I wrote this story for Steve Souryal on the third anniversary of his reading series, the lowercase, at the Big Bear Coffee House in Washington’s Bloomington neighborhood.
How Steve Saved Civilization.
Or a Small Piece of it, Anyway.
By Sean Carman
In late December of 1993, a dying Charles Bukowski, the poet laureate of skid row, was using the last of his strength to finish the manuscript for his novel Pulp, the last work he would publish before his death in March of the following year.
Pulp is, according to Wikipedia, a “violent, cynical, sarcastic, and shocking work.” It is a convoluted and ultimately unsatisfying detective novel that redeems itself through a strain of heavy-handed symbolism about death and a running commentary on how convoluted, unsatisfying, and heavy-handed it is. It is a pulp novel that is also a commentary on pulp novels, a meta-pulp fiction, if you will.
Bukowski’s form of redemption was cleverly suited to the cheap genre to which his novel belonged. There was also the irony that, by redeeming a work of low-brow genre fiction by calling attention to its impoverished sensibility — an impoverished sensibility that was, by the way, essential to its identity — Bukowski lifted the work above that impoverishment, thereby creating a work of art through the denigration of that same work.
Whatever. We are less concerned here with a critique of Bukowski’s last work than with the unlikely events that rescued his manuscript from almost certain oblivion. For it was a drama in which our own Steve Souryal played a central role.
Years later Steve would live in Los Angeles, but in December of 1993 he was, at age 13, visiting the city on a family vacation to Disneyland.
Late one morning, just outside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Steve happened to meet Orlando Pescado and Razor Stalwart, pivotal figures in the early 1990’s L.A. punk longboarding scene.
Steve had taken his longboard with him to Disneyland, and was using it to navigate the park, and Pescado and Stalwart were doing the same. When the three of them saw that their E tickets dictated that they enter the Pirates of the Caribbean ride within 10 minutes of each other, they decided to hang out. After the ride (which was totally mesmerizing), Pescado and Stalwart joined the Souryal family for the rest of their tour of the park, eventually sharing corn dogs with them during the animatronic Abraham Lincoln recitation of the Gettysburg Address and watching the Electric Light Parade and the fireworks behind the Magic Castle at sunset.
Pescado and Stalwart’s ease and kindness impressed the Souryal family. At one point Steve’s father said to Steve, in an aside, that if L.A. could produce two young men like Pescado and Stalwart, then maybe the city was not so bad, even despite its murderous traffic. When Pescado and Stalwart asked Steve to join them the next day on a skateboarding tour of greater Los Angeles, Steve’s father gave permission, on the condition that the boys keep to the sidestreets and stay off the Santa Monica Freeway and the 101.
The next afternoon found them rolling through West Hollywood on De Longpre Avenue, a quiet side street that runs a short distance along West Sunset.
Just then, in a small bungalow further down the avenue, Charles Bukowski typed the final word of his final novel, pulled his last sheet of paper from the platen of his Smith-Corona, and slipped that page underneath his now-completed manuscript.
He had done it. He had finished his last novel, Pulp.
His arms trembled as he straightened the heavy sheaf of papers by banging it, edgewise, on his desk. As he slipped a heavy rubber band around his work, his wife, Linda Lee Beighle, a fallen actress and fellow alcoholic, screamed from the living room of their tiny bungalow for Bukowski to please shut up, she was trying to watch Acapulco H.E.A.T. Bukowski called her a graphic sexual name, and added that she had never known anything about art. Beighle, her rage overcoming her interest in her show, marched into Bukowski’s study, lifted his neatly stacked manuscript into the air, and said, “Art? You call this art? I’ve read your early drafts of this so-called art and I’ll tell you something, it’s garbage.”
“Not true!” Bukowski said, “I’ve added a meta-narrative that redeems the impoverishment of the narrative by calling attention —”
But it was too late. Beighle stormed to the living room and pitched the manuscript out the front door. It sailed into the air, tracing a magnificent arc over the postage-stamp lawn. It barely cleared the chain-link fence and landed beside the curb, just as Steve, Orlando Pescado, and Razor Stalwart were rolling by.
Let’s take a moment to imagine this soaring manuscript, this work of literary genius, flying out the front door of a tiny stucco bungalow in West Hollywood, its title page bent back by the wind. Thankfully, there was no car parked on the curb, otherwise the bundled papers would have smacked the passenger-side window, breaking the rubber-band and scattering them everywhere.
Instead the manuscript was only slightly damaged from its hard landing on the asphalt. It’s outer pages were scraped and torn and a little scuffed with dirt. Otherwise, it was fine.
Beighle slammed the door. Steve rolled up to the still bound but now lightly tattered manuscript, put his foot down to stop, and bent over to pick it up.
“Hey guys,” Steve said. “Check this out.”
“What is it?” Pescado asked, stepping off his board and sweeping it off the ground in one smooth motion.
“I don’t know,” Steve said, flipping through the pages. “I think it’s some kind of manuscript or something.”
“I think it came from that place over there,” Stalwart said, pointing to the little stucco bungalow set back from the street. “I saw it flying out the front door just now.”
“Hey guys, wait here,” Steve said. “I’m gonna go return this.”
Steve kicked his longboard up into his left hand, stepped onto the sidewalk, and leaned his board against the chain link fence that marked the boundary of the Bukowski property. He let himself through the gate by lifting its aluminum latch, and walked the narrow concrete path to the front door. There was a little piece of faded decopage by the door, a scene of a chalet under a blue sky dotted with puffy clouds. “Bukowski residence” it said.
Steve rang the bell.
It took almost a full minute for Bukowski to make it to the door. The tired, frail man who answered looked nothing like the literary hero readers imagine when they read Bukowski’s hard-edged poems or look at early photos of the man. Steve stood before the door, unaware that he faced a legend, seeing Bukowski only for what he also was — a retired postal worker with a body ravaged by old age and the late stages of leukemia.
“Mr. Bukowski?” Steve said, offering the manuscript. “I think you may have dropped this.”
Bukowski took the manuscript from the young skateboarder.
“Maybe you should have left it in the gutter,” he said. “Might be where it belongs.”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that, Mr. Bukowski,” Steve said.
“Well, thank you,” the poet said, closing the door softly behind him and padding back inside.
That evening, Steve, Pescado, and Stalwart finished their tour of L.A. They promised to keep in touch. They all had dial-up accounts and e-mail addresses on a new service called “America Online.” Their two days of friendship, and their skateboard tour of Los Angeles, cemented in Steve a lifelong passion for skateboarding.
The next morning, Bukowski made Beighle coffee, and rubbed her feet, and she agreed to go down to the post office and mail the manuscript to Black Sparrow, the press that published all of Bukowski’s works.
After she left, Bukowski said a silent prayer of thanks for the passing skateboarder who had returned his manuscript from the gutter, although in truth he knew he probably could have retrieved it himself, or at least talked Beighle into doing so.
It did not cross his mind — why would it have? — that at that moment Steve was on a flight back to Washington, thinking about the manuscript, and the broken man in the tiny bungalow, and trying to memorize the name “Bukowski.”
And how could Bukowski have known as well that, inspired by his chance meeting with an author whose works he would later see on bookstore shelves, Steve would take an interest in writing, eventually going so far as to volunteer for a student writing center and set up a coffee house reading series in its name?
Charles Bukowski died on March 9, 1994, less than one month after Pulp was published. The novel was received with great acclaim, and secured Bukowski’s reputation as a literary iconoclast.
The reading series is called the lowercase, and happens on the first Wednesday of every month at the Big Bear Coffee House, in Washington, D.C. The coffee house, which is located at 1st and R streets, northwest, in the trendy Bloomington neighborhood, has brick interior walls and big glass windows that look out on a small patio with planters that give it the feel of a community garden. All the coffee is organic and shade-grown. There is a small menu of pastas and salads.
The readings start a little after seven and are over by eight o’clock. No one stays very late, and by ten everyone has pretty much drifted out and headed home, calmed by the hour or so of peace they’ve found.
Wednesday is a week night, after all.