Uncle Gonzo

A remembrance of days in Phoenix with madman journalist Hunter S. Thompson

Trouble is, now I'll never be able to collect that $21,000 that Hunter S. Thompson's owed me for going on 20 years.

Not that I ever had expected to see a bloody nickel of the money that the son of a bitch had avoided coughing up until he recently blew out his once-estimable brains at age 67. I'd actually forgotten about the whole deal until I heard that Hunter had ended it all.

I started thinking about the man and what he'd meant to me, first as a hell of a writer and, later, as a monstrously flawed and sometimes-cruel human being.

First, a bit of background.

I figure I was born at the perfect time. (I might not be saying that if my draft lottery number in 1970, when the Vietnam War was raging, had been just a little lower.) The Beatles hit when I was 13, the peace-and-love generation arrived when I was old enough to just say yes, and I got to shake hands with Martin Luther King Jr. a few months before he died.

Hunter Thompson came into my literary life just as the '60s were ending, when I read the first sections of what would become the classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. (It first was serialized in Rolling Stone, accompanied brilliantly by the simpatico illustrations of Ralph Steadman.)

It was a thrilling read, and I wanted to know more about this madman scribe. I can remember killing time in Boston one day waiting to see Miles Davis and his electric band at the Jazz Workshop. For reasons I can't recall, I found myself inside the Boston Public Library, where I made a beeline to the card catalogue and looked up Hunter S. Thompson.

It listed one book, something called Hell's Angels. I pulled it out, sat down and started reading. Two hours later, I came up for air.

It was riveting, so well reported that I couldn't wait to get back home to New Haven and buy it. I wondered how in the world someone could get such material, and I like to think that I had a passing thought that journalism might be a rocking good way to make a living someday.

Skip ahead about 15 years, to August of 1985. I'd moved up to Phoenix from a border town where I'd been working at a tiny newspaper after New Times co-owner Mike Lacey seduced me into believing that the chance to try my hand at great journalism was well worth the paltry salary he was willing to offer at the time.

Lacey issued me an assignment about two hours into my first day on the job: He wanted a fresh face to reexamine the still-mysterious assassination in June of 1976 of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles. He gave me nine months to give birth to a 36-page insert that contained no advertising. Thanks especially to Lacey and to then-New Times editor Jana Bommersbach, the project came out on time in June of 1986 -- though it was a memorably difficult delivery.

Our special section caught the eye of folks hither and yon, no small matter in the era before Al Gore invented the Internet. Literally the last thing I wanted for quite a while after the birth of that story was to hear the name Don Bolles, God rest his investigative soul.

But I made an exception one afternoon in the late summer of 1986 when Hunter S. Thompson's beautiful girlfriend, Maria, knocked unannounced on my office door. Then in her early 20s, Maria was wearing a Walter Payton football jersey and tight blue jeans. Of Pakistani descent, she was bright and had striking blue eyes, a dark complexion and a great laugh.

Come to find out, she was a west-side Phoenix girl who'd run off with Hunter a few years earlier after interviewing him while on assignment for Arizona State University's student paper. Maria told me she and Hunter, who then was pushing 50, were spending time in Phoenix to investigate the city's underbelly for his employer at the time, the San Francisco Examiner.The Bolles murder, she said, and all that it symbolized, fascinated both of them.

Maria invited me out for dinner that evening with her and Hunter -- I was to pick the spot. We went, of course, to Durant's, the venerable Central Avenue establishment where all manner of conspiracies continue to be hatched to this day.

We sat in the corner table on the bar side, watching all the old politicos lumber drunkenly from table to table. Hunter wore his famed aviator glasses and smoked incessantly with his trademark cigarette holder. He and Maria talked over each other for two hours straight, leaping from one topic to another. Hunter only stopped riffing to drink more than $100 worth of Chivas Regal and devour a huge steak.

At the end of the big meal, a foreshadowing: Hunter tried to shove the enormous bill onto my side of the table. I told him, quite honestly, that my salary wasn't much more than that in a week. He grabbed the ticket, mumbled something nasty, and told Maria to pay it.

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