When John Kaye sent this report it made me realize that two of my great literary touchstones — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Tristram Shandy — have much more in common than I had ever noticed. They are both colossal failures of mission, spectacular performances of the art of being sidetracked, of being shanghaied by errant attention, or, perhaps, perfect examples of the way art is, at its best, a perversion, a turning away from more straightforward intentions. This piece was commissioned elsewhere to be a brief reminiscence of a weekend in New Orleans. We prefer this Shandean, heavyweight version. — Tom Lutz
A Mission of Considerable Importance
HUNTER AND INGA: 1978
The third (and last) time I went to New Orleans was in September of 1978. I was living in Marin County, and I took the red-eye out of San Francisco, flying on a first-class ticket paid for by Universal Pictures, the studio that was financing the movie I was contracted to write. The story was to be loosely based on an article written by Hunter Thompson that had been recently published in Rolling Stone magazine. Titled “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat,” the 30,000-word piece detailed many of the (supposedly) true-life adventures Hunter had experienced with Oscar Zeta Acosta, the radical Chicano lawyer who he’d earlier canonized in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Hunter and I were in New Orleans to attend the hugely anticipated rematch between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks, the former Olympic champion who, after only seven fights, had defeated Ali in February. The plan was to meet up at the Fairmont, a once-elegant hotel that was located in the center of the business district and within walking distance of the historic French Quarter. Although Hunter was not in his room when I arrived, he’d instructed the hotel management to watch for me and make sure I was treated with great respect.
“I was told by Mister Thompson to mark you down as a VIP, that you were on a mission of considerable importance,” said Inga, the head of guest services, as we rode the elevator up to my floor. “Since he was dressed quite eccentrically, in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, I assumed he was pulling my leg. The bellman who fetched his bags said he was a famous writer. Are you a writer also?” I told her I wrote movies. “Are you famous?”
“Do you have any cocaine?”
I stared at her. Her smile was odd, both reassuring and intensely hopeful. In the cartoon balloon I saw over her head were the words: I’m yours if you do. “Yes, I do.”
“That is good.”
Inga called the hotel manager from my room and told him, in a voice edged with professional disappointment, that she was leaving early because of a “personal matter.” After she hung up, she dialed room service and handed me the phone. She directed me to order two dozen oysters, a fifth of tequila, and two Caesar salads. Then, with a total absence of modesty, she quickly stripped off her clothes, walked into the bathroom, and a moment later I heard the water running in the shower.
I took a seat on the edge of the bed and glanced around the room. My bag, still packed, was sitting on the luggage rack next to the dresser. Inside my leather Dopp kit were four grams of Peruvian flake that would soon be chopped into long thick lines on the coffee table’s glass top. It was now 11 o’clock in the morning. I had been in New Orleans for less than an hour.
Later on I found out that Inga — she was in her mid-thirties, a native of Sweden, and extraordinarily attractive — had already experienced a carnal moment with Hunter shortly before my plane touched down.
“Does that bother you?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. Three hours had passed. We were now lying in bed, coming down from the coke. “Kind of.”
“That’s why I took a shower. To make myself all fresh.”
“As a rule, I never get involved with a guest,” Inga said. “And now, twice in one day. This is quite unusual.” Inga told me that after she’d graduated from the University of Stockholm in 1968, she’d been granted a two-year visa to study hotel management at Cornell. The summer before her visa expired, she married Felipe, a cook who worked in the kitchen at the Plaza Hotel. “I was employed as a secretary, working for the general manager. Felipe was from Brazil and a U.S. citizen, and he was very romantic. We used to have sex in unoccupied rooms during our breaks. When you’re young and in love, you take chances. What I’ve done today is rather stupid. I could easily be fired if anyone found out.”
“So your marriage didn’t work out.”
Inga laughed. “No we’re still together. Felipe’s a chef at Brennan’s in the Quarter.”
AT THE FIGHTS: PART ONE
I should mention here that I inherited my love of boxing from my father. When he lived in Manhattan, he palled around with a Broadway crowd that included writer Damon Runyon, and he and Runyon, along with gangster Owney Madden, attended the famous Jack Dempsey-Luis Firpo brawl at the Polo Grounds in 1923. Considered by many to be the most thrilling (and controversial) heavyweight prize fight in history, there were a total of 10 knockdowns before Dempsey finally prevailed, the end coming in the third round but not before Dempsey had been knocked out of the ring.
“He should’ve been counted out,” my father told me, “but the ref gave him a break.” As a boxing aficionado, my father appreciated Muhammad Ali’s skill, and he was entertained by his brashness, but he was convinced that he would’ve been no match for Dempsey in his prime. Or Joe Louis. And no matter how many times I corrected him, he still referred to Ali as Cassius Clay.
I’d say, “But that’s not his name.”
And he’d say, “It is to me.”
I’d say, “He changed it.”
And he’d say, “Stop bothering me, Johnny.”
It also annoyed me when he referred to black people as “colored.”
I’d say, “Dad, call them black.”
And my mom would say, “Leave your dad alone.”
I’d say, “Watch the news. Nobody calls them colored. They’d get fired.”
And my dad, a Republican, would say (in 1974, around the time of Watergate), “Walter Cronkite hates Nixon.”
I’d say, “What does that have to do with black people?”
And my mom would say, “How come your brother never comes by and visits?”
And then my father would say, “Cassius Clay should’ve joined the Army. I served. You served. So did your brother.”
“In the reserves. Not in Vietnam.”
“But if you were called up, you would have fought for your country.”
Would I? Probably. I know my brother would have. Still, I was a glad it was a choice I didn’t have to make. Also, as long I’m talking about my brother, especially in a piece that partially pertains to boxing, I should mention that Mike was a legendary street fighter on the Westside of Los Angeles during the latter part of the 1950s. Not only was he skilled with his fists, he was wholly fearless. In Marine boot camp, he knocked out the battalion’s reigning light-heavyweight champion, and when I followed him into the Corps a year later, I was stuck being the younger brother of a legend. Unfortunately, when I was offered the chance to fight and refused, my drill instructors were infuriated, and to punish me — not that 12 weeks of boot camp wasn’t punishment enough — they instigated a couple of scraps with other recruits in my platoon. Satisfied that I would display the requisite amount of courage to defend myself, they even stopped calling me by the nickname they’d hung on me: Jew-College-Pussy! After that I was “maggot” like everyone else, except for the black recruits, who were sometimes referred to as “Rainclouds.”
The second time I visited New Orleans was in July of 1977. Because my son was attending a summer camp in the Trinity Alps, and I had just closed a deal with Paramount Pictures to write a screenplay based on the life of New York DJ Alan Freed, I had some money burning a hole in my pocket and more time on my hands than usual. In those days my regular hangout was the No Name Bar in Sausalito, a gathering place for musicians, writers, and assorted local eccentrics like Zen philosopher Alan Watts and actor Sterling Hayden, both of whom had lived on nearby houseboats.
I was there on a Friday night, semi-drunk, sitting at the bar, when a woman walked through the door and looked in my direction. When I looked back at her, she cocked her head and smiled, and I smiled back. She appeared to be around 30, slim, with vivid blue eyes that gave her an air of assertiveness, of determination. She was also nearly bald, her hair shaved to a black stubble.
Her name was Tanya and, as I discovered an hour later, after she went to the pay phone and booked our midnight flight to New Orleans, she worked as a stewardess for TWA. She was based in New York but owned a small home in Muir Beach, a quiet town tucked into a cove just a few miles north of Mill Valley. She told me, once I’d introduced myself, that she’d dropped into the No Name for a drink on her way back from SFO. The beginning of the conversation went something like this:
ME: Where were you?I gave her a brief summary of my current circumstances, and when I mentioned that I lived with my son, she asked about my wife. I said that she was mentally ill, a diagnosed schizophrenic with paranoid delusions, and that she rarely saw Jesse, spending much of her time either in hospitals or, when she drank too much, in jail. Tanya asked me if I still loved her, and I remember becoming inarticulate for several seconds, unprepared for the question and the intensity of the feelings that it provoked. I told her that I loved Harriet but not in the same way I once did, when we were both young and before she got sick. She wasn’t the same person, I told her. Now that we were divorced, the most important thing was to make sure that Jesse felt safe.
TANYA: Rome, Beirut, and London.
ME: That’s a lot of traveling.
TANYA: It’s part of my job.
ME: You must have an exciting job.
TANYA: It can be. What about you?
ME: I write movies.
TANYA: So what are you doing here? You should be in Hollywood.
When I said that, I remember Tanya looking at me with great interest and even greater affection. And, after a short silence, the conversation continued:
TANYA: So, what now?Tanya asked me if I was serious, and when I said I was, she seemed to study my face with a new curiosity, though there was a trace of challenge in the wry little smile that slowly took over her mouth. Then, very casually, she slipped off her stool and walked back through the bar to the pay phone by the rest rooms. Was my proposal that we fly to New Orleans made half-jokingly and as an inebriated effort to avoid embarrassment and sound alive to the possibility of adventure? Absolutely. And even before I said it, I knew — well, assumed — that because Tanya had just driven back from the airport (after flying halfway around the globe), the idea of more air travel, no matter how much I exerted myself to persuade her, would be disqualified.
ME: What do you mean?
TANYA: Tonight. Where do we go from here?
ME: I don’t know.
TANYA: “I don’t know?” You’re a writer and that’s the best you can do?
ME: I’ll come up with something. First, let’s have a drink.
TANYA: No. You’re already sloshed. And don’t suggest going back to your house. I have to know you longer than an hour to mess around. Other than that, I’m game for anything.
A five second pause, then:
ME: Let’s fly to New Orleans.
I was wrong.
Moments later Tanya returned to her seat at the bar and informed me, with a fixed stare, that we were booked on a midnight flight to New Orleans. She told me to go back to my place and pack and she would pick me up in an hour. I must have been grinning, because I remember her telling me “to wipe that silly smile off your face and get moving.” I gave her my address and in precisely one hour — by then I had already scored three grams of cocaine — she knocked on my door. I told her the blow was to sober up, but she knew I was lying, and when I offered her a line she declined.
At that moment, standing inside my living room, watching me diligently chop down the coke with her mouth set in a thin line, was Tanya having second thoughts and looking for a way to back out of our hastily arranged trip? She told me later that in the bar she thought we had something unspoken that united us, a secret alliance, and she was distressed by confronting someone whose whole personality now seemed quite different.
“Yes, it was a severe shock to see you so consumed by drugs and alcohol. But no,” she said, “I never thought of backing out. If you didn’t shape up, the flight was free, and I would still get to spend a weekend in New Orleans.”
On the way to the airport, Tanya seemed to be driving very fast, with a kind of impatient assurance, occasionally glancing over at me as I tried to make small talk. The problem was I was stoned and didn’t make much sense, and when I lit a cigarette Tanya noticed that my hands were shaking. She asked me if I was all right, and when I told her I wanted to get high, she looked at me intently, regretfully. But when she spoke there was no malice in her voice, only resignation.
“You’re three times seven, John. You can do what you want.”
We didn’t speak again until we arrived at the San Francisco airport. And that’s when Tanya asked me if I was planning to bring my drugs on to the plane. When I said I was, she looked at me with an expression of incredulous annoyance. She told me that if I got arrested, not to expect her to bail me out.
“You’re on your own,” she said.
I made it through the check-in procedure without being searched, and by the time we reached the gate it was time to board. Although we were flying on Delta and not TWA, Tanya knew the pilot and two flight attendants from previous layovers, and she spoke to them briefly before she found our row. Still standing in the aisle — I had already taken the seat by the window — she told me there were going to be empty seats on the flight and wondered if she should sit in a row by herself. I remember feeling a soft shock of surprise, and when I asked her why, she contemplated my face with a kind of weary dismay, before she said:
“Because you make me nervous.”
She told me later that she was amazed by my reckless behavior and profoundly concerned. She said, “You had this idiotic smile on your face that drunk people get. I was afraid that you might freak out or something.”
“I can understand that. I was pretty out there.”
“No,” Tanya said. “You were a mess, John. But I decided to give you another chance.” She told me to get up, that she wanted to sit by the window, and she warned me in a stern voice not to bother her. Then, as the plane began to taxi down the runway, she curled up in her seat, facing away from me with her nearly-bald head resting on a pillow, and before we were even in the air she was asleep.
With an addict’s single-mindedness, I snorted cocaine throughout the flight, making multiple trips to the bathroom while Tanya and the rest of the passengers (except a mother holding a squalling baby) slept. Once as I was returning to my seat, I caught the eye of a stewardess who stared at me accusingly, as if she knew I was holding and found my drug-induced merriment unseemly. For several minutes I sat rigidly in my seat, at the edge of panic, entertaining the not-so-paranoid possibility that she would inform the pilot, who would then radio ahead and — as Tanya predicted — arrange for my arrest as soon as we landed.
Two or three times Tanya woke up and glanced at my bleary face with a truculent expression, before she turned away. In those brief moments I could feel the raw force of her disappointment and disgust, and I shudder now as I remember saying to myself, against all logic: Don’t worry, John, you can pull it together. Once you get to New Orleans, everything will be fine.
I don’t remember much else until we landed and I followed Tanya off the plane, bracing myself for her indignation and scorn. But she just moved hurriedly ahead without speaking, and I felt a curious hopefulness as I tried to keep up with her, my eyes fixed on the back of her stubbled head. I wanted to say something to her, something funny or ironic to break the ice, but I was smart enough to know — after she cast a quick look over her shoulder, and I saw her face filled with a mounting contempt — that the best course of action was to remain silent. When we reached the Avis counter, and I broke out my credit card, she said:
“You can rent the car, but I’m going to drive.”
“I know the city, Tanya. You don’t.”
She told me to “shut up,” and the rental clerk, instead of looking at my grinning face with some kind of male sympathy or brotherly regard, just shook his head. To him I looked like what I was: a disheveled, sweating, stoned creature who was unworthy of his sympathy, let alone his camaraderie. The question he seemed to be asking himself as he handed Tanya the keys and looked me up down was: How did a gorgeous chick like you end up with this loser?
From the stewardess on the flight, Tanya was given the name of a boutique hotel in the French Quarter that was supposed to be fashionably hip but reasonably priced, and she was somehow able to get us there without my help. I don’t recall the name, but I know it was on Royal Street, just a few blocks from the apartment on St. Philip that I rented in 1963. We checked in and rode the elevator up to our room in silence. I opened the door, we stepped inside, put our carry-on bags on the floor, and I remained standing, both confused and apprehensive, as Tanya went into the bathroom and shut the door.
We had not spoken more than a few sentences since we boarded the airplane in San Francisco, and when Tanya stepped out of the bathroom, I expected to be subjected to a tongue-lashing. But the dangerous moment that I anticipated didn’t arrive. Instead, all the volatileness had vanished and, in a deliberately calm tone, she told me she was going for a walk and would return in a few hours. She said that if I was determined to screw things up, that was up to me, but on practical grounds it would then make no sense for her to stick around.
She said, “So here’s the deal. First give me the rest of cocaine. Next I want you to take a bath and get cleaned up. You smell awful. Then I want you to order breakfast from room service. When you’re done, I want you to try and take a nap. If you can’t nap, read or watch television, but do not order up any alcohol. And don’t leave the room. If you’re sufficiently recovered by the time I return, we’ll have a conversation about what to do next.”
Facing me, she held out her hand, and I dropped the vial of cocaine into her outstretched palm. She then said that she sometimes trusted people too much, and that maybe she was wrong and there was no future here, that our spontaneous attraction, without any preliminary doubts, was as inevitable as our ultimate unraveling. She didn’t know. But right now she felt lonely and dazed and needed to be alone.
Then she picked up her purse and walked out the door.
Three hours later, when Tanya returned to the room, I was asleep, and the leftovers from the room service breakfast — steak and eggs, a toasted bagel, a pot of coffee, and several glasses of tomato juice — were on a rolling cart by the door. From far off she heard a church bell, and she remembered opening the window and watching a funeral procession moving slowly up the street outside the hotel, led by a Dixieland jazz band, the strains of music sounding both dirgelike and celebratory. After the parade passed, she said she felt a twinge of hopeful excitement, and as she looked around the room, deciding what to do next, in her head she heard a voice say, distinctly: Don’t leave.
When I woke up, Tanya was lying next to me in bed. When I took her hand, she squeezed my fingers and asked me how I felt. I said I almost felt back to normal. She said that “almost” wasn’t good enough, not if I wanted to fuck her.
She said, “Let me know when you’re a hundred percent.”
“I will,” I said.
And I did.
AT THE FIGHTS: PART TWO
In the spring of 1971, I was co-producing and writing a 90-minute, live, late-night television show on KNBC, the local NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. A precursor to Saturday Night Live, this satirical program was hosted by Al Lohman and Roger Barkley, two extremely popular and sweet-natured (when sober) morning disc jockeys. The writers and sketch performers we hired had never worked on television, and among the long list of people who got their start on the show were Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson, and John Amos. Amos, who later appeared in Roots and as a regular cast member on the Norman Lear sitcom Good Times, was an ex-pro football player and a huge boxing fan, and he idolized Muhammad Ali.
Johnny and I became close friends, and when the first Ali-Frazier fight rolled around — this was only Ali’s second fight since he was unjustly stripped of his title and denied a license for refusing to be drafted into the military — we made plans to go together. Because the Fox Wilshire theater was located in the heart of Beverly Hills, the seats around us were filled with a glittering dazzle of industry movers and shakers, laughing and talking at the tops of their voices. Along with big-time producers and studio executives — none of whom I knew, but whose names I recognized from the trades — I spotted actors Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson seated in our row. Sitting next to them were two beautiful young women in see-through blouses and skin-tight bell-bottom jeans, their eyes a little frantic as they tried to project an air of remote amusement.
The fight, while exciting and hard-fought, did not quite live up to its inescapable hype. The crowd in the theater was clearly for Ali, but as the rounds passed with Frazier methodically and dogmatically gaining command, their confident anticipation of an Ali victory began to dissipate. If he lost, it would be his first, and the thought, once impossible to imagine — his mastery in the ring was so complete — now became a real possibility. Johnny, his vocal support of Ali beginning to wither, became unnervingly dispirited, and at one point, around the 12th round, he even suggested that we leave. “No way,” I told him. “All it takes is one punch.”
“He ain’t gonna win, pal. It’s over.”
Johnny was right, but there was a moment, in either that round or the next, when Ali seemed to rally, the speed and potency of his punches unexpectedly reappearing. In the theater there was a sea of noise, and I remember that after one brutal exchange Johnny suddenly jumped to his feet, his voice rising above the crowd, as he screamed, “ICE THE MOTHERFUCKER! ICE THE MOTHERFUCKER!”
Comedians Milton Berle and Buddy Hackett were seated in front of us. When they turned and looked up at Johnny’s face — a face that was black and menacing — their expressions went from sympathy to incomprehension to almost pure terror. The change was swift and almost imperceptible. Unlike Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, both fervent supporters of Ali who were also in attendance, basking in the infatuated glances of their fans, they mistakenly saw in John Amos a man who represented danger and assault: a genuine nihilism. At least that’s the way it seemed to me.
In the 14th round, when Ali was knocked down for the first time in his career, the silence in the theater was clear and startling. Ali survived that round and the 15th, but we left before the decision was announced. On the ride back to his house Johnny was utterly miserable, his mood plummeting into an abysmal despair. I tried to cheer him up by talking about our upcoming show and a sketch I was working on, but he remained silent, inconsolable, and I worried that the bond between us had become strained. Then, suddenly, he looked over at me and burst out laughing.
“Did you see Uncle Miltie’s face?” he said, almost doubled over. “Man, when I went off, his eyes got all big and he looked at me like I was Nat Turner or something. Fuck Ali! He fought his ass off. He’ll be back.”
A few weeks after the first Ali-Frazier fight, I was fired from the Lohman and Barkley Show, but Johnny and I kept in touch, and when I relocated to Mill Valley he occasionally came up to visit with his wife and kids. In our reminiscences, we would always return to that night at the Fox Wilshire theater, and how he’d freaked out Uncle Miltie. But I never told him about the conversation I’d had with my father when I called him the following day. He and my brother were also at the theater, seated a few rows behind us.
After we chatted about the fight for a few minutes, he said, “Is that colored fella a friend of yours?”
“You mean the black guy I was sitting with.”
“You know who I’m talking about.”
“John Amos. He’s on the show. Don’t you watch?”
“It’s on too late.”
“Johnny’s a talented actor.”
“That’s what your brother said.”
“Maybe I’ll bring him by the house.”
“Not when your mother’s home,” my father said. “He might scare her.”
Later that year, when Johnny became a semi-regular on the Mary Tyler Moore Show — he played the weatherman, Gordy Howard — my father, uncharacteristically, said he wanted to meet him. When I repeated what he’d told me after the fight, he just shrugged it off, saying he was just kidding around.
“Bring him by,” he said. “It would give your mother a thrill.”
I told him I’d think about it, but, in the end, I resisted the offer.
The first time I traveled to New Orleans was in the summer of 1963. I’d hitchhiked cross-country from Los Angeles less than a week after graduating from Berkeley with a degree in European history. The night before I left, when I told my father my plans, he refused to believe I was serious. He said, “Four years of college and you’ve decided to become a hobo. That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said. Buy a suit and look for a job.”
I told him I didn’t want to look for a job. “I’m going to New Orleans. I’m leaving tonight.”
My father just looked at my mother and shook his head. But beneath his expression of dismay, I could read what he was really thinking: It’s another one of his childish acts of rebellion. He’s not going anywhere.
“Your mother and I are going out to eat,” he told me. “We’ll discuss this when we get back.”
As soon as I heard them back out of our driveway, I filled a small suitcase with a few changes of clothes, a razor, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, a few packs of my mother’s Marlboros, a yellow legal tablet, and some pencils. As an afterthought I also included two unread paperback books that I had brought down from Berkeley: James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, and Norman Mailer’s collection of autobiographical essays, Advertisements For Myself. In my wallet I had a five and four ones. That plus the change in my jeans gave me a total of $9.67.
It was almost a lifetime ago, but I can remember exactly what I was thinking as I walked out of my house on Benedict Canyon, holding my beat-up suitcase: Don’t turn around. You don’t know what you’re doing, but that’s okay. Just keep walking and stick out your thumb.
My first ride took me to Sunset Boulevard and Doheny Drive in West Hollywood. Two rides later — the sun had gone down by now — I was dropped off by the on-ramp to the Hollywood Freeway. The driver who picked me up next said he was going as far as Riverside, a city that was located about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. I thought, Not a bad start. But we never got that far.
The conversation went this way:
HIM: So, where you headed?The smile on his face quickly scurried off. A moment later he swung the car abruptly over to the shoulder and told me to get out. After he sped off, I was left standing on the side of the freeway with the rush hour traffic tearing by, dangerously close. Naturally, I was pissed off, but with no other options — hitchhiking on the freeway was against the law — I started to walk. When I finally made it to the nearest off-ramp, which was over a mile away, I found a gas station. I asked the attendant where I was, and he looked at me like I was posing a trick question.
ME: New Orleans.
HIM: No kidding. You hitching all the way?
HIM: I bet you’re gonna meet a lot of interesting folks. Maybe some pretty girls might pick you up. You’d like that, huh?
ME: I don’t know. I guess so.
HIM: You guess? Either you’d like it or not. Unless you’re like me.
HIM: You know what I mean?
ME: I’m not sure.
HIM: I’m not all that interested in girls.
A silence that stretches out….
ME (FINALLY): I’m not interested in men.
HIM: Didn’t think so. Never hurts to check.
“You’re in California, son.”
“I mean, what city.”
I had traveled 15 miles.
Because there was no urgency to my nomadic journey — no animating quest — I shook off the previous ride as a just a random setback, an infuriating and puzzling event that I would eventually look back upon and laugh about. Not too long afterward an 18-wheeler pulled into the gas station and I asked the driver — I later learned his name was Freddie and that he sometimes rode bulls on the rodeo circuit — if he could give me a ride.
He said it was against company rules to pick up hitchhikers. “But if you keep your mouth shut and watch for cops, I’ll get you to Phoenix by the time the sun comes up.”
From Phoenix it took me several more rides and another 18 hours before I reached Dallas, the home of Southern Methodist University. At a beer bar near the campus I mingled with some kids around my age who were dressed in lightweight clothes in pastel colors. The boys were at once languorous and self-confident, and they spoke with unsettling drawls. The girls with them appraised me with cool glances, but they were impressed by my cross-country journey, laughing with a kind of giddy hilarity when I told them about the homosexual who picked me up in Hollywood.
At closing time a boy named Webb invited me back spend the night at his fraternity. “I’m a Kappa Alpha,” he told me drunkenly and proudly. “Best house on campus.”
I slept on a ripped leather couch in the large living room, waking up several times to the sounds of vomiting, screaming, and spurious laughter. In the morning, Webb took me out to breakfast. In the front seat of his ’56 Ford were textbooks, liquor bottles, and a pair of white panties. At the diner, he told me that one of his fraternity brothers felt uneasy about having a Jew spend the night in the house.
He said, “We’re a Christian frat. We don’t pledge Jews. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a Jew before.”
“How’d he know I was a Jew?”
“You told Julie.”
“When you said you grew up near Beverly Hills, she made a joke about all the Jews out there. You said you were a Jew. She didn’t believe you at first, then she did. She told Randy, my pledge brother, and when he came home and saw you sleeping downstairs, he got kinda worried.”
I felt confused. “I don’t remember any of this. I don’t remember talking to a Julie.”
“You were drunk.”
“So Randy wanted me out of the house?”
“Yeah. He woke me up. He said it was like having a nigger sleeping downstairs.”
“Jesus!” My mind was suddenly occupied with the need to defend myself. “What an asshole.”
“Randy’s not an asshole,” Webb said. “He’s good people. He just doesn’t know any better.”
But Webb explained that he was brought up differently. He was taught by his parents to treat everyone the same, regardless of their religion or the color of the skin. Then, leaning across the table and lowering his voice, he said he was going to do me a favor: He was going to show me the secret Kappa Alpha handshake. The “grip.”
“That way,” he said, “wherever you go, you can be a KA and stay anywhere for free. In the South we’re the top frat. You’re covered.”
“As long as I don’t tell anyone I’m a Jew,” I said, half-jokingly.
“Yeah, that might screw things up.”
After Webb demonstrated the secret handshake, which involved a complicated sequence of moves that I quickly forgot, he paid the check and drove me to the edge of the city.
“You’re on Interstate 49. This’ll take you to Shreveport. Then you head south on 91.” We shook hands, he wished me luck with a sincere smile, and I got out of the car. It was not yet 10 a.m., but the temperature was already 100 degrees and climbing. There was no shade to stand in, and in the weirdness of the previous night I’d lost the hand-lettered sign I’d made before I left Los Angeles, my destination written in dark blue ink on a shirt cardboard: New Orleans.
An hour of steady traffic passed without anyone stopping. After a while, indifferent to the blanket of heat and the passage of time, I sat down on my suitcase and began reading Another Country. I still own that battered and dog-eared paperback, and, although it’s now in storage with the rest of my books, I remember that I pulled it off the shelf a few years ago. Right away I looked at the flyleaf and I could feel myself smiling when I saw what I had written on that sweltering morning: Remember this day.
My memory wheel spun backward, and I was once again that joyfully adrift 22-year-old boy sitting by the side of the road, captivated by the bohemian world that James Baldwin was writing about, a world filled with misfits and rebels and all-night parties. And as I turned the pages, I felt something like an internal migration: A door had swung open and a light hand was effortlessly pushing me away from the life I was supposed to enter after graduating from college, a life that was straightforward, simple, and safe, a life that I wanted no part of. I wanted a life that was unconventional, filled with adventure and risk. A life that was worth living.
On the outskirts of Dallas, in a vast open space that was beneath a blindingly blue sky, the margins of my future were not distinctly marked, but I had already made a choice, deciding that you can’t run from who you are. That’s why I wanted to remember that day.
Finally, sometime toward the end of the afternoon, I got a ride from an automobile wholesaler on his way home to Morgan City, Louisiana. He’d been to a car auction in Fort Worth and was driving a tricked-out Pontiac that he planned to sell to his father-in-law for a sweet profit. His wife was following behind us in his Corvette. He said, “Her dad loves these Bonnevilles. I could get more sellin’ to some nigger, but I promised the old man. Nigger would probably crash it anyway.” I felt the urge to say something, to offer a kinder and more conciliatory opinion about our dark-skinned brothers, but I realized that if I wished to remain moving south in this high-powered car, I would have to be silent on matters of race. I don’t remember when I dozed off, but when I woke to a steady tap on my knee, I saw that we were parked in a filling station. Next door was a square white church, and across the street were the county fairgrounds, where, I later learned, the largest KKK gathering in the state would be held that evening.
Despite the unthreatening atmosphere of the church and some dogs lazing in the sun by the pumps, I could feel a kind of Pentecostal suspicion in the face of the garage mechanic as I got out of the Bonneville and walked toward the highway. A boy around my age came out of the garage and joined the mechanic, both of them watching me with a restrained curiosity.
When I stuck out my thumb, the boy said, “Where you goin’?”
“Where you comin’ from?”
The mechanic looked at the boy. “That’s where all the queers are from.”
“Are you queer?” the boy asked me. “No.”
There was a long silence. The boy opened the soft-drink machine and pulled out a Coke. The mechanic, altering his tone, asked me if I wanted something to drink. I politely declined the offer and received a stare in return that was openly hostile. Realizing I’d made a mistake, I was about to change my mind when a car pulled up next to me. The driver was in his late thirties and skinny, with a thin mustache and an eye that was slightly skewed. He told me to get in. When he found out where I was going, he said I was in luck.
“That’s where I’m headed,” he said, offering me a hit off the joint he’d just rolled. When I hesitated, he said, “What’s wrong?”
“What about the cops?”
He grinned and spoke with a breezy disrespect. “Fuck the cops. Don’t worry, if we get stopped I’ll cover for you.”
I gave that some thought as I watched him inhale, the joint pinched between his fingers with a careless elegance. At Berkeley, I hadn’t smoked that much weed — maybe 10 joints total — but it was something I usually did with a girl. You got high, listened to music, and sex customarily followed. I said, “If I don’t get high, do I have to get out?”
He took another hit off the joint and looked at me, half annoyed. “Listen, my friend, you’re goin’ to New Orleans. That’s a city that jumps. You want to fit in, you need to get loose. That’s just a suggestion. Don’t matter to me what the fuck you do.”
I decided to get high.
I don’t recall much of the conversation that took place over the next three hours, but I do remember the driver’s name — Charles, not Chuck or Charlie — and I am certain that he told me he was a piano player. The dance place where he’d worked in Shreveport was being remodeled and he’d scored a gig with a Dixieland outfit at the Roosevelt Hotel. He said he loved jazz, but there was no money playing that kind of music in the Deep South, unless you sounded like Fats Waller. About an hour from New Orleans, he mentioned that he’d been married to and deserted by a vocalist — “this disloyal bitch” — who he’d worked with in Kansas City. After she left, he drank whiskey for three days, the same time it took him to recuperate. After that, he said, still sounding lovelorn, she was erased from his memory. That was five years ago.
“You ever had your heart broke, John?”
I told him about getting dumped by Tracy, the girl I was in love with during my junior year. “She told me I was too moody, and that when I got angry I frightened her.”
“You over it?”
“Mostly. Only sometimes I’ll hear a song that will bring everything back.”
He said, “Know what you mean. For a long time, whenever someone asked me to play ‘Tennessee Waltz’, I’d about fall apart.”
It was not quite dark when Charles dropped me off across from Tulane University. Fraternity row was a few blocks from the campus, but the Kappa Alpha house — a huge, almost overwhelmingly impressive Georgian mansion — was closed for the summer. Fortunately, the dorms were open, and I had no problem scoring a room for the night — actually I stayed a week — when the students I spoke to learned I was from Southern California. And when I told them I’d gone to high school with the rock and roll duo Jan and Dean — “Surf City” was still on the charts — and hung out in Malibu with Kathy Kohner, the inspiration for the character Gidget in the film written by her father, I was met with looks of incredulity. To know Jan and Dean and Gidget meant I was endowed with some kind of magical power.
The next morning I walked to the French Quarter in the steaming heat. I don’t recall how long it took me — according to Google Maps it’s four miles — but even today I can remember that, by the time I’d reached Jackson Square, I felt a surge of uncontrollable excitement erupt inside me. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the strangers I saw moving languidly through the pageantry of the streets — not the tourists with their goggling eyes but the natives who actually resided in the French Quarter — seemed as if they belonged to a different species. They projected a stateliness, a kind of “knowing,” and when they smiled at me their eyes seemed to gleam. To be honest, they looked a bit mad.
That night I saw Fats Domino perform live at his club on Bourbon Street. At the time it didn’t seem odd — I might not have even noticed — that there were no black faces in the crowd, which was made up of mostly tourists and college kids shouting out requests. But what stuck with me most from that evening was not just the rippling piano and the stripped-down energy of the songs, but the courteous smile on Fats’s face when he accepted the audience’s applause, a smile that was both glacial and timid but which seemed forced upon him by the circumstances of his popularity. As was the case of most blacks performing in clubs that excluded members of their race, behind that smile was a ferocious anger.
The following morning, when I woke up in my dorm room, I had a violent hangover, and when I checked my wallet I realized I was nearly out of cash. I knew my older brother, Mike, was on a 10-day leave from the Marine Corps (where I would end up in the not too distant future), and I called him collect from the pay phone in the hallway. His anger, once he accepted the call, was undisguised. “Where the fuck are you? New Orleans? You hitchhiked to New Orleans? You’re out of your fucking mind, John. Get your ass on a bus back to L.A.”
“I’m not ready to come back,” I told him. “I’m gonna stay here for a while.”
“And do what?”
“I’m not sure. Probably get a job,” I said. Then I told him why I was calling. “I’m broke. I need a loan, just a hundred bucks until I get settled.” There was silence for a moment or two. “You’re the only person I can ask.”
“What about one of your college buddies?”
“I’d rather borrow it from you. That way I won’t have to pay it back.”
“Prick.” We both laughed. “I can’t believe you’re actually in New Orleans.”
I told him about all the crazy rides I got, my drunken night in Dallas with the anti-Semitic frat boys from SMU, and the adulatory reception I received at the dorm where I was calling from. “The kids here are cool. When I told them I surfed and knew Gidget, they treated me like I was God.”
“You don’t surf.”
“I exaggerated,” I said, and there was a pause that I filled with my impatience. “Well …?”
“I’ll wire the money.”
The next morning, after breakfast at the dormitory cafeteria, I walked down to the Western Union office on Canal Street. The girl behind the counter was around my age, big and bony, with large blue eyes and blond hair that was cut boyishly short. Right away her lovely (but slightly inscrutable) face reminded me of Jean Seberg, the actress who played the free-loving heroine opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in the French film Breathless. When I told her this, she rolled her eyes.
“You’re the second person to say that,” she said. “I never even heard of her.”
“She’s an American actress, but she’s done a lot of French films.”
“Yeah? We don’t get many foreign films down here. You must be from out of town.” I told her I was from Los Angeles. “I’m here to pick up some money that was wired to me.”
She asked for my last name, and when I spelled it out she looked me up and down, paying close attention to my long curly blond hair. For a moment she seemed to lose her supreme self-command. Then she began to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Your name. I know who you are,” she said, after she found the money order from my brother. “You’re Danny Kaye’s son.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Don’t lie, John Kaye. This money order was sent from Beverly Hills. And look at your hair! You got your daddy’s hair.”
I told her I was sorry to disappoint her. “My father knows plenty of people in show business, but he’s not Danny Kaye, nor am I related to him in any way.”
“Then what’s your daddy do?”
“He owns a couple of retail clothing stores in Hollywood.”
She looked at me for several moments, unconvinced. Then she said, “I guess you want your money.”
Her name was Lizzy Cantwell, her family went back three generations in New Orleans, and she was currently a junior at Sophie Newcomb, the private girls college that was affiliated with Tulane. She also drove a forest green Triumph TR4 sports car, her older brother was a linebacker at LSU, and her father was a senior executive at D.H. Holmes Company, the largest department store in New Orleans.
That night she picked me outside my dorm after she got off work. She had changed clothes and was now wearing a sleeveless blouse, sandals, and white shorts that were cut high on her thighs. She’d brought with her a Thermos of bourbon and Coke that we passed back and forth while she gave me a tour of the city. Every few blocks someone waved or shouted out a greeting.
I said, “You seem awfully popular.”
“The Cantwells are very well-liked in New Orleans,” she explained. Her mother, she said, was the daughter of one of the richest men in Jefferson Parish. She was also a doctor — an obstetrician — and, unlike her husband, a fervent supporter of JFK and the nascent civil rights movement that was growing in the Deep South. “She’s got an office uptown and one in the Lower Ninth Ward. She’s delivered half the nigger babies in New Orleans.”
I wish I could say I pounced on her use of this epithet, accusing her of being racially insensitive, but the truth was I didn’t give it a second thought. Among Southern whites — even “educated” Southern whites — the “n word” was such a natural part of everyday speech that I’d basically tuned it out. From what I could tell, Lizzie was not a racist, and even if she were it made no sense to disturb our flowering friendship by challenging her or the strongly established code of a world I was not part of or truly understood. The fact was I liked her, and even more I liked sitting beside her in her sports car, feeling unnaturally relaxed and lighthearted, the bourbon flowing warmly through my stomach, and by the time we drove out to Lake Pontchartrain and found a secluded spot to park, the possibility of a sexual event had established itself.
However, the non-maneuverability of the Triumph’s bucket seats were an obstacle to anything but making out, and Lizzie, although she felt like “a firecracker ready to pop,” didn’t want to go down to the beach and “wrestle around and get a bunch of sand in my ass. Anyway, the cops regularly patrol this place, and we don’t need to get arrested for being lewd. You especially, since you’re a Yankee.”
She suggested going back to her house.
I said, “What about your folks?”
Lizzie opened her wide, flexible mouth and planted a long, wet kiss on my lips, before she answered. “They’re in Miami for the weekend, fishing for marlin. They won’t be back until Monday.”
I’m going to skip the sex, except to mention that when I went down on her, Lizzie looked at me with an appreciative smile, her face, in rapturous transport, turning a deep shade of red. Sounding gratified, she told me later that the boys she’d dated would never have done something like that. They would find eating her pussy not only repugnant but unnecessary. I said they were missing out.
We spent the weekend together, and Lizzie’s cheerfulness and general gregariousness was infectious. Only once, when I told her I was falling for her, did she become somber. She said that what we were having was a summer fling and that was all. “After that I’ll be back in school, and you’ll be back in California.”
“How do you know?”
“You will. Anyway my boyfriend comes home from Europe in September.”
“Boyfriend?” I said, feeling an incredulous jolt. “You didn’t mention a boyfriend.”
“You should’ve said something.”
“I didn’t know you were gonna get stuck on me or I would have.”
“Does your boyfriend eat pussy?”
“Not as far as I know, unless he’s learning how from those girls in France. If not, I’ll have to teach him.”
The following week Lizzie set up a meeting with her father, a tall man with a shiny bald head and a supercilious smile. After introducing himself and ceremoniously offering me his hand, he said that, based on his daughter’s recommendation, he was prepared to offer me a job in the men’s department of D.H. Holmes. I’d be starting in sales, working the floor, with the possibility that I could assist with the buying if it turned out that the aptitude for retail ran in my family. When he said he wanted me to start the following day, I told him I didn’t have any clothes.
“Go downstairs and get a suit, some shirts, and a few ties. You’ll get a discount.”
“I’m a little short on money too.”
“We’ll deduct it from your paycheck.”
Before I left the office, almost as an afterthought, he asked me if I saw lots of movie stars back home in Beverly Hills. I mentioned that Marlon Brando once picked me up hitchhiking, and that I’d gone to high school with Nancy Sinatra. He said that he thought Lizzie was pretty enough to be in pictures, but she’d never want live that far from home. Then he raised his hand and waved me out the door.
Lizzie told me later that her father was unimpressed with our meeting. “He was expecting you to show more enthusiasm for the job.”
“Selling clothes in a department store is not a career I’m interested in. It’s just to make some money.”
“Still, he’s doing you a favor. There are lots of boys that would die to have that position.” Nearly 50 years have passed, but I can remember this conversation almost word for word. It took place in the early evening, and we were sitting at a table inside Ruffino’s, an open-air cafe overlooking the Mississippi River. That afternoon Lizzie had helped me find a furnished studio apartment in the French Quarter on St. Philip Street. After I paid the first month ($50.00) in advance out of the money my brother had wired me, we drove back to my dorm, where I swiped a blanket and sheets from my room and some plates and silverware from the cafeteria. Once we were back inside my new pad, I pulled her down on the bed, but after a few perfunctory kisses I could tell she didn’t want to go any further. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she was too hungry to think about having sex.
But obviously the conversation she’d had with her father had bothered her, and now, while we were drinking wine and slurping oysters, I could feel an argument brewing that I wanted to avoid. I told her that if she wanted me to call her dad and thank him I would be happy to do that.
She looked at me for a long moment, as if debating to herself. Then, shaking her head, she said, “It wouldn’t be sincere. Don’t worry about it. Just do a good job while you’re there.” A few seconds later, she wrinkled her brow and gave me what was intended to be a sympathetic smile. “You’re a nice boy, John Kaye. But I’m not gonna fall for you.”
After we were done eating, we went back to my apartment and made love. It was exciting, but not as exciting as the first time — there seemed to be a reflexive distancing on both sides — and when she left that night, I remember feeling a sudden loneliness that was combined with a steady drumbeat of romantic longing. Lizzie and I continued to see each other throughout the summer, but things were never the same. I think she felt that there was no buried treasure to be unearthed between us. And if there was a map to the gold, she would keep it hidden. I could eat her till the saints came marching in, but the key to her heart? No way.
AT THE FIGHTS: PART THREE
Toward the end of July, a few months before I quit my job and left New Orleans — my next stop would be Jamaica, and after that, in the spring of 1964, I would enlist in the Marines — I attended the heavyweight championship fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. This would be the second time they’d fought. In the first fight, Liston, a stone-faced ex-con born to a sharecropping family in Arkansas, had been favored to win, but his total domination — he’d knocked Patterson out in the first round, the quickest ending to a heavyweight championship fight in history — was still surprising. The second bout was being broadcast live from Las Vegas to hundreds of theaters around the country, including the RKO Orpheum on University Place, a former vaudeville house that held 1800 seats, including 500 in the balcony.
I went to the fight with Stoney, a folksinger I’d met in the French Quarter not long after I moved into my new apartment. On the road like myself — he was temporarily unstuck from a chaotic marriage — Stoney had gone to Vanderbilt and was a big-time reader with an unquenchable lust, two virtues that added to the bond that was created between us. Today he’s a published poet and professor of English at a university in the Northeast, but in the summer of 1963 (before his fractured domesticity had healed), in this beautiful period of both our lives, carried along by the beneficent atmosphere of the city, he was just Stoney, a very handsome guy who could stand on a street corner with a guitar and sing protest songs to an attentive crowd.
When we got to the RKO Orpheum, the smoke-filled lobby was packed with an anxious mob of mostly furtive, unsteady-looking white men, their hectic faces containing a kind of lazy dissatisfaction. In contrast, the crowd of stylishly dressed black men — some even in tuxedos — who Stoney and I followed up to the balcony, chatted and laughed easily, connected not just by the color of their skin but by an unrestrained optimism: No matter who won the fight, the arm raised by the referee would be black.
Stoney and I found two seats in a row near the front of the balcony. We didn’t understand the bewildered looks we received (or why the underlying gaiety around us suddenly, mysteriously dwindled and then stopped) until a teenage usher appeared in the aisle and motioned for us to get up. He said we had to sit downstairs.
Stoney said, “Why?”
“Because this is where the colored folks sit.”
Until this moment, it had never occurred to us that the theater was segregated, and Stoney, who could be stubborn and intimidating — he was 6’5” and solidly built — began to interrogate the usher, demanding to know under what law we were being asked to leave. Although he didn’t have the brightness of mind to argue with Stoney with any kind of logic and coherence, the usher was imperturbable, his manner both courteous and unpolemical, and he made it clear that if we didn’t immediately abandon our seats the police would be summoned to physically remove us. At that point I told Stoney I was leaving, that I came to watch the fight and was unwilling to be part of a political protest that I could see only ending with our arrest.
I went downstairs and found a seat just as the fighters entered the ring. Patterson’s expression, compared to Liston’s, which was intensely hostile — a face without warmth or pity — was slightly distracted. Where Liston conveyed an almost sightless indifference to the noisy atmosphere surrounding him, Patterson looked shy or slightly intimidated, his eyes watchful. And when they removed their robes, the imbalance in their physiques was startling. Next to Liston — with his expanded chest and massively thickened neck — Patterson looked not just outweighed but … small.
When the ring announcer introduced Liston, a roar exploded from the balcony of the theater, the cheers cresting and then breaking like a great wave, prompting the hard white faces around me to fill with obscure alarms, their shared disdain barely concealed. Patterson was by nature gentle and respectful, though he was also subject to mysterious mood swings, and he would become mildly aggrieved if he felt either his talent or courage were being questioned, as they seem to be in the days leading up to the bout. But among the whites at the RKO Orpheum, Patterson — light-skinned, self-effacing, polite, almost servile — was the fan favorite.
Once again the fight was brutally short, lasting less than one round, although this time Patterson remained on his feet four seconds longer. When his seconds jumped into the ring and carried him back to his corner, the theater slowly emptied, and I found Stoney in the lobby speaking to a short black guy dressed in a bright green suit. Standing next to him was a tall, splendid-looking black woman wearing a gardenia behind her ear and a tight black dress. They were all going to a party and I was invited.
“Time to celebrate,” Stoney said.
I remember starting to perspire, and while I remained silent, trying to understand why I was imagining a threat that wasn’t there, the black woman said, “We’ll give you the address. Drop by if you decide to join us.”
“Don’t worry,” the black man said. “We make sure you’re treated right.”
I made a noncommittal sound and Stoney, when he saw the hesitation in my eyes, just shrugged his shoulders. How he was able to stay and watch the fight in the balcony remained a mystery that he was in no hurry to clear up. I saw the usher in the lobby, but he made a point not to look in our direction. Finally, I told Stoney I was going to head home, and he turned to the black couple, explaining that I worked at D.H. Holmes and had to get up early. He wasn’t making an excuse for me — I think he was actually pleased that I’d decided to pass — but just stating a fact.
I told him I would catch up with him later. I walked home, feeling a little guilty but also content to be alone. A few days later, Stoney came by my apartment after work. Smiling broadly, he said I’d missed a great party. Among the guests were some local jazz musicians who put on an impromptu performance, and he’d joined in on a couple of tunes, playing a borrowed guitar.
He said, “Me and this chick from New York were the only white people in the room.”
“I should’ve gone with you.”
“You were tired.”
“I wasn’t that tired,” I said, and I didn’t have to tell him the real reason I decided not to tag along, which he already knew: I was just not brave enough.
When I finally asked him how he was able to remain in the balcony on the night of the fight, he smiled, and I saw both satisfaction and pride mingling in his face. “I just told the usher to shove it and refused to leave. When he came back with this big redneck manager, they both seemed unsure of what to do. Nobody did, including the black guys sitting around me. Finally, the manager said that because it was a boxing match and not a movie I could stay, but he made it clear that it was a one-time-only deal. If I tried it again, I would be in serious trouble. I think what surprised him most was when he heard my voice. He couldn’t believe a Southerner was pulling this shit.”
HUNTER AND INGA: 1978
Not counting our flight back to Los Angeles, I only saw Hunter twice in New Orleans, the first time during the weigh-in at the New Orleans Hilton — more about that later — where he introduced to me to Hughes Rudd, a hard-drinking Texan and a journalist of high reputation who anchored the morning news on CBS. I was never sure if Hughes was in New Orleans to cover the fight, take in the scene, or just hang out with old friends. He seemed to know everyone, and even though I witnessed him knock down a stupendous amount of alcohol, I never once saw him drunk. One evening, when Inga met us after work at a bar in the French Quarter, Hughes was so taken with her beauty that he gleefully (and only half-kiddingly) suggested that we participate in a threesome. She declined, pretending that she was both astonished and appalled, but a few moments later she flashed him a smile and said:
“But ask me again in an hour.”
Hughes was a man of great charm, and I couldn’t honestly tell whether she was joking or not; and, frankly, I was afraid to ask. This took place on the night before the fight, the night I saw Hunter for the second time. Inga and I were in bed — she was asleep but I wasn’t — when he knocked loudly on my door. In a voice that I can only describe as a fierce metallic bark, he demanded I open up, and when I asked him what he wanted, he said:
“I’m with someone.”
“Male or female.”
“Wise choice. Open up. You’ve got five seconds or I’ll shoot off the lock. I’m armed.” Grumbling under his breath, Hunter started to count down from five. Was he really carrying a loaded gun? I doubted it, but I’d spent enough time with him to know that I didn’t want to take a chance on the contrary possibility. When I cracked opened the door, he looked at me blank-faced. In my memory I can see him standing before me, one arm braced against the wall, naked from the waist up, wearing khaki shorts over sheer panty hose and high-top sneakers with no socks. A red spandex brassiere was tied around his chest, and his face was completely made up, with a slash of red lipstick clownishly smeared across his mouth, as if it had been applied by a child.
When I didn’t know what to say — what could I say? I was too startled to be even grimly amused — Hunter tilted his head to one side, uttered a low laugh, poked me twice in the ribs, and walked past me into the room. Inga rolled over in bed, and Hunter said:
“If she wakes up, make sure she knows I’m not an intruder.”
“That’s Inga, Hunter. You’ve already met.”
Hunter looked at me with a guilty little smile. “That’s true. But in different circumstances. Seeing me like this could be deeply disturbing. So hurry up with the drugs!”
While I emptied half my stash into a glassine envelope, Hunter crossed the room in two long strides, stopping briefly to stare out the window, and that’s when I saw the pistol stuck into the waistband of his khaki shorts. I froze, and it took a few seconds for my voice to come out.
“Is that pistol loaded, Hunter?”
“For fuck’s sake, Kaye. Of course it’s loaded. But don’t worry,” he said, as he turned and moved toward the door. “The safety’s on.”
As he brushed passed me, he grabbed the glassine envelope and stuffed it into his pocket. Then he adjusted his bra and gave me that Cheshire cat smile. His last words to me as he opened the door and stepped into the hallway were:
“Feel free to use any of this in the script.”
Although Hunter claimed he saw the fight in person, I never caught sight of him in the Superdome, and the seat reserved for him in my row remained empty throughout the night. I heard later from Hughes Rudd that he was seen on Felicity Street, in a disco bar, dancing with a woman who was described to Hughes as having “a wild mop of red hair and a miracle body.” Inga, who was on duty that evening, said she saw them leaving the hotel together. They looked utterly wasted.
“She’s a prostitute,” Inga said. “And a known thief.”
After all the pre-fight hoopla, the bout itself was letdown. Ali, dancing and jabbing, grabbing and holding, coasted through the early rounds, built a commanding lead, and made history by regaining his title for an unprecedented third time, something he’d trained hard for and desperately wanted. The monster crowd, which was on his side from the opening bell, cheered the unanimous decision, but everyone knew they’d witnessed a fight that was painfully dull. Pat Putnam in Sports Illustrated summed it up this way:
“As a fight it was not so much a contest as it was a demonstration by an old master educating an inexperienced youngster in the fine points of the craft.”
I’ve recently re-watched several rounds on YouTube and, despite admiring Ali’s masterful strategy, I found myself once more sinking into a trance of boredom. And then, mysteriously, as if a secret doorway had been opened, a hazy memory drifted out of the wings of my mind, interrupting my passivity, and a scene slowly came to life:
I’m standing in the hotel ballroom where the weigh-in is set to take place. I’m talking to Hughes Rudd. We’re in the rear of the big, overflowing room, gossiping about the restless and shifty-looking characters who are milling about. Spinks is already standing by the scale with his three trainers, one of whom, Georgie Benton, would later leave his corner in disgust after the fourth round. The promoters, Butch Lewis and Bob Arum, are off to the side, quarreling over something, and Hughes, who has just finished telling me that Arum had graduated from Harvard with a law degree, just shakes his head and says sardonically, “Boxing was cleaner when you could tell the gangsters from the lawyers.”
Behind me a ruckus seems to be taking place, the voices immediately around me louder than the rest. Before I can turn to look I feel a solid mass of bodies pushing against me, and for several steps it’s as if I am being carried along by a slow-moving river. Trying frantically to twist away, I feel two large hands grip my shoulders, holding me steady, and what I can only describe as a preternatural calmness settles over me.
People are screaming, “Ali! Ali!” and I realize, with a kind of suppressed excitement, that the hands propelling me forward belong to him. Hughes told me later that I had this blissful smile fixed on my face, as if I’d achieved a cheerful oneness with universe. This fairy tale moment lasted for no more than five seconds, until Bundini Brown, one of Ali’s handlers, roughly pushed me aside and took my place.
Like many of my generation, I didn’t just admire Ali, I loved him in a way I don’t feel capable of describing here. But from that moment when he put his soft, strong hands on my shoulders — hands that seemed mysteriously weightless — making me feel more substantial than I really was, I felt like I had discarded an awkward burden. And for a long time afterward there was, somehow, a new appetite for wonder in the trajectory of my life, and it seemed like anything was possible.
The next time I saw Hunter was on the set of Where the Buffalo Roam. I’d heard that he was sent the screenplay, and though his approval was not necessary for the film to move forward, Art Linson, the director, told me that he (Hunter) was pleased with the final draft. To be completely honest, I’m not sure if he ever read it, but I do know that he sent it to a few of his close friends — writers and editors whose opinions he could trust — and apparently they told him it was smart and funny.
We never spoke about New Orleans or the night he came to my room dressed like a not-so-pretty transvestite hooker. But I later learned that the gun he carried with him was a starter pistol, similar to those used to begin races at swimming and track meets. It shot blanks not bullets, unlike the shotgun he used to kill himself in the winter of 2005, an act that did not really surprise me.
The Hunter I knew was funny, gracious, and kind, but in the year we spent together — off and on — I saw that he also carried with him a sort of despair (and pent-up rage) about his life, especially his writing. He knew he had not worked up to his potential and regretted it. There were times when we were alone that I witnessed a mind that, even without the drugs and alcohol, was filled with paranoia and pandemonium. I can’t say that we were close friends — he could be stubborn and petty and perversely inattentive to anyone else’s needs but his own — but I’m truly sorry that he’s gone, and I will always remember him with great fondness.
Two weeks after Tanya and I met at the No Name Bar, she suggested that we live together in her house at Muir Beach. It was already clear by then that something deeper had accounted for our instantaneous mutual attraction, but I was still taken by surprise. I said I needed some time to think it over. She told me I had a week. After that the offer was off the table.
It took my son to persuade me that the decision made sense. He said, “She’s nice and I think it would be fun to live at the beach.” Then, clinching the deal, he said, “She’s so pretty, I can’t believe she wants to be your girlfriend.”
We stayed together for a year, but Tanya always seemed to be flying out of town, and her frequent absences gradually stripped away our intimacy and heightened my insecurity. When she was home, I snapped at her and made cutting remarks, sometimes accusing her of being unfaithful. I had lost the will to accommodate and, after a long overseas trip, Tanya announced that she’d decided to sell her house and move to an island off the coast of Washington State.
Hearing this news, Jesse seemed to go into a trance. The tears didn’t come until later, when Tanya came into his room and tried to patiently assure him that she still loved him. He begged her to stay, but she could only cry along with him, and that seemed to be enough, because Jesse, more than anything, needed to know how much she cared.
Tanya and I rarely spoke after she moved away. The last time was 20 years ago. In that conversation we laughed about the night we met and the weekend we spent together in New Orleans. Before we hung up, I asked her a question that I had always been curious about.
I said, “What did you do with the cocaine I gave you?”
“I kept it. And when I got to New York I shared it with the girls I roomed with.”
“Did you tell them where you got it?”
“And what did they say?”
“They wanted to know what you were like.”
“I said, ‘It’s too soon to tell.’”
John Kaye is screenwriter, playwright, director, and author of the novels The Dead Circus and Stars Screaming. His feature credits include American Hot Wax, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins, Where the Buffalo Roam, and Forever Lulu, which he also directed.
Image: Image © Paul Bausch onfocus.com http://bit.ly/rESKHY