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High Times Greats: Interview With William Burroughs

A rare conversation with one of America’s greatest writers from a 1979 issue of High Times.

William Burroughs
Every day Burroughs walks across the Brooklyn Bridge. Nobody knows why/ Gerard Malanga

Just in time for the late, great William Burroughs’ birthday on February 5, we’re bringing you an interview by Victor Bockris, originally published in the February, 1979 issue of High Times.


After years of exile, the controversial American author of Naked Lunch and Junkie talks about Jack Kerouac, smack, out-of-body experiences, outer space, brain power future shock, fascism and the most important novel of the ’80s, his own Cities of the Red Night.

“I think,” said Norman Mailer in 1962, when the seminal American classic Naked Lunch was published, “that William Burroughs is the only living American novelist who may conceivably be possessed by genius.” Burroughs, who had been a heroin addict for 16 years prior to taking the apomorphine cure in London in 1956 (he has been off junk ever since), went on to become a major innovative force and literary bellwether, creating not only metaphors but living generations with minds of their own. Along with Dylan, Lennon, Jagger, Warhol (and others whom the reader’s mind may suggest) he stands as one of our giants.

The great promise of Burroughs’s first books and early experiments seemed marred when, as he explained in our recent conversations, he ran out of his original source materials. This is an important thing to understand if you want to understand the career of a writer, and I think it’s worth going into, because William Seward Burroughs (whose grandfather invented the Burroughs adding machine) is a man who is particularly worth understanding now.

Since the enormous triumph of Naked Lunch, Burroughs has been criticized for writing books that have been too inaccessible or simply bad. (He has also written a number of very good books that have been widely read, such as Junkie and The Wild Boys). In his attempt to get to the front, Burroughs experimented so extremely with language that he not only went too far out but also lost contact with a large part of his audience. He also, he admits today, published books that should have remained in notebooks.

But Burroughs has come through. This began to happen when he returned to the States in 1973 after 25 years in exile (skipped bail in New Orleans after a drug bust) and rediscovered his young and growing American audience. Since then he has gone from strength to strength, giving a series of public readings across the country, lecturing and teaching at various colleges and always writing. His recently completed novel Cities of the Red Night (a detective story due for release presently) promises to be up there.

One of the more unusual aspects of Burroughs’s career as a writer is that he didn’t begin writing until he was 34 (after a few botched attempts that gave him stomach cramps), at the urging of Jack Kerouac. It is always intriguing to guess what unleashed a writer’s word hoard. In Burroughs’s case, it may well have been the accidental 1949 shooting death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City. On that awful day he had found himself crying in the street; upon returning home he started drinking and suddenly told his wife it was “time for our William Tell act.” The .38 misfired. There was a blinding flash: his wife was dead.

After this incident Burroughs began writing constantly. The notes that later developed into Naked Lunch were recorded in seedy hotels and bars across South America and finally composed in Copenhagen, Tangier, Venice and Paris.

A handsome young man about town, but dedicated to the forces of law and order/ Gerard Malanga

Burroughs developed his source materials from his early experiences, some of which are flatly related in Junkie. In between and during being a drug addict, Burroughs was also an exterminator, bartender and private detective. Some light is shed on the side street from which he viewed life in an incident he related recently: “I remember trying to get into 21 [an exclusive Manhattan restaurant reserved for movie stars and the rich] as a private detective in order to serve a subpoena on some citizen and having to figure out a way to get past the doorman.”

“As a child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous.” His favorite writers are Graham Greene, Richard Hughes, Joseph Conrad, Raymond Chandler. “They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in yellow pongee silk suits. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair, and they penetrated forbidden swamps with faithful native boys, smoking hashish and languidly caressing pet gazelles.”

Burroughs spent his childhood in St. Louis in what he later described as “a malignant matriarchal society.” The family of four lived with their English governess.

“My first literary essay was called ‘The Autobiography of a Wolf.’ People laughed and said, ‘You must mean the biography of a wolf.’ No, I meant the autobiography of a wolf and still do. There was something called ‘Carl Cranbury in Egypt’ that never got off the ground… ‘Carl Cranbury’ frozen back there on yellow lined paper; his hand an inch from his blue steel automatic. In this set I also wrote westerns, gangster stories and haunted houses. I was quite sure that I wanted to be a writer.”

From age 12 to 15, Burroughs attended the John Burroughs School. At 15 he was sent to Los Alamos Ranch School for his health. “I formed a romantic attachment for one of the boys at Los Alamos and kept a diary of this affair that was to put me off writing for many years. Even now I blush to remember its contents. During the Easter vacation of my second year, I persuaded my family to let me stay in St. Louis, so my things were packed and sent to me from the school, and I used to turn cold thinking maybe the boys are reading it aloud to each other. When the box finally arrived I pried it open and threw away everything until I found the diary and destroyed it forthwith without a glance at the appalling pages.”

Burroughs went on to Harvard, where he studied English literature, living first in Adams House and then Claverly Hall. As a child his hair was blond. William Burroughs is 64 years old.

High Times: In your new novel, Cities of the Red Night, you write about body transference. Is this something that’s actually happening?

Burroughs: I’m convinced the whole cloning book was a fraud, but it’s within the range of possibilities; and there’s no doubt that what you call your “I” has a definite location within the brain, and if they can transplant it, they can transplant it. In fact, what these transplant doctors are working up to is brain transplants.

High Times: Have you had any out-of-the-body experiences?

Burroughs: Who hasn’t?

High Times: I’m not quite sure what they are.

Burroughs: I’ll give you one right now. You’re staying where?

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High Times: The Lazy L Motel.

Burroughs: What does your room look like?

High Times: Standard motel double bed, rust-colored rug and…

Burroughs: You’re having an out-of-the-body experience. Right now you’re there.

High Times: I was standing right in the middle of the room looking around it.

Burroughs: That’s good, isn’t it? But dreams are also, of course…

High Times: Have you ever dreamed that you were someone else?

Burroughs: Frequently. I looked in a mirror and found that I was black. Looked down at my hands and they were still white. This is quite common. It’s usually someone I don’t know. I look at my face and it’s quite different, and not only my face but my thoughts. I’ve come in in the middle of someone else’s identity, but I almost always feel more comfortable with the person I’ve become.

High Times: What’s your greatest strength and weakness?

Burroughs: My greatest strength is to have a great capacity to confront myself about myself no matter how unpleasant. My greatest weakness is that I don’t. I know that’s enigmatic, but that’s sort of a general formula for anyone, actually.

High Times: Do you remember the first time you ever smoked marijuana?

Burroughs: There wasn’t a federal law against marijuana until 1937. You just used to be able to buy it in novelty stores and pool rooms. Purple Weed. “Best stuff I ever handled… ” the guy told me. I bought some and smoked it in my room alone. I was 18 at the time. It just had a terrific effect and sent me off on laughing jags.

High Times: How did you lose your finger?

Burroughs: Oh… er… an explosion. Blew my whole hand off. See, I nearly lost the whole hand, but I had a very good surgeon and he saved the other fingers.

High Times: Was that a gun explosion?

Burroughs: No, no, no, it was, er… chemicals! Potassium chlorate and red phosphorus.

High Times: What were you doing with it?

Burroughs: Chemicals! Boys! I was 14 years old… I’ve had a lifelong interest in drugs and medicine and illness, and pharmacology was one of my lifelong hobbies. In fact, I took a year of medicine in Vienna. I decided not to go on with it because it was too long a period of study. And then I wasn’t at all sure I’d like the actual practice of medicine. But I was always interested in diseases and their symptoms, poisons and drugs. Since I was 13 years old I was reading books on pharmacology and medicine. However, sick people got on my nerves.

High Times: I hear we can expect to have much longer life-spans quite soon.

Burroughs: There’s a very interesting book on this, The Biological Time Bomb by Gordon Taylor. He says that the ability to prolong life to as much as 200 years is not 100 years in the future, it’s 10 or 15 years. Then there comes a question: Suppose everybody’s going to live that long? Where are we gonna put ’em all? We got too many people now.

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Any sort of selective distribution or agency that would prolong life would, of course, be very difficult. What he points out, essentially, is that our creaky social system cannot absorb the biologic discoveries that are on the way, that being one of them. We will also be able to increase intelligence by the use of certain drugs. But then who is going to receive these drugs, who is to decide?

High Times: It points toward a much more controlled society.

Burroughs: I don’t think it does at all. A point that Leary made, which I think is quite valid, is that Washington is no longer a center of power, it’s no longer a center of anything, it’s a joke. It’s having less and less influence on what is actually going on. There’s no necessity for somebody to control all this because the indications are that they wouldn’t.

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Suppose I’m a wealthy man and I hire a bunch of scientists and they discover a longevity pill. Well, I decide then what to do with it. I can give it out to all my friends, or to the scientists who made it. That’s what Taylor points out, that our government could not make these decisions, so they won’t be called on to make them. They won’t be in charge. There’s no way that the government can completely monopolize all scientific discovery. So I think we are not going to get a more controlled society. Science by its nature is very difficult to monopolize, because once something is known it becomes common knowledge in scientific quarters and anybody can do it.

High Times: Is heroin a drug that should be developed and used more?

Burroughs: Basically there’s no difference between heroin and morphine. Heroin is by volume stronger, which means that it is also qualitatively stronger. Pain that no amount of codeine will alleviate can be alleviated by morphine. There probably are conditions, like leprosy of the eye and fish poison, where they can pump in any amount of morphine and it wouldn’t do any good. Heroin might get it. Of course, heroin should be used more medically, and they’re thinking of legalizing the manufacture of heroin here because it’s a better pain-killer than morphine and it’s less nauseating. There are situations where nausea can be fatal after certain operations. In those cases heroin is a much more useful drug than morphine. It’s also much more useful in terminal cancer.

High Times: What’s actually causing the growing acceptance of drugs?

Burroughs: Less ill-informed media exposure is making the biggest difference.

High Times: What is actually going to happen?

Burroughs: They’re going to legalize marijuana, and sooner or later they’re going to come around to some form of heroin maintenance. Many people connected with drug enforcement actually think that there’s no use going on trying to enforce an unenforceable law and that it’s been as much of a failure as Prohibition. That’ll make a terrific change. It would destroy the whole black market in heroin and eliminate the whole necessity for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

High Times: In the future will they really be able to make drugs to do almost anything?

Burroughs: They’re well on their way. Very soon they’re going to have the synthesis of endorphin. It’s an opiate created by the body, 30 times stronger than morphine. which they have now extracted from the brains of animals, particularly camels, who have a very high pain threshold; and they’ve found that it does stop acute pain and relieves the symptoms, but it’s still terribly expensive, $3,000 a dose. It’s about in the state that cortisone was in when it first came out. Very expensive. But it’s a question of additional research and synthesis, although it’s going to take them five years to get endorphin on the market, because the fucking FDA is really crippling any kind of research. It may well solve the whole problem of addiction, because being a natural body substance it’s presumably not addicting itself.

High Times: Is writing on morphine very different than on marijuana?

Burroughs: About as different as you can get. The two drugs are moving in exactly the opposite directions. A pain-killer like morphine naturally cuts down your awareness of your surroundings and whatever’s going on in your physical being. You don’t have much imagination when you’re on morphine. It’s a very factual orientation. You can write, you can do anything routine, but I feel that morphine is contraindicated to doing any kind of creative work. It’s good for routine work. Doctors and lawyers can function on it, bank tellers, and it’s good for writing articles. It’s not good for creative writing, because it’s dulling your awareness.

High Times: When you were writing Naked Lunch you told Jack Kerouac that you were apparently an agent for some other planet who hadn’t gotten his messages clearly decoded yet. Has all your work been sent from other places and your job been to decode it?

Burroughs: I think this is true with any writer. The best seems to come from somewhere…perhaps from the nondominant side of the brain. There’s a very interesting book called The Origins of Consciousness and Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. His theory is that the first voices were hallucinated voices, that everyone was schizophrenic up till about 800 B.C. The voice of God came from the nondominant side of the brain, and the man who was obeying these voices, to put it in Freudian terms, would have a superego and an id but no ego at all. Therefore no responsibility.

This broke down in a time of great chaos, and then you got the idea of morality, responsibility, law and also divination. If you really know what to do, you don’t have to ask. Jaynes’s idea was that early men knew what to do at all times; they were told, and this was coming from outside, as far as they were concerned. This was not fancy, because they were actually seeing and hearing these gods. So they didn’t have anything that we call “I.” Your “I” is a completely illusory concept. It has a space in which it exists. They didn’t have that space, there wasn’t any “I” or anything corresponding to it.

High Times: Is human nature to blame for…

Burroughs: Human nature is another figment of the imagination.

High Times: What do I mean when I say human nature?

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Burroughs: You mean there is some implicit way that people are. I don’t think this is true at all. The tremendous range in which people can be conditioned would call in question any such concept.

High Times: What do you believe in?

Then he walks back, obviously. Who’d want to stay?/ Gerard Malanga

Burroughs: The idea of belief is also a meaningless proposition. What does it mean? I believe something. Okay, now you have someone who is hearing voices and believes in these voices. It doesn’t mean that they have any necessary reality. Your whole concept of your “I” is an illusion. There is no such thing. You have to have something called an “I” before you speak of what the “I” believes.

High Times: There seem to be an alarmingly large number of meaningless words polluting our language.

Burroughs: The captain says, “The ship is sinking.” People say he’s a pessimist. He says, “The ship will float indefinitely.” He’s an optimist. But this has actually nothing to do with whatever is happening with the leak and the condition of the ship. Both pessimist and optimist are meaningless words. All abstract words are meaningless. They will lump such disparate political phenomena as Nazi Germany, an expansionist militaristic movement in a highly industrialized country, together with South Africa and call them both fascism. South Africa is just a white minority trying to hang onto what they got. It’s not expansionist. They’re not the same phenomena at all. To call both fascist is like saying there’s no difference between a wristwatch and a grandfather clock.

High Times: What was the atmosphere in New York like during the Second World War?

Burroughs: The place was full of uniforms and there were incredible amounts of money being made in any business. You just had to run a laundry or any fucking thing and you could make a fortune, because the services were all broken down. They were pulling people off the streets to get them to work in anything. It was extraordinary.

High Times: You were in Vienna in ’37. Did it feel like the whole place was going to blow?

Burroughs: They knew that Hitler was coming against them.

High Times: How did people react to Hitler as a media figure?

Burroughs: Lots of people in America were pro-Hitler, and not only the rich people. My Uncle Ivy Lee used to be Hitler’s PR man for the “Do Business with Germany” campaign in the late ’30s. He had many conversations with Hitler, and he once said, “Hitler told me, ‘I haven’t got anything against the Jews.’” Old Ivy died four months after that conversation…of a brain tumor. The whole of Yorkville in New York was pro-Hitler, whole sections of Chicago were pro-Hitler.

High Times: What did they find attractive about him?

Burroughs: He was a leader whose hands weren’t tied. We are governed by people whose hands are tied. “Well, I’d like to do something about… but my hands are tied.”

High Times: From the perspective of your life and work through the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, are you surprised at the state America and Americans are in now?

Burroughs: I’d say it’s about as easy a place to live in as you can find, and it’s a hell of a lot better than I would have expected. It looked like it was going to develop into a repressive police state and then that didn’t happen. One of the big turning points was unquestionably Watergate. But what are Americans? We’ve got everything from sharecroppers to atomic physicists here, and there’s certainly no uniformity in their thought processes. There’s very little they have in common. In fact. Americans, should we say, have less in common than any other nationality. There are such huge differences between the rural and city environments. There are so many group and occupational differences.

High Times: Are you in favor of state, as opposed to national, government?

Burroughs: Nothing has come from the federal government except trouble and expense: Prohibition, this whole nonsense of trying to control drugs. The whole Federal Drug Administration is really crippling any kind of research. It’s going to take them five years to get this endorphin on the market because of the fucking FDA, and they’re working hand in glove with the big drug companies. They’re really company cops of the big drug companies. So the less interference from federal bureaucracy the better. And also they’re passing on laws that affect states that have completely different problems from the eastern seaboard, and they should be allowed leeway to solve their own problems.

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High Times: Much of your work has been extremely condemning of the planet as a whole. Are you feeling any differently about that?

Burroughs: As far as the whole cycle of overpopulation and pollution, there is such flagrant bad management, what’s being done about it is very inadequate, and that’s only one problem. There are also: proliferation of nuclear weapons, which is also a pollution problem; the problem of the whole economic system, where it’s taking more and more to buy less and less. And this is a worldwide thing, it’s not confined to Western culture at all. Whether there’s any way of solving these problems, that’s another matter. Frankly, I doubt that much will be done. Pollution has been going on a long time, but there comes a sudden point where you reach saturation. In terms of any possible hope or solution, I agree with Timothy Leary—the only possibilities are in space. In a recent talk he gave about space stations, he said, “When a place gets full to this extent, that is a sign that it’s been successful and it’s time to move.” So he said consider these space stations. We’ll have the longevity pill, so you can live 500, 600, 700 years.

So he’s offering, it seems to me, the two most important things—immortality and space. He also points out that real space programs will be developed by private capital, which will be one of the best defenses for private capital, doing something really radical with their money. It seems to be a possibility within the range of modern technology. These would support rather small groups of people, and apparently one could select the setting, so there’d be worlds for bisexual vegetarians and Anita Bryant!

Return of the Beats: Corso, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Orlovsky/ Gerard Malanga

High Times: But there seems to be a limited amount of money to spend on space.

Burroughs: We’re very near a certain point where money doesn’t mean anything anyway. They say: How much money is this going to cost? This is really a totally meaningless concept. Money determines less and less our reality. See, this whole idea for example: formula—kill rich people and take their money away. Well, you kill rich people and start to take their money away and you got so much paper. It doesn’t mean anything. Money is not a constant factor, it’s simply a process dependent entirely on acceptance for its existence. We already see situations without money, and I think that we’re coming closer and closer to it.

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As for communism, it’s a purely relative formulation growing out from capitalism. In other words, it isn’t an independent new one at all, and for this reason it’s less flexible and has a lower survival potential. The days of laissez-faire capitalism are completely dead, and the assumptions of nineteenth-century communism are equally dead, because they were based on laissez-faire capitalism. While there’s hardly a trace of it left in capitalist countries, communism is still relating to something that’s been dead for over a hundred years.

And the present-day communist clings to these outmoded concepts, refusing to acknowledge the contradictions and failures of the whole Marxist system. Communism doesn’t have any idea how to change. Capitalism is flexible, and it’s changing all the time, and it’s changed immeasurably. Communists apparently are still asserting that they are not changing, they’re following the same Marxist principles. We don’t have any principles. It’s an advantage.

High Times: Do you think that a great deal of conversation going on in newspapers, on television and in daily intercourse is quite meaningless?

Burroughs: Absolutely, because they’re always using such generalities. Then; is no such entity as people. There is no such entity as Americans, there’s no such entity as “most people.” These are generalities. All generalities are meaningless. You’ve got to pin it down to a specific person doing a specific thing at a specific time and space. “People say…” “People believe…” “In the consensus of informed medical opinion…” Well, the minute you hear this, you know if the man can’t pin down who he’s talking about, where and when, you know you’re listening to meaningless statements.

The consensus of medical opinion was that marijuana drove people insane. Well, we pinned Anslinger down on this. All he could come up with was one Indian doctor who stated that he considered the use of marijuana grounds for incarceration in a mental institution. Therefore it was proven that marijuana drove people insane. One should always challenge a generality. Police Chief Davis of Los Angeles wrote a column on pornography. He says, “Studies have shown that pornography leads to economic disaster.” Someone said, “What studies? Where are studies?”

High Times: Why is writing still behind painting?

Burroughs: There was no invention that would force writers to move, corresponding to photography, which forced painters to move. A hundred years ago they were painting cows in the grass—representational painting—and it looks just like cows in the grass. Well, a photograph could do it better. Now one invention that would certainly rule out one kind of writing would be a tape recorder that could record subvocal speech, the so-called stream of consciousness. In writing we are always interpreting what people are thinking. Well, I mean it’s just a guess on my part, an approximation. Suppose I have a machine whereby I could actually record subvocal speech. If I could actually record what someone thought, there’d be no necessity for me to interpret.

High Times: How would this machine work?

Burroughs: We know that the subvocal speech involves actual movement of the vocal chords, so it’s simply a matter of sensitivity. There is a noise connected with subvocal speech, but we can’t pick it up. They probably could do it within the range of modern technology, but it hasn’t t been done yet.

High Times: People absorb and repeat the words of rock songs, which makes them very effective. Do you think the printed word can become a more effective tool of communication than it is, because people do not go around reciting passages of books in their heads?

Burroughs: Yes they do.

High Times: Well, not a lot of people.

Burroughs: A lot of them don’t know where what’s in their heads came from. A lot of it came from books.

High Times: However, words accompanied by music tend to have a bigger effect.

Burroughs: This fits right into the bicameral brain theory. If you can get right to the nondominant side of the brain, you’ve got it made. That’s where the songs come from that sing themselves in your head, the right side of the brain. Curiously enough, the most interesting thing about this book is all Jaynes’s clinical evidence on people who’ve had various areas destroyed. The nondominant side of the brain can sing, but it can’t talk. You can say to it: Okay, if you can’t say it, sing it.

High Times: Was Kerouac the writer you felt closest to in your generation?

Burroughs: Jack suggested the title Naked Lunch, and he encouraged me to write when I was not really interested in it. There’s that. But stylistically, or so far as influence goes, I don’t feel close to him at all. If I should mention the two writers who had the most direct effect on my writing, they would be Joseph Conrad and Denton Welch, not Kerouac.

Watchful native rifleman guards the drop zone from prying eyes/ Gerard Malanga

High Times: Did Kerouac have all his experiences so he could write about them?

Burroughs: I’d say that he was there as a writer, and not as a brakeman or whatever he was supposed to be. He said, “I am a spy in somebody else’s body. I am not here as what I am supposed to be.”

High Times: Is that what ultimately made him unhappy?

Burroughs: Not at all. It’s true of all artists. You’re not there as a newspaper reporter, a doctor or a policeman, you’re there as a writer.

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High Times: He seemed to lose contact with people, so that he ended up…

Burroughs: All writers lose contact. I wouldn’t say that he was particularly miserable. He had an alcohol problem. It killed him.

High Times: When was the last time you saw him?

Burroughs: 1968. I had been at the Chicago convention, and Esquire had placed at my disposal a room in the Delmonico Hotel to write the story. So then Kerouac came to see me, and he was living at that time in Lowell, and he had these big brothers-in-law, one of whom ran a liquor store and this and that, and they were shepherding him around. He was really hittin’ it heavy, ’cause he got another room in the hotel and stayed overnight, and he was ordering up bottles of whisky and drinking in the morning, which is a practice I regard with horror. So I talked to the Greek brothers… you know… “Terrible he’s hittin’ it like this and not doing any work…” That was the last time.

High Times: Did you have much conversation?

Burroughs: Well, he’s hittin’ it heavy. That was when he went on the Buckley show, and I told him, “No, Jack, don’t go, you’re not in any condition to go.” But he did go that same night. I said, “I’m not even going to go along.” Allen Ginsberg went. And they all left the next day. That was the last time I ever saw him. He was dead a year later. Cirrhosis, massive hemorrhage.

Have you ever heard of a writer called Denton Welch?

High Times: Who was that?

Burroughs: Well, he was sort of the original punk, and his father called him Punky. He was riding on a bicycle when he was 20, and some complete cunt hit him and crippled him for the rest of his life. He died in 1948 at the age of 33 after writing four excellent books. He was a very great writer, very precious.

I would like to end up here by recommending one book to High Times readers. In Youth is Pleasure, by Denton Welch. Where are you off to?

High Times: 21.

Burroughs: Does 21 still exist?

High Times: It not only exists, but unbelievably or not it has the world’s greatest steak tartare Senegalese. Things you can’t imagine.

Burroughs: I should prefer to sit out in a taxi and have them send dinner out to me. Dinner at 21, dear oh dear. I’ve never been accepted there.

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