Down and out with William S. Burroughs

In the mid-1980s, I worked for a tiny book publisher on Canal Street in Chicago. I edited books and even learned how to design one. I got paid peanuts. But I loved my job. I played with words all day and helped writers make sense of the world. I learned about art and culture from a refined editor whose desk was buried in books. I learned about Siddha Yoga and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics from a designer who worked at a desk near mine.

One day in December, the president of the publishing company called an all-hands meeting in a spartan conference room. About a dozen of us sat down at this long table that looked like the one where the Mafia families negotiated a truce in The Godfather. The president had a stack of envelopes in front of him. Each one contained our final paychecks.

The company was declaring bankruptcy. We were all laid off, effective immediately.

I had never lost a job before. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. That morning, I had been copyediting a 500-page manuscript at a rickety desk — but it was my desk, and when I received phone calls, I was referred to as Mr. Deal. That afternoon, I was in cruddy Loop bar drinking in the dark with my newly unemployed co-workers.

I’d have to find another job. But I didn’t know the drill. I knew I should file for unemployment. So I visited the nearest Illinois Department of Employment Security, a yellowish room full of vacant eyes and hard, plastic chairs. I got my resume together. I started looking at want ads and finding things that seemed remotely related to what I knew.

But mostly, I lost myself in the life of the randomly unemployed. After all, there were only so many resumes and cover letters to send and interviews to wait around for. Most of the time, I hung out at clubs like Exit, Kingston Mines, and Neo all night and played record albums (usually the Doors) in my room. I hung out in coffee shops and wrote long, rambling entries in a diary and poems and short stories lacking any sensible narrative. I saw Sid & Nancy at the theater two nights in a row. On New Year’s Eve, I saw Naked Raygun at Exit and watched some guy with long hair and red skin stab a chair repeatedly with a switchblade.

Everyone else I knew was employed or doing something that seemed productive, like attending graduate school. I got plenty of support from family and lifelong friends who are thankfully in my life today. But when you’re out of a job, you feel like someone has created a force field between you and the world. You’re on one side of the force field, and everyone else is on the other side. They can see you. You can see them. But you’re not living in the same space. And you won’t until you get a job.

Like the Eric Clapton song goes, nobody knows you when you’re down and out.

Every once in a while I landed a job interview, or an informational interview with someone who was a friend of someone and knew someone who might keep me in mind in case something came up.

Sometimes the interviews were laughably bad, like the time I met with a book publisher who had the idea that I was a full-time graphic designer. When we sat down in his office, he asked me to produce my design portfolio. I didn’t know what he was talking about. He stroked his pointy beard, grimaced, and thanked me for my time, as embarrassed by the mismatch as I was.

One cold March night, I flew to Kansas City for a job interview for the position of editor at a publisher that specialized in sports. I can’t remember how the opportunity came about, but they were willing to fly me down to Kansas City and put me up in a hotel. Why not? I liked sports.

I landed in Kansas City and took a shuttle to a nearby hotel, one of those airport specials with a cocktail lounge, a crappy pool, and a room with two double beds overlooking a parking lot. I had nowhere to go. No one to see. Nothing to do. I went through my briefcase to review my notes for tomorrow’s interviews with different people in the company. I noticed a copy of Junky by William S. Burroughs in my belongings. How did that get there? I’d probably been meaning to read it when I was exploring the Beat writers after college and had forgotten about it.

I picked up Junky, sat down on my bed, and began reading about the life of a heroin addict. Typical of Burroughs’s books, Junky was not an easy read. Junky is all about looking to score heroin, scoring it, coming down, and trying to score heroin again. Along the way, Burroughs meets assorted characters like Bert, a “heavy set, round-faced, deceptively soft looking young man,” and Louis, with a silky black moustache who “looked like an 1890 portrait.” Or Louie, a shoplifter “who wore long, shabby black overcoats that gave him all the look of a furtive buzzard.” His was a world living in the shadows, in subways and filthy rooms.

I didn’t relate to the drugs. But I related to the vibe. I was on the fringes like the characters in Junky. This was a world I could connect with in some strange way. Burroughs could have just as easily been writing about being unemployed in this passage:

Junkies all wear hats, if they have hats. They all look alike, as if wearing a costume in some curious way that escapes exact tabulation. Junk has marked them all with its indelible brand.

I was marked with the indelible brand of the down and out.

I read most of Junky but saved some for the airplane ride home. The next morning, I was met in the hotel lobby by a guy wearing a trenchcoat and a tweed jacket. He was friendly enough although he looked at me in a somewhat apprehensive way that made me realize he was already wondering whether I was a fit for my potential employer.

The rest of the day was unremarkable. I was told my job required editing statistics and various details for rule books about sports such as rugby and rowing. Everyone came across like they had just stepped out of a church service to meet me. One guy twiddled his thumbs literally during the entire interview. My contact took me out to lunch at a restaurant where you ordered burgers from little walkie talkies connected to your booth. Then I was taken back to the airport.

I couldn’t wait to get back to reading Junky. I felt like I had more in common with the down and outers than with anyone I had met that day. I finished up the book on the way home. When I got back to Chicago, I returned to my routine of clubbing, writing, and getting lost in vinyl records.

I didn’t get the job. I have no idea why — probably the time-honored lack of “cultural fit.” But when you’re down and out, you don’t feel like you fit anywhere. At least for one night, though, I belonged somewhere, even if that somewhere was a fictional world.

Thank you, William S. Burroughs.

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