Uncle Gonzo

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

Over the next weeks, I grew fond of Maria and her only sibling, Bobby, then a burly firefighter performing his duties at Station 21 in south Phoenix. Bobby served as a quasi-"bodyguard" for Hunter during his days off, which meant that he tried to make sure that his possible future brother-in-law didn't get behind the wheel of a car inebriated or punch out a cop.

I also learned that Hunter wasn't down here just for a good yarn. He and Maria really were contemplating marriage. She really needed him to meet her father, a widower who once had been a big-time cotton farmer in the West Valley. But Maria's dad, a terrific guy, had threatened serious violence if he ever laid eyes on the drug-addled author who had stolen his sweet daughter's heart.

Somehow, Maria got her father to agree to meet Hunter one night at a neutral site, a cool, old Italian family joint called Riazzi's at 52nd Street and East Van Buren (it later moved to its current location in Tempe on South Mill Avenue).

Back in the day: Rubin and Thompson knock back a few.
Back in the day: Rubin and Thompson knock back a few.
One of the great ones
One of the great ones

For safety's sake, Maria ensured that her brother and her father's lady friend were there for the big occasion. Hunter insisted that Lacey and I also be included at the dinner, which had all the pre-event protocol and tension of a meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas.

Lacey described the event in a delicious New Times story titled "Family Matters," published in early December of 1986.

Hunter was more hyperkinetic than usual, with caffeine, cocaine, tequila, marijuana and natural adrenaline gushing through him. He got so wired during the dinner that he pulled a half-finished joint out of a jacket pocket, lit up in the middle of the restaurant and took a long drag.

Remarkably, no one in authority seemed to notice.

Sample line from Lacey's story: "Maria can be a cattle prod upon a man who swings wildly between explosive creativity and bouts of bovine-like unproductivity masked by frantic tail-swinging at flies."

He only knew the half of it.

Though the San Francisco Examiner would publish several of Hunter's Phoenix-based columns over the next few years, they generally were gibberish from where I sat. I saw firsthand how the onetime master sadly had lost his touch.

One evening during this period, I stopped by Hunter and Maria's Scottsdale hotel room, where he was trying to produce something, anything, on deadline with the Examiner. Actually, he was hours past deadline.

Hunter's manual typewriter sat untouched in a corner as he alternately stared into space, snorted thick lines of coke, and shadow-boxed with a human-size inflatable doll as Maria tried to rein him in.

Hunter wasn't gonzo anymore. He was gone, so . . .

His editor at the time was a fine journalist named David McCumber, whom I'd known a little bit during his days in Tucson. He seemed to be calling the room about every 10 minutes.

Maria handed me the phone during one call.

"How far along are they with the piece?" McCumber asked me.

"Not too far," I said, as Hunter stared at me malevolently.

"Really," the editor probed, how far is "not too far"?

"Well, there's paper in the typewriter."

Truth be told, Hunter didn't seem to be able to string two decent sentences together in those days without Maria's help. Years later, a publishing house released a compilation of his Examiner columns titled "Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the '80s."

Properly, he dedicated the book to Maria.

It was the least he could have done.

A few weeks after Lacey's story on the Riazzi's dinner was published, Hunter called me to complain about the lousy shake he'd gotten. Now that was the pot calling the kettle black, and I told him so, reminding him that I'd been present at the scene so aptly described in Lacey's yarn.

It was during that call that we made the aforementioned wager.

On January 2, 1987, the undefeated and top-ranked Miami Hurricanes were to play Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl. It was the game of the year in college football.

While Miami had a pre-hip-hop kind of swagger, the Nittany Lions had the blue-collar confidence of country crooner Merle Haggard.

Hunter was so sure the heavily favored Hurricanes were going to crunch Penn State that he proposed the following wager, straight-up: I'll bet your $21 to my $21,000, he told me over the phone.

In other words, Penn State wins and I win $21,000.

Hold on, I replied, let's put this on tape. I threw a cassette into my machine, turned it on, and asked him to repeat his offer.

A few days later, I went to the game at Sun Devil Stadium, and it was a beaut. Miami had a golden opportunity to win in the closing seconds, but fell just short. Penn State 14, Miami 10.

Yippee!

I called Hunter late that night (this was before cell phones), and told him I sure could use the money.

He immediately switched the subject to something about how the Mafia owned Phoenix, including New Times (well, maybe Irish mobsters, i.e., Lacey and Jim Larkin. But that wasn't what he was talking about).

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