Sometimes, it feels as if we are eavesdropping on day-to-day conversations rather than just hearing the usual litany of platitudes and regrets.
LOS ANGELES -- Down here in the bad part of town, a man named Big Ed runs a bar named Big Ed's, which pretty much sums up the way he sees things. A lot of the regulars live upstairs in low-rent rooms, and come downstairs to drink when the bar is open. When the bar is closed, they go upstairs and wait for it to open again.
One night not long ago, Charles Bukowski was holding down the short end of the bar. He was looking around with wonderment on his face, because he had spent most of his life getting drunk in joints like this, but tonight was different, tonight they were making a movie inspired by his life, and they had rented out Big Ed's to shoot in.
"The movie is called 'Barfly,' and it's about me, because that's what I was, a bar fly," Bukowski explained. "You ran errands for sadists and let the bartender beat you up, because you were the bar clown. You filled people's days with your presence, and maybe you'd get a few free drinks now and then."
We were hunched down with our elbows on the padded edge of the bar, talking quietly, like conspirators. Linda, Bukowski's wife, was taking down mental notes of everything.
"The way I became a bar fly," he said, "was, I didn't like what I saw in the 9 to 5. I didn't want to become an ordinary working person, paying off the mortgage, looking at TV, terrified. The bar was a hiding place, to get out of the mainstream."
"Did you decide to become a bar fly, or did you just look up one day and see a bar fly in the mirror?" I asked him.
"I can't answer," he said. "It was kind of a subconscious decision. Meanwhile, I was a writer on the side, selling short stories to dirty magazines. I gave up the writing after awhile and concentrated on the drinking. I refused to accept the living death of acquiescence."
All around us, they were setting up for the next shot. We were waiting for Faye Dunaway to arrive and ask Bukowski some questions about her role. Bukowski said he based the Dunaway character on memories of a lover he had many years ago, a half-Indian, half-Irish drunk that he shared some good times with, like when they would fish the Sunday paper out of the Monday garbage and read it and drink red wine. The woman is dead now. In fact, Bukowski estimated, everybody he knew then is dead now. Bukowski is 66 years old, and that is pretty old for a bar fly to still be alive.
"I can see people saying, the guy's a drunk at the bar--so what?" he said. "They think lives should be attached to some purpose or goal. I knew the morning bartender. He would let me in at 5 a.m. I'd get two hours of free drinks before the bar opened at 7. I'd stay in the bar until it closed. I got three hours of sleep, from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m."
"Where was this bar located?" I asked him.
"It was located in two places, because this story is based on two different bars. One of them was in Philadelphia, at 16th and Fairmont. It no longer exists. The other one was here in LA, at 6th and Alvarado. It's gone now. This story takes place a long time ago, in a dive. A dark dive. What I did, for 10 years I didn't write. I drank. I lived with various women and worked odd jobs. I got some material to write about. Down to earth stuff. To use a cliché. When I was sitting in those bars, I had no idea it would come to a movie."
Bukowski looked into his coffee cup. "It is a strange world indeed," he said. Somebody came around and gave us more coffee. Behind us, a woman named Davia Nelson was lining up the extras for the next scene. The extras were mostly regulars in Big Ed's, who had been hired to play themselves. This was the scene right after Mickey Rourke beats the shit out of Frank Stallone in the alley. Rourke was going to slam in through the front door while the regulars carried Stallone in through the back door. Frank's fights are not as predictable as his brother's.
Davia Nelson was telling the extras when they would be needed. It was late at night but the extras were all pretty sober; the drinks were free but they were pacing themselves because they didn't want to be there in one shot and missing in the next.
"Do you still drink a lot?" I asked Bukowski.
"Oh, yeah. You might say heavy." He turned to his wife, Linda. "Tell him," he said.
"He's toned down since the heavy of the heavy," she said. "He likes good red wine."
"You do pretty good yourself," Bukowski told her.
"Lately I have."
"We were drinking in here the other night," Bukowski said. "There were still real bar people in here. It was open for business. It's kind of a rough bar. We were lucky we got home."
I looked carefully at Bukowski and saw, not anger, not weariness, not confusion or bitterness, not any of the things I expected to see, but a kind, open face to go with a gentle voice. The drinks hadn't killed that.
A million guys start out to get drunk and become great writers, and one makes it. Now a million more guys are probably getting drunk trying to figure out how Bukowski did it. He isn't a survivor. He's a statistical aberration. In one of his novels, called Women, he describes the face of his hero, who is obviously based on himself: "The scars were there, the alcoholic nose, the monkey mouth, the eyes narrowed to slits, and there was the dumb, pleased grin of a happy man, ridiculous, feeling his luck and wondering why." I couldn't improve on that.
"For a long time," Bukowski said, "I had a heavy suicide complex. I went to bars to try to fight, try to get killed. It's a funny thing. When you walk in looking for trouble, you usually can't find it. Mickey Rourke, in this film, he's looking for trouble. He's doing a good acting job. I didn't really expect him to be so good. I did some drinking with him, a couple nights. He doesn't drink as much as I do. Nobody does, unless it's Linda. She used to match me, drink for drink, calling for the next bottle."
"Where'd you meet him?" I asked Linda, who was a sweet-faced brunette with the touch of a hippie about her.
"At the Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard, about 12 years ago. He was reading his poems."
"Don't say that long ago," Bukowski said. "Don't date yourself."
"You're acting like it's Valentine's Day," Linda said.
"You already got your Valentine, kid," Bukowski said.
"He usually picks me a Valentine bouquet," Linda said.
"He'll think I'm soft," Bukowski said.
"Was it love at first sight?" I asked.
"He didn't even see me," she said. "He was blind drunk and in the arms of another woman."
"Several other women," Bukowski said. "I was doing research for my novel, Women. I had to go through a lot of gymnastics."
"What I felt," Linda said, "was, I stood there and looked at him and felt that I was seeing him for the first time but I had known him since beyond time. I didn't think about it or plan it. It was just a fact."
"A rapport of souls," Bukowski said. "We finally got married about two years ago."
"We waited as long as possible," Linda said.
"Your first marriage?" I asked.
"My second," he said. "Long ago I married a millionairess by mistake."
"We were married at the Philosophical Research Society," Linda said. "He rented a Rolls Royce. For a long time he was afraid of marriage."
"I call it the enemy," Bukowski said. "That's what I call it. I don't give poetry readings anymore. We live in San Pedro, a quiet town. I play the horses in the daytime and write at night, drinking my wine."
"Cats," Linda said.
"We have five cats," Bukowski said. "Linda's studying acting. San Pedro is real quiet. It used to be a seaport full of whorehouses and bars. I like the quietness. They ask you how you're doing, they really want to know."
"What track?" I said.
"Hollywood Park. First post at 2 p.m. When I write, when I'm going hot, I don't want to write more than four hours in a row. After that you're pushing it. The horses give me something to do. At the age of 50 I quit a job at the post office and decided to become a full-time writer. The old guy's crazy, my landlady declared, striking her head with her palm. I wrote my first novel, named Post Office, in nineteen nights, working on Scotch and beer. I had prepared by going to L.A. City College and taking journalism. They taught me how to type."
"People are always asking me what courses to take if they want to be journalists," I said. "I always tell them to take typing."
"I just got an electric a couple of years ago," Bukowski said. "At the first, I was a starving writer. I went from 190 pounds down to 130. Everything I put in the mail came right back to me. The Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker, they rejected everything. I threw it all away. I started out again, selling to the porno mags. What I used to do was, write a good story and throw in some goddamn sex. It worked. I only got one story rejected--it had too much sex! They draw a fine line. 'Bukowski,' the editor wrote me, 'nobody on earth screws that many women in a week and a half!'"
He grinned and lighted a little brown cigarette from a pack with a foreign alphabet on it.
"It was my own true story. The guy was haunted by jealousy. The porno mags were all published over on Melrose. They paid $230 to $290 a story. I could write one in a night with no problem. And I had a great landlady. She'd have these quart bottles of East Side, and we'd drink them and sing old songs. That was in the beginning. I have been a whore ever since. So now I'm translated into eighteen languages and I'm just as modest as I ever was."
"You still write every night?" I asked.
"Most nearly. I hate to go into bars anymore. I've had too much of barrooms."
"You took it to the limit," Linda said.
"Now I go up with my bottle and write, all alone. The company's great. Turn on the radio and type. I like looking at a novel and you don't know what you're gonna type next."
Faye Dunaway walked into Big Ed's. She was dressed in black and her hair was kind of loose and she looked like a million dollars. Barbet Schroeder, the director of the film, introduced Dunaway to Bukowski and his wife.
"Later, I'll tell you an amazing story about Barbet Schroeder if you promise not to print it," Bukowski said.
He made room at the bar and a stool was found for Dunaway to sit on. Bukowski said he didn't want any more coffee but he might have a lite beer, he was taking it easy tonight.
"I want to ask you about the character I play." Dunaway said. "She's half Cherokee and half Irish, right?"
"Half Indian," Bukowski said. "I don't know if she was Cherokee. She was born in New Mexico."
"But she's been here for so long, she's like a California person," Dunaway said.
"She could hold it real good," Bukowski said. "When she talked--this will help you with the dialog--she illustrated the principle that if you listen to a drunk all night long, you'll go crazy."
"She was out here from what age?" Dunaway asked.
"I was 25, she was 35," Bukowski said. "And she put me through college, meaning..."
"Yeah," Dunaway said.
"She brained me a few times," he said. "We were not in love, but she loved my way of drinking."
He lighted another one of his cigarettes.
"I like to drink and write and have the novel happen to me and I'm as surprised as anyone else," he said. "I'll be so deep into it that sometimes Linda will open the door unexpectedly and I'll scream."
"It's hard to drink and write," I said. "I guess Malcolm Lowry did it with 'Under the Volcano.'"
"I've tried to read that book," Bukowski said. "God, I've tried. "My writing it very simple. Maybe clarity is a better word."
"The key to all the arts is energy," Dunaway said. "Look at Peter Lorre's work. He's not afraid to go all the way. A lot of acting is so flat."
"It doesn't look like there's going to be a lot of flat acting in this movie," I said.
"Yeah, and no makeup, either," Dunaway said.
"When Mickey first meets her," Bukowski said, "nobody is sitting anywhere near her at the bar. He says, 'Hey, bartender, how come nobody's sitting next to her?' She looks pretty good. The bartender tells him she's crazy. 'That right?' he says, and walks right down and sits next to her. She looks straight ahead. Maybe she sneaks a little sideways glance. He says, 'I hate people, don't you?' She says, yeah, she feels better when they're not around. So now they have discovered a common bond. A common discouragement with humanity."
"When I was reading the script," Dunaway said, "it was like I was talking to you. There's usually something phony in a script, but this one was so alive, coming off the page."
"It's the wine and the beer," Bukowski said. His own beer had arrived and he took a swallow out of the bottle. "People who drink and still function say they're not alcoholics," he said. "I don't see what one has to do with the other. Whether you're an alcoholic and whether you function are two different questions."
"I once sat with Brendan Behan in a bar in New York," Dunaway said. "He said they were looking all over town for him."
"He should have hid in here," Bukowski said.
"This girl I'm playing--" Dunaway said. "Did you go to the funeral?"
"Yeah. It was here in California. Then we all went to the race track. I picked up a black girl and went to bed with her."
"How long did they go without drinking?" Dunaway asked. "They had to spend some time not drinking, didn't they?"
"No. They didn't miss a day."
"Did they start about one?"
"Alone, I would start about 4 in the afternoon at that period of my life. With her, she would put on a tragic face about 8 in the morning and start whining, 'We got nothing to drink! Ohhhhh! Hank! There's nothing in the house to drink!'"
"She called you Hank?" I said.
"Everybody calls me Hank. Nobody calls me Charles."
Dunaway had taken a notebook out of her purse and was taking notes. "This woman. What would she put under her pillow?" she asked Bukowski.
"What sort of perfume did she wear?"
Tom Luddy, who was the producer, walked in and said the shot was rehearsed and it was time to clear the bar. He suggested we move the group over to a leatherette booth along the wall, where we would be out of the way and still be able to see everything.
Bukowski and his wife and Dunaway settled down and Bukowski pulled out another one of those smelly little cigarettes.
"What are those called?" I asked.
"Mangalore Ganeesh Beedies," Bukowski said. "You can get them in any Indian or Pakistani store. They're what the poor, poor people smoke in India. I like them because they contain no chemicals and no nicotine, and they go very well with red wine." He looked up. "Here come the real bar flies," he said.
Frank Stallone walked over to the booth, his face made up to look like a mass of blood and bruises.
"These bar room fights," Bukowski lectured, "it's better to underplay them. I've been in many a bar room fight, and when you wake up in the morning, you don't look so bad. Then you touch yourself--ouch! But there's not much visible damage. You're so drunk even the bricks don't want to touch you."
Barbet Schroeder came over and asked Bukowski if he would like to act as Mickey Rourke's stand-in while they rehearsed their camera move. Bukowski said he would.
"The way we got involved," he said, "was I picked up this phone one day and it was Schroeder calling from Paris. I'm drinking, I hung up. Never heard of him. You meet a lot of phonies. I hang up, he calls back, he wants me to write a movie for him. I tell him I hate movies. He mentions $20,000. I ask him when he's coming over."
Bukowski walked over to the bar, sat down and practiced glowering at a bloody Frank Stallone as the bar flys dragged him in. Davia Nelson watched as her carefully rehearsed extras marched in with Stallone's body.
"When we came out to scout the location," she said, "we found all the extras we needed right here. There's a Bukowskian woman living next door with 12 cats."
"Bukowskian?" I said.
"Like Dostoyevskian, but drunk."
Schroeder rehearsed the shot a couple times, and then it was time to shoot. There was a loud bang at the other end of the bar, and Mickey Rourke came stalking in, covered with grime and blood, blowing his nose in his hand, sitting down at the bar.
"Gimme a beer!"
"I'm sorry, buddy, I can't serve you," the bartender said.
"GIMME A BEER!" Rourke said, and tried to light a cigarette, and then turned away and walked out the door.
Schroeder called "cut" and asked for another take. This time Rourke came in through the door, slammed it, whirled around, and hit it so hard with his fist that he put a hole in it. He walked over to the bar.
"Gimme a beer!"
"I'm sorry, buddy..."
This time Rourke went over the bar and grabbed the bartender by his shirt.
"I said gimme a fucking beer!"
The bartender pulled free. Rourke slumped back onto his stool, lighted his cigarette and stumbled out.
"Cut," Schroeder said. "Very good. Now we have a hole in the door."
"God, Mickey puts it all out there," Dunaway said. "Like in 'Casablanca' when Peter Lorre says, 'Rick! You MUST help me!' No holding back."
Tom Luddy walked over with a visitor to the set: Errol Morris, the director of such films as "Gates of Heaven", the surrealistic documentary about Northern California pet cemeteries. Morris, an open-faced young man in a suit, sat down and said he had been supporting himself for two years by working as a private detective, but now he was working on a film again.
"What's it about?" Bukowski said.
"A case in Michigan where a dog ate a woman and the woman's daughter is using her mother's estate to pay the attorney fees for the dog's legal defense."
Bukowski took a swig of beer. "Sounds like an interesting subject for a movie," he said.
He took my note pad and pulled a pen out of his pocket and began to doodle. "A man, a dog, a bird, a flower, and the sun," he said. "What else do you need? A bottle."
"So the dog ate the old lady," he said to Morris. "Sick."
"The fact that the world is a sick place makes it endurable," Morris said.
"Yeah. It gives me something to write about and you something to film," Bukowski said. He took a swig of beer and thoughtfully rotated the bottle between his hands.
"You told me," I said, "that you had a story to tell about Barbet Schroeder."
"He has been trying to make this movie for seven years," Bukowski said. "A few months ago, it looked like Cannon was about to cancel it. Barbet goes into the office of Menahem Golan, the president of Cannon, with an electric handsaw. He pulls out a syringe of Novocain and shoots it into his little finger. He says he will cut off his finger if Menahem doesn't make the movie, and that he will continue to cut off parts of his body and send them to Menahem until he agrees to make the movie. Menahem tells him to go to hell. Barbet plugs in the handsaw."
Bukowski lit one of his little Mangalore Ganeesh Beedies.
"Here we are," he said.
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