Our hopeful premonitions

Sometimes as I am drifting off to sleep I imagine a live news story on discovery of a habitable Earth-like exoplanet. The feelings of wonder, joy, curiosity and triumph combine to create a comforting carriage into slumber. In as little as 90 seconds this short clip from the space thriller “Pandorum” in its portrayal of humankind’s discovery of Tanis shows a reverent family receiving such fantastic news. It was my favorite part of a great entry into the sci-fi genre but an otherwise unremarkable movie. 

Alaska and CENTURY 121

Century 121 -

I have slowly began to settle into Alaska after about three months. The weather is cold, which is to my liking. I am also pleased to announce that I’ve gone and started an online poetry and fiction magazine. It’s called CENTURY 121–which someone has informed me sounds much like the real estate company–and the first issue is online. We had over a dozen contributors in the inaugural issue with a mixture of short fiction and poetry.

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved, Part Eight Reprint

Editor’s note: Today is the day for the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby and I am posting a section of the famous Kentuckian Hunter S Thompson’s Gonzo article on the Derby entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved”. Here is the eighth and final part in this interesting piece first published in a 1970 edition of the short running Scanlan’s Monthly.

PART EIGHT (CONCLUSION)

Sometime around ten-thirty Monday morning I was awakened by a scratching sound at my door. I leaned out of bed and pulled the curtain back just far enough to see Steadman outside. “What the fuck do you want?” I shouted.
“What about having breakfast?” he said.
I lunged out of bed and tried to open the door, but it caught on the night-chain and banged shut again. I couldn’t cope with the chain! The thing wouldn’t come out of the track–so I ripped it out of the wall with a vicious jerk on the door. Ralph didn’t blink. “Bad luck,” he muttered.
I could barely see him. My eyes were swollen almost shut and the sudden burst of sunlight through the door left me stunned and helpless like a sick mole. Steadman was mumbling about sickness and terrible heat; I fell back on the bed and tried to focus on him as he moved around the room in a very distracted way for a few moments, then suddenly darted over to the beer bucket and seized a Colt .45. “Christ,” I said. “You’re getting out of control.”
He nodded and ripped the cap off, taking a long drink. “You know, this is really awful,” he said finally. “I must get out of this place…” he shook his head nervously. “The plane leaves at three-thirty, but I don’t know if I’ll make it.”
I barely heard him. My eyes had finally opened enough for me to foucs on the mirror across the room and I was stunned at the shock of recognition. For a confused instant I thought that Ralph had brought somebody with him–a model for that one special face we’d been looking for. There he was, by God–a puffy, drink-ravaged, disease-ridden caricature…like an awful cartoon version of an old snapshot in some once-proud mother’s family photo album. It was the face we’d been looking for–and it was, of course, my own. Horrible, horrible…
“Maybe I should sleep a while longer,” I said. “Why don’t you go on over to the Fish-Meat place and eat some of those rotten fish and chips? Then come back and get me around noon. I feel too near death to hit the streets at this hour.”
He shook his head. “No…no…I think I’ll go back upstairs and work on those drawings for a while.” He leaned down to fetch two more cans out of the beer bucket. “I tried to work earlier,” he said, “but my hands kept trembling…It’s teddible, teddible.”
“You’ve got to stop this drinking,” I said.
He nodded. “I know. This is no good, no good at all. But for some reason it makes me feel better…”
“Not for long,” I said. “You’ll probably collapse into some kind of hysterical DT’s tonight–probably just about the time you get off the plane at Kennedy. They’ll zip you up in a straightjacket and drag you down to the Tombs, then beat you on the kidneys with big sticks until you straighten out.”
He shrugged and wandered out, pulling the door shut behind him. I went back to bed for another hour or so, and later–after the daily grapefruit juice run to the Nite Owl Food Mart–we had our last meal at Fish-Meat Village: a fine lunch of dough and butcher’s offal, fried in heavy grease.
By this time Ralph wouldn’t order coffee; he kept asking for more water. “It’s the only thing they have that’s fit for human consumption,” he explained. Then, with an hour or so to kill before he had to catch the plane, we spread his drawings out on the table and pondered them for a while, wondering if he’d caught the proper spirit of the thing…but we couldn’t make up our minds. His hands were shaking so badly that he had trouble holding the paper, and my vision was so blurred that I could barely see what he’d drawn. “Shit,” I said. “We both look worse than anything you’ve drawn here.”
He smiled. “You know–I’ve been thinking about that,” he said. “We came down here to see this teddible scene: people all pissed out of their minds and vomitting on themselves and all that…and now, you know what? It’s us…”

Huge Pontiac Ballbuster blowing through traffic on the expressway.
A radio news bulletin says the National Guard is massacring students at Kent State and Nixon is still bombing Cambodia. The journalist is driving, ignoring his passenger who is now nearly naked after taking off most of his clothing, which he holds out the window, trying to wind-wash the Mace out of it. His eyes are bright red and his face and chest are soaked with beer he’s been using to rinse the awful chemical off his flesh. The front of his woolen trousers is soaked with vomit; his body is racked with fits of coughing and wild chocking sobs. The journalist rams the big car through traffic and into a spot in front of the terminal, then he reaches over to open the door on the passenger’s side and shoves the Englishman out, snarling: “Bug off, you worthless f*****! You twisted pigfucker! [Crazed laughter.] If I weren’t sick I’d kick your ass all the way to Bowling Green–you scumsucking foreign geek. Mace is too good for you…We can do without your kind in Kentucky.”

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The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved, Part Seven Reprint

Editor’s note: Well, it is a week from the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby and I am posting a section of the famous Kentuckian Hunter S Thompson’s Gonzo article on the Derby entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved”. Here is part seven in this interesting piece first published in a 1970 edition of the short running Scanlan’s Monthly.

PART SEVEN

Pink faces with a stylish Southern sag, old Ivy styles, seersucker coats and buttondown collars. “Mayblossom Senility” (Steadman’s phrase)…burnt out early or maybe just not much to burn in the first place. Not much energy in the faces, not much curiosity. Suffering in silence, nowhere to go after thirty in this life, just hang on and humor the children. Let the young enjoy themselves while they can. Why not?
The grim reaper comes early in this league…banshees on the lawn at night, screaming out there beside that little iron n***** in jockey clothes. Maybe he’s the one who’s screaming. Bad DT’s and too many snarls at the bridge club. Going down with the stock market. Oh Jesus, the kid has wrecked the new car, wrapped it around the big stone pillar at the bottom of the driveway. Broken leg? Twisted eye? Send him off to Yale, they can cure anything up there.
Yale? Did you see today’s paper? New Haven is under siege. Yale is swarming with Black Panthers…I tell you, Colonel, the world has gone mad, stone mad. Why, they tell me a goddam woman jockey might ride in the Derby today.
I left Steadman sketching in the Paddock bar and went off to place our bets on the fourth race. When I came back he was staring intently at a group of young men around a table not far away. “Jesus, look at the corruption in that face!” he whispered. “Look at the madness, the fear, the greed!” I looked, then quickly turned my back on the table he was sketching. The face he’d picked out to draw was the face of an old friend of mine, a prep school football star in the good old days with a sleek red Chevy convertible and a very quick hand, it was said, with the snaps of a 32 B brassiere. They called him “Cat Man.”
But now, a dozen years later, I wouldn’t have recognized him anywhere but here, where I should have expected to find him, in the Paddock bar on Derby Day…fat slanted eyes and a pimp’s smile, blue silk suit and his friends looking like crooked bank tellers on a binge…
Steadman wanted to see some Kentucky Colonels, but he wasn’t sure what they looked like. I told him to go back to the clubhouse men’s rooms and look for men in white linen suits vomitting in the urinals. “They’ll usually have large brown whiskey stains on the front of their suits,” I said. “But watch the shoes, that’s the tip-off. Most of them manage to avoid vomitting on their own clothes, but they never miss their shoes.”
In a box not far from ours was Colonel Anna Friedman Goldman, Chairman and Keeper of the Great Seal of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. Not all the 76 million or so Kentucky Colonels could make it to the Derby this year, but many had kept the faith, and several days prior to the Derby they gathered for their annual dinner at the Seelbach Hotel.
The Derby, the actual race, was scheduled for late afternoon, and as the magic hour approached I suggested to Steadman that we should probably spend some time in the infield, that boiling sea of people across the track from the clubhouse. He seemed a little nervous about it, but since none of the awful things I’d warned him about had happened so far–no race riots, firestorms or savage drunken attacks–he shrugged and said, “Right, let’s do it.”
To get there we had to pass through many gates, each one a step down in status, then through a tunnel under the track. Emerging from the tunnel was such a culture shock that it took us a while to adjust. “God almighty!” Steadman muttered. “This is a…Jesus!” He plunged ahead with his tiny camera, stepping over bodies, and I followed, trying to take notes.

Total chaos, no way to see the race, not even the track…nobody cares. Big lines at the outdoor betting windows, then stand back to watch winning numbers flash on the big board, like a giant bingo game.
Old blacks arguing about bets; “Hold on there, I’ll handle this” (waving pint of whiskey, fistful of dollar bills); girl riding piggyback, T-shirt says, “Stolen from Fort Lauderdale Jail.” Thousands of teen-agers, group singing “Let the Sun Shine In,” ten soldires guarding the American flag and a huge fat drunk wearing a blue football jersey (No. 80) reeling around with quart of beer in hand.
No booze sold out here, too dangerous…no bathrooms either. Muscle Beach…Woodstock…many cops with riot sticks, but no sign of a riot. Far across the track the clubhouse looks like a postcard from the Kentucky Derby.

We went back to the clubhouse to watch the big race. When the crowd stood to face the flag and sing “My Old Kentucky Home,” Steadman faced the crowd and sketched frantically. Somewhere up in the boxes a voice screeched, “Turn around, you hairy freak!” The race itself was only two minutes long, and even from our super-status seats and using 12-power glasses, there was no way to see what really happened to our horses. Holy Land, Ralph’s choice, stumbled and lost his jockey in the final turn. Mine, Silent Screen, had the lead coming into the stretch but faded to fifth at the finish. The winner was a 16-1 shot named Dust Commander.
Moments after the race was over, the crowd surged wildly for the exits, rushing for cabs and busses. The next day’s Courier told of violence in the parking lot; people were punched and trampled, pockets were picked, children lost, bottles hurled. But we missed all this, having retired to the press box for a bit of post-race drinking. By this time we were both half-crazy from too much whiskey, sun fatigue, culture shock, lack of sleep and general dissolution. We hung around the press box long enough to watch a mass interview with the winning owner, a dapper little man named Lehmann who said he had just flown into Louisville that morning from Nepal, where he’d “bagged a record tiger.” The sportswriters murmured their admiration and a waiter filled Lehmann’s glass with Chivas Regal. He had just won $127,000 with a horse that cost him $6,500 two years ago. His occupation, he said, was “retired contractor.” And then he added, with a big grin, “I just retired.”
The rest of the day blurs into madness. The rest of that night too. And all the next day and night. Such horrible things occurred that I can’t bring myself even to think about them now, much less put them down in print. I was lucky to get out at all. One of my clearest memories of that vicious time is Ralph being attacked by one of my old friends in the billiard room of the Pendennis Club in downtown Louisville on Saturday night. The man had ripped his own shirt open to the waist before deciding that Ralph was after his wife. No blows were struck, but the emotional effects were massive. Then, as a sort of final horror, Steadman put his fiendish pen to work and tried to patch things up by doing a little sketch of the girl he’d been accused of hustling. That finished us in the Pedennis.

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PART EIGHT, tomorrow

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved, Part Six Reprint

Editor’s note: Well, it is a week from the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby and I am posting a section of the famous Kentuckian Hunter S Thompson’s Gonzo article on the Derby entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved”. Here is part six in this interesting piece first published in a 1970 edition of the short running Scanlan’s Monthly.

PART SIX

It was Saturday morning, the day of the Big Race, and we were having breakfast in a plastic hamburger palace called the Fish-Meat Village. Our rooms were just across the road in the Brown Suburban Hotel. They had a dining room, but the food was so bad that we couldn’t handle it anymore. The waitresses seemed to be suffering from shin splints; they moved around very slowly, moaning and cursing the “darkies” in the kitchen.
Steadman liked the Fish-Meat place because it had fish and chips. I preferred the “French toast,” which was really pancake batter, fried to the proper thickness and then chopped out with a sort of cookie cutter to resemble pieces of toast.
Beyond drink and lack of sleep, our only real problem at that point was the question of access to the clubhouse. Finally, we decided to go ahead and steal two passes, if necessary, rather than miss that part of the action. This was the last coherent decision we were able to make for the next forty-eight hours. From that point on–almost from the very moment we started out to the track–we lost all control of events and spent the rest of the weekend churning around in a sea of drunken horrors. My notes and recollections from Derby Day are somewhat scrambled.
But now, looking at the big red notebook I carried all through that scene, I see more or less what happened. The book itself is somewhat mangled and bent; some of the pages are torn, others are shriveled and stained by what appears to be whiskey, but taken as a whole, with sporadic memory flashes, the notes seem to tell the story. To wit:

Rain all nite until dawn. No sleep. Christ, here we go, a nightmare of mud and madness…But no. By noon the sun burns through–perfect day, not even humid.
Steadman is now worried about fire. Somebody told him about the clubhouse catching on fire two years ago. Could it happen again? Horrible. Trapped in the press box. Holocaust. A hundred thousand people fighting to get out. Drunks screaming in the flames and the mud, crazed horses running wild. Blind in the smoke. Grandstand collapsing into the flames with us on the roof. Poor Ralph is about to crack. Drinking heavily, into the Haig & Haig.
Out to the track in a cab, avoid that terrible parking in people’s front yards, $25 each, toothless old men on the street with big signs: PARK HERE, flagging cars in the yard. “That’s fine, boy, never mind the tulips.” Wild hair on his head, straight up like a clump of reeds.
Sidewalks full of people all moving in the same direction, towards Churchill Downs. Kids hauling coolers and blankets, teenyboppers in tight pink shorts, many blacks…black dudes in white felt hats with leopard-skin bands, cops waving traffic along.
The mob was thick for many blocks around the track; very slow going in the crowd, very hot. On the way to the press box elevator, just inside the clubhouse, we came on a row of soldiers all carrying long white riot sticks. About two platoons, with helmets. A man walking next to us said they were waiting for the governor and his party. Steadman eyed them nervously. “Why do they have those clubs?”
“Black Panthers,” I said. Then I remembered good old “Jimbo” at the airport and I wondered what he was thinking right now. Probably very nervous; the place was teeming with cops and soldiers. We pressed on through the crowd, through many gates, past the paddock where the jockeys bring the horses out and parade around for a while before each race so the bettors can get a good look. Five million dollars will be bet today. Many winners, more losers. What the hell. The press gate was jammed up with people trying to get in, shouting at the guards, waving strange press badges: Chicago Sporting Times, Pittsburgh Police Athletic League…they were all turned away. “Move on, fella, make way for the working press.” We shoved through the crowd and into the elevator, then quickly up to the free bar. Why not? Get it on. Very hot today, not feeling well, must be this rotten climate. The press box was cool and airy, plenty of room to walk around and balcony seats for watching the race or looking down at the crowd. We got a betting sheet and went outside.

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PART SEVEN, tomorrow

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved, Part Five Reprint

Editor’s note: Well, it is a week from the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby and I am posting a section of the famous Kentuckian Hunter S Thompson’s Gonzo article on the Derby entitled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved”. Here is part five in this really entertaining piece first published in a 1970 edition of the short running Scanlan’s Monthly.

PART FIVE

Later Friday afternoon, we went out on the balcony of the press box and I tried to describe the difference between what we were seeing today and what would be happening tomorrow. This was the first time I’d been to a Derby in ten years, but before that, when I lived in Louisville, I used to go every year. Now, looking down from the press box, I pointed to the huge grassy meadow enclosed by the track. “That whole thing,” I said, “will be jammed with people; fifty thousand or so, and most of them staggering drunk. It’s a fantastic scene–thousands of people fainting, crying, copulating, trampling each other and fighting with broken whiskey bottles. We’ll have to spend some time out there, but it’s hard to move around, too many bodies.”
“Is it safe out there?” Will we ever come back?”
“Sure,” I said. “We’ll just have to be careful not to step on anybody’s stomach and start a fight.” I shrugged. “Hell, this clubhouse scene right below us will be almost as bad as the infield. Thousands of raving, stumbling drunks, getting angrier and angrier as they lose more and more money. By midafternoon they’ll be guzzling mint juleps with both hands and vomitting on each other between races. The whole place will be jammed with bodies, shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to move around. The aisles will be slick with vomit; people falling down and grabbing at your legs to keep from being stomped. Drunks pissing on themselves in the betting lines. Dropping handfuls of money and fighting to stoop over and pick it up.”
He looked so nervous that I laughed. “I’m just kidding,” I said. “Don’t worry. At the first hint of trouble I’ll start pumping this ‘Chemical Billy’ into the crowd.”
He had done a few good sketches, but so far we hadn’t seen that special kind of face that I felt we would need for a lead drawing. It was a face I’d seen a thousand times at every Derby I’d ever been to. I saw it, in my head, as the mask of the whiskey gentry–a pretentious mix of booze, failed dreams and a terminal identity crisis; the inevitable result of too much inbreeding in a closed and ignorant culture. One of the key genetic rules in breeding dogs, horses or any other kind of thoroughbred is that close inbreeding tends to magnify the weak points in a bloodline as well as the strong points. In horse breeding, for instance, there is a definite risk in breeding two fast horses who are both a little crazy. The offspring will likely be very fast and also very crazy. So the trick in breeding thoroughbreds is to retain the good traits and filter out the bad. But the breeding of humans is not so wisely supervised, particularly in a narrow Southern society where the closest kind of inbreeding is not only stylish and acceptable, but far more convenient–to the parents–than setting their offspring free to find their own mates, for their own reasons and in their own ways. (“Goddam, did you hear about Smitty’s daughter? She went crazy in Boston last week and married a n*****!”)
So the face I was trying to find in Churchill Downs that weekend was a symbol, in my own mind, of the whole doomed atavistic culture that makes the Kentucky Derby what it is.
On our way back to the motel after Friday’s races I warned Steadman about some of the other problems we’d have to cope with. Neither of us had brought any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze. “You should keep in mind,” I said, “that almost everybody you talk to from now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at first might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all.” He nodded, staring straight ahead. He seemed to be getting a little numb and I tried to cheer him up by inviting to dinner that night, with my brother.
Back at the motel we talked for awhile about America, the South, England–just relaxing a bit before dinner. There was no way either of us could have known, at the time, that it would be the last normal conversation we would have. From that point on, the weekend became a vicious, drunken nightmare. We both went completely to pieces. The main problem was my prior attachment to Louisville, which naturally led to meetings with old friends, relatives, etc., many of whom were in the process of falling apart, going mad, plotting divorces, cracking up under the strain of terrible debts or recovering from bad accidents. Right in the middle of the whole frenzied Derby action, a member of my own family had to be institutionalized. This added a certain amount of strain to the situation, and since poor Steadman had no choice but to take whatever came his way, he was subjected to shock after shock.
Another problem was his habit of sketching people he met in the various social situations I dragged him into–then giving them the sketches. The results were always unfortunate. I warned him several times about letting the subjects see his foul renderings, but for some perverse reason he kept doing it. Consequently, he was regarded with fear and loathing by nearly everyone who’d seen or even heard about his work. Ho couldn’t understand it. “It’s sort of a joke,” he kept saying. “Why, in England it’s quite normal. People don’t take offense. They understand that I’m just putting them on a bit.”
“Fuck England,” I said. “This is Middle America. These people regard what you’re doing to them as a brutal, bilious insult. Look what happened last night. I thought my brother was going to tear your head off.”
Steadman shook his head sadly. “But I liked him. He struck me as a very decent, straightforward sort.”
“Look, Ralph,” I said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. That was a very horrible drawing you gave him. It was the face of a monster. It got on his nerves very badly.” I shrugged. “Why in hell do you think we left the restaurant so fast?”
“I thought it was because of the Mace,” he said.
“What Mace?”
He grinned. “When you shot it at the headwaiter, don’t you remember?”
“Hell, that was nothing,” I said. “I missed him…and we were leaving, anyway.”
“But it got all over us,” he said. “The room was full of that damn gas. Your brother was sneezing was and his wife was crying. My eyes hurt for two hours. I couldn’t see to draw when we got back to the motel.”
“That’s right,” I said. “The stuff got on her leg, didn’t it?”
“She was angry,” he said.
“Yeah…well, okay…Let’s just figure we fucked up about equally on that one,” I said. “But from now on let’s try to be careful when we’re around people I know. You won’t sketch them and I won’t Mace them. We’ll just try to relax and get drunk.”
“Right,” he said. “We’ll go native.”

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PART SIX, tomorrow