Image source: Colorado State Historical Society Library, Holt, Rinehart and Winston
During my mid-twenties I was a philosophy graduate student at Stony Brook University, which back then, during the late 80s, was still called the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Like most of my peers I pursued as many opportunities as possible to head into the City, where an endless array of bars, clubs, museums, restaurants and other assorted haunts awaited exploration. In my case, rock clubs and out of the way eateries were priorities, which I typically enjoyed with a buddy of mine, Steve, who was an undergrad at NYU. Most often, we hit up a variety of mid-town joints for shows headlining bands that certainly none of my friends back in the Philosophy department ever listened to, such as Overkill, Fates Warning, and Fields of the Nephilim. The list goes on, however, some of the names have now faded from memory.
One thing that hasn’t faded was one of the bars we hit before heading to a club not too far from Steve’s apartment at 8th and Broadway. It was still lighted when we entered during the late spring semester around 1987. The place wasn’t too full but bustling with college age kids and young professionals. It was the weekend and everyone who was out had something to do and friends to accompany them. All except an elderly man sitting alone at one of the wooden tables. Because of his age and attire, he stood out dramatically from the noisy and youthful crowd gathered throughout the premises. At the same time, he didn’t look the slightest bit self-conscious. On the contrary, he looked deliberately alone and contemplative as he occasionally sipped from the drink in front of him.
When I first spotted him after entering to look for a place to sit, I thought that he must be one of the countless elderly I’d seen everywhere in the City, who had lived here most if not all of their lives and were perfectly at one with their densely urban environment. As we got closer the elderly man, who was dressed in long sleeves and black trousers, sitting with his legs crossed, sensed our approach and looked up. Our eyes met. His face looked familiar. Who was he? Equally important, did he know me or think he did? When he gazed at me the look of reverie he had a moment earlier quickly metamorphosed into a look of pleasant surprise. At this point in my life, I was accustomed to standing out in a crowd due to my mix of Indigenous and Mexican traits, complete with long black hair, which I always wore loose and which reached halfway down my back. So, maybe what I thought was a look of recognition was nothing more than the mild enchantment of seeing something unexpected.
As for me, I can’t even begin to imagine the expression on my face as I studied this man’s unexpectedly familiar features, then slowly realizing where I’d seen his face before. Although at the time, I’d never read any of the Beats, I certainly heard of them. Indeed, if you bothered learning anything about 20th century American literature, you inevitably encountered the prophets of hipster cynicism and outrage, who were inspired and disturbed by the empire of gluttony, profiteering, and war mongering that was Uncle Sam’s plutocratic democracy, in which the poor, minorities, eggheads and queers need not apply. In other words, what I slowly realized was that I was looking at William S Burroughs. Kerouac, of course, had died ages ago and there was no mistaking Ginsberg for Burroughs. As for Ferlinghetti, I didn’t even know his name back then. It was Burroughs. But nobody seemed to recognize him but me.
Unfortunately, I was too quiet and reserved to approach anyone, least of all anyone as legendary as Burroughs. Meaning that my story doesn’t include a chat with the author of Naked Lunch, complete with an autograph and a picture of the two of us. The only evidence I possess isn’t evidence at all; only a vivid memory that has turned into mere anecdote. In fact, I’m not sure anymore if I even told my friend Steve about it. Consequently, that moment lives on suspended in time. It was as if entering the threshold of that establishment was the portal into a parallel universe, in which only I could see what was happening. Yet, I knew it was real. What I didn’t know at the time was that Burroughs had an apartment at 222 Bowery, not far from my friend’s apartment and very close to CBGB’s, which may have been where we were headed that night.
Looking back on that fleeting encounter now, what makes the memory so meaningful after all these years is the fact that what made Burroughs particularly interesting to me were the Indians on the cover of The Place of Dead Roads. He stood out the most among the Beats because of this. Between that and the hardback covers to Cities of the Red Night and The Western Lands Burroughs evoked in my mind an enigmatic mythology in which oral tradition and Psychedelia merged into stories that were more dreamlike than linear. Nonetheless, my connection to Burroughs was perfectly linear. More to the point, not only did he have a place below Houston Street, a few blocks from my friend’s place, but also Burroughs divided his time between New York and Lawrence, Kansas, where he eventually died in 1997 (the year I defended my doctoral dissertation). My connection to Lawrence, KS, in turn, was through my mother, who went to Haskell Indian School, where she graduated in 1952.
At this point, as I conclude my story, I should make clear that I’m not trying to claim that my encounter with Burroughs was a product of destiny or any kind of divine influence. Despite the connections enumerated above, the encounter—if indeed it was him—was purely the result of chance. Yet, it’s the kind of happenstance that lives on in memory precisely because it was special, and it was special in large part because it brought together strands from our respective lives into one unforgettable moment that made sense. In the end, I like to think that I picked up something from that unspoken meeting that has grown in power over the years. For a brief moment in time I was walking the same path as Burroughs, our eyes met, and I carried something from his regard with me ever after, something which was added to the mementos I’ve gathered from other people during other encounters, great and small.