The real Bukowski
Hank’s Sacramento friends reminisce about the notorious drunk and gentle laureate of skid row, who would have turned 91 this week
This bar is tucked away in a weird corner of Sacramento’s Broadway that smells like dog piss and wet dishrags. The kind of place where men who carry leaf blowers take off their packs and hang their heads just low enough to smell the sourness of stale beer on the carpet. But the reason I’m here is because this is a Charles Bukowski story, and this bar seems like the kind of place full of people who might read Bukowski. Or have at least heard of him. My point is to hear what the average, bar-dwelling local has to say about the writer, who championed our country’s poor and filtered their experiences through his typewriter and onto the page with ease and humor.
Bukowski was the guy who wrote with tenderness about whores, who wrote with the weeping pen of a poet about his horrific case of teenage acne. The man who Time magazine called “a laureate of American lowlife.”
Surely, someone at this bar has heard of him? But there are only five people here, including me and the bartender, a kind-looking woman maybe in her 50s.
“What can I get you?” she asks, smiling, sliding a napkin on the table.
“I just want a soda,” I say.
“You look young,” she says, still smiling. It’s a good smile, not a “Welcome to Starbucks” smile.
I don’t even feel like asking her about Bukowski. This isn’t the kind of crappy bar I was looking for. I want a Bukowski bar, a bar where I might catch syphilis from washing my hands in the men’s room.
But now that I think about it, maybe this is the perfect Bukowski bar. After all, Bukowski’s old Sacramento buddies say the man seemed, at times, to be putting on a grand show. Bukowski made quite a few friends here in Sacramento throughout the ’60s and ’70s, and a few of them are still here today. And their message was plain: While he had most of America fooled into believing that he was an anti-social barroom brawler, his friends knew that at his core Bukowski was simply a poet, a husband, a father and a writer. A fabulist.
Which reminds me of something Neeli Cherkovski, Bukowski’s old friend and biographer, told me when I visited his home recently. “He may or may not have been a wild guy in his 20s,” Cherkovski said. “I tend to think not, because of those photos of his parents. He was very close to them, I think. As much as he said he wasn’t, he was.
“These great, rough, tough guys turn out to be mama’s boys.”
Point is, there is myth and there is fact. And sometimes the facts aren’t very interesting. Especially when you’re talking about Bukowski, a man whose written myth is possibly more exciting than going out into the night with a Glad bag full of cocaine, a girl on your side and a fistful of cash.
Who is Hank?
For journalism’s sake, it’s probably good to tell you a little bit about Bukowski. It seems that even people who aren’t really into literature have a favorite Bukowski short story, book or poem. Or at least they’ve had some experience with his writing in one form or another.
Unfortunately, some only know him from the 1987 movie Barfly, directed by Barbet Schroeder, which was loosely based on the writer’s life and where Mickey Rourke swaggers around the screen for a head-scratching hour and a half like a fucked-up Cowardly Lion in one of the grandest performances of overacting ever. The truly unlucky people are the ones who sat through the breathtakingly stupid 2005 film Factotum—which scored a generous 75 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—with Matt Dillon as the protagonist in perhaps one of the worst casting decisions of a lifetime.
Bukowski was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski on August 16, 1920, in Andernach, Germany. When he was 3, his parents took him to the United States. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was 10 years old, which is where he mostly lived for the rest of his life. Or at least that’s what Wikipedia says.
The interesting parts of his life can be pieced together through his own writing, such as the poem about the time he was jumped by an adoring fan on stage (“My Groupie”), or the endless tales about fighting, drinking and screwing—and more fighting—from his novel Women. His protagonist, Henry Chinaski, was his security blanket, an alter ego, even though Bukowski himself said that about 90 percent of his writing was true.
But, in this case, it’s useless to try and pry the fiction from the truth—although there was a huge difference between Bukowski on the page and Bukowski in real life, insists Neeli Cherkovski, or Neeli Cherry, as he called himself back in the ’60s. Cherkovski, now a prolific writer (who recently released From the Canyon Outward on R.L. Crow Publications and From the Middle Woods on New Native Press), reads his work periodically in Sacramento. He’s also the author of the biography Bukowski: A Life.
As a 15-year-old kid, Cherkovski hung around with Hank, as Bukowski was sometimes called, hoping that he could learn from the older, wiser poet, who had been experiencing a little bit of success with publishing in small journals. The unlikely duo—the old, burly poet and the awkward, eager boy—became friends and over the years the two spent a lot of time together, staying up sometimes for three nights in a row, drinking, talking about literature, laughing, fighting.
Cherkovski remembers the drinking, but he never devalues Bukowski’s incredible sensitivity of the world, however dulled with alcohol. As proof of his old friend’s finely tuned, often overlooked consciousness, Cherkovski points to Bukowski’s earlier poems, which mesh images of nature with the gritty urban landscapes that the poet is most known for:
… somehow these mountains are like
an old woman with a bad memory and
a shopping basket.
we are in a basin. that is the
idea. down in the sand and the alleys,
this land punched-in, cuffed-out, divided,
held like a crucifix in a deathhand …
—from “Crucifix in a Deathhand”
Hard liquor, hard truth
On a perfect summer day in San Francisco, Cherkovski leans back in his office chair under the dull light of his study. We are surrounded by dusty books, and the aging poet speaks in a slow, measured tone when talks about his old friend. There’s tenderness in his eyes when he talks of Bukowski, as if he’s talking about his own child. While we sit, his partner, Jesse, makes dinner in the kitchen, and their big-assed dog makes a bed near my feet, falls asleep and then starts to snore.
I ask Cherkovski about what it was like to meet such an enigmatic figure at such a young age. “He was my mentor … a very good poet,” he says. “When somebody is an older writer you like, you’re just a friend; when somebody becomes a celebrity, suddenly you’re a hanger-on or a sidekick. I was hanging out with a lot of people, and Charles Bukowski was one of them.”
Cherkovski makes it clear that what’s behind the Bukowski myth is a fabrication. It’s bullshit. He seems almost upset that the poet, who possessed a nearly debilitating sensitivity, could be written about as if he was some one-dimensional oaf who manhandled his way into the literary world. According to Cherkovski, many people simply had the wrong idea.
“He was a hard worker—very middle class in the way that he looked at his career,” he begins. “The house on Lakewood Avenue he grew up in during the Depression had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room, a kitchen, a dining room, a garage, a backyard and a front yard. And that’s great. It’s OK. It’s fine. Burroughs is from an upper-class background. You puncture the romanticism because that’s romantic in itself. How many people think he grew up in poverty? Or that he was an alcoholic? I don’t think he was an alcoholic. I know alcoholics. He didn’t sink like an alcoholic sank.
“But he couldn’t handle hard liquor—that I know for sure.”
One time, Bukowski swigged some whiskey after visiting the poet Harold Norse and turned into a monster, cussing at Cherkovski, blacking out. Another time, when they got really drunk, Bukowski approached his young friend.
“Hey, would you give me a blow job?” Bukowski asked.
Cherkovski responded, “Go to bed, old man.”
In the morning, Bukowski woke up and said apologetically, “I thought you were some woman named Nelly.”
But in the end, through the venomous fights and awkward sexual encounters, Hank was there for Cherkovski.
“There was a real solid base to this guy,” he says. When Cherkovski’s mother died, Bukowski and his wife Linda drove from Los Angeles to San Bernardino and spent the day with the grieving poet.
Cherkovski remembers: “We were standing on a hillside and I said, ‘I’m standing here with … my favorite people in the world.’”
Sacramento poet Ann Menebroker (then Ann Bauman) also remembers the quieter, more humane side of Bukowski. In 1962, Bukowski got a letter from a young Menebroker, who, as a budding writer, had become fascinated with Buk’s poem “Dead Stay Alive Too Long,” in Signet journal. He wrote back (as documented in Screams From the Balcony: Selected Letters 1960-1970):
“got yr note … and it filled a hole in the mailbox where a rejected poem usually sits. Am sitting here having a beer and staring out the same window, 3 floors up, miles out in to the nowhere of Hollywood. If you saw something in the poem (or poems) good. Yet a little praise is a bad thing, and a lot of it is worse. We cannot be too careful. It is better for the artist to work out of a vacuum, going from creation to creation, each a new beginning, until it is all over, until he is dead in the sense that he can no longer create or he can no longer create because he is dead (physically). The latter, of course, is preferable.”
And so began their correspondence and eventual meeting. Yet, Menebroker, who still lives in Sacramento and publishes poetry to this day (Tiny Teeth: The Wormwood Review Poems, from R.L. Crow Publications), doesn’t like to talk much about the old guy anymore, no matter how much she is bribed.
“Ted Finn [a poet and film critic who worked for The Sacramento Union in the ’60s and ’70s] says Bukowski came here to see me, and got shy and didn’t contact me. I never saw him in Sacramento,” Menebroker says. “Ted said he saw him in a bar. I don’t know which one, and Ted never gets into Sacramento anymore. I used to tell Ted he was lying, but he kept swearing he wasn’t. Now we’ll never know.”
Prying, I ask Menebroker what she remembers about Bukowski that struck her as humorous.
“I don’t remember anything particularly funny about Bukowski,” she says. “We were both drunk when I was with him in L.A. The next day when he took me to the airport in Los Angeles, he wasn’t terribly funny either, but he had charm, honey, he had charm. It oozed out of his fierce mouth.”
And that was all. Bukowski and his fierce mouth.
Another Sacramento poet, Gene Bloom, recalls his meeting with Bukowski in a bit more detail. Bloom, a Brooklyn native, published Bukowski in his lit magazine Entrails in 1967. A few years later, he arranged a meeting at one of Hank’s favorite West L.A. bars. They didn’t talk too much about poetry, Bloom said, but they decided to go to the racetrack to bet on some horses. Hank spent a great deal of time gambling. “Once we got to the racetrack it was just horses,” Bloom said.
At one point, Bloom excused himself to go smoke pot away from the crowd, and Bukowski looked at him with surprise.
“A smoke?” Bukowski said. “You mean the stuff that makes you loopy?”
“It doesn’t make me loopy,” Bloom replied.
“I don’t know why you need that.”
“You drink,” Bloom said. “Why do you need that?”
Bukowski left him alone after that. “We got along OK. We had a good understanding with poetry and the horses.” Bloom said. “But he was kind of the curmudgeon type.”
That day at the track, they both lost a little bit of money. But shortly after is when Bukowski’s writing career really started to take off.
Cherkovski remembers this time vividly, because it’s when Bukowski got a bit lost in fame. “In the early ’70s, he started to become more well-known and he got kind of … snooty—but in a childish way,” Cherkovski says. “Other friends around were kind of disgusted by it. He could, if he wanted to, be cruel. He played his cards a little too heavily.”
Throughout the ’70s, the Bukowski myth fueled his fame as a writer. Of course, his novels Women and Post Office had garnered good reviews among critics, but it didn’t hurt that the man was more than a writer—a spectacle. Witnessing Bukowski at a live reading wasn’t some stuffy, academic affair; there was danger when you watched a drunken poet who wasn’t afraid to get hammered or heckle the crowd.
By 1984, Cherkovski was in the midst of trying to find himself as a writer while Bukowski was navigating the murky waters of fame, and the two good friends hadn’t seen each other for many years. They’d gone different directions; Bukowski stayed in Los Angeles, carving out a huge name for himself in the literary and Hollywood worlds, while Cherkovski moved to San Francisco to write quietly. There, he found his partner, Jesse, who traveled to L.A. with him one day many years later. They visited their old friend “Red” Stodolsky’s Hollywood bookstore and eventually got to talking about Bukowski, a mutual friend. Stodolsky convinced Cherkovski to call his old friend.
“Listen, I don’t think he wants to see me,” Cherkovski said.
“Ah, kid,” Stodolsky replied. “For Christ’s sake.”
Red got on the phone and called Bukowski.
“He gets us back together,” Cherkovski says. “When Jesse and I went over to see him, the first thing he said was, ‘I hope you guys are staying the night. I’m so glad you’re with somebody.’”
The fact that Bukowski accepted his friend’s homosexuality without a word deeply touched him.
“Didn’t ask anything about it. Didn’t say anything about it,” Cherkovski says. “We stayed the night with him and Linda.”
Love & Fame & Death
it sits outside my window now
like an old woman going to market;
it sits and watches me,
it sweats nervously
through wire and fog and dog-bark
I slam the screen with a newspaper
like slapping at a fly
and you could hear the scream
over this plain city,
and then it left.
the way to end a poem
is to become suddenly
Throughout the next 10 years, Cherkovski spent much time carving out a place for himself as a writer while Bukowski turned writing into a full-fledged career; he was able to buy a good house, a nice car and eat at nice restaurants. He was not just a working writer, but a famous working writer. He had successfully combined his sensitivity with the language with the brutish, mythical version of himself, and built an empire.
But many years after he’d become friends with Sean Penn and Madonna, and was able to rest in the oasis of his fame, Bukowski got sick. Really sick. At the age of 73, in 1994 (the same year Lorena Bobbitt was found not guilty for slicing off her husband John Bobbitt’s dick), right after he finished his last novel Pulp, Bukowski died after a long, nasty bout of leukemia.
Cherkovski was barred from the funeral, and he still isn’t sure why. Some of it, he believes, had to do with the biography he wrote. Linda, Bukowski’s wife, thought he wrote too much about Bukowski’s former lover Linda King. Bukowski thought Cherkovski pulled too many punches, didn’t get the story down right. It was messy. And by the look on Cherkovski’s kind face, he didn’t want his relationship with Bukowski to end that way. But that’s how it went.
“He wasted away,” Cherkovski says. “But I think he felt like he did his job. I think he died a satisfied man.”
Don’t try, barfly
So here I am outside of this shitty bar, waiting for something to happen—something Bukowski-like. Perhaps a hooker might fly out of a window, headfirst. Or maybe a black midget will walk in the door and give me a blow job. Or maybe, with any luck, this homeless Hawaiian-looking dude with a ponytail will walk right up and tell me a story about the time he and the old poet sat beneath a bridge by the river and passed a fifth of whiskey back in forth.
“Could you give me a dollar?” he asks. He’s missing two of his front teeth.
“Sure,” I say. “But, first, tell me, do you know anything about Charles Bukowski?”
“The singer?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say. “The singer.”
In Green Hills Memorial Park, Ocean View Plot, No. 875—Rancho Palos Verdes in Los Angles County—Bukowski’s gravestone, a small rectangle, flush with the ground, reads, “Don’t try.” I’m pretty sure he was onto something there.
SN&R asked local bartenders and barflys:
Bukowski: love him or hate him?
B. Scott Clayton
Charles Bukowski is a huge influence on me because he is the blueprint for the drunken, I-don’t-give-a-shit-I-live-for-myself poet. He just lived his life the way he wanted to live. Either he curses or he doesn’t. He’s a man after my own brain, my own psyche. Or maybe I’m a man after his own brain and psyche. I wrote a song called “Barfly”: “Barfly floating around my head again / not now, I’m drowning in a river / can’t cope liquor is my only friend / except this lousy barfly.” Those are my lyrics. I can’t remember Bukowski’s words, but I stole and raped them and made them my own.
cook, Old Tavern
In his books, he says a bunch of things that are pretty wild, but they’re on point. Especially hanging out here, which I always thought was funny. Women is absolutely hilarious. Post Office was really good. He’s got a handful of poetry stuff and he’s just a dirty old fucking man. He says what’s up and he’s pretty raw about it. He’s got a poem that’s called “250 Pounds,” where he’s talking about sleeping with a little vegetarian girl and she’s super tiny, and they’re having an argument in bed, and instead of arguing with her anymore, he just rolls on top of her, and she can’t do anything about it because he’s 250 pounds.
bartender, Uncle Vito’s
I don’t know who he is. But we have good drunk stories. My favorite thing is when someone will be eating their pizza and they’ll set it on the bartop, and there’ll be beer there, but he’ll set it down anyway then pick it up again and eat it. And they don’t even care, because they’re so drunk. Sometimes a nice drunk can be really ditzy, like you’ll ask them something and they’ll look at you for like 10 minutes without giving you an answer.
bartender, Flame Club
I mean, it kind of worried me a little bit, because it was like the more and more I read about him—and I didn’t understand the issues going on in his life—but to write about the sexual, organic things … they make you feel uncomfortable in a way because you kind of feel them yourself. But it’s so wonderful and beautiful. … I was only about 14, and all my friends were like 26, 27—I grew up in Massachusetts—and of course I wanted to emulate and read what they were reading at that age. … But it kind of gave me a better understanding about life, and what love could be.
at the bar, The Golden Bear
I used to live on North Oxford Avenue in Los Angeles, in Koreatown. And on [Bukowski’s] website you can look at a map of all the places he’s lived and, apparently, he lived on Second and Oxford, which was right down the street. At the time I was really into Bukowski—I was dating a girl who gave me the novel Women, and I really love that—so I just got obsessed with him. … I went to his famous bungalow off Normandie and Vermont [avenues], it’s a historical spot in L.A. now that’s fenced off and they won’t tear it down, even though it’s very valuable real estate. … I don’t think he’s misunderstood, because he’s so blunt, so “fuck you” and so honest in his writing. That’s what I loved about him.
All he wrote about was women, drinking, fighting and working at the post office. They loved him in France, from what I understand. He was a prolific writer; he wrote tons of books. His work definitely reflects this bar. Fighting, women, drinking—one of the owners here even works at the post office! I think one of my favorite things about Bukowski’s writing is how he tears apart all of the classics—these amazing writers that you hear about in college—and he just says they’re pretty much shit. In some terms I do agree with him. He was a working-class man, and I think that it was really cool to achieve the level of notoriety that he did, and still be a working-class guy.