DISPATCH FROM RALPH STEADMAN

story by Ralph STEADman

art by Joey Feldman

TAXI TO THE SUBURBS … NO ROOM AT THE INN …  A SAVAGE ENCOUNTER ON A STAIRWAY IN THE DARK… TERROR HITCHES A LIFT ON THE BATTERSEA PARK ROAD…

IMG_0913I must’ve been early getting to the Latchmere Theatre that Monday. The theatre was situated above a recently renovated pub along Battersea’s conveyor-belt main street.  I was wearing my Allen Ginsberg skull-mask with glasses to avoid unwanted confrontations.  I found the back entrance up a newly erected iron fire escape and went inside.

Immediately on my left, there was a door. It was open. It looked like a toilet.  Inside, a dark figure hunched over the pan. My god, I thought, I hadn’t expected such realism, not so soon anyway.  I’ve been out in the country for two years, so I’m out of touch with theatre. I didn’t like to ask if he was okay. Actors get funny at rehearsals, though I didn’t remember a bag of plumber’s tools lying there in the actual book. So I moved on.

Stumbling down a dark corridor, over pipes and dangerously loose wires I made my way toward sounds of banging and out-of-tune whistles.

“Ah Hullo!” I grabbed the hand of a tall, slender character emerging from a door with light beyond. He was wearing shades.  I shook his hand warmly.

“My God, you look just like him,” I said.  He looked at me and he looked at the mask I was wearing.  “Oh, sorry, don’t worry,” I said as I removed it.  “It’s me, Ralpho Steadman.  You must be playing Hunter S. Thompson. It’s amazing! You could be him.”

“What!?”  he looked at me strangely.

“Hunter.” I continued, “You’ve got him off to a tee, the way you move, the nervous twitch.  The weird, deep voice ….. Amazing.”

“Er…” He looked a little nonplussed.

“Oh sorry,” I said. “Relax, it’s okay. I’m not spying. Just looking in. You know.  You’re great – keep it up. Ah…don’t I know your face. From telly perhaps? Great stuff.”

“Don’t think so,” he said shuffling uneasily.

“Oh sorry. It’s theatre, right?” I replied, looking for openers. “Real acting! None of those crappy re-takes. Straight off first time. Know your lines. Tradition. That sort of thing. What’s your name? I ought to know you.”

“It’s Arnold,” he said. “I’m the electrician.”

“Ah…yes – just the man I want to see. Look – er, my wife’s thinking of opening a nursery school in our outbuilding.  Nothing grand. About 30 kids. Proper thing. Not just child-minding. The place needs electrifying of course. You ever work out of town? Never mind. I’m looking for Lou Stein. Is he here?”

“Try up those stairs. Take a left, along the corridor, then right down the end.  They’ll know.”

“Thanks. And don’t forget – day in the country – do you good.” I scribbled out my number and turned to leap upstairs.

“Oopsaaaieeeeeeee!!” A sharp pain, like thirteen cattle prods all at once, took my breath away as I drove my shin bone into the bonnet of a huge, red fibreglass Chevy convertible being carried across my path.

“Ouch and Hell!” I screamed, as I tried to hold in the agony and sorrows I’d long forgotten. “Sorry, my fault!  Is that it? The red convertible? Oh no! Arrrgh! No!”

“Are you alright?” The voice came from a tiny girl in a cream-white fluffy V-neck sweater who had been carrying the Chevy with another figure in the shadows.

“Blood!” I screamed. “I’m bleeding! Oh God, all over my pants. Get me a doctor quick! A real doctor. Nothing Gonzo – I don’t want to die ….!”

“Relax man. It’s only red paint. We just sprayed the Chevy.”

“Thank god!” I said, then stiffened. “My pants!’ They’re new pants! What about my pants? I wore them specially.  First time on. Okay, okay, never mind. It wasn’t your fault.” Calming down, I said between gritted teeth, “I’m looking for Lou Stein. Thanks.” I said as she pointed upstairs. I put my mask on again and made for the stairway.

“Mind your hea…!” said the girl in the cream-white V-neck. “Oh dear, people are always doing that.”

Dazed but still in control, I stumbled forward along the gloomy landing above towards a crack of light.

I knocked and pushed open the door. Two girls sat on boxes at a desk that these days you can only find on out-of-town rubbish tips: the kind that fetch big prices in furniture caves.

“Hello!” I said. “Is Lou here?  He’s expecting me.”

“He’s up at the Gate, rehearsing.”

“He said he’d be rehearsing here.”

“Well he’s not due here until tomorrow or Wednesday.”

“Shit! I came here specially. I’m reviewing the play for Time Out. My career depends upon it.”

The girl nearest the window looked out at the rush hour traffic down below and picked up a copy of The Big Issue.

I could tell their coffee was cold by the way the milk was floating on the surface. They couldn’t possibly know how many sacrifices I had made to be here on time. That feeling rises in me more often than it used to when I come to London. It’s probably just me.

“They’ll be rehearsing up there if you want to go up now. We can’t tell him you’re coming.  We’re having trouble with the phones.”

“Can’t pay the bill eh?  Heh! Heh!” My tongue crawled around the words behind my Allen Ginsberg mask.

“Not at all. There’s trouble on the line. You know what Telecom’s like! You can pay but you can’t say.” That’s good I thought. This kid could be smart one day. She can’t be more than 15-and-a-half.  A helpless enthusiast.

“Can you get me a taxi?  It’s ten past five already.”

Naturally, I was down on the Battersea Park Road within minutes waiting for the cab.  The rush hour was building up. Sarah, the young lady with me, a Fear and Loathing student no less, was by this time doubting my ability to handle even this simple operation.

“I have always found,” I counselled, “that if you have ordered something to happen like a cab downstairs in five minutes, then you should abide by that. Otherwise, where would we be? These people would never cross London for anybody. They are scum. So think of those who come after. It’s the only decent thing to do!”

“Bullshit!” she replied. “If those Motherfuckers aren’t here like they should be, why wait?”

The words left her petal-lips like a burst of fire from a flame thrower. She was right, of course. What kind of service was this?

We hailed the next cab and got to the Gate Theatre in little more than 15 minutes.  Even the young can teach you something, crude as they are.

This time it was cut and dried. Upstairs we were greeted with knowing looks of friendliness.  We were home at last.

Through the scenery sat a girl. We walked around the actors mouthing their lines, like late-comers to an evening performance.

Attorney: I want tacos…
   Duke: Five for a buck, that`s like… five hamburgers for a buck.
   Attorney: No…don`t judge a taco by its price.
   Duke: You think you might make a deal?
   Attorney: I might. There`s a hamburger for 29 cents.
   Tacos are 29 cents. It`s just a cheap place, that`s all.

   Duke: Go bargain with them…

We settled down comfortably, yet decently quiet. I searched frantically for the characters of the play. The two I knew best, that is. I saw Oscar immediately, but where was Hunter? Maybe that was him with the hat. I took out a notebook and started to draw. It looked interesting, a group of people seated together, waiting expectantly for the prompt to give them their lines. Gradually I focused on the characters and figured out which one was meant to be Hunter. Of course, when I saw him it was obvious. Small in stature but where was the nobility? I looked in vain…

Waitress: May I help you?
   Attorney:…Yeah, you have tacos here? Are they Mexican tacos or just regular
    tacos! I mean, do you have chili in them and things like that?
   Waitress: We have cheese and lettuce, and we have sauce, you know, put on
   them.
   Attorney: I mean do you guarantee that they are authentic Mexican tacos?
   Waitress: I don`t know. Hey Lou, do we have authentic Mexican tacos?
   Woman`s voice from the kitchen: What?
   Lou: We have tacos. I don`t know how Mexican they are.
   Attorney: Yeah, well, I just want to make sure I get what I`m paying for. ‘Cause
   they’re five for a dollar? I’ll take five of them.

   Duke: Taco burger, what’s that?…

I leapt up.

“That’s not Hunter,” I screamed. “He doesn’t talk like this.” I grimaced, the memory stuck in my mind. “Holy shit…he doesn’t say Holy shit. He says…Hoooly Shit! It’s important. It comes from the gut. Sorry I didn’t mean to interrupt. Do carry on.”

I sat down and put my Ginsberg mask on again. I fucked up again. What a shame. I had thought I’d try to create a decent impression. The actors continued as though nothing had happened, mouthing their lines, doing their best, trying valiantly to find characters that were still 10,000 miles away.

“You’re talking too fast,” I said. “Remember the heat. They’re in the desert, right.” Oh, the heat, they remember the heat. “And the flies, swarms of flies. The place. The place is…a concrete block with a gawdy cheap sign outside. Inside there can only be slobs. Slow-moving scum. There’s grease on the tables. There’s nothing to hurry for – slow down. Talking is an effort. You’ll give your order and the waiter’ll look at you for five minutes before even her eyelids move. Slowly down, then up again. Then she’ll move her head around like an alligator beckoning its mate…Hunter’s polite. He’s always polite. The sight of this place would put a look of bruised dismay on his face , but he’d be polite. Particularly when there’s no alternative. This won’t be the time he’ll beat the table with his fist and throw his tacos at the wall like a lunatic. He only does that kind of thing in airport lounges and Holiday Inns…He…er, sorry…”

The Director was beckoning me to keep quiet. The actors had crossed their arms and were looking at their watches. I looked down and scribbled a few aimless lines in an attempt to cover my shame.

“Relax into your parts.” The Director was talking now. “The audience wants to enjoy this play,” he was saying. “They’re already convinced so you don’t need to hurry.”

“Right,” I interrupted. “Lou’s right there! This book’s already gone down in American literary history like The Grapes of Wrath and…Peyton Place. You’re dealin’ with a classic here, a luxury these days, I can tell you.”

“Er, Stew…take it from…” – looking down at the script – “The Taco had meat in it. Okay, quiet everybody.”

The actors started up again and trying not to fidget, I rummaged around in my bag for another pen.

“Damn! My letters! Psst! Lou! Psst! Is there a postbox  near here? Forgot to post my letters. Must go today.” He nodded with his head in his hands. I stumbled up and over the back of the seat and looked for a door.

“Psst! Lou! Psst! Lou!” Lou turned his head around very slowly, his face the face of a man who looked as if he’d been imprisoned in the Bastille for two years and was used to pain.

“You’ll have to go that way,” he said laconically, pointing through the actors to an opening at the back of the stage.

“Back in a mo’! You fellas carry on.”

IMG_0914It didn’t take long to find the postbox and I was back in no time, starting across the stage just as Duke was saying, “Don’t worry. I’m insured against all damages for only two dollars a day.” He said this as he was walking offstage.

“The walk’s wrong!” I screamed, leaping up again. “He doesn’t walk like that. He walks like this.” And my poor-fool mind allowed my body to attempt a pathetic imitation of the man they were trying to portray. At that moment I knew I shouldn’t have come back because I just couldn’t stop myself. I grabbed a bag and walked with it like he would walk, explaining all the while that this is what he does…

“He holds a cigarette this way, hand raised slightly cupped on a vertical forearm with his body off-balance, like this. He jerks his head back when he lights up – like this – as if to focus on the tip, and don’t forget the Zippo lighter. He holds a steering wheel like this down between the middle fingers of his free hand like this, cupped on the palm so’s he can swivel it through three revolutions without taking his hand off that point of the wheel. And when he bellows to God or no one in particular, it sounds like a rhinoceros with a tank on its foot – Ahharrrrrrrrrrrgh!!!! Eeeeeeeeeee!oooooooo!”

I forced a sickly smile here as the actors backed off against the wall and I continued… “and he’s big and he’s clumsy, but he’s gentle and it is him we’re talking about. It’ll be Raoul Duke but it’s Hunter S. You can’t disguise it. He’s got one leg shorter than the other and he walks like this and, dramatically speaking, it’s most important. It gives the man his lumbering dignity. It gives him all he needs to melt the heart of the hardest stewardess on the cheapest airline anywhere in America and that’s all you need to know.”

I slumped down in an emotional heap and tried to crawl under a big bag full of stage props. Nothing would bring me out, finally hoisted by my own gibberish! They looked at me, but said nothing.

By this time I was laughing crazily. But it made no difference. I was just another fucked-up cleric with a bad heart. Shit, they’ll love this down at the Brown Palace. I took another big hit of the amyl, and by the time I got to the bar my heart was full of joy. I felt like a monster reincarnation of Horatio Alger…a Man on the Move, and just sick enough to be totally confident……..

ralph-steadman

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