“The nine-to-five is one of the greatest atrocities sprung upon mankind. You give your life away to a function that doesn’t interest you. This situation so repelled me that I was driven to drink, starvation, and mad females, simply as an alternative.” – Charles Bukowski
Two years ago I was living with a heroin addict. I was a mess myself, emotionally at least. When I discovered that she was still using, she suggested I try it and I agreed. I was never one to pass up free drugs, and I was certainly more than curious due to the distinctly taboo nature of this particular drug. She coached me through the process: Exhale. Insert the straw all the way into the nasal cavity. Hold the other nostril closed. Snort. Later, as I nodded in and out of consciousness, I remember asking myself: “This is what people ruin their lives over? To fall asleep?”
There are many scars like this on my brain and body that sometimes make it hard to live, which I also cannot imagine living without. This is the nature of the writer, the addict, the insane person; we function on an emotional barter system, trading ourselves and others for some lie or nugget of truth in exchange for anything, any way to convince ourselves that all is okay, in order to get through the day, when we can finally sleep, only to wake again the next morning and start the whole charade all over again. Like our very own man behind the curtain, we tell ourselves to pay no attention to certain realities we wish to hide from, those particular problems we simply cannot face, and, so, we simply don’t. And this both fuels us, and limits us. A year and a half ago I decided to face reality and quit my job, drugs, and drinking. I don’t miss my job.
Perk #1 of being a lowlife: Understanding that the path to enlightenment can very well be paved in unadulterated street drugs.
The room is square, white, and I am standing in the middle, encircled by sixteen individuals who are court ordered to be here. Some of the faces I remember from last week. I am two minutes late, and so I joke about how they only wish they could rid themselves of me so easily. We are in a drug and alcohol treatment facility where I have volunteered to teach a creative writing workshop.
In the awkward circular setup of the room, I search for a place to set my bags. A friend suggested I have them move their chairs into a more conventional order, but I don’t, afraid of disrupting their environment. This is their sanctuary, and I am the outsider amongst outsiders, and so I try to get them to like me. “For those of you who weren’t lucky enough to be here last week, my name is Casey, or P (period) Casey Telesk. When people ask me what the P stands for, I say ‘pretentious’.”
Perk #2 of being a lowlife: The unique ability to infiltrate other lowlife groups
Once, while waiting for a friend outside a New York City bookstore, I sat down on a bench beside an older black woman who was asking passersby for money. It was February and very cold. I lit a cigarette and offered her one. She took it. While we smoked, I asked where she was from. She said Alabama. I asked what she needed money for, and she said to feed her daughter’s kids, whom she took care of and provided for. She told me to call her Grandma, because everyone else did.
A cab pulled up to the curb in front of us, and a man in slacks and a houndstooth suit jacket got out and gestured for me to come over. I looked over at Grandma and shrugged.
“You,” the man said. “Come here.”
“Me?” I pointed at myself.
When I walked over he handed me a cheese platter and I saw my friend, whose book party I was there to attend, come around from the other side of the cab. The man was her boyfriend, I realized.
After we had a laugh about the confusion, I carried the cheese tray inside.
“I thought I’d save you from having to talk to that woman,” the boyfriend said.
“Oh,” I replied, stopping and realizing what had just happened. I handed the cheese platter to my friend and smiled. “I’ll be in when I’m done with my conversation.”
Outside, Grandma told me about what it was like being black in Alabama during the 1950s and 60s. We talked about Dr. King and Selma, and what it’s like being poor.
Before leaving to go in for the reading, I took a picture of Grandma and thanked her for letting me sit with her.
Perk #3 of being a lowlife: You can generally have a better conversation with someone begging for money than someone wearing a Brooks Brothers suit jacket.
As they sit in a circle in the square, white room, I ask my students to say their names, the same as I did last week.
“Freddie,” the last person says.
“Yeah. Krueger!” retorts another, quite rambunctious individual. I’ll call him the Clown.
“Are you the real Freddie Krueger?” I ask the man, deadpan.
“Yeah,” he replies, nodding confidently.
“I love your movies,” I tell him. “I’m honored to meet you.” We shake hands.
“That movie fucked me up!” exclaims the Clown.
With this, the room becomes erratic, a storm of cross-talk and chatter.
“Why?” I ask above the voices, and the storm calms a bit.
“The scene where Johnny Depp gets pulled into the bed by Freddie, and then blood and guts come spraying back out, all over the ceiling.”
“Effective imagery,” I say. “Good. A Clockwork Orange fucked me up like that as a little kid.” Many nod and say they love that movie.
“I read the book,” says a new face quietly. “In jail,” adds the young man. “It’s good, and has an extra scene that’s not in the movie.”
“I didn’t know about the extra scene; I’ve never read it,” I admit. “How many of you read regularly?” I ask, raising my hand.
The majority of hands go up.
“Only when we’re in jail, though!” cackles the Clown.
“How many of you have actually been in jail?”
All but two hands go up.
Perk #4 of being a lowlife: Being incarcerated allows plenty of time to read.
I was sitting at my desk in the flooring store where I worked and suddenly said to my boss, “I’m quitting,”
It took less than an instant for me to see from his expression that he was both angry and confused. “You’re joking, right?”
“No. I’m serious. I’m leaving.”
“Why? What are you going to do?”
“I’m not happy. Worse, I’m not writing. I’m going to start a graphic design company.”
He laughed and stood. “You said you’d never just quit like this.”
“I’m sorry, but if I don’t do it now, I never will.”
Later that day, once everyone had heard the news, another employee confronted me.
“You’re seriously leaving?”
“Well, I just don’t get it. You don’t even know what you’re going to do.” The tone in his voice wasn’t concern, but anger.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I’ll figure it out. All I know is that I’m not happy. I can’t keep living like this.”
“That’s crazy,” he spat out. “I just don’t understand.”
I wondered for days why my coworker had reacted so angrily to my decision to leave. I realized that by admitting my unhappiness and by taking an action, I had forced him to look at his own misery, and his unwillingness, or inability, to take a risk. He had a family, and I did not.
Perk #5 of being a lowlife: Sometimes, having nothing to lose can be everything.
“Let’s talk about meaning,” I say to my class.
On the projection screen I pull up the cover of Matthew McGevna’s novel Little Beasts, which is composed of a dark tree, a dark tree house on a snow-white background, and some blood spatter near the title.
“What do you think this book is about?”
“A tree house!” jokes the Clown.
I laugh. “All right, but what does the tree house imply, what does it tell us?”
“There’s a kid,” someone says.
“Good. What about the kid?”
“Something bad happens to him,” says another.
“Good. What else can we tell from these images? There’s a lot of negative space here. What might that imply?”
The Clown jokes again. “It means it’s boring!”
“Perhaps,” I say. “But, what else? What emotion?”
“Sadness,” someone else says.
“Boy, you guys are good!” I tell them. “How many of you like this cover?”
Only a few hands go up.
“How many don’t like this cover at all?”
The rest of the hands go up.
“What don’t you like?”
“It’s too simple.”
“I just don’t like it.”
I shut the projector off and turn the lights back on. “You all should have said you like it,” I say, smirking.
“Because I designed this cover.”
“No you didn’t!”
“I did,” I insist.
“I could do better than that,” one of them jokes.
“A year and a half ago I quit my job and started freelancing graphic design work like this so that I could write more, and so I’d have time to do things like come hang out with degenerates like you.”
“Degenerates?” someone shouts.
“That’s offensive!” remarks another.
I act confused. “What’s wrong? Is degenerate a bad word?”
“I disagree. I’m a degenerate, too.”
“It’s still offensive!”
“Fine. Would you prefer I use the word “fringe?”
They continue to pretend to be offended, and I continue to joke along with them a while before asking if they know who Charles Bukowski is.
None of them do.
I pass around copies of Bukowski’s poem “Dinosauria We” and read it to them.
… Born into this
Into hospitals which are so expensive that it’s cheaper to die
Into lawyers who charge so much it’s cheaper to plead guilty
Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed
Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes
Born into this
Walking and living through this …
“Is there anyone here who doesn’t identify with at least one sentiment in this poem?”
Not one hand goes up.
So, I tell them about Bukowski. He was the king of degenerates, I tell them, and fiction writers regard him as “low,” and academic poets don’t even acknowledge his existence. Bukowski, I tell them, was a man who felt his humanity so profoundly it destroyed him. He was addressing the issues that affected the “lowlifes,” the alcoholics and addicts of society, and this is why he is looked down upon. I tell them that when I first read Bukowski’s poetry I saw a heart like a star gone nova. There are few writers as true-blue as Bukowski was.
“Do you guys feel like society treats you like lowlifes?”
They all nod.
Ferret, as he likes to be called, is the best writer in the whole group, and he sits quietly scribbling in his notebook. Three days clean from heroin, he is shaking.
“Ferret,” I say. “Did you graduate from high school?”
“No,” he says. “I tried, though.”
The group laughs.
“Here,” I indicate the young man with an open palm. “Look at Ferret, a high school drop-out who is a better fucking writer than 90 percent of the people I know who hold a masters of fine arts, but society would call him “low” because he’s writing about being hungry and homeless. Does that make any sense to you?”
A resounding no.
“Makes no sense to me, either. But, if writing about the reality of the world we know, Ferret’s world and Bukowski’s too, makes me a lowlife, then I’m happy to be a lowlife. Because fuck them, that’s why.”
Ferret smiles thinly and goes back to scribbling.
“Does anyone still have a problem with being a degenerate?”
A silence takes hold of the room, and I wait.
“See,” I finally say. “I knew you were all a bunch of hooligans.”
They laugh, and I no longer feel like I am an outsider among outsiders.
Writing, the same as addiction, is a response to the world in which we live. Perhaps it’s not the correct reaction, but still, one shouldn’t have to wonder very much about why so many writers happened to also be addicts. Writing is the pursuit of truth; it’s about confronting our realities, and it can very easily eat our humanity down to the bone, like it did to Bukowski. However, if approached correctly, writing can change our lives, or inspire us to change our lives.
I no longer wake up next to a drug addict who is unwilling to change; I’m no longer chained to that sinking ship. I don’t have to go through the motions of a job I hate, or a relationship with a person I hate, while living a life I hate. And neither do you, or any of these sixteen brilliant individuals with whom I get to spend my Tuesdays.
Perk #6 of being a lowlife: Enjoying the camaraderie of other lowlifes.
P. Casey Telesk published his first short story, an alternate history tale about the assassination of President Truman, in his elementary school journal at the age of eight. His 1999-2005 anthology of bad breakup poetry has not yet found a home. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he received a bachelor's degree in English literature from The Pennsylvania State University and is a graduate of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing Program. He enjoys writing about modernist literature, the Death of Affect, and the importance of structure in literary craft.