Monday, July 30, 2007
How did you meet William S. Burroughs?
Wayne Propst tilts his head back. He is sitting on the porch of his country house north of town, near the Jefferson County line. The sun is out and guinea fowl are squawking in the yard.
"It was his initial visit to the Lawrence area," he says. "That's when I met him. 1981. And we got along right away."
Propst became part of the inner circle. Those who came to Burroughs' house on Learnard Avenue every Thursday evening to eat, drink, smoke and talk-"boys' night," they called it. Those who shot guns with Burroughs at a friend's property north of town. Those who drove Burroughs to Kansas City for his dose from the methadone clinic.
Propst-who calls himself a "leisure consultant"-is an experimental artist and raconteur. Scatterbrained fascination oozes from his pores. He calls himself Burroughs' student.
Moments pass before he begins the story of how he met Burroughs:
Burroughs was in Lawrence scoping out properties. It was just before he moved to town. Propst knew Grauerholz, who brought Burroughs over to his place. He and Burroughs ended up walking the property, just the two of them. Like always, Burroughs had a pistol on him.
"I'll bet you $5 I can hit that stalk over there," Burroughs said, pointing to a small, dried ragweed stalk poking up some 20 feet away.
"I'm in," Propst said.
Burroughs drew his pistol and focused his sights for some time on the stalk. He fired. The stalk broke in two.
Here comes the part of the story that brightens Propst's eyes: Burroughs smiled, turned to Propst and motioned his fingers toward his body-the international sign for "pay up."
"Oh," Propst said, taken aback a little at this icon of American literature holding him to a bet. "Oh yeah." He handed over the $5.
"He had a bit of a reputation as a black magician anyway," Propst says, "and when he did that I said, 'Good Lord.' Not to mention I lost $5."
Propst smokes his cigarette.
"Eventually, towards the end of Bill's life," he says, "I realized that I was his student."
Another pause. "Of everything."
Burroughs, he says, was the master of the routine-of siphoning the magic from the mundane.
"The notion of reality versus creating worlds," he reaches to explain, trying to pick at the heterogeneous philosophy of his teacher in too few words. "And reality in those worlds are all the same, in a way. If you're conceiving of it, it's there."
He returns to the allegory of the stalk shooting.
"I see it as something that a master would do-shoot the stalk to show the student that it's not exactly about him, it's about how the world is:
"'See that stick over there? You don't think I can shoot it, do you?'
"Now, if he'd have missed it, that doesn't mean that we wouldn't have been friends, that I would have said, 'You stupid old man, you can't even shoot a gun! Fuck you! Get out of here!' No, it wouldn't be like that. But the timing of it set the stage just right."
"If you didn't have any interest in learning, and a person didn't have any imagination, or they had little imagination and very little curiosity, I don't know that sessions with William would help them. But if you already were headed that way anyway-if a person already had some curiosity and wanted to learn something and so on-and that's exactly my situation-then it just enhanced, tremendously enhanced, my curiosity about everything."
One of the many sayings Burroughs repeated was "We're here to learn." It's a statement few would argue with, but Propst adds, "It says a lot more than it sounds like."
Walking through Propst's property feels like walking through the laboratory of a madman. Odd items lie about everywhere. Some of it he calls art. Some of it he calls failed art. The difference is in the eye of the beholder.
In the house is a touched-up picture of Propst standing before Burroughs' open casket, in the same room as a manila folder streaked with ink by Burroughs' hand. Outside the house is a big metal cage where friends of Burroughs built a bardo fire after his death-a Tibetan tradition in which the spirit is sent off.
He steps into his barn and emerges with a larger-than-life-sized plywood cutout of a man wearing a fedora, splattered with spray-paint. It was once a failed piece of art, Propst says. Then Burroughs suggested they fire a bowling-ball cannon at it (the bowling-ball cannon, he says, is a whole other story). Now the plywood man has a big round hole in his side.
"That, I think, has made it into something," he says, taking a moment to size up the piece.
"William was curious about everything. Anything. Doesn't matter what it is. We're always trying to learn something-and that's still with me."