I knock on the door of his Hollywood apartment and no one answers. But I know he’s home.
He had just come back from the horse races at Hollywood Park when he returned my call, saying it was okay for me to come over and he would sign copies of his books of poetry, short stories, and novels.
I walk back to my car, sit for awhile, and decide to try once more. I load his books under my arm, grab a six-pack of Michelob beers (a peace offering), walk up the sidewalk, and knock again.
Charles Bukowski opens the door.
I got his number from one of his books, Love is a Dog from Hell. There’s a poem called “462-0614”.
I get many phonecalls now.
They are all alike.
“are you Charles Bukowski,
So I tried the number.
“Come on in, man,” he says. He looks just like the photos. Gnarly, pock-marked by acne vulgaris scars, long gray hair going everywhere, and a beard.
“I came by earlier, but no one answered,” I say.
“I was taking a shit,” he replies, the sound of the toilet still flushing and the faint odor of a beer dump lingering in the air, combined with stale cigarette smoke. “The damn thing’s been broken for a week,” he grumbles. “I’ve been wanting to fix it, but you know how it is with all these girls coming over — no time. Sit down.” He takes the Michelobs out of my hand. “I’ll put these in the fridge,” he says.
He walks into the kitchen while I survey his dingy one-bedroom apartment, strewn with old magazines, newspapers, books, and empty beer bottles. The ashtray full of old butts. The bed folds out from the wall. The place looks real lived-in.
“They’ve been telling me to move to a better place, but I like it,” he says. “It’s cheap. I like the contact with people.” He twists the caps off two Michelobs and hands one to me. He takes a long sip. Satisfied, he growls, “Are you a writer?”
“I’m a tennis coach,” I say, knowing if I say I’m a writer or a poet, I’m dead.
“Well, that’s good,” he says, taking another long swig of Michelob. “I don’t want to talk to any damn writers, interviewers, or poets — especially poets. They’re the worst. Poets, poets, poets. Everybody’s a poet. They bore me to sleep. And interviewers. This guy came over to interview me, so I let Linda Lee answer the questions.”
Bukowski laughs and asks me, “Have you ever been to a poetry reading?”
“I saw you at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach and the audience was extremely rowdy,” I say.
“They’re always like that,” Buk says. “I like it. It keeps me awake. I fall asleep at other readings, but never my own.”
Bukowski had read several nights before, seated in a red velvet chair next to a refrigerator full of Michelobs. In between poems, a guy yelled, “Hey Buk! What’s the world coming to?”
“Well,” growled Bukowski, “You see me up here making $500 an hour to read damn poetry. Get nervous. And they pay me too much anyway. Like today I’ve been painting. This guy pays me $55 for each painting I do. So I use my right hand on one and my left hand on another and he buys both of them.”
He shows me one he just finished — his right handprint outlined in orange with “BUK” written in blue in the bottom right corner. “Not bad, heh?” he asks, displaying it proudly. I wish I had $55, because I’d buy it now.
“So you read all my books?” he asks, glancing down at the stack on the table. “Yeah,” I say, “In three weeks.” He nods his head, seemingly impressed.
“How does a tennis teacher come to read my stuff?”
“My brother called me one day and told me to turn on channel 28 and you were on TV drinking beer, cussing, and reading poems. I thought you were great. I used to write poems, too.”
“So you are a writer and a poet!” he says angrily, and stands up like he’s gonna punch me.
“Hey,” I say. “Just because I wrote a poem doesn’t mean I’m a poet or a writer. Plus, I didn’t come here to talk about writing. I came here to have you sign your books.”
“Well, okay,” he says grudgingly, easing back onto the couch. He picks up Factotum — a novel about odd jobs he held — and mumbles, “So you’re a tennis pro, huh?”
“Yeah, tomorrow I begin teaching my first college tennis class.” He nods as he signs the book.
“Now you’ve got a good job and so do I.”
In The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills he writes, “The girls run away too.” In Post Office, his first novel that he wrote in 26 nights about his 15 years working in the post office, he quips, “It was lovely.” In Poems Written Before Jumping Out an 8 Story Window he writes, “I didn’t jump.” In Erections. Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness he pens the rhetorical question, “Ain’t it awful?”
In South of No North he writes, “To Chris Boyle — I can’t think of anything brilliant; I have been fucking all this young cunt, am tired.” He signs all the books and we turn our focus to the Michelobs. Bukowski lights a cigarette and inhales.
“I was working in the post office,” he says slowly, exhaling smoke. “And I read the stories and the poems in the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly and I said to myself, ‘I can write better than that,’ so I did. Sold my first story when I was 24 and didn’t write poetry until I was 35. I got printed first in small underground publications, The City and stuff like that. My name began to appear more and more until I began to write books and get overpaid. But that’s what you’ve got to do if you’re gonna be a writer, is prove yourself in print.”
The Michelob bottles empty, books signed, I know it is time to leave. I stand up, pick up my books, shake his hand, and thank him for his time. For everything, really. He puts his arm around my shoulder and says, “Thanks for reading my shit.”
As I walk down the sidewalk to my car he leans out the window and yells, “Hey, man! Don’t forget to teach them the most important thing in tennis in your class tomorrow.”
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Jumping the net and shaking hands after winning the match,” he says. “That’s the most important part. Learning to win is hard. Any slob can be a good loser.”