It is a weird feeling to sit in a Las Vegas hotel at four in the morning — hunkered down with a notebook and tape recorder in a $75-a-day suite and a fantastic room service bill, run up in forty-eight hours of total madness — knowing that just as soon as dawn comes up you are going to flee without paying a fucking penny . . . go stomping out through the lobby and call your red convertible down from the garage and stand there waiting for it with a suitcase full of marijuana and illegal weapons . . . trying to look casual, scanning the first morning edition of the Las Vegas Sun.
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Indeed. Doctor of Journalism Hunter Thompson understood it all and understood it well over twenty years ago when he wrote those lines. The Weird Feeling. The insensate fear and lunacy to which even the best and the brightest succumb after forty-eight or more hours in Old Cibola, after as much as a week given to shameless and degrading activities in the modern Babylon, a City of Light in the forsaken Wilderness, the malingering Las Vegas, at America’s own annual carnival of technology, the outrageous November bacchanal known as Comdex.
For Comdex 1990 I had hoped to organize a debauched and disgusting pre-show “Nobody Escape the Damnation” party, a wild, substance-induced casino crawl up and down the Strip in commemorative t-shirts and a rented convertible, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons. There was just no other way to do Comdex. Saturday the week before the show I faxed Stagg Meander in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Stagg Meander, Net.D, beer-swilling, cheroot-smoking International Network Guerilla and co-conspirator in previous years’ Comdex degradation, is a pretty colorful fellow, with a fairly colorful résumé which I simply can’t take the time to get into here. Suffice to say that years ago he took over my old job as Computer Graphics Art Director at the Orange County color lab where worked in the early Eighties, and later ended up in Southeast Asia installing networks for small dudes in short-sleeved dress shirts and drab ties who were really nervous about having an uncontrollable maniac like him in their office, but who knew they couldn’t afford not to hire him because he’s really one of the best of his kind in that part of the world.
Stagg’s lucrative international computer consulting business is based for tax reasons on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, and I manage to connect with him several times a year, at the major US and European computer trade shows.
When I contacted him in October he was installing a Banyan VINES system for Malaysian prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad’s UMNO party. He responded to my fax at 2:00 the next morning with a phone call: “Wake up you lazy pig,” he screamed in his contorted mutant voice which sounded like a cross between Orson Welles and William F. Buckley on heroin, “Your fax came just in time! It’s hot as hell down here and I’m getting a lot of shit from the local Micropolis distributor. The bastard supports the Islam party and won’t sell me any drives. I’m gonna have to smuggle some in from Thailand again. Shit, I’m always doing that!”
“You sound busy,” I said groggily, “Are you sure you have the time?”
“We’re talking about Comdex, right? Besides, Mahathir’s just won another goddamn election and everyone’s gone completely apeshit bananas. Plus, I’ve been getting the usual threatening faxes from the defeated opposition, so it’s a good time to vamoose. Those UMNO yo-yos will be so busy celebrating their victory and settling scores with opposition supporters, it’ll be months before they realize the Banyan system is still down. Hey,” he continued, “I gotta tell you about this VINES setup –”
“We don’t have time for that,” I said, sitting up in the darkness, “How soon can you be here?”
“Well, I gotta stop for a couple days in Kabul, to submit a bid for an eighty-node SFT system, with laser printers. It’s a real bitch because Afghanistan’s still on the COCOM list, they can’t get any equipment at all.” I heard him typing on a computer keyboard, then the sound of a modem dialing out. “I’ve gotta set up a delivery route via Holland, Finland and the Soviet Union, figure 30% loss due to pilferage along the way. I might need some extra time in case the mujaheddin are shelling the airport again. Let’s see, in, out, then to Berlin for a couple days.”
“Berlin? Do you really think you have time for that?”
“Why not? All roads lead to Frankfurt in this modern age, and Berlin’s a quick hop from there. I gotta clear some little things up with Joachim Gauck’s Stasi-dissolution committee. There’s a couple files I need to get my hands on before the new German government does. Just to avoid a little embarrassment I don’t need right now, you understand.”
“Of course. Lots of Germans are doing the same thing.”
“Right. So that’s maybe four, five more days, including travel time. Yeah, I can be at LAX in a week. I’ll send a fax from Potsdam when I know the details.”
“Great, that’ll be just in time. I figure we’ll go in Friday night. I’m unemployed this year so my time is my own.”
“By the way, I wanna set up a hospitality suite at the Flamingo Hilton to entertain some prospects from Bophuthatswana and a guy from Uzbekistan. Do we have a vehicle?”
“No sweat, it’s the Marauding White Honda.”
The 1988 Marauding White Honda Civic DX Hatchback had been purchased and outfitted for just this kind of insane high-speed run across the state. I had it stripped to bare essentials, 1.6 liter sixteen-valve electronic fuel injection, lightened flywheel (to 12.5 pounds), Jackson Racing header, Lightspeed center pipe, custom rear muffler exiting on right side, four-wheel independent suspension, H&R race springs, Tokico 5-way front shocks (these were real crap, actually), Koni adjustable rear shocks, Suspension Tech front sway bar, Lightspeed rear sway bar, forged rear lower control arms, Neuspeed front upper tie bar, custom rear upper & lower tie bars (with adjustable front and rear camber), Performance Friction carbon front pads, semi metallic rear shoes, Wilwood brake proportioning valve, five-speed stick and Si trans and clutch, a stock shifter welded for 40% shorter throw, Momo Montecarlo wheel, Sabelt harness, Si instrument cluster, cloth seats and black-tinted glass; no stereo and no air conditioning.
“Shit,” he yelped, “After last year’s fiasco you wanna go back in there in the same fucking car! Are you outta your goddamned mind?” The previous year’s “fiasco” was a 25-minute firefight with a 300E-load of drunken Daewoo hardware engineers right on the Strip. “This time they’ll probably use anti-tank weapons on us!” Indeed. No less a source than Jim Seymour himself swears the Governor was just five minutes from ordering a full napalm assault just to clear us out, get traffic moving again. The fat man should know, he’s been jacked into the Vegas scene for years, ever since he got them for nearly $2.5 million at the first Comdex/Fall, playing Baccarat and calculating the odds on a CP/M-based Osborne disguised as a respirator.
“Relax,” I said, “I just had the Marauding White Honda fitted with a false bottom, and the Bandini brothers threw in solid tires and bulletproof glass for half-price. Besides, we’re going in light this time. No heavy arms.”
“Can you even get anything in California anymore?” he asked. “I’ve been reading the English-language papers in Singapore. If there’s anything you need, let me know and I can make a quick trip to Bangkok, get some of that shit coming in from the Cambodian refugee camps on the Thai border, real broken-in Khmer Rouge stuff –”
“Hey,” I said, “We don’t need any of that, I want to take it easy this year. But I’ll call Jimbo and see what he can do, just to make you happy. And fax through what you need for the hospitality suite.”
Immediately after hanging up on Stagg I called Jimbo. “Dude!” I shouted into the receiver, “Stagg Meander’s coming to Comdex!”
“Shit! With that swine in town we’ll be fucked for sure!” Jimbo had had a very bad experience with Stagg in 1988 in a topless bar in Atlanta, and never really forgave the man for it. “Hey, isn’t Interpol still looking for that bastard for shipping those Swiss pocket modems to the KGB? I don’t need that kind of shit right now. Remember, I’ve got a real job now, and my credit is just about back to normal . . .”
“Quit whining,” I demanded, “He beat that rap a long time ago. Besides, nobody can prove it was him, and it was only the KGB Resident in San Francisco. There’s no law against shipping shit to San Francisco. Not yet. Hey, look, are you still connected? Stagg seems to feel this Comdex might get ugly.”
“Yeah, I can handle it,” he muttered, “Just shove the shopping list into the fax. Anything I can’t get here we can pick up in Vegas. There’s a place off Spring Valley Road which rents out machine guns for Christ’s sake, so there’s no problem with that. But you’re responsible for transportation. I’m not riding with that maniac. I’m flying to Vegas.”
“Fine,” I said, “No worries.”
The mujaheddin were quiet that week, and Frankfurt’s gnarled air-traffic control mess was no worse than usual, so Stagg arrived at LAX without serious incident Thursday night. Friday noon found us loitering around my office apartment south of Los Angeles, waiting for the Post Office to deliver Express Mail a case of Moët champagne, and we couldn’t begin to make our move until almost three o’clock in the afternoon.
In preparation for the hospitality suite, the car was loaded with bourbon, Scotch, gin, vodka, tequila, rum, sipping whiskey, brandy, schnapps, aquavit, sake, Kahlua, Southern Comfort, Bailey’s Irish Bristol Creme, hard cider, chablis, chardonnay, sangria, white zinfandel, burgundy, port, warm jug wine, Asti Spumante, Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, eleven different varieties of beer, ale, lager and light beer, tonic, club soda, ginger ale, Coca-Cola Classic, Diet Coke, 7-Up, Dr. Pepper, root beer, Orange Crush, potato chips, corn chips, tortilla chips, Triscuits, Ritz crackers, stoned wheat crackers, table water crackers, peanuts, trail mix, M&Ms, bean dip, onion dip, guacamole dip, cream cheese, lemons, limes, paper cups, plastic cups, styrofoam cups, napkins, and, in case of emergencies, a supply of penicillin. Plus a week’s luggage for two men, two portable computers, a Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle under the folded-down rear seats, a six-inch Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, a black PC Magazine kit bag with 400 assorted rounds of .223, .38, and .357 caliber ammunition, my Wenger Delemont “Tinker” Swiss Army knife, and a heavy carton containing three reams of cryptic press releases Stagg had copied at Dulles Airport. I also stowed an envelope containing $4,200 in hundreds and fifties, my gambling money for the week.
After loading, there was just enough room in the car to accommodate Stagg and me in the front seats. The rear tires very nearly touched the fender, and trying to slow the damned car down once it got going was an adventure. There was very little traction in the front (drive) wheels, so handling was comparable to that of a 1963 Volkswagen Micro Bus with the tires inflated to 250 psi pulling a house trailer. I mused uneasily about our chances of making it over Cajon Pass.
By this time the temperature had climbed to 87ºF, very unusual for November, and it would be worse out upon the sands. I knew it would be irrational to pit our frail selves against the desert in these conditions. Nonetheless, we couldn’t wait any longer, we simply had to get out of the basin and on our way to Vegas whatever the consequences. Keep moving. All this lingering around over a case of champagne was making us both nervous. Finally Stagg, taking charge of the situation, said, “To hell with it. Do we have all the rest of the liquor?” I nodded solemnly. “Then let’s get out of here. If we need anything else we’ll call and have it Fed-Exed out.”
“Maybe we should wait until the traffic clears up,” I suggested, “It’s going to be unattenuated chaos getting out to Riverside right now.”
Stagg considered this for a moment. “You mean go to the Goat Hill Tavern and drink until about nine o’clock, then drive at top speed all the way up through Cajon Pass?” he mused, “It has possibilities. But I think the most important thing right now is to get this vehicle onto the freeway absolutely as soon as possible, then move among the commuters, for camouflage. There’s simply too much at risk, Comdex starts in only three days.”
His arguments were, of course, irrefutable. Las Vegas was over 200 miles away across the most forbidding desert in the Western Hemisphere, a harsh, unforgiving land where the weak or careless were easy prey for rednecked sheriff’s deputies and carnivorous lizards alike. No place for two sun-crazed computer hacks in a Honda Civic Hatchback without air conditioning. Electronic fuel injection and four-wheel independent suspension would be of little use under these ominous circumstances; our only hope was to join the nightly stream from LA to Vegas, racing the confused, middle class runaways who inexplicably abandon their families and careers while driving home from work, bypass their off-ramps, then keep on going, clear out past Barstow to Death Valley, never to be heard from again. Match speed with these hopeless bastards, then veer straight down I-15 as they turn off at Baker, the worst safely behind us.
“And if we really can’t handle the situation,” I said, producing a triple-A freeway map with every freewayside McDonald’s location between Irvine and Victorville marked with dark green ink, “We can always pull off for a rest and some Big Macs.”
Though Stagg appreciated my careful research and preparations (the map would come in very handy), he wanted to squelch any defeatist sentiments before they gained a foothold in our already exhausted minds. “In case of emergency only,” he qualified.
But it transpired that the sun was simply not an issue. Leaving at three o’clock that Friday afternoon, it took us two hours to reach the outskirts of Riverside and the interchange with Interstate 15. Fortified by two Big Macs, two large orders of french fries, twenty Chicken McNuggets, and regular withdrawals from the Igloo ice chest full of San Miguel beer between Stagg’s feet, we approached Cajon Pass as the sun set.
I had made this run in overstuffed Japanese cars many times before, so I knew the best way to attempt the Pass: Give yourself a good five to ten miles in fifth gear to generate the necessary speed, say eighty or ninety miles per hour, then maintain that speed as far up the Pass as possible, downshifting as required to hump it over Cajon Summit, finally roaring into Victorville at 7,500 rpms in third gear. Any failure to maintain escape velocity condemned you instantly to a humiliating thirteen-mile-per-hour crawl up the right-hand lane. I attempted this technique at great risk to life and limb, as the other drivers simply were not cooperating. I was forced to weave willy-nilly amongst the commuters, shifting wildly between fourth and fifth gear while we crossed the murderous San Andreas Fault.
Stagg was alert for signs of California Highway Patrol 5.0 liter Mustangs, but it hardly mattered, since no Highway Patrolman in his right mind would dare to pull over a dangerously overloaded Honda Civic at the foot of Cajon Pass. In fact, I was counting on one or two of them to provide blocking protection. I was far more worried about sociopathic deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, a creepy hotbed of dangerous atavistic jingoism.
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are those goddamn animals?”
– Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The Crossing was smooth and uneventful, and three hours out of Victorville we were racing down the mountain into the painful incandescence of the Whiskey Pete’s, Primadonna and Kactus Kate’s casino complexes which marked the Nevada border. An hour later, we were cruising down Flamingo Road, across the Strip to Paradise.
Traffic on the Strip was Las Vegas Ugly, the typical blend of automotive ineptitude and breezy unconsciousness, with most cars moving along at a brisk (by Vegas standards) seven miles per hour. I was severely handicapped by the pathetic handling of my normally spry Honda, and I very nearly splattered several oblivious motorists who neglected to take the Civic’s overcorpulent condition seriously.
As usual, the pedestrians spilled out onto the Strip like confused termites, reeling, apparently, from ruthless hammerings at the craps tables, and Stagg was obliged to lean out of the window and shout them down as we wove awkwardly by. At the intersection with Paradise, while we were waiting for the left turn arrow, Stagg lunged behind my seat, ratting about for something under my forest green Land’s End sweater. My blood ran cold as I realized exactly what he was searching for; the .357 Magnum. “You son of a bitch!” I shouted, “I paid $600 for that thing! You flash it around here, three blocks from the Strip, and they’ll take it away. I’ll never see it again.”
“Are you crazy?” he said, “This is Nevada! They’ll put you away and flush the key just for transporting these weapons into the State.”
“What’s wrong with the .357?”
“It’s not the .357, it’s that assault rifle under the back seat. If the local fascists find your California semi-auto they’ll tear you to shreds. What do you think’s gonna happen when five of those sadistic Clark County Sheriff’s Deputies catch you and your wimpy Ruger with full-auto permanently disabled? They’ll pummel you to death with their MAC-10s!”
He was right. Still, I preferred some armament to none, especially in this town, especially when I considered the fate of the junketing Baton Rouge Montgomery Ward assistant sales manager who, during the 1988 Consumer Electronics Show, was beaten to death with a 99-cent half-pound hot dog outside the Slots-o-Fun casino by an enraged acid-casualty from Mendocino. Surely, even a semi-automatic assault rifle was more than a match for a 99-cent half-pound hot dog, or was it? “Maybe we should have brought the Uzi,” I suggested.
“Who can afford 9mm ammo anymore?” said Stagg, “Anyway, forget about it. We’re almost to the motel.”
The desk at the Best Western Mardi Gras Inn on Paradise, a block away from the Convention Center, was staffed at night by a pretty teen-aged thing, apparently overwhelmed by the mounting Comdex traffic and obviously alarmed by the prospect of two paranoid and dehydrated computer fiends loping into the lobby. Stagg demanded a room with a view, “It is essential that we overlook the Las Vegas Country Club,” he said from behind his Ray-Ban Wayfarers, “We are professionals.”
This impressed the girl, and we were given the key to a room on the third floor. Stagg looked at her again through his Wayfarers and said, “Hey, you’re too pretty for this kind of work.” He flipped a card in front of her “When you want to see the world, fax me.”
“Hey,” she said, frowning at the card, “This is all in Arabic.”
“Hey, turn it over, it’s English on the other side,” said Stagg, and when she did I could see an address in Damascus and the name “Stagg Meander, Love Merchant.”
“Hey,” said the girl again, but I was already moving, and Stagg muttered, “Let’s get out of here before she calls the manager. I’d hate to have to kill him.”
When we got to the room Stagg ran straight into the bathroom and cranked up the shower to full heat, then hung all his shirts on the curtain rod. “Hey, these don’t look so bad,” he said, waving aloft a hopelessly mangled robin’s egg blue banker’s pinpoint, “They’ve been in that suitcase since my trip to Somalia last June.”
While Stagg rummaged through his bags, I hid the weapons, replacing the ammunition in the black PC Magazine kit bag with several Diego Garcia cigars, a six-pack of Miller Genuine Draft and other essentials. I heard Stagg in the bathroom, submerging his face in the basin, then hawking and spitting noisily into the bowl. When he finally came tramping out, I said, “Let’s go play some blackjack.”
We left the shower on and took the bloated Civic down to the Tropicana. The Trop security thugs eyed the PC Magazine kit bag suspiciously as we moved among the tables, looking for a hot one with the third base seat open. Stagg was looking natty in the Ray-Bans, khaki chinos, silk shirt, paratrooper boots and fruity beret; I was wearing a coordinating Land’s End ensemble highlighted by our famous blue “Nobody Escapes” long-sleeve t-shirt.
While we were playing cards, two obvious Comdexers sat down at the table and began splitting tens, Dave Maxwell and Phil Stacks of DigiMag, an exhibiting company in the tape-backup business. Although the other players were muttering and getting up from the table, these two guys were having the time of their lives; it was apparently the first Comdex they had ever attended and, judging by the way they played blackjack, their first time in Las Vegas. Stagg and I decided to befriend these pathetic bastards, forcing cigars onto them and advising them about what to hit and what not to hit. After about twenty hands, the four of us were hooting and shouting, when suddenly Stagg decided we needed to go to the Hilton at once, to see if there was anybody there we knew. We exchanged business cards with Dave and Phil and left the Trop.
The Hilton itself was very busy, and Stagg and I were sodomized brutally, losing hundreds of dollars within minutes. “This place is very heavy,” said Stagg, and since we couldn’t find anyone we knew, we drove a block down Paradise back to the Mardi Gras Inn. We lifted a few Jamaican Red Stripes out of the Honda and sucked on them in our room while watching the last bits of a tit movie on HBO.
The next morning we parked in the Convention Center lot and wandered over to the registration tent with the black PC Magazine kit bag, this time filled with Anchor Steam beers. We needed exhibitor badges so we could roam the halls during setup, networking like iguanas and making valuable pre-show contacts.
The registration tent was almost empty, as it usually is two days before the opening of the show, when we sauntered up to the “D” window at the exhibitor registration desk. We presented the business cards we had picked up the night before and walked back out of the tent with Dave and Phil’s exhibitor badges.
I must admit, I really enjoy all the pre-show Convention Center activity. The hall is always a mess, with machinery and crates and equipment strewn all over the place, exhibitors screaming at carpenters and at each other, forklifts careening around corners at frightening speeds, the smell of sweat and motor exhaust and, yes, fear. That crazy, numbing fear that grips so many exhibitors as they board their planes to Vegas, which never quite lets go until Monday at noon when the show is on and it’s far too late to worry about lost opportunities. Then they binge like drunken Finns, ignoring the whines and complaints from their salesman who arrive Sunday night, well after the crest of the pre-show madness.
Most exhibitors spend the weekend squawking at the Greyhound Exposition decorators or drinking beer in their booths with Giltspur carpenters. Higher-level dudes delegate the booth set-up to their techies and marketing communications girls and schmooze their way around the hall in polo shirts and Rockport Walkers, just as Stagg and I were doing.
Stagg needed to call his girlfriend in Malaysia, so we walked into what was to become one of the two Microsoft booths. Stagg asked a carpenter, “Say, where’s the phone around here?” and he directed us towards an information counter near the center of the booth, beside a workstation with a techie who was working on Microsoft Excel. Stagg waved at the techie, whose badge said Craig Something. “Hi, Craig,” Stagg said as he dialed the city code for Kuala Lumpur. Craig nodded back morosely, mentally pegging us, no doubt, as some marketing snakes from the Languages Group, and clearly uninterested in anything Stagg had to say on the phone.
After Stagg spoke to Slippery Jo in Kuala Lumpur for about ten minutes, we worked our way around the hall, meeting old friends and making new ones, collecting party invites, and trading most of the beer in the PC Magazine kit bag for t-shirts, hand-held modems, and software samples. Finally, Stagg decided that we ought to go back to the Hilton, to try to get some of our own back from the night before and maybe see some of the college games at the sports book, so we worked our way back through the hall.
On the way out Stagg remembered that he wanted to stop by Hewlett-Packard to pick up a DeskJet, so we detoured by the HP booth, where he asked the first HPer we saw, “So who’s got the DeskJets?” We were sent over to a harried young girl presiding over a ragged sheet of paper with a list of names and companies. Stagg smiled toothily through his beard and said, “I’m Stagg Meander, from WordPerfect, here to pick up our DeskJet.”
“We don’t have you on the list,” the girl said, glancing uneasily at the paper in her hand.
“That’s okay,” he soothed, “Audry didn’t know we needed one until last week. Do you have any to spare?”
She regarded a stack of cartons behind her. “We only have one more.”
“One will be fine,” Stagg said as he hefted the remaining DeskJet. “Do you have any RAM or font cartridges? And I’ll need a parallel cable.”
She found a cable, a meg of RAM and a couple of font cartridges, and I put them in my PC Magazine kit bag. Then I offered her the last Anchor Steam. “It’s a little warm, but you look like you could use a break,” I said, smiling, reminding myself how revolting Anchor Steam tastes when it gets the least bit warm.
She grinned lethargically as she accepted the beer and said, “Thanks a lot. Have a good show.”
“You have a good show too,” said Stagg as he walked off carrying the DeskJet.
At the security desk next to the hall entrance I piled the DeskJet, RAM, fonts and cable in front of the nice old lady guard while Stagg meticulously filled out the equipment pass. Then he gave the pass to the lady with Dave Maxwell’s exhibitor badge. As she ran the pass through the imprinter Stagg shook his head wearily, muttering, “Comdex/Fall, shit. Nobody escapes the damnation.”