By Richard Modiano
One Saturday afternoon in the autumn of 1967 I was visiting the Dialog Bookshop on Fulton Avenue in Van Nuys California. The bookshop was across the street from the campus of Valley Junior College (now called San Fernando Valley Community College,) and students browsed the shelves afternoon and evening (it stayed open until 9:00 on Friday and Saturday.) I was a 16 year old high school student, and the Dialog was the store to visit for underground newspapers, obscure literary magazines as well as political and pacifist periodicals.
The store had a bulletin board where notices of local anti-war rallies, informal study groups, rock concerts, be-ins and love-ins and poetry readings were posted. I saw a flyer for a Sunday afternoon reading in Echo Park with a list of poets scheduled to read, among them Charles Bukowski. I followed his column “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” that was published in Open City a Los Angeles- based underground weekly (later it appeared in the Los Angeles Free Press after Open City folded.) I also read some of his broadsides in situ since I couldn’t afford to buy them.
Two high school friends who also dug poetry knew about the reading, and one of them had a car so we drove to the Echo Park reading a week later. The reading was held a private residence and the host was the poet John Thomas. In fact, it was his house where the reading was held. I didn’t know who John Thomas was and I’d never seen Bukowski, and in the small living room Thomas seemed to take up most of the space. Meantime, sitting on the floor with his back to the wall was a man who was sipping Brew 102 from a can, a partially finished 6 pack between his legs ( Brew 102 was a local Los Angeles beer that sold for 75 cents a six pack.) To his right was a reel-to-reel Webcor tape recorder.
John Thomas read some fine work and was followed to another poet who’s name I don’t remember and then an exotic looking woman with red hair. Finally Thomas said, “Our next reader is Charles Bukowski.” The man sitting on the floor pressed the start button and we listened to 4 pre-recorded poems while Bukowski continued to sip his beer. Even then Bukowski didn’t like reading in public. I don’t remember what poems he read but I do remember liking them a lot and thinking that I too could write poetry if only I knew how.
After the reading I went up to Bukowski and kneeled next to him and asked, “Mr. Bukowski, what do you have to know to be a good poet?” He answered, “Kid, you have to know how to drive all the horses at once.”