Bukowski was not a man I loved early in life.
I remember one of my male acquaintances, a member of a well-known local punk band, used to walk around town semi-stoned or drunk with a copy of a Bukowski book pinned tightly in the crook of his arm: the cover always pointed outward, pages systematically dog-eared for effect, a literary badge of sorts pinned to his chest which represented his own relationship with addiction. A prop used to prove that he was deep and not sauced and sloppy like most addicts and that like Bukowski he was literate, poetic, misunderstood and in need of a woman to “get him” but not get too close.
I of course considered this pathetic attempt for attention and literary greatness comical.
Although I did not love Bukowski I knew literary realism at its best and unlike Bukowski, this poor pathetic excuse for a “literary musician” would never be a literary master. He would in fact spend his lifetime writing anthems that would be sung by few, remembered by some, but only die-hard fans in need of their own “metaphorical version” of a Bukowski book pinned to their chests proclaiming to all within ear shot that they were in the scene when those lamentable anthems were written.
Bukowski, therefore represented to me a dark mentor, an abusive father figure, a symbol of the broken men that I dated. Men that could have been great artists in their own right if they hadn’t tried so hard to follow in his footsteps, relish in his painful life, which was difficult enough for him to survive without passing down the legacy to the next generation.
I spent years angry at him — angry that he stood as a model for the great Los Angeles artist: broken, worn, drunk, sexually inappropriate, distant and unwilling to let anyone of real substance close for fear of having to give of himself or of the pain it might cause him.
I was like a petulant child unwilling to see past my own wounds to examine his.
Selfish, self-centered, alcoholic bastard I whispered to myself each time my husband watched Barfly, drank, used and slapped me with a barrage of verbal abuse. I blamed Bukowski for my lot in life and hoped that his pain was as great as mine. That wherever that motherfucker was, he was suffering.
And then I stepped aside from my childish view of love; the view of a young woman who has not yet learned that all love holds pain; that there is no fairy tale formula, no perfect relationship. I decided as all good readers do that to ban him from my mind was literary sacrilege and that it wasn’t “giving in to him”; it was “getting to know my enemy better” and soon. The deeper I delved into his world I found myself seduced by his words, his repetitive whisper that “all lovers betray.” I found solace in the knowledge that we all suffered this “betrayal” together and that we were all hopelessly flawed: even me.
By the time I was in my mid-twenties I considered myself taken, won over by his word. I longed to be the good woman he wrote about, the one that would have willingly stolen what he had left of his soul to find myself immortalized in his words.
But unfortunately, I did not have my moment with him until I was 28 years-old and it was barely a moment — and then, a year later, he was gone.
I was at the Los Alamitos racetrack: a favorite place of mine and a favorite place of his.
I had spent my childhood there with my own father who unlike Bukowski was most of the time a happy drunk, and loved to let me and my brothers make bets on the racetrack ponies. Each time we scored a winning he turned and grinned at all of his friends as if we were protégés in the making.
These were good memories for me, the only girl in a group of boys and men, always trying to fit in, always trying to be on equal footing. Always trying to make my father proud.
But the day I met Bukowski, my father was already years gone from me and the racetrack had become a place I liked to go to feel close to him by letting those memories of my childhood wash over me as I gambled with my friends.
I was with a group of people who were all in infamous bands at the time, all cult-followers of the writer, but the only one who spotted him through the crowd was my friend Chris.
He turned to me and grabbed my arm. “That’s Bukowski!” he said in an excited whisper. As if the man could hear us half a short track away.
“Come on,” Chris said as he dragged me across the great hall, past the ticket windows to meet him.
I stood back at first, almost as if Chris and I weren’t even together. I watched Chris rush forward, tap the writer’s shoulder, reach for his hand.
I couldn’t hear what he was saying to him but I could see Bukowski becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the attention. His head was down, a small embarrassed smile on his face, nodding politely as Chris yammered on.
And then, Bukowski looked up, looked at me.
I noted so many things in that brief moment: his weathered skin, pock marks across his nose and cheeks, thick lips, his receding hairline, his large ears, before I stopped at his eyes which were still intensely focused on me.
And then I let myself be seen.
I smiled big and laughed.
I watched as he perked up; there was a coming to — a connection. I saw the amusement in his eyes as he enjoyed first my shyness and then my exuberance. For once I was glad I was a girl, able to make Bukowski smile, and I ran forward with abandon and hugged him hard.
I don’t know what expression registered on Chris’s face when I did this but I heard later from the group it was a mixture of shock and embarrassment that I had over-stepped my bounds, and then complete and utter disappointment that he hadn’t thought to hug him first once he saw how Bukowski responded to me.
He opened his arms and pulled me close to his chest, pinning me in the crook, and any shock he may have felt at my reaching out to him so freely softened and left him quickly as I snuggled in, smelled the scent of him on his coat, my forehead pressed against the rough patch of hair on his chin and I knew that I was a metaphorical badge for him: he was not distant from me. He let me in and embraced the moment.
And then the sounds of the racetrack returned. The quiet was broken as he patted my shoulder the way a grandfather does, now uncomfortable with the outburst of my emotion but wanting to let me know — it was wanted just the same.
My hand lingered with his for a moment and then he took his rolled up newspaper and tapped my fingers as if to say Enough child, before he bowed his head and stepped off with purpose to find a good spot to watch the fifth race.
We left the racetrack shortly after, Chris still yammering on about the encounter. Me, quiet, reflective, unwilling to talk for fear I would break the magic of the moment. But, it seemed to me, that I met him at the perfect time in my life, at the perfect place. It felt like I could feel my own father lingering in that hug. And maybe it’s just that melancholy and nostalgia now sets in as I write this but it was one of the most tender moments of my life, maybe, because I chose to love him… as is.