe me. There are many out there who have never been on a 7:30 a.m. freeway or punched a time clock or even had a job and don’t intend to, can’t, won’t, will die first rather than live the common way. In a sense, each of them is a genius in his or her way, fighting against the obvious, swimming upstream, going mad, getting on pot, wine, whiskey, art, suicide, anything but the common equation. It will be some time before they even us out and make us say quits.
When you see that City Hall downtown and all those proper, precious people, don’t get melancholy. There is a whole tide, a whole race of mad people, starving, drunk, goofy and miraculous. I have seen many of them. I am one of them. There will be more. This city has not yet been taken. Death before death is sickening.
The strange ones will hold, the war will continue. Thank you.
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