“I was working in Sacred Grounds as a dishwasher, and on Monday nights I’d come out and dry my hands off on my apron and read a couple of poems and then I’d go back to wash dishes. And I sort of became known as the dishwashing poet of San Pedro.” – Raindog
This little piggy went to the market, and came home; this little piggy went to the bank, and came home; this little piggy went to the post office, and came home; this little piggy went to the hospital. However…
“I came home, but the little piggy did not.”
RD Armstrong, better known in the underworld of poetry as Raindog – as he will henceforth be called – is sitting in his wheelchair in the book section of Fingerprints music store in downtown Long Beach. His right foot is being kept under wraps and is gradually healing. It wasn’t just the one piggy that didn’t come home that day.
Raindog is often associated with the late Charles Bukowski, but unlike many Bukowski wannabes who superficially imitate the outward lifestyle, Raindog has evolved into a prolific poet in his own right as well as an increasingly astute publisher of poetry and prose collections by way of his Lummox Press.
“About three months ago,” he says, “I was working on a job here in Long Beach (he’s been a handyman by day), and I was really trying hard to finish it ‘cause I knew that I had this hole in my foot. It wasn’t very big but it was a hole in my foot nonetheless, and I wanted to get this job finished because it meant that I would have some money to live on, because I knew I was gonna end up going into the hospital and I didn’t know for how long.
“By the time I got into the hospital,” Raindog continues, “the hole in my foot had gotten to be about this big” – and he holds apart two fingers to show that it was roughly the size of a Kennedy half-dollar. “It was on the bottom of my foot. The infection actually ate through my foot to the top of my foot, and it got into the bone. They had to remove the joint, which meant I had lost the little toe – it would have been kind of flopping around in the breeze. And, as cool as that sounded, they wouldn’t let me keep it there.”
And so they removed it?
“They took the toe off; they took about this much of my foot off. And I’ve been recuperating from that experience.”
Did you save the toe?
“I tried to, but they wouldn’t let me [keep it],” Raindog says. “I wanted to cast it in resin and hang it on my rearview mirror or wear it around my neck.”
Five years earlier, Raindog was in a similar predicament, and out of that experience his ruminations about life, death, poetry, and the meaning of it all resulted in a book he published under the title Living Among the Mangled. In the preface he writes: “In November of ’08 I was hospitalized in a pauper’s hospital for two weeks with an infection that nearly cost me my right foot. That’s when I learned I was diabetic.”
He was patched up. He was also warned: “They said, You have to be really careful now and mind your p’s and q’s because we don’t want to see you back here. Because the next time we see you you’re probably gonna be in for something getting cut off. And I said, Believe me, I’m going to stay on top of that.” He pauses. “Well, you know…”
Roots, and branches
Steve Armstrong was born in Lafayette, Indiana, a little over 62 years ago. His folks and his three siblings, two sisters and a brother, moved out to California in the latter 1950s, first to the Valley (“I was a Valley boy”) and then they settled in Manhattan Beach. The siblings and Raindog’s father have since scattered elsewhere – the Bay Area, Grass Valley, Connecticut – but his mother’s in the same home. “The only thing keeping that house together,” he quips, “is the fact that the termites are all holding hands.”
“I went to Mira Costa High School and sort of got my first taste of writing in the underground newspaper that I put out in ’69 with my friends, and then in ’70 I put out another underground newspaper with my girlfriend, just to bug the hell out of the people that ran Mira Costa a little further.”
The transition from Steve Armstrong to RD Armstrong-slash-Raindog came about some years after serving his time at Mira Costa.
“I needed to make a clean cut [with] my departure from the South Bay so I became this Raindog character.”
And that was by way of Tom Waits and his 1985 album “Rain Dogs.”
“Exactly. I’m a big fan of Tom Waits. I originally thought I was going to be called The Mule (a sly reference to “Mule Variations,” 1999), but Raindog stuck, and so I became the Raindog.”
Raindog spent the next decade working in Manhattan Beach, at the South Bay Community School and then at a counseling center. He moved up to Venice, returned and found digs in Redondo Beach. “I wrote poetry every now and then,” he says, “and really didn’t think of it as something I would be doing on a regular basis, much less call myself a poet. That just sounded so pretentious, you know?”
What lured him from Redondo to San Pedro was his friend Candice Gawne, an artist who creates stunning neon sculptures (she had a knock-out solo show in the art gallery at El Camino College), and her husband Lou Mannick. They needed a boarder while paying the mortgage on their house and Raindog stayed with them for four years.
His next stop was a place in downtown San Pedro, and it was during this period that Raindog’s immersion in poetry – and publishing – kicked in. We’ll circle back and pick up the thread of those golden years in just a moment.
In 1998 he resettled in Long Beach, where he became the resident handyman in the building where he lived. About five years later, in 2003, he found another place in downtown Long Beach but, as sometimes happens in the crapshoot of a random change of address, the surroundings weren’t conducive to his mental – or physical – health.
“I had a problem with the people in the neighborhood,” Raindog says. “My truck got broken into and all my tools were stolen.” And if that wasn’t bad enough, “One of my neighbors in the building where I was living was making death threats against me, and I just thought maybe it’s not such a good place to be.”
After a year and a half of that he’d had more than enough. Fortunately, the woman who is now his current landlady, and for whom he’d been doing handyman work for six years, told him she had a place coming up for rent, and would Raindog be interested?
It’s an apartment over a garage on a decently quiet street near Sixth and Obispo, and I’m guessing that the building dates pretty far back into the last century. It’s one of those homes with real character, if not exactly charm, and perhaps not unexpectedly it’s cluttered with books and papers – the sort of order-in-chaos that many writers or visual artists tend to dwell in and even thrive. Writer and artist Harold Plople’s last residence was quite a bit like this, and frankly it’s a disheveled ambiance that this journalist is personally familiar with. Simply put, many artists aren’t thinking about being featured in the pages of Good Housekeeping.
“It’s been an ongoing struggle,” Raindog says, “but I guess when you’ve been bitten by the bug for some art form, whatever it might be, you tend to put the requirements of living on the back burner. I mean, you scrape and you scrounge and you borrow and you beg and you steal, whatever you have to do to make the money to cover the basics, but you’re not really focused on that, you’re not thinking about your 401K. You’re not thinking about your retirement; you’re just thinking about trying to express yourself in whatever creative mode you’re applying (yourself) to. And now I’m having to live with the fact that I haven’t really prepared myself for retirement. I mean, I can’t really retire.
“I’m in a situation now where I can hardly work, and I’m trying to figure out a way to make a living doing what I like doing, and it’s kind of hit-and-miss. But I think there’s a possibility that it could work out. I’m used to struggling, I’m used to scraping by, I’m used to living on practically nothing. So that’s not going to be a problem, it’s not gonna be any big surprise to me. But it’s going to be tight.”
And then there’s such a thing as the kindness of strangers. In the past, Raindog was aided by people who believed in his endeavors as a poet-publisher.
“The last time I got out of the hospital,” he says, “I did a sort of mini-fundraiser that I organized myself. I just sent out an announcement: Here’s my situation, here’s what I’m trying to accomplish. If you can help me out, great; if you can’t help me out don’t worry about it, I appreciate the effort anyway.
“And I managed to raise like three or four thousand dollars. It wasn’t quite what I wanted but it was close enough. I was able to live on that for a while, but back then I was living on more money. Now I could stretch that out to close to six months if I played my cards right.”
Vinegar Hill, and Bukowski
We’ve circled back to those golden years in San Pedro, after Raindog had moved into the rusticated heart of downtown and connected with Andrea Kowalski who ran Vinegar Hill Books on Sixth Street near Mesa.
After Charles Bukowski died, in March of 1994, a tribute seemed in order for the infamous author (portrayed by Mickey Rourke in “Barfly”) who’d become a resident of the port city during his final years. And so Raindog and Kowalski organized a commemorative poetry reading in the latter’s bookstore and bolstered it with a printed collection of prose and poetry. It was also the somewhat inauspicious debut of Lummox Press.
“Last Call: A Legacy of Madness was technically published jointly by Vinegar Hill and Lummox,” Raindog says. “Although, really, to be honest, Andrea did the bulk of the heavy lifting, so I really see it as a book that Lummox was sort of along for the ride.”
Last Call, he adds, “is all handmade and is really a beautiful book, and it actually had pretty nice stuff in it, too, so that was good.” There were just five authors – Gerald Locklin, Jay Alamares, Tracey Young-Cleantis, T. Thrasher, and Raindog. The press run was limited to 500 copies, and this writer is holding #130 in his hand.
Raindog’s involvement with Last Call lit a fire under him, and he resumed writing poetry as well as going to poetry readings. It was an era where coffee shops were springing up and catering to poets, would-be or otherwise; “spoken word” was enjoying a renaissance, and Harvey Kubernick had the foresight to put out CDs with some of L.A.’s finest poets reading or reciting their material.
“It was a whole new world for me,” Raindog says.
There were more readings and other events at Vinegar Hill Books, and now I vaguely remember a young woman who worked there named Juliet for whom I wrote a short poem. It was also where I acquired a small treasure, the three-volume Diary, 1953-1969 of Witold Grombrowicz.
Vinegar Hill Books is long gone – Andrea Kowalski now sells real estate – but for several years it lent San Pedro some of its funky, bohemian charm.
“It was right down the street from Sacred Grounds,” Raindog says, “where they had Monday night poetry readings. I was working in Sacred Grounds as a dishwasher, and on Monday nights I’d come out and dry my hands off on my apron and read a couple of poems and then I’d go back to wash dishes. And I sort of became known as the dishwashing poet of San Pedro.
“That’s how I hooked up with Bukowski,” he continues, “whom I’d been a fan of for a long time but never really did anything about it. A poem that I wrote about Bukowski got published in Random Lengths. I didn’t know how to send it to him, so I asked (publisher and editor) James Allen if he would post it in Random Lengths and he said, well, we could do it as a letter, but we don’t as a rule publish poetry. I said, okay, well, we’ll do it in a letter then. And, amazingly, [Bukowski] actually read it, and that’s how I got the signed copy of Screams from the Balcony because he said he would sign a book for me.”
Years later, to pay his medical expenses, Raindog would part with his extensive Bukowski collection and other books. As he writes in “A Workingman’s Library,” “And for what?/ A few hundred dollars/ And forty inches of/ shelf space.”
“I didn’t really ever hang out with Bukowski; that’s a misnomer. People assume, because I was such a big fan of his, that I must have hung out with him. Just like I’m a big fan of Tom Waits but I never hung out with Tom Waits, you know?”
Lummox on the half-shell
With Kowalski, Raindog put out a few chapbooks, very small collections of poetry and prose.
“And I started publishing a little magazine called the Lummox Journal,” he says. “Actually, being in San Pedro was an actively creative time for me. I did a lot of stuff that was more oriented towards creativity and less oriented towards trying to make a living – although I was still making a living. But all of a sudden I had this sort of renaissance going on where I was doing all kinds of stuff, writing-wise and publishing.
“I started the Lummox Journal with the idea that I might be able to sell enough subscriptions that I’d be able to buy stamps for my own stuff, to send out submissions to other magazines.” He pauses. “What it ended up being was that it took up all my time and basically I published myself in my little magazine – which worked out fine because I didn’t just publish schlock, you know? I was a very rough editor on myself.”
Raindog went on to publish the Lummox Journal for 11 years, from 1995 to 2006. “In ’98,” he says, “I started publishing the Little Red Book series, which are those little quarter-page-sized chapbooks.” He confesses that they’re labor-intensive, but on the other hand he’s thus far published over 60 titles.
Lummox Press has come into its own over the last two, three, maybe four years, in part because Raindog was receiving manuscripts too large for the Little Red Books. Last year, the Lummox Journal was revived (160 poets; 235 pages), to be published once a year. The 2013 installment is in its final stages before being shipped to the printer.
“Last year I published 12 books including the big Lummox issue,” Raindog says. “I was trying to clear the decks of all the books that I said I would publish that I hadn’t been able to get to. I can only do so much, you know? Fortunately people for the most part understand that it’s a one-man operation and that I just can’t crank these things out.”
This year, of course, he’s been waylaid or laid up. “I’d set myself a schedule of 14 books plus the big Lummox anthology. So that’s 15 books in one year, and I just lost two months of time.”
The result is that the books are coming out, just somewhat sporadically. Two weeks earlier Raindog had published three books and now there’re two more, “because I needed to try to get back on track.” And the tally so far in 2013? Seven, and counting.
It’s a bit crazy, Raindog says of these past few months, trying to heal, to walk again unaided, and trying to put out book after book.
“But I didn’t have anything better to do,” he says, “and it was an easy way to kill time. So that’s what I did.”
The conversation goes full-circle, back to the little piggy that didn’t come home and to those that did.
“I’ve got pictures, if you want to see them. I’ve got the whole process, man. I took a picture of my foot before I went into the hospital, and I’ve taken pictures since I got out. It’s pretty remarkable. In the last month the progress has been really good.”
Trip, stumble, fall, get up; Raindog will soon be on his feet again, so stand back and make some room.
Lummox Press keeps the majority of its titles in print. Raindog can be reached at P.O. Box 5301, San Pedro, CA 90733, or by going to lummoxpress.com.
Mozart at 22
by RD Armstrong
“My life sucks, man!”
He was 22
His hair was cut like the Dutch Boy
and dyed jet black
His overcoat covered
ragged jeans and jackboots
He leaned against the lamppost
bumming cigarettes from
A group of young men milled around him
muttering their agreement with
his wisdom and profound insight
he was 22 and life was
passing him by
He looked dejectedly at me
“Why can’t I be like you, man?”
22 and he wanted to double his grief
In parts of Eastern Europe
old men of 22 were manning the baricades
right now even as we stood on a corner
in the midday sun
Mozart at 22
had already lived two thirds of his life
Rimbaud at 22 had given up poetry,
been shot by his ex-lover
and taken up gun-running
“My whole life is totally effed up, man!”
He lived in a small, neat, studio apartment just
down the street
When I was 22
I lived in a roach infested hole of an apartment
My girlfriend was two-timing me with
a baseball player
and booking herself on an all-expenses paid trip
around the bend
The Blue Meanies were gassing kids on Telegraph Ave.
whilst Nixon and Company
were looting Vietnam
raping our faith in authority
and pillaging the federal government
Now this kid
this 22 year-old
this angst-ridden lost soul
wants to be like me
living the “easy” life?
One tenth of my entire life
equals his “adult” life
His life is a little fart
compared to the brown
crusty foot-long floater of a turd
that is mine
22 years old
and its all over except for the
screaming and crying
“Rest easy kid, it’s always darkest
right before it goes