I'm in Downtown Los Angeles at the United States Post Office Terminal Annex. This is where Bukowski (and his fictional alter ego Henry Chinaski) wastes 12 years of his life carrying and sorting mail. I start my Bookpacking journey at the location where his story begins. Chinaski's first mistake . . .
Inside, I can smell the bureaucratic stink and cruelty of the job. A clerk jokes apathetically about his role as a federal government employee. The text's humorous contrasting of an officious title with a boring, insignificant role is visible in this location and the people working inside of it. You get the sense that the only way to survive is to bullshit.
I watch as customers come and go, and can imagine the "insane and dull people" driving Chinaski mad, repeating "the same things over and over again." I picture Chinaski "all hunched-up on a stool," servicing patrons like a revolving door.
The job was sold on security: government benefits for life. But Chinaski thinks he'd be better off in jail, "Three squares and no rent to pay, no utilities, no income tax, no child support ... Free medical attention ... Free burial." Standing there, I can almost believe it.
I next reenact Bukowski's daily commute, and travel to his apartment at 5124 De Longpre Avenue.
This is the "rat hole" apartment that Bukowski lived in from 1964 to 1973, the place he wrote his first six novels. I stand holding my copy of Post Office in front of the very room where it was written, and feel something close to visiting a grave. The apartment complex is named Bukowski Court, and is now a cultural monument.
It is a quiet street. Ethnically diverse, ordinary, middle class. Bukowski is quoted as saying, "This is where the people are." And his writing is for them. Bukowski is an unashamed, unpretentious writer, shifting the rules of poetry to "natural language." He is unafraid to swear and offend, and his writing flows like a mind with no filter.
Bukowski's writing is crude, unromantic, irreverent - and misogynist. I wonder for how long a progressive city like Los Angeles will celebrates him as the "poet laureate of L.A. lowlife.” He regularly refers to women as "good solid meat", "shackjob", "tits" or "ass" - or worse. This is the 60s and 70s, but I still think even by those standards Bukowski pushes the limit. He casually normalizes rape and depicts it humorously in a story of one of Chinaski's mail routes: "She pulled her head back, away from me– 'Rapist! Rapist! Evil rapist!' ... She was right ... I finished her off, zipped my fly, picked up my mail pouch and walked out leaving her staring quietly at the ceiling…" .
I remember a conversation I recently had with my sister about Bukowski. My sister is a strong feminist, and she, ironically, is the one that introduced me to Bukowski, lending me a copy of the hardboiled fantasy noir Pulp. She was telling me her friends are surprised when they see that she has Bukowski on the shelf and call her out for it. If my sister's friends are a sample of the increasingly progressive Millennials, then this indicates that the younger generation's attitude towards Bukowski's work, and offensive literature in general, is changing.
I think that reading Bukowski in today's politically correct social climate is more important than ever. Here is an author that speaks his mind unapologetically. I caution contemporary society's tendency to wipe speech clean, and support total freedom and ownership of thought and expression. Bukowski is a role model in this regard.
In another instance, Chinaski finds himself in the basement of a Catholic church on his delivery route: "I walked into the next room and there were priests' robes spread out on a table. There was a bottle of wine ... I picked up the bottle of wine, had a good drag ... I turned off the lights and took a shit in the dark and smoked a cigarette. I thought about taking a shower but I could see the headlines: MAILMAN CAUGHT DRINKING THE BLOOD OF GOD AND TAKING A SHOWER, NAKED, IN ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH." I was raised Catholic, and see how this could offend a devout churchgoer, but I think the confidence of the reader determines whether to laugh along or be laughed at.
Bukowski's Los Angeles is at odds with Hollywood dream literature, and represents a realist majority that is unwilling to paint this city gold. Walking through Thai town I see Los Angeles as a crusty, dirty, rundown city. Sunset Boulevard is a block away, but I see no Hollywood glamour here. This is how the average Angeleno lives, and there is nothing special about it.
Chinaski hates his job, hates working, and tells his second wife Joyce, "This kind of life is like everybody else's kind of life: it's killing us." His only aspiration is to win money by gamble or marriage.
A good deal of the novel, and Bukowski's own life, takes place at the racetrack. Though nameless in the text, my research suggests that Bukowski bet at the Hollywood Park Racetrack in Inglewood. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit the site as it was closed and demolished in 2013.
There is something about betting that relates to the lost soul mentality. The idea that luck is your best hope. No career goals and no fear of the marginal monetary loss that is your federal government salary. This is not to ignore Bukowski's aficionado status and true love of gambling and horse racing, nor the skill required to bet smart. Chinaski's three vices are women, booze and gambling: all three are found at the track.
Pink Elephant Liquors
I walk the 15 minutes from Bukowski's apartment to Pink Elephant Liquors, his favorite local bottle shop. I stand under the iconic neon sign, that at nighttime would be lit bring pink, and see the inspiration for the title treatment on the cover of my book - the same lettering that the publisher uses for Bukowski's other Chinaski novels, Women and Ham On Rye.
I ask the woman inside if she is familiar with Charles Bukowski, and hold up the book I am carrying in my hand. She laughs, not surprised by the question, and confirms that he was a regular customer. I tell her I am writing a blog on him and she offers to take my picture in front of the store.
I browse the shelves, guessing at the beer and whiskey Bukowski drank. I read Chinaski running out to buy "a tall six-pack" or "a half pint of Grand Dad" and attach an image to the text. I think of Chinaski walking his route hungover, "The whiskey and beer ran out of me, fountained from the armpits," and chuckle.
The Federal Building
I end my day at The Federal Building, where Chinaski reports to the Office of Personnel for several disciplinary hearings and his ultimate resignation from the post. The building is commanding, official and metallic: a structural representation of the bureaucratic institution that is the federal government.
I stand at the crosswalk pictured above as I read, "I parked across the street from the Federal Building and stood waiting for the signal to change. I walked across. Pushed through the swinging doors. It was as if I were a piece of iron drawn to the magnet. There was nothing I could do," and try to feel the magnetic pull of the doors across the street. I meditate on the sentence, "With everything on the line and no way out, you don't even think about it," and ponder the inevitability of quitting a job you hate.
Today is Saturday and the building is locked, but I walk up to the doors anyway. I turn around and look out at what Chinaski would have seen on his way out. I snap the photo below:
I can't help but feel liberated as I stand with my back to the federal building, breath in the crisp winter air, and watch the sun shine on the buildings across the street. The way the buildings on the other side are lit, I get the feeling that the future is bright.
Chinaski's bender after quitting the Post Office signals a lack of purpose and a lost soul. The rampant drinking and sex throughout the novel is a reaction to the meaninglessness of Chinaski's life. He describes himself as a carrier "who drank all night, went to bed at 2 a.m., rose at 4:30 a.m. after screwing and singing all night long." This unhealthy lifestyle seems a cry for fulfillment. But maybe he's just smarter than the rest. And not afraid to admit that this life is a big nothing, so you might as well screw around.
Like Bukowski, who quit his job at the Post Office after signing with Black Sparrow Press in 1969, writing is the answer to Chinaski's lost soul. This ending confirms the semi-autobiographical nature of Bukowski's first novel Post Office and suggests that creative expression can restore the human spirit.
Now here I am, writing as I explore this unfamiliar city, a lost soul in LA, with Bukowski's text.
I wanted to end on this sign that I happened upon by pure circumstance on my way out of the Arts District Brewing Company. This is a quote from Bukowski's collection of poetry Love Is a Dog from Hell. The quote is lit in the neon reminiscent of the aforementioned book cover, symbolizing the delirium of alcohol.
Bukowski left his mark on this city