Hard-LIVING, hard-writing Charles Bukowski was a product of his time and place. Since the ‘60s, Bukowski -- the homegrown author of more than 35 volumes of poetry and prose -- has had a fiercely loyal following around the world. Today his readership has grown to the point where it’s hard to categorize his audience -- everyone from teenagers to aging baby boomers, blue-collar workers to professors.
One thing that unites Bukowski readers, however, is passion: “He changed my life” is something you hear a lot from Bukowski readers. Much of his highly autobiographical writing may be about bad jobs, drinking, turbulent relationships -- the desperation and rawness of living -- yet a light of wisdom, compassion, honesty and humor shines through it all. For many people, reading Bukowski can be a process of heartfelt discovery.
I first encountered Bukowski’s work around the time of his death, 10 years ago. I started buying his books and, by chance, meeting people in Los Angeles who had known him. As I began to hear stories about the real Bukowski, I became fascinated and decided to document his life on film. Eight years later, the result is my documentary “Bukowski: Born Into This,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles.
Bukowski’s work is deeply rooted in Los Angeles, where he lived most of his life, and he referred to it often in his work. In a poem from his book “Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame,” he wrote of “this land punched-in, cuffed-out, divided, held like a crucifix in a deathand.” Various locales around the area played central roles in his literary life. In the film we see the apartments and courts where he lived on Carlton Way, Mariposa and De Longpre avenues, we see him driving the streets of East Hollywood in his VW bug and talking to interviewers in the living room of his San Pedro home. While the film about his life, “Barfly” (1987), may have left viewers with the idea that local watering holes were the center of his existence, Bukowski’s life was far more complex. Here are a few of the places that factored strongly in Bukowski’s life and work:
Bukowski’s childhood home, just a stone’s throw from the Santa Monica Freeway at La Brea. This is the place where his father would preach the values of the American Dream: Be industrious, make money, buy a house, have a family. But while his father was proselytizing, he was also meting out brutal beatings to the sensitive young boy several times a week, from age 6 through his teens.
In “Bukowski: Born Into This,” Bukowski revisits this house as an older man and describes the beatings in the exact spot where they took place -- the family bathroom. While living here, Bukowski attended Los Angeles High School on Olympic Boulevard, where he was one class ahead of Ray Bradbury. In his teens, he contracted a particularly severe form of acne, which left him with facial scars for the rest of his life. In “Ham on Rye,” the novel based on his childhood, he describes going to the senior prom, looking through the gymnasium window at the others dancing, as he stood outside suffering from this disfiguring condition.
Explaining the title “Ham on Rye,” Bukowski wrote to a correspondent in 1982: “My parents were the two pieces of bread, and I was the ham that was continually getting bitten into.” In this home, Bukowski encountered a powerful force that he would spend many years reacting against: He would become a writer, an artist, a common laborer, a bum even -- but he would not be them. Out of this early experience came much suffering but also self-reliance, individuality and an incredible strength.
Los Angeles Central Library
This was a refuge from Bukowski’s home in the 1940s. It was also the place where he found the inspiration to become a writer.
While young, creative people today might want to become famous actors or directors, Bukowski grew up in the age of the Great American Novel At the Los Angeles Central Library, Bukowski encountered his heroes, the great men and women of literature: John Fante, Ernest Hemingway, Robinson Jeffers, Carson McCullers, Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Biographer Neeli Cherkovski notes that Bukowski “was like a Tyrannosaurus rex going into the library and devouring everything he could get his hands on.” Since then, a series of disasters and renovations has changed the library dramatically. Still, the main rotunda and the old history reading room (now a children’s reading center), look the same as they did when Bukowski visited them in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Years later, in poems and novels, Bukowski would write fondly about this library -- the place where he developed a passion for learning and the ambition to become an author.
Terminal Annex post office
Bukowski spent six years -- from age 18 to 24 -- writing and receiving rejections from Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly and the other mainstream publications of the day. Having little luck, he gave up and for 10 years dedicated his energies toward working odd jobs and drinking. During the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, he worked as an art store clerk, ambulance driver, slaughterhouse employee and assembly line worker -- all described in his novel “Factotum.”
In 1952, he landed a full-time job at the post office in Terminal Annex in Los Angeles. For Bukowski, this provided a certain amount of stability. Co-worker Dom Muto remembers, “Once you were in, it was pretty difficult to get fired from the post office. But Bukowski pushed it. He would come in hung over, and really didn’t put much into the job. He didn’t care, he didn’t like authority.”
Bukowski began writing again in 1955, after a near-fatal stomach hemorrhage. This experience gave him a renewed sense of purpose, and he worked with superhuman tenacity, writing during the daytime and working in the post office at night. This time, he was writing poetry, and his audience was new: the smaller alternative presses. Having found his natural venue -- and with hundreds of his poems began being published -- Bukowski began to build a strong underground reputation.
He worked at the post office -- first as a carrier and later as a clerk -- for 14 years. Out of this experience he wrote the novel “Post Office,” the quintessential description of life in a soul-strangling bureaucracy. (Coincidentally, it was here that Bukowski worked next to Grace Washington, the sister of another famous outsider, Charles Mingus.)
In 1970, Bukowski resigned to pursue a full-time writing career. While this transition terrified him at the time, he worked tirelessly, and within five years was able to make a solid living from his writing.
Santa Anita Park
Bukowski was a weekly fixture at the Hollywood Park and Santa Anita racetracks. Toward the end of his life he would visit the track almost every day the horses ran. Horse trainer Darrell Vienna, who knew Bukowski, notes that rather than sitting in the clubhouse with the well-heeled bettors, he chose to sit in the stands with the crowd. Moreover, a number of Bukowski’s poems chronicle the people he observed at the track.
Along with providing material for countless poems over the years, the track, he said, kept him in touch with humanity. If Bukowski didn’t visit the track, he said, he could not write. Here, he also translated his personal philosophy into a winning system -- “I always bet against the general public.” And toward the end of Bukowski’s life, he mostly won.
Musso & Frank Grill
Although many people claim that “Bukowski drank here,” I’ve found many of these stories are fiction. The bars where he drank in the ‘40s and ‘50s around the MacArthur Park area, such as the Alvarado, are long gone. Over the years he was spotted at places like Barney’s Beanery, Lucy’s El Adobe and the Red Lion Tavern in Silver Lake, where he challenged some other patrons to a fight. Brad, the bartender at Boardner’s (at Cherokee and Sunset), remembers serving Bukowski there in the early ‘70s and also cites the Frolic Room and the Firefly as Bukowski haunts.
But for the most part, from the early ‘60s on, Bukowski limited his drinking to home. This would have saved him money and run-ins with the police. But mainly, as he told Frances Smith, the mother of his child, Marina, “I just don’t like the kind of people who go to bars.”
One establishment that he did frequent from the ‘70s through the early ‘90s was the legendary Musso & Frank Grill in Hollywood. Once he met his wife-to-be, Linda Lee Beighle, the two could often be seen sharing quiet lunches and dinners in “the Old Room” of one of their favorite restaurants.
5124 De Longpre Ave., 5437 Carlton Way
These are two East Hollywood courts where Bukowski wrote his major works from the early 1960s through the mid-'70s. The little De Longpre court (Bukowski lived in the front unit) is still standing, almost as it was in the ‘60s. When we were shooting the documentary, director Taylor Hackford showed us the apartment where he spent many hours with Bukowski in the early ‘70s. “We drank and I talked to him about his life,” Hackford remembers. “And while this place ain’t the Taj Mahal, it was the cave where Bukowski locked himself up and created. He worked and worked, and finally he made it.”
During the ‘70s, the apartment (now gone) on Carlton Way near Western Avenue was populated by many colorful characters, such as Sam the Whorehouse Man and others, and was the setting and inspiration for many wild Bukowski short stories and the novel “Women.”
Thomas Schmitt, a young German documentary maker, visited Bukowski here in 1976. He stayed at a motel up the street from Bukowski and remembers: “I was awakened in the middle of the night by a pimp trying to drown one of his girls in the swimming pool. He was yelling and screaming at her to give him his money, pushing her head into the water. This seemed very much like the Bukowski kind of environment I had always imagined.”
In 1978, Bukowski was ready to move out of the East Hollywood courts. He and Linda Lee chose a house in the working-class community of San Pedro, where he would be far enough away from the old distractions, could lead a quieter life and concentrate on his writing.
Here Bukowski would marry Linda Lee in 1985 and adopt a health-food regimen. His writing output would explode (especially after the arrival of an Apple Macintosh in 1990), and he would create some of his greatest work, including six volumes of poetry and the novels “Ham on Rye,” “Hollywood” and “Pulp.” The screenplay for “Barfly” was also written here.
By this time, he had become an international celebrity, with fans and journalists seeking him out from around the world. He lived in a comfortable home, with a swimming pool and Jacuzzi. But his writing remained as edgy and forceful as ever.
Contrary to popular legend, Bukowski did not tear up the bars of San Pedro. Instead, the folks at the carwash, health-food store and local restaurants remembered him as a quiet, gentle and kind old man -- more of a grandfather figure than the legendary “dirty old man.”
According to Linda Lee Bukowski, he evolved throughout his last years in San Pedro. “He didn’t have to live up to the hard-drinking, womanizing Bukowski myth. He became more comfortable in himself, and discovered he could be a source of goodness.” Eventually, he even curtailed his famous drinking considerably.
In March 1993, Bukowski contracted leukemia, succumbing to the disease a year later. During this time, he underwent chemotherapy treatments, stopped drinking and, when in remission, discovered meditation, which he practiced daily. Recalls Linda Lee Bukowski: “It was so courageous of him to go there, because he hadn’t in all those years. He was able to experience a kind of peaceful acceptance -- it was so beautiful that he was finally able to do that in his life.”