Here’s an overview of Bukland — Bukowski’s L.A.
(Note: Much of the section about East Hollywood is relevant to anyone who’s interested in his place on De Longpre.)
Bukowski on the Western Edge of the American Dream
Places shape people’s lives. They are the setting for personal dramas. Each city and neighborhood provides its own unique sets of adventures, cultural stimuli, social opportunities and problems, energies, freedoms, and limitations.
Bukowski grew up in Depression-era L.A. As a young man he traveled and wandered somewhat randomly around the U.S. It wasn’t quite like Kerouac’s quest for mythic places (Neal Cassidy’s Denver) and mystic wisdom (the spiritual hobo riding the rails who Kerouac encounters in Dharma Bums, etc). Even so, there was a Beat quality to it. Like the Beats, he was an outsider who questioned what he saw and looked for alternatives to the mainstream experience in his wandering.
By his late twenties he knew what was out there in America – in Philly and Saint Louis and El Paso and Atlanta and elsewhere. At that point he chose Los Angeles, the town where he’d grown up, the town he knew well already, and the town he would use as the setting for much of his fiction. It was big and complex. It was a vast, sprawling collection of neighborhoods with the cool blue Pacific ocean to the west. It had a sunny desert climate and low mountain ranges and wide-open spaces. Los Angeles is, in some sense, the western edge of the American dream, as far as you can go, the end of the line and the promised land.
Bukowski’s a significant chronicler of L.A. It’s interesting to consider how it shaped him and how he shaped it in his stories and poems. It seemed to offer a seedy, sprawling, pluralistic, anonymous, wonderful landscape of contrasts and contradictions and deadbeats and opportunists and opportunities. For the most part L.A. wasn’t too pretentious or too stylish. It was a town that never claimed too much for itself. It did have a strong conservative side and in some sense Bukowski’s work stands in opposition to that. He was a rebel in L.A., a town not always known for encouraging rebellion and eccentricity.
Bukowski acknowledged how important Los Angeles was to his writing and admitting that it was one of his favorite subjects. In an interview in London maggazine in 1974, he said, “You live in a town all your life, and you get to know every bitch on the street corner and half of them you have already messed around with. You’ve got the layout of the whole land. You have a picture of where you are. … Since I was raised in L.A., I’ve always had the geographical and spiritual feeling of being here. I’ve had time to learn this city. I can’t see any other place than L.A.”
Bukowski, East Hollywood, and L.A. Culture
Bukowski lived in L.A. for most of his life, but East Hollywood was his home base for several decades in his middle years, the years when he evolved from a notable minor writer being published in little literary magazines to a well-known author in the U.S. who was famous in Europe. He lived in East Hollywood in the 1960s and 1970s while he was in his 40s and 50s. Those were the post-office years when he was settled enough to work steadily and publish regularly. It was also the area where he was living when he quit working in the post office and began writing full-time. It was while in East Hollywood that he published many poems in small mimeographed magazines. For a time he and his friend Neeli Cherkovski published their own little literary magazine. He was also writing his “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column in the L.A. Free Press and had a book of those columns published, had a collection of stories published by City Lights Books, and was becoming known to an underground readership and to some in the literary world.
East Hollywood was where he was living when John Martin approached him about being his publisher and then created Black Sparrow Press just to publish Bukowski. With Martin’s help he quit his job at the post office after eleven long and tiresome years. He then began writing novels. The first was Post Office. Then Factotum, Women, and more.
East Hollywood supplied plenty of stimulation. He liked the run-down urban residential and commercial area, it suited him. There were some hipsters around, some hippies and writers, but not so many that they annoyed him. There were also many people living on the fringe, colorful and interesting and getting by working as strippers or in porn shops and bars. He saw others who were sad and broken, the human refuse of modern industrialized and commercialized civilization, the ones who couldn’t make it in the big city but had nowhere else to go. He wrote about them all, the hipsters, writers, working poor, and street characters.
Maybe the best thing about East Hollywood was that he could be anonymous. He could disappear and get work done. He could take out his trash, fart, drive a few blocks in his old Volkswagen for a few six-packs of Miller and get drunk and no one noticed or cared. He was becoming known and occasionally fans dropped by unexpectedly, but it wasn’t a big deal and was sometimes amusing. Even at his most famous later in life, he was not recognized that much in public. In a letter that he wrote to me in 1990 he said, “Well, thank Christ I’m not Sylvester Stallone or Tommy Cruise. I can still walk through a Thrifty Drugstore and nobody fucks with me.”
East Hollywood is part of the most famous movie town in the world, Hollywood, but Hollywood’s most glamorous days as a place where movie stars worked and played were over by the time Bukowski lived nearby. The best times for Hollywood were from the 1920s through the 1940s. By the 1960s, most of the movie stars lived west in Beverly Hills and Bel Air and worked in Culver City or Burbank or on film locations around the U.S. and the world. Even in the good times for Hollywood, the area to the east, the area Bukowski called East Hollywood, wasn’t fancy. The movie star’s houses were in the hills of Hollywood while the East Hollywood flatlands were where the middle class people lived in bungalows and the poor lived in apartment buildings. It encompasses what’s currently called Thai Town and Little Armenia. The flatland area of Los Feliz is also part of East Hollywood.
Not that the snazzy side of Hollywood and the movie industry were the subject of Bukowski’s fiction and poetry anyway, although, after his experience with writing the screenplay for Barfly and then observing the making of the film, he did write about his own experience with the movie biz and Hollywood in a novel. Bukowski’s East Hollywood is mostly comic, sad, and seedy. His vision of the city is in some ways similar to the bleak L.A. presented by Nathaniel West in Day of the Locust and Raymond Chandler in his hardboiled private eye novels and John Fante in his novels. But while West, Chandler, and Fante spun dark tales that included some wry humor, Bukowski brought a Rabelaisian raunchiness to his portrayal of the lives lived in Los Angeles.
The raunchiness and seediness and humor make Bukowski’s L.A. as much a mythic creation as the L.A. created by the movie industry and the one created by writers like Chandler. Neeli Cherkovski (who shared some memories for this book), has called Bukowski the “inventor of East Hollywood.” Before Bukowski, East Hollywood didn’t exist as a mythic, literary place. As his body of work emerged in print, East Hollywood became a well-traversed imaginary landscape for fans of Bukowski’s poems and stories. East Hollywood and other parts of Los Angeles that Bukowski wrote about from intimate personal experience live on today in his literary work and even in film.
Bukowski’s L.A. is sometimes a dreary place, but it’s almost always funny too. It’s a place where dreams die in bars over warm beer and in coffee shops over cups of cold coffee, where females can be as predatory and vicious as the males, where working men and women might or might not have a chance to survive or even prosper in the America of factories, grinding menial labor, excessive alcohol use and one-night stands. But the people Bukowski wrote about, himself included, were often comically somewhat bonkers.
For me, Buk’s humor, his direct look at how desperate work and life can be in an advanced industrialized society, his refusal to fully engage in the whole game, his tendency to be an outsider who can look at things objectively – all these things and more appeal to me. He was never an insider. He never had much of a vested interest in the status quo and the dominant ideology. This is true for his place in both the everyday world as well as the literary world. He never saw his name on a list of Pulitzer Prize nominees or winners. No one suggested the Nobel. Like Rabelais and Cervantes, he could stand apart from the whole drama of literary and everyday life and look at what was there with clarity and then offer an outsider’s somewhat objective critiques and commentary. Even drinking set him apart. He wrote many of his works while well into a six pack or two. Thus he wasn’t even in the “normal” mental state most people experience (if there is one) while writing his poems and stories.
Bukowski took the stance that the whole game was rather crazy, rather painful, sometimes demeaning, sometimes destructive to the soul. In his book Ham on Rye he wrote about standing alone outside of the senior prom at his high school and looking in at his well-dressed, polite peers having fun in a formalized setting and thinking that “There was a price to paid for it all, a general falsity, that could easily be believed, and could be the first step down a dead-end street.”
Instead of taking the dull paths or dead-end streets, Bukowski felt that it was a very good idea to consider the ways out and practice those that were available. Los Angeles society and culture doesn’t always offer easy ways out for those seeking personal or emotional freedom, but Bukowski managed. Poetry is a way out. It can restore the damaged heart and psyche. It can renew one’s vitality. Writing poetry and reading it—both are good for the soul. Humor heals too. Honesty about the bull and lies that those in power try to feed the gullible and how the game is often rigged in their favor is helpful for one’s liberation. Booze can help, but it can destroy too. Love, heart, the fighter’s stance can be useful. Not trying too hard is a good idea too. A kind of Buddhistic, Taoistic, non-forcing, letting-it-flow approach is very evident in the ideas and approach Bukowski took to life and writing.
L.A.’s Conservative Side and Its Rebel Artists and Writers
Los Angeles began as a small western town first inhabited by Native Americans who called it the Valley of the Smokes for the haze from the ocean. Spanish missionaries arrived and then some westward-ho Americans. Oil was discovered and helped the economy boom. The movie industry also took off and there was a lot of money for those who owned studios and others. Early in its history as a frontier city, power and wealth were centralized and tightly held and a law-and-order mentality dominated what could’ve been, but never was, a wild-west town.
Unlike San Francisco which was a more free-wheeling, tolerant port city where fortune hunters converged when gold was discovered nearby, Los Angeles never had a Barbary Coast liberated wild side. Instead, when L.A.’s population suddenly and rapidly expanded in the 1920s from 500,000 residents to well over a million, it was filled with lean-faced, conservative, Bible-thumping midwesterners. In the 1930s during the Depression, there was another huge influx of people, this time dust-bowl-fleeing Oakies who’d driven west on Route 66 to L.A. in jalopies and trucks. The influx of hard-bitten midwesterners gave L.A. even more of a strangely uptight, conservative quality than it had had as a frontier town. Wages were about a third lower than in the rest of the country and protection for labor against exploitation was unknown.
L.A. police tended to be quite repressive to keep the rowdy elements of the populace in line. Throughout Bukowski’s lifetime in LA., the cops were known as downright mean and tough. The hot-rod driving fine artist and Bukowski associate Robert Williams told me as I researched my book Weirdo Deluxe in 2003 that young guys who wore leather jackets and drove hot rods in the 1940s and 1950s were routinely pulled over and roughed up by the cops. In L.A. when the rebel types started swaggering a little too much, they were soon being billy-clubbed into conformity or driven out of town. The city didn’t have an eccentric-loving, art-facilitating atmosphere like that found in Paris or San Francisco (where the artist Wallace Berman went after being arrested for printing an “obscene” art – an erotic drawing- in his Semina journal).
Bukowski had cops bust in on him in homes several times when he got into drunken fights. He was also arrested on drunk driving charges a few times. He spent some nights in the L.A. county jail, in, as he put it, the drunk tank. To get along well in L.A., a person needed to be a law-abiding citizen or at least have the appearance of being one.
Appearances count for a lot in the somewhat conservative town which is also the movie capital of the world. There’s a slick, glossy surface but sometimes nastiness is lurking, bubbling and lingering like the greasy crude in the La Brea tar pits. Carefully cultivated and controlled surfaces are sometimes bought at the price of a good deal of repression. When emotion finally does cut loose in over-controlled L.A., it can take the form of nasty extremes of artistic expression. The tidy daytime dream of order and sanity and super-clean slickness is disturbed and disrupted by cheesy night world of hot-rod and underground-comix inspired Lowbrow art, menacing heavy-metal monster rockers, howling hardcore punkers, or roaring and raunchy writers like Bukowski. Emotion blasts forth with a volcanic fury that’s startlingly raw and explosive in comparison to art created in places where expressiveness is encouraged or tolerated. In this sense, Bukowski is the quintessential L.A. writer. He’s not a refined restrained artistic refugee from Europe nor a transplanted elite East Coast writer. He knew what it felt like to have a lot of control imposed on him at home as he was growing up (his father was a merciless disciplinarian), at work (in menial jobs with tough bosses) and even in public life (L.A.’s cops kept the hairy rebels in check), and he reacted with an art that was designed to liberate him and others. He was the native son, the man who Los Angeles generated and can call its own.
Bukowski’s Legend and L.A.
Bukowski was an American writer, a Los Angeles writer, an East Hollywood writer, and a West Coast writer. That is, his outlook and use of language, his attitudes and imagery, and his concerns and desires were all shaped to some extent by America, L.A., East Hollywood, and the West Coast. There were many other influences too, but place is one of them.
People who immigrated to America and particularly those who moved to the west coast of America were often purposefully moving away from the repressive social and cultural influence of Europe. They may have been conservative in some ways, but many wanted a more open, free, unaffected, “real” experience of life and social relationships. One of the big concerns that Bukowski had as a writer and person was to avoid the pretentious and phony in literature and life. He disliked artful manners and mannerisms that hide true emotion, and all fancy lies that hide the truth. This strong desire to avoid the phony and discover what Hemingway called the “true gen” (genuine truth) is a trait that was shaped by utopian American ideals and by the social and cultural climate of the plain-speaking American West.
While truth and directness were important to Bukowski, he was a writer, a story teller, a teller of tall tales, and a poet. He made up things or at least shaped them to suit his purposes. One myth about Bukowski that he helped create and that has been repeated over and over was that he was on the edge of poverty and virtually a skid-row bum and wino poet until much later in life when he began to make some substantial money from his writing. It’s a romantic idea: the writer who starves and denies his bodily life and risks everything to create transcendent art that is otherworldly in its beauty, and spiritual and affirmative despite life’s hardships. It’s true that Buk grew up in a modest home during the Depression and didn’t have much money while in his twenties and thirties. But by the time he was in his forties he had over twenty thousand dollars in the bank and would brag about it to friends like the poet Paul Vangelisti. Vangelisti told me this in the summer of 2006. When Bukowski quit his job at the post office in 1970 at age 49 to write full-time, he had not only a one-hundred-dollar-a-month income that his publisher John Martin had agreed to pay him, but also over 20 grand in the bank, a pension from the post office work, and royalty income from books like Notes of a Dirty Old Man and in 1974 would win 5 grand in grant money from the National Endowment for the Arts to help him write a novel. He was also earning money from readings that he gave at universities, cafes, and night clubs.
Like Raymond Carver, a writer who also focused on the crazy situations caused by poverty and drunken times in his life for material for his art, so too Bukowski returned to his life as an outsider, a semi-bum, an outcast, and a heavy drinker for material for his poetry and fiction. I bring this up to indicate both how much Bukowski liked to create a personal legend in his art, and also to indicate to that to some extent Bukowski chose to live extremely frugally and in somewhat seedy surroundings both so he could save money (in part out of a fear of poverty), and to give him more material for his poems and stories. As you study Bukowski’s life, you realize that some of Bukowski’s places were chosen by him as good locations for gathering material and for setting stories. Knowing this doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of his work, but it does give a sense of how in some ways it was very artfully and intentionally created. We know it’s myth. When he insisted on truth in his work it was literary truth, that is, true and honest emotion conveyed through art – and that is very often found when one reads Bukowski’s stories and poems.
Essential Bukowski Places and Changes in Them
There are a handful of specific places in Los Angeles where Bukowski lived or played or worked that are essential places to visit. All are in Los Angeles and relatively easy to find. The annotated list that follows should be helpful. Key places include several apartments in East Hollywood (on Mariposa and De Longpre); a bar and a restaurant, both on Hollywood Boulevard (the Frolic Room and Musso & Frank); and the house in San Pedro. Buk fans will probably want to also visit the Hollywood Park race track, the older sections of downtown L.A. They might want to check out the kind of places where he went for inexpensive steaks or pizza like the Norm’s on La Cienega near Melrose (go for a feeling for the kind of place even though the one he went to was on Sunset and is gone) or the Shakey’s on Sunset or the Sizzler on Hollywood Blvd. near Western. Some might want to visit the places of agony – the home on Longwood or the downtown Post Office. The places of pain were part of the legend, but for those who want a feel for the places of the wild and free man, the drinker and lover and poet, the man who took risks and was a fighter and street-smart guy – East Hollywood is the place to go.
Some places can’t be visited anymore. They have been torn down or changed since the time that Bukowski was there. This is especially true of the Bunker Hill area in downtown Los Angeles. It underwent urban redevelopment in the 1960s. The old Victorian homes that were once owned by the wealthy and later became seedy rooming houses were torn down and thus it’s hard to visit Bunker Hill today and get any sense of how it used to be.
Other buildings are gone too. Buk’s close friend Neeli Cherkovski (a very helpful source for this book) told me that he and Hank used to go for steak and eggs at a Norms that was in East Hollywood on Sunset. Like the “rock ‘n roll” Dennys that used to be on Sunset (an authentic Googie-style Dennys near Guitar World), the Norms on Sunset has vanished.
Los Angeles sometimes seems like a flimsy, dream-like movie set that’s put up one day in a hurry and then quickly torn down and replaced with a new set a short time later. Fortunately, some of the “sets” of Buk’s time are still around and recognizable. Probably the best way to get a feeling for Bukowski country is to walk or drive along Hollywood Boulevard from Mariposa to just west of Western. Even though this area is now called Thai Town and features many Thai restaurants and therapeutic Thai massage parlors (not the sexually oriented massage parlors of the Buk’s era), you can still get a pretty good sense of how this area of East Hollywood felt in Buk’s time.
Here are some places of note along the way. There’s the liquor store at Normandie Ave. and the Boulevard (southwest corner) that used to a regular stop and was called Ned’s. For a Bukowski-like bar, try Jumbo’s Clown Room in the tiny mall across the street from the old Ned’s liquor store. This was a bar (featuring disco) in Buk’s era but the owner brought in go-go dancers and it evolved into a striptease club that is very casual and has a great assortment of clown heads on a shelf behind the bar (the original owner was a circus performer). Be sure to hang out at the corner of Hollywood and Western. Buk visited this intersection when he lived nearby on Carlton Way. He knew the manager of Le Sex Shoppe there and was writing for some skin magazines like Hustler at the time, and would drop in to see his friend and chat. This shop is still there but has a new name and new signage. There were hookers and oddballs hanging out at the hot dog stand at the corner (the huge hot dog sculpture is still there, but the place is now a Thai restaurant). Just to the east of Western on the Boulevard is a Sizzler Steak House where he ate. Buk wrote about people around this area in stories and poems.
Bukowski tells a story in the documentary The Bukowski Tapes about staying at the Bon-Air motel, which is still there on Western north of Hollywood Boulevard. The last operating theater in the Pussycat porno theater chain (big in LA in the 1970s – the director Quentin Tarantino was an usher in one located in Torrance) was in Buk’s old neighborhood on the east side of Western just north of Sunset. It was torn down in 2002 and replaced with a motel.
Although the area still has a Bukowski-like feeling, some of it is nicer looking than it was in Buk’s era. The intersection of Western and the Boulevard used to feature several large tenement buildings filled with SRO-type (Single Room Occupancy) apartments. Both were masonry buildings. Due to damage from the Northridge quake in 1994, these looming old wino hotels were condemned. They’ve been replaced with new, much nicer buildings and thus this corner has lost a lot of its former skid-row feeling. There’s now a mall on the northeastern corner (anchored by a Ralph’s supermarket) with apartments in back. There are also new apartments over a red-line subway stop on the southeastern corner.
Some buildings are still there but look a bit different. The historic office building on the southwestern corner has been renovated so it looks much nicer now. It used to contain a grungy pool hall called Hollywood Billiards and super-discount shops on the ground floor and the empty and abandoned upstairs offices were sometimes used by squatters as housing and by rock bands that needed free or cheap practice space. The former St. Francis Hotel at 5533 Hollywood Blvd (now called the Gershwin) has also changed somewhat and been spiffed up, though it basically looks the same from. (A woman who worked there told me that old hotel records indicated that Bukowski had gotten a room there occasionally. This is also the hotel where Kiefer Sutherland spent a night in 1991 with a woman who wasn’t his fiance -Julia Roberts – and the tabloids reported it and Roberts broke off their engagement five days before the wedding. At the time it was the very sleezy, almost skid-row kind of place you’d take a street walker or pick-up from a bar and expect that no one would notice your, recognize you, or care what you did there.)
Bukowski’s East Hollywood was a freer place in some ways than other parts of L.A., but it was also subject to control by the watchful L.A. cops and influenced by the overall feeling of uptightness and conservativeness that pervades L.A. culture. An odd and complex dynamic of social and artistic and political forces shaped Bukowski and his work in Los Angeles. He reacted to the repressiveness and Puritan work ethic of conservative L.A. by celebrating emotionally expressive bums who disdain work. He loved to write about outsiders and artists who seek alternatives to the sometimes quite repressed life of those pursuing the “good” or “normal” life.
In many ways, L.A. was, and still is, a rather tightly controlled place. Yet the variety of lives here and the ethnic plurality of L.A. and the formless sprawl of the city are in some ways liberating and offer a kind of free-form feeling. In his years in L.A., Bukowski saw the faces and lives of many people in L.A. – and wrote wonderfully about them. He sympathized with down and out men or women, oddballs and barflies, and comic clownish poetic loners and artists because in some ways they were the most free people, the most honest and true and emotionally expressive. He explored L.A. and East Hollywood, knew it, recorded it and re-imagined it in his work, and thus invented it and himself in it.