The Night I Drank with Charles Bukowski’s Ghost
I stepped into the bar.
It was dark, cave-like. Barflies lined the wooden counter, hunched over cans of beer and glasses of whiskey.
I walked over to the bar. “Scotch and water.”
The bartender, a tall man from what looked like Arab origin, fixed my drink and took my cash. On my left was a rotund black man, balding and mustached. To my right, was a pair of elderly men, white of hair and pale of skin. Off in the shadows sat a cagey negress, her once jet-black hair streaked with gray.
I sipped my drink. The fellow to my left spoke.
“Hey, brother! I’m Pancake!” He extended a hand, which I shook.
“Hey, Ben. Pleased to meet you! We’re all musicians here! Do you play?”
“Yeah, a little guitar and bass.”
“What you riff on, man?”
“Fender, Gretsch, Gibson, Epiphone?”
“Epiphone. I have a real nice acoustic I got for cheap.”
“Alright! Let me see you play that bass, Ben!”
I took a sip of whiskey, and started playing air guitar along to the bluesy track coming over the speakers. Pancake near shit himself with excitement.
“Yeah, Ben! Rock that bass, man! Ooooh, yeah, brother!”
The place came to life from that moment on. The patrons started chatting, people introduced themselves to me, the bartender was all smiles and efficiency. It was like I had passed some alcoholic test and was welcomed into the ranks of the booze-pickled regulars.
The bar was The King Eddy. Situated on the edge of Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles. Infamous former watering hole of Charles Bukowski, John Fante, and Tom Waits. I was in the City of Fallen Angels for one night only – I had a flight to catch from LAX the next day, so what better way to kill the time than downing drinks in a dive bar.
Despite its initial apparent seediness, The King Eddy was a friendly place. It felt like home. I was welcomed like family and everyone was friends. Conversation burst and bloomed amidst laughter and endless drinks.
“You chose a good day to come here,” Joel, the bartender stated once I finished my first drink. “Second round is free on Tuesdays.”
The King Eddy swiftly became my favorite bar.
I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out a paperback copy of Bukowski’s Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook.
I turned to Pancake, handed him the book. “You ever heard of this guy. He used to drink here.”
Pancake looked at the cover, smiled. “Yeah! Bukowski! He’s here, man. I knew it when you walked in. He’s here with you, man.”
Shit. This was really something. A strangely wonderful moment.
I drank up.
Pancake and the old guys left. Joel and I started talking about the history of the place. How it was a speakeasy during prohibition (there’s still a tunnel beneath the building that was used to smuggle liquor into the basement), and how one of the old guys who was there before had remembered Bukowski drinking there. He was handed a photograph, and after staring at it, had said: “Yeah, I remember him. He sat at the far end of the bar and wouldn’t talk to anyone. No one liked him.”
The one woman in the bar had moved from out of the half-light and taken a stool next to me. She introduced herself. Her name was Joyce. Her voice was like silk. Soft and smooth and demure. It was incredible. I’d never heard anything like it. I was taken aback by the absolute tenderness of this woman. At first glance, she had seemed callous and standoffish. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
A Hispanic guy walked in, took the stool on my left. He ordered a beer, sipped from the can, and sighed.
“I came right from the coroner’s office. My little brother was hit.”
I turned to him. “Shit. Like he got shot?” I asked, indelicately making a gesture of a pistol being fired several times from a jaunty angle.
“Nah, man. He ain’t no gangbanger – well, not anymore – it was a hit and run.”
“I’m sorry, man. That sucks.”
“I can’t go home. I couldn’t handle it. Here, no one gives a shit about me. It’s good.”
Manny – the brother still shuffling around this mortal coil, quickly started a game of sorts. Favorite movies, favorite bands, etc., etc. You could tell he was trying to take his mind off what had happened.
We all drank on.
The drinks were interspersed with sidewalk cigarettes. I smoke like a goddamn train when sober, so when drunk I’m a veritable fiend. Joyce joined me. She bummed a cigarette and I lit it for her with a match from a book Joel had given me.
“You know,” I said, leaning against the outer brick wall, “you have the sweetest voice I think I’ve ever heard.”
She smiled. I kissed her. I had escaped from the clawed clutches of an ex-girlfriend that morning. Came down on the train from the Central Coast.
I was making the most of my newfound freedom.
A young Mexican girl walked into the bar, took a stool and ordered a drink. She kept to herself, enjoying her can of PBR.
Joel said his relief was due soon, and ten or so minutes later a black guy strutted in, went behind the bar and started messing around with something. Joel’s back was turned as he leant on the bar, talking to a regular.
“Hey, Joel,” I said. “Is that your relief?” I nodded to the black guy.
“Alright. Just checking.”
All sorts of down and out types had come in during the evening. Tweakers, bums, crazed women, middle-aged men searching for Percocets. I had already bought an 1801 silver dollar off a crack head for three bucks (unfortunately, it was a counterfeit). So I was already pretty wary of new patrons. I had formed a swift kinship with the place, already feeling somewhat responsible for it. As it turned out, the guy wasJoel’s relief. I think the black guy wasn’t terribly fond of the fact that I had considered otherwise.
How the hell did I know.
Someone mentioned that is was an open mic night that night. I was drunk enough to want to participate. On a whim, I decided to approach the Mexican girl.
“Do you write poetry, by any chance?” Of all the fucking lines in the world.
Surprisingly, she said she did.
We checked out each other’s work, and were relatively impressed. I tried to convince her to read later. She said she was too shy to do that.
I told her to drink up.
It neared 10 p.m. I was only planning to stay for a couple drinks. Initially, I was supposed to be meeting an old friend of mine at 5. A Filipino guy named Joe. Joe never showed and I never left.
The problem was, that I had checked my suitcase at the Amtrak luggage storage at Union Station, and had to collect it by 10. So I walked the several blocks to Union with Joyce, and got to the luggage check kiosk just as they were locking up for the night. Talk about good timing.
We took a cab back to the King Eddy.
The place had changed with the shift in shift, and not for the better. By the time Joyce and I had gotten back, the vibe was oppressive.
The relief bartender said something about thinking I had left. I told him I had only gone to get my shit. He was a weird son-of-a-bitch.
I had a feeling he had it in for me.
Joyce stared at me from across the bar. I smiled, an arm around the Mexican girl. What a fucking guy. One woman wasn’t good enough for old Ben, oh no. He had to have two! He had to pick up every female in the fucking place.
The bartender turned and told me he was cutting me off. I asked him why the hell would he do a thing that.
“You’re too drunk.”
“How am I too drunk? I’m not slurring, or stumbling around, or spilling my goddamn drink all over the place.”
“You’re holding on to the bar.”
“I’m fucking exhausted. I just walked to Union.” The truth was I was leaning against the bar because I had an arm around the Mexican girl’s un-clothed midriff, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.
“Alright. One more drink. But that’s it. You go after.” He poured my Jack & Coke, slid it over to me.
I took my time drinking it, more interested in that moment, in wooing my little Mexican Princess. A couple minutes later, he noticed I’d hardly sipped from my glass. He was incredulous. I guess the fucker wasn’t used to anyone standing up to him and arguing his point. He lost his shit. Snatched my drink, tossed it in the overflow bucket, strode out from behind the bar and grabbed me by the back of the shirt.
“I fucking told you to leave.”
“Hey, man. What the fuck are you doing?”
He dragged me to the door and threw my ass out on the sidewalk.
My suitcase swiftly followed behind.
Guess they didn’t like me either.