In 1987 I was going into my fifth year at Arizona State University, and I was totally lost.
I was a jock, and I was working towards the 1988 Olympic trials, with my sights set on making the ’92 team. In other words, academia wasn’t first and foremost. In my Big Picture, it ranked fourth, I think, behind Jockdom, drinking beer, and girls.
Yea, my academics clocked in right at fourth place, and we both know that doesn’t even help ya win the trifecta at the races.
Pretty dumb, huh?
It’s the same old story, really. Get something for free, and that’s about what it’s worth when they hand it to you…even if it’s a college education. At least that’s how I treated it.
Like I said…pretty dumb.
No, really god damned stupid.
Anyways, I was starting to get worried. More than worried. I was shitting my pants, but I didn’t let anyone know it. I was into my fourth year of college — and my fourth year of an athletic scholarship — and I had declared something like three different majors…and I wasn’t even close to graduating.
I was stuck in the School of Liberal Arts, too, cause since Day One at A.S.U., I really didn’t give a fuck about my studies. My GPA was so bad I couldn’t even gain admission into the other schools on campus, so forget about trying to major in business, or education, or anything outside the Liberal Arts curriculum.
I walked into the Jock Counselor’s Office for my meeting with her concerning my grad date.
“It doesn’t look like you’re going to make it,” she said.
I knew there were 5th year scholarships available to athletes, and it was that 5th year money I was counting on to make my escape with a degree in hand. I thought the 5th year was a gimme. It was, too — if you were on the football team.
I wasn’t on the football team.
I forget what they called that extra year, but Ms. Jock Counselor told me, in no uncertain terms, it wasn’t a guarantee, and, in fact, it was highly doubtful I’d get that 5th year money. “About the only thing you can get a degree in now is History, and even that’s highly unlikely. Since you’re so far away, I don’t think you’ll get your 5th year.”
I told her I liked to read — which I did — and I had no interest in getting a BA in History. “I want a BA in English,” I told her. “And I will get that money.” It was a dickish thing to say, but I was pissed, and I was pissed cause I knew they kissed Football Ass, and none of the conversation would have gone down if I was blocking for the quarterback — instead of hurling a 16 pound ball through the air.
A.S.U. ended up giving me that 5th year, and I needed to earn 42 credit hours if I was going to walk the following August. And I wanted to get my degree in English because I liked to read.
I had no idea what I was in for.
Fall 1987: Chaucer and Shakespeare and Intro to English Lit and Romantic Poetry and The American Novel (1900 – 1945) at A.S.U., then I had to go to the local Community College and sit through 200 level Spanish classes, cause A.S.U. wouldn’t let me take more than 15 credit hours a semester.
Spring 1987 it was the same sort of madness.
Summer of 87 I took my final 9 hours and walked in August of that year…8-7-87, to be exact.
I don’t remember exactly when it was, but that year I went and saw “Barfly”, and when I walked out of the theater, my life would change.
Sounds corny, huh? And I’m not saying the movie changed my life…well, not directly. But I went that night from the theater to Changing Hands, which is a used bookstore in my neighborhood, and I grabbed a copy of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame, and that’s really what changed my life.
The store was closing, and I asked the clerk something like, “I just saw ‘Barfly’, and I want to know whose life that movie was based on,” and next thing I know I’m standing in front of the Bukowski section, and they were closing, so I grabbed the orange book really quick cause I thought at the time it was a really obnoxious color, and it had a whacky title, and there was something about those books that really made them stand out (nice work, Barbara Martin) and I’m glad I grabbed it cause — to this day — it’s my very favorite Buk book, cause it’s really three of his greatest books all wrapped up in one…well, at least his greatest poetry books.
How’s that for a run-on sentence?
But what do you expect from a jock with a 2.02 undergrad GPA?
Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame really constitutes It Catches My Heart in its Hands, Crucifix in a Deathhand, and At Terror Street and Agony Way. If you know Bukowski, well…it really doesn’t get much better than that. There’s some poems in Mockingbird Wish Me Luck that are superb, but, for the most part, the poems written from 1955 to 1968 (which are the bookends on the Buk time line that make up Burning in Water…) are the author’s finest, most powerfully creative moments in his life.
Certainly from a poetic standpoint.
My opinion, of course.
I read the book from cover-to-cover that night, and the next day, I read it all over again. And I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Poetry that made sense. Poetry that didn’t require a Professor to decipher for me after class.
I mean that literally, too, cause — don’t forget — I was in the middle of jamming 40+ credit hours of Pound and Eliot and Blake and Chaucer and Whitman and Hart Crane down my throat, and I really didn’t understand much of it at all. And here comes Bukowski, and suddenly poetry made sense to me.
I don’t mean Buk’s poetry, either. Well, sure I do, but it went beyond that. Buk made me want to understand all those poets I just mentioned and didn’t understand, so I went back and read all those dudes, again. I’m not saying I understand them any better than I did the first time. Well, I do (for the most part), but that’s the kind of effect Bukowski had on me.
It gets better, too.
I remember getting to the end of Burning in Water… when I stumbled upon the colophon page.
Printed May 1974 in Santa Barbara & Ann Arbor for The Black Sparrow Press by Noel Young & Edward Brothers, Inc. Design by Barbara Martin. This edition is published in paper wrappers; there are 300 hardcover copies numbered & signed by the author, & 50 numbered copies hand bound in boards by Earle Gray each with an original drawing by Charles Bukowski.
I read the colophon a few times over, and the next day I was in the Yellow Pages, looking for book dealers in Phoenix that might have a better idea of what exactly was going on.
Only one did, and his name was Tim Jelinek, and he owned a place called The Mesa Bookshop.
I went in there, and he didn’t have a copy of Burning in Water…, but he had something he called a “chapbook” by Bukowski: All The Assholes in the World and Mine.
All The Assholes in the World and Mine? Was this some sort of joke? What kind of poet would call a book that? And featuring a cover illustration by the poet of The Poet laid out on a table surrounded by doctors about ready to cut the hemorrhoids out?
God damn it, I liked Bukowski even more.
He wanted $75 bucks for it, but all I had was $25, so he made me a deal: give him the $25 I had, bring him $50 more by the end of the month, and it was mine; in the meantime, he’d put it on hold for me.
I examined the chapbook, and pretended I knew what I was looking at, and all the time I was thinking there’s no way this little book is worth $75 bucks — but Tim seemed legit, and the title was still making me grin, so I agreed to his terms, and that was my segue into The Madness that is Collecting Charles Bukowski.
When I came in with my $50 bucks later that month, he laid out a copy of Crucifix in a Deathhand on the table, and it took my breath away.
“How much is this?” I asked. I didn’t even care, cause I knew I was gonna buy it, eventually.
He said, “one fifty,” and I asked him for 48 hours. He laughed and said, “sure”, and I knew I’d have that money cause Saint Patty’s day was a day away, and I was bouncing at an Irish bar, and I knew they’d need me for 12 hours (at least), and sure enough, by the end of Saint Patty’s day I had $150 cash — and that book was mine.
Soon I was working at The Mesa Bookshop. I earned $7 an hour in book trade (Tim couldn’t afford to pay me in cash then), and he could afford me on Saturdays only, and I took it, and I can’t tell you — to this day — how happy I was to have $42 in book trade at the end of my 6 hours.
At first all I did was ring people up and shelve books and rearrange the sections that needed to be rearranged. One day Tim walked into the store with a box of books and laid them out — one by one — in front of me.
“Price that for me,” he said.
“Um, ok.” And I did.
“Wrong,” he say. Then he’d show me why.
My beginnings as a Bookman.
Not long after I was working full-time, and then the store moved from Southern to Main Street — into an old theater — and I got to be the “manager” of the store, and I coveted that title. I got to tell people, “I manage The Mesa Bookshop.”
And I got paid, too.
Before long I organized a poetry reading.
I published the first broadsides of my life for that reading.
I bought every collectible Bukowski book I could afford…and some I couldn’t.
I was traveling to book shows, too, and setting up The Mesa Bookshop’s booth, and it seemed then my world was full of discovery.
Tim acquired a small press, too. I think it came from New Mexico and Paul Stein’s home (the first major collection The Mesa Bookshop bought was from Paul Stein), but I don’t remember, exactly. It was a 3″ x 5″ Kelsey, and I know that cause he eventually gave it to me — and I print with it to this day. (In fact, I pulled the first Volta off that press. Most of the second one, too.)
In 1992 I left The Mesa Bookshop to be a stockbroker, and while I don’t regret that decision, I wouldn’t do it again.
A few years later I was living in San Francisco and going to grad school and writing a novel and some short stories and making chapbooks; and, while Jack Micheline was teaching me how to read poetry aloud in the back room of Scott Harrison’s book store on Mission Street, Allan Milkerit was continuing my education as a Bookman at a book co-op called “Tall Stories”; Allan and I sold our books out of there.
Now I’ve got about 8 tons of a shop in the back of a warehouse in Los Angeles which I call the synaesthesia press; I’ve printed and published more books by authors I never dreamed I’d have a chance to work with; and it’s all cause I read an orange book with a crazy title I pulled from the shelf of a used book store.
And Tim Jelinek, too.