Readings — From the July 2015 issue

The Act of Art

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From a March 1961 letter sent by Charles Bukowski to Jon Webb, the editor of The Outsider and an early champion of Bukowski’s work. Bukowski (1920–94) was the author of six novels and several poetry and short-story collections. On Writing, a collection of his letters, is out next month from Ecco.

Dear Jon:

The only way to get away from the mob is to move and rent a p. o. box, and don’t ever tell one where you’re at because one will tell the other and then they are at your door again wanting to TALK . . . about what? WHAT IS THERE TO SAY? If we were practicing public speaking or running A HOME FOR THE LONELY HEARTS or running for office it would be different.

I had this one poet on my neck for a long time. He’d come to town without a car and I’d drive him around to all the places he wanted to go — not all of them, for christ sake, but enough. “Ya wanna meet James Boyer May?” he’d ask me. “Hell no,” I’d say.

“I saw Curtis Zahn and he looked at me through his beard when I mentioned I knew you . . . ‘Bukowski!’ he said, ‘Where is that son of a bitch? Nobody’s ever seen him!’ ”

And if this fucker had had his way he would have dragged me in front of all of them. And he used my phone to telephone every editor in town, starting the thing off with — “I’m so and so, and I’m over at Charles Bukowski’s place, I just got into town with so and so, the editor of X, and blah blah blah. . . . ”

And then turning to me — FOR CHRIST’S SAKE, DON’T YOU EVER USE THIS PHONE? IT’S COVERED WITH DUST!

I use it now and then to dial the time.

But what bothers me is when I read about the old Paris groups, or somebody who knew somebody in the old days. They did it then too, the names of old and now. I think Hemingway’s writing a book about it now. But in spite of it all, I can’t buy it. I can’t stand writers or editors or anybody who wants to talk Art. For 3 years I lived in a skid-row hotel — before my hemorrhage — and got drunk every night with an x-con, the hotel maid, an Indian, a gal who looked like she wore a wig but didn’t, and 3 or 4 drifters. Nobody knew Shostakovich from Shelley Winters and we didn’t give a damn. The main thing was sending runners out for liquor when we ran dry. We’d start low on the line with our worst runner and if he failed — you must understand, most of the time there was little or no money — we’d go a little deeper with our next best man. I guess it’s bragging but I was top dog. And when the last one staggered through the door, pale and shamed, Bukowski would rise with an invective, don his ragged cloak and stroll with anger and assurance into the night, down to Dick’s Liquor Store, and I conned him and forced him and squeezed him until he was dizzy; I would walk in in big anger, not beggary, and ask for what I wanted. Dick never knew whether I had any money or not. Sometimes I fooled him and had money. But most of the time I didn’t. But anyhow, he’d slap the bottles in front of me, bag them, and then I’d pick them up with an angry, “Put ’em on my tab!”

And then he’d start the old dance — but, jesus, u owe me such and such already, and you haven’t paid anything off in a month and —

And then came the ACT OF ART. I already had the bottles in my hand. It would be nothing to walk out. But I’d slap them down again in front of him, ripping them out of the bag and shoving them toward him, saying, “Here, you want these things! I’ll take my goddamned business somewhere else!”

“No, no,” he’d say, “take them. It’s all right.”

And then he’d get out that sad slip of paper and add on to the total.

“Lemme see that,” I’d demand.

And then I’d say, “For Christ’s sake! I don’t owe you this much! What’s this item here?”

All this was to make him believe that I was going to pay someday. And then he’d try to con me back: “You’re a gentleman. You’re not like the others. I trust you.”

He finally got sick and sold his business, and when the next one came in I started a new tab . . .

And what happened? At eight o’clock one Sunday morning — EIGHT O’CLOCK!!! gd damn it — there was a knock at the door — and I opened it and there stood an editor. “Ah, I’m so and so, editor of so and so, we got your short story and thought it most unusual; we are going to use it in our Spring number.” “Well, come on in,” I’d had to say, “but don’t stumble over the bottles.” And then I sat there while he told me about his wife who thought a lot of him and about his short story that had once been published in THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY, and you know how they talk on. He finally left, and a month or so later the hall phone rang and somebody wanted Bukowski, and this time it was a woman’s voice, “Mr. Bukowski, we think you have a very unusual short story and the group was discussing it the other night, but we think it has one weakness and we thought you might want to correct the weakness. It was this: WHY DID THE CENTRAL CHARACTER BEGIN TO DRINK IN THE FIRST PLACE?”

I said, “Forget the whole thing and send the story back,” and I hung up.

When I walked back in the Indian looked up over his drink and asked, “Who was it?”

I said, “Nobody,” which was the most accurate answer I could give.

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