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[From the Archive]

The Sultan of Sewers

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I never wanted to be President. This innate decision was confirmed when I became literate and saw the President pawing babies and spouting bullshit. I attended Los Alamos Ranch School, where they later made the atom bomb, and bombs bursting in air over Hiroshima gave proof through the night that our flag was already there. Then came the Teapot Dome scandal under President Harding, and I remember the unspeakable Gaston Means, infamous private eye and go-between in that miasma of graft, walking into a hotel room full of bourbon-drinking, cigar-smoking lobbyists and fixers, with a laundry hamper.

“Fill it up boys, and we talk business.”

I do not mean to imply that my youthful idealism was repelled by this spectacle. I had by then learned to take a broad, general view of things. My political ambitions were simply of a humbler and less conspicuous caliber. I hoped at one time to become commissioner of sewers for St. Louis County: $300 a month, with the possibility of getting one’s shitty paws deep into a slush fund, and to this end I attended a softball game where such sinecures were assigned to the deserving and the fortunate. Everybody I met said, “Now, I’m old So-and-so, running for such and such, and anything you do for me I’ll appreciate.”

My boyish dreams fanned by this heady atmosphere and three mint juleps, I saw myself already in possession of the coveted post, which called for a token appearance twice a week to sign a few letters at the Old Courthouse. While I’m there, I might as well hit up the sheriff for some confiscated marijuana, and he’d better play ball or I will route a sewer through his front yard. And then across the street to the Courthouse Café for a coffee with some other lazy bastards in the same line of business, and we wallow in corruption like contented alligators.

I never wanted to be a front man like Harding or Nixon—taking the rap, shaking hands, and making speeches all day. Who in his right mind would want a job like that? As commissioner of sewers I would not be called upon to pet babies, make speeches, shake hands; in fact, the fewer voters who knew of my existence, the better. Let kings and Presidents keep the limelight. I prefer a whiff of coal gas as the sewers rupture for miles around—I have made a deal on the piping, which has bought me a $30,000 home, and there is talk in the press of sex cults and orgies carried out in the stink of what made them possible. Fluttering above the roof of my ranch-style house, over my mint and marijuana, Old Glory floats lazily in the tainted breeze.

Then I met the gubernatorial candidate, and he looked at me as if trying to focus my image through a telescope and said, “Anything I do for you I’ll depreciate.” And I felt the dream slipping away from me, receding into the past—the discrete gold letters on a glass door: william s. burroughs, commissioner of sanitation. Somehow I was not one of them. Perhaps I was simply the wrong shape. Some of my classmates, plump, cynical, unathletic boys with narrow shoulders and broad hips, made the grade and went on to banner headlines concerning $200,000 of the taxpayers’ money and a nonexistent bridge or highway, I forget which. It was a long time ago. I have not aspired to political office since. His Majesty the Sultan of Sewers lies buried in a distant 1930s softball game. The thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.

What would you do if you were in the President’s place? You would be inexorably pressured by the forces and the individuals that made you President, and by your own desire to be President in the first place; so you would wind up doing just what they all have done. It’s enough to stop any sane man from wanting to be President.

From “When Did You Stop Wanting to Be President?,” which appeared in the March 1975 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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November 2020