Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Scum Also Rises

"All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn."
- Ernest Hemingway

The car situation was this: my girlfriend and I got in the back while her boss drove and the Doctor took the passenger side.

It felt awkward. Mostly we kept quiet and listened to the boss try and make small talk with the Doctor. The ride to the university took a while, though, and we could sense that he was getting desperate and was going to throw the ball into our court soon. What would we say? How do you make small talk with this guy?

It was to be far worse than that.

Before I knew what was happening, the boss bent his head towards us and said, "Well, you know, Robert here does a bit of writing, I'm told."

Oh my god.

Apparently my girlfriend had mentioned to her boss that I was interested in writing. I instantly flashed back to being 3 years old and held up while someone said, "Say your word! Say your word!" I was mortified. I hadn't written anything worth a damn and now I was supposed to talk to a world-famous, celebrated author about it?

"Well," I stammered, "they've been more like a series of false starts, really."

"Hey," said the Doctor, "I have false starts all the time. That's how you start, that's how you learn."

"I know, but…"

"Really," the Doctor persisted, "don't let that discourage you. Just keep trying, don't give up."

I didn't know what to say. This was Doctor Gonzo? He'd just given a complete stranger a pep talk. What happened to May God have mercy on your doomed ass?

At the university we were met by a student liaison, a striking dark-haired woman who was very attractive. My girlfriend smiled at me and said, "I know what you're thinking. I think she's cute, too." Was she going to take every opportunity she could to prove to me what a potential lesbian she was?

She led us all down a long hallway and when we arrived at our destination, a sort of backstage holding area, she turned and asked us, "So do you travel everywhere with Hunter?"

There was no answer at first except for two pairs of lovestruck eyes.

Then we explained that we were just helping out that evening, etc., and after some similarly harmless banter it was time for the show. The Doctor disappeared, no doubt to steady his nerves, and we were invited to sit anywhere in the auditorium.

It was a very entertaining evening, with the Doctor effortlessly volleying back answers to questions he'd probably answered a hundred times. He really didn't need to speak at all. It was enough for everyone that he was there. I still remember the terrific laugh he got when, after someone asked him if he thought that rock 'n' roll was still important, he replied, "I didn't think it ever was."

Then it was over. The ice being somewhat broken, everyone felt a little more comfortable on the ride home. Once in a while we'd try to eavesdrop on the conversation going on in the front: apparently the Doctor was filling the boss in on who was and was not a "head," in the parlance of the times. "Kennedy?" the Doctor said, "Yeah, he's a head."

We finally arrived at the apartment and the Doctor invited us to take a 6-pack of Heinekens with us from out of the trunk. The boss hit the latch and we grabbed the beers and said our goodbyes in the middle of the street.

We watched the car take him away and it seemed suitable, as if the Fear and Loathing road trip was still continuing. But that was just romanticizing a guy being taken back to his hotel.

It was the end of things. The end of the decade, the end of my relationship. She'd stay on in Boston and start following a well-known rock star around the world, which probably put the kibosh on the poetry. Landing in New York City, she'd work in the music business and I'd see her name in the credits of music specials sometimes. I headed back to Philadelphia, where I'd end up doing volunteer radio, a little more writing, and where I'd meet the wife on a street corner in a ticket line in the middle of the night.

It wasn't Morning in America; it was more like High Noon and the Big Cowboy would be gunning for all of us soon. The territory was starting to run out and the death valley days had begun. It was time to hunker down in the bomb shelter of your choice to wait out the next batch of rogues. They were already starting to drain Hemingway's big, two-hearted river and Thompson would write that the years to come would be hard ones for freelancers, by which he meant: find your hole, find your home, find your niche. You're going to need a group to help you survive the new America. It's easier to hide that way and you're going to need the support. He had half of a half-century to go that night and I never would have dreamed that one night they'd blast him all over the sky like a roman candle, as if that car had finally hit a brick wall. Maybe it was the only place that had any freedom left in it. I had to admit I was jealous of the sheer American pageantry of it all. Fireworks shot from a tower specifically built to be just a little bit higher than the Statue of Liberty, as if to say, "Try this torch on for size."

Would you have wanted it to be an invitation-only event for celebrities and politicians with black-garbed guards protecting you from your readers? Would the Hunter Thompson thing to do have been to crash the party while swigging from a bottle of Wild Turkey and taking pot shots at your own monument? I like to think that you would have liked the chance to offer a Heineken to anyone who wanted one.

At least I drank to you that one night, long ago.


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