A Six-Pack for Chinaski
It was around midnight when we pulled up to the hotel exhausted from the trip and ready to stretch our legs. “Let’s see if the bar’s still open,” I said dropping my luggage on the bed.
“I can go for a drink right about now,” Isaac said pulling a fag from his jacket pocket. “When’s closing time in Cali?”
“Hell if I know,” I said, “two or three maybe? We have plenty of time.”
Isaac and I go back a long way. We both grew up in church, but his dad was a preacher, or more accurately a traveling evangelist. So he was dragged to every tent revival and bible study in the tristate, expected to act like a cherubic faced saint. Services every Wednesday and twice on Sunday, and that’s not even including revivals. He had more than his fair share of altar calls and baptisms, withering in the humid summer air of a tent. Needless to say it was more than a disappointment when he decided not to take up the family business.
We both grew up in Kentucky where I still live, but he managed to make his way as far west as Phoenix. As a result we lost touch for a couple of years while I raised a couple kids and had a couple of marriages. That all changed last year when he showed up out of nowhere at a favorite watering hole of mine, and picked up right where we left off. It turns out we have the same mindset and opinions about our shitty jobs and our shitty lots in life. He took the road less traveled and I took the path of least resistance, yet we ended up at the same fucking place; empty shells searching for meaning out of a meaningless existence.
“This trip was fucking genius, Joe,” Isaac said, “I’ve meant to come to California since I moved out here, but never had the chance. It never felt like the right time.”
“I know man,” I said, “Fucking inspiration strikes sometimes.”
Over a series of whiskey fueled conversations, I decided to take a trip to Phoenix to try and jumpstart my writing. From there we rented a car and headed to San Pedro to visit the grave of one Charles Bukowski. We found a cheap hotel in Long Beach. Isaac puts out his smoke as we walk up to the entrance of the bar. I’m almost knocked over by a young man in a toga, painted face and glow sticks around his neck.
“Sorry,” he said.
Isaac shot me a look as we walked in.
“What the actual fuck?” I stopped in my tracks.
Inside we were immediately on the dance floor, along with about twenty couples salsa dancing. I’m not talking about the twerking you see any given Saturday night at the club; this was dancing. This was choreography between two people in sync with one another’s breathing and steps as if they were dancing as one. The whole place was reverberating with rhythm and song. The walls were pulsing energy. Sweat glistening on the foreheads and faces of the participants. It was glorious.
The bar was on the opposite side of the place and we hesitated to encroach on such a beautiful display. After a few moments, I found a hole and danced my way over and ordered a Jameson.
“Can you believe this?” Isaac walked up and hailed the bartender. “This is what I was talking about, man. I needed this. A total shock to the system.” Laughing he took a long pull from his draught beer.
“People go their entire miserable life in the same place, working the same mind-numbing job, fucking the same woman, and never pull their head out of their own ass long enough to see past their own fucking noses. That’s why there’s so much pent-up aggression. They’re so miserable they wouldn’t recognize happiness if it walked up and started giving out hand jobs. Bunch of zombies, the lot of them,” I said.
“To not being a zombie.” Isaac lifts his glass.
“To getting hand jobs,” I said downing the remainder of my whiskey.
Just then the song ended and a crowd came up to the bar and ordered. I ordered another Jameson and asked the bartender what was going on.
“Salsa lessons,” He said, “one Friday a month they teach a class and afterwards they dance. You boys timed it just right.” He turned and poured another beer.
“Indeed,” I said cheering to no one in particular.
As another song started, the woman standing beside me was pulled onto the dancefloor by a different fellow than she had been with before. I looked around for him, but he was on the other end of the floor also with a different partner. Even those watching participated in the dance, having just as much fun cheering them on. The sense of joy and happiness was contagious. There was no fighting it. I didn’t want to. All I could do was smile and take it all in. It went on like this for another hour, everyone dancing, laughing, sweating and moving to the rhythm. We had a few more drinks, then walked back to our room. As I lay there in the dark, the warm west coast air blowing through the palm trees, the anticipation of the trip, the rhythm of the music and the intertwined bodies all danced in my thoughts, lulling me into a sweet and satisfying slumber.
The next morning, we dressed and found the closest Denny’s to figure out our next steps. “I’ve been thinking, man.” Isaac pulled out a map. “Buk’s gravesite is in San Pedro, which is here. But did you know the liquor store he used to buy from is right here? Also, the apartment where he wrote a couple of his books is just a couple of blocks away. Dude we could walk in his fucking shoes for a day. Buy a six pack from the same store he did!”
I took another bite of my eggs and thought about it. How awesome would it be to check out the places this man went, try to get a feel for what he was like?
“Let’s do it,” I said, “we can pick up some beer to drink at his gravesite. Do it up right.”
With that, Isaac went to writing down the addresses and we finished our breakfast reflecting on the possibilities of the day.
We pulled into the lot of a gaudy pink building called the Pink Elephant liquor and grocery. I took a couple of photos and went inside while Isaac finished his smoke. I bought a large can of Lite beer and some Jameson and Isaac got a pint of vodka. We asked the clerk if he knew of Charles Bukowski, but to our chagrin he did not.
“The women, the jobs, the fights. All the stories and we’re actually here,” Isaac lights up another fag.
“It’s surreal man,” I said.
“He walked these streets. Breathed this air. Lived, fought and bled on these streets,” Isaac said.
I stood there looking for the right words to say when a sharp abdominal pain woke me from my daze.
“I have to take a shit!” I said.
I quickly crossed the street to the CVS pharmacy and found the bathroom locked. Panicked, I went up front and retrieved the key, barely making it to the bathroom before unloading. As I returned the key, I laughed to myself knowing Bukowski would’ve been proud of the piping hot beer shit I just took.
We spent the next couple of hours driving around L.A. taking in the sights and sounds of the city, trying to get a feel for what draws so many people here just to sleep on sidewalks and park benches and in tent cities. “They would rather chase their dreams and have nothing, less than that and sleep on the fucking streets than live a life of compromise,” Isaac said. “Meanwhile the rest of us sell our souls for a nice house with a two-car garage and a 401k. We work our whole lives chasing the unattainable, only to die of a fucking heart attack or eaten by cancer in some vital organ. What a sham.”
We pull up to Bukowski’s old apartment on De Longpre Ave and get out to take it all in.
“This is where the magic happened,” I pull out my camera and take a couple photos.
“You mean talent. He wasn’t a wizard, he was a writer,” Isaac said laughing.
“He’s a wizard if there ever was one,” I said walking into the courtyard.
On the second level of the apartment complex behind us, a beautiful woman walks out of an apartment followed by two men, one with a camera. He sets up as she strikes a pose. He takes a picture, then coaches her on the next pose. Again and again she strikes a pose, as Isaac looks on, and me frozen in that moment in time, just a snapshot of a life, with the bustle of the city humming all around us.
We make a stop at the post office where Bukowski worked all those years but was refused entry by the security guard, so we admired the architecture of the old building and was on our way. It was getting on in the evening, too late to visit the cemetery, so we went to the San Pedro fish market to grab some dinner. Isaac suggested we stop by 49ers Tavern, a place Bukowski drank occasionally. It was a little hole in the wall with some charm, but the previous owner had run the business into the ground and neglected to pay her employees. According to the bartender, a man the size of an oak tree, they were struggling to get the clientele back. After the nostalgia of sitting at the same bar that Buk did wore off, we choked down our beers and headed towards greener pastures.
“Let’s see what Long Beach has to offer,” Isaac pulls on his jacket and heads out the door. “That guy shooting pool said to head down to 2nd Street.”
“I’ll call a Lyft,” I said pulling out my phone. “There has to be more to the scene than this.”
We get to 2nd Street and pop into a place called Simmzy’s. A nice pub filled with enlightened souls with finer palates than I’m accustomed to.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asks as he sets a coaster down.
I don’t know if it’s the rebel in me or me just being a fucking dick, but I never use the coaster or the napkin, or whatever else they want to put down. I want my drink to make contact with the bar.
“What kind of Bourbon ya got?” I said adjusting my stool.
“I’m not sure, let’s see.” The hesitation in his voice lets me know my choices will be limited.
“Do you have Jameson? How about an Old Irish.” I asked.
“Good choice,” he said handing Isaac his beer.
Always on the move, Isaac had gotten into the habit of asking the locals about the housing situation and the cost of living. He and the bartender talked at length on the subject, while I eavesdropped on the conversation going on behind me. I’ve heard it before. Hell, I’ve had the same conversation a few times in my life. You know the situation. They’re telling you something they’re going to do, and you both know it’s bullshit but you just nod and let them finish. The sad part is they truly want to believe, as if telling you would make it real. It’s human nature to be optimistic, a kind of defense mechanism against the harsh realities we’re dealt, but the reality is people rarely change. If given the opportunity, we would rather cling to what’s familiar, what’s safe. While society spoon feeds us a warmed over version of life, we’re so engorged on mediocrity, we never see what our life could be if we’d just take a chance.
We move on to Shannon’s Tavern and I’m starting to feel pretty good. The place is long and narrow and it’s shoulder to shoulder all the way. I grab a beer and head to the back of the bar. I’d lost Isaac by that point, but noticed some space around the pool table and posted up close by to take in the scene. I watched as a young man in a beanie won a couple games of pool. Enjoying the music, I finished my beer and stepped into the bathroom. While I’m finishing up at the urinal a couple people come in behind me. I zip up and turn around to see the pool shark in the beanie sniffing cocaine off the outstretched finger of a guy taking a piss in the toilet. I nodded, washed my hands and stepped out the door to find Isaac.
The next morning, we both felt pretty rough. I showered, we packed up all our shit and got ready to head back to Phoenix. After breakfast we stopped at a dispensary then we headed to Rancho Palos Verdes where Charles Bukowski is buried.
We pulled into Green Hills Memorial Park and much to our surprise it was a very well-kept cemetery. We went into the main office and inquired as to the whereabouts of the infamous author.
“Oh yes, I’d be happy to help.” A tall middle-aged man in a three piece suit led us into his office. Isaac and I exchanged looks before sitting. He asked us where we were from and what had brought us here. “We came to see the final resting place of one Charles Bukowski,” I said. “He owes me twenty dollars.”
“Do you get a lot of visitors for Bukowski?” Isaac asked.
“Why yes, yes we do. We’ve had some come as far way as Germany. He was really big in Europe,” the man mused. “We get them by the busloads. They go on a sort of pilgrimage, if you will. Stop at all the usual places.”
“That’s kind of what we did. We went to his old apartment, job, a liquor store and a bar he used to frequent,’’ Isaac said shifting in his seat.
“This is our last stop,’’ I said.
The gentleman gave us a short history of the place, along with details of a few other residents known or otherwise, and sent us on our way.
“Thank you for your help,” Isaac says as he takes a map of the grounds.
As we pull up, I notice a young woman walking amongst the plots.
“I bet she’s here for the same reason,’’ I said grabbing my beer and whiskey out of the backseat.
Henry “Hank” Charles Bukowski Jr., 1920-1994
The phrase “Don’t Try” with an image of a boxer
inscribed on the grave marker
It was a nice plot, nestled on the side of a hill that overlooks a valley with a small cathedral. Standing there in front of his grave, the warm sun on our backs and a nice breeze blowing, the words escaped us. It was a mutually recognized reverence for a man whose words meant so much to us, we didn’t dare cheapen the moment with our own.
Suddenly, the woman came back into view. She made her way over and came to stand next to us.
“Bukowski?” I asked.
“Yes, of course,” she said.
Her name was Michelle, she was originally from Illinois. She had moved to California a year before for college.
“I’ve been meaning to come here for a while but never made the time. I needed some inspiration today so I came,” she said.
“So did we,” we said.
We talked for a while about writing, finding inspiration, we talked of the man and his exploits and what he meant to us, and then she took her leave.
“To Chinaski,” I said taking a pull from my whiskey.
“Don’t try,” Isaac said as he downed some vodka.
Just then a young couple, arms around one another made their way over to pay their respects.
“Bukowski?’’ Isaac asked.
“Bukowski,” the man said.
Jason and Claire, originally from Tennessee, were big fans of his work. The whole Southeast was represented on this sunny California day. I took another long pull of whiskey then offered them some. They held it out to Bukowski for a moment, then each took a pull.
We talked for a while about nothing in particular, and when we ran out of things to talk about, we stood in silence. They said their goodbyes, then left Isaac and I standing alone once again. I poured out the remainder of the bottle and left the can of beer there as an offering. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and stood there for a moment with the sun, the chapel, and the wind-swept valley. I opened my eyes and made my way back to the car. As we drove back to Phoenix, we marveled at how this man and his writing had brought us all together on such a marvelous afternoon and what exactly it all meant.
Days later I was boarding my flight back home. As I waited, I reflected on the events of the last few days, filled with a renewed vigor. Tired but content. My horizons had been expanded. I felt as if something had been accomplished, that some wrong had been made right within me. And then, just as the plane left the tarmac, the people and places and conversations all still fresh in my mind, eager to get home and put into action all the things we’d discussed, suddenly my bowels were on fire once again.