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Greg Palast's Column

How Bukowski Taught Me Not to Jerk Off Into My Own Belly Button

I didn't figure out his riddle until he was dead.

Greg Palast is a New York Times bestselling author and fearless investigative journalist whose reports appear on BBC Television Newsnight and in The Guardian. Palast eats the rich and spits them out. Catch his reports and films at, where you can also securely send him your documents marked, "confidential".

My best friend Ron had this fungus on his tongue that he scraped off every 15 minutes with a plastic knife and it grossed out his mom. So a postman, Charles Bukowski, let him stay at his place on De Longpre Avenue in the liquor store district in LA near my grandma’s place.


Bukowski was an angry poet – angry that I was pissing into his flowerbed because I couldn’t hold it any longer. When I say he was a poet, it was just stuff Bukowski “published” himself on one of those old machines where you typed on this blue sticky mimeo paper and attached it to a little roller and printed one page each time you turned the crank.

Ron and I were poets, though we didn’t even have a sticky-paper printing machine. We were really full of shit – our own shit.

Bukowski told us: "This groupie came by and we drank and then I got on top of her and I was having a pretty good time, really working it, but she had this horrible, horrible look on her face, like she was disgusted."

Bukowski said, "It turns out, I look down and, oh shit, I’ve actually got my penis stuck into my big beer belly."

Going in and out like that. Poor thing.

That was a good one. One of others and I forgot about it until about 20 years later when I was having Midlife Crisis number 12.

At the time, I was an investigator, a gumshoe. But the evil, the rich, the cruel always figured out how to get out of the fraud, racketeering and whatever charges I was trying to hang on them – just in time to make their table reservation at Nobu.

And I thought, 'Fuck this.'

I suddenly remembered that I was supposed to be a poet.

Charles Bukowski talking about love.

So, I took a poetry seminar – can you imagine? – with Allen Ginsberg, who lived here in New York in this shitty place near Avenue D on the Lower East Side near my office. Ginsberg was the saddest human being I’d ever met – a busted, empty monument, closed for repairs that would never happen. Ginsberg would read us really bad poems by Jack Kerouac and would start crying. Unlike Kerouac, Ginsberg missed his chance to die young.


I remember Ginsberg threw a party, but he forgot to get food and there was nothing in his fridge except a big corned beef and one jar of mustard. And he'd invited all these people. What a jack-off. And I thought: 'Sad.'

And that’s how I became a journalist.

I showed my verses to Ginsberg and asked what he thought, and he thought I should become a journalist.

Anyway, I lost track of Ron, which is what we do when we grow up; we lose all kinds of stuff – Ron, Bukowski, Ginsberg, poems, that church key. (No, not to a door of a church church. This was a time when alcohol required work and you needed this sharp metal tool to open a beer can. I couldn’t find the church key to open a can of Bud. Bukowski said, "Use your soul.")

So I’m an investigative journalist and I promise to get back to that next week – with inside documents about Greece, the euro and other faecal facts I’ve been lifting from the hidden files of the owners of our planet.

Anyway, Ron lost himself to drink and the needle. Husky Rhea, my girlfriend of the time, is lost too. Last message from her, she was living in her car in San Diego. I told her I didn’t care. I did care, but what I cared about wouldn’t help her anyway.

Allen Ginsberg, photo by Michiel Hendryckx.

I bring up Bukowski because he delayed the loss of my virginity. I was almost psychotically attached to my cherry (which was not easy back in the day, in California, in the era of Free Love and lots of drugged-out pokes at the love-ins).


I decided that the First Time just had to be with Husky Rhea because, well, I loved her. Probably still do. Or, if she’s dead, I should say, “did”.

So, what happened with my virginity is that I was about to leave LA for school in Chicago when I said to Husky Rhea "It’s all set. Bukowski said we can stay at his place tonight."

All that practice with the Vaseline tube could now get a chance to prove itself.

But she said, “No way! No way am I going to do ANYTHING in a house with That Man around! That face, I can’t look at that face! Bukowski’s the UGLIEST MAN IN THE WORLD!”

We ended up spending the night on a furniture blanket in the back yard of some asshole pimp Ron knew. And by dawn I’d fallen in love too many times for memory to suffer.

I never published that book of poetry. Bukowski knew I wouldn’t.

It was during that particular Midlife Crisis number 12 that I finally got it. That is, I got what Buk was telling us, me and Ron. Bukowski never humped that groupie. That was bullshit. But he had to use a kind of code because he knew we were too young and too full of our own spurious genius to get it.

He was telling us this: sometimes you think you’re making love to The Muse, but you’re really just jacking off into your own belly.

I get it now. And I bet you do, too.

I’m just sorry, Buk, I never got a chance to thank you for being such a beautiful man.

Follow Greg on Twitter: @Greg_Palast


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