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.
“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.” For him…
New Orleans was a place to
I could piss away my life,
except for the rats.
the rats in my dark small room
very much resented sharing it
But why quote, when you can listen to the poet in his own whiskey-roughened voice?