I was reminded earlier this year about a funny incident that happened back in 1992, when Alex Cockburn, noted columnist for The Nation magazine, was introduced to the famous American poet Charles Bukowski. My memory was sparked by the appearance of Laura Flanders, Cockburn’s niece and a radio journalist in her own right, who was speaking at a KPFK radio event at the Palos Verdes Art Center.
It was the year after the end of Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War with Iraq, and a month before the November 1992 general election that would see William Jefferson Clinton elected president. We had published several of Cockburn’s columns on that war, which was a real privilege for a small alternative newspaper struggling for recognition on the edge of the Los Angeles metropolis. Cockburn was someone who Rep. Henry Gonzales, a Texas Democrat, called, “One of the most perceptive and … brilliant minds we have in America.”
Somehow our then-editor 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, An Evening with Alexander Cockburn. These two programs mark Mr. Cockburn’s first speaking engagements in the Los Angeles Harbor Area.” Tickets were $8.
As I recall, the events were well attended with several hundred in attendance. 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 that had imported Toyotas.
“Ah, here’s the national trade deficit!” he announced.
He kind of laughed with his Irish accent as though he had discovered some new continent.
Later that evening I had scheduled a dinner with the RLn staff and Cockburn at Senfuku, our favorite sushi bar on 6th Street in San Pedro. We reserved the 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, I never expected what happened next. I was imagining some great discussion of politics or literature or even philosophy, but no. For most of the evening they talked about cats!
Bukowski and his wife, Linda, had a whole family of felines with odd names like Mystery B, Ting and Feather, and apparently Cockburn, like many writers, had some cats, too. This was as if Ernest Hemmingway had met Edward R. Murrow and the only thing they found to converse about was their cats.
I was dumbstruck. By the end of the evening, I 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 surprises.