EARLY September, 1987. I dial Bukowski’s number and hear a message from Linda Lee, asking me to leave my name and the time I’d called. I follow the instructions. Two days later the phone rang.
“Bukowski. Is Neeli there?” was all he said.
“I’m glad you called back. We both have answering machines.”
“You have to screen out the world, kid.”
“Listen. I’ve just sold a book. It’s called ‘Whitman’s Wild Children.’ Corso’s in it, Ferlinghetti, Norse, Ginsberg and some others. You too.”
“Oh, Jesus,” he muttered. “What the hell.”
“Don’t worry. There’s nothing vicious in the book.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet.”
“No, it’s true. It’s a combination of humor and criticism.”
“Yeah, keep the humor in there, baby. It’s what can make it for you.”
Whenever we got together for dinner our humorous sides would come out in full force. Inevitably, we would break into uncontrollable laughter midway through the meal. We usually went to a certain restaurant, a mecca for every outsider, retired assassin and aspiring mass murderer in the L.A. Basin. We would be carving our steaks. Bukowski might say: “See that guy over there. One of his legs is too short,” or “That old lady looks like a (prostitute) I used to know up on Alvarado.”
We invented stories generally based on a person’s face. Bukowski would say: “The guy at the counter, third from the left, see his face, kid? A zero. A great circular of nothing. A man’s responsible for how his face looks after the age of 40. Looking at him I can see he probably was a set designer at Warner Bros. They busted him for drinking on company time. Gave him his papers and he was out on the streets.”
Then we would start on each other. “You know the trouble with you, Bukowski?”
“What? Tell me, so I’ll know. Go ahead, fat man, tell me with your little fishhook mouth.”
“Your monkey face.”
“Yeah? Well, me and my monkey face just deposited $2,000 in that bank across the street for a couple of short stories I wrote and some good luck at the harness races.”
We were famous in that place. One day I went in alone. The waitress, one of the regulars, Faye, asked me where my friend was. “I saw his picture in the newspaper. He wrote a dirty story.”
I began to think of a defense for the piece when she said: “You know what I like about his writing? It ain’t got no big words. He tells it straight.”
Telling it straight: That is Bukowski. I called him on Veterans Day, 1987, to tell him that I was going to see his movie “Barfly.”
“Will you do another script?”
“No. I don’t care much for those Hollywood types.”
“No kidding? What about going on the morning shows?”
“They tried to get me on Johnny Carson. I said no. They wanted me on those other shows, too: ’20/20,’ ‘60 Minutes.’ I turned them all down. But pick up a copy of People magazine. I’m in it. I let them do a story because they’re just corny enough. Besides, you can buy it in any supermarket.”
BACK IN THE late 1960s, I asked my father to take some photographs of Bukowski for his projected book of poems, “The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills.” My father suggested we get some shots down at the old freight yard near Chinatown.
“Good idea,” Bukowski responded."You’re not the only one who rode the rails.”
We parked near four derelict freight cars. Bukowski and I walked up to one and he said, “Jesus. This thing is big when you finally get near it.”
My father came bounding behind us. “Okay, Buk, jump up there and I’ll get a shot.”
Bukowski tried hopping into the car. “This is embarrassing. I can’t do it,” he said, turning to me for help.
I tried lifting him up, but it took my father and me both to hoist him onto the platform. Once he was up there, he struck a tough-guy pose and my father began snapping. Getting down, however, proved more difficult than getting up. The three of us nearly toppled over one another, and Bukowski said, “Don’t you guys realize whose life you have in your hands?”
After the session, we walked into a nearby restaurant where coffee still cost a nickel and sawdust lay on the floor.
“It’s been a long time since I rode the freights, Neeli,” Bukowski said.
Thinking of those days when we first met, I remember him saying: “Someday, I’ll make it. It’s just a matter of time.”
But, back then, being only 15, I had no fix on time or the future. Nor did I have any idea of the long history Bukowski already had behind him: Those years in rooming houses, the dead-end jobs and the loneliness. When he was my age, his face had already been covered with boils. Other kids were going on dates. He would tell me: “I was on the outside by your age. The ugly kid. Maybe that’s why I’d hide from people later on.” He could always deliver a clear image of his aloneness and how a poet could grow through and beyond it:
I got somewhat larger
and took my first boxcar
out, I sat there in
the bitter lime
of having nothing
moving into the desert
for the first time