Charles Bukowski Rails Against 9‑to‑5 Jobs in a Brutally Honest Letter (1986)


Charles Bukows­ki—or “Hank” to his friends—assiduously cul­ti­vat­ed a lit­er­ary per­sona as a peren­ni­al drunk­en dead­beat. He most­ly lived it too, but for a few odd jobs and a peri­od of time, just over a decade, that he spent work­ing for the Unit­ed States Post Office, begin­ning in the ear­ly fifties as a fill-in let­ter car­ri­er, then lat­er for over a decade as a fil­ing clerk. He found the work mind-numb­ing, soul-crush­ing, and any num­ber of oth­er adjec­tives one uses to describe repet­i­tive and deeply unful­fill­ing labor. Actu­al­ly, one needn’t sup­ply a description—Bukowski has splen­did­ly done so for us, both in his fic­tion and in the epis­tle below unearthed by Let­ters of Note.

In Bukowski’s first nov­el Post Office (1971), the writer of lowlife com­e­dy and pathos builds in plen­ty of wish-ful­fill­ment for his lit­er­ary alter ego Hen­ry Chi­nas­ki. Kyle Ryan at The Onion’s A.V. Club sums it up suc­cinct­ly: “In Bukowski’s world, Chi­nas­ki is prac­ti­cal­ly irre­sistible to women, despite his alco­holism, misog­y­ny, and gen­er­al crank­i­ness.” In real­i­ty, to say that Bukows­ki found lit­tle solace in his work would be a gross under­state­ment. But unlike most of his equal­ly mis­er­able co-work­ers, Bukows­ki got to retire ear­ly, at age 49, when, 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.

Need­less to say, he was thrilled, so much so that he penned the let­ter below fif­teen years lat­er, express­ing his grat­i­tude to Mar­tin and describ­ing, with char­ac­ter­is­tic bru­tal hon­esty, the life of the aver­age wage slave. And though com­par­isons to slav­ery usu­al­ly come as close to the lev­el of absurd exag­ger­a­tion as com­par­isons to Nazism, Bukowski’s por­trait of the 9 to 5 life makes a very con­vinc­ing case for what we might call the the­sis of his let­ter: “Slav­ery was nev­er abol­ished, it was only extend­ed to include all the col­ors.”

After read­ing his let­ter below, you may feel a great deal more sym­pa­thy, if you did not already, with Bukowski’s life choic­es. You may find your­self, in fact, re-eval­u­at­ing your own.


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,


via Fla­vor­wire

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Charles Bukows­ki: Depres­sion and Three Days in Bed Can Restore Your Cre­ative Juices (NSFW)

“Don’t Try”: Charles Bukowski’s Con­cise Phi­los­o­phy of Art and Life

The Last (Faxed) Poem of Charles Bukows­ki

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (17)
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  • Avital Oehler says:

    Bukows­ki = Always to the point and always inspi­ra­tional.

  • Rafael Torres says:

    this is a won­der­ful way to put things in per­spec­tive…

  • Steeve says:

    What a pussy.

  • Matt says:

    The guy was a (very) good writer, and he got lucky.

  • Jessie Robinett says:

    I come from a very blue col­lar fam­i­ly. We were taught from a very young age that you have to have a steady job, and any job will do bet­ter than no job at all. I was lucky and I got out of this habit ear­ly in life. There are some hon­est truths writ­ten by Bukows­ki

  • Ankit.Mishra says:


  • lokezombie says:

    Is he wrong though? If you don’t like doing what you do, and you don’t own what you do, you’re a slave. All of us get our souls crushed in one way or anoth­er by the 9–5. He was just man enough to admit it, and even man­ner enough to try and break out (and just lucky enough to suc­ceed). Yes, what a pussy indeed.

    Like Hov said, “9–5 is how I sur­vive. I aint try­na sur­vive.”

  • Isa says:

    Though the work­ing con­di­tions Bukows­ki was employed under and many peo­ple are endur­ing today are hor­ri­ble I still see some very impor­tant dif­fer­ences to slav­ery:
    For exam­ple the absence of bod­i­ly abuse, the fact that chil­dren and elder­ly were/are not forced to work in the kind of jobs he was work­ing in, the fact that slave’s chil­dren could be sold and tak­en away from their par­ents, and that Bukows­ki for sure did not endure the dicri­m­in­i­na­tion due to skin col­or that jus­ti­fied slav­ery. I find some def­i­n­i­tions of slav­ery here his­tor­i­cal­ly incor­rect and offen­sive.

  • Jason says:

    I agree. ‘Serf­dom’ is a word that bet­ter describes the con­di­tion Bukows­ki rails against although there are dif­fer­ences there too.

  • Sea dawg says:

    Some peo­ple like walls maybe. Not me. One must first live, then die, then die again, then live, then die. It is a slave sys­tem. Maybe the whip is gone but it takes the same kind of for­ti­tude to escape

  • Mary lou says:

    Sea Dawg, you make me want to open myself with expan­sive think­ing. I want to widen my free­dom and scream into the wind.

  • chuck jr says:

    I feel like a lot of these response com­plete­ly ignore what life was like in Amer­i­ca between the 50s and 70s. And, even to a degree, before the inter­net.
    Peo­ple could­n’t just ran­dom­ly start weird hip­ster com­pa­nies with mom­my and dad­dy’s mon­ey like they do now.
    And you could­n’t build a ‘brand’ by hop­ping on Instra­gram or Snapchat like peo­ple do today.
    To have your own home or own place, maybe the lux­u­ry of a car, healthcare…you had to have a job to get those things and most jobs were pret­ty mis­er­able because they typ­i­cal­ly revolved around legit­i­mate­ly hard labor.
    If you were in a union, you were con­sid­ered lucky because you made fair wages and ben­e­fits, a vaca­tion and health­care.

    But to jump away from all that was insan­i­ty at the time because there were no oth­er options if you were a per­son of means with rich par­ents.

    Keep that in mind when you’re play­ing cri­tique. Jump­ing off that was a ball­sy move with seri­ous­ly dire impli­ca­tions if you did­n’t get it right. Hank could­n’t just show up and live in mom­my and dad­dy’s base­ment like so many adults do these days after their organ­ic, GMO free decaf cof­fee brand you start does­n’t take off.


    You need both to under­stand Bukowski’s work and a real­iza­tion of soci­etal norms dur­ing his time to real­ly appre­ci­ate what he wrote. It’s great that his mes­sage spans across gen­er­a­tions and time but if you real­ly want to feel this shit, put it into per­spec­tive by way of Amer­i­can norms while this guy was break­ing free of what he saw as a mod­ern day slav­ery.

  • Brendan says:

    He was­n’t lucky.
    He was smart.

  • Mohamad samiulla says:

    If life for a com­mon man was so bad at that time how worse is it now and how worst it will become tomor­row

  • Anonymous says:

    exact­ly. hope that if any­one on this thread sees this, you should watch this poem video on labor:

  • TN says:

    I think the term “slave” means you are sub­servient to a “mas­ter” regard­less of the lev­el of abuse. Kind of like how the Bible has described some slave/master rela­tion­ships as benev­o­lent while oth­ers as oppres­sive. In either case, you don’t have the free­dom to do what you tru­ly want or are gen­uine­ly skilled at doing. There is less or almost no choice. Hard­ly any auton­o­my to change your cir­cum­stances. So, our sens­es and appetites and fears could be our mas­ters. At least, that’s why I have always ago­nized over my 9–5 or 10–10 jobs. And, if you are a pussy because you don’t want to be sub­ject­ed to mean­ing­less, ungrat­i­fy­ing, and painful work, it means you are not a com­plete­ly mind­less ani­mal. That’s human­i­ty.

  • Daniel says:

    Bukows­ki was more of a man in his sleep, than you ever will be awake. Read that again.

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