Remembering Bukowski with O.C.'s ‘poet grandfather’
I am not a writer of prose. This is not an article, an anecdote or short story. It is simply the imperfect account of an evening from several points of view.
So begins the document that Lee Mallory has set in front of me at a cramped wooden table in the corner of Alta Coffee in Newport Beach.
By now, I’ve grown so accustomed to word processors and social media that the text — written on an old manual typewriter and photocopied for my use — looks like a carefully guarded antique. Which, in a way, it is.
The title reads “Bukowski — New Years Eve,” and the first page, along with the 1972 copyright, declares that the text may not be used anywhere without the author’s permission. Mallory has written that permission for me by hand in the margin. He is making his slow departure from Orange County’s poetry scene, and as he prepares to retire to Las Vegas, he’s called me here to Alta to pass on a memento that he’s held onto for more than two decades of producing readings.
That memento is a seven-page account of a New Year’s Eve spent in 1971 at the Hollywood home of Charles Bukowski, the prolific poet and novelist whom Time magazine once dubbed a “laureate of American lowlife.”
More than two decades before Bukowski’s death in 1994, he and Mallory had a tight but volatile relationship. A friendship? With Bukowski, it was hard to say. But at very least, it was tight enough to have inspired this piece.
“Bukowski was the king of confrontation,” Mallory says, a foot or two from the Balboa Peninsula coffeehouse’s de facto stage area, where he has held court since the early 1990s. “He was skeptical and cynical about young poets in general. He characterized the adoring poets who came to his door as ‘sharks,’ but he more or less took me in.”
On the table in front of us — which, at some point, probably supported Mallory’s feet during an interpretive poetry dance — are scattered remnants of his days with Bukowski: old photographs, sketches, typewritten letters. Not all of them evoke nostalgia; the New Year’s Eve account, at times, is a sobering reminder of Bukowski’s temper.
Still, when I ask Mallory how he feels looking at these souvenirs, he pauses, then answers with one word:
Coming down from Laurel Canyon, Hollywood Blvd. sets the stage. Neon, cars, the big billboards, everything rushing toward some new year. Everything open; go in and get some beer. Buk says on the telephone bring beer. Got to hold to beer — bourbon and wine tear me up — stomach gone, liver shot, intestines burned, and worst of all that horrible black depression that comes afterward. Beer is the only sensible way.
The first time Mallory met Bukowski, a 12-pack was the price of admission. Mallory’s brother-in-law, who published a magazine, had connections to the poetry scene, and when he asked Bukowski if he could bring his relation over, Bukowski offhandedly agreed.
Mallory, then a graduate student at UC Santa Barbara, stocked up at the liquor store and made the drive to Hollywood. The first knock at the door went unanswered; with the curtains drawn in the middle of the day, the house looked vacant. After more knocks, a curtain finally parted and a voice came through the window: “Did you bring the beer?”
On that visit and later ones, Mallory and his brother-in-law sat on the couch and nursed beers while Bukowski spieled about the literary scene. The blinds and curtains stayed drawn. Sometimes, Mallory could tell that they had interrupted Bukowski in mid-poem; he had his long sleeves rolled up and paper stacked around the typewriter.
The apartment itself showed all the signs of living alone, and messily: socks and cans lying around, old food in the refrigerator. Still, Mallory could see that his future mentor had refined tastes; over all the squalor and dim, Bukowski kept classical music constantly on the radio.
“One the one hand, you felt like you had entered a den of inequity,” Mallory says. “But on the other hand, you knew you were in the presence of one of America’s great writers.”
Before long, Mallory and Bukowski bonded over literature more than liquor. Mallory, who had started producing readings, set up gigs for Bukowski; in his files are letters, poems and drawings that Bukowski mailed to him. At one point, Bukowski even wrote a brief foreword for a planned book of Mallory’s poems; the book deal fell through, and Mallory shelved the foreword when he felt he’d outgrown the poems it cited.
One missive from 1971, addressed to “brother Mallory,” reads in part, “Yes, I’m on the hustle, which means readings, which all helps survival until that [grim reaper] puts it to us. So if you hear of any, send them my way and I’ll do my little act.”
The words “grim reaper” replace a term we can’t print in this paper; Bukowski, on the page and in person, often shifted between tender and coarse.
So, for that matter, does Mallory. His poetry can be lusty (“I’d like to be your washer / you & me / a permanent press”) and his performances wild; hosting at Alta and the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana, he was known to shout improvisations, even smash dinnerware to climax his poems.
Still, Mallory shows a dapper streak. A Santa Ana College professor until his retirement last year, he often wore a coat and dress shirt to readings amid a crowd of T-shirted poets. When the Newport Beach Independent profiled him two years ago, it dubbed him “the Grandfather of Poetry in Orange County.” He represents a link to poetry’s past, in more ways than one.
Bukowski is talking and puking in his kitchen sink. He’s made the rounds of most all the women but had no luck because most of them are married. For the unmarried his approach is simple and direct. “How ‘bout it baby? Let’s go do it.” But even so, they don’t get pissed because he’s always got that smile and that funny tone in his voice that maybe says he’s not being altogether serious. But he is. The men he treats differently. He’s a host. He’s an aggressor. It seems that the better he knows a guy the more viciously he tests him.
Back to that word: “Wistful.”
One of Mallory’s favorite photos shows him standing next to Bukowski on a Southern California street in the early 1970s. Bukowski, on the left, squints into the camera with cigarette in mouth, one hand in his pocket and the other clutching a stack of papers. To his right, Mallory beams with his hands on his hips, looking like a disciple giddy to be beside the master.
That was the relationship the two of them enjoyed at their best. Other times, the king of confrontation reared his head. Mallory recounts a night he stayed up late at Bukowski’s apartment and made a comment that the poet was drinking too much, that his behavior was self-destructive. Bukowski leaned in closely, summoned his cold stare and told Mallory not to bring up the topic again.
“I said, ‘You’re killing yourself,’” Mallory recalls. “He said, ‘I know.’”
Months later, at a post-New Year’s party at Bukowski’s home, the tension between them almost erupted. In Mallory’s recollection, some of the other guests were chiding Bukowski for still having a Christmas tree, and the flustered poet grabbed the tree and threatened to chuck it through the window. A woman implored him to stop, an argument started to brew between them, and Mallory, fearing an explosion, stepped in and told Bukowski to cool it.
Bukowski called Mallory a “punk” and told him never to intervene between him and a woman again. For the rest of the party, he acted cool to Mallory, who wondered if he had overreacted. In the ensuing weeks, Mallory wrote to Bukowski expressing regret for the falling-out and got halfhearted replies. Then, in 1973, Mallory joined the military, and the two drifted apart.
In later years, talking to others who had been close to Bukowski, Mallory asked if the poet ever mentioned his name. They replied, yes, he did. But it was no more than a mention, no indication of fondness or dislike.
Still, it’s not just the falling-out that Mallory feels wistful about. Even though he witnessed Bukowski’s dark side firsthand, he feels his role model was misunderstood for much of his life. Some poets, he says, considered Bukowski a sellout when he married his last wife, Linda Bukowski, in the 1970s and left Los Angeles for San Pedro — an accusation that Mallory regards as unfair.
Seated at Alta, Mallory rattles off a list of other Bukowski myths: that he was misogynistic (“He wrote very tender poems to women sometimes”), that he used profanity for shock value (Mallory sees it as reflecting the street culture) and that his epitaph, “Don’t try,” was a slogan of defeat (it was a message to writers to let the muse come naturally).
After Bukowski’s death in 1994, Mallory wrote tributes to him for the Daily Pilot and Orange County Register and printed a limited-edition broadsheet of one of his poems. Bukowski, for that matter, may have written a public tribute to Mallory as well: His early-1970s poem “Slim Killers” includes the lines “well, we don’t have a car / and Lee needs a ride to this nightspot / in Hollywood.” Is Mallory the Lee mentioned? The question has always haunted him.
Meanwhile Buk is ranting at the guests about the miserable plight of the tortured artist. Half-serious, half-funny he goes on and on about PAIN. And what drama. What entertainment. But don’t be misled — it wasn’t as if he was trying to hold center stage. In fact, for long portions of the evening he was not there at all. But when he did get going he was dramatic and FUNNY and he could really pull it off. WHAT CAN ANY OF YOU POSSIBLY KNOW ABOUT PAIN?, he’d cry out, he’d scream. PAIN! I’ve known it deep down in my guts, he’d say; and past your smile and through his you knew it was true.
When Mallory slid the New Year’s Eve document out of a binder in his office at Santa Ana College, he barely recognized it. The typewritten font had faded over nearly four decades, and most of the text felt so unfamiliar that it might have been another person’s writing.
Mallory had gone into his archives to find early work for a volume of his selected poems, “Now and Then,” which came out in 2009 from Moon Tide Press. (Full disclosure: I’m the publisher of Moon Tide, and Mallory was among its co-founders. Like Bukowski, he’s taken a lot of younger poets under his wing.) The early poems went into the book, but the New Year’s Eve account didn’t. Here at Alta is the first time anyone outside his family has seen it.
I know what this transaction means, in part: Bit by bit, Mallory is dismantling the poetry career he’s built in Southern California. The next stop is Las Vegas, where he is already scouting the poetry scene. His office at school has been cleared out. The Alta reading has expired, and another poet, Jaimes Palacio, has taken over the Gypsy Den. Old books are being offered to the Santa Ana College library; documents are being sorted for archives, personal use or disposal.
After Mallory’s death, he plans to have the New Year’s Eve story sent to UC Santa Barbara’s Special Collections library. For years, he’s helped the library preserve Bukowski’s story; its archive includes photographs of Mallory with his mentor, letters between them, posters and fliers of long-ago readings. When Spanish journalist Abel Debritto set out to research Bukowski for a book — “Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground: From Obscurity to Literary Icon,” scheduled for release from Palgrave Macmillan this year — Mallory was among the sources he contacted.
On the phone to me, Debritto notes that he knows collectors who will shell out $1,000 or more for a Bukowski-related item. Whatever his king-of-the-underground reputation, Bukowski means big business now. Linda Bukowski, who donated his literary archive to the Huntington Library in 2006, estimates that the body of work could have fetched more than $1 million.
When I mention Mallory to her, Linda hasn’t heard of him. It’s not surprising. She met her husband in the mid-1970s, after Mallory had left for the barracks, and she notes that Bukowski — “Hank” to her — chose his inner-circle carefully. Mallory, most likely, was an acquaintance and colleague more than a close friend.
“You could count what he actually described as friends on one hand,” she says. “I guess in those days, in the early ‘70s, he had contact with a lot of people because he was getting his name out there.”
Still, she expresses interest when I mention the documents in Mallory’s collection. When Linda visits book fairs, she sometimes checks for new artifacts. She once paid $3,000 to replace a rare Bukowski volume that was stolen from her home.
“It’s always exciting to hear about new things,” she says.
With Mallory’s blessing, I mail her a stack of documents: the photo, two letters, a copy of “Now and Then,” and excerpts from the New Year’s Eve memoir. Two decades after death officially parted them, Mallory and Bukowski have reunited, if only through one degree of separation.
The last few minutes found Bukowski and I alone in the kitchen. I muttered something to the effect that he could stay at our place if he came up to Santa Barbara to read. “But you can’t dry off on the sheets,” I tell him. I say too that I’m going to do everything I can to get that reading for him. And then the conversation turns to men and poetry. He knows that I look up to him and for some reason he says, “Lookit, you’re just a man and so am I. You’re a poet and I’m a poet, but you haven’t been around as long as I have.
“Remember too,” he says, “until we sit down in front of that typewriter, that machine, we’re just the same. Just tryin’ to get by in this crappy world, just the two of us and all the rest. So just stay at the machine. It’s the only thing that’s gonna last.”