John Fante Was L.A. and Bukowski Was L.A. and I Am L.A.
1. I will always link Bukowski with smog and its antidote, the powerful Santa Ana’s, arid, downslope winds, born inland in Fall and Winter, that rush through mountain passes on their way to the San Fernando Valley, “devil winds” that both fan wildfires and disperse toxic smog. Bukowski carried the Santa Ana’s banner: if you face the gale, don’t bend in obedience or resignation, and dare it to topple you, then you are defeating the forces committed to grind you down. Most of those forces are human, (as Dylan put it) “the pettiness that plays so rough,” but some of them are impersonal, such as alcoholism and confusion and the body’s decline and death. In the evenings I often walked from the stucco hovel Old Man Dengler provided our family, down the dirt road that led to town, foregoing protection from the gritty dust that scoured my skin and sometimes blinded me. We could have been living in the Dust Bowl. A lot of kids in my school were children of Dust Bowl refugees. A generation had passed but (as in Leon Russell’s lyric) we were still stuck in the Grapes of Wrath together. The dust crept in everywhere; it respected no personal space. Neither did Bukowski. He briefly substituted for my father and was also my first literary critic and my harshest teacher—he let me know what he thought was bad, and found nothing good.
2. I am L.A., though I have not lived there for many years. I am L.A., as the movie studios were L.A. and the Rolls Royces were, and the dry washes are, and graffiti is, and as Nathaniel West was, and as John Fante was L.A., and Fante was Bukowski’s God, and Bukowski was L.A. As Fante wrote in The Road to Hell, When you go to Confession you must tell everything. Anyone who hides a sin gets into trouble right away, for though you fool the priest it is not easy to fool God. In fact, it can’t be done. Bukowski never hid a sin, never bothered to fool a priest, never bothered to try to fool God, never saw the need, never lied to make me feel better, made me feel as bad as he could. Buk breathed in the smog, breathed it deep, and proclaimed: This is how I know I’m alive, when the air burns my lungs. This is the corrupt air of the city that fills me, and that I fill. Let me breathe smog, and walk along the broken pavements of Paradise. About the time Bukowski came into my life I was making my last attempt to present myself to the world as normal. I didn’t know I was abnormal, though all the pressures and forces toward abnormality were already working on me. My friend Garcia convinced me to try out for the football team with him. The day of the try-outs was a hundred degrees and heavy with smog. Garcia fancied himself a tough guy, heir to Pancho Villa and Che Guevara. He wanted to kick the asses of the black brothers who he knew (accurately) would be bussed in to humiliate us (I remember one home scoreboard vividly: 87-3.) I didn’t want to try out for the football team, but Garcia pressured me, challenged me to be a man, not a wuss. He pressured me like Pollo Murillo and Hector Delgadillo pressured me to huff gasoline with them in Delgadillo’s dim garage, his father’s motorcycle tools strewn all around. I had conflicting caucuses, conflicting pressures. .
Garcia put on the football uniform Coach Trump gave him. I put on mine. I felt like I was wearing a poison-gas suit from World War I, one that wouldn’t work, but would drag me down to the bottom of a muddy trench. The inside of the football helmet had some jagged edges. I started thinking that Trump had made them jagged just to get at me. Trump didn’t like me. He thought I was a hippie. We hadn’t even invented hippies yet, but Trump knew all about them, as if in a state of contemptuous clairvoyance. Trump got in my face and yelled: When the going gets tough, the Tough get going, and Winners never quit and Quitters never win! His philosophy was self-evident, and could not be contradicted. We started running around the field. It was hot as Hell. Trump wouldn’t give me a glass of water. I’d been smoking cigarettes I’d stolen from my father, when he was still around, before he’d split and gone to live a different life in Sonora, Mexico. I’d stolen cigarettes from stores too, and from gas stations. I’d stolen them from the purses of whores. I had the perfect earlyadolescent life in L.A. If I didn’t have the money for something I wanted, I stole it. I never got caught. I considered myself a master criminal, a criminal mastermind. I think Bukowski considered himself one too. I’d been smoking cigarettes, drinking cheap booze, huffing petrol with Murillo and Delgadillo. Who knows what I was doing to my lungs. The air was thick with smog. It was a thousand degrees. I fell to my knees and barfed. Every time I got up and started running, I barfed. I barfed long after the food in my stomach was gone. Garcia ran by and kicked me with his cleats, which made me bleed, and left a scar. I decided I hated Garcia, though we’d grown up together and were best friends. I resolved to kill him. Soon. Trump came up and yelled slogans in my ears. I became a Quitter, I never won. Later, Bukowski would tell me I was worthless, but for different reasons. When I took off the helmet, blood ran down my forehead and into my eyes. .
Winds of Santa Ana
1. The Santa Ana winds shaped me Their power snatched the cigarette from my fingers and drove it deep into dry chaparral The resulting fire was preordained I could have lived in Hoboken NJ and the fire still would have been preordained still my fault
The western winds overwhelmed me They blew my garage open sucked my tuba out into the pebbly road dragged it down the street Sparks flew from its brass I was trying to teach myself to play it so I could join a Mariachi band with Pollo Murillo and Hector Delgadillo
My father was a half-Jewish Rumanian but passed as Mexican
He knew all the love songs that started with Mi Amor and ended with Mi Corazon He never sang them to my mother I knew he was not singing to her though she was his wife She was as beautiful and upright as a statue of a Madonna carved from pinyon wood by a Colonial
When she was around he shut his lips tight or twisted them like a bad ventriloquist
He sang his songs to someone else someone in a different country he hadn’t met yet someone he was preparing for like preparing for the Second Coming
My mother was a Christian woman though she didn’t love Jesus It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in Him She was merely indifferent
2. My cap flew from my head My grandfatherâ€™s fedora blew off his dead head his head a block of grey clay awaiting the pinching of my fingers to truncate the seven generations of suffering deemed necessary
by the Holy Book to wear down sin
Iâ€™d take it down to maybe four
My grandmother reclined on a tree limb holding a Russian ukulele and the eternal flame of youth It glowed orange like the eyes of a tabby cat The wind blew her out of her tree
The wind blew carom boards down Topanga
out to the ocean They skimmed across the surface like plywood torn from houses by a hurricane
I didnâ€™t understand the meaning of youth or age All I understood was the wind
The wind would blow everything away everything of value or lacking value It would all end up stuck on the branches of some bush
I didnâ€™t need to go to high school The wind was my teacher The wind was the wisest teacher The wind would get fiercer every year All human life would disappear
The wind blew like it never did in Patterson New Jersey like Dr. Poet William Carlos Williams never experienced But Dr. Williams kept his wooden tongue depressors
locked in a glass jar anyway He never knew what might be coming
The wind blew out the windows of our stucco shanty the one Old Man Dengler allowed us to live in
3. The Electrical Engineer had come from New Jersey to remake the San Fernando Valley in the image of a Diode had come to cast Aerospace in the image of the Aztec gods with his hordes of self-replicating spawn who enrolled in my school and looked down on me
This engineer sat at his desk and the wind sucked open his drawers scattered his papers financial papers technical papers He had no idea wind could blow like that
Those papers were his life
4. The wind turned coffee beans into bullets The Santa Ana winds stripped tomatoes from their vines the grapes from theirs
Italians and Jews cried together Tumbleweeds are weapons of mass destruction
In the future recreational marijuana would be legal in my new home, Colorado but in the meantime I was going to prison
where I could not be touched by the powerful destructive wind I canâ€™t say I wasnâ€™t grateful
5. Bukowski was L.A. Fante was L.A.
I was L.A. The father who abandoned me was L.A. The rundown VFW hall where he drank was L.A.
My mother took Bukowski to the VFW Hall. Nobody there knew who Bukowski was. This was the Valley, not Hollywood. No one gave a shit. When my mother got wasted and started yelling: Do you know who this is? This is Bukowski! the bartender told her to go fuck herself. Bukowski sat on his barstool with his shit-eating grin.
In the early 1950â€™s, the painter Roberto Chavez came out to the Valley to paint bucolic scenes. Later he switched to scenes from the lifeblood of La Raza, scenes from the ghetto, scenes from Hell, from Los Dias de los Muertos, scenes illustrating sexual fantasies involving Frida Kahlo. By the time I came on the scene in the far northwestern corner of the San Fernando Valley, the bucolic was gone or fast disappearing. Greasy smog sat heavily on everything. There were four gas stations on every corner. Some of them had attendants, some were self-serve. But then the Santa Ana winds came up and blew the smog away, and you could see the white rocks of Chatsworthâ€™s foothill park, just beginning to lose their purity to Mexican graffiti.
4. THE BIRTH OF PERSISTENCE
My father was one of the last hired hands on the dusty pocket ranches of the northwest San Fernando Valley, ringed by eucalyptus trees and shoved against the foothills by encroaching suburbia. In his ragged jean jacket, he looked as Mexican as his compadres, but was actually a half-Jewish Rumanian. He was sinew, gristle and rope, and pissed away his evenings in the rundown bar next to the hall for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. One night, he failed to come home. After eleven days, we got an aerogram from Sonora, the folded paper blue like a washed out sky and dry as a taco shell, wishing us luck. The wizened owner of the Double D Ranch, Old Man Dengler, allowed Ma and me to remain in our shanty for free. Ma began cooking for him, and I spent grumbly evenings alone. It was then, at age fourteen, that I started writing poetry, which featured the smell of hand-rolled cigarettes and the power of the Santa Ana winds. Ma, who had been mistakenly diagnosed as schizophrenic and spent some time on a locked ward in Camarillo, lost what remained of her control over me. At fifteen I began hitchhiking into the seedy side of Hollywood for basement readings by beat poets. A few of them, like Jack Michelene, had achieved minor fame, but not at the level of Charles Bukowski, whom they all talked about but who never showed. (Micheline was mostly living in San Francisco, but, as he put it, was taking a “sabbatical” in L.A.) One day I got a ride with a drunk who crashed his Cadillac while trying to grope me. After I got the casts off my leg and wrist, I persuaded Ma to drive me to the readings, because they were “educational.” Though her twenty-year-old Studebaker Lark was a death trap, it was safer than catching rides with the freaks attracted by my thumb. I figured Ma would drop me off and make herself scarce, but she wanted to see what I was up to, so she joined the group. Because she was actually bipolar (and manic after the freeway ride, all teeth and seduction), she
was, according to Michelene, “a fun gal” and accepted by the poets, who invited her to their parties. In that way she met Bukowski. (from Bukowski’s the young lady who lives in Canoga Park) she has a neck like a swan, could be a movie star, twice in the madhouse, a mother in the madhouse, and a sister in prison. you never know when she is going to go mad again…
I was aware of Bukowski’s work from an underground rag that also featured comix by R. Crumb. “Buk” started showing up at the ranch. He and Ma swam in Dengler’s pool. Bukowski was butt ugly in clothes, but twice as repulsive in baggy red bathing trunks.
and I said, I was beaten down long ago in some alley in another world (from Bukowski’s when you wait for the dawn to crawl through the screen like a burglar to take your life away) .
One day, Bukowski barged into my room and demanded to read my poetry. Instant fantasies flashed like fireworks: him hooking me up with a big New York publisher. He read each poem, dropped it on the floor and dripped on it. The reek of chlorine and beer and cheap whiskey made my head spin. When he was done, the great Bukowski pushed his grimace of a face into mine. His breath was putrid. “Even for a kid, this is pathetic,” he said. “Unadulterated horseshit.” I count that moment as the beginning of my persistence in the face of rejection.
a poem is a city filled with streets and sewers filled with saints, heroes, beggars, madmen… a poem is a city of poets most of them quite similar and envious and bitter… (from Bukowski’s a poem is a city)
5. So that was my youth, and Bukowski’s contribution to it. Okay. We change fast at that age. Or we remain the same. Or both. Four years later I was in the SF Bay area. I thought of looking up Jack Michelene, but didn’t feel like it. I felt he was complicit in getting Bukowski and my mother together, and in Bukowski dissing my early work. I was full of spite, not unlike Bukowski. I can’t remember if I was in college, or had dropped out again. I alternated states. Sometimes when I was in college I thought I had dropped out. Sometimes when I was a drop-out
I wandered into college buildings trying to locate my assigned classroom. Sometimes I read more when I was not enrolled. My drug consumption always seemed to be about the same, though I was more paranoid when I was enrolled. Once I was hitchhiking across the country and got picked up by a dangerous drunk. I was scared to death he was going to kill me in one way or another. I had him drop me off on a country road, pretending I lived there, anything to get out of his car. As soon as he drove away three bristling Doberman Pinschers came running up to menace me. They were the kind of dogs who chewed on metal fencing for fun, and to keep their teeth sharp. I walked backwards away from them. They pursued me, their naked muscles trembling with anticipation, looking for an opening, waiting for me to trip and expose my belly. Then they’d leap on me and tear me apart. It was classic Ape vs. Wolves. Then their owner called them, and they turned and ran, looking for a cow bone to gnaw on. The owner didn’t even know I was there. At that moment I realized that I was supposed to be delivering a presentation that day, but I couldn’t remember what it was supposed to be about or even what class it was for. I was living in J.H’s house at the time. It was sort of a commune. When I got back I boiled some Top Ramen noodles on the stove. I found an old carrot and was slicing it up to add to the noodles. J.H. came in and asked: What are you doing? Cooking dinner. Not much of a dinner, he said. I’m dieting. You look like you’re dying.
I had a part-time job mucking out horse stalls. I didn’t get paid, just got to ride for free. I jumped off my horse and co-eds swooned. I was pure libido, in and out of the saddle. I was an animated Mexican skeleton, its joints burning day-glo red and orange. Young women knew that I was the More Life God had promised them when He stroked them between their legs. I was the candy-flake redemption their parents had tried to keep them from. I was Big Daddy Roth and Big Daddy Roth was L.A. and L.A. calls me back like a spurned lover, calls me back with the promise of melodrama and violence and all the events Bolano included in his book 2066 and the ten thousand pages he edited out (and which were snatched by the Santa Ana winds when they threw open my garage and my tuba went scraping down the pebbled road (the flames from my tuba lit Bolano’s discarded pages on fire.) I should have been in the rodeo. If my dad hadn’t split to Sonora, I was convinced I would have been. My dad would have tied me to a bronc, to a bull, pulled the cords tight and sent me to Hell. Instead, his abandonment detoured me into a suck-ass literary side yard.
Bukowski was giving a reading at the Armory in San Francisco. I hitchhiked over there. I got picked up by a woman in a Cadillac convertible who wanted to take me home and feed me mung beans. I had already learned that the worst events begin with a ride in a Cadillac. I told her I didn’t eat mung beans. She looked awfully disappointed. The organizers of the reading had set up a bare wooden stage with a table, a chair, and an old refrigerator stocked full of cans of beer. It was Pabst Blue Ribbon, the kind I drank, the kind
Bukowski got me started on. The organizers of the reading wanted to beer him up and get him to do the Bukowski Dance, like getting a trained bear to shimmy. The last I’d seen him he was wearing that obscene red bathing suit and swimming in Old Man Dengler’s pool with my mother. Somehow I remembered my mother as being much more beautiful than she was, thin and shapely, untrammeled, her mind clear, as if the Santa Ana winds had blown away her red hot/ice cold madness. This was the first time I had seen Bukowski since he’d been with my mother. I watched him and didn’t know how I felt about him. I believed I should hate him. If he hadn’t abandoned her I don’t believe she would have killed herself. That was the final blow, the last straw. Bukowski had made her love him, then thrown her away. But I didn’t hate him. To be honest, I wouldn’t have stuck with her either, any more than my father had. Bukowski drank a lot of the beer from the fridge onstage in the Armory and smiled his shit-eating smile. I felt sorry for him. He thought he’d resisted all the shit in life and had ended up a winner, but he was a loser. He was as much of a loser as I was when Coach Trump leaned on me and yelled in the ear holes of my football helmet. Bukowsi was on the stage sucking up their beer. They were feeding him beer to punish him for being better than them, a better writer. They were a bunch of goons, and poets authorized by universities. Intermission came. I had to take a piss. I didn’t want to comingle with pathetic mankind. I went far down the hall to an out-of-the-way bathroom I knew about. Some friends and I had broken into the Armory a couple times to explore it. We were just dumb kids, no better than we were in the San Fernando Valley crawling into water pipes six feet in circumference , exploring them by lighting hair spray on fire as it came out of the can. We could easily have blown
ourselves up, but didn’t. Not through intelligence, just dumb luck. We all had nicknames. Mine was Lucky Krochmalnik. Murillo’s was Lucky Murillo. Delgadillo’s was Lucky Delgadillo. I didn’t think anyone else was in that bathroom. I figured no one else at the reading knew about it. I turned from the urinal just as Bukowski exited a stall. I stopped and stared at him. He stared back. He turned and went to the sink to wash his hands. (I wouldn’t have figured Bukowski would bother to wash his hands after taking a shit, though I’d seen him do it before.) He turned away from the sink and found me still there, still staring. He must have thought I was another dumb idol-worshiper. I wanted to ask him why he let the reading organizers treat him like that, with disrespect. But I couldn’t get the right words to come out of my mouth, any words. He finally said, “It’s not so bad.” He didn’t wait for a reply. I didn’t have one. Only after he left the restroom did I wonder if he recognized me, if he knew me as my mother’s son, knew me as the kid whose poetry he had read and judged atrocious, unadulterated horseshit. I remembered those words, remembered how he looked when he delivered them to me, remembered his alky smell. I had hated him then, but I didn’t now. In some stupid way, I had made him my father. My father had left, gone to a country where they spoke a different language, but Bukowski had hung in. For the first time, in the wake of Bukowski’s exit from that restroom, the smell of his shit in the air, his beery stink, I wondered why I had never gone down to Sonora to look for my father, for that matter why I had never gone to see Bukowski, to show him my recent writing, to
ask him if he still thought it was shit, or whether it had gained some redeeming value, maybe get his approval and respect, maybe knee him in the balls. I went back to the reading. Bukowski muttered more poems. They all began to run together. His voice got more gruff and slurred until he was no longer understandable. In the audience, contempt grew, outweighing admiration. But they had helped do that to him. The organizers’ secret wish had come true—they had brought down Bukowski.
6. Except for providing the steel in my persistence, I never thought Bukowski had affected my work. I’d never tried to write like Bukowski. Never wanted to. But then I came across this poem. I don’t remember when I wrote it.
The fat Cuban library director wanted me to read at her college
but after she invited me a higher administrator took her aside and told her that inviting someone like me would be dangerous .
a poet abrasive and volatile with no loyalties owing nothing to anyone accustomed to telling ugly truths a man who likes the feeling of telling them
So the fat Cuban library director called me back and told me her assistant would be in touch
but I had already seen through her I already knew the game
but I played along pretended she wasnâ€™t a liar lying for convenience and for the sake of her career like all the rest of the liars
I let her wallow in her stupidity and opened a bottle of whiskey good whiskey my son had given me from when he worked in a distillery
not some cheap crap
Bukowski would have drank in his dirty apartment on the seedy side of Hollywood
I took a careful sip Greed comes in many forms and I wasn’t going to be a party to it
I didn’t need to read at that crappy backwater college I didn’t need the money didn’t need the recognition didn’t need to tell truths or lies
Our society is like a chain-restaurant halibut stuffed with the greasy cheese and fake crab of Greed
and all I was going to do was eat a sandwich one slice of Pepper Jack on oat bread with a little mustard
I was going to eat it slowly and I was going to sip the whiskey slowly I was going to feel the planet settle in the darkness and I was going to hear the faint whisper
of the ocean
I was going to feel grateful that I live in Los Angeles home of Nathaniel West and John Fante and Charles Bukowski and that I live in California home of Henry Miller who didn’t care fuck-all about the bullshit of the world but slowly sipped absinthe and walked down garbage-strewn alleys feeling satisfied with his lot
“a man with no money, no resources, no hopes the happiest man alive”
And I felt sorry for that fat Cuban library director another victim another human trapped in the jaws of organizational life
Yes, there was Bukowski shining through my work his cynicism illuminating my perspective
7. the last time I saw him he was not walking.
it was ten thirty a.m. on north Bronson and hot, very hot, and he sat on a little ledge, bent the pack still strapped on his back
I slowed down to look at his face I had seen one or two other men in my life with looks on their faces like that.
I speeded up and turned on the radio
I knew that look.
I would never see him again
(from Bukowskiâ€™s on the sidewalk and in the sun)
8. My father was a half-Jewish Rumanian but passed for Mexican He was one of the last hired men on the pocket ranches crammed up against the foothills of the San Fernando Valley
As the years went by
he became less Jewish more Mexican and finally split for Sonora I heard he married a Mexican woman down there and had a few kids
He stole away my base took my equilibrium Bukowski claimed that base for a while but the relationship was short-lived and when he left my mother she killed herself
I wondered why she hadnâ€™t killed herself when my father left never even tried never lay in a room half-dead for me to discover and heroically save
not even calling 911 because I knew a 911 call would put her back in the state mental hospital
Was Bukowski that special him and his ugly puss and his self-built myth that he was special,
above the mass of working men?
My father was a working man Thatâ€™s what he was all about My father was solid just who he was nothing more clean and hard
In Sonora my father sat on the porch in the evening and carved figures from wood He never did that in the San Fernando Valley If he did he could have taught me I could have learned to become a wood carver maybe done that for a living
I could have become a silent man Silence is truth instead of becoming like Bukowski full of words words coming out like water from a sprinkler on a parched L.A. lawn
My fatherâ€™s Mexican wife was taciturn I heard
from a friend of his who passed through the Valley briefly My father was just as taciturn
so they never argued over stupid shit like most couples do with all the words tripping them up
Bukowski argued He was a big arguer engaged in a ceaseless argument with the world with himself with my mother
but my father knew there was no point in arguing with the ones you love or the ones you hate What were you going to accomplish?
I wish my family was still together but my parents are both dead and Iâ€™m half dead like Bukowski was when he was alive
and now Bukowski is totally dead like everyone else
I wish I had never attended a reading of beat poets wish Iâ€™d never met Bukowski never become a poet never cemented tragedy and disappointment in words
9. (from Bukowski, dark night poem):
they say that nothing is wasted: either that or it all is
For a long time I only read Bukowski’s fiction, especially his short stories. Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordi...