The City That Was: An Evening With Charles Bukowski in My Living Room
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
It’s apparently some kind of special beer week in San Francisco, and so I suppose it’s fitting to chronicle the most amazing consumer of beer I’ve ever met. I’ve witnessed a lot of consumption over the years, but I have never, never seen beer drinking to equal that of the seminal poet of the gutter, Charles Bukowski. It’s also timely to tell this story this week, since it was at Cacophony’s homage to this poet and novelist, The Charles Bukowski Support Group, that I met the subject of last week’s column, The Chris Radcliffe.
To explain Bukowski’s stunning beer consumption, I have to tell a story that didn’t happen in San Francisco, but in Santa Monica, where I spent my college years in exile. In those ultra cheap days, you could get a midnight flyer at the airport—no reservations, ten bucks, LAX-SFO—so there was only a twenty between me and a quick run, home and back.
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In LA, I immediately fell in with the artist and writer crowd, and one of my poet friends, Michael C. Ford, was a frequent visitor at my Santa Monica house on Yale Street. Although I have never managed to get an actual job, I have always had amazing luck finding big places to live. One time when Michael stopped by, he looked around the massive living room and said, “My literary idol, Kenneth Patchen, is really sick, and I want to raise some money for him. Do you think I could get together a fundraising poetry reading here?”
Sure, I said, and left the details up to Michael. On the day of the event, he showed up with a podium, which he positioned at the far end of the 18’x22’ living room. The guests and poets started to trickle in, and among them were Bukowski and his girlfriend, Linda King. Michael had described him to me long before as “a man whose face Time has run over in football cleats,” so there was no mistaking which guest was Hank.
Bukowski entered the house with four 6-packs, and he popped the first bottle cap within minutes of arrival. The records lining the bottoms of three walls around the room fascinated Linda immediately. My significant other, Alex Segal, was a classical music reviewer for three magazines, and his collection was, in fact, impressive. “Ooooo,” Linda said, “I bet I could dance to some of those records.”
“Baby,” said Bukowski, opening a second beer, “You could dance to all those records.”
By the time Michael got the reading underway, Bukowski had polished off a sixer. Michael saved Bukowski for last on the program. By the time he was introduced, he had consumed another six, plus a few, but he still managed to make his way to the podium in a straight line. As a person committed to telling things as they were, he made absolutely no claim to sobriety. He put his hands on the podium and said, “This thing’s a prop, in case I fall over.”
Then he started reading. I will never forget the deadpan, hard core reading of “Fire Station,” but I can’t remember what other poems he read. Besides his content, both sad and hilarious, and his style, spare and masterful, I was equally fascinated by the inconceivable fortitude of his bladder.
He read for over half an hour, his voice the only sound in the room full of transfixed poetry nerds. I will never read one of his poems again without hearing his voice, its twang of slight contempt mixed equally with acceptance, and wondering how a human could drink so much beer and not have to pee. I was really young and dumb, and I thought literary experiences of that magnitude were just going to keep happening all the time in my living room, so instead of being fully immersed in the cultural immensity of the moment, I was partly dwelling on bodily functions.
Most of the way into the third six-pack, Bukowski finally asked me where the bathroom was. I walked him back through the kitchen and pointed around the corner to the door. Then I hovered in the kitchen, listening to the flow of fluid upon fluid, like a roaring Niagra, and staring at the kitchen clock, I timed it: almost four consecutive minutes of tumultuous urination.
Bukowski’s Olympian drinking was one of his favorite themes, and this excerpt from the poem,“Congrats, Chinaski,” says it all:
I have piled myself with a mass of
grand abuse, been
careless toward myself
almost to the point of
I am still here
leaning toward this machine
in this smoke-filled room,
this large blue trashcan to my
full of empty
the doctors have no answers
and the gods are
on your patience.
I have helped you all that