Sunday, August 11, 2013

Charles Bukowski's Grave

I was in Los Angeles in June (2013), so of course, I ignored all the Stars Tours, the LaBrea Tar Pits, and the Whiskey-a-Go-Go, preferring to visit Charles Bukowski. Well, his grave, that is. I can’t say I’m a big fan of his writing, I’m more a fan of his style - which was in the stream-of-consciousness vein, a la Hunter Thompson. I like to do that myself. Bukowski often said “Don’t try,” and some would think he meant just let the words flow, don’t try to make sense of them. His wife, Linda, says it means don’t just try, but rather, DO.
“Dirty journalism” is the phrase some people use to describe Bukowski’s writing. Some of it borders on pornography (let’s just say you wouldn’t want to be reading his novel Women on an airplane and have your neighbor glance down at the words). Calling it misogynistic and crude is to put his prose mildly. According to, Bukowski’s writing is “marked by an emphasis on the ordinary lives of poor Americans, the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women and the drudgery of work.

His poetry, however, is quite beautiful. Here are the opening lines from bang bang, a poem from his book Mockingbird Wish Me Luck:

"Absolutely seasamoid
said the skeleton
shoving his chalky foot
upon my desk;
and that was it
bang bang
he looked at me,
and it was my bone body
and I was what remained …"

So what did I expect to find at his grave site? Whatever it was that I was going to find, I suppose. Perhaps liquor bottles and cigarette butts, as I’d read in a few places (Bukowski was a heavy smoker and an alcoholic). In looking it up on the web ahead of time, I saw one reference to “Charles Bukowski’s mausoleum,” in Green Hills Memorial Park, but that turned out to be misinformation. He is buried in Green Hills, however, but not in a mausoleum. The memorial park (one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen) is in Palos Los Verdes, a suburb of Los Angeles to the south. (Bukowski lived nearby during the last few years of his life, with most of his life spent in L.A.) Being a memorial park, I really didn’t expect to see much of anything, except for acres of flush-to-the-ground grave markers. Such places seldom have statues and are not of the Victorian era, so they’ve never held much interest for me. Green Hills, though, was a bit different.

Green Hills Memorial Park, Palos Los Verdes, California
Driving through the expensive-looking driveway past the flower store to the guard’s booth, it was obvious that this place caters to the well-to-do (which I don’t believe “Hank” was, so I’m not sure why he’s here). Perfectly manicured lawns and rolling hills with gazebos, statues, and other memorials set Green Hills apart from any memorial park I’d ever seen. It was truly serene and respectful, with all the ambiance of a traditional cemetery. The memorial park, a relatively modern development in cemetery design (the first being California’s Forest Lawn in 1912), is usually a flat field that allows the grass to be cut with great ease – totally blasé. The sheer quantity of giant shade trees in Green Hills would seem to impose the traditional challenges in cemetery lawn care.

Lucky clover growing on pine cone near Bukowski's grave
Bukowski’s granite grave marker is just like the thousands of others at Green Hills: rectangular, flat, and flush-to-the-ground. So how did I find it? You can get some general directions off the Internet (“Oceanview” section), but not for the specific location of his grave. I asked the guard at the entrance booth. Actually there were two gentlemen, both of whom were very helpful. Still, I had difficulty finding it amongst a hundred or so graves in “Oceanview.” The name, by the way, is kind of a misnomer - although his grave on the hillside does indeed face the Pacific Ocean, there is a mountain range in the way. The ocean is a couple miles from here. You can’t actually see it.

"Don't Try,"  ... do!
Wandering around the section photographing the grave markers here and there, I was struck by the individuality in the designs. I’ve never seen that anywhere else. Most of the plates were metal, and were embossed with waterfalls, trees, and other bucolic scenes. Some even had short epitaphs. Finally, a grounds keeper came up the road in a little cart and I flagged him down. He knew Bukowski’s marker was around here somewhere, and we walked around a bit without finding it. Then, another worker came up the road in a pickup truck. The first groundskeeper flagged him down and asked if he know where Bukowsi’s marker was. The fellow in the pickup replied, “The writer?

Which reminds me of a blonde joke. But this really happened:

I was at work about ten years ago when two saleswomen came in to the department. One of my coworkers sat at a workbench just outside my office. I heard people talking so I went out to see who they were. One woman was blonde, the other brunette. The brunette pointed to my coworker and said to the blonde, “Doesn’t he remind you of Ernest Hemingway?” The blonde said, “The writer?” There’s a reason stereotypes exist.

Green Hills worker helping me find Bukowski's grave
Anyway, the first groundskeeper kept up the search ("Don't Try" - do!) and eventually found Bukowski’s grave marker for me. “Hank’s’” grave was devoid of whiskey bottles and beer cans, so I assume such litter is not a regular occurrence, otherwise the groundskeepers would’ve known exactly where the grave was. I did pick up a pine cone, however, from beneath a nearby tree. (The name “Hank” on the grave marker is short for Henry Charles "Hank" Chinaski, Bukowski’s literary alter ego, a character who appeared many time in Bukowski’s books). The 1987 movie, Barfly, was actually based on Chinaski's fictitious life and times.

In 1986, Time magazine called Bukowski the "laureate of American lowlife." After visiting his grave, I celebrated this by stopping for beer and ribs under a tent in a nearby Pep Boys parking lot. As I was eating dinner out of a Styrofoam container in my rental car I started thinking bizarre thoughts. You cannot help but think them when you’re contemplating Bukowski – dive bars in L.A., alcoholism, mortality and death - all in the warm California sun.

Moyamensing Prison, Philadelphia (ref)
Here’s what I thought of: writing about the connections I have to famous people, no matter how many times removed. Charles Bukowski spent seventeen days in Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison in 1944 on suspicion of draft evasion. My connection? I live on Moyamensing Avenue, a few blocks from where the prison once stood here in South Philadelphia (it was torn down in 1968). There’s an ACME supermarket there now, and I shop in it. Another, somewhat more famous writer, Edgar Allen Poe, also spent some time here (the prison, not the ACME) for public drunkenness in 1849.

Reference and Further Reading:
Charles Bukowski bio on
Moyamensing Prison on Popturf 
IMDb bio on Bukowski
"Don't Try"
Green Hills Memorial Park website
Barfly, the 1987 movie based on Bukowski's literary alter ego, Henry Chinaski