My sister in Denver picked up the phone, and before she could say hello, my mouth in Connecticut tried to catch up with my mind somewhere in hyperspace.
“Omigod Rubi help me,” I said. “I saw Alan and Stacy when they got out of school and we all ate a hit of acid then I went to mom and dad’s to change my jeans and get some money mom met me at the door to tell me the sports editor called so mom accepted an assignment for me tonight to cover a state tournament high school basketball game for tomorrow’s paper and what am I going to do?”
“Pretend your Hunter S. Thompson,” the wise Rubi coolly said. “And send me a copy of the article.”
I could do that. Me, a college freshman, experimenting with Gonzo! At a right wing newspaper! I always wanted to be HST, from the moment I first read Rubi’s Rolling Stone mags in the 1980s, when RS still had balls. I devoured Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I lived for Hunter’s tale of hitting golf balls off a skyscraper into Caracas slums. I dreamed of jumping in a limousine with Nixon and talking football.
I wore holes into my unofficial HST t-shirt, the one screen-printed by my friend, with the Steadman drawing of Thompson carrying the suitcase on the front, and the American Dream quote on the back: “To sleep late, have fun, drink whiskey and drive fast on empty streets with nothing in mind except falling in love and not getting arrested.”
Yes, pretend you’re Hunter S. Thompson, pretend everything is normal when its not, then try to communicate the schizophrenia. The acid kicked in at the dinner table, over BLTs and mac and cheese, when Robert Parrish’s eyes bulged off the cover of Sports Illustrated like Roger Rabbit’s and my little sister laughed with me but she didn’t know why, and my mom suspected something in the non-stop giggles. But I was cool.
I managed that spring night 14 years ago inspired by Thompson’s pioneering. I loved the madness, red trails peeling off brake lights of cars in front of me, Ming the Merciless barking from one team’s uniform, and the ball spinning in rhythm to the cheerleaders’ incomprehensible cheers.
Thompson’s ethereal ramble through the Circus Circus helped me weather the post-game interviews. While questioning the seven-foot center on the losing team, I felt the athlete’s crushing depression. I wanted to shake him and say, “Losing is no big deal. I’m tripping man, and if I lose it, I’m screwed. But it’s all ok. The Gulf War is over. You won’t get drafted. We’re young. The best is yet to come.”
Dutifully, I played reporter. I transcribed the “we did our best” quotes and studied the universe of red veins on his massive black chest. Back in the Waterbury Republican-American newsroom, I thought that Thompson had the chance to polish his material after the drugs wore off.
The keyboard melted under my fingertips and the vaulted brick ceilings twisted the sounds of the newsroom’s hustle, but my editor never suspected anything in my mixed metaphors. Even better, I got paid $36 – $2 an inch for 18-column inches about one well-oiled basketball team bombing the other. Two weeks later, I repeated the thrills, gobbling white blotter before covering a Harlem Globetrotters game for Syracuse’s Daily Orange.
I reveled in Thompson’s joy at hoodwinking straight-edge America: to pass the turnstiles, sit next to the Joneses, and trip face in the absurdity of our deepest held illusions. The referees always fall for the paper in the water-bucket trick. He he he he. Hey kids, work hard, and you’ll do better than your parents. Ha ha ha ha.
But the masquerade ball grows old. One can only stomach so much bourbon. Thompson’s recent columns on ESPN.com flirted with vigor. I know Ralph Nader hated it this fall when Thompson labeled him a “Judas goat.” More often, though, HST’s football prognostications ventured towards incoherence.
Considering Hunter’s obsession with guns, his Hemingway-esque suicide is no surprise. And considering Thompson’s obsession with his place in history, I wonder if he thought people would look to Papa for answers. I would have preferred to see Thompson meet his end like Huxley, eating mushrooms on his deathbed.
Once, Thompson’s confrontation with the life-or-death question was hilarious. In Fear and Loathing, the good doctor, tripping out in a hotel, begs his Samoan attorney to electrocute him by throwing the radio into the bathtub when Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” peaks. The attorney pelts the bathtub with citrus fruit instead.
I’m sad that Thompson fed his head with lead. It makes Bush’s America that much more difficult to deal with. As I try to soldier on, I know one of my heroes determined the act of writing political commentary was meaningless in the face of a depraved would-be dictator.