COLUMN THIRTY-ONE, MARCH
(Copyright © 1998 Al Aronowitz)
(Copyright © 1997 Legs McNeil)
(Photo by Jeff Fasano)
[This reminiscence originally appeared in New York.]
You like sports?" William S. Burroughs asked, staring down at me like Peter Graves in Airplane! when he asks the little boy, on his knee if he likes to go see gladiator movies!
"Nah . . . you?" I muttered.
"Not particularly," Burroughs snorted, "though I must say, I do like guns. But of course, I don't have any here. Against the law, you know." And then he snickered, showing some teeth through those pale, thin lips, and I felt like I was sharing a laugh with the Grim Reaper himself. The year was 1977, and we were sitting across from one another at the dinner table inside the Bunker, an old YMCA locker room on the Bowery that poet John Giorno had converted to a loft and that Burroughs called home. It was a hulking, white, windowless, concrete slab of a space that reeked of naked men being functional. Perfect.
Biographer Victor Bockris and Burroughs' personal adjutant James Grauerholz were in the other room going over manuscripts. So it was just me and William, both of us so drunk and stoned that we were trying to keep from nodding out as we exchanged pleasantries. Two guys with no use for small talk, smalltalking.
"I do have some things of interest, though,' Burroughs said, rising from his chair, looking quite brittle and teetering from the effects of potent chemicals. I felt like I should've grabbed him before he fell, but once on his feet, Burroughs righted himself, strode across the room, and returned with a Bowie knife and a blowgun.
"Cool, a blowgun," I managed, as he handed it to me along with a steel dart. Burroughs unsheathed the knife for himself, which turned out to be not a knife but a small sword. "Chris Stein gave this to me," he said, referring to the Blondie lead guitarist. "An excellent piece of workmanship!" And then he started to slash the imaginary bears coming at him.
I put the dart in the blowgun and stood up beside him. Staggering a bit. And just as I raised it to my lips, a little gray mouse, a real
mouse, scurried out from underneath a cupboard and ran across our killing field.
"GET HIM, LEGS! GET HIM!!!" Burroughs yelled as he clutched the sword overhead. "GET HIM!"
I missed by ten years; the dart bounced off the wall, nowhere near the crevice the mouse had disappeared into. Burroughs looked at me with disgust.
"The object was to hit the mouse, not the goddamn wall," he hissed.
"Uh, sorry. . ."
"Well, I guess it takes some practice to hit a moving target," Burroughs said, excusing my aim (though his entire six-foot frame sulked).
"What are you two doing in here?" James Grauerholz asked, re-entering the room to see
if only he had
instead of the knife
what the ruckus was.
"Mouse hunting," I told him.
"Having any luck?"
"Noooo, we haven't bagged anything yet," Burroughs huffed, still upset that I'd blown such a great opportunity. His sulking seemed to say, if only he had the blowgun, instead of the knife, we'd have something to show for our efforts.
James went back in the other room to finish up with Victor, and Burroughs sat back down at the dinner table. I quietly took my seat across from him, and we both stared at the table.
"Plenty of vodka left," Burroughs mumbled, being polite, though it was obvious he was bored with me.
"Great, can I get you a refill?" I asked, trying to make it up to him.
"No, I'm doing just fine, thank you."
Twenty years later, I was invited to speak at the William Burroughs Symposium at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, Burroughs' home. I told the mouse-hunting story and read from my punk rock history, Please Kill Me, along with my co-writer, Gillian McCain. Afterward, the college kids asked, quite annoyed, "What does William Burroughs have to do with rock and roll?" I didn't bother to explain. I hate college kids. But William was always generous with the college kids. Generous with everyone, really.
On Election Day 1996, Burroughs invited my assistant, Dawn Manners, and me over for breakfast. We didn't talk about the election. There was an article in the New York Times about an Afghan couple caught committing adultery and stoned to death as punishment. One of the people who took part in the stoning described the entire gruesome procedure, which the Times recounted. Burroughs read the article out loud, acting out the whole scenario, then stood, clutching an imaginary boulder over his head, and threw it down, as if to finish off the sinful couple.
"Fucking adulterers. DIE, YOU FORNICATORS!"
God, that voice.
Later, as he always had when I visited him in Lawrence, William stood on the porch of his small ranch house and waved good-bye as we pulled out of the driveway. I turned around as we drove off, and he was still waving. I waved good-bye one last time.
He was such a sweet, funny, and lonely man. Just lovely.
And so much fun to play with. ##
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