Shit. I’ve missed the bus stop again.
I gaze out of the window and it’s clear I’m far past Santa Monica. I’m far past my old frame of mind, too. A bright yellow book lays open in my lap, a Bic pencil in my hand as I furiously underline, star, and scribble notes on the margin of the pages. I’m absorbed, intrigued, repulsed, and slightly confused. Never before have I read a book so full of strange, deep idiosyncrasies, characters depraved unto their needled eyeballs, antiquated gutter slang, and a rich depravity of human behavior. The entire book is a huge middle finger not only to chronology, but also to the way we are taught to live. This is Naked Lunch, and I remain insatiable.
It’s the year 2002 and my life is changing. I’m studying American Literature and Culture at UCLA, something I’ve known I was going to do since age eight. As I step off of the bus and toward my shared apartment in Santa Monica, my head is flooded with images and words urging to be set down to paper. “First thought, best thought,” said Allen Ginsberg. I continue reading as my feet tread the sidewalk, not wanting to waste any minute when I could be reading.
At this point, I’m arguably manic (the doctors just haven’t told me so, as of yet). But I believe it’s passion. I want to live life as deeply and intensely as possible. I sleep about three hours a day, reading, writing, exercising, and attending class the rest of the time. I want to meet everyone, to get to know their stories. I want to read everything I can get my hands on, especially if it’s written by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, or Chuck Palahniuk. He isn’t part of the Beat Generation, but damn he’s good. I saw him read from his new book, Lullaby, the other day, and something he said stuck with me. “You have to write for yourself, because in the end, even if you don’t make money, at least you’ve enjoyed yourself.” And this, of course, is paraphrased. He gave me hope for my future career as a fiction writer. He even said he liked my metallic, steel blue nail polish as he signed my well-loved, overly-read, scrawled-all-over copy of Fight Club.
But this isn’t about him. It’s about Burroughs. It’s about all of those dudes in the 1940s and 1950s who rejected domesticity and the hamster wheel of life our square, law-abiding, perfect-citizen parents shoved down our throats. The Korean War had jolted them. They knew that there was much more to life than settling down and doing what everyone else was doing, just because. No. They wanted to philosophize, road trip around the US, travel on down to Mexico, farther south in Latin America, and beyond. They wanted to smoke hash, write novels on bennies, stare at their toes while a needle expunged of heroine lay on the dirty floor. They wanted to love who they really loved, to be in the arms of other men because society couldn’t tell them they couldn’t lay with another hairy, endowed member. (Well, not all, but Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Cassady sure did.) These visionaries wanted to listen to music until their ears bled, to drive until the pedal crashed the floor, to dig all that life had to offer, to talk until their tongues were sore, to see the world through other cultures’ perspectives.
And I love it. I want this, too. Shit, I’m almost 21 and I already feel the years flashing before me. I’m considering leaving UCLA because there’s just too much in life to be stuck in a god damn classroom. Education- learning- is out THERE. There aren’t enough hours in the day to write all the poetry that constantly fills my head. I haven’t even been to Mexico. I’m tempted to just hop in my black Honda Accord and head there, but I can’t find my damn birth certificate. I think my mom has it locked up somewhere in San Jose. Clever, mom. Very clever.
I walk up the stairs, turn the key, and enter the minimally furnished apartment. I throw my backpack on the floor, set Naked Lunch on the counter, take a deep breath, and put on some Bob Dylan. It’s time for some tea and getting these words out of my head and into my notebook.
* * *
Flash forward 12 years to 2015, because that’s what I like to do. I’m walking up the labyrinthine hills lined with decaying buildings. In my periphery, I see women in hijabs glide past me, holding their children’s hands. The eyes of Moroccan men stick to me like gorilla glue even though I’ve done my duty in covering my arms and legs entirely. They call to me in broken Spanish, because this is the international city of Tangier, and I’m obviously not from around these parts. Foreign women don’t have to wait until marriage to indulge in bodily pleasures, so this must be why we’re here, right? Isn’t that what female travelers do- collect lovers from all lands like stamps on their passports?
I’m not here for that; I’m here for William S. Burroughs. His words stayed with me, changed me.
After the bright yellow book there was Queer, Junky, The Soft Machine, The Cat Inside, The Job, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, and probably more. He was a man I probably wouldn’t have gotten along with, but the impact he had on me is immeasurable. Sure, he was a paranoid, heroine-addicted, frail, cat-loving, women-hating, boy-seducing, hallucinogen-chasing, genius son of a bitch. He surely had his demons, as I do mine, but he wrote like a mother fucker and exploded my mind with his lewd, twisted words and way of life.
This is why I have come all the way to North Africa and now stand on the doorstep of Hotel el Muniria, where he wrote (and supposedly didn’t recall writing) Naked Lunch in the cut-up method that Brion Gysin invented. And, if it hadn’t been for Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, it would’ve remained as thousands of papers lying on the table next to his typewriter and drug paraphernalia.
I stare at the robust, green metal door that stands before me and the experience I’m about to have. Peeking into the window, I see nothing but a black staircase and bland, desolate white walls. What kind of energy will I feel once I enter? Is anyone even in here? Is the place shut down? If it’s not, will they let me in? I’ve come to witness where an old, dead junky used to shoot up, shack up, and tap on his typewriter, not to book a room. I’ve nothing to offer, but also nothing to lose. I raise my right hand, clenched in an eager fist, and knock boldly on history’s door.