“Hey, baby! When I write — I am the hero of my own shit.”
I watched Hank last night. I watched his beat-up, used-up, lived-in, wasted, wrinkled, exhausted face with traces of pockmarks digging into his skin like tear trails; and I let his effortless voice lullaby me to sleep: a meowing of an aged cat on my doorstep, so demented he had forgotten all other pleasures in life but eating and fucking. But mostly eating though, at this point: Fucking — had become too strenuous for his joints.
It was a documentary, and a short one at that: How do you make an epic about someone without an epic life? Hank had insisted on living among us — that fuckin’ Bukowski! — that dirty, old man, ridden with vices and women, dwelling in his destiny but never groveling; and surviving his own compassion, day after day. Elevating himself above the rest of us wasn’t his type of behavior. No, he left that to his colleagues — the pretentious poets who always wished to write about their suffering but who haven’t lived enough, among us, to know what that’s like: To suffer. Because suffering — is bad for one’s skin. (Just look at Hank’s face: That fuckin’ Bukowski was a wreck!) And it’s scary. Suffering is scary. So, they left it all — to Hank.
Instead, the pretentious poets got themselves jobs as critics and professors. They became people of higher esteem: “The professionals”. People would pay them for their opinions and carefully manipulated big words. (The bigger the words — the more esteemed the professor.) And the professionals would wonder how could they suddenly run out of things to write about. They would try to write about their tired marriages and affairs with their students. But boredom always makes for terrible plots. So, they’d return to their criticism and conference papers, with carefully manipulated big words about anything but suffering.
“What are your plans after graduation?” I remember my own teachers prying during the last year of college; and before they could wait for my answer, they’d spew out: “You should teach!”
“Really?!” I’d think to myself. “You mean you don’t want me to go backpacking through Europe and learn a dozen of languages from the pillow talks with my future fifty foreign lovers?”
But I wouldn’t say that. In those days, my intuition wasn’t perfected yet; so I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the source of that nausea invoked by those well-wishing mentor chats. Instead, I would just listen, tormented with doubts and restlessness, and with my own temptations for a more esteemed life. And then, I would look at my watch, demonstratively, and I would say:
“Ow! I better get to the diner: I’m working a double to-night.”
Esteem. It’s kind of like beauty, right? It’s in the eye of the beholder. Except that with esteem, you are the beholder — AND you are the subject. So, it’s entirely up to you, this esteem thing, despite all the other suffering.
There would be many more waitressing gigs, after graduation, and office gigs, and freelance gigs, and gigs of self-employment — all of which I insisted on committing with esteem. There would be esteem in serving a table full of cops at 4 a.m. who would flirt and get rowdy, like college boys in love with their substitute teacher; and one of them would always offer to give me a ride home, in his black-and-white Ford. (Later, sometimes, they would drive down my street and wave: Heya, pretty! It made me feel like others feel when they come home.)
There would be esteem in finding the patience to handle a hysterical student with no knowledge of English at my daytime campus gig, when the rest of my employers just wouldn’t have the time for her fearful nonsense. (Later, she would pass me in the cafeteria — still a child in her age, made even more helpless by her venture in a foreign country — and she would smile at me, with something that combined gratitude and a very fragile secret.)
And there would be more esteem in taking the last train out New York City after my internship at yet another editorial department where I would become adopted by a group of esteemed professionals — or the poets to whom they vowed to cater.
And then, of course, there would be my fifty future foreign lovers, teaching me their languages during our pillow talks. But mostly, they would teach me the language of my own humanity. And there would be plenty of esteem in learning that my compassion would never fail, no matter the messy ending to each loverly story; and no matter the suffering that came with it.
To the effortless voice of Hank, I had fallen asleep last night: He was reading his shit at some poetry hall in San Francisco, filled to the brim with hollering humanity. And the audience would cheer him on every time he tipped his beer bottle into his crooked, wet mouth. He would chug it down, like a man dying of thirst, smile fleetingly and bashfully at the dividends of his compassion — and the dividends of all that suffering; and he would resume meowing out his poetry. Sometimes, he would raise a ruckus while taunting somebody in the audience: To him, it would be just another bar fight. But he would always seem so much calmer, when in the midst of doing his shit.
“the price of creation
the price of living
with other people
And yet, he would insist on living among us — that fuckin’ Bukowski! — that dirty, old man, ridden with vices and women, dwelling in his destiny but never groveling; surviving his own compassion, day after day. Being too good for others — was not his type of behavior. No, he left that to his esteemed colleagues: “The professionals”.
And if he could, he would kiss every one of us on the mouth, the same way he kissed his women: pornographically and with an open, wet mouth, smelling of rye. Because no matter the price, we were his beholders AND his subjects; and with that, we granted him — his esteem.
We made his life — his tortured, used-up life worth his suffering. And he would be one of us, becoming “the hero of [his] shit” — even when he wrote about others; when he wrote — about us.