The section below is from my book: The Holy Grail: Charles Bukowski And The Second Coming Revolution. Hardback copies are still available from Dustbooks. Just $l5, including a center photo section with photos of Bukowski and other literary figures.
Charles Bukowski (known to his friends as Hank) and I were friends for over seventeen years. We became friends in 1973 when I was editing and publishing Second Coming Magazine/Press, and continued our friendship over the long years. In 1974 we became closer friends after I published a Special Second Coming Bukowski issue.
In letters, in telephone conversations, and in personal meetings, Hank and I discussed the small press world, and the role the poet has played in its development and history.
Hank spent decades writing for the "small" magazines before he became an established literary and financial success. It has been more than a decade since his death, and his books continue to sell throughout the world.
There are people who believe you have to break bread or drink with a person on an on-going basis before you can call that person a friend. I don't subscribe to this point of view. I never met the late William Wantling, arguably one of the best poets to graduate from the U.S. penal system, but we corresponded regularly until his death in 1974, and I considered him a close friend. I met Hank less than a handful of times, but he too was a friend of mine.
Friends are there when you need them; at a low point in my life, when friends are never more important, Hank wrote me and said:
"I know you are down and out, low on coin, spiritually molested like the rest of us; little chance but to hang on by the fingernails, work a line or two down on paper, and walk down the street and breathe the air of this shit life they've put upon us and that we've put upon ourselves."
This statement says a lot about who Hank was. He was a man who shot straight from the hip, the same way I have tried to do my entire life. I believe this is what helped make the two of us form a bond. There weren't any game between us. No need to wear masks. We accepted each other for what we were, warts and all.
Hank was not a hero, as many people have tried to make him out to be. He was like the rest of us, a man possessed with both good and bad traits. As he told me, at the home of Linda King, "I haven't met a saint I like yet." He wasn’t the personification of Jesus, nor was he the reincarnation of Satan. He was to put it simply, a damn fine poet and writer, but there is more to life than writing about whores, pimps, drunks and Sunday morning hangovers.
Hank was a man of many virtues and admirable qualities, but to see him (as many do) as the Robin Hood of literature, a man whose motives and actions are in the best interest of the down and out, simply ignores the fact that he also betrayed and tore apart many former friends, both in short stories and in vindictive poems, frequently breaking off friendships whenever someone got to close to him, and often on brutal terms. As the late Marvin Malone and I learned, the less personal contact you had with him, the more he respected you, and the fewer attacks you faced
It's possible his inability to deal with love was largely the result of an unhappy childhood. He suffered from a skin condition resulting in disfiguring boils that left his face a road map of scars, and because of this, he often found himself cruelly taunted by his peers. At home, he received little or no comfort, often finding himself subjected to beatings by an ill-tempered and abusive father, who when he wasn't beating his son, took out his anger on his wife.
If a person has never known love, it can be a frightening experience, for love requires trust, and I don't think Hank trusted many people, and there are many documented examples of his turning against former friends. I myself would later suffer the same fate. But the fact remains that Hank was an important part of Second Coming. He represented what Second Coming was all about.
I have yet to meet another poet or writer who possessed the talent Hank had. To be sure, there were many bad poems and short stories that should never have seen print, but what writer among us can truthfully say he or she hasn't suffered the same fate?
No one moved me as deeply as Hank, or had the ability to bring tears to my eyes, as Hank did in his "Poem For Jane," and let there be no doubt he had few rivals when it came to humor.
His first book, "Post Office", was written in nineteen days. The book is filled with laughter that shines through the pain of working at a dead-end job that kills a man's spirit and physically breaks him down. I know! I worked for the San Francisco post office for over five years, some of thee very same years that Hank was employed at the Los Angeles post office. On his death, he left behind a body of unpublished poems and short stories, which are still being published today, assuring his legion of fans that he will be with us for years to come.
It was now March 1994, and I was sitting in my apartment, in Noe Valley, San Francisco, reading the morning newspaper, and enjoying my first morning cup of coffee, when I turned to the entertainment section, and was shocked to find the obituary of Charles Bukowski.
I thought it odd finding an obituary in the entertainment section of a newspaper; however, in retrospect, there was nothing odd about it at all. Hank had carefully scripted his reputation as a hard drinking, womanizing hero of the unfortunate and the down- trodden. The same people who bought his books and identified so strongly with him.
In the end, he became as much an entertainer as he was a poet and writer. This is evidenced by the fact that in his last years, the actor Sean Penn became one of his closest friends. Entertainer or not, I was stunned to learn Hank was dead at the age of seventy-three.
Hank is on record as having said he never expected to live a long life. It's also a matter of record that in his mid-thirties, he lay near death, from a bleeding ulcer, in a Los Angeles hospital charity ward, the direct result of long years of hard drinking and even harder living. I had been aware for some time that he was battling a series of ailments brought on by advanced age and abuse of his body, but had not dwelled much on the matter. Most people tend to avoid thinking about death until it stares them straight in the face, as if not thinking about it will delay the inevitable outcome. In reality, death was a re-occurring theme in many of Hank’s poems, especially over the last several years of his life. And it stalked his mythical character, in his final novel (Pulp) published shortly before his death.
I was saddened we had not corresponded with each other for several years. He was angered over a poem I wrote, which I do not believe was a put down poem (Small Press Poet Makes It Big). At the time I felt he might even find it humorous, given the fact he had poked fun at so many poets and writers over the long years.
I may not even had written the poem, had he not told me early on in our friendship that one day I would read about him going cat fishing with James Dickey and Norman Mailer, and when that day came, I could write about it, and he would understand. However, It was not Dickey or Mailer who inspired me to write the poem, as much as it was the presence of actor Sean Penn and other Hollywood luminaries who came into his life after he gained a measure of fame. Even in his wildest dreams, he could never have imagined that some day he would have Hollywood movie idols paying him homage; movie Stars who visited his home, bringing with them what Hank felt were "God awful” poems.
I was hardly the only one to experience his wrath. Hank and Doug Blazek, the former editor and publisher of Ole magazine, whom Hank corresponded with for years, developed a strong kinship between them, which ended shortly after they met in person. And John Bryan, a fringe member of the Beat generation, and the former editor and publisher of Open City, who first paid Bukowski for his column, "Notes From A Dirty Old Man", is yet another small press luminary who had a falling out with him. The list is lengthy, and includes well-known small press figures like Harold Norse, Linda King, and Jon and Gypsy Lou Webb, from LouJon Press. Other poets like Steve Richmond and Neeli Cherkovski, also found themselves in disfavor with Hank, only to later be brought back into his good graces.
However, the fact remains Hank was hurt by the poem I wrote about him. I believe in his heart, he felt I had betrayed him. He responded by writing a poem titled "Poem for the Poet up North," which was published in Impulse, a small Southern California literary magazine. The gist of the poem was that he had once shared a few drinks with me (Before he became successful), and because he later gained literary fame that this somehow "gnawed" away at me. He couldn't have been more wrong. I responded with a poem of my own ("Poem For the Poet Down South"), which Impulse magazine also published. As far as I’m aware of, this ended the feud between us, and the attacks went no further. Hank went about his life doing what he did best, writing his poetry and prose, while I went about my life as an Equal Opportunity Specialist for the Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, investigating claims of discrimination against minorities, women and the disabled, while writing my own poems, prose, and essays when time permitted. Now here I found myself sitting alone in my small apartment with Hank on my mind. I walked over to the bookcase and removed the special Charles Bukowski issue I had published in 1974, and began thumbing through it, which brought back fond memories of those early years. I recalled when friends and fellow writers raved about Hank’s poetry that I would urge them to read his prose. I find his prose to be fast, concise, gripping, and frequently laced with humor. In my opinion, his prose is more concise and disciplined than his poetry, which at times has a tendency to ramble on, and too often reflects forced endings. This does not diminish the fact that many of his poems are as powerful as any poem I have read.
Taking a break, and switching from coffee to beer, I remembered Hank’s "I Am With The Roots Of Flowers," which appeared in issue One of The Outsider Magazine. I believe the year was 1961. This may have been the first time I realized his raw power as a poet and writer.
As I continued to read Hank's work that day, I was reminded that I had informed Hank that I had been influenced by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Hank confided in me that he found Fitzgerald's work too "polished," but acknowledged being influenced by the writings of Hemingway, no doubt perhaps also influenced by his manly ways and life style.
The honesty of Hank’s work hooked me from the beginning. If his work was not always beautiful, it was certainly honest and moving. The same can be said for his letters. Letter writing has become a lost art (especially since e-mail), but Hank’s letters are collector items, bringing top dollar on the open market. They are frequently laced with brilliance. To put it simply, Hank was always a good read. I became an avid fan of his after reading his first novel, "Post Office." I worked at the San Francisco Rincon Annex post office for five years, from 1959 until 1964, and Hank’s vivid accounts of his eleven years as a postal clerk hit home with me like a brick. Hank found it necessary to drink and get drunk in order to survive those years, much the same as I had, but what most impressed me about the book was his ability to laugh at those painful days, and in a wild and beautiful way.
I admire the fact, that in 1970, at the age of forty-nine he took the big gamble and quit the post office to devote his time to writing. It would be the turning point in his life. He took the big gamble and won. No more punching time clocks. No more having to deal with career bosses whose only purpose in life seemed to be making workers miserable.
Shutting out all thoughts of the post office, I cut out Hank’s obituary and tossed the newspaper aside. I walked into the kitchen, and returned to the living room with a bottle of brandy. I settled back into my easy-chair and began reading the over eighty letters he wrote me during the seventies and eighties. As I did so, I cursed myself for not keeping carbon copies of the letters I had written him over those same yearAs I continued to drink, my mind went back to the first issue of Second Coming, which I had sent Him in the hope he would send me some poems I might be able to use in the second issue of the magazine.
Second Coming was dedicated to publishing all schools of poetry, but it was Hank who defined what I was trying to accomplish as an editor and publisher of a literary magazine that Library Journal described as one of the best small press magazines of its day. The magazine, which later expanded to include the publishing of books, would survive for seventeen years. How good was Second Coming? The late Richard Morris, author and long time director of the now defunct Committee of Small Magazine Editors and Publishers (COSMEP) said: "The two most significant influences on contemporary west coast writing have been the Beats and Charles Bukowski. Both of them were reflected in the writing published by Second Coming as it became the most important San Francisco literary magazine of its era." High praise indeed, but Hank himself was quoted as listing Second Coming, New York Quarterly, and the Wormwood Review, as three of the best literary magazines for serious writers interested in submitting their work. I would add John Bennett’s “Vagabond” to that list.
When I finished reading the last of his letters to me, I made a decision to write a book about my experiences with Hank and his importance to Second Coming. This was a time in history when small presses were producing some of the best poetry that was being written (some of the worst too), and I consider his letters to be historically important to small press history. Hank’s publisher (during his life) John Martin would confirm this, in a letter he wrote me after I mailed him a rough draft of my book (The Holy Grail: Charles Bukowski And The Second Coming Revolution).
"Thanks for sending this for me to read. The quotes are fine. No problems at all. It's a straightforward piece of writing and is valuable for what it says about Bukowski and the problems of small press publishing in the 1970's and 1980's.”
The book would first be published by Beat Scene in England, and later republished (In an expanded edition) by Len Fulton’s DustBooks. It was not just another book about Hank, but about his relationship to me and Second Coming, and expanded beyond this to document the trials of the small presses in the seventies and eighties, while at the same time paying tribute to the poets and writers who made Second Coming the success it was.
During our friendship I had extensive talks with Hank on the role the critic plays in the small press. Hank believed that in the end the only valid criticism is a better piece of work. On the telephone, and in person we both questioned the motives of small press literary critics, having too often found ourselves in the company of critics at parties and at poetry readings. We were dismayed at the army of vultures who preferred to review the poet and his life style, rather than the work itself. We agreed if a writer worked long enough and was lucky enough to get published and gain a bit of recognition that in the end he would be unlucky enough to draw the attention of the critics.
The late Charles McCabe, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, referred to these individuals as "time gobblers," people who would stop at nothing to put the knife in you.
Like McCabe, Hank believed if these critics couldn't attack your work, they would attack your personal life, and having nothing to do in their own lives they would fill their time by devouring yours. At parties, if you looked close enough, you'd notice they didn't drink, but sipped; they didn't eat food, they nibbled at it; they didn't make love, they violated.
McCabe said, "Their basic assumption seems to be that because you have become a public figure, no matter how small, that they have somehow earned the right to own a piece of you.
"At parties or at receptions they try to corner you, boring you with stories of their own dull lives, and demanding to know more about yours."
McCabe felt the worst part of all this was their intent to record your every thought and action, so they might later play it back to the world, "taking delight in writing that age had destroyed your ability to write, and that you were old and burned out."
Hank, like McCabe, believed there was only one way to deal with this kind of critic, short of maiming or killing him, and this was to treat them with brutality. I argued that this approach would only cheapen you, and add another enemy to a growing list. Hank argued that at least it would rid you of the critic, whom McCabe had described as being, "the most odious specimen on earth. A thief who would steal your belongings is nothing compared to the critic who would steal your soul with no remorse.”
Hank felt it was a mistake to show these people the slightest bit of kindness, believing they would mistake any kindness for weakness, and go for the jugular vein. As it turned out, Hank didn't have much reason to fear the critics. The small presses lavished praise on him, while the academic simply ignored him.
As I said earlier I only met him in person a few times. The main thrust of our relationship was through personal correspondence and telephone conversations. Though I was privileged over the many years to have him trust me with his frequent change of telephone numbers, I made an early decision to limit any personal contact with him, knowing how much he valued his privacy. I never forced myself on him, realizing he didn't like the endless crowd of poets who frequently knocked on his door, robbing him of valuable time he felt could better be spent on his writing.
However, the few times I met him were memorable ones. Like the poetry reading, in the seventies, (the dates have faded over the years) sponsored by City Lights Publishing House, which was held at the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Association Hall. There was a large turn out that night. Perhaps 500 or more people had come to hear their hero read. A large number, even by San Francisco standards
I can still picture the polished wooden floor, and the noisy and anxious crowd waiting on his arrival. The majority of the audience was younger in age, with maybe a third or more of the crowd made up of older literary figures. Many of them were stoned on alcohol or drugs. What I remember most about that night was the stage setting. It was furnished with a simple chair, a folding table, a microphone, and a refrigerator filled with cold beer. I later learned the refrigerator filled with beer was part of Hank’s asking price for doing the reading, and would later become a trademark of his.
He milked the crowd for all it was worth before appearing from back stage to a cheering crowd. Once on stage, he wasted no time in opening the refrigerator door, and popping open a can of beer, to the sound of wild cheers.
I watched him survey the crowd for several seconds before tilting back his head and drinking half the contents from the can of beer. Again this simple act was met with rousing cheers. I continued to watch as he raised his hand to quiet the crowd. A tactic that didn't work.
Hank slowly took his place at the table. He began the reading with a poem filled with the kind of language the audience had come to hear. He read the kind of poems his army of fans had come to identify him with, and finished the last poem to loud applause, as he crushed the empty beer can in one of his ham hock hands, and tossed it to the side of the stage. I remember thinking that no one could open a can of beer like Hank. During the reading, I would estimate he consumed as many as twelve cans of beer. If there was anything else in the refrigerator, other than beer, I couldn't make it out. In retrospect, the event reminded me of the first Monterey Jazz Festival I had attended as a young man. At the time, I was in awe of the musicians, just as the crowd that night was hypnotized by Hank.
He appeared to be enjoying the attention he was receiving, but this may have partly been attributed to his drinking. I say this only because he (despite his reputation) was a shy man, in those early days, when it came to giving public readings. It was the alcohol, and the alcohol alone, that provided him with the bravado he displayed on stage.
There was a lot of shit and fuck poems, and some cute and clever ones, and after each poem, he grinned at the audience, at times resembling a leprechaun. It was an evening that left the North Beach crowd buzzing long after he left center stage, on his way to a party hosted by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The party was held at Lawrence’s apartment, on upper Grant Avenue, located over the old City Lights Publishing House. Hank and Linda King, who was his lover at the time, would later get into a violent argument. The argument became physical, with Hank being pushed or falling down a flight of stairs, depending on whether you believe Hank or Linda King's version of what happened. Either way, his face was badly scratched.
During the confrontation, a window was broken, and the story goes that Lawrence was pissed at both Hank and Linda, but any ill feelings quickly passed. I wasn't at the party when the fight broke out, so I have to rely on what Linda King told Harold Norse, in a letter Norse published in his literary magazine Bastard Angel. To quote from Linda King's letter:
"I think I would kill him (Bukowski) if he wasn't so good in bed. I didn't claw his face...he hit somewhere when he fell...I was defending my innocent self...I did do the biting."
Whatever the truth may be, Hank and Linda King had a long and quarreling relationship. Linda said Hank’s sensitivities were too raw, and he would try to dull them with alcohol. She told Norse that their two tempers would explode "like shooting geysers", and they would "roar down an emotional roller coaster with one more fight and one more split up."
The separations never lasted long. From Linda King’s letter: "After three or four hundred dollars in telephone calls, and a new woman for Bukowski and one night stands for me, we would go back to being lovers.
"It was the raw magic of sex that kept us together as long as it did. It's not because he's a great poet. He is, I know that. It's all that magic between the sheets, in the afternoon, in the morning, at midnight, the real poetry."
As for Hank, he said it best in a letter he wrote to the poet Jack Micheline.
"I'm really in love with this sculptress, this Linda King, man, and she writes poetry too.
"When we split, I just about go crazy. Fucking real deep down pain-agony, babe; all the coals burning, all the knifes going in, more horrible than any cancer death, that feeling, first feeling like that I've had since the death of Jane. Most women can't get to me, but this one does. Real mountain-tall magic, and most splits are my fault. I go crazy, walk out on her...then she leaves town or I can't find her. It's all too much, but I'm glad it's here, her cunt is more beautiful than the sun, and all the rest. It wasn't meant to last, but it was a wild memorable trip.”
The most memorable of the times I spent with Hank was during an unexpected visit he paid me in the seventies. He wanted to visit North Beach, but didn't want to drink at the bars, afraid he would run into any number of San Francisco poets he wanted to avoid.
Hank seemed fascinated with North Beach, as I took him on a tour of the long gone beat bars and hangouts that had once flourished: the Coffee Gallery (now The Lost and Found Bar), The Co-Existence Bagel Shop, Mike’s Pool Hall, The Place, and the San Gottardo Hotel and bar, run by an elderly French couple. I pointed out the few bars still remaining: Vesuvio's, Gino and Carlo's, Spec's, and The Saloon.
As we walked up Grant Avenue, we occasionally ran into poets and North Beach regulars I had known since the fifties and sixties. We found Paddy O'Sullivan talking to the bartender at the Camel's Bar, on the corner of Grant and Green, and stopped in to chat with him. Paddy was one of the more colorful characters of the Beat era. A minor poet who supported himself by hawking a pocket sized book of his poems titled "Weep Not My Child."
You could find him almost any night of the week standing on the corner dressed in a purple cape, plumed hat, and high boots, with long shoulder length hair. He was a modern day cavalier who greeted female tourists with a courteous bow and a kiss on the hand. Rumor has it Paddy was nothing more than a self-created myth, who followed the legendary Greenwich Village poet Maxwell Bodenheim around and stole his poems when Bodenheim died. If you asked Paddy about this, he would respond with a sly smile.
Paddy was a legend in North Beach. He would later lose his arm to a pet cheetah, (or so the story goes) but never lost his charm. When Paddy went to the men's room, Hank said it was people like him who gave poetry a bad name. Maybe so, I thought, but I will always remember the night at the Camel's Bar, when I was stone drunk, and how Paddy had saved me from a beating at the hands of a local bully.
Paddy was very protective of the people he liked, and had more strength in his one arm than some people have with both. He quickly subdued the bully in a head lock and threw him out into the street. When I told Hank this story, he said, "Well, maybe he can't write poetry, and maybe it's all a game, but he sounds like the kind of a guy I'd like to have watching my back."
I would later write a poem dedicated to Paddy O'Sullivan:
Home again wearing
The scars of the past
Like an engraved bracelet
Passed on from love
Paddy O’Sullivan walking the
Streets of North Beach
In search of old visions
Now only memories
In the nightmare of reality
Paddy O'Sullivan swapping tales
With obscene priests
Hung over with failure
Paddy O'Sullivan of Kerouac tales
And Cassady adventures
Walking Washington Square
The bulldozer death
Does your typewriter still
Talk to you
In the early hours of dawn
Alone in San Francisco
Waiting on that lady poet
Who will forgive you
In the morning
For forgetting her name
In the hour of dawn
When our needs are soothed
With the power of
the written word
That stirs moves inside us
Like a runaway train
Like the haunting breath
Of a hound dog closing in
For the kill
Paddy O'Sullivan where
Have all the poets gone
Walking straight jackets
Trapped by time
The sun is not
As you see it now
And yet remains the same
The streets are no more
Or less intense
The lines on your face
Are the lines on my face
As we move back
Into the body
Into the inner self
Measured by the amnesia
This town coughs up
Its dead most rudely
The raw nerve of time
Returning to haunt me
Oblivious to the thirst
Lying still at the edge
Of the river
The blueprint of life
Etched in the dark deep
Shadows of the soul
Hank and I left the bar before Paddy returned from the men's room; we turned the corner, and walked down to Gino and Carlo's Bar, owned by two Italian brothers, Aldino and Dinado.
We momentarily stopped outside, and exchanged pleasantries with Carl Eisenger, a sad figure of a man. Carl was a poet, but hadn't written in years, after his life’s work was destroyed in a hotel room fire. He hadn't kept carbon copies of his poems, and his life had literally gone up in flames.
Hank and I entered Gino and Carlo's bar, where we found Cheap Charlie lying on the floor in a drunken stupor. Cheap Charlie had gotten his name because of his mooching free drinks at North Beach bars. Hank and I looked at Aldino, who was leaning over the body of Cheap Charlie and pouring whiskey through a funnel down Cheap Charlie’s throat, as the patrons cheered on the action.
"Are all the poets in this area crazy?" Hank asked.
"Not all of them," I said.
We left the bar and headed down Grant Avenue, stopping in front of the 1232 Club, also known as the Saloon. Shoeshine Divine was standing outside, clutching his custom made shoeshine box. Shoeshine was another colorful North Beach figure. He told me in confidence that he was wanted by the FBI for draft evasion, which may or may not have been the truth.
What made Shoeshine different from most people who shine shoes for a living is that he didn't sit on a stool, but instead squatted in front of his customers, bouncing up and down like a yo-yo. I exchanged a few barbs with Shoeshine, whom Hank later said had a wild look in his eyes. The kind of look that Hank said he had seen on the faces of men he had gotten drunk with during his stone drunk days.
Shoeshine left to ply his trade, when Bob Seider happened to walk by, asking for some spare change. Hank reached into his pocket and handed Seider several loose coins. Seider thanked Hank, and hurried off in the direction of the old Coffee Gallery. Hank said that he didn't normally make it a habit to give handouts to street bums, but there was something in Seider's eyes that set him apart from the others. I told Hank that that Seider had been one of the few white jazz musicians who had frequented the North Beach jazz joints in the Beat days. He had played at all the small jazz clubs, at the beach, charming the regulars with his smile and friendly manner. If you weren't lucky enough to catch him playing his sax at the North Beach clubs, you could watch him perform free on the street, near Washington Square Park, where he liked to hang out. Then one day he pawned his sax and quit playing forever.
We walked to the Cafe Trieste, where Hank stopped and peered in at a small group of men and women sitting at the intimately close tables. Without warning, he said in a loud voice:
"Look at all these people waiting for something to happen, only it never will."
He hurried away before waiting for a response, leaving me behind to over hear a skinny woman with glasses make an insensitive remark.
"God, did you see all that acne?" "And what a drinker's nose. He'll be dead before you know it."
The remark was met with a smattering of laughter, as the young woman continued drinking her espresso. She was dead wrong! Hank’s scars weren't from acne, but childhood boils, and he would live a relatively full life for a man who abused his body as much as he did.
I managed to catch up with him, a half block down the street. We didn't talk about what he said to the crowd at the Cafe Trieste. I somehow sensed this wouldn't have been the appropriate thing to do.
Hank was under the impression the Beat movement began with Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady and the long list of Beats that the media helped make famous. There are others who would disagree. John Pyros, a writer friend, argues that the Beat movement could be said to have evolved on August 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and to have ended in 1967 with the Human Be-in in San Francisco, during the last days of the Hippie Generation.
Perhaps the single most important thing Kerouac, Ginsberg and Cassady did was to make other rebellious young people throughout the land aware that there were others out there who felt the same way they did. I know this was the case with me. Diane Di Prima, (after reading HOWL) is quoted as saying:
"I sensed he (Ginsberg) was only, could only be the vanguard of a much larger thing. All the people, who like me, had hidden and skulked...All these would now step forward and say their piece. Not many would hear them, but they would, finally, hear each other. I was about to meet my brothers."
John Pyros, perhaps put it best:
"To state that Kerouac and Ginsberg, et al began the Beat movement is like saying that Rosa Parks started the Civil Rights Movement...In fact, the land was fertile and awaited only the seed, only the spark to be kindled."
While Hank seemed curious about the neighborhood the Beats frequented, he did not particularly seem interested in learning the history of the Beat movement. I tried to get him to have a beer with me at the Vesuvio Bar, located adjacent to City Lights Book Store, which had been a favorite hang out of the Beats, but he declined.
As we continued our walk through North Beach, I clued him in on the history of City Lights Book Store, which was founded in the fifties by Peter Martin (who later sold his interest) and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In the beginning, the bookstore was frequented mostly by Italian anarchists, people Martin was familiar with, being the son of an Italian Anarchist, Carlo Tresca, who was assassinated in 1943. Ferlinghetti too associated with the anarchist writers, many of whom were friends or acquaintances of Kenneth Rexroth, referred to by many as the father of the Beats.
City Lights began as the first all-paperback bookstore in the U.S. Even in those days cloth copies of books were relatively expensive and out of the reach of many Working-class people. It wasn't Ferlinghetti, but Martin who named the store City Lights, taking the name from a Charlie Chaplin film.
Who knows where City Lights would be today (if even in existence), if on March 25, 1957, the San Francisco District Attorney's office hadn't decided to take City Lights and its owners to court. This after Allen Ginsberg's "Howl and Other Poems" (printed in England) was seized by the U.S. Customs in San Francisco; whose criminal division decided the book was obscene. The case never went to court after the U.S. district attorney refused to prosecute, forcing Federal Customs officials to release the books.
However, the San Francisco Police Department refused to ignore the matter. Ferlinghetti and Shig Muro (who at the time managed City Lights) were arrested and charged with selling obscene literature.
The American Civil Liberties Union stepped in and furnished free legal representation, providing the famed attorney Jake Ehrich to defend them. Prominent writers and critics testified in court, on behalf of City Lights, and Judge Clayton Horn set the legal precedent that if a book has the slightest redeeming social importance, it is protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. and the California constitutions and therefore cannot be declared obscene. This legal precedent allowed D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" (long banned in the U.S.) to be published by Grove Press.
The San Francisco police had unwittingly put City Lights and Lawrence Ferlinghett on the map. Not learning their lesson, the police would later return in the sixties, focusing their attention on Zap Comics and Lenore Kandal's Love Poems, which only served to sell out both publications.
However there are some who question how courageous Ferlinghetti's act was, in his willingness to challenge the establishment in court. Charles Plymell, a member of the sixties Beat writers, claims the battle would have been for
nothing more or less than hallenging the right to use the word "fuck", a word Lenny Bruce, the greatest comedian of his era, was arrested over and over again for using in his night club act. Plymell put the matter in perspective, in a lengthy interview, which appeared in Chiron Review, and challenged the establishment version of this historic event.
"Lucky that he (Ferlinghetti) probably had good coaching from his attorney brother, so he wasn't really a poor Beat poet. He knew what was happening, but why didn't he just go in the courtroom and say that he was Lieutenant Commander Ferlinghetti in World War Two, who had just fought for this country's freedom, and besides this is the way sailors talk all the time. It was still close enough to WW 11 that the judge would have dismissed the case instantly
Plymell compares the happening with the "old downtrodden intellectual class millionaires tromped on by society," adding the "ploy" sold a lot of books, in what was really nothing more than a "thinly disguised capitalistic marketing approach" by the late Allen Ginsberg, whom Plymell describes as an "ex-market researcher cum poet", while at the same time describing Ferlinghetti as an "ex-Navy officer cum bohemian proprietor."
"P.T. Barnum couldn't have done better," says Plymell. "It was like the famous hyperbole, I saw the best minds of my generation...If he (Ginsberg) was looking at reality, he would have saw the best minds of his generation at Alamogordo, New Mexico, playing out the old fashion myth of power, changing the world forever."
The outspoken but straight talking Plymell sees what happened as another case of elitist capitalistic intellect at work, "screaming at the press for publicity, while building a lasting enterprise on old bohemian sympathies.”
It's hard to argue against what Plymell says. Ferlinghetti owns an expensive piece of property (City Lights Books and Publishing) in one of the most desirable real estate locations in San Francisco, with a home in Virginia, and Ginsberg sold his archives in excess of a million dollars.
Hank wanted to grab a bite to eat before leaving the beach, and I suggested Chinatown, which would be free of the poets Hank wanted to avoid. I decided to take him to Sam Woh's, a three story restaurant, where you had to walk through the kitchen, in order to make your way to the upstairs dining room, where the food was brought up to you on a dumb waiter.
Sam Woh's was one of the most popular "In" spots in Chinatown, after the late Herb Caen, the famed San Francisco newspaper columnist, mentioned the restaurant and its waiter Edsel Ford in his daily newspaper column. As we walked through the kitchen, filled with non-English speaking Chinese cooks, with meat cleavers in their hands, Hank said, "I hope the hell you know what you're doing."
"Don't worry," I said, leading him upstairs to the dining area, where we were greeted by Edsel Ford, the headwaiter. Edsel was part entertainer, part waiter, and part mad man. He told the patrons where to sit, and what to order, and if you didn't like it, you were free to leave. The food was only ordinary, but the restaurant was always filled to capacity.
Edsel nodded to me in recognition as Hank walked at my side. Suddenly Edsel turned, and shouted at Hank, "Single File. Single File. You stupid?" Hank was caught off guard, at first growing angry, and then smiling, sensing it was all part of an act.
Edsel led us to a booth, at the back of the restaurant, and thrust a menu in our hands. I don't remember what Hank ordered, except that he wanted a side bowl of steamed rice, and that Edsel flashed him a menacing look.
"No white rice. No white rice. You order fried rice," Edsel roared.
"Who ever heard of a Chinese restaurant that doesn't serve rice?" Hank loudly bellowed. He finally settled on a plate of noodles, which were the best noodles in Chinatown.
After lunch, I slipped Edsel a fiver and asked him to "spike" the tea. He smiled and returned with an 86% proof laced pot of tea. Hank poured himself a drink, and, said, "I think I could grow to like that guy."
We spent a considerable amount of time talking about Hank’s favorite subject, women. I can't remember much of the conversation, but when I talked about losing a woman that I still loved to another man, Hank grew serious.
"You don't know what it's like to really lose a woman. When Jane died,” Hank continued, "I knew I would never again be the same. It's too painful to put down in prose. I try to put it down on paper, but it never comes out just right. I never want to bury another woman again."
Hank talked to me about fame, and said becoming famous was not an important thing to him, but he would like to someday own a place of his own, even if it was only a shack. He talked about his fear of dying alone, and said he hoped when his time came they would discover his body early and not find him week’s later bloated and covered with flies.
Hank felt it was durability that counted and boasted that he had outlived many of the editors who had rejected his work early on in the game. We talked about the small presses.
Hank spoke highly of the old Wormwood Review and Nola Express, saying the latter had paid him a small sum of money for his prose pieces that had appeared in the small publication, and that this had helped him in his later decision to quit his job with the post office.
We talked about drugs and whether they were good for you or not. My experience with drugs was limited to grass, uppers and downers, and single experiences with peyote and LSD. Hank admitted to using drugs, but was negative about using cocaine, which he felt was destructive. He said the only drug he was addicted to was alcohol, but found that unlike other drugs, it didn't interfere with his writing.
I told him about my first night at North beach, after I had returned home from Panama (1958) after completing my military obligation. The first bar I drank at was a beer and wine establishment called the Coffee Gallery. I was astonished at the dress of the people I saw at the bar. The women were basically dressed in black. The men wore sandals, berets, and sunglasses. It was if they were sending out a signal they were not "square", that they were not part of the success orientated general population. Later, I had wandered down to the Anxious Asp, which was a jazz hangout, and again was amazed by the open mingling of black men with white women. Despite the liberal reputation of San Francisco, this was not something openly practiced during a time in our history when the House of Representative's Committee on Un-American Activities was more representative of the mood in the country.
From the Anxious Asp, I made my way down the street to the San Gottardo hotel and bar. The bar was packed that night, but I managed to make my way past the crowd, and bellied-up to the bar, and ordered a beer. Before I could taste my first drink, I felt someone from behind ugging at my shirt. I turned around and saw a woman in her thirties smiling at me.
"You want to fuck?" She said.
Before I could respond, I found myself being taken by the hand and led upstairs to one of the rented hotel rooms. In short order, we were naked and making love. I was only twenty-two and spent the next few hours locked in animal passion. Later we went downstairs for a nightcap, and learned of a party going on at a warehouse, in the produce district.
At the party, we went our separate ways. The room was thick with smoke, making it uncomfortable for me.
I walked into the kitchen, and poured myself a drink from one of the several jugs of wine sitting on the kitchen table.
Returning to the living room, I saw a group of men and women gathered in a circle, sharing a joint. In the far corner of the room, a young black dude was dry-humping a fat Japanese woman, whose blouse was open, exposing her ample breasts. I walked closer to the black male and his Japanese woman friend. They soon discarded their clothes, and began making love with no thought of the small crowd that had gathered around to watch them. Finally the black dude climbed off the woman, and moved down the hall where he disappeared into an adjacent room.
I poured myself another drink and went into the room. I was startled to find the black dude and a well built white man naked and groping each other. I felt like an uninvited voyeur, and returned to the other room, where I saw the Japanese woman sleeping on the floor. Shortly afterwards, I fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning, the sun was rising, and I could hear the nine-to-five people on their way to work. The Japanese woman was still asleep, on the floor. I hadn’t even read Jack Kerouac's “ On The Road,” and here I was living it.
Hank brought up the earlier incident at the cafe Trieste .He said Los Angeles had its fair share of pretentious coffee houses, but he had made it a point to stay away from them. He described coffee houses as haunts for talent-less poets and pseudo-intellectuals, whom he described as "soft boiled egg and parsley eaters."
The conversation shifted to the brawls Hank had gotten into as a teenager, when Hank said he had been forced to defend himself because of his pock-faced looks. Later Hank lived in the slum streets of Los Angeles where survival meant being able to take care of one’s self "Not unlike Hell's Kitchen, in Chicago," Hank said.
In Poetry Now, Bukowski is quoted as saying: "The trouble is I liked it. I liked the impact of knuckles against teeth, of feeling the terrific lightning that breaks in your brain when somebody lands a clean one and you have to try to shake loose and come back and nail him before he finishes you off."
Hank confessed he was too old for that kind of life anymore. We finished our spiked tea and left the restaurant, walking up to Green Street, where I had parked my car. I drove Hank across town, where he was staying. We awkwardly embraced, promising to stay in touch with each other.
The next time I saw Hank was at a poetry reading he gave in San Francisco, where again he read to a sold out audience. I was given a free pass back stage, but paid the $3 admission fee, since I believe in supporting poets. I stood back stage, near an old piano, and watched the old man play the crowd for all it was worth. I would later write a poem "I Paid $3 To See Bukowski Read And Then Went Back Stage And Got In For Free."
The poem was published in the New York Quarterly, which caused Hank to write and tell me that he liked "the pure honesty" of the poem. The poem was a virtual newspaper like accounting of the reading Hank gave that evening and the party that followed the reading. The kind of poem Hank himself might write.
The reading resembled a circus. Hank repeated his beer drinking performance of old, spending much of the time engaging in verbal jousting with a small group of radical female feminists who had come to the reading to taunt him. The women never stood a chance, and were quickly booed into silence by the hostile crowd, even though Hank defended them to the audience.
Jack Micheline, a long time friend of Hank was present in the audience, and tried to get Hank to let him read a poem, but Hank would have none of it. It was his show and he wasn't about to share it with anyone. Jack had to settle for vomiting on the shoe of a minor local poet. That was the kind of night it was.
At the close of the reading, Hank thanked the audience, who whistled and yelled for an encore. Especially loud was a young man seated in the back of the hall, and who kept shouting, "More, More."
Hank flashed the young an impish smile. "How much did you pay to get into the reading?" He asked. The kid took the bait. "$3.00," the kid said. "And you're a $3 audience," Hank shot back, much to the delight of the crowd.
Hank exited the building by means of the back stage, where we warmly embraced each other, much to the envious looks of several San Francisco poets who had come to hear him read, with the hope they might gain a sense of importance at being seen with him. Hank asked me to ride in a van to a party that was being held in his honor, but I wanted nothing to do with the small band of poetry politicians, and politely declined.
I had parked my car a short distance from the reading and drove to the party alone. When I arrived at the party, it was wall-to-wall bodies and the usual crowd. There were the young poets who were intensely jealous of the old man, mixed in with the poets who were seeking instant fame, even though their limited talent made this next to impossible.
There were failed poets, and young women who had made it once too often: in bedrooms, in hallways, in alleyways, and in bathrooms, with pushed-up skirts and knees scared from one too many head jobs. And the old enemies were there too. I watched John Bryan edge his way close to Hank, whispering in a low voice, "You better watch it, my wife is here with a knife." John had told me earlier that Hank had tried to put the make on his wife (Joanie), at a time when he and Hank were still friends. I don't know if this is true or not. Hank would neither confirm nor deny it. Hank shrugged off Bryan's remark and said, "Can't you forget, that was in the old days?” But Bryan couldn't forget, because Hank had made it and Bryan hadn't.
There were enough poets in the room to make up a professional football team. There were poets from San Francisco and poets from Berkeley, even one poet from New York, taking down notes on everything Hank said.
It was a carnival like atmosphere. I found my attention drawn to three women in the middle of the room. One of the women was in the company of a male slave, who was naked from the waist up, and wearing a dog collar around his neck. I was amused to see the slave had a leather leash attached to the dog collar, which his mistress held securely in one hand. The young man stood at near attention, his eyes staring down at the wooden floor. None of the women spoke to or looked at him. No one else at the party paid them the slightest attention, but then that's the way it is in San Francisco, where people have become accustomed to the bizarre.
I watched Hank surrounded by men and women alike. It was as if he was a rock star, and everyone wanted to reach out and touch him. The movie, "Jesus Christ...Super Star," comes to mind, and I thought I could see a pained look on his face, It wasn't a night for serious conversation, and it wasn't long before he drank himself into a semi-coma, perhaps the only way to keep sane among the crowd of people who had gathered around him like hungry cannibals, feasting on his every word.
After consuming a few beers, I had to fight my way to the bathroom, only to find the room occupied in an unusual manner. The leather clad mistress and her male slave were in the bathtub. The slave was naked and lying on his back. The woman was crouched on the upper part of the bathtub, straddling him in an awkward position, holding her skirt up, forcing her slave to endure the indignity of a golden shower. I pretended not to look as I embarrassingly relieved myself.
When I was through taking care of business, I went into the kitchen to get myself a beer. Micheline was standing next to the refrigerator, surrounded by a group of admirers. Next to Hank, Micheline was second in demand. A silver haired New York Bronx poet whom the poetry crowd in San Francisco had adopted as one of their own. He was talking to a young woman who was visiting from Australia, telling her tales of the old Beat days. When Jack spotted me, he motioned for me to come over and join him. I let him introduce me to the young woman, and then watched him leave the room to discuss business with Hank.
I was surprised when the young woman unbuttoned her blouse, exposing two fully developed breasts, with the biggest nipples I have ever seen on a woman. Without hesitation, she invited me to touch them, boasting that they were for real. Within minutes we were kissing, and I felt her hand at my crotch. Suddenly she broke free from my embrace, and told me that she was on antibiotics. She asked me for my telephone number, and said she would give me a call when she was well. I tucked it into my shirt pocket and watched her leave the kitchen to talk to a young poet who was without success trying to get Hanks attention.
In no time at all, I had a good buzz on. I returned to the bathroom, where I found Hank sitting on the commode, a young woman on her knees, giving him a head job. His eyes were closed, but there was definitely a smile on his face. He would later write and say he didn't remember getting a blow- job, but he hoped it had been a good one.
Hank gave one last reading in San Francisco, which was organized by Kathleen Fraser, who at the time was the Director of the San Francisco State University Poetry Center. For reasons that elude me, Fraser scheduled William Stafford, a respected academic poet, to read on the same bill with Hank. Hanks dislike for academic poets was well known and I smelled disaster in the air.
On the night of the reading, I met him outside the Veteran's Auditorium, a strange place for a poetry reading. Hank was scheduled to read after Stafford. He said he didn't want to listen to Stafford read, so I accompanied him across the street to a small bar called The Court Room. We sat at a table, across from the jukebox, and ordered a round of screwdrivers. During the second round of drinks, we discussed the poetry scene in San Francisco, focusing on several San Francisco poets Hank disliked. He seemed visibly relieved when he learned I too held these same poets in low esteem. I remember he seemed nervous and tense, and at times the conversation seemed forced.
Hank had the keys to Ferlinghetti's van, which was parked in an alley not far from the Veteran's Auditorium.
After a few drinks, we left the bar, and walked to the van where Hank had stashed away a pint of vodka in the back seat. Hank sat in the back of Ferlinghetti's van while I sat in the front seat. I watched him reach under the back seat and remove a pint bottle of vodka, downing half the bottle in less than thirty seconds. I was surprised when he refused to share the bottle with me. Perhaps sensing my hurt, he leaned toward me and said,
"A. D., I need every drop to see me through the reading. If it weren't for the money, I wouldn't give these damn things. I'm like a beggar singing for his supper."
While sitting in the van, we discussed several similarities in our lives. We had both been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, and both of us had spent time in the drunk tank. Me, on two occasions, and Hal on several occasions. We both had been forced to attend traffic school and had our driver's license suspended. And both of us disliked giving poetry readings. Hank felt San Francisco poets were so eager for attention they begged like seals to read at every opportunity, even at open mike readings. He said he guessed this was all right for poets who were just starting out, but that poetry was a profession, and too many poets prostituted it.
"Can you imagine a carpenter coming over to your home and working on your house for free?" Hank asked. He couldn't understand why a poet would get up on stage and bare his soul unless he was paid for it.
I recall feeling somewhat overwhelmed by his presence. There was something totally awesome about him. His shoulders were stooped over from the years. His hair was starting to thin; his face was a road map of scarred pock marks, but his smile and wit soon put me at ease. We went on to discuss other things we shared in common. Hank had gone to Los Angeles City College, while I had attended City College of San Francisco. We both had unhappy childhoods, but unlike Hank, my father had never laid a hand on me. What else did we share in common? Women! We talked about the women we had scored with, and the women who had scorned us. And we shared still another thing in common, the ability to drink most people under the table.
We discussed Hank's work that had earlier appeared in the Outsider magazine and the Los Angeles Free Press. I told him how impressed I had been on reading his "Notes Of A Dirty Old Man." He thanked me, but said he didn't want to talk about the column, nevertheless expressing gratitude he had been paid a small sum of money for his contributions.
I watched him work his way down to the bottom of the vodka bottle. He complained another reason he hated giving poetry readings was the organizers always expected him to attend a party afterwards. Hank said he didn't know why he attended the parties because they were almost always boring. Remembering the party that Ferlinghetti had hosted and the party I had witnessed the male slave being urinated on, I found this hard to believe.
Letting out a loud sigh, Hank finished the last of the vodka, tossing the bottle on the floor of the van. Hank said, "It's time to pay the piper," but we didn't get ten feet outside the vehicle before he turned and vomited on the side of Ferlinghetti's van. I asked him if he was okay. He told me not to worry, that it was normal for him to vomit before a reading. Hank said, "It helps steady the nerves," but I wasn't sure if he was serious or not.
Hank straightened himself up, and looked perfectly sober as we walked back to the Veteran's Auditorium. Entering the building, I suggested we sit in the back of the auditorium, so as not to interrupt William Stafford's reading, but he insisted on taking seats closer to the front of the stage.
When the crowd caught sight of Hank walking down the aisle, they began chanting: "BUK. BUK. BUK." It was as if the heavyweight champion of the world was entering the ring to do battle.
Stafford paused momentarily before continuing on with his reading. I felt badly for Stafford. It wasn't that I liked his poetry, which was far too academic for my taste, but he deserved more respect from Hank.Hank, on the other hand, felt no remorse at all. If anything, he seemed to be enjoying the attention he was receiving from the boisterous crowd. We sat down about eight rows from the front stage. Stafford concluded his reading, to polite applause, quickly leaving the building as Hank pushed past the people in our row and lumbered slowly up on stage.
He stood to one side as the Master of Ceremonies introduced him to thunderous applause. Flash bulbs were popping everywhere, and the heavy emotion of the audience seemed hear felt. Hank played the audience like the master he was, smiling at the right times, tossing in jives and raw language for shock value, and reading for about forty-five minutes. As usual, he gave a dynamite reading. When he finished his reading, he was greeted with chants of: "MORE, MORE. MORE." Hank read one last poem, before exiting the stage, eager for another drink.
After the reading, I accompanied him back across the street, where we resumed our earlier drinking. In between drinks, we discussed the need for a writer to be alone. Hank was of the opinion that what it came down to in the end was the writer alone in his home with his typewriter, and that everything else was a distraction. He described writer workshops as lonely heart clubs for writers who would never amount to anything.
"Name me one major writer who has come out of a writer's workshop?" Hank asked me. I couldn't!
John Corrington is quoted as saying: "A Bukowski poem is like the spoken voice nailed to paper." It's hard to argue with this viewpoint. How do you teach something like this at a writer's workshop? The truth is Hank wrote poetry in a language the average person could understand and identify with. Hence his appeal to the ordinary masses.
Shortly afterwards Ferlinghetti came storming into the bar. I watched him angrily approach our table. I thought at first he might have discovered Hank had puked on the side of his van, but when I looked up from the table, I saw that he was clutching a poetry magazine in his hand After exchanging greetings with Hank, Ferlinghetti waved the magazine in front of me, angrily ripping into me about a poem of mine that had been published in the magazine he had brought with him. The poem was titled, "For Lawrence Ferlinghetti And The Old Revolution." I had written the poem after reading Ferlinghetti's poem, "Where is North Beach I Can't Find It." The theme of his poem was that the Neo-Beats were dead and buried. My poem was written in response to his poem, which I found offensive.
FOR LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI AND THE OLD REVOLUTION
Why must you wait for the harvest
To fail in Russia before you don
Your sailor suit again
And walk the rusted decks
Of a ghost ship that never knew
A Siberian snowfield
Or saw a frozen wheat field
Why worry if the props
Or there's blood in your drink
They'll never find you
Down in the boiler room
Stoking the fir
You're the Admiral of the beats
Yet missed Kerouac's wake
Because they say that
You don't like funeral
Of course nothing moves
It never does
For someone who has forgotten
How to dance
In the streets.
I was not prepared for Ferlinghetti's attack, and was disturbed over the attention he was drawing from the small crowd of Hank’s admirers who had followed us to the bar after the reading.
It was while at the bar that I learned of Hank's loyalty to those he considered his friends. City Lights had just recently published a book of Hanks - Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness.
Hank had far more to gain by siding with Ferlinghetti than he did with me. If Ferlinghetti's intent was to drive a wedge between my friendship with Hank, it failed. I'll always remember the way Hank looked up at him, and.
with a mischievous look in his eye, said, "Lawrence, that's one of the best poems I've ever read."
Ferlinghetti stood for several seconds in shocked silence. I knew my poem was an honest poem; a good poem; a poem that would be re-published many times, but I also knew it wasn't a great poem, and certainly wasn't the best poem Hank had ever read. I watched Ferlinghetti angrily storm out of the bar, and recall wondering how he would react when he returned to his van and found someone had vomited on it.
Hank quickly finished his drink, saying he had forfeited his ride to the airport, and would need me to give him a ride. As it turned out, I didn't need to drive him to the airport. A young man, who claimed to be a documentary filmmaker, convinced Hank to stay the night at his place, supposedly to work out the details on the proposed documentary.
I got up from the table, and shook hands with Hank, leaving him with the filmmaker, as I headed outside to my car. As I settled back behind the steering wheel, and turned the key in the ignition, I wondered if Hank had ever read my poem for Ferlinghetti. Not that it mattered. His act of kindness is something I'll always remember.