Part 2: The Offer


First Person

Steve Lowe and the Mugwump. Photograph by Michael Childers.

A story in three parts. Previously: Part 1, The Amanuensis.

I met Steve the first time I stayed at the Lautner Motel, in August of 2000. I was in California to do research for a book about trailer parks, and there was an anarchist trailer park, a place called Slab City, in an abandoned military base about sixty miles south of Desert Hot Springs. I’d brought my girlfriend and wanted to stay somewhere nice to make up for the 120-degree temperatures, so we wound up at the Lautner. It was late when we finally arrived, but almost as soon as we’d gone inside and put our luggage down, Steve knocked on the door.

He had come to give us the educational spiel he gave to all the guests—about the architect, the Motel, and their places in the history of Modernist architecture. Steve told us that Lautner had built it as a retreat for screenwriters who’d come out to the desert from Hollywood. Each room was a self-contained apartment, based on a shelter Lautner built at Taleisin while studying with Frank Lloyd Wright. All the furniture in the room was vintage, all from Steve’s own collections and from the correct period, even the phones, which had been made in 1947, just like the motel. Steve had a shaved head and a long, not-quite-beak nose. He wore a sort of modified Van Dyke beard, and what was left of his hair was salt and pepper. The skin was taut over his cheekbones, and his warm brown eyes looked at you from inside deep sockets; still, he didn’t look old or tired. He was around my height, six feet, but bigger, maybe 185 pounds. Solid, and powerful. He gave the impression of a tremendous amount of barely controlled energy (later I would learn that he chain-smoked joints rolled from cheap Mexican weed, the kind that still had seeds, in order to get that energy down to a manageable level). At the same time, he had a sort of monastic quality, as though he were a member of a desert sect devoted to the ecstatic writings of Saint Teresa of Ávila. Or like Rasputin, if Rasputin were gay and loved William Burroughs and the Beats instead of power and homicide. Often, it’s hard to be in a room with people who have that kind of intensity, but Steve was funny and self-deprecating, which made it seem less overwhelming.

It quickly became clear that although we had never spoken, Steve and I had been connected for years. This sounds like New Age nonsense, but it’s true. We’d been neighbors in Santa Fe: he owned a compound four doors down and across the street from the old adobe I lived in. Occasionally, I’d go over to buy the extremely potent strain of marijuana grown by one of his tenants. I wrote about art for a local magazine; Steve typeset the magazine and read all of my stories. I went to openings at his gallery, including one for a Burroughs and Haring show he did in 1989. I’d hoped to meet Burroughs, but he was “feeling poorly,” so neither of them was there. Steve and I knew the same people, went to the same parties, and may have been in the same room together. We had simply somehow failed to meet.

The next day, we met for dinner. Steve told us stories about living in New York in the seventies, when real estate was so cheap that Gordon Matta-Clark could cut holes in buildings and no one cared, except the people who were interested in his art. Steve lived in SoHo, in a loft so vast that, on Christmas Day, he and his wife (both of them were bi, until they decided they were gay, at which point the relationship fell apart) would fill it with trees discarded by the offices in Midtown, and then roller skate among them. Even the bad things sounded romantic: if they were short on rent, as happened regularly, Steve turned part of the loft into a movie theater, and charged admission for showings of Robert Frank’s Beat film Pull My Daisy. The price of a square foot in the New York I lived in was already fast approaching $1000. The idea of living without those economic strictures was a fantasy of impossible freedom to me.

Then there were the Burroughs stories. Most of them were funny and some of them were touching, but all of them were about William’s seemingly boundless capacity for self-involvement, and Steve’s equally boundless capacity for self-sacrifice in fulfilling the great man’s needs, no matter how insane. There was William giving dinner guests ten minutes to eat before announcing that it was “time to feed the Outside Animal,” and clearing the food away to dump it in a heap in the garden. William calling him at 3:00 AM to collect the raccoons trapped in the basement, and then making him drive thirty miles outside of town to release them. (The connection between this ritual and the steady flow of raccoons to the basement was lost on William, who insisted that the “OA” was a mythical beast, appearing from nowhere, taking his offering, and disappearing again.) I learned that Steve, on the night of the opening I’d gone to hoping to see the junkie priest, had taken William to his place north of town. There was a snowstorm that night, he said, and by the time he got home, there were two feet of snow on the ground. Steve got the fire going, though, and things were fine until William remembered that he’d buried opium suppositories somewhere in the yard a couple of years before. He insisted he needed them. While I was drinking free wine at his gallery, and feeling let down, Steve was out in the snowstorm, digging holes. It took him until three in the morning, he said, but he finally found the opium. William slid a pellet in, and promptly fell asleep.

I should, perhaps, have noticed that Steve’s stories about Burroughs were more than a little ominous, but I did not. I’d had a photo of the man hanging above my desk for almost ten years. The picture was taken around the time he appeared in Drugstore Cowboy, so he was in his seventies, at least. He wore a suit and tie and a fedora, the same outfit he’d been wearing since the Beat era and probably before. The photo had been with me through seven moves in four states. Which was strange, in a way, because I never liked Burroughs’s writing much. I thought Naked Lunch was as great and important as people said, and maybe Junky; much of the rest was—like the casually misogynistic, boys-only culture that often surrounded him—something I had to overlook in order to be a fan. Being like Burroughs wasn’t something I aspired to, but he was still a fetish object: the gentleman outlaw. He didn’t get fat and sad or turn into a hippie, like the other Beats. He didn’t die young, like the punks. Instead, he never quit using and never really changed or compromised, and so became more compelling and believable the longer he was around. By the time my photo was taken, his voice, a Midwestern drawl that got more cracked as he got older, made “language is a virus from outer space” sound not just true, but profound.

Steve and I decided that the photo was one of his coincidences, a benediction on our hitherto unknown connection. Steve was a big believer in signs. I liked to think I wasn’t. But when Steve called in 2004, to ask if I wanted to come work at the Beat Hotel, I listened.

SINCE MY FIRST TRIP TO Desert Hot Springs, things had not gone well. I hadn’t made much progress on my book. I spent a great deal of time writing, rewriting and, more often, not writing, a chapter about why UFOs land in trailer parks (answer: the Cold War). I was also broke, my freelance jobs mostly dried up and my tiny advance long since spent. I had panic attacks while making the transfer from the J/M/Z to the F train, something I did at least twice a day. And I had seen signs of my own. On lower Broadway, I picked up a pay phone and felt an awful scrabbling, crawling sensation: a giant cockroach had been curled up in the empty earpiece, and skittered into my ear, across my face, into my hair. A week later, a rat, diseased, fur gone in patches, charged me in the snack food aisle at the local Gristedes. The city itself was rejecting me.

One of the few weeks I had been happy during that time was when Steve and I drove across the country together. The Beat, at that point, was sufficiently set up to look good in photo shoots—there’d been a few magazine articles—but nowhere near ready for guests. We had brought some of the things necessary to get the place ready: a truckload of vintage furniture and art, plus the mugwump. This last was a prop from David Cronenberg’s much unloved adaptation of Naked Lunch. It had grey-green skin and giant, sad eyes set in an immense, wrinkled head—a combination of lizard, human, and space alien—and it was wearing a leather collar with a chain that ran to the manacles on its wrists and ankles. There was some debate about where the mugwump should ride. It was latex and fairly delicate, so we were reluctant to leave it in the back, in the heat. We decided it should ride up front, between the two of us. But it was also over six feet tall, mostly humanoid, and realistic enough that we didn’t really want to have it next to us, especially as Steve was chain-smoking joints for pretty much the entire ride. Eventually we settled the issue by moving it back and forth, depending on whether Steve was more anxious about the heat or getting stopped by the police. The whole trip was stressful, of course, especially when I was bitten by a brown recluse spider while sleeping through an orgy at William’s old compound in Lawrenceville. But it seemed like an adventure, a good story to tell later on, and it was a huge relief to be out of the city, back in the desert, working on a project that was not my own, a project where every day was not another opportunity to fail.

So when Steve called, he wasn’t just offering me a job at the Beat Hotel; he was offering a new life. There wasn’t much money, he said, only a weekly stipend of $200, plus a cut of the still theoretical profits. But there was a caretaker’s house, with its own swimming pool, and lemon, orange, and grapefruit trees in the backyard. I’d have a company car, a gold 1979 Camaro with the firebird decal on the hood, to drive around the desert in Southern California, home to one of the world’s great collections of trailer parks. I would work at the hotel for about four hours a day, he said, and the rest of the time would be my own, to stare at the San Jacinto Mountains and write. Steve promised to help with that, too. “If I can break William’s block, I can break yours,” he said.

I told him I would take the job—for four months, at first, long enough to get the Hotel running.

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

Next: Part 3, The Departure.