I was reminded the other day about a funny incident that happened years ago when the noted Nation Magazine columnist Alexander Cockburn was introduced to the famous American poet Charles Bukowski. My memory of this was sparked by the appearance of Laura Flanders, radio journalist in her own right and the niece of Cockburn came to speak at a KPFK radio event at the Palos Verdes Art Center.
It was the year after the end of Operation Desert Shield, the first Gulf War with Iraq and the October 1992 before the next general election that would see William Jefferson Clinton elected president. We had published several of Alex Cockburn’s columns on that war during the previous years, which was a real privilege for a small alternative newspaper struggling for recognition on the edge of the Los Angeles metropolis. For Cockburn was a nationally recognized columnist for The Nation and the LA Times. Someone who Congressman Henry Gonzales (D-Texas) called, “One of the most perceptive and ..brilliant minds we have in America”.
Some how our then-editor Andrea Adleman convinced him to come to San Pedro and address not one audience but two. The first was at Los Angeles Harbor College and the second at the Pacific Unitarian Church in Palos Verdes. It was advertised as Random Lengths News presents An October Surprise in 1992 with Alexander Cockburn. These two programs mark Mr. Cockburn’s first speaking engagements in the Los Angeles Harbor Area –the advertisement proclaimed. Tickets were just eight dollars!
As I recall the events were well attended with several hundred in attendance and that I had the privilege of giving the venerated journalist a tour of the San Pedro Bay harbors. Driving over the Vincent Thomas Bridge Cockburn looked out on the industrial expanse of the twin harbors with thousands of containers and terminals with imported Toyotas.
“Ah”, he announced, “here’s the national trade deficit!” And he kind of laughed with his Irish accent as though he had discovered something like Columbus about America.
Later that evening I had scheduled a dinner with our staff and Cockburn at Senfuku our favorite sushi bar on Sixth Street. We reserved a large table on the upper level of the restaurant. As I entered I noticed a familiar face sitting alone at the bar– it was none other than Charles Bukowski, the poet. I said hello in passing as he sat drinking a large Sapporo beer and eating sushi. He had recently given his once-in-a-life-time endorsement of our newspaper and we had gotten to know each other over a very long night of drinking and conversation.
Just as I was sitting down I realized what an astounding coincidence this was to have two great literary figures in the same room at the same time. “What great conversation would the two of them have?”, I asked myself. I immediately got up and walked back to the sushi bar and invited Hank to come and meet Alex. Now for all of Buk’s bluster and bodacious writing about his adventures in bars and bedrooms, he was actually kind of a private person that is until you put him in front of an audience with a bottle of beer reading his poetry.
So it took a bit of cajoling to get him to come over and meet Alex.
Well what happened next I never expected. I was imagining some great discussion of politics or literature or even philosophy, but no. The two of them ended up talking for most of the evening about cats!
Bukowski’s wife had a whole family of felines with odd names, like Mystery B and Feather and apparently Cockburn like many writers had some too. This was kind of like if Ernest Hemmingway had met Edward R. Murrow and the only thing they found to converse about was their cats.
I was dumbstruck and by the end of the evening had to chuckle over the entire conversation and my own expectations of what I thought would happen. Life is full of surprises and they often aren’t the ones you’d imagine– otherwise they wouldn’t be a surprise.