Originally published in the San Diego Reader
October 17, 1985
In the airport bar at Lindbergh Field, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson tossed back the last of his second margarita. He handed the empty glass to a passing waitress and, banging both fists on the cocktail table, let out a belch. “Two hours,” he said, “is an awful long time to go without a drink.”
Thompson was in town recently for a speaking engagement at San Diego State’s Montezuma Hall. He was not going to be reading from any works in progress, or from any of his well-known books — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hells Angels, or The Great Shark Hunt. He would say some nasty things about Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau and “Raoul Duke,” Trudeau’s barely fictionalized character based on Thompson. But before he considered any details of his evening engagement, there were other matters to attend to.
Thompson’s first stop after getting off his United Airlines flight was the airport gift shop. “Is this cool?” he asked, pointing to a black T-shirt bearing the words San Diego Beach Club. “It’s not for me — it’s for my girlfriend, a Persian girl, Maria Khan, who’s twenty-five and also my manager.” Thompson removed the shirt from its rack.
He continued down the aisle to a second rack of white sweatshirts that featured the ill-fated official slogan San Diego Feels Good All Over. He picked up two of those, an extra-large for himself and a medium for his girlfriend, and walked over to the cash register, which was operated by a matronly white-haired lady whose name tag read “Gladys.” Gladys rang up the sale, but by the time she had finished, Thompson had disappeared; he returned seconds later with a San Diego Beach Club visor and placed it on the counter along with a hundred-dollar bill. Gladys gave him the first receipt and rang up the second sale, only to find herself handed yet another item as soon as she had finished: a small white ceramic hand set in a base of blue feathers. Thompson observed that it would be “perfect for holding a joint.”
That sale was also rung up, but once again Thompson appeared at the counter with several more items: a wooden massage tool with four rotating wheels, copies of the morning San Diego Union and Los Angeles Times, and a red canvas tote bag with San Diego silk-screened on each side. “There,” he said, “I think I’m done now.” But no sooner had the new items been added to his bill than Thompson disappeared a fourth time, only to return to Gladys with a San Diego Padres cigarette lighter that also served as a breath freshener. “This is one thing I’ll really be able to use,” he told her. She smiled uncomprehendingly.
Gladys entered the latest transaction into her cash register, asking Thompson with a hint of impatience in her voice, “Are you sure this is it?” Thompson cheerfully answered “Yes,” and as she bagged his various purchases he wandered back to some shelves filled with San Diego sports souvenirs and began juggling a miniature foam Chargers football. He fumbled it and backed into a display rack of seashell night lights, knocking a dozen or so of them onto the floor. Somehow only a single light bulb broke during the crash. “I’m terribly sorry,” he shouted over to Gladys. “But I’ll only pay for the one bulb. Add fifteen cents to my bill.”
Gladys rolled her eyes and announced, in a voice laced with exasperation, “That’s quite all right — just don’t step in the glass.” She handed Thompson his goods, five separate receipts, and two dollars in change. As he left the counter Thompson muttered, “Got to make sure I don’t go near any more gift shops.”
Thompson has a new job these days, and a surprising one considering that it pits a drug-addled mind against regular writing deadlines. He has been hired by the San Francisco Examiner to produce a weekly column and has been given the loosely fitting title of media critic. The Examiner, in announcing Thompson’s debut, was wise enough to announce on the paper’s front page that the column “should” appear every Monday. The first installment was published September 23 and recounted the adventures of Thompson’s friend Skinner being “trapped and mauled” by a rogue buffalo during a recent excursion to the Wyoming wilderness. Thompson did get around to media matters in his second column, in which he railed against the television networks’ “generally shameful” coverage of Hurricane Gloria. Due to news reports, Thompson wrote, “even smart people were driven to mindless panic…My bookie closed his office in Manhattan and fled like a rat to some greasy refuge in the mountains of Central New Jersey, where he refused to write checks or even take calls from his family.” National Hurricane Center director Neil Frank was dismissed as “a dingbat…a raving lunatic.”
According to Thompson, the Examiner’s new publisher, thirty-six-year-old Will Hearst, just loves the stuff.
With only one column to write each week, and with the aid of selected chemical inducements, Thompson has managed to find time to work on a new book as well. This one is supposed to be a novel, but Thompson’s journalistic training has led him to conduct thorough research beforehand. As he says,
“To write accurately about being the night manager of an all-night porno shop, I have to become the night manager of an all-night porno shop.” In this case, it is the O’Farrell Theater, a porno shop/adult theater in North Beach. Thompson says North Beach isn’t the scourge of downtown revitalizers— unlike the concentration of peep shows and porn palaces in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter — but is an accepted part of San Francisco’s night life. “Just recently there was talk about a Carl’s Junior restaurant opening up right in the center of the sleaze district,” he says, “and a bunch of us merchants got together and fought it, arguing that a Carl’s Junior would simply not fit in with the character of the neighborhood.” Eventually the hamburger chain won, and Thompson and the other North Beach porno merchants have been in mourning ever since. “It’s just not right,” he complains. “A touch of decency — who needs it?”
Thompson finished his drink at the airport cocktail lounge and announced that he wished to be transported to his room at the Radisson Hotel in Mission Valley. There he would rest and gain strength for his appearance later that evening at SDSU. First, however, there were still other matters to attend to. The drugs he requested would have to be obtained discreetly, without his presence. “The last thing I need is trouble with the cops; no way do I want to be busted in some strange city and taken to jail and have the headlines in the local press read the next day, ‘Hunter S. Thompson Arrested For Drugs.’ ’’ He declined to confirm whether this heightened sensitivity to publicity was in any way connected to his new job as media critic.
Cocaine was not part of the shopping list; the cupboards weren’t bare of that ingredient. Some good hashish would be nice for its benign ability to “soften up” his mind before he took the stage. Also there was a need for a dose or two of amyl nitrate, which could be purchased under the trade name “Locker Room” at most porno shops. Plans were made.
At the Radisson’s twelfth-floor concierge desk, a young woman asked, “Excuse me, but are you the Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote all those books?” Thompson visibly brightened at this seemingly innocent bit of recognition. “Yes,” he answered, and gave his suitcase a gentle backward kick with his foot, as if in confirmation. The concierge, until then a charming hostess, did not ask for an autograph. “I heard what you do to hotel rooms,” she hissed. “Please don’t destroy your room here, because I’m the one who’s going to have to clean it up.” Thompson grabbed for a handful of complimentary miniature whiskey bottles and marched off to his room.
Several miniature bottles later, it was obvious Thompson wasn’t going to get the sleep he’d intended. He turned to his host, Scott Pederson of SDSU, and announced, “What I need now to sharpen up my mind a bit is a seasoned, hostile female journalist who knows politics. Quick, Pederson, set up an interview and tell her to meet us down by the pool.”
Half an hour later Thompson was standing next to a round glass table at the pool’s edge. Drink in hand, he was talking politics into a tape recorder. Seated at the table were two young female reporters from the SDSU student paper, the Daily Aztec. Pederson glanced at his watch nervously and tried to put an end to the interview after only ten minutes. It was 7:30, and Thompson was expected on stage at 8:00. Dr. Gonzo waved his hand and emptied his glass. There had been no time to obtain his amyl nitrate, and no time to locate any hash. If those two important missions had fallen victim to time constraints, there was no cause to rush anything else, especially not an interview with a pair of vivacious college journalists. “Don’t worry, we’ll make it,” Thompson chided. “Besides, I’ve never started on time. It would ruin my image. The last time I was here I was two hours late.” Pederson’s pained expression, however, moved Thompson to relent, but it was 8:00 before the car pulled out from the Radisson’s driveway.
Thompson outlined his strategy for the appearance at Montezuma Hall: “I want you, Pederson, to walk up on stage without me and talk for about two minutes — you can give my life story, recite poetry, crack jokes, say whatever you damn please. Then I’ll come up and we’ll start taking questions from the audience. But I want you up there the whole time — you’re the moderator, and besides, I don’t want to be alone in case anyone starts throwing fruit or something like that. If I start to ramble, give me a poke in the side and I’ll know it’s time to stop. Make sure my glass is filled with Chivas Regal at all times. And while I plan on speaking for only about an hour or an hour and a half, these things can drag out to three hours or even longer. I don’t want to be the bad guy, so it’s up to you to get me off stage, especially when I’m done talking and the people start coming up with copies of my books they want signed. When I’m ready to go, I’ll say something about dogs. That’s your cue to get me off of there, no matter what else I say or how much I protest.”
The car screeched onto campus at a quarter past eight and parked in a handicapped space directly behind Montezuma Hall. Thompson leaned back in his seat and said, “I don’t know — maybe we should cruise around awhile. It’s still too early.” He turned to Pederson to gauge his host’s reaction, but the befuddled Pederson hadn’t gotten the joke and screamed, “No! We’ve got to go on. Now!” Thompson shrugged and followed Pederson into Montezuma Hall through a side entrance.
Dr. Gonzo, as promised, did not deliver a speech. Cigarette in long-stem holder, Chivas swirled in a glass, gift shop ceramic hand placed incongruously on the table in front of him, he simply answered questions put to him from among the 1000 people in attendance:
“If acid was the drug of the Nixon years, what is the drug of the Reagan administration?”
“Do you think you’ll ever get too old to go to Vegas?”
“I was always too old to go to Vegas.”
“Is America ready to have a woman in the White House?”
“Not when her husband has a porno-star distribution office next to his other office in Queens.”
Reagan supporters were “a generation of swine”; Garry Trudeau “thinks I’m about four-foot six, like he is — at least I don’t have to steal for my work”; Israeli militarists were “a bunch of bad, evil bastards”; and Christianity was “a really hideous, horrible conspiracy that ought to be locked up.”
As the Chivas took hold, both the questions and answers began to meander, until finally someone shouted from the audience, “Fuck these questions!” After more than two hours, and with disturbing signs of incoherency in Thompson’s replies becoming more frequent, Pederson interrupted to bid everyone good night. But not everyone left; about one hundred admirers crowded toward the stage clamoring for autographs or handshakes. Pederson leaped up and began to shout, “Dogs! Dogs!” Thompson ignored him and worked the crowd. He also ordered that his glass of whiskey be refilled. But the bottle of Chivas, stashed under the speaker’s table, had disappeared. “You mean to say somebody stole my whiskey?” Thompson asked incredulously, steaming with anger. He threw his pen to the floor, stood up, grabbed the microphone, and began banging it against the table. “Security! Shut the doors and don’t let anyone leave. Somebody stole my whiskey!”
The room grew still as Thompson’s rage transformed him into a lunatic beast. “You’re all fucking swine!” he shouted into the microphone. “You let somebody get away with my whiskey!” One of those closest to the stage timidly offered a ten-dollar bill toward the purchase of a replacement bottle. Thompson grabbed the bill and continued screaming. “Find whoever it was who stole my whiskey! Find that swine!” Again he banged the microphone against the table, this time shattering his ceramic gift-shop hand. Security guards moved about frenetically, unsure of the seriousness of the crime. The crowd pushed against the stage. Pederson kept shouting, “Dogs! Dogs!”
Not many liquor stores are open along El Cajon Boulevard at 1:00 a.m. on a Thursday morning. Thompson found this difficult to believe, and it irritated him. “This is simply not fair,” he said glumly as his driver passed one after another closed shop. Near the intersection of El Cajon and Fifty-fourth he spotted a pair of prostitutes walking along the sidewalk. “I need some whiskey. Do you gals know of any open liquor stores?” Thompson shouted from the car. The women shook their heads. “This is ridiculous he continued menacingly. “No whiskey. Are we in a dry county or what? We must be in a dry county. This is grim. Really grim …” Before the car had rolled to a stop at the Radisson, Thompson was out and hustling into the hotel bar, where he impatiently snapped his fingers for the bartender’s attention. Bad communication. The bartender couldn’t understand Thompson’s slurred demands, which infuriated Dr. Gonzo. Finally a third party interpreted and the bartender explained that the price of a liter of Chivas Regal would be based upon the number of drinks the bottle could yield at the bar. That came to sixty-five dollars.
Scott Pederson arrived at the bar too late. Thompson had already signed the bottle to his room tab (Pederson’s room tab) and was slumped at a stool with open bottle and full glass. “Sixty-five dollars!” Pederson cried. Thompson was philosophical: “Hey, these things happen.” The two sat in silence for several long moments. At last Thompson sighed deeply and climbed off his stool, weaving toward the elevator. “San Diego at night is very disappointing,” he mumbled. “This is grim. Very, very grim.”
Illustration by David Diaz