Meeting William Burroughs on his eightieth birthday.
Illustration: Christian Tonnis
I have this fairy godmother, a childhood friend of my mother’s who lives in Lawrence, Kansas. My mother and I call her up several times a year and she’s always turning me onto cool stuff. One day, when I was a senior in high school, it occurred to me to ask her,
“Do you know William S. Burroughs?”
I should emphasize that this moment came at the feverish height of a blind obsession I had with William Burroughs and everything Burroughs related.
“You’re friends with him?”
“Well, we certainly know each other. He’s one of our local characters.”
“Do you see a lot of him?”
“I see him all the time, but mostly in the cat-food aisle of the supermarket.”
I went straight to my mother and demanded that we visit my godmother at the earliest opportunity. That summer, after I’d graduated high school and had had my wisdom teeth out, we went to Kansas.
My godmother made it clear that she had no intention of foisting me upon “the old man,” as she called him, but she did introduce me to one of his close friends, his editor at the time, who also declined to bring me to him, but was happy to tell me stories—such as how Burroughs’s most recent piece of writing had appeared to be utter gibberish until he realized he had to look at the typewriter key to the left of every character on the page, which ultimately revealed a rather mushy love poem to an octopus. (Toward the end of Burroughs’s life, cats, lemurs, and other non-humans were very much at the forefront of his thoughts.)
Although she didn’t feel comfortable trying to set up a meeting on my behalf, my godmother did show me which house was his. It is entirely against my nature to knock on anyone’s door without an express invitation, so instead, I walked back and forth in front of his gate with a collection of bird-call devices I’d found lying around in my godmother’s living room, hoping to coo him out of his domicile. (I imagine I believed this was an effective tactic after having read, in Hammer of the Gods, that a depressive Jeff Beck was lured out of his house and abducted for a concert by means of a bagpipe player in a diaper marching to and fro in front of his house.)
As the sun set, I thought I caught a glimpse of a pair of eyes peering through a bend in the blinds. But that was all I got.
* * *
A few months later, I was twiddling my thumbs in my college dorm room when a hallmate summoned me to the phone. It was my godmother.
“Guess what’s coming up,” she said.
I didn’t have to guess. It was to be his eminence’s eightieth birthday in February.
“I have these dear sweet friends with a wonderful bookstore that I just love to support. They’re organizing a reading celebrating the old man. If you could find a way to come out again and come read at that event, I’m pretty sure I can make sure you get to see him.”
So back I went to Kansas, brimming with anticipation. I was nervous about the reading, not possessing a very good voice of my own and not being very adept at public speaking. I made a sound collage of reel-to-reel tape manipulations and sampler loops of Ottoman military processions, Moroccan taqtuqa jebeliyya, Egyptian tarab, and Azeri art music; when I read my selections from Exterminator! and The Ticket that Exploded, I held a little Walkman with a speaker up to the mic and tried to balance the droning collage with my own delivery. There was a colorful roster of performers, from a local painter, Roger Shimomura, to the science-fiction-writing country singer Melvin Litton, to the two women who ran the store, who were very warm, wholesome types and struggled together with some perplexity through a selection from Naked Lunch.
Then, at last, Burroughs himself hobbled into the store. In the flesh! I was struck by how old and frail he looked. He had but the ghost of a wisp of hair left on his head. Feeling foolish, uncomfortably flushed, and hot, I introduced myself by name. “Glad to know you!” he said, somewhat impersonally. How was he doing? “As well as might be expected, after this operation I just had on my foot.” He hobbled onward, looked around, and left not long after. A little later, I was speaking with James Grauerholz, who laughed about Burroughs’s “operation”: “he had a corn removed the other day, but he loves to blow it out of proportion.”
After the reading, a mapcap turn of events ensued, culminating in a harrowing car chase. For all its genteel arts community and literary luminaries, Lawrence has its bloodthirsty fratboys. But that’s a story for another day.
The next day, my godmother’s friend came by early in the afternoon and we drove over to Burroughs’s place on Lenard Avenue together. (He actually had two places on Lenard Avenue, but this was his home; the other was for painting pictures and shooting them.) A small group of local men—a thoroughly charming good-old-boy intelligentsia—maintained a regular, perhaps daily, ritual of gathering at Burroughs’s house and whiling away the afternoon hours into the evening, drinking and smoking pot and talking about whatever. These men were all good friends of my godmother—local poets and writers, good-natured and mildly zany with a particularly tornado-alley perspective on things. We walked into the house and there sat Burroughs, in what looked like an oversize rawhide umbrella stroller. Sitting by him were his friend and editor I’d met on my previous visit, and another crony of theirs, a wacky plumber-raconteur-poet who remains a beloved figure about town.
I was warmly welcomed without ceremony and immediately fixed a vodka and coke. “You do all this stuff right?” the guy who had brought me over asked, referring to the alcohol and pot. Joint after joint was rolled and burned, and where at first I’d sat silent, starstruck, and unable to believe my good fortune, I was soon positively catatonic. The first time Burroughs addressed me directly, he rose out of his stroller, hobbled right over to me, leaned in, and closed the blinds. “The neighbors don’t like all this reefer madness,” he said with weary aplomb.
Four other guests came by over the next hour or two, most or all of them coming from out of town to pay their respects. One was a shaggy, bearded, cowboy-boot-wearing giant. The others seemed to be French—a pair of fashionably dressed, frizzy-haired men, one the younger companion of the other, and a lone traveler who would have fit effortlessly into an “interzone” milieu; he could’ve been found hanging around the docks at Marseille or something. “Weelyam,” he said, “the cops around here don’t seem so cool. I was smoking a joint in my car and just after I got stopped and I suddenly felt like frightened.”
Burroughs didn’t say much, except to provide an occasional annotation to one of the lively anecdotes going around: “No, I think that was down by your place that happened.” I hardly said a word. At one point the burly cowboy-boot guy interrupted a particularly preposterous story with a roar: “LET THE GUEST SPEAK!” Burroughs was startled: “What? What? What happened?” Everyone turned to stare at me, but I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I begged them to resume their stream of conviviality.
Later, Burroughs sipped my drink by mistake—unlike his, mine was less than three-quarters vodka. He choked and flailed until he regained composure. “This couldn’t be my drink!” he pronounced.
I gave him a present. It was The Wisdom of Idiots, a book by the sort-of pop “Sufi” author Idries Shah, which I had wrapped in shiny imitation-gold-leaf Egyptian hieroglyph paper.
I know precisely the sort of book I had wanted to give him. In today’s era of Internet shopping, I would have located an edition of Nicholson’s translation of Abo’l-Hassan ‘Ali bin Osman al-Jullabi al-Hujviri’s Kashf al-Mahjoub, an in-depth and marvelously entertaining exploration of medieval Islamic mysticism from a Khorasanian persepctive, but in the early nineties, book shopping in Philadelphia was an impoverished enterprise, and The Wisdom of Idiots was the best I could come up with. “I like the paper,” he said with genuine approval. He unwrapped it carefully. “Ah, idiot savants! A fascinating subject!” he exclaimed. I tried to explain to him the nature of these stories and what I knew of their cultural context. “Yes! … YES! … ” he said, “Idiot savants, know them well!”
He showed me a book he had laying nearby, a folio of photographs of tornado damage. We leafed through it together, riveted. “Can you imagine?” he said of a piece of hay that had penetrated a brick wall.
We went to his backyard, where I saw his frozen goldfish pond and his orgone accumulator. He broke the ice over the pond with his cane, in case the fish wanted to do any peeking or leaping, and I went into the orgone box for a fleeting eternity. Back inside, I told Burroughs that I had tried to read The Function of the Orgasm and hadn’t understood a word of it, and could he please break it down for me?
He composed himself. “Ahem, well, you see, Wilhelm Reich came to the realization, through extensive trial and error, that—oh! oh! oh my! Did you see that? That cat there! Froofy! He jumped from here”—he tapped the floor with his cane—“to there,” he said, gesturing to the kitchen counter. “Can you imagine a human who could jump six times the length of his body?” There were several instances where his train of thought was interrupted by such occurrences.
When we returned to the main salon—if I may call it such, since it was but a nondescript, wood-floored Midwestern living room—James Grauerholz had arrived with lobsters, ready to be served. He was slicing a baguette. Burroughs strode over in great distress. “You can’t cut anything with a knife like that!” he admonished—though it was a large, unquestionably sharp steak knife that Grauerholz was using. Burroughs hastily produced a machete, or something near enough, and insisted on wielding it against the baguette, gripping the handle with both hands and wincing as he thrust the fairly inconsiderable weight of his body into the operation.
Then he and I sat at a little lamp table and ate our lobster off the same plate, using the same nutcracker. This was a very special moment. I mean, for me.
After dinner, I called my godmother and asked for a ride. Burroughs became alarmed: “Is someone coming to this house?”
I told him I’d wait for her on the porch. When I’d been out there a few minutes, Burroughs put on his hat and came out and sat next to me, clutching his cane. I asked him if he liked Parliament and Funkadelic.
“Never heard of them.” It was chilly. “Where’s this grandmother of yours? Let’s go wait back inside.”
A few minutes later, my godmother came through the door, fanning a path for herself through the dense clouds of pot smoke. Burroughs looked up at her and his face brightened: “Bethie! What are you doing here?” Not only did he know her—he knew her cats. “How’s Scampers? And Frisky? And Wowsie?” I got up to greet her, wearing a feel-good smirk, and he said, “Oh this is your grandmother? Bethie, I didn’t know you had any grandchildren.”
I wish I had asked her to bring a camera. But now, whenever my overall credibility as a human being comes into question, I have only to reflect on my meeting with William Burroughs to remind myself that I belong to that world. It pains me to admit that one of my most memorable days was probably one of his most utterly forgettable, but my mind has surrendered some of the finer points, too. To this day, whenever I tell this story, I always have to improvise all the cats’ names.
George Mürer is a filmmaker specializing in the music of Kurdistan, Khorasan, and the Indian Ocean region. He lives in New York and is currently pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology.
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