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The Rum Diary, Page 2

Hunter S. Thompson

  We were speeding along a four-lane highway. Stretching off on both sides was a vast complex of yellow housing developments, laced with tall cyclone fences. Moments later we passed what looked like a new subdivision, full of identical pink and blue houses. There was a billboard at the entrance, announcing to all travelers that they were passing the El Jippo Urbanization. A few yards from the billboard was a tiny shack made of palm fronds and tin scraps, and beside it was a hand-painted sign saying “Coco Frio.” Inside, a boy of about thirteen leaned on his counter and stared out at the passing cars.

  Arriving half-drunk in a foreign place is hard on the nerves. You have a feeling that something is wrong, that you can't get a grip. I had this feeling, and when I got to the hotel I went straight to bed. It was four-thirty when I woke up, hungry and dirty and not at all sure where I was. I walked out on my balcony and stared down at the beach. Below me, a crowd of women, children and potbellied men were splashing around in the surf. To my right was another hotel, and then another, each with its own crowded beach.

  I took a shower, then went downstairs to the open-air lobby. The restaurant was closed, so I tried the bar. It showed every sign of having been flown down intact from a Catskill mountain resort I sat there for two hours, drinking, eating peanuts and staring out at the ocean. There were roughly a dozen people in the place. The men looked like sick Mexicans, with thin little mustaches and silk suits that glistened like plastic. Most of the women were Americans, a brittle-looking lot, none of them young, all wearing sleeveless cocktail dresses that fit like rubber sacks.

  I felt like something that had washed up on the beach. My wrinkled cord coat was five years old and frayed at the neck, my pants had no creases and, although it had never occurred to me to wear a tie, I was obviously out of place without one. Rather than seem like a pretender, I gave up on rum and ordered a beer. The bartender eyed me sullenly and I knew the reason why -- I was wearing nothing that glistened. No doubt it was the mark of a bad apple. In order to make a go of it here, I would have to get some dazzling clothes.

  At six-thirty I left the bar and walked outside. It was getting dark and the big Avenida looked cool and graceful. On the other side were homes that once looked out on the beach. Now they looked out on hotels and most of them had retreated behind tall hedges and walls that cut them off from the street. Here and there I could see a patio or a screen porch where people sat beneath fans and drank rum. Somewhere up the street I heard bells, the sleepy tinkling of Brahms' Lullaby.

  I walked a block or so, trying to get the feel of the place, and the bells kept coming closer. Soon an ice-cream truck appeared, moving slowly down the middle of the street. On its roof was a giant popsicle, flashing on and off with red neon explosions that lit up the whole area. From somewhere in its bowels came the clanging of Mr. Brahms' tune. As it passed me, the driver grinned happily and blew his horn.

  I immediately hailed a cab, telling the man to take me to the middle of town. Old San Juan is an island, connected to the mainland by several causeways. We crossed on the one that comes in from Condado. Dozens of Puerto Ricans stood along the rails, fishing in the shallow lagoon, and off to my right was a huge white shape beneath a neon sign that said Caribe Hilton. This, I knew, was the cornerstone of The Boom. Conrad had come in like Jesus and all the fish had followed. Before Hilton there was nothing; now the sky was the limit. We passed a deserted stadium and soon we were on a boulevard that ran along a cliff. On one side was the dark Atlantic, and, on the other, across the narrow city, were thousands of colored lights on cruise ships tied up at the waterfront. We turned off the boulevard and stopped at a place the driver said was Plaza Colon. The fare was a dollar-thirty and I gave him two bills.

  He looked at the money and shook his head.

  “What's wrong?” I said.

  He shrugged. “No change, senor.”

  I felt in my pocket -- nothing but a nickel. I knew he was lying, but I didn't feel like taking the trouble to get a dollar changed. “You goddamn thief,” I said, tossing the bills in his lap. He shrugged again and drove off.

  The Plaza Colon was a hub for several narrow streets. The buildings were jammed together, two and three stories high, with balconies that hung out over the street. The air was hot, and a smell of sweat and garbage rode on the faint breeze. A chatter of music and voices came from open windows. The sidewalks were so narrow that it was an effort to stay out of the gutter, and fruit vendors blocked the streets with wooden carts, selling peeled oranges for a nickel each.

  I walked for thirty minutes, looking into windows of stores that sold “Ivy Liga” clothes, peering into foul bars full of whores and sailors, dodging people on the sidewalks, thinking I would collapse at any moment if I didn't find a restaurant.

  Finally I gave up. There seemed to be no restaurants in the Old City. The only thing I saw was called the New York Diner, and it was closed. In desperation, I hailed a cab and told him to take me to the Daily News.

  He stared at me.

  “The newspaper!” I shouted, slamming the door as I got in.

  “Ah, si,” he murmured. “El Diario, si.”

  “No, goddamnit,” I said. The Daily News -- the American newspaper -- El News."

  He had never heard of it, so we drove back to Plaza Colon, where I leaned out the window and asked a cop. He didn't know either, but finally a man came over from the bus stop and told us where it was.

  We drove down a cobblestone hill toward the waterfront. There was no sign of a newspaper, and I suspected he was bringing me down here to get rid of me. We turned a corner and he suddenly hit his brakes. Just ahead of us was some kind of a gang-fight, a shouting mob, trying to enter an old greenish building that looked like a warehouse.

  “Go on,” I said to the driver. “We can get by.”

  He mumbled and shook his head.

  I banged my fist on the back of the seat “Get going! No move-- no pay.”

  He mumbled again, but shifted into first and angled toward the far side of the street, putting as much distance as possible between us and the fight. He stopped as we came abreast of the building and I saw that it was a gang of about twenty Puerto Ricans, attacking a tall American in a tan suit. He was standing on the steps, swinging a big wooden sign like a baseball bat

  “You rotten little punks!” he yelled. There was a flurry of movement and I heard the sound of mumping and shouting. One of the attackers fell down in the street with blood on his face. The large fellow backed toward the door, waving the sign in front of him. Two men tried to grab it and he whacked one of them in the chest, knocking him down the steps. The others stood away, yelling and shaking their fists. He snarled back at them: “Here it is, punks -- come get it!”

  Nobody moved. He waited a moment, then lifted the sign over his shoulder and threw it into their midst. It hit one man in the stomach, driving him back on the others. I heard a burst of laughter, then he disappeared into the building.

  “Okay,” I said, turning back to the driver. “That's it -- let's go.”

  He shook his head and pointed at the building, then at me. “Si, esta News.” He nodded, then pointed again at the building. “Si,” he said gravely.

  It dawned on me that we were sitting in front of the Daily News -- my new home. I took one look at the dirty mob between me and the door, and decided to go back to the hotel. Just then I heard another commotion. A Volkswagen pulled up behind us and three cops got out, waving long billyclubs and yelling in Spanish. Some of the mob ran, but others stayed to argue. I watched for a moment, then gave the driver a dollar and ran into the building.

  A sign said the News editorial office was on the second floor. I took an elevator, half expecting to find myself lifted into the midst of more violence. But the door opened on a dark hall, and a little to my left I heard the noise of the city room.

  The moment I got inside I felt better. There was a friendly messiness about the place, a steady clatter of typewriters and wire machines, even the smell was familiar.
The room was so big that it looked empty, although I could see at least ten people. The only one not working was a small, black-haired man at a desk beside the door. He was tilted back in a chair, staring at the ceiling.

  I walked over and as I started to speak he jerked around in the chair. “All right!” he snapped. “What the fuck are you after?”

  I glared down at him. “I start work here tomorrow,” I said. “My name's Kemp, Paul Kemp.”

  He smiled faintly. “Sorry -- thought you were after my film.”

  “What?” I said.

  He grumbled something about being “robbed blind,” and “watching it like a hawk.”

  I glanced around the room. “They look normal.”

  He snorted. “Thieves -- packrats.” He stood up and held out his hand. “Bob Sala, staff photographer,” he said. “What brings you in tonight?”

  “I'm looking for a place to eat.”

  He smiled. “You broke?”

  “No, I'm rich -- I just can't find a restaurant”

  He dropped back in his chair. “You're lucky. The first thing you learn here is to avoid restaurants.”

  “Why?” I said. “Dysentery?”

  He laughed. “Dysentery, crabs, gout, Hutchinson's Disease -- you can get anything here, anything at all.” He looked at his watch. “Wait about ten minutes and I'll take you up to Al's.”

  I moved a camera out of the way and sat down on his desk. He leaned back and stared again at the ceiling, scratching his wiry head from time to time and apparently drifting off to some happier land where there were good restaurants and no thieves. He looked out of place here -- more like a ticket-taker at some Indiana carnival. His teeth were bad, he needed a shave, his shirt was filthy, and his shoes looked like they'd come from the Goodwill.

  We sat there in silence until two men came out of an office on the other side of the room. One was the tall American I'd seen fighting in the street. The other was short and bald, talking excitedly and gesturing with both hands.

  “Who's that?” I asked Sala, pointing at the tall one.

  He looked. “The guy with Lotterman?”

  I nodded, presuming the short one to be Lotterman.

  “His name's Yeamon,” said Sala, turning back to the desk. “He's new -- got here a few weeks ago.”

  “I saw him fighting outside,” I said. “A bunch of Puerto Ricans jumped him right in front of the building.”

  Sala shook his head. “That figures -- he's a nut” He nodded. “Probably mouthed off at those union goons. It's some kind of a wildcat strike -- nobody knows what it means.”

  Just then Lotterman called across the room: “What are you doing, Sala?”

  Sala didn't look up. “Nothing -- I'm off in three minutes.”

  “Who's that with you?” Lotterman asked, eyeing me suspiciously.

  “Judge Crater,” Sala replied. “Might be a story.”

  “Judge who?” said Lotterman, advancing on the desk.

  “Never mind,” said Sala. “His name is Kemp and he claims you hired him.”

  Lotterman looked puzzled. “Judge Kemp?” he muttered. Then he smiled broadly and held out both hands. “Oh yes -- Kemp! Good to see you, boy. When did you get in?”

  “This morning,” I said, getting off the desk to shake hands. “I slept most of the day.”

  “Good!” he said. “That's very smart.” He nodded emphatically. “Well, I hope you're ready to go.”

  “Not right now,” I said. “I have to eat.”

  He laughed. “Oh no -- tomorrow. I wouldn't put you to work tonight.” He laughed again. “No, I want you boys to eat.” He smiled down at Sala. “I suppose Bob's going to show you the town, eh?”

  “Sure I am,” said Sala. “Do it on the old expense account, eh?” Lotterman laughed nervously. “You know what I mean, Bob -- let's try to be civil.” He turned and waved at Yeamon, who was standing in the middle of the room, examining a rip in the armpit of his coat

  Yeamon came toward us with a long bow-legged stride, smiling politely when Lotterman introduced me. He was tall, with a face that was either arrogant or something else that I couldn't quite place.

  Lotterman rubbed his hands together. “Yessir, Bob,” he said with a grin. “We're getting a real team together, eh?” He slapped Yeamon on the back. “Old Yeamon just had a scrape with those communist bastards outside,” he said. “They're savage -- they should be locked up.”

  Sala nodded. “They'll kill one of us pretty soon.”

  “Don't say that, Bob,” said Lotterman. “Nobody's going to be killed.”

  Sala shrugged.

  “I called Commissioner Rogan about it this morning,” Lotterman explained. “We can't tolerate this sort of thing -- it's a menace.”

  “Damn right it is,” Sala replied. “To hell with Commissioner Rogan -- we need a few Lugers.” He stood up and pulled his coat off the back of the chair. “Well, time to go.” He looked at Yeamon. “We're going up to Al's -- you hungry?”

  “I'll be up later on,” Yeamon replied. “I want to check by the apartment and see if Chenault's still asleep.”

  “Okay,” said Sala. He waved me toward the door. “Come on. We'll go out the back way -- I don't feel like a fight.”

  “Be careful, boys,” Lotterman called after us. I nodded and followed Sala into the hall. At the rear of the building a stairway led down to a metal door. Sala poked at it with a pocket knife and it swung open. “Can't do it from outside,” he explained as I followed him into the alley.

  His car was a tiny Fiat convertible, half eaten away by rust. It wouldn't start and I had to get out and push. Finally it kicked over and I jumped in. The engine roared painfully as we started up the hill. I didn't think we'd make it, but the little car staggered manfully over the crest and started up another steep hill. Sala seemed unconcerned with the strain, riding the clutch whenever we threatened to stall.

  We parked in front of Al's and went back to the patio. “I'm getting three hamburgers,” said Sala. “That's all he serves.”

  I nodded. “Anything -- I need bulk.”

  He called to the cook and told him we wanted six hamburgers. “And two beers,” he added. “Real quick.”

  “I'll have rum,” I said.

  “Two beers and two rums,” Sala shouted. Then he leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette. “You a reporter?”

  “Yeah,” I said.

  “What brings you down here?”

  “Why not?” I replied. “A man could do worse than the Caribbean.”

  He grunted. “This isn't the Caribbean -- you should have kept on going south.”

  The cook shuffled across the patio with our drinks. “Where were you before this?” Sala asked, lifting his beers off the tray.

  “New York,” I said. “Before that, Europe.”

  “Where in Europe?”

  “All over -- mainly Rome and London.”

  “Daily American!” he asked.

  “Yeah,” I said. “I had a fill-in job for six months.”

  “You know a guy named Fred Ballinger?” he asked.

  I nodded.

  “He's here,” Sala said. “He's getting rich.”

  I groaned. “Man, what a jackass.”

  “You'll see him,” he said with a grin. “He hangs around the office.”

  “What the hell for?” I snapped.

  “Sucks up to Donovan.” He laughed. “Claims he was sports editor of the Daily American.”

  “He was a pimp!” I said.

  Sala laughed. “Donovan threw him down the stairs one night -- he hasn't been around for a while.”

  “Good,” I said. “Who's Donovan -- the sports editor?”

  He nodded. “A drunkard -- he's about to quit”


  He laughed. “Everybody quits -- you'll quit. Nobody worth a shit can work here.” He shook his head. “People dropping out like flies. I've been here longer than anybody -- except Tyrrell, the city editor, and he's going soon. Lotterman does
n't know it yet -- that'll be it -- Tyrrell's the only good head left.” He laughed quickly. “Wait till you meet the managing editor -- can't even write a headline.”

  “Who's that?” I said.

  “Segarra -- Greasy Nick. He's writing the governor's biography. Any time of the day or night he's writing the governor's biography -- can't be disturbed.”

  I sipped my drink. “How long have you been here?” I asked him.

  “Too long, more than a year.”

  “Couldn't be too bad,” I said.

  He smiled. “Hell, don't let me throw you off. You may like it -- there's a type that does.”

  “What type is that?” I asked.

  “Bagmasters,” he replied. “The wheelers and the dealers -- they love it here.”

  “Yeah,” I said. “I got that feeling at the airport.” I looked over at him. “What keeps you here? It's only forty-five dollars to New York.”

  He snorted. “Hell, I make that much in an hour -- just for punching a button.”

  “You sound greedy,” I said.

  He grinned. “I am. There's nobody on the island greedier than me. Sometimes I feel like kicking myself in the balls.”

  Sweep arrived with our hamburgers. Sala grabbed his off the tray and opened them up on the table, throwing the lettuce and tomato slices into the ashtray. “You brainless monster,” he said wearily. “How many times have I told you to keep this garbage off my meat?”

  The waiter stared down at the garbage.

  “A thousand times!” Sala shouted. “I tell you every stinking day!”

  “Man,” I said with a smile. “You should leave -- this place is getting to you.”

  He gobbled one of his hamburgers. “You'll see,” he muttered. “You and Yeamon -- that guy's a freak. He won't last. None of us will last.” He slammed his fist on the table. “Sweep -- more beer!”