Chronicles by Jim Pyron
One soft, warm night in May 1981 I took my place in line at the boarded up corpse of a long dead tenement on Ave. C. I’d arrived in NYC 4 months earlier from Charlottesville, Va. 22 years old looking for action and adventure. Now I stood waiting my turn with the usual crowd of anarchist punks. All tattoos, piercings, and the typical tribal pretensions. The scene had become a weekly ritual for me, with “Waiting for my Man” playing a loop in my head when he first caught my eye. A man very different from the rest. He was much older, wearing a long dark gray raincoat, glasses, and a Homburg on his head. At first glance he seemed utterly out of place, but his aloof composure and the careful respect he got from the others set him above the rest. He gave off a very heavy presence and I resolved to speak with him the next time I saw him.
Five of us were living in a three bedroom apartment on 7th Street. I told Dave my story of the dark man in line. He burst out laughing. “That’s Bill Burroughs! He lives in the penthouse of an old hotel down the block. He likes to buy on the street sometimes to check out the boys. He’ll like you but watch your step.” I’d just been to a book signing for The Place of Dead Roads and I remembered the piercing look of Bill’s gray/blue eyes, but hadn’t made the connection with the celebrated author and the man I saw on Ave. C.
Several weeks later I was back in line when I saw him coming up the block. I walked up to him, introduced myself, and said I’d been at the book signing and thought his new work was excellent. He gave me a long look and replied “Thank you.” I noticed he was wearing a 3 piece suit. “Why are you out here with the riff-raff?” I ventured. “Are you riff-raff?” he said in return. “No. I’m a guitar player and cook.”
“What do you play?” “Mostly noise but I’m a good cook.”
“I see. Well, I’ll let you get back to your business. Give me your phone number. We’ll talk later.” He left and I got back in line. Of course he never called me, but our paths crossed again.
A Thursday night near the end of June. It had rained all day but now the air was sticky with the mixed aromas of vehicle exhaust, asphalt, and whatever lurked in the vacant lot up the street. I was chatting with a couple of homeless Anarchists in line behind me when the man in the Homburg seemed to materialize right beside me. I said “Hi Bill.” Everyone nearby got quiet and watched. “Hello Jim. Mind if I get in line?” Expecting howls of protest I looked around but everyone looked away and pretended not to hear. “Welcome aboard” I replied as he moved in behind me while the Anarchists stared at the ground. After an initial silence I asked “How’ve you been?” He gave me that clinical blue/gray gaze. “Oh…fine. You’re not from around here.” he observed.
“We moved up here about 5 months ago.”
“My girlfriend. We were at college in Virginia.”
Long pause, steady gaze. “Virginia…beautiful country down there. Where did you go to school?”
“Good school. What brought you here?”
“Where else? It’s an exciting place to be.”
He smiled. “Yes….it can be exciting. Let’s take a walk after we’re finished here. You can walk me to The Bunker.”
My roomate had it all wrong. No hotel penthouse, just an old, nondescript building in The Bowery. The front entrance had so many gates it looked like a jail. “Come on up, we can sample our wares.” I thought over all the stuff I’d heard about him. “Well, I’m supposed to be somewhere right now, so I should get rolling. I’d love to do it some other time though.” “Suure…Call from the payphone first.” He pulled out a little notebook, scrawled a number, and handed me the torn page. After taking a deep breath I asked “If I bring some of your books will you sign them?” The intense gaze and faint smile. “Bring whatever you want.” He pulled out a large key ring and began unlocking the gates. “Thanks Bill. When’s a good time?” He sighed “Anytime after 9pm.”
To Be Followed...
Three days passed before I worked up the courage to go see him. Junky, Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Wild Boys rested in a backpack over my shoulder as I headed southwest to The Bowery. My roomates had advised me against it.
“He likes boys you know.”
“Don’t nod out.”
“Don’t turn your back on him.”
Hilarious. I made my nervous way to The Bunker as their laughter rang in my head, all kinds of scenarios rolling through my mind. A few months shy of my 23rd birthday and still learning the many hazards of life in early ’80s NYC. Reminding myself I was about to sit down with living history my confidence returned.
As instructed I called from the payphone. After five or so rings someone picked up but said nothing.
“Hello, it’s Jim from 7th St. Bill told me to drop by.”
“Meet me out front.” A voice I didn’t recognize.
Standing at the door stood a man who looked very familiar. A moment later I realized it was Allen Ginsberg!
“Hi. Is Bill around?”
“We’ve been expecting you.”
I followed him up the stairs to the second floor and down the hall. He opened the door to a surprisingly small apartment. There were a number of moving boxes, some packed and ready, others partially filled. Bill rose from a comfortable looking chair. “You made it.” “I did.” He motioned me to a couch on his right and returned to his chair. Ginsberg took another and resumed his clinical gaze. I wondered to myself “What’s with these old beats and the heavy stare?”
“Thanks for having me over. You moving?”
“Yes. Rent control was lifted on the building so the bastard wants to triple the rent.” Faint smile. “That’s fine, I’ve been here a long time. I’m ready to move on.”
“That’s a change alright. Wide open spaces.”
“It’s time. I have friends there.” Meanwhile Ginsberg never said a word nor took his eyes off me.
“I brought some of your books if you’re still up for signing them.”
“Let’s see…” He picked up Junky. “That was a long time ago.”
“Seemed like hard times.”
“There’s no hard or easy times, just times.”
As he signed the books I returned Ginsberg’s silent gaze. He seemed to be anticipating something. I saw the relaxed tension and intense focus of a cat stalking a bird, and I was the bird. He was creeping me out, and my mood shifted from insecure self-consciousness to “What the fuck are you looking at!?” Something weird was going on. I maintained my composed, confident front while my alert level jumped to Defcon-5.
Bill handed over my books and announced “Let’s get down to business.” He opened a leather case on the table, a complete kit. Six sealed hypos, a small bottle of clear liquid, elastic band, cotton balls, a votive candle, an ornate teaspoon, and three bundles. Turning to Ginsberg he asked “You don’t mind do you?” “Not at all..” he replied. Ginsberg’s first words since his remark in front of the building, “We’ve been expecting you.” Hmmmmm.
Bill continued, “These two bundles are from your neighborhood, so you’re used to that.” He picked up the third. “This is my personal brand. I doubt you had anything like this before. I recommend it.”
Bill pulled out two bags and handed me one. The stamp was a fedora with Dr. Nova printed beneath. Bill got ready. He lit the candle, poured the contents of the bag into the spoon, tied off his arm. He then carefully added a small amount of the liquid from the bottle to the spoon, explaining he always used distilled water to cook.
Now back then I had only shot up twice under the supervision of a trusted friend. A dope+meth mix the first time, dope+coke the second. I snorted dope recreationally and had no tolerance to speak of. I wasn’t about to take an armload of Bill’s uncut finest, especially with Ginsberg’s growing excitement.
“I have to confess Bill, this is heading beyond my orbit. I don’t have a habit or real tolerance. I’d rather snort some and see how I handle it before diving into the deep end.”
Ginsberg took a deep breath, exhaled with loud exasperation, and left the room. A few bells tinkled and a Buddhist chant began. Bill chuckled and shrugged. “That’s entirely up to you. It pays to be careful.”
“What’s up with your friend? He seems a little high-strung.”
“Don’t mind him” he answered, handing me a coke spoon.
Bill got fixed and I took two bumps. He eased back in his chair, closed his eyes with a contented sigh. I was right to be careful, the shit was monstrous! My body sagged and in minutes I was floating in the warm waters of euphoria. I drifted into a dreamy reverie, leaving my surroundings behind. Far away I heard soft voices, I felt a gentle presence beside me, and an idle caress of my long hair…. What???
I opened my eyes. Ginsberg next to me on the couch wedging me into the corner, an arm behind me, hand caressing my neck. His other hand caressing my inner thigh, while Bill watched with a beaming, benevolent smile. I shoved Ginsberg away and sprang off the couch. Everything came into focus. Ginsberg’s intense fascination, his frustration when I didn’t shoot up, the general weirdness……“We’re expecting you..” A set-up by two old queers to find out if I, a fresh young curious fish, was starstruck and high enough submit to their game. I was speechless with rage.
When I got my bearings I quietly spoke. “Wow! I think someone’s got the wrong impression and showed a wild lack of judgement.” I kept a steady, hard stare on Ginsberg who just looked at the floor. “Well, thanks for the hospitality but I’m shoving off. Thanks for the private signing Bill, and this…” as I dropped the dime bag on the table. “The pleasure was mine Jim, thanks for being a good sport, and this is yours.” He slipped the rest of the Dr. Nova bundle, 8 bags, into my hand. “Visit when you want, just call first.” “That depends on the company Bill.” Ginsberg never met my eyes, still and silent.
As we headed downstairs to the street I told Bill “I never did like his poetry.” Bill got serious, earnestly saying “You must read it again. Great work.” As we stood at the street door, he added “You know Alan was bewitched by you. He was convinced you were gay, or didn’t know it yet. Wishful thinking I suppose. Still, he meant no harm. He won’t injure anything that lives, Buddha. Thanks again for not hurting him. Yep….You’re a good sport.”
I walked through the door, we waved goodbye, and I never saw him again.