A continuing tale of life in the boonies
Poets who matter: 8. Charles Bukowski
FARMINGTON – The super-sensitive world of culture hath no fury like a poet scorned, and I regret to inform you that scorned a poet hath been. A Farmington poet at that!
Eugene P. Elander, published poet and dog officer, has been repeatedly, disgracefully and inexplicably scorned. For the last six months he has been trying without success to obtain an application form for what one now fears is the mythical position of Rochester’s poet laureate, but neither former Mayor Walter Hoerman nor former City Manager Russ McAllister ever forwarded one to him. (See letters to the editor.)
In fitting revenge, Elander has penned an Ode to the Lilac City (or an Odious, as he suggests) in the style of the Scottish poet William McGonagall and perhaps a verse from it could be spray-painted on the Welcome to Rochester sign flanking the Spaulding Turnpike.
In the meantime, let us explore the work of another poet who matters (though not all that much) - Charles Bukowski. His hard-edged verses about drunks, squalor, race tracks, violence and Mozart became irritatingly formulaic long before they spawned the movie Barfly, but in the early 1970s, while I was a police officer in Blackhill, a tough area of Glasgow, Bukowski’s words still resonated.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN NOLAN
Hear ye! Hear ye, in Rochester City Hall! Eugene P. Elander of Farmington has still not received his poet laureate application form!
His world was a seamy, run down section of Los Angeles, and the characters that clung to life in his poetry would not have been out of place in Acrehill or Craigendmuir streets and vice versa.
Yo-Ho had a regular name at one time but most folk had forgotten it and called him by the cry he repeated at intervals as he limped along the streets of Blackhill – Yo-Ho!
He had been a coalman in his younger days, plying the Bridgton area with a horse-drawn wagon, yelling "Coal, briquettes," at the rows of Victorian tenements and carrying heavy sacks of coal on his back up three or four flights of stairs when hailed by a customer.
It was punishing, unrewarding work which exacted a physical toll on the man, and the beer he had to drink to dispel the coal dust from his mouth gradually became his master.
"Ah’ve been knocked doon by six cars and a horse, constable," Yo-Ho would shout defiantly, hirpling down the center of the road from the Provanmill Inn on the day he got his unemployment check, as if he were daring a seventh car or a second horse to try its luck.
I can’t recall Yo-Ho ever being arrested. He was usually amiable, and if he did get mad and smash the crockery in one of the three houses where he lodged in rotation, he would move with dignity and police accompaniment to the next stop in the triangle – be it the apartment of his ancient mother, his long-suffering wife or his female drinking companion.
"Yo-Ho," he’d yell, as he lugged all he owned in a battered suitcase. "How many books in the Bible, son? How many parts in a bren gun? Yo-Ho."
Whenever he relocated, which was every few weeks, he would conduct a war of words against the place from whence he had been ejected, while embarking upon a charm offensive with his future port of call.
* * *
she started smashing
all my bottles
my whiskey bottle and my
yelling and screaming,
then she ran
out of the door.
3 police arrived 5 minutes
one holding a shotgun,
and they asked
one of them being:
what do you
(from an interesting night
- Charles Bukowski)
* * *
Another kenspeckle figure in the streets of Blackhill was Wee Paddy the Bleach Man, a self-employed dwarf who pushed a hand-cart loaded with bottles of his home-made disinfectant throughout the housing project. He enjoyed a loyal customer base for his product was very effective in neutralizing the stench of dog feces in building passageways, which had to be washed down on a weekly basis by the city’s tenants.
Paddy allowed people to pay him when they had the money, and was constantly pausing with his barrow to make adjustments in his tick book with a pencil that lived behind his ear.
He was also welcomed as a source of gossip throughout Blackhill, rather like the chapmen and tinkers who carried news around the countryside in earlier times. It was important for some people to know, for example, who had been lucky at the Dennistoun bingo the night before, so that a timely call could be made to collect debts.
Cheery by day, and often the life of a party at night, Paddy had his sorrows too. Occasionally in the early hours of the morning, after the Provanmill Inn had closed, he would sit at the side of Craigendmuir Street, his short legs not quite reaching the ground, and publicly sob, in a way both heartfelt and theatrical, about matters of love.
His life came to an abrupt and tragic end, one day, when a truck backed up and crushed him against a wall outside his bleach store. He was apparently beneath the driver’s line of vision.
The people of Blackhill genuinely mourned his death and some folks, like his friend Jeannie Duffy, who appreciated him as a Glasgow character, shed tears.
"Poor, wee Paddy," she keened.
* * *
I’m on fire putting a stamp on an envelope
I’m on fire wrapping garbage into a newspaper
I’m on fire with heroes and dwarfs and poverty and hope
I’m on fire with love and anger
( from the big fire
- Charles Bukowski)
* * *
Pixie Dixie, in contrast to Paddy, was liked by no one except his mother, whom he had driven bald with worry, and whose affection he did not reciprocate.
An idiot savant whose narrow field of accomplishment was an ability to locate small amounts of scrap metal in a way that a wild boar might sense the presence of truffles, he was a frequent source of complaint from building sites and road works.
Pixie Dixie was so named because his habitual attire, summer and winter, was a black duffle coat that had become so impregnated with dirt and grease that its hood, which wrapped around his head, had stiffened into a curious elfin peak.
When not rooting, pig-like, for scraps of lead and iron to cash in at metal dealers, Pixie Dixie was preoccupied with monitoring policemen as they plodded around Blackhill.
As an officer of the law walked along a street, he would soon become aware of a stooped, duffle-coated figure about 100 feet away, darting parallel to him through back courts. And every now and then, the grimy, beady-eyed face of Pixie Dixie would peer furtively round the corner of a building.
A police officer unfamiliar with the area - someone filling in during a vacation, for instance - might become infuriated and radio Blackhill substation for help in capturing the shadow, which would screech taunts from a distance when it thought it had been spotted.
The reply from the substation to the beat constable would always be a plea to ignore Pixie, for if arrested, his presence in the cell would linger long after his actual transfer to the main station.
Several years after I had transferred from Blackhill, I encountered Pixie Dixie. Though he still looked furtive, he had been sandblasted clean, and said he was living in an institution.
"How’s your mother?" I asked, recalling the careworn old soul.
"She’s deid, and ah don’t gie a fuck," yelled Pixie Dixie, dancing backwards as heads turned.
"She’s earned the rest," I thought to myself.
* * *
(I don’t believe Bukowski was well acquainted with anyone like Pixie, who was disturbed enough not to need booze.)
* * *
While it was usually possible to avoid arresting Pixie Dixie, the same did not hold for another well-known Blackhill resident, Elizabeth Jones.
Betty had been pretty, once, but had reached the age where her physique was unable to bounce back from bouts of drinking. While her addicted body screamed for alcohol, she screamed at her mother for the means to buy it, and would resort to violence if the household purse was empty.
It was a short distance from her house to the station, but it would take several officers to convey her up to the holding cell, for her struggles were as spirited as her invective was entertaining to spectators leaning out of their windows. Her usual inference was that officers were abducting her for sexual purposes, and the amused neighborhood would stoke Betty’s delusion with wry, unhelpful comments.
Once booked at the substation desk, the writhing lady would be pushed into the adjoining cell. Then there would be a desperate rush by the sergeant to tape newspaper pages, known in the police office as "curtains," over the observation window, for her next move was always to remove every stitch of clothing and gyrate.
She was known to us as Betty Boo and I think most police officers, although they never said so openly, admired her mettle. They felt sorry for her too, and so did her mom, who always took her back.
* * *
style is the answer to everything –
a fresh way to approach a dull or a
to do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing
- Charles Bukowski)
Jan. 18, 2004
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