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Charles Bukowski was 49 years old when he quit his job at the post office to become a full-time writer. John Martin of Black Sparrow Press offered him $100 per month to spend his time writing instead of working.
This was in 1969, and I believe that some perspective is in order to understand this. By today’s standards, $100 is such an inconsequential amount that it would attract only the most desperate.
By comparison, I recall having a life plan of sorts during the spring of 1985, after my second year of college. I had found a really nice apartment near the college campus for only $35 per week! It was an incredible deal for me, a man who had yet to pay his own rent in life.
By comparison, I found that I was making a few hundred bucks, at least, every single time my college band played a gig. One gig per month, and I’d be set. Two gigs per month, and I could plan for retirement, upgrade gear, etc.
Of course, all of this came horribly crashing down when summer came, and the various people in the band just went back to where they came from, without so much as a word. The hard truth was that I looked at the band as a serious entity for a future, while others viewed it as just something fun they did for a while.
This lesson taught me the terrifying truth that comes with the concept of “the group project.” Relying on others is essential to human survival, and it’s the kind of thing that has never ended up well for me.
With my local music dreams dashed, I tried to save it. However, the band I had joined (The Switch) was planning on breaking up. I joined the band in time to play guitar on their last show. It would also be my final music performance in Indiana.
They gave me a Dean guitar as a parting gift. Around that time, my mother offered me a place in California, so I packed up and took that on.
As lamentable as life on earth has become, I can still remember plotting out my first-ever budget in my head. Playing two shows per month with my band would mean that I would have a roof over my head, I’d be able to eat properly, and might even be able to afford a car! At the very least, I’d be able to afford more of my own music gear, so that I’d not have to pay $35 every time I rented the PA system from a bigger local act.
Forget about the 33 years that I spent in Los Angeles, working to build a music career. That one year in college was the most hopeful that I ever felt about a possible future earning a living as a musician.
The problem wasn’t that responsibility kicked in. The problem was that life became too expensive, and the work available no longer pays a dignified adult living wage.
I have work ethic. The powers-that-be have no human ethics.
MY START IN WRITING
I started writing when I was in early grade school, around 1973, and would use my mother’s IBM Selectric Presidential Series typewriter. She would received tapes in the mail from a law firm and would transcribe. I would be paid 25 cents to review up to 4 pages, and receive a nickel for every additional page.
I used this until she sold it to buy a car, after taking a job in the office and seeing how the office was changing.
She told me about how word processors and computers were going to become ubiquitous in the office. What this meant was that secretaries would be able to get their typing done in one third of the time.
There was also talk of the 30-hour work week, or even 25!
But this did not happen.
What DID happen was that the workload was at least tripled, and the pay was kept the same, if not lowered slightly.
The Modern Age was supposed to free us. Instead, it served to galvanize our slavery.
RETURN TO NOW
Return to now, where I am once again writing. True, I am writing about writing, and while this activity is somewhat meta, it does lead to other types of writing.
Currently, I do not write for money, although I am open to that idea. For now, I write because I feel that I have some things to say.
I did see a writer on YouTube who was giving advice to young or new writers. She noted that, “You may view your latest works as your baby. But trust me, nobody cares. Not even your friends. Don’t expect them to read what you write, let alone be supportive of it all. Your friends don’t care. Your family doesn’t care. Nobody cares.”
I thanked her for her hopeful message, as well as for reminding me that I should not care about her links where she sells her books.
That’s to say, I disagree with her message. Sure, I can see how people around me might not be so eager. I do have a few friends who actually read what I write and we talk about it, so I have that going for me, which is nice.
Like a busking musician on the street corner, the best I can do is to set my hat on the sidewalk and see if anyone drops a buck in it. Maybe I will connect with some readers, while others will have different expectations. This happens no matter how great or small a writer may be.
Charles Bukowski had some hard life experiences. Today, many of us can relate to what he was saying, although many in the 80s were so focused on greed that they may not have had time to hear what a “loser” would have to whine about.
Unfortunately, this attitude of poorly-placed judgment is by far more prevalent in today’s society. They’d tell him that he should have planned, or should have gone to college, or whatever other garbage argument is to be presented in an effort to protect the ego of the person passing the judgment.
To be fair, they pass this judgment out of fear. They fear that they, too, will end up at the bottom, in the gutter, or on the streets. Indeed, it is their future, since they are not the company owner.
They will work hard, not get compensated, and be tossed to the streets. It is easier, and requires less fear and energy to blame the “bum,” than it is to wake up, realize your OWN predicament, and then do something about it.
Americans continued to point at the “bums” and “losers,” as their own situations deteriorated right from underneath their own wore shoes.
As a writer and reader, I believe it is important to acknowledge and understand this human flaw as you read the words that came directly from Bukowski’s own head.
Charles Bukowski wrote a letter to John Martin to thank him for his freedom.
Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s OVERTIME and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.
You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”
And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.
As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?
Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”
They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.
Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:
“I put in 35 years…”
“It ain’t right…”
“I don’t know what to do…”
They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?
I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.
I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”
One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.
So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.
To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.
This is the best that anyone can hope to have.