[for Love, Boxing, and Hunter S. Thompson, Part 1, click here.]
THE FIRST TIME I traveled to New Orleans was in the summer of 1963. I’d hitchhiked cross-country from Los Angeles less than a week after graduating from Berkeley with a degree in European history. The night before I left, when I told my father my plans, he refused to believe I was serious. He said, “Four years of college and you’ve decided to become a hobo. That’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever said. Buy a suit and look for a job.”
I told him I didn’t want to look for a job. “I’m going to New Orleans. I’m leaving tonight.”
My father just looked at my mother and shook his head. But beneath his expression of dismay, I could read what he was really thinking: It’s another one of his childish acts of rebellion. He’s not going anywhere.
“Your mother and I are going out to eat,” he told me. “We’ll discuss this when we get back.”
As soon as I heard them back out of our driveway, I filled a small suitcase with a few changes of clothes, a razor, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, a few packs of my mother’s Marlboros, a yellow legal tablet, and some pencils. As an afterthought I also included two unread paperback books that I had brought down from Berkeley: James Baldwin’s novel Another Country, and Norman Mailer’s collection of autobiographical essays, Advertisements For Myself. In my wallet I had a five and four ones. That plus the change in my jeans gave me a total of $9.67.
It was almost a lifetime ago, but I can remember exactly what I was thinking as I walked out of my house on Benedict Canyon, holding my beat-up suitcase: Don’t turn around. You don’t know what you’re doing, but that’s okay. Just keep walking and stick out your thumb.
My first ride took me to Sunset Boulevard and Doheny Drive in West Hollywood. Two rides later — the sun had gone down by now — I was dropped off by the on-ramp to the Hollywood Freeway. The driver who picked me up next said he was going as far as Riverside, a city that was located about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. I thought, Not a bad start. But we never got that far.
The conversation went this way:
HIM: So, where you headed?
ME: New Orleans.
HIM: No kidding. You hitching all the way?
HIM: I bet you’re gonna meet a lot of interesting folks. Maybe some pretty girls might pick you up. You’d like that, huh?
ME: I don’t know. I guess so.
HIM: You guess? Either you’d like it or not. Unless you’re like me.
HIM: You know what I mean?
ME: I’m not sure.
HIM: I’m not all that interested in girls.
A silence that stretches out….
ME (FINALLY): I’m not interested in men.
HIM: Didn’t think so. Never hurts to check.
The smile on his face quickly scurried off. A moment later he swung the car abruptly over to the shoulder and told me to get out. After he sped off, I was left standing on the side of the freeway with the rush hour traffic tearing by, dangerously close. Naturally, I was pissed off, but with no other options — hitchhiking on the freeway was against the law — I started to walk. When I finally made it to the nearest off-ramp, which was over a mile away, I found a gas station. I asked the attendant where I was, and he looked at me like I was posing a trick question.
“You’re in California, son.”
“I mean, what city.”
I had traveled 15 miles.
Because there was no urgency to my nomadic journey — no animating quest — I shook off the previous ride as a just a random setback, an infuriating and puzzling event that I would eventually look back upon and laugh about. Not too long afterward an 18-wheeler pulled into the gas station and I asked the driver — I later learned his name was Freddie and that he sometimes rode bulls on the rodeo circuit — if he could give me a ride.
He said it was against company rules to pick up hitchhikers. “But if you keep your mouth shut and watch for cops, I’ll get you to Phoenix by the time the sun comes up.”
From Phoenix it took me several more rides and another 18 hours before I reached Dallas, the home of Southern Methodist University. At a beer bar near the campus I mingled with some kids around my age who were dressed in lightweight clothes in pastel colors. The boys were at once languorous and self-confident, and they spoke with unsettling drawls. The girls with them appraised me with cool glances, but they were impressed by my cross-country journey, laughing with a kind of giddy hilarity when I told them about the homosexual who picked me up in Hollywood.
At closing time a boy named Webb invited me back spend the night at his fraternity. “I’m a Kappa Alpha,” he told me drunkenly and proudly. “Best house on campus.”
I slept on a ripped leather couch in the large living room, waking up several times to the sounds of vomiting, screaming, and spurious laughter. In the morning, Webb took me out to breakfast. In the front seat of his ’56 Ford were textbooks, liquor bottles, and a pair of white panties. At the diner, he told me that one of his fraternity brothers felt uneasy about having a Jew spend the night in the house.
He said, “We’re a Christian frat. We don’t pledge Jews. I don’t know if I’ve ever met a Jew before.”
“How’d he know I was a Jew?”
“You told Julie.”
“When you said you grew up near Beverly Hills, she made a joke about all the Jews out there. You said you were a Jew. She didn’t believe you at first, then she did. She told Randy, my pledge brother, and when he came home and saw you sleeping downstairs, he got kinda worried.”
I felt confused. “I don’t remember any of this. I don’t remember talking to a Julie.”
“You were drunk.”
“So Randy wanted me out of the house?”
“Yeah. He woke me up. He said it was like having a nigger sleeping downstairs.”
“Jesus!” My mind was suddenly occupied with the need to defend myself. “What an asshole.”
“Randy’s not an asshole,” Webb said. “He’s good people. He just doesn’t know any better.”
But Webb explained that he was brought up differently. He was taught by his parents to treat everyone the same, regardless of their religion or the color of the skin. Then, leaning across the table and lowering his voice, he said he was going to do me a favor: He was going to show me the secret Kappa Alpha handshake. The “grip.”
“That way,” he said, “wherever you go, you can be a KA and stay anywhere for free. In the South we’re the top frat. You’re covered.”
“As long as I don’t tell anyone I’m a Jew,” I said, half-jokingly.
“Yeah, that might screw things up.”
After Webb demonstrated the secret handshake, which involved a complicated sequence of moves that I quickly forgot, he paid the check and drove me to the edge of the city.
“You’re on Interstate 49. This’ll take you to Shreveport. Then you head south on 91.” We shook hands, he wished me luck with a sincere smile, and I got out of the car. It was not yet 10 a.m., but the temperature was already 100 degrees and climbing. There was no shade to stand in, and in the weirdness of the previous night I’d lost the hand-lettered sign I’d made before I left Los Angeles, my destination written in dark blue ink on a shirt cardboard: New Orleans.
An hour of steady traffic passed without anyone stopping. After a while, indifferent to the blanket of heat and the passage of time, I sat down on my suitcase and began reading Another Country. I still own that battered and dog-eared paperback, and, although it’s now in storage with the rest of my books, I remember that I pulled it off the shelf a few years ago. Right away I looked at the flyleaf and I could feel myself smiling when I saw what I had written on that sweltering morning: Remember this day.
My memory wheel spun backward, and I was once again that joyfully adrift 22-year-old boy sitting by the side of the road, captivated by the bohemian world that James Baldwin was writing about, a world filled with misfits and rebels and all-night parties. And as I turned the pages, I felt something like an internal migration: A door had swung open and a light hand was effortlessly pushing me away from the life I was supposed to enter after graduating from college, a life that was straightforward, simple, and safe, a life that I wanted no part of. I wanted a life that was unconventional, filled with adventure and risk. A life that was worth living.
On the outskirts of Dallas, in a vast open space that was beneath a blindingly blue sky, the margins of my future were not distinctly marked, but I had already made a choice, deciding that you can’t run from who you are. That’s why I wanted to remember that day.
Finally, sometime toward the end of the afternoon, I got a ride from an automobile wholesaler on his way home to Morgan City, Louisiana. He’d been to a car auction in Fort Worth and was driving a tricked-out Pontiac that he planned to sell to his father-in-law for a sweet profit. His wife was following behind us in his Corvette. He said, “Her dad loves these Bonnevilles. I could get more sellin’ to some nigger, but I promised the old man. Nigger would probably crash it anyway.” I felt the urge to say something, to offer a kinder and more conciliatory opinion about our dark-skinned brothers, but I realized that if I wished to remain moving south in this high-powered car, I would have to be silent on matters of race. I don’t remember when I dozed off, but when I woke to a steady tap on my knee, I saw that we were parked in a filling station. Next door was a square white church, and across the street were the county fairgrounds, where, I later learned, the largest KKK gathering in the state would be held that evening.
Despite the unthreatening atmosphere of the church and some dogs lazing in the sun by the pumps, I could feel a kind of Pentecostal suspicion in the face of the garage mechanic as I got out of the Bonneville and walked toward the highway. A boy around my age came out of the garage and joined the mechanic, both of them watching me with a restrained curiosity.
When I stuck out my thumb, the boy said, “Where you goin’?”
“Where you comin’ from?”
The mechanic looked at the boy. “That’s where all the queers are from.”
“Are you queer?” the boy asked me. “No.”
There was a long silence. The boy opened the soft-drink machine and pulled out a Coke. The mechanic, altering his tone, asked me if I wanted something to drink. I politely declined the offer and received a stare in return that was openly hostile. Realizing I’d made a mistake, I was about to change my mind when a car pulled up next to me. The driver was in his late thirties and skinny, with a thin mustache and an eye that was slightly skewed. He told me to get in. When he found out where I was going, he said I was in luck.
“That’s where I’m headed,” he said, offering me a hit off the joint he’d just rolled. When I hesitated, he said, “What’s wrong?”
“What about the cops?”
He grinned and spoke with a breezy disrespect. “Fuck the cops. Don’t worry, if we get stopped I’ll cover for you.”
I gave that some thought as I watched him inhale, the joint pinched between his fingers with a careless elegance. At Berkeley, I hadn’t smoked that much weed — maybe 10 joints total — but it was something I usually did with a girl. You got high, listened to music, and sex customarily followed. I said, “If I don’t get high, do I have to get out?”
He took another hit off the joint and looked at me, half annoyed. “Listen, my friend, you’re goin’ to New Orleans. That’s a city that jumps. You want to fit in, you need to get loose. That’s just a suggestion. Don’t matter to me what the fuck you do.”
I decided to get high.
I don’t recall much of the conversation that took place over the next three hours, but I do remember the driver’s name — Charles, not Chuck or Charlie — and I am certain that he told me he was a piano player. The dance place where he’d worked in Shreveport was being remodeled and he’d scored a gig with a Dixieland outfit at the Roosevelt Hotel. He said he loved jazz, but there was no money playing that kind of music in the Deep South, unless you sounded like Fats Waller. About an hour from New Orleans, he mentioned that he’d been married to and deserted by a vocalist — “this disloyal bitch” — who he’d worked with in Kansas City. After she left, he drank whiskey for three days, the same time it took him to recuperate. After that, he said, still sounding lovelorn, she was erased from his memory. That was five years ago.
“You ever had your heart broke, John?”
I told him about getting dumped by Tracy, the girl I was in love with during my junior year. “She told me I was too moody, and that when I got angry I frightened her.”
“You over it?”
“Mostly. Only sometimes I’ll hear a song that will bring everything back.”
He said, “Know what you mean. For a long time, whenever someone asked me to play ‘Tennessee Waltz’, I’d about fall apart.”
It was not quite dark when Charles dropped me off across from Tulane University. Fraternity row was a few blocks from the campus, but the Kappa Alpha house — a huge, almost overwhelmingly impressive Georgian mansion — was closed for the summer. Fortunately, the dorms were open, and I had no problem scoring a room for the night — actually I stayed a week — when the students I spoke to learned I was from Southern California. And when I told them I’d gone to high school with the rock and roll duo Jan and Dean — “Surf City” was still on the charts — and hung out in Malibu with Kathy Kohner, the inspiration for the character Gidget in the film written by her father, I was met with looks of incredulity. To know Jan and Dean and Gidget meant I was endowed with some kind of magical power.
The next morning I walked to the French Quarter in the steaming heat. I don’t recall how long it took me — according to Google Maps it’s four miles — but even today I can remember that, by the time I’d reached Jackson Square, I felt a surge of uncontrollable excitement erupt inside me. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the strangers I saw moving languidly through the pageantry of the streets — not the tourists with their goggling eyes but the natives who actually resided in the French Quarter — seemed as if they belonged to a different species. They projected a stateliness, a kind of “knowing,” and when they smiled at me their eyes seemed to gleam. To be honest, they looked a bit mad.
That night I saw Fats Domino perform live at his club on Bourbon Street. At the time it didn’t seem odd — I might not have even noticed — that there were no black faces in the crowd, which was made up of mostly tourists and college kids shouting out requests. But what stuck with me most from that evening was not just the rippling piano and the stripped-down energy of the songs, but the courteous smile on Fats’s face when he accepted the audience’s applause, a smile that was both glacial and timid but which seemed forced upon him by the circumstances of his popularity. As was the case of most blacks performing in clubs that excluded members of their race, behind that smile was a ferocious anger.
The following morning, when I woke up in my dorm room, I had a violent hangover, and when I checked my wallet I realized I was nearly out of cash. I knew my older brother, Mike, was on a 10-day leave from the Marine Corps (where I would end up in the not too distant future), and I called him collect from the pay phone in the hallway. His anger, once he accepted the call, was undisguised. “Where the fuck are you? New Orleans? You hitchhiked to New Orleans? You’re out of your fucking mind, John. Get your ass on a bus back to L.A.”
“I’m not ready to come back,” I told him. “I’m gonna stay here for a while.”
“And do what?”
“I’m not sure. Probably get a job,” I said. Then I told him why I was calling. “I’m broke. I need a loan, just a hundred bucks until I get settled.” There was silence for a moment or two. “You’re the only person I can ask.”
“What about one of your college buddies?”
“I’d rather borrow it from you. That way I won’t have to pay it back.”
“Prick.” We both laughed. “I can’t believe you’re actually in New Orleans.”
I told him about all the crazy rides I got, my drunken night in Dallas with the anti-Semitic frat boys from SMU, and the adulatory reception I received at the dorm where I was calling from. “The kids here are cool. When I told them I surfed and knew Gidget, they treated me like I was God.”
“You don’t surf.”
“I exaggerated,” I said, and there was a pause that I filled with my impatience. “Well …?”
“I’ll wire the money.”
The next morning, after breakfast at the dormitory cafeteria, I walked down to the Western Union office on Canal Street. The girl behind the counter was around my age, big and bony, with large blue eyes and blond hair that was cut boyishly short. Right away her lovely (but slightly inscrutable) face reminded me of Jean Seberg, the actress who played the free-loving heroine opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in the French film Breathless. When I told her this, she rolled her eyes.
“You’re the second person to say that,” she said. “I never even heard of her.”
“She’s an American actress, but she’s done a lot of French films.”
“Yeah? We don’t get many foreign films down here. You must be from out of town.” I told her I was from Los Angeles. “I’m here to pick up some money that was wired to me.”
She asked for my last name, and when I spelled it out she looked me up and down, paying close attention to my long curly blond hair. For a moment she seemed to lose her supreme self-command. Then she began to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Your name. I know who you are,” she said, after she found the money order from my brother. “You’re Danny Kaye’s son.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Don’t lie, John Kaye. This money order was sent from Beverly Hills. And look at your hair! You got your daddy’s hair.”
I told her I was sorry to disappoint her. “My father knows plenty of people in show business, but he’s not Danny Kaye, nor am I related to him in any way.”
“Then what’s your daddy do?”
“He owns a couple of retail clothing stores in Hollywood.”
She looked at me for several moments, unconvinced. Then she said, “I guess you want your money.”
Her name was Lizzy Cantwell, her family went back three generations in New Orleans, and she was currently a junior at Sophie Newcomb, the private girls college that was affiliated with Tulane. She also drove a forest green Triumph TR4 sports car, her older brother was a linebacker at LSU, and her father was a senior executive at D.H. Holmes Company, the largest department store in New Orleans.
That night she picked me outside my dorm after she got off work. She had changed clothes and was now wearing a sleeveless blouse, sandals, and white shorts that were cut high on her thighs. She’d brought with her a Thermos of bourbon and Coke that we passed back and forth while she gave me a tour of the city. Every few blocks someone waved or shouted out a greeting.
I said, “You seem awfully popular.”
“The Cantwells are very well-liked in New Orleans,” she explained. Her mother, she said, was the daughter of one of the richest men in Jefferson Parish. She was also a doctor — an obstetrician — and, unlike her husband, a fervent supporter of JFK and the nascent civil rights movement that was growing in the Deep South. “She’s got an office uptown and one in the Lower Ninth Ward. She’s delivered half the nigger babies in New Orleans.”
I wish I could say I pounced on her use of this epithet, accusing her of being racially insensitive, but the truth was I didn’t give it a second thought. Among Southern whites — even “educated” Southern whites — the “n word” was such a natural part of everyday speech that I’d basically tuned it out. From what I could tell, Lizzie was not a racist, and even if she were it made no sense to disturb our flowering friendship by challenging her or the strongly established code of a world I was not part of or truly understood. The fact was I liked her, and even more I liked sitting beside her in her sports car, feeling unnaturally relaxed and lighthearted, the bourbon flowing warmly through my stomach, and by the time we drove out to Lake Pontchartrain and found a secluded spot to park, the possibility of a sexual event had established itself.
However, the non-maneuverability of the Triumph’s bucket seats were an obstacle to anything but making out, and Lizzie, although she felt like “a firecracker ready to pop,” didn’t want to go down to the beach and “wrestle around and get a bunch of sand in my ass. Anyway, the cops regularly patrol this place, and we don’t need to get arrested for being lewd. You especially, since you’re a Yankee.”
She suggested going back to her house.
I said, “What about your folks?”
Lizzie opened her wide, flexible mouth and planted a long, wet kiss on my lips, before she answered. “They’re in Miami for the weekend, fishing for marlin. They won’t be back until Monday.”
I’m going to skip the sex, except to mention that when I went down on her, Lizzie looked at me with an appreciative smile, her face, in rapturous transport, turning a deep shade of red. Sounding gratified, she told me later that the boys she’d dated would never have done something like that. They would find eating her pussy not only repugnant but unnecessary. I said they were missing out.
We spent the weekend together, and Lizzie’s cheerfulness and general gregariousness was infectious. Only once, when I told her I was falling for her, did she become somber. She said that what we were having was a summer fling and that was all. “After that I’ll be back in school, and you’ll be back in California.”
“How do you know?”
“You will. Anyway my boyfriend comes home from Europe in September.”
“Boyfriend?” I said, feeling an incredulous jolt. “You didn’t mention a boyfriend.”
“You should’ve said something.”
“I didn’t know you were gonna get stuck on me or I would have.”
“Does your boyfriend eat pussy?”
“Not as far as I know, unless he’s learning how from those girls in France. If not, I’ll have to teach him.”
The following week Lizzie set up a meeting with her father, a tall man with a shiny bald head and a supercilious smile. After introducing himself and ceremoniously offering me his hand, he said that, based on his daughter’s recommendation, he was prepared to offer me a job in the men’s department of D.H. Holmes. I’d be starting in sales, working the floor, with the possibility that I could assist with the buying if it turned out that the aptitude for retail ran in my family. When he said he wanted me to start the following day, I told him I didn’t have any clothes.
“Go downstairs and get a suit, some shirts, and a few ties. You’ll get a discount.”
“I’m a little short on money too.”
“We’ll deduct it from your paycheck.”
Before I left the office, almost as an afterthought, he asked me if I saw lots of movie stars back home in Beverly Hills. I mentioned that Marlon Brando once picked me up hitchhiking, and that I’d gone to high school with Nancy Sinatra. He said that he thought Lizzie was pretty enough to be in pictures, but she’d never want live that far from home. Then he raised his hand and waved me out the door.
Lizzie told me later that her father was unimpressed with our meeting. “He was expecting you to show more enthusiasm for the job.”
“Selling clothes in a department store is not a career I’m interested in. It’s just to make some money.”
“Still, he’s doing you a favor. There are lots of boys that would die to have that position.” Nearly 50 years have passed, but I can remember this conversation almost word for word. It took place in the early evening, and we were sitting at a table inside Ruffino’s, an open-air cafe overlooking the Mississippi River. That afternoon Lizzie had helped me find a furnished studio apartment in the French Quarter on St. Philip Street. After I paid the first month ($50.00) in advance out of the money my brother had wired me, we drove back to my dorm, where I swiped a blanket and sheets from my room and some plates and silverware from the cafeteria. Once we were back inside my new pad, I pulled her down on the bed, but after a few perfunctory kisses I could tell she didn’t want to go any further. When I asked her what was wrong, she said she was too hungry to think about having sex.
But obviously the conversation she’d had with her father had bothered her, and now, while we were drinking wine and slurping oysters, I could feel an argument brewing that I wanted to avoid. I told her that if she wanted me to call her dad and thank him I would be happy to do that.
She looked at me for a long moment, as if debating to herself. Then, shaking her head, she said, “It wouldn’t be sincere. Don’t worry about it. Just do a good job while you’re there.” A few seconds later, she wrinkled her brow and gave me what was intended to be a sympathetic smile. “You’re a nice boy, John Kaye. But I’m not gonna fall for you.”
After we were done eating, we went back to my apartment and made love. It was exciting, but not as exciting as the first time — there seemed to be a reflexive distancing on both sides — and when she left that night, I remember feeling a sudden loneliness that was combined with a steady drumbeat of romantic longing. Lizzie and I continued to see each other throughout the summer, but things were never the same. I think she felt that there was no buried treasure to be unearthed between us. And if there was a map to the gold, she would keep it hidden. I could eat her till the saints came marching in, but the key to her heart? No way.
Toward the end of July, a few months before I quit my job and left New Orleans — my next stop would be Jamaica, and after that, in the spring of 1964, I would enlist in the Marines — I attended the heavyweight championship fight between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston. This would be the second time they’d fought. In the first fight, Liston, a stone-faced ex-con born to a sharecropping family in Arkansas, had been favored to win, but his total domination — he’d knocked Patterson out in the first round, the quickest ending to a heavyweight championship fight in history — was still surprising. The second bout was being broadcast live from Las Vegas to hundreds of theaters around the country, including the RKO Orpheum on University Place, a former vaudeville house that held 1800 seats, including 500 in the balcony.
I went to the fight with Stoney, a folksinger I’d met in the French Quarter not long after I moved into my new apartment. On the road like myself — he was temporarily unstuck from a chaotic marriage — Stoney had gone to Vanderbilt and was a big-time reader with an unquenchable lust, two virtues that added to the bond that was created between us. Today he’s a published poet and professor of English at a university in the Northeast, but in the summer of 1963 (before his fractured domesticity had healed), in this beautiful period of both our lives, carried along by the beneficent atmosphere of the city, he was just Stoney, a very handsome guy who could stand on a street corner with a guitar and sing protest songs to an attentive crowd.
When we got to the RKO Orpheum, the smoke-filled lobby was packed with an anxious mob of mostly furtive, unsteady-looking white men, their hectic faces containing a kind of lazy dissatisfaction. In contrast, the crowd of stylishly dressed black men — some even in tuxedos — who Stoney and I followed up to the balcony, chatted and laughed easily, connected not just by the color of their skin but by an unrestrained optimism: No matter who won the fight, the arm raised by the referee would be black.
Stoney and I found two seats in a row near the front of the balcony. We didn’t understand the bewildered looks we received (or why the underlying gaiety around us suddenly, mysteriously dwindled and then stopped) until a teenage usher appeared in the aisle and motioned for us to get up. He said we had to sit downstairs.
Stoney said, “Why?”
“Because this is where the colored folks sit.”
Until this moment, it had never occurred to us that the theater was segregated, and Stoney, who could be stubborn and intimidating — he was 6’5” and solidly built — began to interrogate the usher, demanding to know under what law we were being asked to leave. Although he didn’t have the brightness of mind to argue with Stoney with any kind of logic and coherence, the usher was imperturbable, his manner both courteous and unpolemical, and he made it clear that if we didn’t immediately abandon our seats the police would be summoned to physically remove us. At that point I told Stoney I was leaving, that I came to watch the fight and was unwilling to be part of a political protest that I could see only ending with our arrest.
I went downstairs and found a seat just as the fighters entered the ring. Patterson’s expression, compared to Liston’s, which was intensely hostile — a face without warmth or pity — was slightly distracted. Where Liston conveyed an almost sightless indifference to the noisy atmosphere surrounding him, Patterson looked shy or slightly intimidated, his eyes watchful. And when they removed their robes, the imbalance in their physiques was startling. Next to Liston — with his expanded chest and massively thickened neck — Patterson looked not just outweighed but … small.
When the ring announcer introduced Liston, a roar exploded from the balcony of the theater, the cheers cresting and then breaking like a great wave, prompting the hard white faces around me to fill with obscure alarms, their shared disdain barely concealed. Patterson was by nature gentle and respectful, though he was also subject to mysterious mood swings, and he would become mildly aggrieved if he felt either his talent or courage were being questioned, as they seem to be in the days leading up to the bout. But among the whites at the RKO Orpheum, Patterson — light-skinned, self-effacing, polite, almost servile — was the fan favorite.
Once again the fight was brutally short, lasting less than one round, although this time Patterson remained on his feet four seconds longer. When his seconds jumped into the ring and carried him back to his corner, the theater slowly emptied, and I found Stoney in the lobby speaking to a short black guy dressed in a bright green suit. Standing next to him was a tall, splendid-looking black woman wearing a gardenia behind her ear and a tight black dress. They were all going to a party and I was invited.
“Time to celebrate,” Stoney said.
I remember starting to perspire, and while I remained silent, trying to understand why I was imagining a threat that wasn’t there, the black woman said, “We’ll give you the address. Drop by if you decide to join us.”
“Don’t worry,” the black man said. “We make sure you’re treated right.”
I made a noncommittal sound and Stoney, when he saw the hesitation in my eyes, just shrugged his shoulders. How he was able to stay and watch the fight in the balcony remained a mystery that he was in no hurry to clear up. I saw the usher in the lobby, but he made a point not to look in our direction. Finally, I told Stoney I was going to head home, and he turned to the black couple, explaining that I worked at D.H. Holmes and had to get up early. He wasn’t making an excuse for me — I think he was actually pleased that I’d decided to pass — but just stating a fact.
I told him I would catch up with him later. I walked home, feeling a little guilty but also content to be alone. A few days later, Stoney came by my apartment after work. Smiling broadly, he said I’d missed a great party. Among the guests were some local jazz musicians who put on an impromptu performance, and he’d joined in on a couple of tunes, playing a borrowed guitar.
He said, “Me and this chick from New York were the only white people in the room.”
“I should’ve gone with you.”
“You were tired.”
“I wasn’t that tired,” I said, and I didn’t have to tell him the real reason I decided not to tag along, which he already knew: I was just not brave enough.
When I finally asked him how he was able to remain in the balcony on the night of the fight, he smiled, and I saw both satisfaction and pride mingling in his face. “I just told the usher to shove it and refused to leave. When he came back with this big redneck manager, they both seemed unsure of what to do. Nobody did, including the black guys sitting around me. Finally, the manager said that because it was a boxing match and not a movie I could stay, but he made it clear that it was a one-time-only deal. If I tried it again, I would be in serious trouble. I think what surprised him most was when he heard my voice. He couldn’t believe a Southerner was pulling this shit.”
Not counting our flight back to Los Angeles, I only saw Hunter twice in New Orleans, the first time during the weigh-in at the New Orleans Hilton — more about that later — where he introduced to me to Hughes Rudd, a hard-drinking Texan and a journalist of high reputation who anchored the morning news on CBS. I was never sure if Hughes was in New Orleans to cover the fight, take in the scene, or just hang out with old friends. He seemed to know everyone, and even though I witnessed him knock down a stupendous amount of alcohol, I never once saw him drunk. One evening, when Inga met us after work at a bar in the French Quarter, Hughes was so taken with her beauty that he gleefully (and only half-kiddingly) suggested that we participate in a threesome. She declined, pretending that she was both astonished and appalled, but a few moments later she flashed him a smile and said:
“But ask me again in an hour.”
Hughes was a man of great charm, and I couldn’t honestly tell whether she was joking or not; and, frankly, I was afraid to ask. This took place on the night before the fight, the night I saw Hunter for the second time. Inga and I were in bed — she was asleep but I wasn’t — when he knocked loudly on my door. In a voice that I can only describe as a fierce metallic bark, he demanded I open up, and when I asked him what he wanted, he said:
“I’m with someone.”
“Male or female.”
“Wise choice. Open up. You’ve got five seconds or I’ll shoot off the lock. I’m armed.” Grumbling under his breath, Hunter started to count down from five. Was he really carrying a loaded gun? I doubted it, but I’d spent enough time with him to know that I didn’t want to take a chance on the contrary possibility. When I cracked opened the door, he looked at me blank-faced. In my memory I can see him standing before me, one arm braced against the wall, naked from the waist up, wearing khaki shorts over sheer panty hose and high-top sneakers with no socks. A red spandex brassiere was tied around his chest, and his face was completely made up, with a slash of red lipstick clownishly smeared across his mouth, as if it had been applied by a child.
When I didn’t know what to say — what could I say? I was too startled to be even grimly amused — Hunter tilted his head to one side, uttered a low laugh, poked me twice in the ribs, and walked past me into the room. Inga rolled over in bed, and Hunter said:
“If she wakes up, make sure she knows I’m not an intruder.”
“That’s Inga, Hunter. You’ve already met.”
Hunter looked at me with a guilty little smile. “That’s true. But in different circumstances. Seeing me like this could be deeply disturbing. So hurry up with the drugs!”
While I emptied half my stash into a glassine envelope, Hunter crossed the room in two long strides, stopping briefly to stare out the window, and that’s when I saw the pistol stuck into the waistband of his khaki shorts. I froze, and it took a few seconds for my voice to come out.
“Is that pistol loaded, Hunter?”
“For fuck’s sake, Kaye. Of course it’s loaded. But don’t worry,” he said, as he turned and moved toward the door. “The safety’s on.”
As he brushed passed me, he grabbed the glassine envelope and stuffed it into his pocket. Then he adjusted his bra and gave me that Cheshire cat smile. His last words to me as he opened the door and stepped into the hallway were:
“Feel free to use any of this in the script.”
Although Hunter claimed he saw the fight in person, I never caught sight of him in the Superdome, and the seat reserved for him in my row remained empty throughout the night. I heard later from Hughes Rudd that he was seen on Felicity Street, in a disco bar, dancing with a woman who was described to Hughes as having “a wild mop of red hair and a miracle body.” Inga, who was on duty that evening, said she saw them leaving the hotel together. They looked utterly wasted.
“She’s a prostitute,” Inga said. “And a known thief.”
After all the pre-fight hoopla, the bout itself was letdown. Ali, dancing and jabbing, grabbing and holding, coasted through the early rounds, built a commanding lead, and made history by regaining his title for an unprecedented third time, something he’d trained hard for and desperately wanted. The monster crowd, which was on his side from the opening bell, cheered the unanimous decision, but everyone knew they’d witnessed a fight that was painfully dull. Pat Putnam in Sports Illustrated summed it up this way:
“As a fight it was not so much a contest as it was a demonstration by an old master educating an inexperienced youngster in the fine points of the craft.”
I’ve recently re-watched several rounds on YouTube and, despite admiring Ali’s masterful strategy, I found myself once more sinking into a trance of boredom. And then, mysteriously, as if a secret doorway had been opened, a hazy memory drifted out of the wings of my mind, interrupting my passivity, and a scene slowly came to life:
I’m standing in the hotel ballroom where the weigh-in is set to take place. I’m talking to Hughes Rudd. We’re in the rear of the big, overflowing room, gossiping about the restless and shifty-looking characters who are milling about. Spinks is already standing by the scale with his three trainers, one of whom, Georgie Benton, would later leave his corner in disgust after the fourth round. The promoters, Butch Lewis and Bob Arum, are off to the side, quarreling over something, and Hughes, who has just finished telling me that Arum had graduated from Harvard with a law degree, just shakes his head and says sardonically, “Boxing was cleaner when you could tell the gangsters from the lawyers.”
Behind me a ruckus seems to be taking place, the voices immediately around me louder than the rest. Before I can turn to look I feel a solid mass of bodies pushing against me, and for several steps it’s as if I am being carried along by a slow-moving river. Trying frantically to twist away, I feel two large hands grip my shoulders, holding me steady, and what I can only describe as a preternatural calmness settles over me.
People are screaming, “Ali! Ali!” and I realize, with a kind of suppressed excitement, that the hands propelling me forward belong to him. Hughes told me later that I had this blissful smile fixed on my face, as if I’d achieved a cheerful oneness with universe. This fairy tale moment lasted for no more than five seconds, until Bundini Brown, one of Ali’s handlers, roughly pushed me aside and took my place.
Like many of my generation, I didn’t just admire Ali, I loved him in a way I don’t feel capable of describing here. But from that moment when he put his soft, strong hands on my shoulders — hands that seemed mysteriously weightless — making me feel more substantial than I really was, I felt like I had discarded an awkward burden. And for a long time afterward there was, somehow, a new appetite for wonder in the trajectory of my life, and it seemed like anything was possible.
The next time I saw Hunter was on the set of Where the Buffalo Roam. I’d heard that he was sent the screenplay, and though his approval was not necessary for the film to move forward, Art Linson, the director, told me that he (Hunter) was pleased with the final draft. To be completely honest, I’m not sure if he ever read it, but I do know that he sent it to a few of his close friends — writers and editors whose opinions he could trust — and apparently they told him it was smart and funny.
We never spoke about New Orleans or the night he came to my room dressed like a not-so-pretty transvestite hooker. But I later learned that the gun he carried with him was a starter pistol, similar to those used to begin races at swimming and track meets. It shot blanks not bullets, unlike the shotgun he used to kill himself in the winter of 2005, an act that did not really surprise me.
The Hunter I knew was funny, gracious, and kind, but in the year we spent together — off and on — I saw that he also carried with him a sort of despair (and pent-up rage) about his life, especially his writing. He knew he had not worked up to his potential and regretted it. There were times when we were alone that I witnessed a mind that, even without the drugs and alcohol, was filled with paranoia and pandemonium. I can’t say that we were close friends — he could be stubborn and petty and perversely inattentive to anyone else’s needs but his own — but I’m truly sorry that he’s gone, and I will always remember him with great fondness.
Two weeks after Tanya and I met at the No Name Bar, she suggested that we live together in her house at Muir Beach. It was already clear by then that something deeper had accounted for our instantaneous mutual attraction, but I was still taken by surprise. I said I needed some time to think it over. She told me I had a week. After that the offer was off the table.
It took my son to persuade me that the decision made sense. He said, “She’s nice and I think it would be fun to live at the beach.” Then, clinching the deal, he said, “She’s so pretty, I can’t believe she wants to be your girlfriend.”
We stayed together for a year, but Tanya always seemed to be flying out of town, and her frequent absences gradually stripped away our intimacy and heightened my insecurity. When she was home, I snapped at her and made cutting remarks, sometimes accusing her of being unfaithful. I had lost the will to accommodate and, after a long overseas trip, Tanya announced that she’d decided to sell her house and move to an island off the coast of Washington State.
Hearing this news, Jesse seemed to go into a trance. The tears didn’t come until later, when Tanya came into his room and tried to patiently assure him that she still loved him. He begged her to stay, but she could only cry along with him, and that seemed to be enough, because Jesse, more than anything, needed to know how much she cared.
Tanya and I rarely spoke after she moved away. The last time was 20 years ago. In that conversation we laughed about the night we met and the weekend we spent together in New Orleans. Before we hung up, I asked her a question that I had always been curious about.
I said, “What did you do with the cocaine I gave you?”
“I kept it. And when I got to New York I shared it with the girls I roomed with.”
“Did you tell them where you got it?”
“And what did they say?”
“They wanted to know what you were like.”
“I said, ‘It’s too soon to tell.’”