by G.K. Stritch – find it on Amazon
The Mudd Club turned out to be a bittersweet place where I had my cherished camera stolen. It was dark and so packed you had to be on your guard, but that didn’t deter us. Jill, Daniel, and I went often. Our friend Richard Smith worked there, so not only did he let us in, but we didn’t pay either. The other hopefuls who awaited entrance looked at us longingly, in secret, as we, the downtown celebrities, slipped through the line. The club showcased a scene with all kinds of provocative people. Elderly-looking, avant-garde writer and opiate enthusiast William S. Burroughs participated as a frequent patron.
“Come here.” Richard Smith pulled us aside in his attempt to educate us. “That is the author William S. Burroughs. He wrote Naked Lunch and put a glass on his wife’s head and shot her dead through her forehead.” Our teacher waited for our reactions.
“Why did he do that?” I asked. Why wasn’t he in jail? I wondered.
“They were playing William Tell.”
We all looked at the elderly gent. He was a little younger than the ghostly clericus who appears in Drugstore Cowboy.
Old Bull Lee, dressed in a gray suit, lounged with one leg crossed over the other, undisturbed. A faint smile adorned his face. Perhaps he pondered his bizarre life or desired a Viennese waltz, or maybe he sat in a haze of H, remembering days in Putumayo or Algiers or his house in the New Orleans swamp. Or maybe he quietly recited Shakespeare in his mad old mind. Jill and I noted his presence and giggled and gazed at him. Never in our wildest imagination would we have thought of saying hello, but I wished I had. I wished I’d spoken to the old rascal, and I wished I’d done that terribly un-chic, un-hip thing and asked him for an autograph, or had the nerve to take a photo with him. I could have sat on his bony knee and that would have been a funny, funny picture. But sophisticated me did none of those things.
Knowing that Burroughs was an author of note, I tried to capture his worn face in my memory and grew fond of him from a distance, the way a child might like a scary figure in a horror movie. I probably won’t read Naked Lunch, but years later I did read excerpts from Junkie and was impressed by his brilliant, clear prose. Recently hearing a taped recording of Burroughs’s routines revealed a grouchy old man’s voice, and he reminded me of a mean doctor from my childhood. That very stern, creepy doctor had had no patience and pushed me out of his office. I didn’t know what Burroughs was talking about on the recording: Roosevelt and baboons with purple hindquarters—he hated bureaucracy and liberals—but I still found him most amusing. Burroughs proved his intelligence to me. How much better for him to dwell among the youth and vitality and live performance and pretty faces at the Mudd Club than to languish away at home or behind the doors of a senior facility. His drug administration must have been meticulously careful. He lived until the age of eighty-three. Perhaps one of the best insights into the colorful life of Burroughs is in On the Road: The Original Scroll.
“‘Hurry up, please. It’s time,’” called the bartender. We hurried. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “‘Goonight, Bill.’”