A Look Inside William S. Burroughs’ Bunker

When every­body had one or two vod­kas and smoked a few joints, it was always the time for the blow­gun. —John Giorno

From 1974 to 1982, writer William S. Bur­roughs lived in a for­mer lock­er room of a 19th-cen­tu­ry for­mer-YMCA on New York City’s Low­er East Side.

When he moved on, his stuff, includ­ing his worn out shoes, his gun mags, the type­writer on which he wrote Cities of the Red Night, and half of The Place of Dead Roads, a well-worn copy of The Med­ical Impli­ca­tions of Karate Blows, and a lamp made from a work­ing Civ­il war-era rifle, remained.

His friend, neigh­bor, tour­mate, and occa­sion­al lover, poet John Giorno pre­served “The Bunker” large­ly as Bur­roughs had left it, and seems to delight in rehash­ing old times dur­ing a 2017 tour for the Louisiana Chan­nel, above.

It’s hard to believe that Bur­roughs found Giorno to be “patho­log­i­cal­ly silent” in the ear­ly days of their acquain­tance:

He just would­n’t say any­thing. You could be there with him the whole evening, he wouldn’t say a word. It was not the shy­ness of youth, it was much more than that, it was a very deep lack of abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate. Then he had can­cer and after the oper­a­tion that was com­plete­ly reversed and now he is at times a com­pul­sive talk­er, when he gets going there is no stop­ping him.

Accord­ing to Bur­roughs’ com­pan­ion, edi­tor and lit­er­ary execu­tor, James Grauer­holz, dur­ing this peri­od in Bur­roughs’ life, “John was the per­son who con­tributed most to William’s care and upkeep and friend­ship and loved him.”

Giorno also pre­pared Bur­roughs’ favorite dishbacon wrapped chick­enand joined him for tar­get prac­tice with the blow­gun and a BB gun whose pro­jec­tiles were force­ful enough to pen­e­trate a phone­book.

Prox­im­i­ty meant Giorno was well acquaint­ed with the sched­ules that gov­erned Bur­roughs’ life, from wak­ing and writ­ing, to his dai­ly dose of methadone and first vod­ka-and-Coke of the day.

He was present for many din­ner par­ties with famous friends includ­ing Andy WarholLou ReedFrank Zap­paAllen Gins­bergDeb­bie Har­ryKei­th Har­ingJean-Michel Basquiat, and Pat­ti Smith, who recalled vis­it­ing the Bunker in her Nation­al Book Award-win­ning mem­oir, Just Kids:

It was the street of winos and they would often have five cylin­dri­cal trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cig­a­rettes. You could look down the Bow­ery and see these fires glow­ing right to William’s door… he camped in the Bunker with his type­writer, his shot­gun and his over­coat.

All Giorno had to do was walk upstairs to enjoy Bur­roughs’ com­pa­ny, but all oth­er vis­i­tors were sub­ject­ed to strin­gent secu­ri­ty mea­sures, as described by Vic­tor Bock­ris in With William Bur­roughs: A Report from the Bunker:

To get into the Bunker one had to pass through three locked gates and a gray bul­let­proof met­al door. To get through the gates you had to tele­phone from a near­by phone booth, at which point some­one would come down and labo­ri­ous­ly unlock, then relock three gates before lead­ing you up the sin­gle flight of gray stone stairs to the omi­nous front door of William S. Bur­roughs’ head­quar­ters.

Although Bur­roughs lived sim­ply, he did make some mod­i­fi­ca­tions to his $250/month rental. He repaint­ed the bat­tle­ship gray floor white to coun­ter­act the lack of nat­ur­al light. It’s pret­ty impreg­nable.

He also installed an Orgone Accu­mu­la­tor, the inven­tion of psy­cho­an­a­lyst William Reich, who believed that spend­ing time in the cab­i­net would improve the sitter’s men­tal, phys­i­cal, and cre­ative well­be­ing by expos­ing them to a mys­te­ri­ous uni­ver­sal life force he dubbed orgone ener­gy.

(“How could you get up in the morn­ing with a hang­over and go sit in one of these things?” Giorno chuck­les. “The hang­over is enough!”)

Includ­ed in the tour are excerpts of Giorno’s 1997 poem “The Death of William Bur­roughs.” Take it with a bit of salt, or an open­ness to the idea of astral body trav­el.

As per biog­ra­ph­er Bar­ry Miles, Bur­roughs died in the Lawrence Memo­r­i­al Hos­pi­tal ICU in Kansas, a day after suf­fer­ing a heart attack. His only vis­i­tors were James Grauer­holz, his assis­tant Tom Pes­chio, and Dean Ripa, a friend who’d been expect­ed for din­ner the night he fell ill.

Poet­ic license aside, the poem pro­vides extra insight into the men’s friend­ship, and Bur­roughs’ time in the Bunker:

The Death of William Bur­roughs

by John Giorno

William died on August 2, 1997, Sat­ur­day at 6:01 in the
after­noon from com­pli­ca­tions from a mas­sive heart attack
he’d had the day before. He was 83 years old. I was with
William Bur­roughs when he died, and it was one of the best
times I ever had with him.  

Doing Tibetan Nying­ma Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion prac­tices, I
absorbed William’s con­scious­ness into my heart. It seemed as
a bright white light, blind­ing but mut­ed, emp­ty. I was the
vehi­cle, his con­scious­ness pass­ing through me. A gen­tle
shoot­ing star came in my heart and up the cen­tral chan­nel,
and out the top of my head to a pure field of great clar­i­ty
and bliss. It was very powerful—William Bur­roughs rest­ing
in great equa­nim­i­ty, and the vast emp­ty expanse of
pri­mor­dial wis­dom mind.

I was stay­ing in William’s house, doing my med­i­ta­tion
prac­tices for him, try­ing to main­tain good con­di­tions and
dis­solve any obsta­cles that might be aris­ing for him at that
very moment in the bar­do. I was con­fi­dent that William had
a high degree of real­iza­tion, but he was not a com­plete­ly
enlight­ened being. Lazy, alco­holic, junkie William. I didn’t
allow doubt to arise in my mind, even for an instant,
because it would allow doubt to arise in William’s mind.

Now, I had to do it for him.

What went into William Bur­roughs’ cof­fin with his dead body:

About ten in the morn­ing on Tues­day, August 6, 1997,
James Grauer­holz and 
Ira Sil­ver­berg came to William’s
house to pick out the clothes for the funer­al direc­tor to put
on William’s corpse. His clothes were in a clos­et in my
room. And we picked the things to go into William’s cof­fin
and grave, accom­pa­ny­ing him on his jour­ney in the

His most favorite gun, a 38 spe­cial snub-nose, ful­ly loaded
with five shots. He called it, “The Snub­by.” The gun was my
idea. “This is very impor­tant!” William always said you can
nev­er be too well armed in any sit­u­a­tion. Of his more than
80 world-class guns, it was his favorite. He often wore it on
his belt dur­ing the day, and slept with it, ful­ly loaded, on
his right side, under the bed sheet, every night for fif­teen

Grey fedo­ra. He always wore a hat when he went out. We
want­ed his con­scious­ness to feel per­fect­ly at ease, dead.

His favorite cane, a sword cane made of hick­o­ry with a
light rose­wood fin­ish.

Sport jack­et, black with a dark green tint. We rum­maged
through the clos­et and it was the best of his shab­by clothes,
and smelling sweet of him.

Blue jeans, the least worn ones were the only ones clean.

Red ban­dana. He always kept one in his back pock­et.

Jock­ey under­wear and socks.  

Black shoes. The ones he wore when he per­formed. I
thought the old brown ones, that he wore all the time,
because they were com­fort­able. James Grauer­holz insist­ed,
“There’s an old CIA slang that says get­ting a new
assign­ment is get­ting new shoes.”

White shirt. We had bought it in a men’s shop in Bev­er­ly
Hills in 1981 on The Red Night Tour. It was his best shirt,
all the oth­ers were a bit ragged, and even though it had
become tight, he’d lost a lot of weight, and we thought it
would fit.  James said,” Don’t they slit it down the back

Neck­tie, blue, hand paint­ed by William.

Moroc­can vest, green vel­vet with gold bro­cade trim, giv­en
him by 
Brion Gysin, twen­ty-five years before.

In his lapel but­ton hole, the rosette of the French
gov­ern­men­t’s Com­man­deur des Arts et Let­tres, and the
rosette of the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts and Let­ters,
hon­ors which William very much appre­ci­at­ed.

A gold coin in his pants pock­et. A gold 19th Cen­tu­ry Indi­an
head five dol­lar piece, sym­bol­iz­ing all wealth. William
would have enough mon­ey to buy his way in the

His eye­glass­es in his out­side breast pock­et.

A ball point pen, the kind he always used. “He was a
writer!”, and some­times wrote long hand.

A joint of real­ly good grass.

Hero­in. Before the funer­al ser­vice, Grant Hart slipped a
small white paper pack­et into William’s pock­et. “Nobody’s
going to bust him.” said Grant. William, bejew­eled with all
his adorn­ments, was trav­el­ing in the under­world.

I kissed him. An ear­ly LP album of us togeth­er, 1975, was
Bit­ing Off The Tongue Of A Corpse. I kissed him on
the lips, but I did­n’t do it .  .  . and I should have.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Call Me Bur­roughs: Hear William S. Bur­roughs Read from Naked Lunch & The Soft Machine in His First Spo­ken Word Album (1965)

How William S. Bur­roughs Influ­enced Rock and Roll, from the 1960s to Today

William S. Bur­roughs’ Class on Writ­ing Sources (1976) 

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She most recent­ly appeared as a French Cana­di­an bear who trav­els to New York City in search of food and mean­ing in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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