First Meeting with Jacques Stern
by Stewart Meyer
David Prentice, William S. Burroughs, and Stewart Meyer, 1981
I finally got to know the reclusive patron named Jacques Stern, but only because he decided to check me out. The last time William [Burroughs] was in town he’d picked up the phone and it was Jacques. Bill told him about my unfinished novel, which was then titled Nightfire. A week or so later Bill was back in Kansas, and things had quieted down around the Bunker.
A storm was approaching. I got a call from Jacques.
“Your Uncle Billy shipped me a few chapters of your novel and I wonder where the rest of it is?”
This was spoken in a slightly rasped voice but with an international air of elevation and distinction.
“Oh it’s not finished. Maybe half is out. More work to do.”
“I see, and you are one lazy bastard no doubt.”
“Well the old man’s been touting you so something must be going on. It’s not often I come across a New Worlder who can think. Did I say ‘think?’ I repudiate that statement. It’s imagination you are packing lad. I don’t see much evidence of deductive reasoning in your work so far — ”
“It’s a novel, not a logics textbook.”
“Of course. I’m pleased to see your background allows for such subtle distinctions. Burroughs assures me you are a clever sort with only maybe one little screw loose. It is not unlikely that I should help you along. Writers have always been the curse of my life, so why shouldn’t I be consistent?”
“Well, thanks Jacques.”
“Before you thank me be warned. If I assist you monetarily, creatively, emotionally, in the birth of this novel and it does not get finished, you will die of cancer or worse within one year of your defection from this calling. If I can bless you I can curse you. Basic rules of magic. Do we understand each other?”
“Umm. Sure. What could be clearer?”
“Don’t take my wrath lightly. Sense-derangement is among my minor talents.”
I didn’t laugh.
A few days later I placed the existing fragments of manuscript — maybe sixty or seventy pages — in an envelope and messengered it up to Central Park South. A week passed before he called the Bunker.
“Okay I have read the pages you sent me. Some very strange things have been happening around me since that manuscript arrived. Imps in the air. Demons in my chambers. All my faucets are dripping. Lights going on and off by themselves. Running a low steady fever. What are you up to?”
“Oh, pretty much what’m writing about. (Sniffle sniff.)” The pages he’d read were rich in opiated lunacy.
“Yes yes. You don’t sound so brisk. A sicky sick is upon you.”
“Very upon me.” Dom was out of town. New York Tactical was doing one of their brief but in-your-face saturations of the Lower East Side. The opium was long gone and no one I knew could re-up. I felt like shit and it must have been in my voice.
“Get your ass in a taxi. Bring your girlfriend if you like. I’ll call the doorman on the intercom and have him pay the driver.”
“Do you have anything that’d do it?”
“I will check the medicine chest. Maybe a bang of coke will awaken you.”
“Don’t fret. I’m going to call Doctor Graves and ask him to help you. This is an emergency. You have a novel to write. There’s no time for pissing around with the monkey. Get in a cab.”
“I’ll see you very soon.”
Jacques’ crib was in a huge pre-war building on Central Park South, between the Essex House and the Plaza Hotel. A bright cheerful gold-plated street jammed with limos, horse drawn carriages, shop windows twinkling with jewels. Tourists from the hinterlands darted from hotel to restaurant to theater.
As soon as we curbed, a crisply uniformed doorman appeared with a fistful of cash. He paid the driver and got a receipt.
“Mr Stern is expecting you. Penthouse B.” He pointed to the elevator.
The elevator man gave us a curious look while ushering us in. I felt my stomach wince as we zoomed up.
I knocked. We heard a mechanical droning on the other side of the door, which got louder until a rasped voice let out, “I’m unlocking the door. Give me a few seconds to get out of the way.”
I pushed it open to the insect buzzing of Jacques’ motorized wheelchair backing up. He was in his late fifties, slim with a little bulge in the belly. The face was boyish and handsome. Soft rich brown hair fell around his face and over his neck. His upper body seemed normal, but one glance at his legs and you knew something was wrong. They were slight, withered. He peeped us through narrow slits.
“I’m not at my best right now,” I blurted.
“Great. I like to see a man at his worst first thing. No surprises later.” He looked me in the eye for a long minute. His face softened a touch as he looked at Ginny. He let out a sigh. “Another scribe at my door. It seems I live for these complications. Come along, have a seat. I have alerted Graves and he should be here within an hour. You know of course, that pain expands time while pleasure contracts time. Fifteen minutes can be an eternity. Well, cheer up.”
I was moving stiffly, wincing with each step. Ginny, who had only a light yen, remained her graceful self as we settled in. The large room was messy but not completely filthy. That is, the dirt was new, not weeks or months or years old. I rattled my aching bones onto a soft sofa and caved in. Ginny stood gazing with quiet awe at an original William Blake etching, which was framed and mounted on the wall.
Mr Stern buzzed into the kitchen, swerving wildly to avoid killing the roaches that filed in haphazard displays across his living room floor. “I’ll get us a few drinks. Just relax. I assure you Doc Graves will take care of the delicate matters fueling your pain.”
Jacques returned resting a tray on his lap. Tea, brie cheese and crackers, and a hastily carved melon. He managed to place the tray on a coffee table.
“So tell me, how did you come to meet Burroughs?”
“City College. He’d just returned from London.”
“Of course you have heard all about the notoriously annoying Jacques Stern.”
“Bill always speaks of you as patron, collaborator, friend.”
“Bill perhaps, but I’m sure Grauerholz has given you a piece of his mind concerning me.”
“James hasn’t said a word about you.”
He gave me a sly look. “Unlike myself you have a gift for diplomacy. I say exactly what is on my mind at all times. A trait that has only increased my isolation, yet it is the mode I operate in and always will. Jacques Stern will never win a popularity contest. I don’t see many people. Adolph Hitler lives nearby and drops in on occasion. He’s my amphetamine connection.”
“He’s had plastic surgery and has cultivated a Brooklyn accent. No one would recognize him in a million years. He’s mellowed quite a bit. Would you like to meet him? I could give him a call.”
“Ahm, right now it’s Doctor Graves I’d like to meet. Maybe we can get together with Adolph another time.”
“Oh yes, I forgot you are sicky sick.” He looked at his watch. “And where is ol’ Doctor Morphius? I know all about agony. It is my most constant companion. Post-polio syndrome. I usually have some codeine lying around but last week I had a terrible pain. The sympathetic system fucking up again. I gulped down an entire Rx straight away.”
“Is that what Doc Graves will give me? It’d take a lot of codeine — ”
“If Graves attempts to fix you with codeine I will assure him that only massive amounts will do the trick. Relax and put yourself in the hands of fate. You are about to meet a brilliant psychiatrist who has been treating junkies — and particularly those cursed with creativity — for much of his life.”
“He treats literary addicts?”
“Oh yes and more. Often he’s stuck wet-nursing a rock star through the chemical gloomies. Then he complains to me about their whining and groaning. But the occasional literary addict does come along. Witness yourself.”
We sat but not still. Growing progressively restless, I kept pacing. Jacques joined me, traveling back and forth across the crib in his wheelchair.
“It’s been more than an hour,” I let out softly. My bones were locking, stomach making volcanic noises. I had some strong Thai pot and rolled a joint. Anything to abstract the situation a little.
Jacques eyeballed his watch. “Almost two hours! The problem with Graves is that he’s often late. He’s fond of running in circles, and if he’s not slept a full eight hours his reasoning disintegrates. We are none of us perfect, hey?”
I shivered. Aching bones caused me to foolishly hoof a line of coke. Twenty minutes later I just felt worse. Another line? Sure. An hour later I was grinding my teeth and shivering.
Then the bell rang . . .
“He’ll be right up. Look sicker than you are and he’ll give you more.” Jacques winked. “Works every time.”
“How much sicker could I fucking look?”
“Yes, having known you for only a few hours I’m horrified to report that you already look like a mortician’s version of your former self.”
The door opened and in walked a tweedy and mild medical man. Longish hair fringed his head. His face was instantly inquisitive. He greeted Jacques warmly before carefully placing his attention on Ginny and I. He offered his hand. “So you are the novelist.”
“Yes, yes, he’s the novelist,” Jacques confirmed. “What are you doing here, Graves? The patient is still breathing!” Jacques turned to me. “Graves is often so late the patient has become little more than a warm corpse.”
“I was delayed by a business matter, Jacques, very sorry,” Grave said, looking down slightly. A non-confrontational atmosphere seemed embedded in his presence.
“Delayed hey. What were you doing, trying to corner the market on horse eggs? You are a great shrink and a terrible businessman. Why you don’t stick to what you know is beyond all reason. I hope you brought your script pad. That’s all you are good for, Graves.”
“Now Jacques,” I let out. “There’s no need to insult — ”
“Relax man. Graves thrives on my insults. He’s been here a full thirty seconds without breaking out the goods, notice. He’s waiting for more insults, then he’ll get you straight.” He turned to Graves. “You are a festering boil on the skin of your profession!”
“Alright, let’s get to it,” Graves decided. His tone implied that he’d had enough roasting. “How much dope are you using and for how long?”
“Well, I’d guess — ”
“Too much dope and for too long,” Jacques cut in sharply. “Get the man high already!”
Graves opened his doctor’s bag and removed a small bottle of dilaudid. He looked at Ginny. “You too?”
“To a lesser degree,” she whispered.
“I’m giving you a number two dilaudid. I’ll give him a ten. If it’s not enough you can have more.”
Jacques kicked in like a bull, upping the dose with every snarl. Before he was done Ginny got a ten and I got a twenty. We gulped them down with water, kicked back and I lit a reefer. Just knowing we’d be straight soon made us feel better.
“You realize it’s illegal for me to maintain an addict,” Graves pointed out. “All I can do is administer diminishing doses in an effort to zero you out.”
“Can the lecture until they are smashed and don’t care what you say, Graves. No one wants to hear your legal limitations.”
“Matters must be clear,” Graves defended. He looked at me. “Are you ready to attempt a detox?”
“Don’t make him bullshit you now, Graves. Wait until he’s straight. He’ll tell you whatever you want to hear and I’ll swear to it. Go in the kitchen and make us some tea.”
Graves obediently backed off into the kitchen. I felt a tingle of admiration for his considerable capacity to distance himself. No, it was more than that. He DID enjoy the clever digs, the snarls and grumbles that only a demented genius like Stern could toss out endlessly.
Graves made tea . . .
“Do you really wet nurse rock’n’roll stars?” Ginny asked.
The Doctor smiled sheepishly. “Don’t believe everything Jacques tells you . . . although it’s the wilder stories that are most often true.”
“There are ten million stories in the naked city,” Jacques spat. “But Graves only hears from the nut jobs, the coconuts, the frothing! And he’s set it up that way. It’s part of his great calling.”
“Uh oh! Am I sitting here with Siggy Freud?”
Graves turned to me and came into sharp focus for the first time. “I use my training sparingly, particularly with creative types who tend to stretch the rules. Intuition is the true coin of the realm.”
I smiled at Graves. I instantly liked him.
“See I told you he was brilliant!” Jacques quacked. “There is not another shrink in the land fit to pluck dingleberries from the ass of Doctor Joseph Graves! And woe onto those who mistake this paragon of service and self-sacrifice for a writing croaker!”
Graves smiled modestly, shyly, an educated patience radiating from his roundish face. “I’m just a doctor,” he exhaled. “No more, no less.”
Photograph: “William S. Burroughs with David Prentice (left), and Stewart Meyer (right),” in CU Libraries Exhibitions, Item #1046.