Back at the Pond: A Visit with William S. Burroughs
By Arthur S. Nusbaum (c) 2000
I can divide my literary production into sets: Where,
when and under what circumstances produced. The first
set is a street of red brick three-story houses with slate
roofs, lawns in front and large back yards. In our back
yard my father and the gardener, Otto Belue, tended a
garden with roses, peonies, iris and a fish pond. The
address is 4664 Pershing Avenue and the house is still there.
Saturday, February 18, 1995, 3:00 PM: In the front yard of a small, white frame house with a dull red roof in a nondescript neighborhood of Lawrence, Kansas. I am about to pay a visit, seventeen years in the making, to its famous occupant. Over the course of that time I have explored his life and work, amassed a collection of many items by and relating to him, and absorbed a mindful of his concepts, legends and quotes. Before it is too late- I am about to start a family, and his ninth decade is well in progress- I find myself here, the result of a spontaneous decision simply to show up unannounced.
I take a deep breath and proceed briskly toward the front porch, charged with adrenaline and stage fright. Ascending the steps, I notice blue cat bowls strewn about, also a cage and a decal about a neighborhood cat-spotting program on the front door. I ring the doorbell. Through small window panes, I see the shadow of a figure approaching. The door is opened, and I find myself standing before William S. Burroughs. My first impression is one of gentleness and serenity, almost as if he’s expecting me. As nervousness turns to numbness, I manage to say “Mr. Burroughs…?” “Yesss?” he replies in his distinguished drawl, the word trailing off. I awkwardly proffer a paper bag containing a bottle of McCallam’s scotch whiskey. “I brought you this,” I say, on the verge of stammering. With a slight wave of his hand, he bids me “come in.”
I follow him into his home, through a front room into a small living room. He gestures toward a couch. “Sit down.” Still standing, he takes the bottle out of the bag and inspects it closely. “What’s this?…Thank you.” All the while making small talk in his quiet but clear voice, he leaves and re-enters the room several times, finally returning with incense, which he then lights- an agreeable fragrance that lingers throughout my visit.
My numbness ebbs, and as I return to normal awareness, I begin to observe WSB and his surroundings. I note that a gun magazine is among the items strewn about a small table near the entrance to the kitchen. This appears to be a makeshift desk, and next to it, WSB now alights upon a wheelchair covered with a rust-orange blanket. Several cats join us, including a fat, striped one that nestles next to me on the arm of the couch. Although he walks briskly, using a cane perhaps more for effect than support, he has a pronounced stoop and appears frail. He celebrated his 81st birthday just two weeks before my visit. I realize I had intended to wish him a belated happy birthday when I gave him the whiskey, but forgot. He wears plastic-framed eyeglasses, blue jeans, dark blue socks, brown leather shoes, a blue denim shirt and a khaki-green casual sportsman’s coat. A vast sea of WSB information is roiling through my mind, with flashes of anecdotes and quotes competing for attention. I notice the absence of the top segment of his left pinky finger, recalling the incident when he amputated it at age 25.
I introduce myself, and then he addresses me: “Your name sounds familiar, I think you wrote to me.” I tell him of my attempts to bring to his attention an essay I had written, and I ask him if he had read it. “I think so,” he replies. I briefly summarize its central idea: An anecdote in the middle of On the Road recounting a visit by Kerouac & Co. to WSB and his family in early 1949, which anticipates many of the major themes of WSB’s life and work thereafter. “It’s partly true,” he confirms. “You can’t always trust Kerouac, he doesn’t always tell the truth. I’m still mad at him for perpetuating the myth of the trust fund. My grandfather did invent the adding machine, but he died at the age of 40. My family didn’t get anything from it. My father was a very straight member of the community.” “Yes,” I reply. “Your parents ran a gift shop- Cobblestone Gardens.” WSB nods and smiles. “Yes, that’s exactly right. I find that a lot more interesting than a trust fund. He used to go to art and gift shows in Chicago.” I mention having tried to contact WSB in Hamburg in 1990 during the premiere run of The Black Rider. “I think Hamburg is the nicest city in Germany, don’t you agree?” I do, of course. Wouldn’t you? “I was at the Beat Conference at NYU in May of 1994. I attended the poetry reading at Town Hall and heard you by phone hookup. You stole the show even though you weren’t there!” I say, giddily, as WSB smiles and nods slightly.
WSB offers to guide a tour of his home and property. I follow him through the kitchen and the enclosed back porch to the backyard. Like the rest of the home, the kitchen is very neat and orderly. I’m well aware that Burroughs Communications, the organization under the direction of James Grauerholz, completely handles the business and household around WSB, leaving him to “his existence and creation,” as he puts it. As I follow him outside, I compliment him on his latest published work, which I have just finished reading- My Education, a record of his dreams. “Thank you. The best dreams are the ones you’re not in,” I hear him say ahead of me.
We face a man-made pond with a cat statue perched on the rim. Large goldfish are visible, lazily swimming through the murky, algae-green water. WSB points to the fish with his cane and explains: “It has to be 50 degrees or higher to feed them, or some kind of stasis occurs, and the food just rots inside of them.” As we continue walking, I notice a small outhouse-like wooden box with a hole in the door. I point to it. “The legendary orgone accumulator!” “Yesss,” replies a nodding WSB. Passing by an old garage that is used by WSB to create and store his artworks, we stop at a second pond, smaller than the first, with a weak fountain in the middle and no fish. Next to it is a concrete slab bearing the name “Ruski” and some symbols, written into it when it was still wet. Knowing the affection he bore for a now deceased cat, I assume it’s a headstone. He confirms this. We continue on to a fence. “I own the land up to that second fence. That’s a vegetable garden. I don’t take care of it, somebody else does,” he says, while pointing to a patch on a large tract of land between the fences. “You’re a man of property, a respectable citizen,” I extol, and WSB smiles in reply.
We go back inside the house, and as we are walking through the kitchen, WSB stops and examines his cane, holding it with both hands horizontally. “It’s an old East Indian police stick. They use it over there to quell riots. It was only a few dollars.” We speculate what it’s made of. “It looks like bamboo,” I say. “It’s heavier. Feel it,” WSB offers, and we both do. “I think it’s rattan,” concludes WSB. I return to the couch where we began our visit, WSB to his wheelchair. I remove a book from my briefcase and hand it to WSB. “I thought you’d get a kick out of this: The first American edition of Naked Lunch.” WSB nods. “Yes, I know,” as he takes the book, “would you like me to sign it?”
I mention the art on the walls. “Mostly mine and Brion’s,” says WSB, referring to the late Brion Gysin, his longtime friend and collaborator. WSB once again arises from his wheelchair and narrates a tour of the artworks and the rest of the house. As we enter a short hallway off the room we have been sitting in, with small bedrooms at either end, he points out which paintings are his and which are Gysin’s. The first bedroom reveals a bed stacked with papers and painted file folders. I mention the book ArtRandom- William S. Burroughs, featuring reproductions of several series of similarly painted folders, but he is not familiar with it. It occurs to me that the voluminous amount of material relating to WSB is undoubtedly too extensive for even him to keep up with. The room also displays a WSB painting, typically abstract and automatic in style, with a collage photo of Samuel Beckett. “I recall your meeting with Beckett where he said you’re a writer,” I inquire. “He said that ABOUT me later,” says WSB, correcting me somewhat sternly. “I took it as a compliment.” On another wall is a strange object that appears to be sticks tied into a cross. As we proceed to the other bedroom, I turn to WSB and say, “I own two of Brion Gysin’s books- Here to Go: Planet R-101 and The Process- but haven’t read them yet. Which do you most recommend?” WSB answers, “The Process is good. Brion was more of a painter than a writer.” On a wall in the hallway is a WSB painting with a collage photo of what looks like an extraterrestrial creature. “An alien,” he comments.
The door to the next bedroom is closed, and after we enter, he closes the door behind us, explaining that he doesn’t want his cats to get into this room. More papers and items adorn the bed in this room. This appears to be WSB’s office/writing room. There is a small desk with an antique typewriter, reminiscent of the one featured in the film version of Naked Lunch (although not yet mutating into an insect). There is also an antique Holy Bible with black covers and gold lettering. I laugh to myself at the site of such an icon of conventional piety in the home of one of its all-time greatest subverters. I imagine it hollowed out, containing his stash.
We leave the room, and as WSB closes the door behind him, he says, “There’s nothing to prevent a sale of the artworks.” I express an interest in the alien painting in the hallway. WSB advises that his paintings of that size are “in the $2,000 range,” and he suggests that I see a broader range of his artworks before deciding on a purchase. I give him my business card, and he promises to contact his associates who will show me more art and can send catalogs. As I hand him my card, I say, “That’s my straight career,” referring to my company. “Nothing wrong with that,” he replies. “I’m an aspiring writer, and you’re my biggest inspiration,” I tell him. “Good luck. It’s very hard to make a living as a writer.”
I proceed with WSB to the front room of the house, passing a glass-fronted cabinet, which contents include several Mexican Day of the Dead skeletons and a superhero doll that I recognize having been on his bedroom tabletop in the film biography Burroughs. I follow WSB to an antique credenza. “They asked for $1,200 for this. I bought it for $300.” “You bargained them down nicely,” I reply. WSB describes some of the many objects it displays. He picks up one of several clear paperweights embedded with scorpions. “This one is good for about a thousand Mexicans a year.” “Very lethal creature,” I say, thinking of the repulsed/fascinated references made to centipedes and scorpions in WSB’s writings. I notice a large volume on the Egyptian Book of the Dead, so central to The Western Lands and other of his works. Amidst the well-ordered clutter on top of another glass-fronted cabinet is a photo of the nine U.S. Supreme Court Justices with their faces replaced by WSB (in the middle, Chief Justice?), Jesse Jackson, Allen Ginsberg, Bruce Springsteen, and others. An antique piece of furniture resembling a psychoanalysis patient’s couch is piled with still more papers and items. “It’s a fainting couch,” explains WSB, “Old women used to faint on it, they were revived with smelling salts. They’re made of ammonia.” So says the man from whom no chemical holds any secrets.
WSB picks up a book from the incense table- a Graham Greene biography. “I’ve been reading this. It’s the second volume,” says WSB. I tell him that I’ve read some of Greene’s works, including The Power and the Glory, long ago while in high school. “That’s one of his best books. Read it again,” he instructs, to which I immediately reply “Yes, sir!” Wouldn’t you? I mention the recent magazine ads for The Gap, featuring Ginsberg and Kerouac among the celebrities who “wore khakis.” I offer, in jest, “Pretty soon you’ll be admitting you wore khakis.” WSB appears either not to understand the comment or to be unfamiliar with the ad campaign. He pinches his bluejeans and says, “These are fine.”
While somewhat overwhelmed at the graciousness and cordiality WSB has shown me, I also sense that I must not overstay my welcome, and I prepare to take my leave. As WSB gets up from his wheelchair to see me out, he mentions that before I arrived, he was selecting passages from his works for an upcoming reading that “they talked me into doing.” I enthusiastically tell him, “I have my own favorite passages of yours,” and I begin to recite from Naked Lunch: “Motel…Motel…Motel…broken neon arabesque…loneliness moans across the continent like foghorns over still oily water of tidal rivers.” WSB nods and smiles halfway through my recitation. I stop as he says, “The poetic passages don’t read well. The more humorous passages do well…Benway.” I nod attentively. I recite another favorite quote: “This world would be a pleasant place to live if people minded their own business and let others do the same. But as a wise old black faggot once told me, ‘some people are shits, darling’.” (As I recite, I am careful not to mimic WSB as I normally would, since my audience is the man himself.) “Yes, he died in Hawaii,” says WSB, slyly nodding in reaction to the passage.
He firmly shakes my hand as I thank him profusely for inviting me into his home. He graciously bids me goodbye as I walk back to my car. As I drive past the house, I see him on his front porch about to go back inside. He turns toward me once more, waving and smiling.