In the middle of Hunter S. Thompson’s book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” there’s a scene that flashes back to San Francisco in the mid-1960s. After having gotten LSD from a street person, Thompson is in the men’s room of a rock club trying to ingest the drug. The contents of the capsule spill onto the sleeve of his sweater, a long-haired musician walks in, sees what’s going on and licks the drug off Thompson’s sleeve. The point is to show what it was like to be in San Francisco in 1966 -- that feeling of limitless possibility, what Thompson refers to as the “high-water mark.”
The real story of what happened that night is a little different. I know. I was the person who gave Hunter the LSD and who sat with him in that men’s room.
I met Hunter in San Francisco during the summer of 1965. His first wife, Sandy, worked at a real estate agency with my then-girlfriend, Barbara. Hunter and I quickly became friends. We’d often play hoops -- his basketball had a huge HST painted on it -- and get together at my place or his, or at Barbara’s.
In March 1966, armed with two LSD capsules, I went to Hunter’s apartment in Parnassus Heights. I got there about 9 p.m. and we sat around while Sandy fussed with their 10-month-old baby, Juan. Hunter and Sandy had conflicting Rh factors, so the birth had been a difficult one, requiring blood transfusions for the baby. They were aware that each subsequent birth would be more risky and that this might be their only child.
Hunter drank beer, crushing the empty cans and throwing them -- along with cigarette butts -- into the unused fireplace. The fierceness with which he hurled the cans and flicked the butts punctuated his nonstop rant about politics and religion and society. Hunter’s position on everything was something like “get the bastards before they get you.”
We decided to split one capsule of LSD. If in an hour we felt we wanted to take the other, we would do so then.
We got on his motorcycle, a BSA 650, and went to the Matrix, a smoky, bar-sized club with a small dancing area. An hour later, during a break in the music, we decided to take the other capsule. We were tripping but figured we might as well. We went into the men’s room and sat in the middle of the floor, facing each another.
Delicately, I removed the capsule from my pocket and tried to open it so that the tiny granules would be equally divided. But of course things were sort of swimming around: The granules slipped out and fell on my sweater. Hunter and I looked at each other and shrugged. And then we both started sucking on my sweater. Hunter stopped for a moment and said: “What if some stockbroker swine comes in now?”
The idea was hysterically funny: that some straight guy would walk in on two lunatics sitting on a bathroom floor, sucking on a sweater. We laughed to the point of crying, gasping for breath. Of course, no such person walked in. No one like that was even in the Matrix.
That was how I recall the incident on which the book (and movie) scene was based. But that night wasn’t over yet. Not by a longshot.
It was 2 a.m. by the time we got back to Parnassus Avenue, which is very steep. Hunter grabbed an empty garbage can and rolled it downhill. It caromed down, banging into cars, curb and fire hydrant. The clatter alerted a neighbor, a medical student who knocked after we had gone inside. A moment later another knock: It was a Hells Angel that Hunter had met while writing his book about them. He had been outside, waiting for Hunter to come home.
The student and the Hells Angel talked while Hunter casually ambled to a closet and pulled out a pistol.
Not a dainty, snub-nosed type. No indeed. This was a long-barreled, very dangerous-looking piece of firepower.
The Hells Angel and the student went quiet. They watched as Hunter went to a window that looked out on a central courtyard and aimed out into the center, where the backyards all converged. The Hells Angel and the student grinned nervously, backing away. Hunter, focused on his task, didn’t even turn to look at us. He straightened out his arm
The pistol shot reverberated. Then silence. Sandy came in quickly, sleepily tying her robe. She saw what Hunter was doing and looked at us. The Hells Angel put his hands up -- an “I-give-up” gesture -- and left. The student stammered an apology, then disappeared. I stayed but could only manage a shrug. Juan wailed from another room. Hunter continued aiming his pistol out the window.
Sandy asked Hunter gently, softly, what was going on. He didn’t answer. She came closer and asked him for the pistol. Begged him. Hunter turned away, still aiming. He wasn’t mean, just adamant. Sandy was small-boned, blond, delicate -- a soft-spoken Goucher College graduate; Hunter towered over her. Though he was tripping, there was no way she’d be able to take the pistol away from him.
Sandy went out of the room, then came back with Juan in one arm and a rifle in the other. What is this, I thought, Madonna with child and Remington? Was there going to be a shootout? Why in God’s name had she brought the baby? Was she reminding Hunter what was at stake? The moment was awash with danger, but the baby fell back to sleep in her arms.
Slowly, Sandy approached Hunter. “Look,” she said, measuring her words. “Take the rifle. Go ahead. Take it. And give me the gun. OK? Let’s trade.” She was trying to talk her naughty little boy into giving up his nasty toy for a slightly less nasty toy. Was this a dynamic they had played out before?
“The rifle’s safer,” she said. “Take it. And give me the gun.” What made the rifle less dangerous? I didn’t understand it.
And then -- amazingly -- Hunter agreed. He nodded and carefully gave her the gun, making sure she gave him the rifle at the same moment. Sandy quickly removed the pistol and Juan from the room. She came back a moment later without either one.
Hunter aimed the rifle out the window. Now on the downward slope of the trip, he started to talk, gravitating to his pet topics: Vietnam, LBJ, the pope, how the church and the state conspire to crush our freedom. Over the fireplace was the Samuel Johnson quote he loved: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” A better motto for him would have been: “I don’t care if the whole world blows up ... if I could just have one moment of absolute freedom.”
And this is what I felt: Listening to Hunter drone on, worming his way into my head, was exactly what I didn’t want to do with what remained of that acid trip. I told them I was leaving. Sandy gave me a pained look: How could I leave her alone with her husband and his weapons? Yeah, I felt guilty, but I couldn’t take it anymore. Not the guns, not the doting-mother/little-boy dynamic, not the nonstop ranting. I didn’t want Hunter controlling my trip. My freedom was at stake too, and that demanded I get away. I walked home in the chilly predawn, enjoying everything, as if I had been released from prison.
I never saw Hunter or Sandy again.
Years later, when I read “Fear and Loathing,” I was surprised that the Matrix incident had been used as the epitome of what it was like to live in San Francisco in the ‘60s. I would have chosen a number of other moments. But Hunter picked that one.
And yes, to some degree it does show that anything was possible then. I don’t want to minimize our drug-fueled epiphanies. They were real, and they were often wonderful.
But that night was also about something else. It was about betrayal -- mine, Hunter’s -- for the sake of protecting our precious trip. It was about ignoring that actions have consequences. It was about our cruel denigration of the straight world. And it was about being nonchalant toward violence: that which we inflict on others and that which we inflict on ourselves.
Hunter was right in sentimentalizing the first part of that night. Who among those who lived through that time doesn’t feel nostalgia?
But the latter half of that night was just as much a part of us and of that era.
And Hunter should have let his readers know that. To glorify the first half without coming to terms with the second is to miss some of the crucial reasons that the wave rolled back after that “high-water mark” in the Matrix men’s room. Rolled back and left us high and dry. *