Monday, March 2, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 51 (Charles Bukowski))

Ham On Rye
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Bukowski, Charles
Ham On Rye

According to the inscription, this book was given to me on November 6, 1990, by an unrequited love that remained so until 1995, whereupon it was requited, briefly, before being burned to the ground with my sanity as kindling.

The inscription reads:

Being an aspiring writer -- this book is a must.
Being a member of the inferior sex -- this book is a must.
Being someone that has teetered near the edge -- this book is a must.
Being "too cool" -- this book is a must.
Love you!!

Can you hear the hinges of Pandora's box creaking open?

The book is in pretty rough shape -- the cover was once held on by a piece of masking tape that has since dried up. It is stained, torn, creased. I guess I keep it for the same reason anybody keeps anything that dredges up painful memories. I like to suffer once in a while. Less so, as I get older, but now and again I like to pick at those scabs.

I think I'll resist the urge to do it in public.

I did read the book and I did enjoy it. As you might surmise from the title, it's a kind of working class riposte to Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. One of the great unexpected successes of my brief post-college high school teaching career was slipping this book (along with The Beat Reader and several other subversive books) into my curriculum at the all-boys catholic school where I taught on the Lower East Side from 1992-1994.

The previous year, I had taught Catcher in the Rye with great hopes that my students would have the same kind of eye-opening experience I had had when I read that book in high school. What I didn't imagine was how much they would dislike it. It had never occurred to me that the experiences of a white prep school kid in the 1940's might not have a thing in common with the experiences of the kids I taught, all of whom came from poor and working class families and lived in places like Harlem and Alphabet City and Williamsburg (these neighborhoods were quite a bit different then than now). Mostly, the students wanted to know why Holden Caulfield was such a whiner.

The following year, I had all the same students, and I ordered Ham On Rye directly from Black Sparrow, who gave me a 50 percent discount on the books. Within days, just about every kid in the school had read the book cover to cover, which had never happened before and probably hasn't since. In addition to all the violence and foul language, which they thought was fantastic, they also related to the struggles of a boy growing up in a tough neighborhood in a not-so-great family. For weeks, kids would be call out to each other in the lunch room the numbers of pages containing dirty words. Somehow, the principal never got wind of this, or I would have been without a job before for very long.

I guess I can thank my unrequited love for that experience. Thanks. Thanks a lot. Really.

Here's a passage from the end of the book:

I walked out of there. Suddenly there was traffic on the street. People were driving badly, running stoplights, screaming at each other. I walked back over to Main St. America was at war. I counted my change: 67 cents.

I walked along Main St. There wouldn't be much for the B-girls today. I walked along. Then I came to the Penny Arcade. There wasn't anybody in there. Just the owner standing in his high-perched booth. It was dark in that place and it stank of piss.

I walked along in the dark aisles among the broken machines. They called it a Penny Arcade but most of the games cost a nickel and some a dime. I stopped at the boxing machine, my favorite. Two little steel men stood in a glass cage with buttons on their chins. There were two hand grips, like pistol grips, with triggers, and when you squeezed the triggers the arms of your fighter would uppercut wildly. You could move your fighter back and forth and from side to side. When you hit the button on the chin of the other fighter he would go down hard on his back, K.O.'d. When I was a kid and Max Schmeling K.O.'d Joe Louis, I had run out into the street looking for my buddies, yelling, "Hey Max Schmeling K.O.'d Joe Louis!" And nobody answered me, nobody said anything, they had just walked away with their heads down.

It took two to play the boxing game and I wasn't going to play with the pervert who owned the place. Then I saw a little Mexican boy, eight or nine years old. He came walking down the aisle. A nice-looking, intelligent Mexican boy.

"Hey, kid?"

"Yes, Mister?"

"Wanna play this boxing game with me?"


"Sure. I'm paying. Pick your fighter."

He circled around, peering through the glass. He looked very serious. Then he said, "O.K., I'll take the guy in the red trunks. He looks best."

"All right"

The kid got on his side of the game and stared through the glass. He looked at his fighter, then he looked up at me.

"Mister, don't you know there's a war on?"


We stood there.

"You gotta put the coin in," said the kid.

"what are you doing in this place?" I asked him. "How come you're not in school?"

"It's Sunday."

I put the dime in. The kid started squeezing his triggers and I started squeezing mine. The kid had made a bad choice. The left arm of his fighter was broken and only reached up halfway. It could never hit the button on my fighter's chine. All the kid had was a right hand. I decided to take my time. My guy had blue trunks. I moved him in and out, making sudden flurries. The Mexican kid squeezed the trigger for the right arm. I rushed blue trunks in for the kill, squeezing both triggers. The kid kept pumping the right arm of red trunks. Suddenly blue trunks dropped. He went down hard, making a clanking sound.

"I got you, Mister," said the kid.

"You won," I said.

The kid was excited. He kept looking at blue trunks flat on his ass.

"You want to fight again, Mister?"

I paused, I don't know why.

"You out of money, Mister?"

"Oh, no."

"O.K., then, we'll fight."

I put in another dime and blue trunks sprang to his feet. The kid started squeezing his one trigger and the right arm of red trunks pumped and pumped. I let blue trunks stand back for a while and contemplate. Then I nodded at the kid. I moved blue trunks in, both arms flailing. 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.

Then blue trunks dropped again, hard, making the same iron clanking sound. I looked at him laying on his back there on his little green velvet mat.

Then I turned around and walked out.


rdeming said...

For me, I've found walking around as an open wound prevents me from having any scabs to pick.

Michael Kelleher, Buffalo, NY said...

You walk around that way because you want everyone to lick you.