Poetry Man (For T.C.)
One day in the late eighties I received a call from Jonathan. He had optioned a story he’d written to a well-known underground filmmaker. He was in California, hanging out with some friends in Los Angeles and partying with the money he’d made on the deal.
Jonathan was a poet, a vocation that as far as I could tell involved quoting Charles Bukowski, drinking, and seducing coeds that were predisposed to find this sort of behavior charming. I had met a handful of guys like this during my unsuccessful stint in community college, and I was generally turned off by the whole scene. I didn’t understand poetry, which was due more to my lack of education than anything else.
I was impressed by Jonathan’s film deal, though. The Filmmaker was very hot with the indie crowd, so it was definitely a coup to have something picked up by him. I remembered the story he sold. A year or so earlier he had let me read it in a different incarnation, when it was a one act play he had written for a local theatre group. I didn’t think much of it at the time; it seemed overwrought and preachy, full of angst and kind of obvious. Not wanting to be a complete asshole, I told him I liked it. I gave him what I hoped was some constructive feedback and wished him the best of luck with it.
The truth was I was jealous. I may not have liked Jonathan’s writing, but at least he was doing something and trying to make a go of it. I had no shortage of ideas, but I could never seem to get anything concrete down on paper. I wrote just enough that I felt justified in thinking of myself as a “writer,” but I had very little to show for my efforts. I could talk a good game, but in reality I was still just drifting along through life, killing time while waiting for something to happen.
I met up with Jonathan at the motel he was staying at in L.A. He had driven out from his home in the Midwest with two women. I assumed he was fucking one or both of them. He seemed to do well with the women, which was another thing I was jealous of. Women responded to the tortured poet act, which I thought was a complete put-on. It was another short con to me. Life was full of them, I was discovering.
Jonathan wanted to do a reading while he was in town, so I found a coffeehouse in Pasadena that was having an open mic night and drove out there with him. There was a decent crowd, and he came prepared with a copy of his poetry chapbook to read from. When it was his turn he hunched over the mic and yelled and railed, gesticulating wildly and doing the angry poet thing. It was a little over the top for me, but Jonathan definitely had a stage presence. I had played music in front of people, but I wouldn’t have had the balls to get up in front of a roomful of people and just talk (not sober, at any rate). I thought he pulled it off well. After the reading we skipped the espresso and polite conversation and spent the evening drinking cheap beer on the train tracks that ran behind the coffee house. It turned out to be a pretty good night.
A couple nights later I drove up to L.A. with my friend Ryan to see Jonathan and his women. We hit a few bars, ending up at the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard. Jonathan was a Bukowski fan, as we all were, so it seemed appropriate to knock back some drinks in one of his favorite dives. Bukowski was still alive at this time, but we weren’t going to catch him hanging out at places like the Frolic anymore. He had achieved enough fame that he was able to move on to a better zip code. Barfly, the Mickey Rourke movie about his early years, had recently come out. Now every college-age male that could string a few sentences together and stomach a six pack thought they were the next Bukowski. Jonathan was one of those guys. I suppose I was as well.
After the bar closed we ended up back at the motel on Sunset. The girls went up to the room and Jonathan, Ryan, and I stayed in the parking lot to continue drinking. At some point a hooker cut through the parking lot and started trying to chat the three of us up.
“Hey, baby. You datin’?”
“Yeah, maybe,” Ryan said. “What’s it cost to party?”
After a brief negotiation, Ryan disappeared down the alley with her. Jonathan looked appalled.
“I can’t believe he’s doing this.”
I just shrugged and took a hit off my beer. I had seen worse.
“I mean, I just can’t imagine paying for sex,” he said.
I guess when you have a smooth line and the poet shtick to fall back on you don’t have to pay for it.
“Yeah. Okay, Casanova.”
I thought it was pretty funny, the gutter poet getting out-guttered. Welcome to Hollywood, baby.
When Ryan returned it was clear Jonathan had had enough for the night. Both Ryan and I were too wasted to drive back to Orange County, but we had to beg him to let us crash on the floor in his room. It seemed like a reasonable request, but I could tell he wasn’t happy about being stuck with us.
Jonathan took the king size bed with the two girls, Ryan pulled two chairs together for a makeshift bed, and I grabbed a spot on the floor. Jonathan turned the lights out. I folded up my leather jacket to use as a pillow and closed my eyes.
I don’t know how long I’d been out, but I awoke to the sound of one of the girls screaming. The lights came on and Ryan was standing naked in the middle of the bed, his feet astride the body of one of the terrified girls. I have no idea what he thought he was doing. He was probably in a blackout.
There was a lot of yelling and confusion. Jonathan, who was also naked, pushed Ryan and I outside, then stormed back in the room and slammed the door behind him. Ryan slowly got his clothes back on, and we yelled and pounded on the door to the room, laughing and loudly cursing Jonathan for throwing us out.
“Open the fucking door, poetry man! We’re not done with you yet! Poetry man! We want your women, poetry man!”
There was nothing but silence from the other side of the door. When it became obvious we weren’t going to get back in, we left.
Ryan and I walked west on Sunset until we found a Denny’s. I didn’t have enough money to eat, so I got a cup of coffee. Ryan ordered a grand slam, then promptly passed out with his head on the table. When the waitress brought the food Ryan was still out, so I slid the plate over to my side of the table and began eating. I was hungrier than I realized. It was delicious, the way food always is when you’re drunk.
As I ate I thought about Jonathan. I figured that would be the last I heard from him. My friends and I had a way of wearing out our welcome with people. We were an unrepentant group of fuckups, and we didn’t make it easy for people to like us. It was bound to happen sooner or later. At any rate, maybe Jonathan’s story would get turned into a slick black and white art film and his career would take off. That would be cool. Maybe he’d put us in one of his stories some day. Stranger things have happened.
I finished Ryan’s breakfast, then pushed the plate back to his side of the table. I shook him awake and told him he was done and that he should pay the check so we could leave. He looked at the empty plate, confused, then pulled out his wallet and started looking around for a waitress.
There were definite advantages to being the last man standing.