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The Memory Addict

1. Album with photographs from Burroughs’s paternal grandmother’s childhood.; 2. His father’s diaries from 1975 to 1978.; 3. Burroughs’s paternal grandfather. He was a medic in the Army.; 4. Scrapbook with a picture of Burroughs’s grandmother and other Daughters of the American Revolution.; 5. Burroughs believes this is the same grandfather, as a baby. But nothing was written on the back of the photograph.  

Burroughs and I are sitting looking out the big rectangular plate-glass window of an Equinox fitness center on the corner of Greenwich and 12th. The window is giant and perfectly clean and creates the illusion of containing the entirety of West Village foot traffic like fish in an aquarium. Although Burroughs no longer drinks, he collects lesser compulsions like little girls collect seashells, and he has been drawn to this spot by the lure of two converging addictions, one minor, one major. The minor addiction is Red Bull; they didn’t have it, so he settled for a Diet Coke. The major addiction is, as usual, Burroughs’s Big One, the master dependency around which all his minor dependencies (M&Ms, the Internet, French bulldogs, nicotine) seem to rotate in twitchy, continuous orbit—the source of pretty much all his wealth and fame and controversy: namely, his allegedly vivid, restless, overstuffed memory. He is giving it a light workout, here at the window, excavating some details mostly for my benefit. This, he says, is an ideal spot for reminiscence, “a very nutrient-dense area.” The gym is on the corner of Burroughs’s old street, which he hasn’t returned to in over ten years. He lived here in the West Village eighteen years ago, when he was 24. “All these little details come back when I’m here,” he says. “It’s like there’s a whole other time layered over this one. And the people that lived here still live here for me, still walk the streets.” He says he remembers, for instance, watching a painter—“navy shirt, white pants, brown belt, black boots”—painting a door across from his old apartment. “White drop cloth spread out over the stone steps,” he says. “The way the light hit him.”

My internal polygraph begins to twitch here, subtly, because what sort of freakishly bloated cortex retains, for eighteen years, the color of a random workman’s belt? This is exactly the kind of improbably authenticating detail Burroughs has been accused of inventing in his books—not a big deal on its own, perhaps, but patch enough of them together and your life story is suddenly more imagined than remembered. “The way the light hit him”? Seriously?

Burroughs says that, back when he was busy drinking himself to the brink of death in his apartment halfway down the block, this fitness center with its big glass window was an old movie theater called the Art Greenwich. He used to hang out in front of it with a crowd of homeless people, in a kind of informal apprenticeship. “I wasn’t doing it to be cool and have homeless friends,” he says. “I was doing it to see, How hard can this be? I thought it was inevitable I would become one of them.” They got to be such pals they’d do him favors. “They would see me going down to the subway, and all of a sudden there’d be this filthy hand slapping right in front of me, putting a token in.” (My polygraph spasms again: a bit Dickensian.) Burroughs fires up his synapses and describes, in detail, the look of the old theater’s lobby: its threadbare red carpeting, the off-kilter angle of its back corner, its glass door.

I ask him what movies he saw here.

“Lots,” he says, but he can’t come up with any names, just something about Robert De Niro as a pedophile on a boat with Juliette Lewis.

Village girls drift past the window in complicated boots. Burroughs points across the street to the diner where he used to have fat-soaked hangover breakfasts to try to absorb some of the alcohol before it reached his swollen liver. He tells me about miserable nights at a now-defunct gay bar called Uncle Charlie’s, a place “just exactly as loathsome as the name implies.” He remembers, vividly, the embarrassment of trying to sneak Hefty bags full of wine bottles down the stairs of his old building in the middle of the night. But he can’t remember which apartment he lived in.

“Something D, maybe?” he says.

At this, my polygraph sketches a quick profile of the Alps. Who can remember the color of a stranger’s belt, and the precise angle of the back corner of an old movie theater’s lobby, but not the number of his own apartment, or any of the movies he saw? What kind of memory is that?

To describe Burroughs’s semi-mythic and exhaustively self-documented life is, at this point, deeply redundant. Over the last six years—as America reached and then passed the red-hot climax of its sadomasochistic affair with memoir—Burroughs has seemed determined to surpass all reasonable human limits of public self-disclosure. In that span, he has published five autobiographical books, and he supplements these with a blog, a MySpace page, and an elaborate promotional Website complete with emotive folk songs about his childhood and video of him kissing his dog. We know the names of not only his current pets (Bentley and the Cow) but also his childhood dogs (Cream, Brutus, Grover) and his dead guinea pig (Ernie). Burroughs’s new book, A Wolf at the Table, is being promoted as “his first memoir in five years”—a gem of self-canceling hype roughly equivalent to “her first wedding since last fall” or “his ninth bar mitzvah since he was 13.”