9-5 jobs, Charles Bukowski photo

Charles Bukowski rails against 9 to 5 jobs in a brutally honest letter, sees it as “slavery”

Charles Bukowski cultivated a heroic image as a literary icon who was also a perennial drunken deadbeat.

His image was deserved. Not only did he produce works of art that have profoundly shaped the literary landscape and the minds of millions, he was also an alcoholic.

Yet something that is not so well known is that at one point in his life, Bukowksi worked a 9 to 5 job for the United States Post Office. Beginning in the early 1950s, he was a fill-in letter carrier, and then for the next decade was a filing clerk.

In 1969, Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin offered him $100 a month for life on the condition that he quit his job and write full time. Fifteen years later, Bukowski was so grateful that he wrote the below letter to Martin, expressing his gratitude with his characteristically brutal honesty.

The gist of the letter is mentioned this passage:

“Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

Here’s the letter in full. What do you think? Does it relate to your experience or working a 9 to 5 job?

8-12-86

Hello John:

Thanks for the good letter. I don’t think it hurts, sometimes, to remember where you came from. You know the places where I came from. Even the people who try to write about that or make films about it, they don’t get it right. They call it “9 to 5.” It’s never 9 to 5, there’s no free lunch break at those places, in fact, at many of them in order to keep your job you don’t take lunch. Then there’s OVERTIME and the books never seem to get the overtime right and if you complain about that, there’s another sucker to take your place.

You know my old saying, “Slavery was never abolished, it was only extended to include all the colors.”

And what hurts is the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse. People simply empty out. They are bodies with fearful and obedient minds. The color leaves the eye. The voice becomes ugly. And the body. The hair. The fingernails. The shoes. Everything does.

As a young man I could not believe that people could give their lives over to those conditions. As an old man, I still can’t believe it. What do they do it for? Sex? TV? An automobile on monthly payments? Or children? Children who are just going to do the same things that they did?

Early on, when I was quite young and going from job to job I was foolish enough to sometimes speak to my fellow workers: “Hey, the boss can come in here at any moment and lay all of us off, just like that, don’t you realize that?”

They would just look at me. I was posing something that they didn’t want to enter their minds.

Now in industry, there are vast layoffs (steel mills dead, technical changes in other factors of the work place). They are layed off by the hundreds of thousands and their faces are stunned:

“I put in 35 years…”

“It ain’t right…”

“I don’t know what to do…”

They never pay the slaves enough so they can get free, just enough so they can stay alive and come back to work. I could see all this. Why couldn’t they? I figured the park bench was just as good or being a barfly was just as good. Why not get there first before they put me there? Why wait?

I just wrote in disgust against it all, it was a relief to get the shit out of my system. And now that I’m here, a so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away, I’ve found out that there are other disgusts beyond the system.

I remember once, working as a packer in this lighting fixture company, one of the packers suddenly said: “I’ll never be free!”

One of the bosses was walking by (his name was Morrie) and he let out this delicious cackle of a laugh, enjoying the fact that this fellow was trapped for life.

So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.

To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.

yr boy,

Hank

Justin Brown

Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

Notable replies

  1. Nice to see you share this on Facebook, @eleprocon. I saw you post an interesting story in the comments. Perhaps you want to share it here?

  2. It was one of those nights…

    So the story starts with breaking the solitude at Bukowski’s house.

    I was invited along for an interview my friend was doing for a German publication. Bukowski was popular there and was going again soon for a tour. The magazine wanted to get an insight to him and his life.

    He asked me to help get photos and record the interview. Yes, this was back in the day before smartphones…we used actual tape recorders. “Chuck” as we called him, didn’t live to far away from where I was living at the time. His house was in San Pedro near the Los Angeles shipping harbor.

    When the day came we drove up in my rusty 1976 Honda Civic. Along the way we stopped at a liquor store to pick up some booze. Since we weren’t sure whether he preferred wine or beer we returned to the car with armfuls of both.

    Upon arrival at this house Linda greeted us at the door. She and Bukowski had been together for a while. We were led into the dankly lit living room where Chuck pushed himself up from his chair to say hello.

    He quickly reached for the bags then trundled off to the kitchen with them. Linda offered us a seat and a few words about Charles. The evening unfolded as an adventure I was cluelessly in anticipation of. I had no idea what I was in for.

    Needless to say it was filled with words, ideas, every bottle of booze we brought with and then some like the joints he surprised us with. It seemed like the night went on forever. At one point my buddy disappeared into the bathroom. There I was alone with “the man” himself.

    We got into a conversation where he was trying to suggest that I would take the recordings I was doing of the interview and make a fortune off them. His disdain for how he may be of value to others was obvious. Or maybe it was just his inflated ego chirping.

    Eventually to get him off the subject I told him I only had one tape cassette suggesting that during the interview I was turning it over each time I got to the end of one side only to then re-recorded over the other side. That worked. We had a good laugh.

    Bukowski looked at his watch and noted it was after 2am and welcomed us to spend the night. When my friend finally emerged from the bathroom, his face pale, I could tell it was time to leave and get home. It was a long night of imbuing to keep up with Chuck.

    I was charged with transcribing the tape recording of the interview and getting the photos developed. The next week was horrifying… Something had happened to the microphone connection making the recording very garbled and a really slow process to transcribe.

    And the photos… shit, they were all blurred with crazy arty attempts at capturing the moments in our indulgences with Bukowski. And there weren’t very many to choose from. I had become so engaged in the conversations and had too much to drink proving useless as the official photographer.

    Upon sharing this information I felt so bad that I offered to call Chuck back and ask if he minded that I come shoot some new pictures. Which he graciously and begrudgingly accepted considering the reason I blew it the first time.

    I was invited to come a few weeks later. Little did I realize he invited me when he had another guest over. I arrived to meet Barbet Schroeder sitting with Bukowski as they were discussing the idea for a film that was to become know as “Barfly” starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway.

    And that’s my Bukowski story. For reals.

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