New Jersey, U.S.A.
Blogging at Bukowski's Basement
(If this tribute sounds familiar it's because I stole most of it from Anthony's flash story 'A Gossip Nation' )
He said he had something for me.
Meeting one of the hacks for my American Weeks blog always made for interesting conversation. Especially with this one.
I was late and Anthony Venutolo was already eating at the diner counter. God forbid he waited. As I approached, it dawned on me that I never saw him in real life. A picture, maybe, but never a full-fledged guy. Now this was odd considering he didn't exist for me except in cyberspace.
I pinched his arm when I sat down. Just checking to see if he was real. "What's that for?" he yelped.
"Just because," I said. I glanced at his tie. For the record, the knot sucked. It looked like two broken knuckles wrapped in an ace bandage. I thought maybe he'd be better at tie-tying. He looked like the kind of guy who wore one every day. Wore it cleaning out the garage. In the shower. In bed with his wife.
"Huh?" he asked, his Jersey accent thick as the waitress' ankles. For a hack, his vocabulary was sadly lacking.
It was hard to hear over the clanking of the dishes and glasses that came from the kitchen.
"You look like a fucking Sopranos souvenir salesman," I said. I guess that's what happens when you're a Jersey boy who grew up in an Italian family and went to an all boys Catholic school.
Anthony tried to flag down a waitress. "You gonna ride my ass all night?" he asked. "Cause if you are, I'm leaving. I got plenty of stuff to do beside listening to your bullshit."
The waitress looked over, concern on her tired face. I pointed to Anthony's coffee.
"I'm just fuckin' with ya," I said by way of apology.
Anthony shrugged, still mildly irritated. "I thought you was a stand-up guy."
My face colored up like a Detroit ruby red. "I'm a woman, Anthony."
Shit. It was always weird when that happened. Ant looked as weird as I felt. So I changed the topic.
"Where's Bukowski? He late?"
Anthony looked at me like I was dog shit on Italian loafers.
"He's dead, you idiot."
He hated it when rookie reporters didn't do their research. He slid his laptop my way and told me to google. I found Buk fast, in between a raft of grainy black and whites showing a grizzled old lech with a gaggle of half-naked dames. I read out loud from Wiki: "Henry Charles Bukowski, born Heinrich Karl Bukowski (August 16, 1920 – March 9, 1994) was an American poet, novelist and short story writer."
I looked up from the laptop. "That's the guy you named your blog after? Bukowski's Basement? Couldn't ya have picked something easier to spell and pronounce? And why's he mean so much to you?"
He shook his head. It was now clear he was dealing with a moron.
"I first discovered Bukowski around 1987 when the Bukowski-penned film Barfly came out. That's when I first heard his name. Being a Mickey Rourke fan, I saw the film – I even reviewed it for my college paper. What struck me, though, was the tone of the movie. Something in it spoke to me. Little did I know that it was Bukowski himself. It was the semi-autobiography of the author during the time he spent drinking heavily in Los Angeles."
It was clear Anthony liked talking about this guy. He looked all misty-eyed, his coffee getting cold in the diner china cup.
"Buk's work was extremely influenced by the geography and atmosphere of the City of Angels and he emphasizes ordinary lives of poor Americans. His stories, novels and poems delve into the act of writing, alcohol, relationships with women and the drudgery of work. He was more than prolific and wrote thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories and six novels – eventually having roughly 60 books in print. By 1986, Time magazine was referring to Buk as a 'laureate of American lowlife.'
"But I've often found that people either love him or hate him. There's usually no in-between. When I started reading him, I instantly related to those characters and his world."
I opened Anthony's blog on the laptop to see what he was fussing about and noticed the skanky pair of drunks on the top of the page. I asked who they were.
""Why that's good 'ol Charles Bukowski and one of his thousands of conquests," he said.
I marveled at how skinny the woman's legs are. My gams weren't that thin when I was born.
"When I first stumbled over your blog I thought you were that guy, and the hairy guy at the microphone, and the whole thing fascinated and scared me," I said. "Then I saw the movie star glamourous photo of you and that kinds freaked me out, too. Put all that together with unbelievable writing and incredible style and I get blown away every time I visit. You must spend an incredible amount of time on your blog – what's the attraction?"
Anthony settled in and took off his jacket, revealing no yellowish armpit sweat stains on his wrinkled oxford. The guy had class.
"I'm an online editor at work so the medium comes very natural to me," he said. "I also happen to love the online world and have always had a computer since they were available in the early '80s. Commodore 64, anyone?"
He laughed and waved the waitress over for more coffee. "A few years back, I used to have an entertainment-related blog where I basically just regurgitated news that people already knew. It was fun, but I wanted to do something a bit more substantial. I started putting creative posts on the old blog but I knew it just wasn't the right place. Eventually Bukowski's Basement was spawned more out of necessity than anything else. While it hasn't been updated in over a year, the other blog is pretty defunct. I keep it around pretty much just for posterity."
I asked him why he did it.
"I like to think of blogs as new versions of 'little magazines' – those counter-culture presses that highlighted experimental material or stuff on the fringe. They were small, independent and very underground. Can you imagine if Kerouac was around today? He'd have a blog. No doubt."
And then I asked him what he had in mind for this whole writing thing. What he wants to be when he grows up.
He laughed and then drained his cup.
"I started out wanting to be a screenwriter. I think part of me still would easily gravitate towards that writing discipline. As a film buff, I know movies inside and out and I really should be doing more script writing. But it's all a game that you can easily get discouraged with and if you don't live in Tinseltown – good luck with getting anything sold. You really have to run in those circles. Publishing is here on the East Coast and entertainment is all California.
"Back in the early '90s, when I was dumb and young, I managed to get an offer on a script from a video production outfit during the VHS boom. They offered a decent chunk of change to me – this idiot 23-year-old – but I was holding out for more. I dunno. I guess I read the trades too much ... I thought I was Joe Ezterhas.
"I think when all is said and done, I'd love to have a chapbook or two of poems published. I'd love to hunker down and write a novel and some day, in my fantasy world, a script that can actually sell."
He smiled ruefully and then brightened. "I'm also working at getting a comic book off the ground. It's called Lucky Town and it centers on a tattoo artist in Atlantic City who suffers from panic disorder. It's dark and pulpy. Good stuff."
There was something I really needed to know
"Your photos, who took 'em? Annie Leibowitz your second cousin or something?"
"They took them at my newspaper. They were shots for a column I was going to write called 'A.C. Guy' (Atlantic City Guy). It was supposed to be a gambling, casino and lifestyle column. They were prototype shots for an offshoot publication that sadly never came to fruition. But it would've been a fun gig.
"I've worked my whole life in newspapers. I went to school for it (well, that and TV production) and instantly got a job once I realized that my masters in corporate communication was a bullshit waste of time and money. I spent five or six years in the trenches at a few weeklies and then got hired full time at The Newark Star-Ledger, the official newspaper of Tony Soprano. No foolin' ... The newspaper was actually in many episodes and then even thanked us in the credits."
I'm a big fan of Tony. Sexy as hell, that guy. Thinking about him made me all melty inside so I changed the subject again and asked him why he loved the whole Americana trip so much.
"Your love for diners like this one, for example, and in these poems you wrote, showcase the darker seedier side of American life. What's up with that?"
Anthony shrugged. "I don't do it consciously. I like to think that, with my stories and poems, I go where the good stories and characters are. And where else but bars, flophouses, diners or pretty much anywhere on the wrong side of the tracks. It's all about conflict.
"I think that I do have a nostalgic sensibility that can't help but lean towards Americana. Part of the reason is that my parents were older and, growing up there was always a radio on. This was back in the '70s when, ifyou can imagine, the big band and the Great American Songbook could still be found on AM radio. By day I heard the likes of Benny Goodman, Sinatra, Glen Miller et. al. By night, the station would play their radio dramas and I think that's when my ear for dialogue may have developed.
"Also, my father was stationed in Japan during World War II and there were plenty of pictures, trinkets and stories that he shared. He would talk about what it was like growing up during the Great Depression and, as I matured, I would always go back to those stories about '30s-era poverty, long before America was a superpower. They made for powerful images. If that doesn't make subconscious fodder for creative writing somewhere down the line, I don't know what would."
He was a big thinker, this Venutolo guy. I needed more coffee. And maybe some pie. Anthony felt the same way. He waved her over and we ordered apple. It was America, after all, was there any other kind?
He had made some off-the-cuff remark about getting married in Vegas. I figured if anyone on earth was destined to get hitched there, it was him. I asked him for the juicy details.
"Like thousands of other betrothed couples, me and the future missus [Allie - they also have an 'adorable' two-year-old son] figured it would be cool to get hitched on July 7, 2007 – the so-called luckiest day of the century. No hassles with wedding planning. No big production. No muss, no fuss. Just eight of our best friends and relatives to help us celebrate. Sounds easy, right?"
I rolled my eyes. I knew where this was heading. I'm planning my own nuptials and I know nothing's easy about weddings.
"Think again. From the moment we arrived in town, it was clear that we weren't the only couple to fancy triple sevens as an anniversary moniker. And if you were in town on July 7, chances are it certainly wasn't on a whim. Like the thousands of others, we were in Vegas for only one reason – to sanctify our new marriage with Lady Luck.
"After enduring the Vegas heat wave of 125 degrees and bumper-to-bumper limo traffic on the strip, wehad to wait outside in the heat – with all the other couples. Me in a suit, she in her gorgeous dress. We chalked it up to experience.
"Before the ceremony began, an AP photographer told us he'd be snapping some shots. I figured he'd be capturing all sorts of couples and thought nothing more of it. Until the next morning. Imagine our shock when we landed in every daily paper and news site from Macao to Maryland. I felt like a New Year's baby."
Because we both got weddings on the brain, I asked him why he wrote the poems on this page.
"Honeymoon on the Atomic practically wrote itself. I've been to Vegas more times than I could count and have covered the gambling industry for years in gaming magazines so the environment came easy. Plus, I'd just got hitched in Sin City and it truly was a grand affair. Great hotel. Great meals. The works. That said, I wanted to tell the story of two kids who maybe weren't as lucky, ran away from home and had Elvis sing to them. I wanted to paint a picture of sheer happiness through their eyes juxtaposed against the barflies in what is probably an otherwise sad dive.
"I think it came out well. It was one of the first poems that I was truly happy with, which is rare, for me, at least.
"As for The Bootlegger, I wanted to immortalize Popcorn Sutton. I saw him one night on the history Channel an he was a genuine character straight out of central casting. You couldn't make him up. But two things about Popcorn's story. The first is that it's inherently sad. Didn't end well for him. Second, making moonshine is fundamentally American – directly from the Appalachian mountains to the speakeasies of Chicago – there is a legacy within the illegal act that could fill a full-length documentary about how it shaped our nation."
I was sitting there, pie crumbs around my mouth, dumbstruck by Anthony's words. Plus I was thinking about how my future husband's father once lost his eyebrows when his still blew up.
It wasn't the Appalachians but it did blow up real good.
The waitress cleared her throat and we both looked at her. "More coffee?" she said, making an obvious display of checking her wristwatch.
We had been sitting there for hours, shooting the shit. Time had flown like Lady Luck on loser's night.
We stood up and I shook his hand. He put on his jacket and I started to think how much money the supermarket tabloids would pay for the juicy bits on Bukowski's biggest fan.
Did I feel bad, sucking up all his information, taking it in and keeping it for my own evil purposes? No. People tell me I have a dirty job. Maybe. I tell people to scoff all you want. I also tell them to think of me when they're on line at the supermarket, flipping through our pages, just jonesing to find that one juicy bit before the cashier asks for coupons.
As Anthony said in one of his stories, A Gossip Nation, "you're a nation of gossip junkies and you love it."
Yeah, well, maybe.
Or maybe they just love Anthony Venutolo.
HONEYMOON AT THE ATOMIC
Inside one of the
darkest bars on the planet,
away from the smoldering Vegas
sun, two kids barreled into
my daytime bar, just off of
Freemont. Fresh faced and scrubbed,
he with his craggy polo and
flip-flops; she with an equally
wrinkled sun dress, they didn’t jive
since it was the kind of
joint people came
to when they just
didn’t care anymore.
The Atomic. A would-be beacon in a sea of
grimeholes, beckoning its
hopeless. And what of them?
Lonely Nevada drunks, crappy pickpockets,
former goddesses well beyond turning
their tricks and sunken men without
prospect who abruptly discovered
they were 46, scratchy and achy.
Even the fucking jukebox gave up.
It plays once a year on St. Patty’s Day.
Gillmore behind the bar,
a failed strip magician
plum out of illusions served
the kids their booze. The boy paid
with a thick wad of crinkled
dollar bills, which, by the
way still got you pretty
far at The Atomic.
As the afternoon progressed, their
giddiness got worse and it broke
everyone’s concentration. A few times
I had to put down my magazine and give
them the ol’ once-over. Didn’t do much good.
Clutching my mug, I asked if they
took that clichéd Vegas plunge. The cutie
nodded and Eduardo the Ecuadorian who,
up until then, never uttered a word
to anyone -- in Spanish or English --
raised his Pabst and told Gilmore that he’d get
the next round.
Their bliss told me that no one in
their lives knew where they were or even
even cared. Another sip.
I went back to my magazine.
Five drinks in, they still grappled
onto each other in that sickening
Eskimo kisses sort of way.
At the same time, the act made
me love them for it’s
innocent audacity and hate
them for my own sense of cowardice,
never having the balls for such
The boy strutted to the sorry juke
and I knew there’d be nothing in
there for him.
But it didn't matter, today was his
St. Patty’s Day and he was
ready for the world. Here.
On his honeymoon.
At The Atomic.
Away from the smoldering Vegas sun
and inside one of the darkest
bars on the planet.
The music started. I put down my
magazine and shut my eyes until
it was quiet once again.
His outfit was buried deep within the foothills
of the North Carolina Appalachian mountains and
his potent clear liquid made him a local legend.
They called his hooch White Lightnin;
Who Shot Sally and even Brown Mule.
But Popcorn Sutton knew you were The Law
if you came around askin' for that 'White Liquor.'
Descendant from a long line of moonshiners,
Popcorn took his art seriously and would often
brag that he made more runs of liquor than
there were whiskers on his jaw.
Every morning he'd mix corn, water, yeast and sugar
in that big 'ol copper still and wait for the mash that made
some of the best Painter's Piss in all of Maggie Valley.
But what's a moonshiner to do when his life's work
can be bought in a bottle at the local Walmart?
Still, liquor was all he knew. It was a fundamental right.
By 2009, the jig was up and Popcorn was sentenced
to 18 months in the big house for illegally brewing
those mason jar spirits.
Cancer-stricken, the mountain man pleaded with the
judge to let him serve his sentence under house arrest.
When the petition that thousands signed couldn't help,
Popcorn tooks matters into his hands and comitted
suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning to avoid prison.
That 'White Liquor" finally done him in...
This one's for you, Anthony. I know you're jonesing for some Sinatra but from now on I'll be thinking of you when I hear this song –