Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowski
Black Sparrow, 1982
But then it got too much for me. I hated them. I hated their beauty, their untroubled youth, and as I watched them dance through the magic colored pools of light, holding each other, feeling so good, little unscathed children, temporarily in luck, I hated them because they had something I had not yet had, and I said to myself, I said to myself again, someday I will be as happy as any of you, you will see.
Growing up isn’t easy. Not by a long shot. Certainly not for Henry Chinaski. He’s got a body covered in the worst case of acne and boils that local doctors have ever seen, a father who abuses him with obscene regularity, and he is forced to attend a school where a violent bully culture is accepted as the norm. His adolescence could be summed up as pure hell. He is the quintessential outsider.
But, while its subject matter is a shocking slap to the face, its honesty sure is wildly refreshing. Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical Ham on Rye is a no-holes barred reflection of the pain, crudeness, and rejection inherent in the awkward transition from adolescence to adulthood. The novel is not an easy experience. But what is easy is the style, the prose framing the coming of age angst ever so neatly. Bukowski doesn’t give a shit about showing off vocabulary or coming across as anything other than brutally honest. He refuses to waste time hiding behind showy, esoteric language in an attempt to try and distance himself from the reader. As a result, it draws you in. It is a style that Bukowski himself discovered an affinity for as he searched for routes that led to his own escape.
I walked around the library looking for books. I pulled them off the shelves, one by one. But they were all tricks. They were very dull. There were pages and pages of words that didn’t say anything. Or if they did say something they took too long to say it and by the time they said it you already were too tired to have it matter at all. I tried book after book. Surely, out of all those books, there was one.
Each day I walked down to the library at Adams and La Brea and there was my librarian, stern and infallible and silent. I kept pulling the books off the shelves. The first real book I found was by a fellow named Upton Sinclair. His sentences were simple and he spoke with anger. He wrote about the hog pens of Chicago. He came right out and said things plainly.
Let me mention that finding the time to write this essay has not been easy. For proof, I provide a few quick calculations. There are only 168 hours in a week. For me, a total of 55 of those are devoted to nothing but work and another 55 for sleep. That translates to 65% of my entire existence being reserved for work and sleep. Gasp. Squeezing in all that I hope to do (including jotting down these thoughts) in the remaining 35% that is left is not exactly easy.
I could see the road ahead of me. I was poor and I was going to stay poor. But I didn’t particularly want money. I didn’t know what I wanted. Yes, I did. I wanted someplace to hide out, someplace where one didn’t have to do anything. The thought of being something didn’t only appall me, it sickened me. The thought of being a lawyer or a councilman or an engineer, anything like that, seemed impossible to me. To get married, to have children, to get trapped in the family structure. To go someplace and work every day and to return. It was impossible. To do things, simple things, to be part of family picnics, Christmas, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Mother’s Day …
was a man born just to endure those things and then die? I would rather be a dishwasher, return alone to a tiny room and drink myself to sleep.
In a perfect world—The plane! The plane!—we’d all be toiling away the hours at dream jobs. (Although, I’m not sure Professional Sloth is listed in the company directory.) My fantasy, Mr. Roarke, has always been to be a full time novelist where I would not have to force inspiration to arrive on schedule during the 35% of my life that is left available to me. But, get this: the landlord says I have to pay the rent (on time, and each month). The phone, cable, gas, and electric companies make similar demands. Did I already pay this month’s car payment? In the end—dream job/dream life or not—there just has to be an answer for each and every one of us. Even Henry Chinaski. Drum roll please.
Feel the breath departing as you let it go. Live in the moment. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Poof! That’s it?
Well, surely it isn’t going to be easy, teaching an old dog new tricks. No doubt, it is easier to stay stuck, lost in the hours and cycle of drudgery. But if you remain focused on the roadmap instead of the road, you are not only ignoring the beauty that exists all around you, but you are also rejecting it, rejecting the moments that comprise the whole, like taking out the trash, for example. There might even be beauty there too, tucked inside the Hot Pocket wrappers, broken egg shells, and used Kleenex tissues. Look closer. Maybe you just can’t see it because you’re too focused on the snot. But as you walk out to the garbage bin, you just might notice that the weather has taken a turn today. It isn’t 10 below zero like yesterday and, oh yes, where did that sun come from?
Suddenly, a potentially mundane chore becomes yet another peaceful reflection of a now that you are once again a part of. It’s been forever since you’ve been in attendance. You are no longer running in place, neither here, nor there, nor anywhere. Suddenly, the segments of your life begin to take on that seemingly unattainable greater significance. Maybe you won’t even notice the difference. At first. But the moments pile up like the snowflakes in February. Before long, every last tree, branch, sidewalk, and surface that surrounds you is covered in a white coat of purity.
I felt I had to win. It seemed very important. I didn’t know why it was important and I kept thinking, why do I think this is so important?
And another part of me answered, just because it is.