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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Jerome Phillips


THIS IS NOT A TEST, with your pal and confidant Michael Jerome Phillips

A Trip to Bukowski’s House (transcript)

Published December 2nd, 2017

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Hello, hippie dippies, crispy creams and weekend queens. Hello ex-fans of Louis CK, Kevin Spacey and apparently 99% of the other high-profile dudes in the world. Hello disgruntled and full frontal beasts of the lowlands and the highlands and the in-betweenlands. Hello, hooray, it’s your day, and here we are together celebrating it. Me, Michael Phillips, you, and THIS IS NOT A TEST. That’s where we all are, watching Hollywood explode like a custard-filled rape balloon – I was going to say like a custard pie in the face, but that might be a little bit too “on the nose,” as the kids say. We’re not going to talk about all of those easy pun targets today anyway. I don’t have anything to add to that, really. What can you say? “That’s bad, what those guys did.” No shit. Or I could apologize for men as a species, I guess. But no, I can’t do that. Someone should, but I don’t speak for men as a species, and it’s times like these that make me glad that I’m only part man anyway.

I don’t think women are looking for apologies anyway, are they. I think they’re looking for men to finally take responsibility, as men should, and as men never will. Men as a thing anyway, as a homogenous group or a concept. It’s really just time for men to step aside already. White men, especially. It’s been a good run, be happy with all you’ve plundered and pillaged and let someone else steer this death cab for a while. I’m ready to get into the back seat. It’s been obvious that that’s going to happen for some time now, so why fight it? It’s only justice. But that’s easy for me to say because I’ve got nothing to lose, I don’t have any power or wealth. Those grizzly, flatulent, flabby old white men in their suits and red ties and trousers and shiny shoes, and those god damned American flag lapel pins, those crusty fossils who do have power and wealth are certainly clinging to it like Rose clinging to the floating Titanic door. They fear the justice, because they know what that means. It means they’re about to slip into the icy water and sleep with the fishes, just like Jack did. So none of that. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that we’re all on the same page as far as, you know, the rape or general degradation of women is concerned.

So what are we going to talk about? Something not nearly as newsworthy, I’m afraid. Something that’s not at all newsworthy, in fact, unless you’re me, and you’re not. But hang in there anyway, maybe we’ll end up talking about you too. Because we’re all one anyway, right? Okay. Well, so what happened is, I visited Charles Bukowski’s house. Let’s talk about that, for a minute. I mean, is it still Bukowski’s house? He has been dead for almost 24 years, so is it still really his house? It’s really Mrs. Bukowski’s house, and I was there at her invitation. Being involved in Bukowski-world, if only on the fringes here as I am, through bukowski.net and the Bukowski forum, I’ve had the opportunity over the years to spend time with Linda Bukowski. Carol and I lived in San Pedro for a number of years, in Point Fermin, at the far southern edge of Los Angeles. From our house you could only go a few hundred feet further south in Los Angeles before you ended up in the Pacific ocean with the sea lions and cliff-jumpers. We didn’t choose San Pedro because of Bukowski, but there we were. So we would see Linda here and there – at the grocery store, the post office, at Carol’s art studio up at Angel’s Gate. We had dinner with her once. We lived in the same small town, so bumping into her here and there was inevitable.

She was always friendly and nice, but then once at the Huntington Museum, at the second of the get together things that the museum threw around the time of their acquisition of Bukowski’s “papers,” Linda kind of yelled at me about something I’d written about a friend of hers. It wasn’t particularly mean, what I’d written – I said the guy was a meek public speaker, and he was – but I think someone, some little parasite that flutters around her head like a wine gnat, they had gotten into her ear and exaggerated what I said into something horrible, so when she saw me, she let me have it. For what it’s worth, I saw the guy that I’d called “a terrible, meek, stumbling speaker” later and said, you know, hey, if I offended you, I’m sorry, and he said, “Oh, I didn’t read that, and I don’t care anyway. Don’t worry about it.” But I find that when I’ve run in to a few people who I may have, you know, insulted – purposely or not – when we’re actually standing there looking at each other, they often say pretty much the same thing. No big deal, I didn’t care, don’t worry about it. I suppose they’re trying to avoid confrontation and ugliness, and I could probably learn a thing or two from them. I’m sure I could learn a thing or two from just about anyone I randomly met on the street.

Anyway, she yelled at me, Linda did, and it was surprising, considering we’d been friendly before, but it didn’t bother me too much. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I’m always willing to back up anything I’ve said. Or, you know, apologize or do whatever I need to do at the moment, in the interest of civil human interaction. So whenever I’ve attended one of the Bukowski things out in the world, I’ve been prepared for that. I’m kind of opinionated, you could say, so I expect it. It’s just something you have to deal with, or face up to, when you have a big mouth. So for a while there, Linda was a little salty toward me as far as I was concerned, and I figured that was that. That was how it was always going to be. But then a couple of years ago there was yet another Bukowski thing down in San Pedro, and the woman who was organizing it emailed me asking me to speak or do something, a panel discussion maybe? I don’t remember. I respectfully declined – a couple of times – but she kept at me, sending me a series of emails that were starting to irritate me, if I’m being honest. And then finally she played her trump card, saying Linda wanted me to come. And that Linda felt bad about our earlier…encounter, and that she wants me to call her, blah blah blah – and here’s her number.

But I wasn’t kidding when I said I didn’t want to participate. It wasn’t a Hollywood ‘no,’ it was a real ‘no.’ That’s just not my thing, appearing at something like that. I don’t want to become known in the world as “That Bukowski Guy” – if I’m not already – or as one of the parade of familiar faces who appear and speak – or worse yet, read poetry – at all these things. I don’t want you to see a poster for some Bukowski shindig 10 years from now and groan and say, “Oh christ, not mjp again!” Neither of us needs that. So I didn’t call Linda. I knew if she asked me to come down to San Pedro I’d probably come and then I’d just be mad at myself for getting involved in something that I really didn’t want to do. So I didn’t call. Then a couple weeks ago an article was posted on the NPR website that mentioned my name and linked to an article I wrote about John Martin’s criminal desecration of Bukowski’s work in the posthumous poetry collections – well, put it this way, my article is called, “The senseless, tragic rape of Charles Bukowski’s ghost by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press,” in case you were wondering what my opinion might be on that subject. And I think it was on the second or third podcast I did here at THIS IS NOT A TEST that I talked about the same things that I’d written about in the article.

Anyway, she must have read my article and she emailed me and asked me to call, and this time, for whatever reason, I did. She invited me over to talk and hang around, so I got into the car that Friday afternoon and headed south. I should probably say here that I never really wanted to go to Bukowski’s house. Not when he was alive, since he made it clear he didn’t want anyone coming around, and not after he died. I probably could have wrangled an invitation when we lived in San Pedro, or tried to, anyway, but I didn’t. I can’t tell you why — well, I can tell you why. When Bukowski was alive, like I said, anyone who’d read his writing should have known that he didn’t appreciate people randomly dropping by, carrying their god damn stupid six packs, knocking on the door. He said not to do that, so I took him at his word. And once he was dead – honestly, I thought I’d just be sad if I went there. And I thought the same thing before I got in the car to go down there on Friday, but my curiosity was piqued, as the kids say, considering the last one-sided, kind of loud conversation I’d had with Linda.

So I got there, parked in front of the place and thought, “Why am I here? I’m still not sure…” But I got out and walked up the long driveway to the house. As I walked up the driveway I saw the big swimming pool and gardens to my right and thought, damn! Okay, I knew there was a pool here, but I thought it was some dinky thing for splashing around or soaking in. Nope. Full-on swimming pool action there. It’s a beautiful spot she’s got there, on top of a hill, with a view of the entire harbor. There was an older guy working around the pool, and I thought, “Well, he’s probably here to shoot me if I get out of line, or just on principle,” but that didn’t turn out to be the case. I don’t even think he was armed, but you can never be sure in San Pedro. I knocked on the door and Linda answered and said “Come on in,” and there we were.

You know, I’m not going to tell you what we talked about while I was there, because it’s none of your god damned business, and it isn’t the point of this anyway. But Linda was very gracious and lovely and we talked for hours, about things you can probably guess, and about a lot of things that you’d probably never expect. But the house was great, very welcoming and homey and neat and zenlike in its own little tropical surroundings there. When you walk in the door the first thing you see are Bukowski’s paintings. They’re everywhere. It’s a little overwhelming, especially if you’ve seen a lot of his work online. Seeing the work with your own eyeballs is quite a different experience. I mean, I have Bukowski paintings in books, but there are some very large works on the walls of the house, and some very personal work, paintings he made for Linda.

Linda said, “Go ahead, look around, anywhere downstairs here, I’m making coffee,” and she went into the kitchen. So I looked around. The paintings, the books – all of the books are there, the more expensive ones in a glass bookcase against a wall, and hundreds of others in a large bookshelf that is actually a see-through wall between the living room and the dining room area. A wall sized bookcase with no back, so you can access it from either side. It’s all there, as you’d expect. The photographs, the evidence of Bukowski’s life, of their life together. If you’re wondering, “So, dude, could you, like feel the vibes? Could you feel Bukowski’s presence?” The answer to that is no, I did not. I’ve seen pictures of that living room, and other parts of the house, so it was all oddly familiar. But I didn’t feel like the ghost of Bukowski was there on the couch clearing his throat and looking at his watch and looking at me out of the corner of those slit eyes until I took the hint and left.

I walked over to the kitchen and we talked for a while while Linda made coffee, then we went to the couch to talk. After a while we got up and she showed me some other rooms downstairs, and then stood at the bottom of the marble staircase and said, “Well, do you want to, you know, go and see ‘the room’?” And I said no. I was already in the house, and I hadn’t really wanted to be there, because, like I said, I thought the whole experience would just make me sad. So I said that to her, there at the bottom of the stairs, that I thought seeing that room would just make me sad, but she said, “Oh no! It’s not sad, it’s joyful. Be happy, come on.” And that was that, up the stairs we went. She stood in front of the closed door to Bukowski’s writing room and said, “Okay, here it is,” and she opened the door and we walked into Bukowski’s office, his writing room.

Remember when I said I didn’t feel the ghost of Bukowski in his house? Well, I’m here to tell you brothers and sisters, that his presence filled that little room. I did feel him there. It was strange, and I’m not going to lie, I’m not going to play it cool for you here, it was overwhelming. Like I said, I’d expected to be sad, but it wasn’t sad, it was just — overwhelming. For me, anyway. And I imagine it would be for anyone who loves Bukowski’s work and feels that kinship, you know, after Bukowski has been part of their life for years, I imagine they would feel the same way. I don’t put a lot of stock into looking at houses or rooms where famous or creative people were famous or created. They’re just houses and rooms. But damn, man, standing in that room there, it just hit me hard. My head was kind of spinning, honestly. I didn’t know where to look. It felt almost impolite to stare at that stuff.

And it’s just stuff there in that room. It’s a bunch of dusty old stuff. But there’s something about seeing Bukowski’s dusty old painting supplies, or electric shoe polisher – which still works, by the way, I buffed the tops of my Doc Martins with it – or the chair he sat in when he wrote “Ham on Rye.” The IBM Selectric typewriter, and the Apple computer. Spare change, paper clips, pens. Some of his clothes are still in the closet: the suit he wore to his wedding, some pants are hanging from a hook on the door…a pair of alligator shoes that he wore to fancy shindigs. An unopened bottle of Clos Du Bois with an $8 price sticker on it. Shelves full of magazines and papers. And his radio was there on the desk. Linda looked at it and said, “I wonder if this still works…” and hit a big button on top, and after a second or two the classical music surged up, right on cue. It was a perfect moment in a world full of imperfection and bullshit, I tell you.

But I’m not going to tell you what we talked about in there either, because again, none of your damn business, and it was personal, but suffice it to say, I was moved by the whole trip up the stairs and into that twilight zone. I was wrong to not want to see it. To stand in it. I was wrong to not want to visit the house at all, because it turned out to be 100% positive from start to finish. So I may have to change my stance in general when it comes to doing that kind of thing. Not that I often find myself in the home or workspace of someone I admired after they’re dead, but, you know, if I do. We were in the room there for some time, and out on the little balcony that overlooks the harbor. It was dark and you could see the line of cars on the 110 freeway and the ships in the port. In the end I felt as if I’d paid a kind of disorienting visit to a sacred space. And I suppose I had.

I guess what I’m saying is it was no time to be cynical, and I think not wanting to set foot in the house or not wanting to go up to the writing room once I was in the house, that was cynical. Or if not cynical, by definition, just stupid. Stubborn, too cool. I was denying basic human desire and curiosity, and that thing we all have of wanting to be close. Close to love or fame or wealth or greatness. Bukowski wasn’t particularly famous or wealthy during his lifetime, certainly not on the scale we’ve become accustomed to today, but greatness? He had that. He had it whether you knew who he was or not. It was there for you to discover, and a lot of us did. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for?

Well if you haven’t, you probably aren’t even listening anymore, so we can talk about you behind your back. Can you imagine? People who haven’t, or can’t or won’t discover Bukowski? Who feel above him and his work, as if their crusty literary pretense makes them superior. All those New Yorker and New Republic readers. Or worse, the people who subscribe to magazines like that but never read them, just leave them lying around so people can see how classy and well-read they are. Can you imagine? They have no idea what they’re missing. Only one of the most unique and uncompromising poetic voices of the 20th century. Someone who took poetry by the throat halfway through that century and rebuilt it in a new form. A new vitality and humanity. Well, it’s their loss.

Me, I’m unapologetic. But Bukowski is like a lot of things in the world, you either get it or you don’t. You’re either on the bus or you’re not, and it’s no great tragedy if you miss the bus. I mean, it’s better to be on the bus, make no mistake about that, but at the end of the day, it’s just a bus. Okay. All right, that’s it for now, my goony, looney tuney confidants. My stick shift sidekicks, my cold water colleagues. Me bony, stoney cronies. Keep it real up in the field, and the next time will be the best time, ya hear? Yep.