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 6: A Night on the Town ... Confrontation at the Desert Inn ... Drug Frenzy at the Circus-Circus
Saturday midnight ... Memories of this night are extremely hazy. All I have, for guide-pegs, is a pocketful of keno cards and cocktail napkins, all covered with scribbled notes. Here is one: "Get the Ford man, demand a Bronco for race-observation purposes ... photos? ... Lacerda/call ... why not a helicopter? ... Get on the phone, lean on the fuckers ... heavy yelling."
Another says: "Sign on Paradise Boulevard -- 'Stopless and Topless' ... bush-league sex compared to L.A.; pasties here -- total naked public humping in L.A. ... Las Vegas is a society of armed masturbators/gambling is the kicker here/sex is extra/weird trip for high rollers ... house-whores for winners, hand jobs for the bad luck crowd."
A long time ago when I lived in Big Sur down the road from Lionel Olay I had a friend who liked to go to Reno for the crap-shooting. He owned a sporting-goods store in Carmel. And one month he drove his Mercedes highway-cruiser to Reno on three consecutive weekends -- winning heavily each time. After three trips he was something like $15,000 ahead, so he decided to skip the fourth weekend and take some friends to dinner at Nepenthe. "Always quit winners," he explained. "And besides, it's a long drive."
On Monday morning he got a phone call from Reno -- from the general manager of the casino he'd been working out on. "We missed you this weekend," said the GM. "The pit-men were bored."
"Shucks," said my friend.
So the next weekend he flew up to Reno in a private plane, with a friend and two girls -- all "special guests" of the GM. Nothing too good for high rollers....
And on Monday morning the same plane -- the casino's plane -- flew him back to the Monterey airport. The pilot lent him a dime to call a friend for a ride to Carmel. He was $30,000 in debt, and two months later he was looking down the barrel of one of the world's heaviest collection agencies.
So he sold his store, but that didn't make the nut. They could wait for the rest, he said -- but then he got stomped, which convinced him that maybe he'd be better off borrowing enough money to pay the whole wad.
Mainline gambling is a very heavy business -- and Las Vegas makes Reno seem like your friendly neighborhood grocery store. For a loser, Vegas is the meanest town on earth. Until about a year ago, there was a giant billboard on the outskirts of Las Vegas, saying:
DON'T GAMBLE WITH MARIJUANA! IN NEVADA: POSSESSION -- 20 YEARS SALE -- LIFE!
So I was not entirely at ease drifting around the casinos on this Saturday night with a car full of marijuana and head full of acid. We had several narrow escapes: at one point I tried to drive the Great Red Shark into the laundry room of the Landmark Hotel -- but the door was too narrow, and the people inside seemed dangerously excited.
We drove over to the Desert Inn, to catch the Debbie Reynolds/Harry James show. "I don't know about you," I told my attorney, "but in my line of business it's important to be Hep."
"Mine too," he said. "But as your attorney I advise you to drive over to the Tropicana and pick up on Guy Lombardo. He's in the Blue Room with his Royal Canadians."
"Why?" I asked.
"Why should I pay out my hard-earned dollars to watch a fucking corpse?"
"Look," he said. "Why are we out here? To entertain ourselves, or to do the job?"
"The job, of course," I replied. We were driving around in circles, weaving through the parking lot of a place I thought was the Dunes, but it turned out to be the Thunderbird ... or maybe it was the Hacienda ...
My attorney was scanning The Vegas Visitor, looking for hints of action. "How about "'Nickel Nick's Slot Arcade?'" he said. "'Hot Slots,' that sounds heavy ... Twenty-nine cent hotdogs ..."
Suddenly people were screaming at us. We were in trouble. Two thugs wearing red-gold military overcoats were looming over the hood: "What the hell are you doing?" one screamed. "You can't park here!"
"Why not?" I said. It seemed like a reasonable place to park, plenty of space. I'd been looking for a parking spot for what seemed like a very long time. Too long. I was about ready to abandon the car and call a taxi ... but then, yes, we found this space.
Which turned out to be the sidewalk in front of the main entrance to the Desert Inn. I had run over so many curbs by this time, that I hadn't even noticed this last one. But now we found ourselves in a position that was hard to explain ... blocking the entrance, thugs yelling at us, bad confusion....
My attorney was out of the car in a flash, waving a five-dollar bill. "We want this car parked! I'm an old friend of Debbie's. I used to romp with her."
For a moment I thought he had blown it ... then one of the doormen reached out for the bill, saying: "OK, OK. I'll take care of it, sir." And he tore off a parking stub.
"Holy shit!" I said, as we hurried through the lobby. "They almost had us there. That was quick thinking."
"What do you expect?" he said. "I'm your attorney ... and you owe me five bucks. I want it now."
I shrugged and gave him a bill. This garish, deep-orlon carpeted lobby of the Desert Inn seemed an inappropriate place to be haggling about nickel/dime bribes for the parking lot attendant. This was Bob Hope's turf. Frank Sinatra's. Spiro Agnew's. The lobby fairly reeked of high-grade formica and plastic palm trees -- it was clearly a high-class refuge for Big Spenders.
We approached the grand ballroom full of confidence, but they refused to let us in. We were too late, said a man in a wine-colored tuxedo; the house was already full -- no seats left, at any price.
"Fuck seats," said my attorney. "We're old friends of Debbie's. We drove all the way from L.A. for this show, and we're goddamn well going in."
The tux-man began jabbering about "fire regulations," but my attorney refused to listen. Finally, after a lot of bad noise, he let us in for nothing -- provided we would stand quietly in back and not smoke.
We promised, but the moment we got inside we lost control. The tension had been too great. Debbie Reynolds was yukking across the stage in a silver Afro wig ... to the tune of "Sergeant Pepper," from the golden trumpet of Harry James.
"Jesus creeping shit!" said my attorney. "We've wandered into a time capsule!"
Heavy hands grabbed our shoulders. I jammed the hash pipe back into my pocket just in time. We were dragged across the lobby and held against the front door by goons until our car was fetched up. "OK, get lost," said the wine-tux-man. "We're giving you a break. If Debbie has friends like you guys, she's in worse trouble than I thought."
"We'll see about this!" my attorney shouted as we drove away. "You paranoid scum!"
I drove around to the Circus-Circus Casino and parked near the back door. "This is the place," I said. "They'll never fuck with us here."
"Where's the ether?" said my attorney. "This mescaline isn't working."
I gave him the key to the trunk while I lit up the hash pipe. He came back with the ether-bottle, un-capped it, then poured some into a kleenex and mashed it under his nose, breathing heavily. I soaked another kleenex and fouled my own nose. The smell was overwhelming, even with the top down. Soon we were staggering up the stairs towards the entrance, laughing stupidly and dragging each other along, like drunks.
This is the main advantage of ether: it makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel ... total loss of all basic motor skills: blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue -- severance of all connection between the body and the brain. Which is interesting, because the brain continues to function more or less normally ... you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can't control it.
You approach the turnstiles leading into the Circus-Circus and you know that when you get there, you have to give the man two dollars or he won't let you inside ... but when you get there, everything goes wrong: you misjudge the distance to the turnstile and slam against it, bounce off and grab hold of an old woman to keep from falling, some angry Rotarian shoves you and you think: What's happening here? What's going on? Then you hear yourself mumbling: "Dogs fucked the Pope, no fault of mine. Watch out! ... Why money? My name is Brinks; I was born ... born? Get sheep over side ... women and children to armored car ... orders from Captain Zeep."
Ah, devil ether -- a total body drug. The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column. The hands flap crazily, unable to get money out of the pocket ... garbled laughter and hissing from the mouth ... always smiling.
Ether is the perfect drug for Las Vegas. In this town they love a drunk. Fresh meat. So they put us through the turnstiles and turned us loose inside.
The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing on Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the Sixth Reich. The ground floor is full of gambling tables, like all the other casinos ... but the place is about four stories high, in the style of a circus tent, and all manner of strange County-Fair/Polish Carnival madness is going on up in this space. Right above the gambling tables the Forty Flying Carazito Brothers are doing a high-wire trapeze act, along with four muzzled Wolverines and the Six Nymphet Sisters from San Diego ... so you're down on the main floor playing blackjack, and the stakes are getting high when suddenly you chance to look up, and there, right smack above your head is a half-naked fourteen-year-old girl being chased through the air by a snarling wolverine, which is suddenly locked in a death battle with two silver-painted Polacks who come swinging down from opposite balconies and meet in mid-air on the wolverine's nec ... both Polacks seize the animal as they fall straight down towards the crap tables -- but they bounce off the net; they separate and spring back up towards the roof in three different directions, and just as they're about to fall again they are grabbed out of the air by three Korean Kittens and trapezed off to one of the balconies.
This madness goes on and on, but nobody seems to notice. The gambling action runs twenty-four hours a day on the main floor, and the circus never ends. Meanwhile, on all the upstairs balconies, the customers are being hustled by every conceivable kind of bizarre shuck. All kinds of funhouse-type booths. Shoot the pasties off the nipples of a ten-foot bull-dyke and win a cotton-candy goat. Stand in front of this fantastic machine, my friend, and for just 99¢ your likeness will appear, two hundred feet tall, on a screen above downtown Las Vegas. Ninety-nine cents more for a voice message. "Say whatever you want, fella. They'll hear you, don't worry about that. Remember you'll be two hundred feet tall."
Jesus Christ. I could see myself lying in bed in the Mint Hotel, half-asleep and staring idly out the window, when suddenly a vicious nazi drunkard appears two hundred feet tall in the midnight sky, screaming gibberish at the world: "Woodstock Uber Alles!"
We will close the drapes tonight. A thing like that could send a drug person careening around the room like a ping-pong ball. Hallucinations are bad enough. But after a while you learn to cope with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife in her teeth. Most acid fanciers can handle this sort of thing.
But nobody can handle that other trip -- the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into the Circus-Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs. Reality itself is too twisted.
Good mescaline comes on slow. The first hour is all waiting, then about halfway through the second hour you start cursing the creep who burned you, because nothing is happening ... and then ZANG! Fiendish intensity, strange glow and vibrations ... a very heavy gig in a place like the Circus-Circus.
"I hate to say this," said my attorney as we sat down at the Merry-Go-Round Bar on the second balcony, "but this place is getting to me. I think I'm getting the Fear."
"Nonsense," I said. "We came out here to find the American Dream, and now that we're right in the vortex you want to quit." I grabbed his bicep and squeezed. "You must realize," I said, "that we've found the main nerve."
"I know," he said. "That's what gives me the Fear."
The ether was wearing off, the acid was long gone, but the mescaline was running strong. We were sitting at a small round gold formica table, moving in orbit around the bartender.
"Look over there," I said. "Two women fucking a polar bear."
"Please," he said. "Don't tell me those things. Not now." He signaled the waitress for two more Wild Turkeys. "This is my last drink," he said. "How much money can you lend me?"
"Not much," I said. "Why?"
"I have to go," he said.
"Yes. Leave the country. Tonight."
"Calm down," I said. "You'll be straight in a few hours."
"No," he said. "This is serious."
"George Metesky was serious," I said. "And you see what they did to him."
"Don't fuck around!" he shouted. "One more hour in this town and I'll kill somebody!"
I could see he was on the edge. That fearful intensity that comes at the peak of a mescaline seizure. "OK," I said. "I'll lend you some money. Let's go outside and see how much we have left."
"Can we make it?" he said.
"Well ... that depends on how many people we fuck with between here and the door. You want to leave quietly?"
"I want to leave fast," he said.
"OK. Let's pay this bill and get up very slowly. We're both out of our heads. This is going to be a long walk." I shouted at the waitress for a bill. She came over, looking bored, and my attorney stood up.
"Do they pay you to screw that bear?" he asked her.
"He's just kidding," I said, stepping between them. "Come on, Doc -- let's go downstairs and gamble." I got him as far as the edge of the bar, the rim of the merry-go-round, but he refused to get off until it stopped turning.
"It won't stop," I said. "It's not ever going to stop." I stepped off and turned around to wait for him, but he wouldn't move ... and before I could reach out and pull him off, he was carried away. "Don't move," I shouted. "You'll come around!" His eyes were staring blindly ahead, squinting with fear and confusion. But he didn't move a muscle until he'd made the whole circle.
I waited until he was almost in front of me, then I reached out to grab him -- but he jumped back and went around the circle again. This made me very nervous. I felt on the verge of a freakout. The bartender seemed to be watching us.
Carson City, I thought. Twenty years.
I stepped on the merry-go-round and hurried around the bar, approaching my attorney on his blind side -- and when he came to the right spot I pushed him off. He staggered into the aisle and uttered a hellish scream as he lost his balance and went down, thrashing into the crowd ... rolling like a log, then up again in a flash, fists clenched, looking for somebody to hit.
I approached him with my hands in the air, trying to smile. "You fell," I said. "Let's go."
By this time people were watching us. But the fool wouldn't move, and I knew what would happen if I grabbed him. "OK," I said. "You stay here and go to jail. I'm leaving." I started walking fast towards the stairs, ignoring him.
This moved him.
"Did you see that?" he said as he caught up with me. "Some sonofabitch kicked me in the back!"
"Probably the bartender," I said. "He wanted to stomp you for what you said to the waitress."
"Good god! Let's get out of here. Where's the elevator?"
"Don't go near that elevator," I said. "That's just what they want us to do ... trap us in a steel box and take us down to the basement." I looked over my shoulder, but nobody was following.
"Don't run," I said. "They'd like an excuse to shoot us." He nodded, seeming to understand. We walked fast along the big indoor midway-shooting galleries, tattoo parlors, money changers and cotton-candy booths -- then out through a bank of glass doors and across the grass downhill to a parking lot where the Red Shark waited.
"You drive," he said. "I think there's something wrong with me."