The Bunker: John Giorno and The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs

by Marcus D. Niski

During one of the most colorful and flamboyant phases of his creative life, William S. Burroughs was closely associated with his New York loft apartment at 222 Bowery both affectionately and aptly known as The Bunker. The scene of many legendary parties and encounters with fellow writers, artists, hangers-on, street urchins, fans and other innumerable dramatis personae, Burroughs somewhat reluctantly at times played the mulit-faceted role of raconteur, showman, marksman, chef, host and resident celebrity that would undoubtedly help to further cement the Literary Outlaw myth so closly associated with his persona.

In this warm and intimate film portrait below of his close relationship with William S. Burroughs, fellow writer and poet John Giorno recounts the heady days of The Bunker and the antics associated with Burroughs’ famous residency. The cast of creative and literary heroes and villains ranged from the Beats Herbert Huncke and Allen Ginsberg, to such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Patti Smith, Terry Southern and Victor Bockris [who would assemble various conversational accounts of the goings-on at The Bunker under the title With William S. Burroughs: Reports from The Bunker], as well as various members of the rock and roll fraternity of royals including – Mick Jagger, David Bowie and punk icon Joe Strummer.

The term ‘The Bunker’ itself stems from the fact that the apartment had no windows as well as extremely thick concrete walls which isolated it from all outside noise. Burroughs saw this as the ideal circumstances for his writing – and indeed his marksmanship – and the building served as an extremely attractive location in which to unfold his daily creative and life rituals.

During a trip to New York in 2009-2010, I made a pilgrimage to The Bunker in search of the Burroughs mythos and the surrounding historic district of the Bowery. Indeed, the Bowery itself is known for its own colorful and unsavory history as a prominent site for men’s shelters that housed many of the cities homeless, poor and indigent residents and The Bowery Mission continues to operate until today as it has done since the 1870s just several doors away from The Bunker itself.

Below are some images that I took of the front entrance, the view looking up to The Bunker loft and a street view all taken on a particularity cold winter’s day. Looking closely through the wrought iron gates, it was fascinating to still see the remnants of the YMCA logo adorning the tiled floor just inside the door as the building had served as a working YMCA. Indeed, a fascinating history of the building has also been documented by the New York Times which can be found at the following link: New York Times history of 222 Bowery

Bunker[1] MN

Bunker [3] MN

Stills images copyright Marcus D. Niski 2009-2020

‘The Bunker’ undoubtedly remains an iconic and important architectural and cultural reference point to one of the great periods of New York’s 20th Century literary and cultural history. Given its proximity to CBGBs which played a seminal role in the birth of the American punk rock movement that spawned a whole generation of musicians and artists, it’s hardly surprising that a pilgrimage to The Bunker was also part of the neighborhood lore and ritual for so many of New York’s avant garde and outsider scene.

John Giorno’s (1936 – 2019) fascinating and eclectic life as a poet is also more extensively documented in the first part of the film as found on the Louisiana Channel at the following link entitled: John Giorno Interview: A Visit to the Poet


In the meantime we agreed to forget our cares for the night. We took a little money from our savings and walked to Forty-second Street. We stopped at a photo booth in Playland to take our pictures, a strip shot of four shots for a quarter. We go a hot dog and papaya drink at Benedict’s, then merged with the action. Boys on shore leave, prostitutes, runaways, abused tourists, and assorted victims of alien abduction. It was an urban boardwalk with Kino parlors, souvenir stands, Cuban diners, strip clubs, and late-night pawnshops. For fifty cents, one could slip inside a theatre draped in stained velvet and watch foreign films paired with soft porn.

– ‘Patti Smith’s “Forty Second Street Urban Boardwalk” in: Patti Smith,  Just Kids, Bloomsbury, London, 2010, P 107.

 

 

The Automat

By Marcus D. Niski

The Automat has an unlikely place in the pantheon of American Literary History. At once a place of simplicity, convenience and stark utilitarian dining, the Automat chains of New York City – dominated by Horn & Hardart and Bickfords – became the meeting places of some of America’s most famous and infamous literary figures. As legend would have it, a cavalcade of some of America’s most important writers, artists and playwrights would grace the shores of the humble Automats most notably Bickfords located on West 42 Street where Beat luminary Herbert Huncke was said to be almost an permanent fixture. [1]

From William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, to Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Patti Smith – amongst countless legions of other lesser well-known writers, artists and intellectuals – many notable New York City writers are said to have imbibed in, and in many instances, immortalized the humble Automat in their novels, short stories, plays, and films. Indeed, the Automat seemed like a writer’s domiciliary dream come true: what was there not to like about Automats given the perfect combination of enticements for any malnourished, impecunious writer or artist – cheap food (relatively), 24 hour convenience, winter warmth, and the company of like-minded eccentric souls. Accordingly, playwright Neil Simon is said to have proudly declared: “The Automat! The Maxim’s of the disenfranchised”.

The most potent “secret weapon” of the Automat was undoubtedly, as Bill Demain writes, the freshly brewed coffee [!] :

For all the good food, the Automat’s real secret weapon was its coffee. Horn & Hardart popularized fresh drip-brewed coffee in New York. Prior to the Automat, coffee was often harsh and bitter, boiled and clarified with eggshells. The Automat’s smooth aromatic brew flowed regally from ornate brass spigots in the shape of dolphin heads. In their heyday, Automats sold over 90 million cups of their fresh-brewed coffee each year. And they were committed to keeping it fresh. When an Automat employee brewed coffee, they filled out a time card. After twenty minutes, they discarded whatever coffee was left and made a fresh pot. If there was any doubt about Horn & Hardart’s commitment to java, the Automat even adopted Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup Of Coffee” as their unofficial theme song.

  – Automatic for the People: Remembering the Automat Restaurants, by Bill Demain, in Mental Floss, April 21 2015.

The demise of the Automats as a night-time creative and culinary haven was said (amongst a range of complex factors) to have coincided with a dramatic loss of night-time patronage due to the perceived lack of safety at night during the period of the 70s and 80s when New York experienced a wave of muggings and rising levels of street crime leading many residents to shy away from the tradition of frequenting the many Automats dotted around Manhattan at night.

While the Automat may have physically disappeared from the presence of Manhattan’s unique urban landscape, it remains forever immortalized in literature and American art most notably in Edward Hopper’s beloved painting Automat (1927) which “portrays a lone woman staring into a cup of coffee in an Automat at night.”

Patti Smith similarly immortalizes her reminiscences of the Automat which she often frequented with her partner and muse Robert Mapplethorpe in this passage from Just Kids describing her encounter with Allen Ginsberg who provides her with some spare change for a cheese-and lettuce sandwich –

Horn and Hardart, the queen of Automats, was just past the tackle shop. The routine was to get a seat and a tray, then go to the back wall where there were rows of little windows. You would slip some coins into the slot, open the glass hatch, and extract a sandwich or fresh apple pie. A real Tex Avery eatery. My favorite was chicken potpie or cheese and mustard with lettuce on a poppy seed roll. Robert liked their two specialties, baked macaroni and cheese and chocolate milk, but for a girl raised on Bosco and powdered milk, it was always too thick, so I just got a coffee.

           I was always hungry. I metabolized food quickly. Robert could go without eating for much longer than me. If we were out of money we just didn’t eat. Robert might be able to function, even if he got a little shaky, but I would feel like I was going to pass out.  One drizzly afternoon I had a hankering for one of those cheese-and-lettuce sandwiches. I went through our belongings and found exactly fifty cents. slipped on my gray trench coat and Mayakovsky cap, and headed to the Automat.

          I got my tray and slipped in my coins but the window wouldn’t open. I tried again without luck and then I noticed the price had gone up to sixty-fve cents. I was disappointed, to say the least, when I heard a voice say, “Can I help?’

I turned around and it was Allen Ginsberg…

He told me he was writing a long elegy for Jack Kerouac who had just recently passed away. “Three days after Rimbaud’s birthday,” I said. I shook his hand and we parted company.

– From: Patti Smith in Just Kids, Bloomsbury, London, 2010.

William S. Burroughs described the generalized impact of gentrification in his elegant observation that ‘all the angels are leaving all of the alcoves’ conveying a sense of damage, loss and change in the face of relentless ‘progress’ often at the cost of simplicity and tradition. The Automat, as does so many other urban phenomenon of previous ages and epochs, seems relegated to a bygone era now fortuitously frozen in time in some of America’s great art and literature: a legacy we can be most sincerely grateful for.

Marcus D. Niski,  July 2017


[1] Huncke was a legendary story teller and it doesn’t take too much imagination to conjure him up engaging in one of his famous all-night “bullshit sessions” [as Huncke himself would refer to similar sessions at the Chelsea Hotel as documented in Francois Bernadi’s superb short film Original Beats] at Bickfords surrounded by various acolytes, misfits and colorful characters of the night.

For a further biographical portrait of Huncke and images of his writers notebooks see my: ‘The Writer’s Notebooks of Herbert Huncke’ by Marcus D. Niski, Reality Studio, 26 March 2012 as found at: http://realitystudio.org/criticism/the-writers-notebooks-of-herbert-huncke/

At The Automat – A scene set in an Automat from the film Sadie McKee (1934) starring Joan Crawford