Part 1: The Amanuensis


First Person

Photograph by Michael Childers.

A story in three parts.

Karl, the Beat Hotel’s ex-meth-addict handyman, stood at the top of a thirty-foot ladder, squirting a translucent goo with the brand name “Tanglefoot” onto one of the Hotel’s air-conditioner units. I held the ladder so that Karl did not pitch off into the sand and gravel below. The goo represented a new phase in our boss’s war with the pigeon population of Desert Hot Springs, California.

Our boss was Steve Lowe. Before starting the Beat Hotel, he’d performed with Laurie Anderson and read poetry with Allen Ginsberg. His gallery showed the best work Keith Haring ever did, and he made art with Richard Tuttle. Steve had also been William Burroughs’s amanuensis, a position that combined the duties of researcher, artist’s assistant, gallerist, and Official Writer’s-Block Breaker. Steve could tell stories about hanging out with William and Kurt Cobain and Patti Smith. He also recalled that, at Burroughs’s wake, he and Grant Hart, who was the drummer for Hüsker Dü, were the only people sober enough to be horrified when somebody threw up in the swimming pool.

But Steve wasn’t famous, exactly. Instead, he lived in a state that was stranger and less easy to define than fame. He was the center of an elaborate network of near-mystical coincidence whose tendrils apparently ran everywhere, touching all aspects of his life, from the most prosaic to the most rarefied. Often, these two converged, as they did with the green Converse high-tops. These were the shoes Steve was wearing when he left his loft in SoHo in a daze shortly after being fired from his job writing porn novels, which he’d been churning out at a rate of 175 pages a week for about two years. William Burroughs was wearing the very same green Converse high-tops that afternoon in 1974, and this was enough to get him to slow down and make eye contact, and then conversation, with Steve. If they hadn’t been wearing identical shoes, the two writers might not have stopped on the street in front of the Atomic Machine Parts Factory, and Burroughs might never have asked Steve to help him with Cities of the Red Night, the book he was having such trouble with. And who knows? Maybe, without Steve, Burroughs’s writers block might have become permanent and he wouldn’t have become the High Priest of Outlaw Writers. This kind of thing happened to Steve all the time: he seemed always to arrive in the right place at exactly the right time. He made it possible for things to happen. Steve was the man behind the scenes, invisible but essential.

I was part of Steve’s network of coincidence myself. That was why I was in Desert Hot Springs, California, holding a ladder for Karl, instead of sitting at home, working on my book, as my agent, my editor, my girlfriend, my parents, and pretty much everybody else in my life would have preferred.

WHEN I MET STEVE in the summer of 2000, he was running a four-room motel built by John Lautner, an architect who had been Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite student. A year or so later, he launched a second project: turning a burned-out spa hotel, built circa 1957, into a tribute to William and the other Beats. He planned to name it after the original Beat Hotel in Paris, where Burroughs finished Naked Lunch, but it looked more like the Villa Muniria in Tangier, where most of that novel was written: a blocky, two-story white building set in an urban-desert waste. Steve’s Beat Hotel, though, unlike the Villa Muniria, would have working plumbing, sheets that were changed every day, and a swimming pool fed by a natural hot spring. This sounds like a joke about the fate of all avant-garde movements: the first time, a revolution; the second, interior decor. But that’s not what was going on with the Beat. Steve and William were close and more than close: When Steve’s mother was dying, she moved to Burroughs’s compound in Kansas, and the three of them spent her final months there together. When Burroughs died, Steve saw to the funeral arrangements. They were friends, although that word seems pallid to describe their relationship, more intimate than most marriages. Steve’s passion for William and the Beats was so intense that he was taking a hotel and turning it into a work of art.

Before Steve could create this dream, he had to evict the caretakers hired by the building’s previous owner—a bunch of speed freaks and amateur pit-bull breeders whose duties, as they understood them, included smashing all of the hotel’s windows and allowing the local pigeons to nest in the rooms. A baseball bat was sufficient to get rid of the caretakers; the birds were tougher. They stayed through the four years of construction and painting, and through the endless rounds of decorating and redecorating that came after. The pigeons were accustomed to their arrangement. The guests, on the other hand, when we invited them to the Beat Hotel for a trial run, complained.

“Pigeons!” said the multimillionaire real-estate salesman in room eight. “My dear! I thought they were rats, coming through the walls.”

Steve, in private and at much higher volume, said: “I didn’t put all this work into this place to have it wrecked by these filthy birds. This is just shit. Shit!” Steve was relentless in his enthusiasms; he was also always seconds away from sliding into hysteria. The pigeons made him slide. “It’s killing me to constantly get dragged down by this mundane-detail shit. Killing me!”

It was funny to hear Steve complain about how details were killing him, since he had a greater capacity for worrying about details than anyone I’d ever met. Take, for example, the interior paint in the hotel: it was beige. It was not, however, just any beige; it was a custom beige. And it wasn’t an ordinary custom beige (insofar as such a thing is possible); this shade of beige could only be properly mixed, Steve swore, by one clerk at the Lowe’s Home Improvement Megacenter in Rancho Mirage. This clerk worked only part-time, preferring to devote himself to the various duties accruing to the title of Mr. Leather Palm Springs, which he’d held for two years. Periodically, the clerk would intimate that he might leave Lowe’s altogether and go full-time on the chaps-and-harness circuit. This sent Steve into paroxysms of fear. Every scratch or scuff was a tragedy, every trip to the hardware store attended by a junkie’s anxiety—Will the Man be there? Will he have the Good Stuff? Still, my girlfriend swore that the extremely particular beige Steve and Mr. Leather developed together really was the perfect beige, and that it was absolutely worth all the trouble. Everything at the new Beat Hotel was like that: austere to the point of near invisibility and crazily fussy.

These two qualities sometimes go together, as in, for instance, a Zen garden, or Donald Judd’s installations in Marfa. According to Steve, he was not running a small hotel, but constructing an “interpretative space,” where everything had meaning, resonance beyond itself. So the sole identifying sign on the building read, simply, “HOTEL” in white letters against white cinder block, in homage both to the original Beat, also marked only by the word “HOTEL,” and to the Villa Muniria’s nearly monochrome color scheme. The room numbers were also white on white, and mounted on pins so that they floated slightly off the wall. In order to determine the right degree of “float,” I smashed my face against the wall and squinted down along it, to make sure that the space between number and wall was not “distracting.” (“Distracting to whom?” I said. “It’s an eighth of an inch.” “Are you kidding?” Steve said. “I’ve seen people crawling around on the floor, lifting the carpets. Those are the people I’m dealing with here.”) The numbers cast a moving shadow during the day, a more severe, stationary one under the spotlight at night. Then there were the coat hooks by the pool, also white so that they disappeared into the white walls, and shaped so they’d cast a good shadow, too. Black on white, like words on a page.

Pigeon shit on white, on the other hand, looks like shit, on white. It was imperative that we get rid of the birds. But the day after Karl and I applied the Tanglefoot, Steve and I found ourselves standing in the gravel behind the Beat at 6:30 AM, staring up at a row of pigeons. They were making noise, a lot of noise, flailing their wings, trying to fly, and going nowhere. The goo we’d spread to get rid of them was supposed to be sticky enough to discourage the birds from wanting to come back once they’d touched it—word would spread, somehow, through the community—but not so sticky that they’d be imprisoned by it. Apparently, however, the Tanglefoot was more effective than advertised.

“This is horrible” Steve said, in a whisper only marginally less loud than a shout. “It’s grotesque. What are we supposed to do, get a weed whacker and clip them off?” I was silent, thinking about how I might harvest the birds. Clippers? Shears? Then Steve whispered again. “Get Karl, and get him back up there to get that shit off. We’ll just have to come out here every night and every morning and spray the fuckers with the hose.”

I had become the amanuensis’s amanuensis.

THE WORD AMANUENSIS derives from the Latin phrase “a manu servus.” A loose translation would be: “slave at handwriting.” When Julius Caesar was working on the Gallic Commentaries, he had three amanuenses to whom he would dictate in cycles, exhausting one and then switching to another. Milton used his daughters as amanuenses. When he was not dictating poetry to them, he set them to reading Latin—a language they did not understand—aloud to him for hours on end. The famously Scots-hating Samuel Johnson used six amanuenses while working on his Dictionary, five of them Scottish. He buried two of them before the project was done and one more not long after.

Then there was Céleste Albaret, Proust’s housekeeper and amanuensis. In her book Monsieur Proust, Céleste describes eight years (the crucial ones, when he was racing to finish the book) of living according to Proust’s iron whims. She spent her nights waiting, silently, for the bell in his room to sound, summoning her to bring coffee with milk, more sweaters, a book—or simply to call her in to talk. Then she would stand at the foot of his bed, listening to his stories until four, five, or even nine in the morning. On other occasions, she would travel across Paris after dark, with the bombs of World War I falling around her, to get a pastry and bring it back so that he could take a single bite, sigh, and put the rest aside, uneaten. She changed every sheet and every towel every day. If she did not, he noticed. “Céleste, you haven’t changed the sheets,” he said. “There is some dampness, and a little sour smell. You don’t realize it, but what you are doing is awful.” Céleste loved Proust so much that, far from being hurt or annoyed, she assured him that she would never forget again. “I’ve learned my lesson,” she said, with something that sounds like pride.

Someone gave me her book as a Christmas gift, and I read it in snatches, when I was not occupied with the ten-step bed-making process Steve insisted on, or looking for the books about flower-arranging that Burroughs’s mother wrote for Coca-Cola, or listening to the instructions he gave by phone about how to remove Ajax the dog’s sweater before he went to sleep (Ajax had taken to sleeping with me). I’d never given much thought to the intricacies of the relationship between the amanuensis and the dictator before; this may be why it took me so long notice the parallels between Céleste’s life and my own. It may explain why, for instance, I didn’t notice that, just as she believed she had come to the apartment on rue Haussman for a job, I thought I had come to the Beat Hotel for a part-time job. It may also explain why it took me so long to realize that, like her, I was wrong: we had both given our lives to someone else’s dream.

But then one evening my girlfriend—the one I’d left behind in New York—called. “Steve?” she said when I answered the phone. “What’s wrong? Is Mark all right?” In Monsieur Proust, Céleste talks about how, as her master retreated, she became his voice, his physical presence in the world. At first, people complained that they always spoke with her, and not him, when they called; eventually, though, friends, even the closest, could not tell the two apart on the phone. Céleste loved her master so much that becoming him, even in this small, strange way, filled her with joy. If I had been a better amanuensis, I might have had the same reaction. But instead, on the phone with my girlfriend, I realized that I was not all right. Not at all.

Mark Van de Walles first book, a cultural history of trailer parks in America, will be published by Ig Press in September.

Next: Part 2, The Offer.