Monday, January 26, 2009

Gonzo Instructs

Jane Fonda walked to where I stood in the aisle of the Liberal Caucus room and put her hand on my arm. For a moment, I thought it was a kind gesture.

"Miss Fonda," I said, reaching for the notebook in my jeans pocket, "Do you have a second?"

"No," she snapped and used my elbow as a fulcrum for shoving past me.

At that moment it was clear that I was a nobody. We had driven five days across country, Proton and I, doing our best to stay loaded all the way. We were intent on mirroring our Gonzo journalist idol Hunter S. Thompson. No matter that we had gone to see Thompson at Stanford and the guy was too drunk to speak. He wobbled at the microphone, uttered a barrage of profanity in a garbled rant, and left early. Nonetheless, Proton (a fellow newshound from the East Bay daily where I worked) and I packed our clothes, an assortment of illegal drugs, and a road atlas into his Volkswagen van, and drove to New York City where we had press passes to cover the 1976 Democratic Convention.

Now, spun out in the aisle of the Liberal Caucus room, I watched the aft end of Ted Turner's future bride disappear into the crowd and fell, crestfallen, into my seat. I wasn't much of a newshound anyway and the week of mindless driving had left me a dumb spectator. Proton had raced off after Candace Bergen, a strikingly beautiful actress who, cameras draped around her neck, was working the convention as a photojournalist.

I sat in my seat, listened to Rep. John Conyers review platform planks that in no way would ever be supported by Jimmy Carter. After the Nixon horror-show and brain numbing Ford years, you'd think the country was ready to try liberalism again, but the way the caucus was headed, it was clear that Reaganism was a suggestion away from reality. The liberals would have to accept a plate of leftovers here in New York, a reality that rinsed away whatever ambitions I had left to write anything of my experience.

I found Proton and we left to tour the streets of Manhattan. We went along the central post office, past buildings with lion statues and colonnades draped with patriotic bunting. We passed the throngs of protesters and lobbyists--signs proclaiming everything from legalizing prostitution to tirades against abortion--and made our way to Times Square. I had thought the convention floor a zoo, but walking the New York streets was more entertaining.

We came upon a movie theatre showing a crime drama. In those days there were no video trailers, so it was enticing to see a scene from the film played out on an outdoor screen. In the clip, a man had his victim pinned against a wall and was running the bit from a power drill in and out of his thigh. A closeup showed the bit corkscrewing into the man's bleeding leg.

"No big deal," said a passerby in a thick Brooklyn accent. "You see that stuff all the time."

Later in the afternoon we returned to the convention floor, sated with pizza and pretzels dipped in mustard that we rounded up from sidewalk peddlers. Reporters crowded around Senator Kennedy, who held forth, ruddy as a beet, at a corner of the hall. At the platform a speaker from Florida rambled along in tinny monotone about objections to the welfare plank.

That night in our motel room, Proton and I divvied up the four-way hit of paper acid that we had ferried out from the Bay Area. In the morning, Carter would announce his running mate, which everyone expected would be Walter Mondale, so there was nothing to miss. We would have breakfast, then gobble the acid and walk the convention floor for a while. I had already bought a ticket on the afternoon Metroliner to Washington, so I wasn't staying anyhow. I planned to take the high-speed train to D.C., where I'd stay with a member of Rep. Don Edwards' staff. Edwards was a powerful liberal--had led the Judiciary Committee's call for Nixon's impeachment. Edwards had an office in part of the Bay Area that I covered, and I had come to know his staff. In fact, I had come to really know two of his secretaries, which fully demonstrated my commitment to narcissism.

After breakfast, Proton and I loaded up the ponies of transcendence and went our separate ways. I would be flying home to the Bay Area while he would drive the VW to his family in Kentucky. I must admit, I never really liked LSD. The first hour of giddiness very much appealed to me, but the subsequent hours of melting at the whim of a drug I couldn't control scared me to death. I typically spent most of the time wishing it was over. But we had agreed to do Gonzo journalism and I wouldn't wimp out.

And during the hour of giddiness I found myself in front of the bank of microphones when Carter dragged Mondale on-stage. Mondale's face waxed and waned in acidic throbs. Mondale had a lion's head, huge and shaggy. My body rang like a struck temple bell. The blare of spotlights and the sudden bursts from motorized cameras made me dizzy. I had to go.

After a few hours wandering with dubious judgment through Times Square, I found my way to Grand Central and found my seat on the Metroliner. I had done well to book a plush chair by a picture window. Waiters came up and down the aisles with cocktails and snacks. And I raced along between New York and Washington at a furious clip, the countryside streaming out the window like a painting in rain. In fact, it had begun to rain. And when we pulled into D.C. there was a furious summer thunderstorm, lightening forking down atop the Capitol Building and all across the Mall.

I found the phone number to Edwards' staffer at the Rayburn Building and called from the station. Sadly, the staffer wasn't there. The Congressman himself answered the phone. I was dumbstruck. He was delighted to speak with me. He wanted to know the latest scoop from the Convention. I could feel another door of great opportunity closing on me, slammed shut by my own idiocy.

I told him I would come see him in the morning, that I couldn't talk now as I was under the weather, which was amazingly true on many counts. The storm crashed down around me and after I hung up, I took a cab to the staffer's home in the Virginia suburbs.

What had seemed so glamorous in Thompson looked shabby on me. Of course I would not go see the Congressman in the morning. I had nothing to report, save to say that in the name of God I would never try acid again. Even so, I still had plenty to experience in a long career of self-sabotage. It was July 1976, the nation's birthday.


Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

I wonder ... did you by any chance know Jerry Waldie, another Bay Area congressman who was on the impeachment committee?

Oh, and BTW, acid is my favorite drug of all time.

Gabby said...

No, I never met Waldie, but knew the name. I knew Edwards cause I had to cover his office in the East Bay, met him frequently. They ended up naming the south bay wildlife refuge after him. I met Phil Burton and Dellums, too. Once a bunch of us took acid to "prepare" for a Deep Purple concert at the Oakland Coliseum only to find out, already in the car, that the gig had been canceled when a band member got sick. Say no more.

Steven said...

Waldie grew up with my dad, and in his years as a state assemblyman, his family and my future wife's family were best of friends.

A Cuban In London said...

Until his untimely death, didn't know much about Thomson. Many thanks for such interesting and insightful post.

Greetings from London.