Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Rum Diary

Hunter S. Thompson

  The Rum Diary

  The Rum Diary

  The Rum Diary

  San Juan, Winter of 1958

  In the early Fifties, when San Juan first became a tourist town, an ex-jockey named Al Arbonito built a bar in the patio behind his house on Calle O'Leary. He called it Al's Backyard and hung a sign above his doorway on the street, with an arrow pointing between two ramshackle buildings to the patio in back. At first he served nothing but beer, at twenty cents a bottle, and rum, at a dime a shot or fifteen cents with ice. After several months he began serving hamburgers, which he made himself.

  It was a pleasant place to drink, especially in the mornings when the sun was still cool and the salt mist came up from the ocean to give the air a crisp, healthy smell that for a few early hours would hold its own against the steaming, sweaty heat that clamps San Juan at noon and remains until long after sundown.

  It was good in the evenings, too, but not so cool. Sometimes there would be a breeze and Al's would usually catch it because of the fine location -- at the very top of Calle O'Leary hill, so high that if the patio had windows you could look down on the whole city. But there is a thick wall around the patio, and all you can see is the sky and a few plantain trees.

  As time passed, Al bought a new cash register, then he bought wood umbrella-tables for the patio; and finally moved his family out of the house on Calle O'Leary, out in the suburbs to a new urban-izacion near the airport. He hired a large negro named Sweep, who washed the dishes and carried hamburgers and eventually learned to cook.

  He turned his old living room into a small piano bar, and got a pianist from Miami, a thin, sad-faced man called Nelson Otto. The piano was midway between the cocktail lounge and the patio. It was an old baby-grand, painted light grey and covered with special shellac to keep the salt air from ruining the finish -- and seven nights a week, through all twelve months of the endless Caribbean summer, Nelson Otto sat down at the keyboard to mingle his sweat with the weary chords of his music.

  At the Tourist Bureau they talk about the cooling trade winds that caress the shores of Puerto Rico every day and night of the year -- but Nelson Otto was a man the trade winds never seemed to touch. Hour after muggy hour, through a tired repertoire of blues and sentimental ballads, the sweat dripped from his chin and soaked the armpits of his flowered cotton sportshirts. He cursed the “goddamn shitting heat” with such violence and such hatred that it sometimes ruined the atmosphere of the place, and people would get up and walk down the street to the Flamboyan Lounge, where a bottle of beer cost sixty cents and a sirloin steak was three-fifty.

  When an ex-communist named Lotterman came down from Florida to start the San Juan Daily News, Al's Backyard became the English-language press club, because none of the drifters and the dreamers who came to work for Lotterman's new paper could afford the high-price “New York” bars that were springing up all over the city like a rash of neon toadstools. The day-shift reporters and deskmen straggled in about seven, and the night-shift types -- sports people, proofreaders and make-up men -- usually arrived en masse around midnight. Once in a while someone had a date, but on any normal night a girl in Al's Backyard was a rare and erotic sight. White girls were not plentiful in San Juan, and most of them were either tourists, hustlers or airline stewardesses. It was not surprising that they preferred the casinos or the terrace bar at the Hilton.

  All manner of men came to work for the News: everything from wild young Turks who wanted to rip the world in half and start all over again -- to tired, beer-bellied old hacks who wanted nothing more than to live out their days in peace before a bunch of lunatics ripped the world in half.

  They ran the whole gamut from genuine talents and honest men, to degenerates and hopeless losers who could barely write a postcard -- loons and fugitives and dangerous drunks, a shoplifting Cuban who carried a gun in his armpit, a half-wit Mexican who molested small children, pimps and pederasts and human chancres of every description, most of them working just long enough to make the price of a few drinks and a plane ticket.

  On the other hand, there were people like Tom Vanderwitz, who later worked for the Washington Post and won a Pulitzer Prize. And a man named Tyrrell, now an editor of the London Times, who worked fifteen hours a day just to keep the paper from going under.

  When I arrived the News was three years old and Ed Lotterman was on the verge of a breakdown. To hear him talk you would think he'd been sitting at the very cross-corners of the earth, seeing himself as a combination of God, Pulitzer and the Salvation Army. He often swore that if all the people who had worked for the paper in those years could appear at one time before the throne of The Almighty -- if they all stood there and recited their histories and their quirks and their crimes and their deviations -- there was no doubt in his mind that God himself would fall down in a swoon and tear his hair.

  Of course Lotterman exaggerated; in his tirade he forgot about the good men and talked only about what he called the “wineheads.” But there were more than a few of these, and the best that can be said of that staff is that they were a strange and unruly lot. At best they were unreliable, and at worst they were drunk, dirty and no mare dependable than goats. But they managed to put out a paper, and when they were not working a good many of them passed the time drinking in Al's Backyard.

  They bitched and groaned when -- in what some of them called “a fit of greed” -- Al jacked the price of beer up to a quarter; and they kept on bitching until he tacked up a sign listing beer and drink prices at the Caribe Hilton. It was scrawled in black crayon and hung in plain sight behind the bar.

  Since the newspaper functioned as a clearing-house for every writer, photographer and neo-literate con man who happened to find himself in Puerto Rico, Al got the dubious benefit of this trade too. The drawer beneath the cash register was full of unpaid tabs and letters from all over the world, promising to “get that bill squared away in the near future.” Vagrant journalists are notorious welshers, and to those who travel in that rootless world, a large unpaid bar tab can be a fashionable burden.

  There was no shortage of people to drink with in those days. They never lasted very long, but they kept coming. I call them vagrant journalists because no other term would be quite as valid. No two were alike. They were professionally deviant, but they had a few things in common. They depended, mostly from habit, on newspapers and magazines for the bulk of their income; their lives were geared to long chances and sudden movement; and they claimed no allegiance to any flag and valued no currency but luck and good contacts.

  Some of them were more journalists than vagrants, and others were more vagrants than journalists -- but with afew exceptions they were part-time, freelance, would-be foreign correspondents who, for one reason or another, lived at several removes from the journalistic establishment. Not the slick strivers and jingo parrots who staffed the mossback papers and news magazines of the Luce empire. Those were a different breed.

  Puerto Rico was a backwater and the Daily News was staffed mainly by ill-tempered wandering rabble. They moved erratically, on the winds of rumor and opportunity, all over Europe, Latin America and the Far East -- wherever there were English-language newspapers, jumping from one to another, looking always for the big break, the crucial assignment, the rich heiress or the fat job at the far end of the next plane ticket.

  In a sense I was one of them -- more competent than some and more stable than others -- and in the years that I carried that ragged banner I was seldom unemployed. Sometimes I worked for three newspapers at once. I wrote ad copy for new casinos and bowling alleys. I was a consultant for the cockfighting syndicate, an utterly corrupt high-end restaurant critic, a yachting photographer and a routine victim of police brutality. It was a greedy life and I was good at i
t. I made some interesting friends, had enough money to get around, and learned a lot about the world that I could never have learned in any other way.

  Like most of the others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that my instincts were right. I shared a vagrant optimism that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top.

  At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles -- a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other -- that kept me going.

  The Rum Diary


  My apartment in New York was on Perry Street, a five minute walk from the White Horse. I often drank there, but I was never accepted because I wore a tie. The real people wanted no part of me.

  I did some drinking there on the night I left for San Juan. Phil Rollins, who'd worked with me, was paying for the ale, and I was swilling it down, trying to get drunk enough to sleep on the plane. Art Millick, the most vicious cab driver in New York, was there. So was Duke Peterson, who had just come back from the Virgin Islands. I recall Peterson giving me a list of people to look up when I got to St. Thomas, but I lost the list and never met any of them.

  It was a rotten night in the middle of January, but I wore a light cord coat. Everyone else had on heavy jackets and flannel suits. The last thing I remember is standing on the dirty bricks of Hudson Street, shaking hands with Rollins and cursing the freezing wind that blew in off the river. Then I got in Millick's cab and slept all the way to the airport.

  I was late and there was a line at the reservations desk. I fell in behind fifteen or so Puerto Ricans and one small blonde girl a few places ahead of me. I pegged her for a tourist, a wild young secretary going down to the Caribbean for a two week romp. She had a fine little body and an impatient way of standing that indicated a mass of stored-up energy. I watched her intently, smiling, feeling the ale in my veins, waiting for her to turn around for a swift contact with the eyes.

  She got her ticket and walked away toward the plane. There were still three Puerto Ricans in front of me. Two of them did their business and passed on, but the third was stymied by the clerk's refusal to let him carry a huge cardboard box on the plane as hand baggage. I gritted my teeth as they argued.

  Finally I broke in. “Hey!” I shouted. “What the hell is this? I have to get on that plane!”

  The clerk looked up, disregarding the shouts of the little man in front of me. “What's your name?”

  I told him, got my ticket, and bolted for the gate. When I got to the plane I had to shove past five or six people waiting to board. I showed my ticket to the grumbling stewardess and stepped inside to scan the seats on both sides of the aisle.

  Not a blonde head anywhere. I hurried up to the front, thinking that she might be so small that her head wouldn't show over the back seat. But she wasn't on the plane and by this time there were only two double seats left I fell into one on the aisle and put my typewriter on the one next to the window. They were starting the engines when I looked out and saw her coming across the runway, waving at the stewardess who was about to close the door.

  “Wait a minute!” I shouted. “Another passenger!” I watched until she reached the bottom of the steps. Then I turned around to smile as she came on. I was reaching for my typewriter, thinking to put it on the floor, when an old man shoved in front of me and sat down in the seat I was saving.

  “This seat's taken,” I said quickly, grabbing him by the arm. He jerked away and snarled something in Spanish, turning his head toward the window.

  I grabbed him again. “Get up,” I said angrily. He started to yell just as the girl went by and stopped a few feet up the aisle, looking around for a seat. “Here's one,” I said, giving the old man a savage jerk. Before she could turn around the stewardess was on me, pulling at my arm.

  “He sat on my typewriter,” I explained, helplessly watching the girl find a seat far up at the front of the plane.

  The stewardess patted the old man's shoulder and eased him back to the seat. “What kind of a bully are you?” she asked me. “I should put you off!”

  I grumbled and slumped back in the seat. The old man stared straight ahead until we got off the ground. “You rotten old bastard,” I mumbled at him.

  He didn't even blink, and finally I shut my eyes and tried to sleep. Now and then I would glance up at the blonde head at the front of the plane. Then they turned out the lights and I couldn't see anything.

  It was dawn when I woke up. The old man was still asleep and I leaned across him to look out the window. Several thousand feet below us the ocean was dark blue and calm as a lake. Up ahead I saw an island, bright green in the early morning sun. There were beaches along the edge of it, and brown swamps further inland. The plane started down and the stewardess announced that we should all buckle our safety belts.

  Moments later we swept in over acres of palm trees and taxied to a halt in front of the big terminal. I decided to stay in my seat until the girl came past, then get up and walk with her across the runway. Since we were the only white people on the plane, it would seem quite natural.

  The others were standing now, laughing and jabbering as they waited for the stewardess to open the door. Suddenly the old man jumped up and tried to scramble over me like a dog. Without thinking, I slammed him back against the window, causing a thump that silenced the crowd. The man appeared to be sick and tried to scramble past me again, shouting hysterically in Spanish.

  “You crazy old bastard!” I yelled, shoving him back with one hand and reaching for my typewriter with the other. The door was open now and they were filing out The girl came past me and I tried to smile at her, keeping the old man pinned against the window until I could back into the aisle. He was raising so much hell, shouting and waving his arms, that I was tempted to belt him in the throat to calm him down.

  Then the stewardess arrived, followed by the co-pilot, who demanded to know what I thought I was doing.

  “He's been beating that old man ever since we left New York,” said the stewardess. “He must be a sadist.”

  They kept me there for ten minutes and at first I thought they meant to have me arrested. I tried to explain, but I was so tired and confused that I couldn't think what I was saying. When they finally let me go I slunk off the plane like a criminal, squinting and sweating in the sun as I crossed the runway to the baggage room.

  It was crowded with Puerto Ricans and the girl was nowhere in sight. There was not much hope of finding her now and I was not optimistic about what might happen if I did. Few girls look with favor on a man of my stripe, a brutalizer of old people. I remembered the expression on her face when she saw me with the old man pinned against the window. It was almost too much to overcome. I decided to get some breakfast and pick up my baggage later on.

  The airport in San Juan is a fine, modern thing, full of bright colors and suntanned people and Latin rhythms blaring from speakers hung on naked girders above the lobby. I walked up a long ramp, carrying my topcoat and my typewriter in one hand, and a small leather bag in the other. The signs led me up another ramp and finally to the coffee shop. As I went in I saw myself in a mirror, looking dirty and disreputable, a pale vagrant with red eyes.

  On top of my slovenly appearance, I stank of ale. It hung in my stomach like a lump of rancid milk. I tried not to breathe on anyone as I sat down at the counter and ordered sliced pineapple.

  Outside, the runway glistened in the early sun. Beyond it a thick palm jungle stood between me and the ocean. Several miles out at sea a sailboat moved slowly across the horizon. I stared for several moments and fell into a trance. It looked peaceful out there, peaceful and hot. I wanted to go into the palms and sleep, take a few chunks of pineapple and
wander into the jungle to pass out.

  Instead, I ordered more coffee and looked again at the cable that had come with my plane ticket. It said I had reservations at the Condado Beach Hotel.

  It was not yet seven o'clock, but the coffee shop was crowded.

  Groups of men sat at tables beside the long window, sipping a milky brew and talking energetically. A few wore suits, but most of them had on what appeared to be the uniform of the day -- thick-rimmed sunglasses, shiny dark pants and white shirts with short sleeves and ties.

  I caught snatches of conversation here and there: “. . . no such thing as cheap beach-front anymore . . . yeah, but this ain't Montego, gentlemen . . . don't worry, he has plenty, and all we need is . . . sewed up, but we gotta move quick before Castro and that crowd jumps in with . . .”

  After ten minutes of half-hearted listening I suspected I was in a den of hustlers. Most of them seemed to be waiting for the seven-thirty flight from Miami, which -- from what I gathered of the conversations -- would be bulging at the seams with architects, strip-men, consultants and Sicilians fleeing Cuba.

  Their voices set my teeth on edge. I have no valid complaint against hustlers, no rational bitch, but the act of selling is repulsive to me. I harbor a secret urge to whack a salesman in the face, crack his teeth and put red bumps around his eyes.

  Once I was conscious of the talk I couldn't hear anything else. It shattered my feeling of laziness and finally annoyed me so much that I sucked down the rest of my coffee and hurried out of the place.

  The baggage room was empty. I found my two duffel bags and had a porter carry them out to the cab. All the way through the lobby he favored me with a steady grin and kept saying: “Si, Puerto Rico esta bueno . . . ah, si, muy bueno . . . mucho ha-ha, si. . .”

  In the cab I leaned back and lit a small cigar I'd bought in the coffee shop. I was feeling better now, warm and sleepy and absolutely free. With the palms zipping past and the big sun burning down on the road ahead, I had a flash of something I hadn't felt since my first months in Europe -- a mixture of ignorance and a loose, “what the hell” kind of confidence that comes on a man when the wind picks up and he begins to move in a hard straight line toward an unknown horizon.