Poet's Corner: Charles Bukowski in New Orleans

Charles Bukowski's imprint outside the R Bar on Kerelec Street, the midpoint oasis in our Marigny Happy Hour walking tour. Note the soggy joint above.

Charles Bukowski's imprint outside the R Bar on Kerelec Street, the midpoint oasis in our Marigny Happy Hour walking tour. Note the soggy joint above.

Of all the Bohemians and barflies to leave their mark on New Orleans literary landscape surely the most indelible belongs to the poet who scratched “Hank was here — 1955”  in wet concrete outside a corner bar in Marigny.

Some of Bukowski's earliest poetry collections were published here by the avant-garde Loujon Press.

Some of Bukowski's earliest poetry collections were published here by the avant-garde Loujon Press.

“Hank” is short for “Henry,” as in Charles Henry Bukowski (1920-1994), America’s laureate of lowlife. It was a name he went by in person and one he also used in print, as in “Hank” Chinaski, the alcoholic anti-hero of Bukowski’s novels and prose works like Notes of a Dirty Old Man. 

So what was Hank doing in New Orleans in the mid-1950s? Oh, the usual if you believe everything Bukowski wrote about himself— getting drunk, getting into fights, getting laid. The rundown port city of that era was ideal for all three pursuits. But it was here too that Bukowski found a publisher for some of the earliest collections of his poetry, such as It catches my heart in its hands (1963) lavishly printed in an edition of 777 copies by Loujon Press.

Bukowski’s first visit to New Orleans was in 1942. Possibly on the lam from the World War II draft (he would later be classed 4-F, “psychologically unfit”), the young drifter lived in squalid rooming houses, worked for 40 cents an hour as an errand boy for the old New Orleans Item newspaper, and subsisted on “five cent candy bars.” 

Fifty years later, and two years before his death from leukemia at age 74, Bukowski remembered that time in one of his most celebrated poems, “Young in New Orleans.”

starving there, sitting around the bars,
and at night walking the streets for
hours,
the moonlight always seemed fake
to me, maybe it was,
and in the French Quarter I watched
the horses and buggies going by,
everybody sitting high in the open
carriages, the black driver, and in
back the man and the woman,
usually young and always white.
and I was always white.
and hardly charmed by the
world.
New Orleans was a place to
hide.
I could piss away my life,
unmolested.
except for the rats.
the rats in my dark small room
very much resented sharing it
with me.
they were large and fearless
and stared at me with eyes
that spoke
an unblinking
death.

women were beyond me.
they saw something
depraved.
there was one waitress
a little older than
I, she rather smiled,
lingered when she
brought my
coffee.

that was plenty for
me, that was
enough.

there was something about
that city, though
it didn't let me feel guilty
that I had no feeling for the
things so many others
needed.
it let me alone.

sitting up in my bed
the llights out,
hearing the outside
sounds,
lifting my cheap
bottle of wine,
letting the warmth of
the grape
enter
me
as I heard the rats
moving about the
room,
I preferred them
to
humans.



being lost,
being crazy maybe
is not so bad
if you can be
that way
undisturbed.

New Orleans gave me
that.
nobody ever called
my name.

no telephone,
no car,
no job,
no
anything.

me and the
rats
and my youth,
one time,
that time
I knew
even through the
nothingness,
it was a
celebration
of something not to
do
but only
know

But why quote, when you can listen to the poet in his own whiskey-roughened voice? Or, next time you’re in town, seek out Bukowski’s French Quarter haunts on Ask Arthur’s “Bards and Barflies of Bohemia” literary history tour.

Where’s the best gumbo in New Orleans? Ask Arthur!

The most asked food and restaurant question I hear from guests is "Where can I get good gumbo?" Besides your momma's kitchen, I always say, really good gumbo is surprisingly hard to find around New Orleans. As a general guide to your search, it is wise to avoid any establishment with the words Gumbo, Creole, or Cajun in the name -- except for this place, Today's Cajun Seafood, in the can't-miss turquoise shack on St. Claude Avenue on the fringe of both the French Quarter and Marigny. 

The gumbo at Today's Cajun Seafood is a rich medley of crab, shrimp, chicken and sausage. They don't skimp on any of these protein elements and you are sure to get nice chunk of one or the other with every spoonful. The liquids are exceptional too, perfectly seasoned  with a soupy texture and mottled-camo color. This indicates a light roux as the base which, in my book anyway, is a lot closer to homemade than the thick, dark brown, flour-saturated mixture that passes for gumbo elsewhere.  

The "dining room" here is dim and depressing, so you'll probably want your gumbo to go. It comes in pints (a decent meal) or quarts (enough for two, or save half for later). With a side of their delicious corn bread and a drink, your tab will come to about $11 or $12.

If you need more encouragement to try Today's Cajun Seafood, check out the parking area out front. Packed, as always, a sign of good gumbo inside.