March 19, 2020

Drinking in the Footsteps of Bukowski: One Hazy Night in LA

“And I knew there was a whole civilization of lost souls that lived in and off bars, daily, nightly and forever, until they died.” Charles Bukowski

I like bars. I like going to them, drinking in them, observing how others drink in them. Bars represent the good and the bad things about drinking, culture, and alcohol.  They are the yin and yang—a paradoxical melding of social, physical, and personal space that both stay the same and change over time. In my mind, they are the perfect place to observe social physics in action. A bar can be damned fun, scary, boring, soulless, full of life, happy, and depressing—all in the same night. The breadth of drinking establishments in a given community on a given night radiates a vibrant, albeit tipsy reflection of the times. Bars do not represent the entirety of society, but they do capture a damn big percentage of it. Bars, therefore, are important. As a social scientist/field alcohologist who has studied drinking as in naturally occurs for over two decades, they are always interesting to me. 

Charles Bukowski (source: poetryfoundation.org)

Last spring, I was living in downtown Los Angeles and working as a dean at USC.  Being a dean at USC last year, at least in my department, was akin to trying to put a dumpster fire out with a squirt gun filled with jet fuel.  It was a shitty year professionally and I missed research. So, on the night I made my official announcement that I would be stepping down as dean to return to science and fun little distractions like starting a podcast (The Field Alcohologist), I gathered my two young protégé and did the only sensible thing one can do in such situations—I took us on a Bukoswki bar crawl.

For those of you who haven’t heard of LA’s eponymous poet laureate of debauchery, Charles Bukowski lived, wrote, and drank heavily in Los Angeles from the 1960s until his death in 1994.   His writing and poems related to alcohol are both art and valid representations of many aspects of drinking documented in the scientific literature. For drinkers and/readers alike, I highly recommend the book Charles Bukowski On Drinking (Abel Debritto, Editor) for some of the best writing on the drinking experience and heavy drinking I’ve ever read.

Coles French Dip

A famous drinker and character who over-indulged at several LA drinking joints, Bukowski was known to have been a regular at several extant LA bars/restaurants including Coles French Dip (DTLA), The Frolic Room (Hollywood), and Musso and Frank (Hollywood).  For his “drink in” needs, Bukowski also shopped at the Pink Elephant Liquor Store (Los Feliz). 

Our night started in Coles French Dip’s backroom (and unmarked) bar.  Being the elder of out troop—my companions were both in their late 20s—I decided my night would feature straight bourbon (although I vaguely remember a beer and a few glasses of cab thrown in there), while my mentee, RUDDDERMAN, opted for trendy craft cocktails and Michelle, my executive assistant and full-time handler at the time, stuck with classic tequila drinks. The drinks and atmosphere at Coles were enticing—a nice booze selection, friendly staff and a wonderful smell of an decades of steamed beef hanging in the air.  The physical environment looked every bit like an old bar and restaurant should: dark woods and burgundy leather booths and décor representing the history of the place.  Resisting wolfing down a French Dip, our crew grabbed an uber and headed west.

The Frolic Room
The Frolic Room

Our next stop was The Frolic Room.  The place looked the part—dark, cheap drinks, lots of old-timers, a bartender who could have passed for Perry Farrell in the Jane’s Addiction heroin days.  The walls had lights that looked a lot something Mike Brady would have designed. Somehow, the place seems to have evolved in the spirit of what it probably always has been—a neighborhood bar. There was a cool mural on one wall with a scene depicting 1930s era (I’m guessing here) Hollywood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was playing on the TV next to the bar without the volume on, a drunk women (possibly a sex worker) was crying loudly in the only bathroom, and Jason Isabell and the 400 Unit was blasting from the Juke Box.  Damn near perfect for a Bukowski bar crawl.

Two rounds later, our little troop of urban field alcohologists, happily strolled into the LA night toward the Burgundy Room. To be clear, we could find no evidence Bukowski never drank in the Burgundy Room— but it is storied Hollywood bar with a really cool history (featured in the film Swingers), and it seemed like a good place to grab another and pee on our way to Musso and Frank.  The bar was darkest I’ve ever seen (think a vampire’s lair), had candles burning and had stiff and reasonably priced drinks (see https://laist.com/2017/03/20/the_fascinating_history_of_three_clubs.php for more information). It was worth the stop.


Burgundy Room

From the Burgundy Room we walked to Musso and Frank, an LA and Hollywood institution.  Musso and Frank has an old school classy charm that reminded of the Oak Room in Boston’s Fairmont Hotel before the hotel remodeled it and ruined the vibe. The waiters sport red dinner jackets, while the bartenders and bar backs sport crisp white coats.  Similar to Cole’s but a little higher end, the décor features dark wood, murals, and plush leather booths. By chance, we sat in the same spot at the bar featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  After our second round, we struck up a conversation the bartender, Sonny Donato.  Turns out that Sonny is a long-time Hollywood resident, poet and was a friend of Bukowski. He told us about him and Buk downing a few and writing poems on bar napkins—he even pointed out Bukowski’s favorite booth.   Sonny was a true gentleman and in between mixing drinks for the patrons, came back to show us photos of the many celebrities he partied with over the years—Tommy Lee, Tom Waits, among a host of others.  (Check out Sonny’s excellent poetry anthology—A Poet’s Guide to the Bars—available on Amazon).

From the “Once Upon a Night in Hollywood” seat at Musso and Frank
The mural outside Pink Elephant Liquor

By now were all both a little tipsy and tired, so we decided to call it a night.  We hailed our Uber for DTLA, but we somehow ended up at Pink Elephant Liquor.  The place has a real cool mural on the outside and is otherwise just a liquor store. Now restocked and in the spirit of Bukowski, we retired for a nightcap at my place.  As we sipped that last round in near silence on my balcony overlooking a pay lot on Olive Street, we watched a homeless dude piss on a parked, Mercedes below us for the perfect ending to the night.

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