“Some people never go crazy.
What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
Every writer rips other writers off.
It’s the name of the game. Hunter Thompson took Hemingway’s words and blew his brains out with them. Charles Bukowski kissed the same dirty pavement John Fante puked on and licked his lips accordingly. But even to this godless day, literary heroes are false-idols, and if worshipped incorrectly, they will lead to an inescapable quick-sand known as plagiarism. Such icons are meant to be chewed but not digested. Too many writers are bloated on their influences, and in this respect, I am morbidly obese. The trick is to spit them out before their flavor seduces you to swallow.
And if you found anything remotely sexual about that last statement, your mind is in the right place: The gutter. The gutters of Los Angeles are where Charles Bukowski lived his entire life. Born in Germany exactly thirteen years before Hitler rose to power, Bukowski’s family moved to Los Angeles in 1930. He grew up during the First Great Depression and slummed it around downtown and East Hollywood most of his life before moving to San Pedro in 1978, where he lived until his death in 1994 at the surprising age of 73. I say “surprising” because, for anyone who knows their literary ass from their cultural elbow, Bukowski lived on alcohol, nicotine and crazy women—not exactly nutritional blocks from the Food Pyramid. He managed to outlive both Hemingway and Thompson, dying just one year shy of his god, Fante. During his 73 years on Earth, Bukowski wrote six novels, hundreds of short stories and thousands of poems.
CUT TO: July 2009, an Italian-American writer from Buffalo, NY prepares to board a bus embarking on a tour of Bukowski’s world—some half-assed attempt to chase the bruised muse of a fifteen year-old ghost. In a day and age where the Internet and Twitter have turned a world of A.D.D. illiterates onto writing, no one is a writer. The magic is long gone. Hell yes, the floodgates of technology have opened and we are all awash in the rubbish of widespread mediocrity.
Surely if there is any one phantom who would be outraged about our current literary state of affairs, it would be Two Buck Chuck. Here was a man who treated words with more respect than people, and the assimilation of those words into art was nothing less than a religion for him. Can he peer out from his permanent corner in the universe and have sympathy for my plight?
Before you get all pissy with the World’s Smallest Violin, make no mistake: There is no occupation more futile in the 21st century than that of a writer. It is a lonely path rife with tumble-weed dreams and littered with road-kill hopes, especially in an industry as commercialized and cowardly as Hollywood—which is Ground Zero for modern indifference and ruled by a fraternity of eunuchs. It is safe to say there is nothing cool about writing anymore, nothing macho or rebellious, and most certainly nothing sexy. It takes a certain masochistic pride to call yourself a writer these days, and maybe that’s the niche I’ve been searching for: Self-Inflicted Musings From an Obsolete Soul and Other Creative Miscarriages. That’s it! Now we’re getting in the damn spirit of the day.
It’s the dead of summer in the belly of downtown Los Angeles. The air is malleable and the whiskey in my pocket is hot to the touch. The Esotouric bus is waiting outside of Philippe’s, one of the oldest restaurants in the city and birthplace of the French Dipped Sandwich. Bukowski frequented the joint back in the day, and it’s our launching-pad into his demented dimension. I’m the last to board the luxurious bus filled with about forty people—all upstanding citizens of The System. I squeeze into one of the front seats next to Richard Schave, who runs the tour (esotouric.com) with his wife, Kim. The couple debuted their tour in May 2007 and offer journeys into all things strange (mad scientists of Pasadena), violent (the Black Dahlia murder), and literary (Raymond Chandler, John Fante, et al). Today, we’ll retrace the ragged steps of a Dirty Old Man.
First stop on the list is the Terminal Annex Post Office, where Bukowski worked for over a decade before gaining serious acclaim as a writer. It was here that he gained inspiration for his landmark novel Post Office, which was the result of Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin. Martin, having caught wind of Bukowski’s early poetry, offered to pay Bukowski $100 a month for the rest of his life if he would quit his position as a letter filing clerk and dedicate himself entirely to his writing. The year was 1969 and Bukowski was forty-nine years-old, effectively smashing modern ageism in the face with a hammer. Since then, the building has become the largest Internet hub on the west coast and is guarded by trigger-happy sentinels waiting for a terrorist attack.
The L.A. Grand Central Library is where Bukowski whet his voracious literary appetite, and where he discovered his personal messiah, John Fante (Ask the Dust). In the late 70’s, when Bukowski was in his prime, he had Black Sparrow Press reissue the long-forgotten novel, which reignited interest in Fante’s legacy from a new generation. In his preface to the reissued novel, Bukowski wrote about his discovery: It was like finding “gold in the city dump.” He went on to say that, “Fante was my god and I knew that the gods should be left alone, one didn’t bang on their door.” However, anyone who has read the two authors knows full-well that Bukowski didn’t just bang on Fante’s door, he kicked it open and made himself at home.
Clifton’s Cafeteria is where Bukowski (and thousands of others) ate many a free meal during the First Great Depression. Clifford Clinton was a saint during this tough time, and he opened his restaurant to anyone who was hungry. Clifton’s remains one of the oldest and most charitable restaurants in L.A. history, and you owe it to yourself to check it out. The first floor is a weird recreation of the rustic Redwood forest, complete with murals, waterfalls and Gold Rush Era décor; the second floor is like walking through a time warp, just as it was decades ago. Old men resembling Two Buck Chuck himself sit hunched over their food trays, eating in quiet solitude.
Next on the tour is 5124 De Longpre Ave., where Bukowski lived from 1963 to 1972. In this humble abode, he refined his writing and found his voice. It is here he wrote his acclaimed novel Women, among many other poems and short-stories. In a poem dedicated to his publisher John Martin, Bukowski wrote of his home:
And thank you / for locating me there at / 5124 De Longpre Avenue / somewhere between / alcoholism and / madness. / Together we / laid down the gauntlet / and there are takers / even at this late date / still to be / found / as the fire sings / through the / trees.
The story behind the conservation of the property is worthy of its own article, but the Cliff’s Notes version will have to suffice: Richard and Kim Schave initiated a grass-roots campaign to have the residence preserved once and for all as an official Historic-Cultural Monument. During the legal proceedings, the landlord—who would have stood a greater profit had he been able to sell off the property—declared Bukowski a Nazi, according to Internet rumors, and therefore should not be deemed historically significant. Fortunately for our culture, these unfounded ravings were ignored. As of 2008, 5124 De Longpre ain’t going anywhere. Thanks, Richard and Kim.
As I stand outside in the baking July heat, I peer into the kitchen window of the bungalow-style house, where Bukowski did a majority of his writing. I can almost hear the Mozart or Beethoven playing and I try to imagine him sitting there, grooving on a solid buzz and letting the words flow through him while the Vietnam War rages far away. The Mexican family who now lives there regards the tour with an amused indifference. They hang around the front porch, the men shirtless, and study us as much as we study their home. It is a relatively safe bet they have no idea what this place means, or what literary brilliance was created within their walls. To some strange folk operating on the periphery of this society, it would be like living in a holy museum. To most others, it’s just another pile of bills and problems.