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Washington Square Station

“Sometime you can see maybe fifty ratty-looking junkies squealing sick, running along behind a boy with a harmonica, and there is The Man on a cane seat throwing bread to the swans, a fat queen drag walking his Afghan hound through the East Fifties, an old wino pissing against an El post, a radical Jewish student giving out leaflets in Washington Square…”

– William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch

Washington Square Station, 2008
Washington Square Station, 2008 (Photograph by NakedLunch.org)

Although Naked Lunch references a number of New York locations, there are only two places in the city that you can’t walk past without thinking of Burroughs’ masterwork. One is the corner of 103rd Street and Broadway. Probably this intersection acquires a Burroughsian air for a simple reason: it’s an otherwise nondescript corner whose subway stop and local businesses recede in the mind before Burroughs’ powerful descriptions of the old-time junkies who loitered there. The other location that you can’t visit without calling Naked Lunch to mind is Washington Square Station, a subway stop located down the street from the very heart of Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park. This is where Naked Lunch begins: “vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs…”

Washington Square and its eponymous subway station were the epicenter of Bohemian culture in New York from the 1920s to about the 1970s. In his excellent Greenwich Village memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, Anatole Broyard (known to Burroughsians for his scathing reviews of Burroughs’ later books) portrays the scene as it must have appeared to the young Beats:

The Village was as close in 1946 as it would ever come to Paris in the twenties. Rents were cheap, restaurants were cheap, and it seemed to me that happiness itself might be cheaply had. The streets and bars were full of writers and painters and the kind of young men and women who liked to be around them. In Washington Square would-be novelists and poets tossed a football near the fountain and girls just out of Ivy League colleges looked at the landscape with art history in their eyes. People on the benches held books in their hands.

A similar Bohemian idyll appears in the early work authored by Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks. At the time of the Carr-Kammerer murder that Hippos fictionalizes, Burroughs was living at 69 Bedford Street, a ten-minute walk to the west of Washington Square. The lurid killing may dominate the book’s plot, but Greenwich Village dominates its mise-en-scène. “We took the Independent down to Washington Square,” Burroughs writes, “and said good night at the entrance, because we were going in opposite directions. I walked up Bleecker Street and there were a lot of Italian boys playing baseball with a broomstick as a bat.” The passage echoes Broyard’s football games and perhaps also his idealism. Burroughs calls himself in Hippos “a later bourgeois Rimbaud,” and it is difficult not to suspect that he had bought into the notion that Greenwich Village was the literary and artistic place to be. A community of artists is precisely what he sought, as his correspondence attests, when he decamped to Tangier in the 1950s.

One thing you wouldn’t have expected Burroughs to be seeking in Washington Square was female companionship. In Hippos, however, Burroughs portrays his stand-in Will Dennison as a ladies’ man, probably for complex reasons relating to the book’s need to disavow the homosexuality of anyone other than the victim of the murder. “What’s the matter with you young fellows, can’t you get women for yourselves?,” Dennison asks, “– all those Washington Square college girls over there walking around with the juice dripping down their legs. Why, when I was your age, I was like a young bull… I could tell you stories that’d make your cock stand.” The college girls were likely students of New York University, which owns most of the property around Washington Square and therefore bills itself as having a “campus of the streets.” It was also a Washington Square college girl — “Junior from New York University, with her hard body and her passion for proper poetry” — whom Norman Mailer would spend a dozen pages attempting to bring to orgasm in his notorious short story “The Time of Her Time” (published in 1959, the same year as Naked Lunch).

Washington Square Park, 1950
Washington Square Park, New York, 5 May 1950 (Photograph by Walter Sanders, Life Magazine Archive)

Hippos, however, documents a transformation in Burroughs’ conception of New York. With its one scene of morphine use, Hippos shows the Bohemian utopia becoming a narcotic dystopia. Dealers and addicts replace artists and football tossers, and the scoring is no longer for girls but for drugs. In Junky, Burroughs portrays William Lee as a small-time part of Greenwich Village’s drug culture. One day he meets a customer “coming out of the subway at Washington Square.” There are several subway stops within walking distance of the park, but Burroughs presumably refers to the West 4th Street / Washington Square Station on 6th Avenue. This is the site of an event that appears in both Junky and Naked Lunch. This is how it happens in the earlier book:

there was a burly young man in a white trenchcoat standing in a doorway. When he saw me he started sauntering up the street ahead of me. Then he turned a corner, waiting for me to walk past so he could fall in behind. I turned and ran back in the opposite direction. When I reached Sixth Avenue, he was about fifty feet behind me. I vaulted the subway turnstile and shoved the cigarette package into the space at the side of a gum machine. I ran down one level and got a train up to the Square.

Though the gum machines have long been replaced with machines that sell you a transit pass called a MetroCard, this is a perfectly accurate description of the station. There are several entrances on Sixth Avenue. There are turnstiles you can leap over (if you don’t fear police, who can and sometimes do arrest anyone failing to pay the fare). Go down one flight of stairs and you can catch a “train up to the Square” — in this case, not Washington Square but Times Square.

This deadpan, noirish description is transmogrified in the opening of Naked Lunch:

I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station, vault a turnstile and two flights down the iron stairs, catch an uptown A train…

Stairs at Washington Square Station, 2008
Stairs at Washington Square Station, 2008 (Photograph by NakedLunch.org)

Gone are Junky’s pedestrian stylistic tics, such as “when” and “then.” In their place are slang, repetition, rhythm and rhyme, a long sentence broken up into clauses that urge the reader onward like the incantatory “who” lines (”who bared… who passed… who cowered…”) of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The interlacing of the present simple (feel, throw, vault, catch) and present progressive (closing in, making moves, setting up, crooning) even point forward to the linguistic experiments of the cut-up and the permutation poems. The entire difference between the two books is visible in their descriptions of this incident in the subway station.

In the “WORD” manuscript omitted from the published text of Naked Lunch, Burroughs wrote that “lean sick junkies play Banker and Broker in Washington Square.” That sight, if you have the eye to distinguish card games and addicts, can still be found in the park today. You can still buy drugs there, and you can still catch an uptown A train at the station down the street. The stairs, though, are not iron but rather concrete tipped with steel, presumably to protect the edges against wear. Perhaps this minor inaccuracy serves to distinguish Naked Lunch as well. For if the episode reported in Junky is a scene that took place in New York, the flight down the stairs in Naked Lunch detaches itself from reality to become something more like a descent into hell — a comparison evoked by Burroughs himself in a Nov. 26, 1957 letter to Allen Ginsberg, “I am beginning to see now where I was going all along. It’s beginning to look like a modern Inferno.”

(Text: Supervert)

Naked Lunch and New York

The Hotel Lamprey
Washington Square Station
Dunking Pound Cake (The Waldorf, Bickford’s, and the Automat)
Queens Plaza

Comments Total: 1
Tom Buckner
Nov 25 2009
3:53 am

Perhaps the concrete stairs are not an error by Burroughs but rather an alteration which happened in the last 50 years? The old stairs might indeed have been iron, and needed repair. The station must have been about 40 years old when Burroughs used it, and I’d be willing to bet the original steps were not poured concrete. They’d be stone or iron, more likely, because although concrete goes back to ancient Rome, you don’t tend to see it in such massive use in century-old structures.

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