William S. Burroughs has an imposing appearance. He looks down on one from a height of more than six feet, but he seems even taller than he is. The man is slender, almost to the point of being skinny. He wears glasses and stares at his audience. Burroughs may not give out audible sighs in answer to a question, but he certainly gives out visual signs of impatience.
At one point my husband wanted to photograph me on the couch with Burroughs. Arthur's photos of writers have graced hundreds of book jackets and his photo work has appeared in the old Saturday Evening Post, Mademoiselle, Playboy, and other lesser known magazines. Arthur told us to act naturally and talk to each other while he roamed the room, looking for the correct angle and proper light. I could tell Burroughs didn't have anything to say to me, but he wanted to be obliging to the photographer.
I sensed that absolutely nothing I had ever read or had ever done would be of any interest to Burroughs.
Burroughs had his arms crossed in front of him and he glanced out the window at the gloom of Boulder on a rainy summer day; he said, “Well, what do you think of the weather?” I knew it was hopeless. People only mention the weather as a topic of conversation when they don't know what to say to the subject or when they don't want to talk about anything more serious. I didn't feel then, nor do I believe now, that Burroughs was actually so stupid as to not know what to say. The man has plenty of things to say. But he obviously didn't want to say them to me. I had one of my arms on the back of the couch, almost touching Burroughs' shoulder, and the other arm in my lap — I immediately closed up by putting both hands in my lap.
Burroughs was born in 1914 and I wasn't born until 1952. We were separated by two world wars, and I wasn't able to grasp what life must have been like before TV. I grew up believing every problem got solved in half an hour. The 38 year difference in our ages wasn't what prevented us from talking. Nor was it the fact that I am a woman.
Burroughs has mellowed in his feelings toward women, at least publicly. In 1955 he told Jack Kerouac, in a letter, “Women have poison juices.” But our rain conversation was in the summer of 1981; over a quarter of a century had passed since Burroughs said that. I knew Burroughs didn't want to talk to me and I knew why. He simply felt I was not worth trying to explain anything to. And far from being angry with Burroughs, I liked him, I really liked him.
I've had the same feeling when trying to talk to someone else — it just isn't worth trying to explain my position. And I may have been just as wrong as Burroughs was when he decided I wasn't worth talking to. But that's the way it goes.
My husband and I have met many of the famous Beat figures: Ginsberg, Corso, Michael and Joanna McClure, DiPrima, Ted Joans, John Clellon Holmes, Carolyn Cassady, Herbert Huncke and many of the lesser known Beats. I liked Holmes the most for his warmth, then I met Burroughs, who is about as warm as a clam shell. But I sure do like him. Admire, would be a better word.
I loathe people who pretend to know more than they do. I watch them sniff down their noses. But when Burroughs sniffs, the man is not putting on an act; he really does know his subject. Burroughs, at 71, has lived long enough to observe and record his observations. And he's read volumes and volumes of books on all sorts of topics. He simply knows how things are and no one is going to tell him otherwise. Either the audience accepts his version of how things are or the audience can go punt — Burroughs simply doesn't care.
When Burroughs asked about the weather, I remembered it had been a rainy evening when I had been hit by a car. I said, “Be a lot of fender-bender accidents today.”
Burroughs said, “There are no accidents.”
I said, “I agree to a point. Most of what we commonly call accidents are brought on by human error. For instance, the guy who hit me with his car didn't actually want to hit me, but didn't it occur to him that his chances were considerably better by driving without his headlights on a dark, rainy evening? I exempt natural things like volcanic eruptions or tidal waves or earthquakes.”
“I don't,” Burroughs said. I could tell by the finality with which those two words were stated that either I agreed or not and Burroughs didn't care which. He knew, and that was that.
I admire people with that sort of extreme self-confidence born of absolute knowledge.
Earlier that morning Burroughs had knocked on the door of the apartment my husband and I were sharing with an Australian journalist. Burroughs wanted to see my Mace. Arthur had mentioned I carried a small spray container of Mace in my purse. Burroughs is fascinated with weapons of any sort. He showed us his Cobra and told us one needs a license to carry a Cobra in New York. A Cobra is a flexible metal cane and it's carried in a holster strapped to the side of one's body. But when the cane is snapped, smaller flexible metal rods slide out of the larger metal case. Burroughs gave the group gathered in Allen Ginsberg's living room a demonstration.
When I extended the container of Mace to Burroughs, it was the first time in two days that the man actually seemed to look at me and not through me. I was delighted. He told us there were two kinds of Mace, the good kind and the bad kind. He didn't tell us what made the difference. I watched him open the wide doors leading to the apartment's balcony. Burroughs assumed a fencing stance and sprayed the Mace. As he handed the black vial back to me I was gravely informed I owned the good kind. He also warned me that it was illegal for me to carry it in my purse on a plane. Then he asked if Arthur and I were going to his reading that afternoon.
Burroughs did a few of his routines and read several passages from his books. He ended his reading by challenging the audience to name any book, saying he'd give an accurate one sentence summary of it. More than two-thirds of his audience was composed of college students who were close to 50 years younger than Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso were also in the audience, as well as a scattering of journalists and scholars and critics. Many books were named that I had never heard of, but Burroughs was able to give concise summations of any books named.
I was not only impressed, I was in awe. Norman Mailer was right when he said, “William Burroughs is the only American writer conceivably possessed of genius.”
WIlliam S. Burroughs may appear to be bored when he is in the company of anyone less than a friend, but he is superbly bored. The man has been there and already knows.
(Kit Knight wrote this tribute to William S. Burroughs in November 1985.)