Tuesday, December 9, 2003
So there's a nameless ditch out there to which various pinkos want to attach the name of William S. Burroughs. Can I assume that the reasoning behind this is that the creek, like its proposed namesake, is frequently loaded with junk?
Sorry. Too easy.
Douglas County Commissioner Jere McElhaney opposes the naming of the currently non-hophead-honoring tributary. The proposal, he says, "sends the wrong message, that we can name a creek or a landmark after a person who was a known and habitual drug user and promoted the use of drugs, and promoted a revolutionary lifestyle and who promoted anarchy and had no respect." He went on: "... not one of us would want our children or grandchildren to follow that type of lifestyle."
No one will deny Burroughs' history of drug use, but the rest of the attributes listed by McElhaney are questionable. Although I'm loathe to let Jere McElhaney speak for me, he's correct in thinking that I don't want my children to go down the road of addiction, IF that's really the lifestyle he's talking about. Nor would I want them to grow to become tight-assed, money-grubbing industrialists. But as much as Lawrence is desperately in need of a revolution, it's hardly a possibility that a creek named after Burroughs is going to influence anyone to do anything, except maybe wade. (Credit should be given, by the way, to McElhaney's speech writers, the fresh-out-of-retirement writers from "Father Knows Best." They can still "rap on the kids' level.")
And although I'm not fan of Burroughs' work or his poor marksmanship, I find it unlikely that he would have wanted my children to follow in his footsteps either. I think we all regret our own smack-addled murder binges.
But why are we concerned about Burroughs becoming an unwanted role model for our impressionable youth? Our short attention spans -- combined with our feeble short-term memories and media-overload-induced blindness -- will ensure that we don't remember any of this in a few months anyway.
(Case in point: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Wow. But the Gipper isn't the only oft-honored political carbuncle on the books. We lo-o-o-ves to name shit after Kennedys, don't we? JFK International Airport, JFK Center for the Performing Arts, Kennedy Space Center... I love a drunken, womanizing racketeer as much as the next guy, but it's harder to tolerate careless drivers, skiers, pilots, and amateur pedologists when our children could be enjoying theatre or astronomy in these monuments of debauchery.)
Is anyone really a praiseworthy honoree? Is anyone -- let alone anyone notorious enough to be considered a player in the naming game -- going to be of pristine enough character to honestly merit such distinction?
How about Mother Theresa, you ask, that irreproachable Patron Saint of Unwanted Pregnancy? Please. What about Mahatma Gandhi, who is condemned by many for his hatred of Africans? Sorry. Cristobal Colon? Amerigo Vespucci? Kit Carson? Freddie Mercury? These are all names frequently heard at ribbon cuttings, but are they worthy? Probably not. Is Burroughs? Probably not. Are any of us? Probably not.
But do we continue to name our streets, creeks, malls, supermarkets, squares, cul-de-sacs, and airports after these historical ne'er-do-wells? To quote George "Spanky" McFarland, another troubled personage after whom nothing should be named: "And how."
We continue to honor the "founding fathers" of this country in spite of their "revolutionary lifestyles," and we're well aware of their colonial shenanigans. George Washington refused to free his three hundred slaves until he was on his deathbed, and Thomas Jefferson...well, we all know about Thomas Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin was a nudist! In the nude!
There are more than fifty streets in Brooklyn named after slave owners.
FBI Headquarters in Washington (ahem) DC is named for J. Edgar Hoover, a great man (and an even greater woman).
Chicago continues to deify thuggish former mayor Richard J. Daley, despite his known mafia connections, graft, his creation of the political machine in Chicago, his segregation policies, and his double chin.
Memphis has Elvis Presley Boulevard and Hollywood has Presley Circle, each named for the gluttonous hayseed who, despite his "law and order" stance, had voracious narcotic tendencies.
Is this a uniquely American phenomenon? I don't know. But in all my research I didn't come up with an Idi Amin Expressway, or as much as a viaduct dedicated to Papa Doc.
"But," you sputter, "but...but...but those examples all occur far from here, where syringes grow on trees and children are fed to roving bands of pederasts."
Right you are, but closer to home, the same things are occurring -- with the knowledge of our citizens.
Langston Hughes Elementary School is named for an alleged socialist.
Free State High School in Lawrence was nearly named for prolific slaughterer William Quantrill, and Quantrill's name currently adorns a housing development south of town. Hallmark's Lawrence facility had a Quantrill conference room, and for years there was a flea market (or was it a "flee" market) in Lawrence called "Quantrill's."
John Brown, self-appointed angel of death and incorrigible zealot, has his likeness plastered prominently in the Kansas statehouse, has been immortalized in countless songs, and even has a beer named for him at Lawrence's Free State Brewery. Ah, the malty taste of terror!
Pat Kehde, owner of The Raven Bookstore in Lawrence, was already aware of the connection of her store's name to the reputedly boozy beggar, Edgar Allen Poe, when approached by this writer.
"The Raven is his most famous work. Poe was the father of the modern detective story, and that was the only consideration."
Regarding the proposed Burroughs Creek, she said, "You simply cannot argue that William S. Burroughs is not an important contemporary American writer. It doesn't mean you like him. He was certainly, with Langston Hughes, the most important writer who lived in Lawrence in the 20th century."
Richard Heckler, a member of the Brook Creek Neighborhood Association, the group responsible for the Burroughs Creek proposal, had this to say: "The man was a poet. All the presidents have girlfriends, we don't know how many people George Bush has killed, so I don't have a problem with it being named after Burroughs. We have bigger things on our plates than to worry about this."
So what did William S. Burroughs accomplish while he was in Lawrence? He did seem to cultivate his oddly intense love of cats, and consequently purchased a lot of cat food, which stimulated the local economy and fed urban myths centering on Burroughs sightings that are probably still circulating amongst fresh-faced neo-beats who haven't yet heard of his passing. He brought artists like Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Debbie Harry, and John Giorno to Lawrence, as well as various artists who may still have something to contribute artistically.
But is this enough to merit a creek that bears his name? Why not? It's a creek. Are we still talking about this?
Jere McElhaney should have no problem with a pampered, rich white man being immortalized in the annals of real estate when that has always been the standard, regardless of their questionable character or lifestyles.
I am 100 percent convinced that William S. Burroughs might as well have a creek named for him. And he certainly doesn't deserve it.