FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS -- A SAVAGE JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
by Hunter S. Thompson, © 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson
Chapter 8: Back Door Beauty ... & Finally a Bit of Serious Drag Racing on the Strip
Sometime around midnight my attorney wanted coffee. He had been vomiting fairly regularly as we drove around the Strip, and the right flank of the Whale was badly streaked. We were idling at a stoplight in front of the Silver Slipper beside a big blue Ford with Oklahoma plates ... two hoggish-looking couples in the car, probably cops from Muskogee using the Drug Conference to give their wives a look at Vegas. They looked like they'd just beaten Caesar's Palace for about $33 at the blackjack tables, and now they were headed for the Circus-Circus to whoop it up. ...
... but suddenly, they found themselves next to a white Cadillac convertible all covered with vomit and a 300- pound Samoan in a yellow fishnet T-shirt yelling at them:
"Hey there! You folks want to buy some heroin?"
No reply. No sign of recognition. They'd been warned about this kind of crap: Just ignore it ....
"Hey, honkies!" my attorney screamed. "Goddamnit, I'm serious! I want to sell you some pure fuckin' smack!" He was leaning out of the car, very close to them. But still nobody answered. I glanced over, very briefly, and saw four middle-American faces frozen with shock, staring straight ahead.
We were in the middle lane. A quick left turn would be illegal. We would have to go straight ahead when the light changed, then escape at the next corner. I waited, tapping the accelerator nervously. ...
My attorney was losing control: "Cheap heroin!" he was shouting. "This is the real stuff! You won't get hooked! God damnit, I know what I have here!" He whacked on the side of the car, as if to get their attention ... but they wanted no part of us.
"You folks never talked to a vet before?" said my attorney. "I just got back from Veet Naam. This is scag, folks! Pure scag!"
Suddenly the light changed and the Ford bolted off like a rocket. I stomped on the accelerator and stayed right next to them for about two hundred yards, watching for cops in the mirror while my attorney kept screaming at them: "Shoot! Fuck! Scag! Blood! Heroin! Rape! Cheap! Communist! Jab it right into your fucking eyeballs!"
We were approaching the Circus-Circus at high speed and the Oklahoma car was veering left, trying to muscle into the turn lane. I stomped the Whale into passing gear and we ran fender to fender for a moment. He wasn't up to hitting me; there was horror in his eyes. ...
The man in the back seat lost control of himself ... lunging across his wife and snarling wildly: "You dirty bastards! Pull over and I'll kill you! God damn you! You bastards!" He seemed ready to leap out the window and into our car, crazy with rage. Luckily the Ford was a two-door. He couldn't get out.
We were coming up to the next stoplight and the Ford was still trying to move left. We were both running full bore. I glanced over my shoulder and saw that we'd left the other traffic far behind; there was a big opening to the right. So I mashed on the brake, hurling my attorney against the dashboard, and in the instant the Ford surged ahead I cut across his tail and zoomed into a side-street. A sharp right turn across three lanes of traffic. But it worked. We left the Ford stalled in the middle of the intersection, hung in the middle of a screeching left turn. With a little luck, he'd be arrested for reckless driving.
My attorney was laughing as we careened in low gear, with the lights out, through a dusty tangle of back streets behind the Desert Inn. "Jesus Christ," he said. "Those Okies were getting excited. That guy in the back seat was trying to bite me! Shit, he was frothing at the mouth." He nodded solemnly. "I should have maced the fucker ... a criminal psychotic, total breakdown ... you never know when they're likely to explode."
I swung the Whale into a turn that seemed to lead out of the maze -- but instead of skidding, the bastard almost rolled.
"Holy shit!" my attorney screamed. "Turn on the fucking lights!" He was clinging to the top of the windshield ... and suddenly he was doing the Big Spit again, leaning over the side.
I refused to slow down until I was sure nobody was following us -- especially that Oklahoma Ford: those people were definitely dangerous, at least until they calmed down. Would they report that terrible quick encounter to the police? Probably not. It had happened too fast, with no witnesses, and the odds were pretty good that nobody would believe them anyway. The idea that two heroin pushers in a white Cadillac convertible would be dragging up and down the Strip, abusing total strangers at stoplights, was prima facie absurd. Not even Sonny Liston ever got that far out of control.
We made another turn and almost rolled again. The Coupe de Ville is not your ideal machine for high speed cornering in residential neighborhoods. The handling is very mushy ... unlike the Red Shark, which had responded very nicely to situations requiring the quick four-wheel drift. But the Whale -- instead of cutting loose at the critical moment -- had a tendency to dig in, which accounted for that sickening "here we go" sensation.
At first I thought it was only because the tires were soft, so I took it into the Texaco station next to the Flamingo and had the tires pumped up to fifty pounds each -- which alarmed the attendant, until I explained that these were "experimental" tires.
But fifty pounds each didn't help the cornering, so I went back a few hours later and told him I wanted to try seventy five. He shook his head nervously. "Not me," he said, handing me the air hose. "Here. They're your tires. You do it."
"What's wrong?" I asked. "You think they can't take seventy-five?"
He nodded, moving away as I stooped to deal with the left front. "You're damn right, he said. "Those tires want twenty-eight in the front and thirty-two in the rear. Hell, fifty's dangerous, but seventy-five is crazy. They'll explode!"
I shook my head and kept filling the left front. "I told you," I said. "Sandoz laboratories designed these tires. They're special. I could load them up to a hundred."
"God almighty!" he groaned. "Don't do that here."
"Not today," I replied. "I want to see how they corner with seventy-five."
He chuckled. "You won't even get to the corner, Mister."
"We'll see," I said, moving around to the rear with the airhose. In truth, I was nervous. The two front ones were tighter than snare drums; they felt like teak wood when I tapped on them with the rod. But what the hell? I thought. If they explode, so what? It's not often that a man gets a chance to run terminal experiments on a virgin Cadillac and four brand-new $80 tires. For all I knew, the thing might start cornering like a Lotus Elan. If not, all I had to do was call the VIP agency and have another one delivered ... maybe threaten them with a lawsuit because all four tires had exploded on me, while driving in heavy traffic. Demand an Eldorado, next time, with four Michelin Xs. And put it all on the card ... charge it to the St. Louis Browns.
As it turned out, the Whale behaved very nicely with the altered tire pressures. The ride was a trifle rough; I could feel every pebble on the highway, like being on roller skates in a gravel pit ... but the thing began cornering in a very stylish manner, very much like driving a motorcycle at top speed in a hard rain: one slip and ZANG, over the high side, cartwheeling across the landscape with your head in your hands.
About thirty minutes after our brush with the Okies we pulled into an all-night diner on the Tonopah highway, on the outskirts of a mean/scag ghetto called "North Las Vegas." Which is actually outside the city limits of Vegas proper. North Vegas is where you go when you've fucked up once too often on the Strip, and when you're not even welcome in the cut-rate downtown places around Casino Center.
This is Nevada's answer to East St. Louis -- a slum and a graveyard, last stop before permanent exile to Ely or Winnemuca. North Vegas is where you go if you're a hooker turning forty and the syndicate men on the Strip decide you're no longer much good for business out there with the high rollers ... or if you're a pimp with bad credit at the Sands ... or what they still call, in Vegas, "a hophead." This can mean almost anything from a mean drunk to a junkie, but in terms of commercial acceptability, it means you're finished in all the right places.
The big hotels and casinos pay a lot of muscle to make sure the high rollers don't have even momentary hassles with "undesirables." Security in a place like Caesar's Palace is super tense and strict. Probably a third of the people on the floor at any given time are either shills or watchdogs. Public drunks and known pickpockets are dealt with instantly -- hustled out to the parking lot by Secret Service-type thugs and given a quick, impersonal lecture about the cost of dental work and the difficulties of trying to make a living with two broken arms.
The "high side" of Vegas is probably the most closed society west of Sicily -- and it makes no difference, in terms of the day to day life-style of the place, whether the Man at the Top is Lucky Luciano or Howard Hughes. In an economy where Tom Jones can make $75,000 a week for two shows a night at Caesar's, the palace guard is indispensable, and they don't care who signs their paychecks. A gold mine like Vegas breeds its own army, like any other gold mine. Hired muscle tends to accumulate in fast layers around money/power poles ... and big money, in Vegas, is synonymous with the Power to protect it.
So once you get blacklisted on the Strip, for any reason at all, you either get out of town or retire to nurse your act along, on the cheap, in the shoddy limbo of North Vegas ... out there with the gunsels, the hustlers, the drug cripples and all the other losers. North Vegas, for instance, is where you go if you need to score smack before midnight with no references.
But if you're looking for cocaine, and you're ready up front with some bills and the proper code words, you want to stay on the Strip and get next to a well-connected hooker, which will take at least one bill for starters.
And so much for all that. We didn't fit the mold. There is no formula for finding yourself in Vegas with a white Cadillac full of drugs and nothing to mix with properly. The Fillmore style never quite caught on here. People like Sinatra and Dean Martin are still considered "far out" in Vegas. The "underground newspaper" here -- the Las Vegas Free Press -- is a cautious echo of The People's World, or maybe the National Guardian.
A week in Vegas is like stumbling into a Time Warp, a regression to the late fifties. Which is wholly understandable when you see the people who come here, the Big Spenders from places like Denver and Dallas. Along with National Elks Club conventions (no niggers allowed) and the All-West Volunteer Sheepherders' Rally. These are people who go absolutely crazy at the sight of an old hooker stripping down to her pasties and prancing out on the runway to the big-beat sound of a dozen 50-year-old junkies kicking out the jams on "September Song."
It was some time around three when we pulled into the parking lot of the North Vegas diner. I was looking for a copy of the Los Angeles Times, for news of the outside world, but a quick glance at the newspaper racks made a bad joke of that notion. They don't need the Times in North Vegas. No news is good news.
"Fuck newspapers," said my attorney. "What we need right now is coffee."
I agreed, but I stole a copy of the Vegas Sun anyway. It was yesterday's edition, but I didn't care. The idea of entering a coffee shop without a newspaper in my hands made me nervous. There was always the Sports Section; get wired on the base ball scores and pro-football rumors: "Bart Starr Beaten by Thugs in Chicago Tavern; Packers Seek Trade" ... "Namath Quits Jets to be Governor of Alabama" ... and a speculative piece on page 46 about a rookie sensation named Harrison Fire, out of Grambling: runs the hundred in nine flat, 344 pounds and still growing.
"This man Fire has definite promise," says the coach. "Yesterday, before practice, he destroyed a Greyhound Bus with his bare hands, and last night he killed a subway. He's a natural for color TV. I'm not one to play favorites, but it looks like we'll have to make room for him."
Indeed. There is always room on TV for a man who can beat people to jelly in nine flat ... But not many of these were gathered, on this night, in the North Star Coffee Lounge. We had the place to ourselves -- which proved to be fortunate, because we'd eaten two more pellets of mescaline on the way over, and the effects were beginning to manifest.
My attorney was no longer vomiting, or even acting sick. He ordered coffee with the authority of a man long accustomed to quick service. The waitress had the appearance of a very old hooker who had finally found her place in life. She was definitely in charge here, and she eyed us with obvious disapproval as we settled onto our stools.
I wasn't paying much attention. The North Star Coffee Lounge seemed like a fairly safe haven from our storms. There are some you go into -- in this line of work -- that you know will be heavy. The details don't matter. All you know, for sure, is that your brain starts humming with brutal vibes as you approach the front door. Something wild and evil is about to happen; and it's going to involve you.
But there was nothing in the atmosphere of the North Star to put me on my guard. The waitress was passively hostile, but I was accustomed to that. She was a big woman. Not fat, but large in every way, long sinewy arms and a brawler's jawbone. A burned-out caricature of Jane Russell: big head of dark hair, face slashed with lipstick and a 48 Double-E chest that was probably spectacular about twenty years ago when she might have been a Mama for the Hell's Angels chapter in Berdoo ... but now she was strapped up in a giant pink elastic brassiere that showed like a bandage through the sweaty white rayon of her uniform.
Probably she was married to somebody, but I didn't feel like speculating. All I wanted from her, tonight, was a cup of black coffee and a 29¢ hamburger with pickles and onions. No hassles, no talk -- just a place to rest and re-group. I wasn't even hungry.
My attorney had no newspaper or anything else to compel his attention. So he focused, out of boredom, on the waitress. She was taking our orders like a robot when he punched through her crust with a demand for "two glasses of ice water -- with ice."
My attorney drank his in one long gulp, then asked for another. I noticed that the waitress seemed tense.
Fuck it, I thought. I was reading the funnies.
About ten minutes later, when she brought the hamburgers, I saw my attorney hand her a napkin with something printed on it. He did it very casually, with no expression at all on his face. But I knew, from the vibes, that our peace was about to be shattered.
"What was that?" I asked him.
He shrugged, smiling vaguely at the waitress who was standing about ten feet away, at the end of the counter, keeping her back to us while she pondered the napkin. Finally she turned and stared ... then she stepped resolutely forward and tossed the napkin at my attorney.
"What is this?" she snapped.
"A napkin," said my attorney.
There was a moment of nasty silence, then she began screaming: "Don't give me that bullshit! I know what it means! You goddamn fat pimp bastard!"
My attorney picked up the napkin, looked at what he'd written, then dropped it back on the counter. "That's the name of a horse I used to own," he said calmly. "What's wrong with you?"
"You sonofabitch!" she screamed. "I take a lot of shit in this place, but I sure as hell don't have to take it off a spic pimp!"
Jesus! I thought. What's happening? I was watching the woman's hands, hoping she wouldn't pick up anything sharp or heavy. I picked up the napkin and read what the bastard had printed on it, in careful red letters: "Back Door Beauty?" The question mark was emphasized.
The woman was screaming again: "Pay your bill and get the hell out! You want me to call the cops?"
I reached for my wallet, but my attorney was already on his feet, never taking his eyes off the woman ... then he reached under his shirt, not into his pocket, coming up suddenly with the Gerber Mini-Magnum, a nasty silver blade which the waitress seemed to understand instantly.
She froze: her eyes fixed wildly on the blade. My attorney, still watching her, moved about six feet down the aisle and lifted the receiver off the hook of the pay phone. He sliced it off, then brought the receiver back to his stool and sat down.
The waitress didn't move. I was stupid with shock, not knowing whether to run or start laughing.
"How much is that lemon meringue pie" my attorney asked. His voice was casual, as if he had just wandered into the place and was debating what to order.
"Thirty-five cents!" the woman blurted. Her eyes were turgid with fear, but her brain was apparently functioning on some basic motor survival level.
My attorney laughed. "I mean the whole pie," he said.
My attorney put a bill on the counter. "Let's say it's five dollars," he said. "OK?"
She nodded, still frozen, watching my attorney as he walked around the counter and got the pie out of the display case. I prepared to leave.
The waitress was clearly in shock. The sight of the blade, jerked out in the heat of an argument, had apparently triggered bad memories. The glazed look in her eyes said her throat had been cut. She was still in the grip of paralysis when we left.