Fear and Loathing in New York 
By Tyler Thoreson

From Gadfly September 1998


Two levels below the strumpets, sailors, tourists and shysters of Times Square, in the crypt of a shrine to the god of disposable income, a glitzy warehouse, solemn as any medieval church, an emporium selling not so much consumer products as consumerism itself, Johnny Depp and Hunter S. Thompson, with the help of Ed Bradley (hey, why not?), find themselves on a raised platform, haphazardly preparing to decant a 35-year-old bottle of port.

The mostly late-twenties, mostly white, mostly male crowd has waited, mostly patiently, for nearly an hour as the real-life Gonzo journalist and the hunk who plays him onscreen did whatever it is celebrities do to pass time while they keep fans waiting. The H.S.T. we know from print would no doubt have spent that interval snorting cocaine, puking up his breakfast and blithely swirling a sheet of blotter acid in with some rum and grapefruit juice. But the Good Doctor in person moves like an old man, one with a smoker's poor circulation and a drinker's familiarity with sudden gravitational shifts. And although at the current time of eight o'clock in the evening Mr. Thompson has already downed his share of Chivas, he does not appear to be hallucinating.

The crowd—we've all been patiently conned into actually sitting on the store's cold tile floor—lets out a roar as the two stars, and, with obvious great pleasure to himself, 60 Minutes' Ed Bradley, emerge from somewhere off to the left. From the brief wave hello Depp offers us you can tell he's embarrassed about how little they've got planned. But hey, that's celebrity; it doesn't have to do anything, it's just fun to be around it. Depp and H.S.T. want to sit and sip, and they set about tilting the podium on its side while taking care not to spill their drinks or let any ash fall from their Dunhills. A few boxes—party supplies—have been brought along. The two begin unpacking them, and as Johnny respectfully uncovers the bottle of 1963 port the crowd reflexively lets out its fratty yawp of approval.

Ed Bradley says a few words. People—they're all here to see Thompson; Depp is human garnish; Bradley a mere curiosity—cheer with ironic abandon, "Yeah, Ed! Wooo!" "Tell us a joke, Ed!" He replies, "I'm not a comedian." Brings the house down. An easy crowd. Sober, but jovial. Not the kind who'd pound ether and mescaline while tearing through desert bat country at 110 miles per hour.

Now, I had intended on showing up at this little publicity stunt completely shitcanned. Stoned, well hopped up on high‑grade cocaine and gliding along on the velvet glow of an opium tea I like to make from dried poppy heads, papiver somniferum. Also I planned on toting in a pint of scotch to slurp on as the readers got longwinded; I'd been led to believe that such is the way Dr. Thompson would handle this aggressively bland situation were he in my shoes.

But most of those things are illegal, and difficult to obtain in late‑nineties New York City, so instead I popped over to the gym for a light workout and a shower before the gig and stood in the back, sipping a pulpy fresh orange juice purchased at the attractive Virgin Cafe as the Good Doctor and "The Colonel," as Thompson calls Depp, decanted some very expensive port, looking all the while slightly ashamed at what they hadn't done lately—i.e., prepare for this thing. All of which was clearly as far from what Raoul Duke of Fear and Loathing would be doing in a similar situation as the Virgin Megastore is from the Mint Casino.

But it's been a long time since the Mint 400, the dust‑ridden motorcycle race Thompson went to Vegas to cover for Sports Illustrated. And it came in handy to remember that the book is a novel, its protagonist a seamy fella named Raoul Duke and not the actual "doctor of journalism," Hunter S. Thompson.

Unfortunately, the thing Depp and Thompson had tried to make into the star of the evening, the 1963 port, wasn't coming through—it was practically too thick to pour, much less decant. Guess there'd have to be some reading after all. Which in the end was just fine, because Hunter S. Thompson's writing, and not gorgeous Johnny Depp, not the film, and not Sunday‑evening journalist Ed Bradley, is what brought us all here. And Thompson really is a wonderful writer, a fact often overlooked in all his sensational subject matter. Especially stunning was the heartfelt response Thompson wrote a fourteen‑year‑old boy who had written Thompson saying he had been turned on by the bikers in Thompson's book, Hell's Angels.

Ed Bradley commentates: "I appreciate the good things you said about the book but I never in hell intended it to be a propaganda job for the Angels or any other cult," Thompson writes with typical crustiness. Most of the Angels are "mean bastards" (of which he warns there is an oversupply), and Thompson urges the boy to follow his own road, because, he writes, "from your letter you sound bright enough to make something on your own instead of looking around for something to join."

A man enamored of powerful firearms and bouts of intense, chemically fortified hedonism, Thompson is not a person every parent would choose to advise their children. But he offers a refreshing antidote to the standard do‑as‑I‑say‑not‑as‑I‑do form most adult advice takes. "When I was fourteen, I was a wild half‑wit punk who caused a lot of trouble and wanted to tear the world in half if for no other reason than it didn't fit me too well. Now," he writes, "looking back on it I don't think I'd change much of what I did in those days. But I've also learned at least one crucially important thing since then, and that's the idea of making your own path."

"Create your own scene," he urges the boy, and it's hard to dispute that's exactly what Thompson has done. By creating his Gonzo scene, ("pretty easy once you know what you're doing") Thompson has carved out a lasting market for himself and his seething, interpretative journalism. And now, he tells the boy, "My rent gets paid with no hassle and I have as much time to hunt, get drunk and raise as much hell as I want to...It's amazing how much you can get away with if you don't go out of your way to cause trouble."

It's clear from the civility of the event—Thompson and Depp aren't getting drunk of cheap hooch but rather sipping, decanting even!, a well‑aged connoisseur's port—that Raoul Duke is not Hunter Thompson and it is a rare occasion when the twain meet. Thompson has chosen his battles, and this night at the Virgin Megastore isn't one of them. He knows when and where it's okay to raise a ruckus: back in Woody Creek he's free to fire off his shotguns at propane tanks and douse human dummies with theatrical blood, but this night he's sitting at the altar of American consumerism, sipping on what Depp has sardonically referred to as "the blood of Jesus."

He plays the part. Signs the books. Gives off a few token snorts and curse‑words and of course refuses to put out the cigarette. Thompson, in fact, doesn't read from his book. Johnny spouts off a few lines. But the reading highlight comes from Laila—the woman who produced the movie. I came for this? It's just as well that I showed up sober and well‑exercised, because if you want to see the old hell‑raiser in rare form you'll have to head for the Rockies, where, I'd imagine, a proper city guy like Ed Bradley might feel a little less at home.