My Belated Love Letter to Bukowski: Our Chance Encounter at the Racetrack

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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 where ever that mother fucker 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… there is 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… as 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… and 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 that 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.

 

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My moment with Allen Ginsberg resulting in a misunderstanding over the word “asshole.”

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Allen Ginsberg

I had grown up in the shadow of the 60’s.

Being born in 65, you could say that yes… I was a child of the era, but seeing that I would not be coming of age until well into the 80’s, what I picked up from that time period came directly from my older sister, Char, who was actually a senior in high school the year that I was born.

She spent my formative years raising me on the art, music, writing, pop culture of that time period and though I was so very small… it was not lost on me:

Being painted up with designs of psychedelic flowers and taken to the Griffith Park 1967 Summer of Love Love-in.

Studying the artwork in R. Crumb’s Big Yum Yum book; though my parents thought it was “inappropriate” for small children.

Going to the Glide church in San Francisco to get a hug from Reverend Cecil Williams and listen to the “Church of Rock n Roll.” And of course browsing in the City Lights bookstore (where on any given day) we could have a chance run-in with one of the numerous beat poets my sister taught me to emulate and admire.

It wasn’t really a normal childhood but… one that made me blessed with awareness of the greater world around me and the numerous possibilities that lay ahead.

And so… influenced by it all, I carried it with me over the years and hoped that someday… my path would cross with some of the greats of that time period.

So it was with profound joy, that in my early 20’s, just after finishing my first album with Hollywood Records, that I finally had my moment with Allen Ginsberg.

I couldn’t believe it.

I’d basically been waiting to meet the man since I was three and as luck would have it, he was signing books in Long Beach that week.

I couldn’t wait to see him.

I had no babysitter that day…

Joe, my husband was “on the road.”

I was broke and waiting for my advance to come in from just making my first record.

But I didn’t care… I grabbed my son, who was just a baby at the time, grabbed my vintage Ginsberg books, one of which was a rare photo diary of the Beat Poets in Tangiers only 2,000 copies ever made, and off I went.

When I walked inside, I found a decent, yet modest line, and I was surprised that he hadn’t drawn more of a crowd.

But I stood there in awe: watching every move he made until it was my turn to approach him.

And when I was finally next in line, he finished talking to the person he was with and turned to look at me.

I think now I must have seemed so young to him… standing there in cut off shorts, an old pair of chucks, an old worn wife beater, a baby with a baby slung up on my hip… some of his oldest books clasped tightly in my hand.

I looked at his large eyes… what was left of his graying hair… he seemed a bit removed… stone-like, a Founding Father of literature…. looking at me as if I were puzzling to him… without a smile on his face… and I was immediately intimidated by his presence.

In a small voice, I told him how much his writing had influenced my own, how I hoped that he would sign these books I had brought with me… and that as soon as my advance came in from my record, I would buy his new book, but barely had enough money today to pay for the gas to come and see him. And then, I pulled my cd from my pocket and asked him if he would accept it as a gift.

He took the books and the cd from my hands.

He paused as he looked over the two books I had brought, before looking up at me and saying, “These books are older than you are.”

I smiled as he flipped through the photos of him frolicking with Kerouac, Burroughs and the others down in Tangiers.

“And this?” he said as he looked at my cd. “Is this spoken word?”

“No,” I said.  Almost embarrassed that it wasn’t. But then I held my head up and bravely said,  “It’s music. These are my songs. I wrote them.”

He looked at the photo of me holding the baby on the cd cover and then back at me holding the baby in real life.

He didn’t speak again.

He opened both books… signed them… and handed them back to me.

I smiled… thanked him… and remained in a daze the entire ride home.

I didn’t need much.

I wasn’t necessarily “star struck” but I was silenced by the magnitude of his work and the influence it had had on so many.

When I got home I put Dylan down to play and sat on the swing to look at what he had written.

In each of the books he had signed his name… the date… and then had printed a large A and a large H inside of a circle.

I didn’t know what to think.

What did it mean?

Why A.H.?

What was with the circle?

I felt a bit uneasy suddenly about the whole exchange… I began to wonder if this was some secret code to distinguish me as one of the jerks that hadn’t bought his new book and then I realized what it meant.

“Asshole,” I whispered.

He totally got away with calling me an “ASSHOLE” for not buying his book. 

Suddenly my heart went cold.

I was embarrassed.

Furious.

Disappointed that he would do something so low.

I fumed about the insult all evening until my husband called me from the road.

“Did he really write the word asshole?” my husband asked.

“No,” I said. “But he put A. H. with a circle.”

“Yeah…” he said. “Sounds like code for asshole. Especially with that circle and all.”

I suddenly hated Allen Ginsberg.

How could he be so cruel?

Hadn’t he once been a young struggling artist?

I wanted to go find where he was staying in Long Beach and slap his old face.

But instead.. I sat down and wrote a vicious and scathing poem about him and then shoved it in a box, along with my bruised ego, and let the years brush the incident aside.

It wasn’t until Dylan, my baby boy, was in his early 20’s that the memory came back to me… when I found my son, in my writing room, looking at my signed copies of Ginsberg’s books, Dylan’s hands gingerly touching the pages, studying the faces of the Beat Poets in Tangiers.

“Did Allen Ginsberg really sign this for you mom?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “But he was a jerk.”

“How so?” Dylan asked.

And so I sat down and told him the story of when we met Ginsberg.

Dylan, obviously not as idiotic as his parents, listened to my story before looking at me and saying, “Yeah but how do you know he was being a jerk? You just assumed he was being a jerk because you felt bad you couldn’t buy his book that day.” He closed the books and put them back on the shelf. “Now that we have internet have you ever gone on line and looked to see if he wrote that in anyone else’s book?”

I stared at him.

Of course I had never thought to do that.

After I had been so humbled by the incident I tried to never think about it again.

“Come on,” Dylan said. “Let’s look.”

I sat down on the computer, beyond trepidacious, with my son standing behind me, and my hands on the keyboard.

I typed the words: Allen Ginsberg A H in books.

And a moment later… this explanation appeared:

From the Holy Soul Jelly Roll liner notes Ginsberg explains how he came up with “Ah”, “…[I] got in the middle of the group who were going off to blockade a highway and started chanting “Ah” after asking them to chant with me. Everybody sat down, then we discussed strategy calmly rather than as a hysterical mob. “Om” closes out at the end but “Ah” leaves the mouth open, breath goes out [see Ginsberg’s Mind Breaths poem for more]. On the 4th of July you see the fireworks and say “Ah”, or you recognize something and say “Ah!” When Trungpa said “Why don’t you try ‘Ah’?” he joined an American sound with Himalayan wisdom, and I’ve used it ever since. “Ah” for recognition, appreciation, the intelligence of speech joining body and mind and for a measure of the breath.”

Suddenly, I felt sick.

All of these years… all of this time…

He had died with me angry at him.

“Wow,” Dylan said. “That’s really cool and super sad that you thought you were an asshole all of these years when really he was showing you recognition for being an artist.”

I wanted to cry.

I wanted to shout, “I AM AN ASSHOLE for thinking Ginsberg was the asshole.”

I wanted to go back in time and rush back into the store and hug him until it felt like his old bones would break.

But I couldn’t.

That’s not how life works.

We make our mistakes.

We misjudge those we love.

We allow skewed perspectives to lead to rash judgements which get in our way.

I would never have a chance to meet with Ginsberg again… and the sting of that… painful.

“It’s okay Mom,” Dylan said. “He didn’t know what you thought all of these years.” And then hugged me hard. “Think about it…” he continued. “He might have been listening to your music this whole time… and glad that he inspired you to write it.”

And I was proud of my son.

Proud of his voice.

Soothed by the comfort he offered me… when I was unable to forgive myself.