I’ll never forget him. I met the Bukowski at The American Film Institute in 1986. I was an usher for the Barbet Schroeder film about Bukowski called The Charles Bukowski Tapes, 52 interviews with the man himself in various haunts, most of which take place in and around the seedier backends of Hollywood where he lived most of his writing life.
It was nine o’clock in the morning when I walked in for my shift. He was sitting at a table in the lobby with his wife, Linda, waiting to go on stage at ten. A full bar was set up nearby, but wasn’t in service as of yet. Wasn’t supposed to open until after the screening of the tapes. He wasn’t in a good mood; I could tell from watching him. He didn’t want to be there. He always hated giving readings and getting up in front of a crowd. Especially without a drink.
Breaking Open the Bar
I started doing my job: Ushering in dignitaries, then coming back to my post at one entrance of the auditorium. I kept watching Bukowski out of the corner of one eye. There was the man, I said to myself. I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I eventually abandoned my post and went over to the table and introduced myself as Mr. Nobody. Knowing Bukowski as I did from all the reading I’d done of his books, I knew he needed a drink – something fierce. I immediately told him I’d open the bar for him, something I had no authority to do. But what the hell? This was Bukowski! I think I would have done anything for him. Hell, I couldn’t believe I had the balls to walk up and talk to him. That wasn’t my forte. The things you do for love.
He, of course, was game, and knew I was only a lowly usher. But he didn’t care. He’d done plenty of jobs like the one I was doing. He got up and I led him over to the bar. I rummaged around and found a glass. I asked him what he wanted, and he said vodka, straight up. Ice? I asked. No, he said. I turned around, found the vodka bottle and poured him a straight up tall glass. Linda, she want anything? I asked. White wine, he said. There were bottles chilling in a cooler off to one side. I grabbed one bottle and a wine glass. Take the whole bottle, I said. How about you? he asked. Hell, I’ll have what you’re having, I replied haphazardly. I took another glass and filled it with vodka—straight up. That’s when one of those persons in authority arrived; stiff upper-lipped, with a shirt buttoned so tightly you could see chest hair about ready to burst through the fabric. He imperiously peered down at me and asked me what was I was doing, the bar’s not open yet, get back to your post. No, I said, the man needs a drink. This is Bukowski. The bar’s not open, he replied, his voice as dry as a martini. “Well, it’s too late now,” Bukowski said to him, turning and walking away. He looked back over his shoulder at me. “You coming?” I ran after him holding my drink, if you can call what I was carrying a drink.
Sitting with Buk and Linda
He offered me a seat next to him and I took it. One thing that stuck out was his voice. It was soft, with a slight lisp. Something you’d never expect from this tough guy. His face looked like the dark side of the moon, cratered and carved out from the severe acne he’d had to endure during his youth. Linda Lee looked radiant, but her face was also a little worse for wear. She was petite, especially next to Buk’s bear-like bulk. There was no hint of entitlement from these folks. She was kind; I could tell by the sound of her voice and her genuine smile. After a couple of sips of his drink, Buk was getting jovial and I was getting a little woozy, the vodka going straight to my head. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. This was early, even for me, who always had good times flowing through my veins. I had a joint in my pocket, but I didn’t want to test the waters—not in there. Didn’t need to get hauled off to jail. As it was, I was about ready to get thrown out on my ass. I was actually sitting down with the man, Bukowski, having drinks and a conversation with him. Didn’t want to ruin that. No way.
Growing Up on all Things Bukowski
Bukowski has always been an absent mentor to me, much like other writers and musicians who made me who I am. Through their music and words, I was formed—and am still forming. I first came upon Bukowski in 1967. A friend of Sven’s gave him a book called Crucifix In A Deathhand, written in 1965. I read it in one sitting, cover to cover. It changed my world. Here was a man who was thinking like I was, putting it down on paper—and in poetry, no less. I’d never been into poetry that much, but reading this made me catch fire. He was a storyteller. He wasn’t hiding hidden meanings, wasn’t trying to be erudite or distant. You didn’t have to stop reading to figure out what he was saying—it was straightforward, invigorating.
I started to read as much as I could. I found that this form of literature suited me, even if it was obtuse most of the time. Later on, in 1969, I read Bukowski’s short pieces of prose for the first time, collected in a book called Notes of a Dirty Old Man. Reading it, I wanted to become him; I found myself emulating his actions, like so many of us in those days did. We didn’t give a damn about authority or political correctness. Post Office, his novel about his ten years in the postal service, added to his reputation. He was funny, in a downtrodden sort of way. Just how I was feeling in those days of Vietnam, with crooked politicians and corporate hacks. Much like we have today. Buk is still relevant. He let it all hang out, and so did we. The ultimate ‘fuck you’ in the face of normalcy. He wasn’t exactly counter-culture, he was his own culture; not a part of any movement, outside everything, much like Ed Abbey and Jim Harrison were.
Back to the AFI in Los Angeles. Seeing him in person was a revelation. He looked and acted just the way I thought he would. Both of us breaking into the bar at the AFI auditorium, flaunting authority. I felt like a kid robbing a candy store. Bukowski had done all kinds of menial jobs in his lifetime, which he wrote about in his novel, Factotum. I was much the same way, and when I told him I had worked on Norwegian Tankers in the North Sea, both North and South Atlantic, he let out a weary sigh. It was one of his regrets, he said. He’d never gone to sea. But then, I’d never worked in a meat packing plant like he did. So I guess we were even. We raised our glasses and finished our drinks. I got up, went to the bar (the authority figure had fled) and built two more. Got back to the table, poured Linda another wine. Then it was time for him to go on stage. Good and lit he was, a ship with all her lights on in the dark of night. A roman candle. Before they left the table, Linda asked me to come visit them at their house in San Pedro. Any fan of Bukowski would have given their left eyeball for an invitation like that. I told her I would, but regretfully I never did—and not because I didn’t want to. Time was precious back then, and I left L.A. soon after to go to the Northwest. Working in the movies wasn’t my cup of vodka; drinking and talking with the Bukowski was, even though I only got to do it once. I’ll never forget him.