By Charles Bukowski
The snoring in the flophouse was very loud, as usual, and Tom couldn’t sleep. There must have been 60 cots in there and each was filled. The drunks snored the loudest, and most of them were drunks. Tom sat up and watched the moonlight come in through the windows and fall across the sleeping men. He rolled a smoke, lit it. He looked at the men again. What a bunch of ugly useless fuckers. Fuckers? They didn’t fuck. The ladies didn’t want them. Nobody wanted them. Not worth a fuck, ha-ha. And he was one of them. He pulled the bottle out from under the pillow and had a last hit. That last drink was always the sad one. He rolled the empty under his cot and viewed the snoring men once again. How about these? They weren’t even worth nuking.
Tom looked over at his buddy, Max, on the next cot. Max was just stretched there with his eyes open. Was he dead?
“You’re not sleeping.”
“Can’t. You notice? A lot of them are snoring in rhythm. What causes that?”
“I don’t know, Max. There are a lot of things I don’t know.”
“Me too, Tom. I guess I’m dumb.”
“You gotta guess. If you knew you were dumb, you wouldn’t be.”
Max sat up on the edge of his cot.
“Tom, do you think we’ll ever get off the Row?”
“Just one way—”
Max rolled a cigarette, lit it.
Max felt bad, he always felt bad when he thought about things. The thing to do was not to think, shut it off.
“Listen, Max,” he heard Tom.
“I been thinking—”
“Thinking’s no good.”
“But I keep thinking this thing—”
“You got a drink left?”
“No, sorry. But listen—”
“Bullshit, I don’t want to listen.”
Max stretched out on his cot again. Talking didn’t help. It was a waste.
“I’m going to tell you anyhow, Max.”
“Okay, hell, go ahead.”
“You see all these guys? There are plenty of them, right? Bums wherever you look—”
“Yeah, they clutter my sight.”
“So, Max, I keep thinking about how we can use this manpower. It’s just being wasted.”
“Nobody else wants these bums, what can you do with them?”
Tom felt a little excited. “The fact that nobody wants these guys, that’s to our advantage.”
“Is that right?”
“Right. You see, they don’t want them in the jails because they’d have to house and feed them. These guys have nothing to lose.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot nights… Like, if we can get them together like cattle, we could run them over things… Take temporary command of certain situations—”
“You’re nuts,” Max said.
But he sat up on his cot again. “Tell me more.”
Tom laughed. “Well, maybe I’m crazy, but I keep thinking of this wasted manpower. I’ve laid here awake nights dreaming of things to do with it—”
Now Max laughed. “Like what, for chrissakes?”
Nobody was bothered by their conversation. The snoring continued all about them.
“Well, I’ve kind of been rolling it around in my mind. Yeah, maybe it’s nuts. Anyhow—”
“Yeah?” Max asked.
“Don’t laugh. Maybe the wine has eaten my brain away.”
“I’ll try not to laugh.”
Tom inhaled on his cigarette, then let it out. “Well, you see, I get this vision of all these bums walking down Broadway, the whole mass of them together, walking along like that.”
“Well, it’s a lot of guys. Kind of like the vengeance of the damned. A parade of glorious discards. It’s almost like some kind of movie. I can almost see the cameras, the lights, the director… The March of the Roaches. The Rising of the Dead. What a comeback! Man, oh man!”
“I think,” Max responded, “you ought to go from port back to muscatel.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Okay. So we got these bums walking along Broadway, say at high noon, then what?”
“Well, we walk them into the biggest and fanciest store in town—”
“You mean Bowarms?”
“Yeah, Max. Bowarms stocks everything: the best wines, the finest clothing, watches, radios, TVs—you name it, they’ve got it.”
Just then an old guy a few cots down sat up, opened his eyes wide and screamed, “God is a 400-pound lesbian nigger!”
Then he fell back on his cot.
“Like,” asked Max, “we take him?”
“Sure. He’s one of the best. What jail would want him?”
“Okay, we walk into Bowarms. Then what?”
“Visualize. It will be just in and out. There will be too many to handle. Visualize: they just take. Anything their hearts want. Maybe even a grab of a salesgirl’s ass. Any part of the dream they no longer have, just a touch of it, something, anything for that moment—’
“Tom, there might be a lot of busted heads, it’s not all going to be a picnic in wonderland.”
“No, but neither is this subservience, this allowing ourselves to be buried forever without a sound—”
“Tom, buddy, I think you’ve got something. Now, how do we go about setting this thing up?”
“All right, first we set a date and a time. Now, you know eight guys you can line up?”
“I think so.”
“I know about eight.”
“Suppose somebody tips off the cops?”
“Not likely. Anyhow, what we got to lose?”
“Now,” said Tom, “I think a good time to do it would be—”
It was high noon.
Tom and Max walked in front of the gang of them. They were walking down Broadway in Los Angeles. But there were more than 16 bums walking behind Tom and Max. There were 76 bums—blinking, staggering, not exactly sure of what was occurring. The ordinary citizens on the streets were slightly astonished. They stopped, they stepped aside and watched. Some were frightened, some laughed. To others it appeared to be a joke, or some movie in the making. The makeup was perfect: the actors looked like bums. But where were the cameras?
Tom and Max led the scene.
“Listen, Max, I only told eight. How many did you tell?”
“I wonder what the hell happened?”
“They must have told others—”
“And, amazingly, none of them tipped the heat.”
They walked along. It was like a mad dream that couldn’t be stopped. At the corner of 7th, the light changed to red. Tom and Max stopped and the bums bunched up behind them, waiting. The smell of unwashed stockings and underwear, puke and booze wafted through the air. The Goodyear blimp circled overhead. The smog settled blue gray along the curbings.
Then the signal changed to green. Tom and Max stepped forward. The other bums followed.
“Even though I envisioned this,” said Tom, “I can’t believe it’s happening.”
“It’s happening,” said Max.
There were so many bums behind them that some of them were still crossing the street when the signal changed back to red. But they kept coming, holding up traffic, some of them lifting bottles of wine into the air and swigging at them. They marched along but there was no marching song. Just silence, except for the belches, the farts, the scuffle of worn shoes upon the pavement, and now and then somebody spoke:
“Hey, what the fuck we doing?”
“Gimme a swig of that stuff!”
“Kiss my ass!”
The sun burned down warmly.
“Should we go through with this thing?” Max asked.
“I’d feel pretty sick if we turned back now,” Tom stated.
Then they were in front of Bowarms.
Tom and Max paused for a moment.
Then, as a pair, they pushed through the glass entrance doors.
The 76 bums followed along behind them in a long waving line. They walked up the plush corridors. The clerks looked at them, not quite understanding.
The Men’s Department was on the first floor.
“Now,” said Tom, “we have to set an example, we have to lend courage—’
“Yeah,” Max said with uncertainty.
“Let’s do it, Max!”
The bums had stopped and were watching. Tom hesitated a moment, then walked up to a coatrack, slipped off the first coat—a yellow leather model with a fur collar. He dropped his old coat to the floor and slipped into the new one. A store clerk walked up, a trim little fellow with a neat mustache.
“May I help you, sir?”
“Yes, I like this one and I’m taking it. Put it on my charge card.”
“American Express, sir?”
“No, Chinese Express.”
“And I’m taking this one,” said Max, slipping into an alligator special with giant side pockets, plus a hood for bad weather.
Then Tom took a hat off a rack, a rather ridiculous but rather charming cossack piece.
“This goes well with my complexion, I’ll take this one too.”
With that, the bums got into it. Moving forward, they began putting on coats and hats, scarves, raincoats, riding boots, dark shades, sweaters, gloves, various accessories.
“Charge or credit, sir?”
“Charge it to my bunghole, fucker.”
Or, in another area:
“That seems to fit you, sir—”
“Do I get a fourteen-day exchange privilege?”
“Of course, sir.”
“But I might be dead in fourteen days.”
“Listen, cocksucker, do you have to keep saying ‘sir’ all the time?”
Then there was an overhead ringing. It was an alarm. Somebody had decided that commerce was being threatened.
Four men in brown and gray ill-fitting suits came running. They were bulky men, but closer to fat than to muscle. They rushed at the bums as if to remove them from the premises. But there were just too many bums. They were swarmed under by the bums. As they rolled about, cursing and threatening, a couple of them reached for their guns. There was gunfire, but it was stupid and useless gunfire and soon the bulky men were disarmed. Such things happen at a rush that the eye never sees.
Like, suddenly there was a bum at the top of the escalator who had one of the guns. He was drunk. He’d never had a gun before. But he liked the gun. He aimed it and pulled the trigger. He hit a mannequin. The bullet went through the neck. The head fell to the floor: the death of an Aspen skier.
The death of this dead object seemed to cheer the bums. They spread upward throughout the store. They began yelling incoherent things but things which had meaning to them, as if, for a moment, all frustration and failure and sadness had left them. It was a curious and weird sound, ugly, yet not so—an incantation, maybe.
They rushed upward, yelling.
They swept about the new area.
And Tom and Max no longer led, they followed.
Counters were now being spilled, things were being broken. In the Cosmetic Department a young blond girl screamed, throwing up her arms. This attracted the sight of one of the younger bums who rushed up to her, pulled up her dress and grabbed her ass and screamed, “Wow!”
Another bum ran up for a feel, got it, and then another came running. Soon a gang of them fell across her and began ripping at her clothing. It was quite ugly. Yet it affected the other bums. They began running after other salesgirls.
“Holy Jesus,” said Tom.
Tom found an unspilled tabletop. He leaped up on it and began yelling.
“No! No! Not this! Stop! Stop! This isn’t what I meant!”
Tom yelled on and on…
Max stood there near Tom.
“Ah, shit,” he said quietly.
The bums didn’t relent. Drapes fell. Tables overturned. Glass counters shattered. Also, there were screams of mutilation and rape.
Something crashed quite loudly.
Then there was flame, but the men continued to pillage.
Tom leaped off the table. He looked at Max.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
Another dream shot to shit, another dead dog in the road, more dreams of garbage.
Tom began running and Max followed. They found the “Down” escalator, got on. As they went down, the police were riding on the “Up” escalator. Tom and Max still had on their new coats and headpieces. They looked almost respectable except for their red, unshaven faces. On the first floor they mixed with the crowd. There were police at the doors. They were letting people out but keeping them from entering.
Tom had stolen a handful of cigars. He handed one to Max.
“Here, light up… Try to look respectable.”
Tom lit a cigar of his own.
“Now, let’s see if we can get out of here.”
“Think we can fool them, Tom?”
“I dunno. Try to look like a broker or a doctor—”
“What do they look like?”
“Satisfied and stupid.”
They moved toward the exit doors. There was no problem. They were guided out with some others. Outside, they heard gunfire. They looked up at the building. Flames were spurting and waving from the upper windows. Soon they heard the approaching fire sirens.
They turned south and walked back toward skid row…
That night they were two of the bestdressed bums in the flophouse. Max had even stolen a watch, its hands glowed in the dark. The night was just beginning. They stretched out on their cots as the snoring began.
It was a full house again in spite of the absence of most of the men who had entered Bowarms with them. There were always enough bums to fill any vacancy caused by anything.
Tom took out two cigars, passed one to Max. They lit up and smoked quietly for a while. After a few minutes, Tom spoke.
“That wasn’t the way I meant it to be.”
“I know. It’s all right.”
The snoring was gradually getting louder. Tom pulled the new fifth of wine from under his pillow. He uncapped it, took a hit.
Tom passed the bottle. Max took the hit, passed it back.
Tom slipped the bottle back under his pillow.
It was muscatel.
© Copyright 1984 by Charles Bukowski
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