Jennifer and Bukowski by Joan Hawkins

Jennifer and Bukowski

We were in the Ladies Room—the Ladies Lounge—of an old school, high-end San Francisco Restaurant.  The kind of place where waiters wear white jackets and long aprons, where tablecloths are starched and pleated just so.  And linen napkins stand at attention as far as the eye can see. 

And it was there, in the Ladies Room—the Ladies Lounge—, that my 16 year old granddaughter told me she’d been reading Bukowski.

Now you might wonder what 2 Bukowski-loving women were doing in a place like that.  I wondered the same thing myself—But Jennifer was in town for the weekend and she’d been curious to see how the other half lived.  And so she’d asked if Skip and I would buy her dinner —“at a nice place,” she’d said laughing.  This place. The place where Scotty first saw Madeleine in the movie Vertigo. And people still partied like it was 1958.

And so, after Jennifer ordered dessert, we went to the Ladies Room, the Ladies Lounge, as women in 1958 movies do.   I was putting on lipstick, leaning into the mirror.  Jennifer stood beside me, neon light cueing in from a street sign across the alley, cutting her face into cubist planes and casting a red halo around her.  Edith Piaf songs wound their way up from the sound system downstairs. Some women, draped in fur stoles—little animal heads and feet fastened at their necks– came in, complaining about the lobster.

When they left, I cocked an eyebrow at Jennifer.  “I guess the surf and turf is off tonight,” I said.  And that’s when she told me she’d been reading Bukowski. 

Now Jennifer lived in a small town in Northern California, a prison economy town that had been dying on the vine until the State started locking people up for minor drug infractions.  First the prison, then—suddenly– a whole service economy shook Janesville into the postwar era–a hotel, a coffeeshop, a Thai restaurant that doubled as a jazz club on the weekends. Janesville was booming. But there was still no bookstore. And I couldn’t imagine Notes of a Dirty Old Man in the local library. So I asked how she’d started reading Bukowski.

She shrugged.  Turns out Janesville had its own youth Underground.  Curious kids in souped-up trucks and landrovers—who drove north to Reno or—once a year—south to San Francisco for drugs, which they sold—and books, CDs and DVDs that they passed around like Samizdat. Jennifer had gotten Ham and Rye during one of those trips and was anxious to read more.  “Come on,” I told her.  “After you eat your dessert, we’ll go to City Lights.  I’ll buy you a book.”

“Do they have Bukowski?” she asked.

I thought of City Lights with its cantilevered side room full of Beat-and-friends literature.  Its shelves of Black Sparrow Press books, and the way even the cookbook section maintained a kind of Boho charm.  Its little corners where you could sit and read—and nobody bothered you or asked if you were planning to buy that book.

And the photographs—taken at readings—up on the walls, Charles Bukowski’s photo prominent among them.  I thought of the way I discovered Bukowski, back in the day when I was not much older than Jennifer– book crawling my way along the shelves, moving toward Diane Di Prima and getting distracted along the way.  

“ The difference between a bad writer and a good writer is luck, “he’d written. Cutting through all the romantic ideas I had about tortured genius with a meat cleaver.

For some people, discovering Bukowski is a rite of passage.  And he has to be discovered.  You have to find the lonely volume on the shelf, lean up against the rack,

open the book at random, and let that growling voice inhabit you.  Colonize you like a vampire.  It’s not the same, if your grandmother seems to know all about him, gives you carefully chosen, expurgated, cloth bound volumes to read, marks her favorite passages.  Too much like Nana giving you drugs. Kind of a comedown from the necessary cool.  And Jennifer is my favourite grand daughter. Because Jennifer is a lot like me.

So I dissembled.  Bukowski would say I lied—but it was in service of the greater good.  “I don’t know,” I told her, checking my mirror reflection one last time. “Let’s go see.”

Bio: Joan Hawkins is a writer and spoken word performer, who focuses mainly on

creative memoir.  Her  poetry and prose have appeared in Avalanches of Poetry, Fevers of the Mind, the Performing Arts Journal, Plath Profiles, and Sand.

Two poem sare forthcoming in a special poetry issue of The Ryder Magazine. She and Kalynn Brower have co-edited an anthology called Trigger Warnings,

which contains one of Joan’s stories; it’s currently under consideration by Indiana University Press. “My Writing Teacher”  comes from a manuscript in progress– School and Suicide.

Joan lives in Bloomington, IN with her cat Izzy Isou. She is currently the Chair of the Writers Guild at Bloomington.