Charles Bukowski (1920-1994): A friend of mine recently found himself in the bustling metropolis of San Pedro, California, the whimsically dumpy harbor area of Los Angeles, famous for not really a whole lot else as far as I know other than being where the Great American 20th Century Poet Charles Bukowski is buried, underneath a modest in-ground marker that reads “Don’t Try.” This was, of course, the advice Bukowski gave, while he was still alive, to poets, writers, and everyone else looking to become the type of person that makes a city famous for being buried in it. But in death, I think it was his advice to humanity in general, his final pearl of wisdom imparted to mankind. Don’t try, at anything. Just be. There’s a certain amount of disingenuousness inherent in this statement; after all, when Bukowski was still just a alcoholic mailman, sending hand-copied manuscripts to magazines and publishers, he was definitely trying. And you don’t write as many poems, novels, and screenplays as Bukowski did during his life without putting out some effort. But just like the more spiritual epitaphs usually found on the gravestones of the honest Christian men, Don’t Try is more of the goal, the life’s lesson learned. It’s the advice Bukowski would have given to himself, a fittingly narcissistic thought for a man who made a career out of relating his sexual exploits, drunken loutishness and otherwise self-serving behavior. He was like Thoreau with a taste for booze, choosing the slums of LA, instead of Walden Pond, as his personal purgatory, with women and barflys serving as his woodchucks, ants, and squirrels. And like Thoreau, he didn’t remain there forever; after the slums had served their purpose he moved on, eventually living, and eventually dying, in the comparatively upscale San Pedro, a white wine-sipping old timer. My friend went to the graveyard to pay his respects. The people there had no idea what he was talking about. They finally looked it up, gave him directions and sent him out there; no historical monument, no literature about the life and work of the late great Charles Bukowski. Just a plot number. He found the grave, there with all the other graves. There was nothing spectacular about it. It could have been the grave of anyone, and I guess it is, as far as most people are concerned. Except it says, right on there. Don’t Try.
Matt Hogan (1953-2008): As befitting the subject matter, my friend regaled me with the tale of his pilgrimage over Bloody Marys at Duffy’s, at a time when most people were still eating Cheerios. We had the bartender put a stick of Jerky in each drink, to make more of a meal out of it, and honest breakfast, so as to not feel entirely worthless, like the semi-employed, childless, aging pseduo-hipsters we were, and still are. But really, why does it matter? Why does it matter that you’re drinking, in the morning, on a week day? What is this puritan guilt we still foist upon ourselves, striving to “succeed,” to own more than the next guy, to leave the world with more than we came into it with. Why is it that, to spend the morning working towards some material end is somehow more honorable than spending the morning working towards a more “spiritual” end, and by spirits, I don’t mean ghosts. Why do we seem to seek, as a culture, this accumulation of wealth, of goods, of house and home? So we can stuff it all into our tomb like modern day King Tuts, and take it with us to the afterlife? For most, the motivation is to someday attain their idea of the “good life,” or more importantly, to leave their children with something better than what they themselves had, and this is indeed, a noble thought, but something of a mixed message. After all if the goal of hard work is to provide an easier, more comfortable life, why not just skip the hard part and go about living an easier, more comfortable life now? And if hard work, and earning your keep by the sweat of your physical, or intellectual brow, is the ultimate imperative for honorable living, why seek to deprive your children of this great honor by way of inheriting the fruits of your lifelong own labors? Our friend Thoreau had much to say on this subject, as in the opening pages of Walden: “I see young men, my townsmen, whose misfortune it is to have inherited farms, houses, barns, cattle, and farming tools; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had been born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf, that they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.” As we sat, my eye wandered up past the painting of Jesus playing baseball, to the glass case housing Matt Hogan’s old Danelectro guitar, with the inscription, “The Incredible Diamond.” It doesn’t say Don’t Try, but it doesn’t have to.
Photo by Jason Zubia
Tags: ants, booze, charles bukowski, christian men, gravestones, graveyard, mailman, old timer, pearl of wisdom, purgatory, san pedro california, screenplays, sexual exploits, slums, squirrels, thoreau, walden pond, white wine, woodchucks