“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
I first encountered Charles Bukowski in a used bookstore, quite by accident, while browsing the stacks for William S. Burroughs. Notes of a Dirty Old Man? The title itself was enough to make me laugh. I paid the clerk four dollars and took the orange paperback home. I was rather clean and young at the time. I could hardly talk to people and read a lot of books. I was like Bukowski in that way. I preferred to be alone and had always worked menial jobs. The world seemed perfectly formed without me. I did not see an avenue that would ever lead me to success. Success seemed like a dream reserved for the dreamless. I wanted to be a writer, nothing else.
His ribald stories intrigued me–drunken brawls and overweight whores, lots of broken furniture and a stubborn disregard for rules of capitalization. Tales of Ordinary Madness left me hooked. After that I read everything. I’d found my new, anti-lit hero.
I was a mere twenty-one-year old, working in a sandwich factory while I took English classes. I was love in with a girl who had auburn hair and pale blue eyes. At a certain point, I couldn’t stand to look at her any longer—the way she wasted her beauty and years on bums she met in bars. It was a fucking shame. She just rolled those pretty blue eyes at me as I prattled on about books, us both in hairnets as we constructed sandwiches destined for vending machines. What the hell? It paid the rent. Talk about Ham on Rye! I’d even punched out my own father years before for brutalizing my mother. The guy was an inspiration but he encouraged a lot of bad impulses. I should probably purge him from my own shelves to protect my children.
By some miracle I graduated from college and quit the sandwich-making job. I ended up at a cabinet factory, feeding raw boards into a sanding machine all day long. They wouldn’t let me wear gloves on account of OSHA regs and the conveyor belt. The job destroyed my soft, college hands. Eventually I figured out how to encase my fingertips in green, protective tape to keep out the splinters. I would wake up early in the morning to the sound of a train whistle and hike a mile to the job before the sun came up. I didn’t have a car.
Friday was payday. They let us off work a bit earlier than normal. I was tromping energetically along St. Germain Street. Passing the poultry slaughterhouse, I was confronted by the most noxious odor imaginable. There was this dumpster tipped upward, glistening chicken guts spilling by the ton into a truck for rendering. This moment was like some affront to my very soul. Not so long before, I had been listening to rarified lectures about Plato’s cave, how human existence was nothing more than a flickering shadow upon a wall. What the fuck was I to make of this!? I stifled my impulse to vomit and continued onward toward my rented room.
That evening I purchased a cheap bottle of port wine in honor of my literary god. It was sweet stuff, high in alcohol content with a flavor like cough syrup. I found a low brick wall along the Mississippi River and watched the sun set–the horizon go from rosy to varying shades of cobalt. I experienced a crepuscular ecstasy gazing out at the river. Just then I heard someone on the other side of the wall, another partier. My solitude interrupted, I ducked down and kept quiet until they were gone. With the park growing dark, I decided it was time to take my bottle and move on.
I crossed under a bridge and threaded my way through the foliage of a Japanese garden. Suddenly, I found myself on a hillside surrounded by lovers. They were everywhere, kissing and groping each other in the moonlight. Such beautiful faces! Their limbs were intertwined like mad-growing vines. I stepped over them apologetically. Mother of Christ!! What an embarrassment! I felt like a freak. I damn near stomped on a splayed thigh before coming free of them, alone again in the comfort of darkness.
I hiked till I found the railroad tracks and I resolved to never turn back, to follow their vanishing point until I discovered another, entirely new life. I marched the ties until the bottle was empty. I smashed it in the moonlight and climbed a tower along the tracks. A train rushed by and I screamed until my throat was raw. I was getting tired but I kept walking. By the time the sun rose, I was sober. I decided to turn back, to sleep it off with the harsh, afternoon sunlight streaming through the blinds.