Breakfast with Bukowski By Bob Chorush
Liza Williams called to say that she and Charles Bukowski would be visiting on the weekend.
“Hank’s not drinking,” she added, calling him by his nickname.
“Liza, it’s seventy miles to my house,” I responded. “Even I can’t always make it without a drink. Are you sure he wants to come? Don’t force him to come.”
“He wants to. He said he wants to. It will be good for him to get out in the country for a day. He’s pasty white. He could use a little outdoors.”
This wasn’t true. Liza and I both knew that Bukowski would rather pass out on the floor of a sleazy bar in L.A. He had no use for clean air and open spaces like my home in the Angeles National Forest.
“Hank does not like small talk,” Liza had warned. “No idle pleasantries.”
“We’ll keep him away from the locals,” I said. “Their idea of an exciting conversation revolves around the latest Jello-mold recipe.”
“And Heidi?” asked Liza.
And Heidi…. No one could know what my girlfriend Heidi might do.
Heidi saw social gatherings the way three-year-olds see coloring books. Something should fill in the white area between the lines, but what? Lacking the requisite skills, the lines blurred, and the images bled with colorful abandon.
To Heidi, silence was a personal challenge. A conversational pause was an uncolored page crying out for color. Her manic chatter sometimes fit between the lines, often not.
Bukowski wasn’t much on small talk. Heidi, though intelligent and perceptive, wasn’t much but small talk. I thought of Superman’s existential dilemma of the immovable object being struck by the irresistible force. I couldn’t remember what Superman did, but I recalled that it involved a large release of energy. I should have expected the same from Bukowski’s visit.
Heidi was Norwegian, barely five-foot-two, with blue eyes, and yes, she wore her long blond hair in braids. She feared nothing. Neither impending death nor celebrity slowed her chatter.
Heidi’s father was a pilot who managed the airport in Santa Cruz. Heidi and I visited him once. He greeted me with a stink-eye, a guttural grunt and a crushing handshake. Then he drank us under the table at the airport bar.
“I’m going to get my private pilot’s license,” I said trying to make conversation.
“Grymmpgh,” he said. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“He’s just like that,” said Heidi fondly, as we watched him sneak over to the bar and chug a couple of drinks while we nursed the round he’d bought us.
“Get up,” Heidi urged just after sunrise the next morning.
“What for?” I said, planning to stay in bed until my head felt better.
“Dad’s taking us flying. He’s got a new Short Take Off and Landing single engine four-seater he wants to show us.”
“You go,” I said.
“He’s my father,” Heidi said. “You’ve got to go.”
Competitive drinking was not the only suicidal game Heidi and her father played. When flying, they played Act-Scared-or-I’ll-Kill-You. Heidi sat in the co-pilot’s seat while I was crammed in the back like carry-on luggage as the plane roared into the sky.
“…very maneuverable plane…” I heard Heidi’s father mutter just before the floor dropped out from under us. When I looked up, I saw the ground. When I looked down, I saw the sky. Something, besides my pounding head, was very wrong.
Heidi sat up front with a smug grin, prattled on, and ignored the fact that the plane’s acrobatic movements were exactly what you’d expect if you were a sock in a clothes dryer.
Heidi would not be awed by Bukowski’s literary notoriety. She was no less brave in the company of the rich and famous. As an editor of Rolling Stone, I had to attend previews, press parties, and intimate events designed to obligate me to various performers. While I met the movers and shakers, very little came of it. On the other hand, it was not unusual for Heidi to regale me with intimate rock star trivia of the sort that I was paid to uncover.
“How do you know Rita Coolidge needs a new gynecologist?” I asked when she brought the matter up.
“It’s Kris,” she said, rolling her eyes as if that explained everything. “Rita told me that she had that same thing I did when I had that problem. Remember when I had that problem…?”
So I could not count on reticence when Heidi met Bukowski.
In those days in L.A., meanwhile, Liza was as famous as Bukowski; perhaps more so. Liza was the original free spirit. The original beatnik. The original hippie. She was also an artist, writer, and record company executive. She was invited to all the parties and premieres, wrote acerbically about them in her weekly Los Angeles Free Press column, and was still invited back.
Liza’s column ranged from pop interviews with the likes of Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix to harangues about the emerging practice of unit packaging. “How does Heinz know how much goddamn catsup I want?” she said one day, slamming her fist down on a little plastic packet which bled for its creators’ sins.
When existing words failed her, Liza made up her own. She combined and shortened, lengthened and hyphenated. I can picture now how her columns would look today on my computer screen; a hodgepodge of red and green squiggly lines with no suggestions of how to correct them. “Strain of consciousness,” Janis Joplin called it.
Back then, I was an aspiring writer, new to L.A. I was enthralled by Liza’s column. Here was someone writing for the pure joy of writing and getting it published. I wrote her a fan letter.
To my surprise, Liza replied and we began corresponding. Liza invited me to visit her record company office where she had just been hired to publicize new music.
We talked, had lunch, and she gave me a stack of records.
At the time, music was the center of my universe. I spent far too much of my unemployment insurance checks on music, so the thought of free records was unbearably enticing.
“How do you get a job like this?” I asked.
“Start writing record reviews and submit them to the Free Press. Once you get published, you can send the reviews to record companies, and they’ll put you on their list for new records.”
I did. She was right. Within six months, I had a job similar to Liza’s at a different record company. Within a year I was working for Rolling Stone.
Liza was bi-polar when everyone still called it manic-depressive. She was forever swinging on a mood, often fighting to hold on just to keep the centrifugal force of her feelings from flinging her off into outer space.
When manic, she was unstoppable; full of ideas, full of fun, full of mischief. You were as likely to find her taking tit shots in a photo booth as at her desk. This was the Liza who ran off to Bora Bora with Hunter Thompson’s 300-pound Samoan attorney from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “One Bora is not enough for us,” she confided just before they left.
When depressed, Liza made hordes of flailing Arab women seem like so many petulant children.
“Bob, you have to come right away,” she said in an early morning phone call. “I’m going to kill myself.”
“Hold on, Liza. I’ll be there soon.”
Heidi wasn’t happy being left alone, but I made the 70-mile drive to Liza’s canyon house. I arrived, half expecting to find her dead, but instead was greeted by a party in full swing. Not only that, but she was being followed by a film crew who were documenting her life and who were probably there when she’d called. Would they have let her kill herself for an easy ending to their documentary? I was furious.
“Why are you mad?” Liza asked. “I’m not dead. You should be happy.”
Once I’d calmed down, the documentary director and I began flirting.
“Why are you flirting with that woman?” Liza demanded, “You’re supposed to be here to cheer me up. Get out.”
For a while, Bukowski’s column, “Notes of a Dirty Old Man”, also appeared in the Free Press.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, The Freep was really happening; with work by novelist Harlan Ellison, journalist and Fugs founder Ed Sanders, Gilbert Shelton and his Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, political cartoonist Ron Cobb and other pop culture contributors.
During the time that Liza’s and Bukowski’s columns appeared simultaneously, they frequently wrote about each other. I remember Liza calling one night in tears.
“That son-of-a-bitch Bukowski,” she began. “He wrote every fucking thing I told him. My God, he wrote personal stuff about me. I’ll fix him.”
Liza read me her next column on the phone before it hit the stands. It was a thinly disguised diatribe detailing Bukowski’s sexual inadequacies.
“We’ll see what he thinks of that,” she said, then added, “The bastard.”
“Are you sure you want to publish it?” I asked, aghast, but clearly out of my league.
“He’s going to have a fucking fit,” Liza said. “That’ll teach that motherfucker to write about me.”
Bukowski did have a fit. A laughing fit. Soon they regularly shredded each other in print, each trying to outdo the other. Liza, who became Dee Dee in Bukowski’s Women, did a Bukowski on the master.
Gary Wright, the guy who wrote Long, Long Time (a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt) once told me, “Thank god for the two-minute art form. That’s as long as I can hold it together.” If Liza missed out on the fame that has followed Bukowski past the grave, it was only because there was no two-minute art form that could encompass her life, and like Wright, she couldn’t hold it together much longer than that.
Liza and Bukowski arrived late. I’d never met Bukowski before but apart from being somewhat sullen, he was as normal as the next guy, which surprised me.
“Would you like a coffee,” I asked once they were inside.
“Nuuh,” Bukowski said. “I’ll have a beer.” He pulled one from one of the two paper sacks he carried. He offered me one, and I took it. Even though it was not quite noon, I had a feeling I’d need it.
“We stopped on the way up,” Liza explained. “Hank was thirsty.”
Bukowski wore khaki slacks that he might have slept in, a short-sleeve dress shirt open at the collar, and maybe sandals. I recall he had something odd on his feet. Maybe his socks didn’t match, or he wasn’t wearing any. His pale pock-marked face seemed drawn and tired, or maybe just hungover. He hadn’t shaved or he was growing a beard.
I introduced Heidi to Bukowski. He squinted, glaring at Heidi’s braids, her peasant blouse, and tight jeans.
“Of course,” he growled and took a slug from his beer.
Heidi cooked and served breakfast, but she never stopped talking. Bukowski hardly got a word in. I wished for Heidi to be quiet so Bukowski could be sullen in peace, but it didn’t come true. Liza wanted everyone to get along. She could see her country picnic about to explode as Bukowski took in Heidi’s chatter.
After an hour or so of listening to Heidi expound on culture and literature as she saw it, Bukowski could stand no more.
“You’re a chatterbox,” he croaked. “You’re an idiot. Can’t you shut up for a minute? You have no right to criticize writing. Have you ever read anything? Can you read? I bet you that you have never even heard of my favorite author.”
“I don’t care about your favorite author,” Heidi replied. “I have my own favorite author. I bet you’ve never heard of him, and you’re supposed to be the hot-shot writer.”
“OK,” Bukowski growled, “Who’s your favorite author?”
I knew Heidi’s favorite author. She had several of his books, which had been handed down in her family. He was an obscure Norwegian writer who had won the Nobel Prize for literature some fifty years earlier.
“Knut Hamsen,” she said.
The silence lasted a little too long. While anger seemed to have stirred Bukowski from his sullenness, hearing Heidi’s favorite author plunged him into despair.
“Knut Hamsen is my favorite author, too,” he mumbled.
In our own way, each of us had flirted with our dark sides.
Heidi, who popped acid like others pop antacids, always wanted children. I heard that she moved to some desert, Arizona or New Mexico, and had her child. She was right when she accused me one time of “not wanting to be the father of my own child.”
Bukowski, of course, is dead, although he lived longer than many who knew him expected.
I don’t know what happened to Liza Williams. The last time I saw her was in 1978 when she visited me in Vancouver. She had stopped taking the medications that somewhat controlled her monstrous mood swings and had become convinced that she was being pursued by persons unknown.
“I’ve gotten rid of everything,” she said. “I threw away my driver’s license, all my credit cards and my glasses. Nobody knows who I am now.”
I glanced at the LIZA California vanity license plate on her car but couldn’t bring myself to mention it to her. She might throw the car away, too.
She stayed at the co-op house where I lived, but soon my housemates complained.
“Your friend left burnt chicken bones on my doorstep,” housemate Felicity said one evening. “What the fuck is that about?”
“Felicity is cursed,” Liza explained. “The chicken bones will protect her.”
Liza believed that most of my housemates were cursed one way or another, but soon they were all cursing Liza. Within several days, they began cursing me. I asked Liza to leave and never saw or heard from her again.
Bukowski? He never said another word after learning that he shared a favorite author with Heidi. Not good-bye. Nothing. He looked as if he’d seen a ghost and couldn’t wait to get back to town for a real drink.
Me? After Heidi moved out, I got the complete works of Knut Hamsen, sat peacefully in my rural yard, and read of times long ago when itinerant carpenters roamed the Norwegian countryside building dovetailed homes and barns that stand to this day.