When I was kid, my grandfather loved cigars. And he didn’t just love to smoke them in the house. No, he had to be on the move. For some reason, strolling made the experience more pleasant, and so we would walk together through the LA port city of San Pedro — always taking the same route — until we ended up on a street with a nice view of the harbor.
My grandfather, wearing his usual scent of tobacco and Old Spice, would always point out a certain house on the street with the view. “You see that place?” my grandfather would ask. “A famous writer lives there.” And sometimes, when the “writer” was actually outside, my grandfather would say, “You see that man. He’s a famous writer.”
At the age of 5, I wasn’t sure what famous writers looked like, but I definitely didn’t think they would look so ordinary. I mean, this guy wore ripped jeans and puffed on a cigarette. Aesop didn’t look this way, so it was difficult to believe that this man, whom my grandfather referred to as Charles Bukowski, could be an famous author, but I played along, pointing to other random people in the neighborhood. “Grandpa,” I’d say. “See that man? He’s an astronaut. And Grandpa — look! That guy? He plays for the Lakers.” My grandfather would laugh. “Okay, okay,” he’d say, tapping the ash off of his Swisher Sweet.
During my senior year of high school, when I had begun to take writing seriously, I found a bunch of books at a garage sale in a box marked “fragile.” There was nothing fragile about these books, other than possibly some of their sentiments, so the image stuck with me. I dug through the box, intrigued by the books’ covers and titles: South of No North, Love is a Dog from Hell, and Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit. I took all ten or so books home, most of them written by Charles Bukowski.
It wasn’t until I began to leaf through the pages that I stumbled across a photo at the back of the books. There he was. Immediately recognizable — hair messy with a full beard to cover his pockmarked skin. Even in the photo, his eyes were closed and angled at the ground, as if embarrassed to have succeeded.
I called my grandfather. “His face is right here,” I said. “Right here in the book!”
“Not my fault you don’t listen,” he said, laughing.
Bukowski’s work was unlike anything I’d read in English class. His prose was akin to an inside joke, and one of the dedications even read, “To bad writing.” But it was far from bad. It was honest—the most honest work I’d ever encountered. Bukowski got away with all the sins that teachers warned against: he used common words; he started sentences with conjunctions; his paragraphs were whatever length he wanted them to be; and his work was rife with swear words.
Each night, I would read his stories in bed, unraveling the predictable, scholarly lesson of the day’s English class and replacing it with something gritty and razor-sharp. And it felt so right. After a day of Ivanhoe, I’d take in a Bukowski short story, like “Less Delicate than the Locust” and soak in his art:
“Balls,” the opening line read. “I’m tired of painting. Let’s go out. I’m tired of the stink of oils, I’m tired of being great. I’m tired of wanting to die. Let’s go out.”
While his muse — the underbelly of Los Angeles — was far different from the LA I knew, he made it accessible. His subjects were as unpretentious as his prose, and he made me feel for characters I’d never even imagined. Books didn’t need to be about kings and heroes. They could be about gamblers and drunks and degenerate artists.
“He walked over and poured a scotch and water. He walked into the bedroom with it, took off his shirt, pants, shoes, stockings. In his shorts he went to bed with the drink. It was 15 minutes to noon. No ambition, no talent, no chance.”
I was mesmerized. I understood every word and was enraptured by his clarity, his command. His prose became as recognizable to me as a Kahlo painting, an Otis Redding tune.
I even spent time at his fabled hangouts, Hollywood Park and the King Eddy Saloon, where I witnessed Bukowskian characters, those with cold-cracked hands and smudgy lipstick, and others with whiskey eyes and hard frown lines. I wrote stories about prostitutes, and pimps, and addicts — all people whom Bukowski might describe as having “walked through the fire.”
And so I tried to mimic his style. In pieces of mine from years ago (unpublished — thank goodness), his influence showed:
“Shit, she couldn’t marry him. Not with his ugly mug and accent, and the way he called everyone “my dear friend,” even though he barely knew them. When I got the invitation, I knew I had to act. Calligraphy spelled out everything: Zoë Elizabeth Johnson and Thomas Cade Willows were to marry on the second of February at noon. Zoë was better than this man. I drank a beer. And then another.”
But I knew these weren’t my stories to tell.
And I realized that I didn’t want to be Bukowski — as I understood how much he appreciated authenticity — but trying on his persona and seeing LA though his somber gaze, allowed me to experience my city from a place of curiosity, compassion even. I wondered about people I didn’t know, took interest in their plights and pains, and wanted to express the value of their mundane miracles.
To this day, his lack of artifice in a field so inundated with it, was what called me to his books. His work didn’t push me away like that of so many other artists; rather, it welcomed me, mirroring his gentle nod from those late-80s cigar walks with grandpa.
And while I have often advised writers not to take up any ritual that could derail their projects — like only being able to write while sitting in a certain chair, or only being able to craft with a particular brand of pen — I haven’t been entirely truthful, for I always have a Bukowski book lying around while I work — as a lifeline, a reminder, a thank-you.