By Aram Saroyan
I met William Burroughs in 1965 when I went down to Centre Street to get some work from him for the little magazine, Lines, that I was editing at the time in New York. He’d told me on the phone that when I reached his address I should yell his name and he’d come downstairs and open the front door to his building. It was a nice spring day and I arrived at the address and yelled “Mr. Burroughs!” from the sidewalk up to his fourth or fifth floor loft, and then waited. After a while I looked up again and there he was, standing stone still and looking down at me from the top-floor fire escape. He was impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit. It startled me to see him there because I hadn’t heard any noise; it was as if he’d simply materialized there.
I waved, and he nodded and went back inside his loft. I loitered on the sidewalk, waiting, and then happened to look back at the front door of the building, and there he was once again as if he’d materialized out of thin air. We had a cordial meeting in his loft and I took away some pages in the three-column Time-magazine-like format he was utilizing just then.
That summer I shared an apartment with two young actors in Woodstock, New York. For those summer months, my midtown New York studio apartment was empty except for two nights, spaced widely apart, on which I happened to have come into the city on errands and stayed over. The following morning, on both occasions, the phone rang. No one knew that I was in New York. I picked up the telephone, and both times it was Burroughs. The second time I even remarked about it to him: it was amazing that he’d called, I said, because on both of the two mornings I just happened to be in New York. Though I didn’t say it, it seemed to me that there were only two possible explanations to account for the calls. Either he had dialed the number every single morning of that summer, or he was telepathic. Both times he inquired about the magazine, suggesting that I might want to see more work, but at bottom it seemed to be the sort of call that was a testing of the waters, to see if perhaps a lunch could be set up. I was a young man of twenty-one who was sexually unconfident and, in a personal if not a social sense, homophobic. I was polite and Burroughs was polite and I didn’t see him again until a few months before the end of his life. It happened to be the last time I saw Allen Ginsberg, too.
It was a summer evening on the plaza of the Los Angeles County Museum at the opening of a retrospective exhibition of his paintings which Burroughs had been given by the curator of photography, who obviously knew a good draw when he saw one. Burroughs was an old man, in his eighties, who had recently survived bypass surgery. He sat at a table on the crowded plaza surrounded by friends and well-wishers, his hand gripping a cane near the level of his face. He was gaunt, but unmistakably Burroughs, who photographed the most iconographically of all the Beats, that signature mask of deadpan cool. Standing nearby was Allen Ginsberg, who greeted me head-on with a quick kiss on the mouth — a goodbye kiss, it turned out — and who later called me over to introduce me to a New York literary friend. Allen was very kind that night, it seemed to me, because the last time I’d seen him I’d challenged him, albeit mildly, about the poor treatment received by Jan Kerouac, Kerouac’s novelist daughter, who had been spurned by the family of Kerouac’s late widow, Stella Sampas, who had inherited his literary estate. It was as if he were saying, let’s let go of all of that, you’re still in my extended family.
I wanted to say hello to Mr. Burroughs, whom I hadn’t seen in thirty years, and approached his table and eventually he looked up at me. I should mention that fifteen years earlier I’d written an obituary for his son, William Burroughs III, for the Village Voice, in which I didn’t mention the father. The Voice addressed this omission by running a photograph of father and son together and titling the piece “A Death in the Family,” but it perhaps hadn’t escaped Burroughs senior that I hadn’t mentioned his name. I was a big fan of Billy’s — his novel Speed was a primary impetus when I wrote my first prose book, The Street: An Autobiographical Novel — and I wanted to give him his due and keep Dad, who was the subject of perennial attention anyway, out of it. Burroughs looked up at me.
“Bill,” I said. “I’m Aram Saroyan. We met years ago…”
“Oh, yes, Aram,” he said. “Your father is one of the great American writers…”
Did I really hear the old codger say that? I think I did. And I hurried away. Among the other people on the plaza that evening, moving swiftly here and there, was the pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio, looking strong and self-directed.
One would have to say that Burroughs saw the writing on the wall. Way back in the 1950s he declared that there were forces at large that were rendering the planet uninhabitable. Burroughs is the writer who conceivably might have predicted the people from the transnational corporations going about the business of patenting varieties of food such as corn and brocolli. It’s like a Dr. Benway routine from Naked Lunch:
“It’s a simple matter, damn it! I need paper on zucchini.”