DOOMED LOVE AT THE TACO STAND

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TIME asked HUNTER S. THOMPSON, a former copyboy here who went on to an even more exciting career as a gonzo journalist, to report from the set of the movie being made of his 1971 book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which Johnny Depp plays Thompson and the author appears in a cameo role. Thompson, who this year published a volume of collected letters called The Proud Highway, ended up taking Depp's car and checkbook on a romantic adventure. Fasten your seat belts...

Oct. 11th (HOLLYWOOD)

Going to Hollywood is a dangerous high-pressure gig for most people, under any circumstances. It is like pumping hot steam into thousands of different-size boilers. The laws of physics mandate that some will explode before others--although all of them will explode sooner or later unless somebody cuts off the steam.

I love steam myself, and I have learned to survive under savage and unnatural pressures. I am a steam freak. Hollywood is chicken feed to me. I can take it or leave it. I have been here before, many times. On some days it seems like I have lived at the Chateau Marmont for half my life. There is blood on these walls, and some of it is mine. Last night I sliced off the tips of two fingers and bled so profusely in the elevator that they had to take it out of service.

But nobody complained. I am not just liked at the Chateau, I am well-liked. I have important people thrown out or black-listed on a whim. Nobody from the Schwarzenegger organization, for instance, can even get a drink at the Chateau. They are verboten. There is a ghastly political factor in doing any business with Hollywood. You can't get by without five or six personal staff people--and at least one personal astrologer.

I have always hated astrologers, and I like to have sport with them. They are harmless quacks in the main, but some of them get ambitious and turn predatory, especially in Hollywood. In Venice Beach I ran into a man who claimed to be Johnny Depp's astrologer. "I consult with him constantly," he told me. "We are never far away. I have many famous clients." He produced a yellow business card and gave it to me. "I can do things for you," he said. "I am a player."

I took his card and examined it carefully for a moment, as if I couldn't quite read the small print. But I knew he was lying, so I leaned toward him and slapped him sharply in the nuts. Not hard, but very quickly, using the back of my hand and my fingers like a bullwhip, yet very discreetly.

He let out a hiss and went limp, unable to speak or breathe. I smiled casually and kept on talking to him as if nothing had happened. "You filthy little creep," I said to him. "I am Johnny Depp!"

Outside on the boulevard I saw a half-naked young girl on roller skates being mauled by two huge dogs. They were Great Danes, apparently running loose. Both had their paws on her shoulder, and the gray one had her head in its mouth. But there was no noise, and nobody seemed to notice.

I grabbed a fork off the bar and rushed outside to help her, giving the bogus astrologer another slap in the nuts on my way out. When I got to the street, the dogs were still mauling the girl. I stabbed the big one in the ribs with my fork, which sank deep into the tissue. The beast yelped crazily and ran off with its tail between its legs. The other one quickly released its grip on the girl's head and snarled at me. I slashed at it with the fork, and that was enough for the brute. It backed off and slunk away toward Muscle Beach.

I took the girl back to the Buffalo Club and applied aloe to her wounds. The astrologer was gone, and we had the lounge to ourselves. Her name was Heidi, she said, and she had just arrived in L.A. to seek work as a dancer. It was the third time in 10 days she'd been attacked by wild dogs on the Venice boardwalk, and she was ready to quit L.A., and so was I. The pace was getting to me. I was not bored, and I still had work to do, but it was definitely time to get out of town. I had to be in Big Sur in three days, and then to a medical conference in Pebble Beach. She was a very pretty girl, about 30, with elegant legs and a wicked kind of intelligence about her, but she was also very naive about Hollywood. I saw at once that she would be extremely helpful on my trip north.

I listened to her for a while, then I offered her a job as my assistant, which I badly needed. She accepted, and we drove back to the Chateau in Depp's Porsche. As we pulled up the ramp to the underground garage, the attendants backed off and signaled me in. Depp's henchmen had left word that nobody could touch the car except me. I parked it expertly, barely missing a red BMW 840Ci, and we went up the elevator to my suite.

I reached for my checkbook, but it was missing, so I used one of Depp's that I'd found in the glove compartment of his car. I wrote her a healthy advance and signed Depp's name to it. "What the hell?" I said to her. "He's running around out there with my checkbook right now, probably racking up all kinds of bills."

That was the tone of my workdays in Hollywood: violence, joy and constant Mexican music. At one club I played the bass recorder for several hours with the band. We spent a lot of time drinking gin and lemonade on the balcony, entertaining movie people and the ever present scribe from Rolling Stone magazine...

You bet, bubba, I was taking care of business. It was like the Too Much Fun Club. I had the Cadillac and a green Mustang in the garage, in addition to the Carerra 4 Porsche, but we could only drive one of them up the coast. It was an uptown problem.

Depp, meanwhile, was driving around town in my car, the Red Shark, and passing himself off as me. It was part of the movie, he said, but it gave me the creeps.

Finally it got to be too much, so we loaded up the Northstar Cadillac and fled. Why not? I thought. The girl had proved to be a tremendous help, and besides, I was beginning to like her.

Oct. 12th (PISMO BEACH)

The sun was going down as we left Malibu and headed north on 101, running smoothly through Oxnard and along the ocean to Santa Barbara. My companion was a little nervous about my speed, so I gave her some gin to calm her down. Soon she relaxed against me, and I put my arm around her. Roseanne Cash was on the radio, singing about the seven-year ache, and the traffic was opening up.

As we approached the Lompoc exit, I mentioned that Lompoc was the site of a federal penitentiary and I once had some friends over there.

"Oh?" she said. "Who were they?"

"Prisoners," I said. "Nothing serious. That's where Ed was."

She stiffened and moved away from me, but I turned up the music and we settled back to drive and watch the moon come up. What the hell? I thought. Just another young couple on the road to the American Dream.

Things started to get weird when I noticed Pismo Beach coming up. I was on the cell phone with Benicio del Toro, the famous Puerto Rican actor, telling him about the time I was violently jailed in Pismo Beach and how it was making me nervous to even pass a road sign with that name on it. "Yeah," I was saying, "it was horrible. They beat me on the back of my legs. It was a case of mistaken identity." I smiled at my assistant, not wanting to alarm her, but I saw that she was going into a fetal crouch and her fingers were clutching the straps of her seat belt.

Just then we passed two police cars parked on the side of the road, and I saw that we were going a hundred and three.

"Slow down!" Heidi was screaming. "Slow down! We'll be arrested. I can't stand it!" She was sobbing and clawing at the air.

"Nonsense," I said. "Those were not police. My radar didn't go off." I reached over to pat her on the arm, but she bit me and I had to pull over. The only exit led to a dangerous-looking section of Pismo Beach, but I took it anyway.

It was just about midnight when we parked under the streetlight in front of the empty Mexican place on Main Street. Heidi was having a nervous breakdown. There was too much talk about jails and police and prisons, she said. She felt like she was already in chains.

I left the car in a crosswalk and hurried inside to get a taco. The girl behind the register warned me to get my car off the street because the police were about to swoop down on the gang of thugs milling around in front of the taco place. "They just had a fight with the cops," she said. "Now I'm afraid somebody is going to get killed."

We were parked right behind the doomed mob, so I hurried out to roust Heidi and move the car to safety. Then we went back inside very gently and sat down in a booth at the rear of the room. I put my arm around Heidi and tried to calm her down. She wanted gin, and luckily I still had a pint flask full of it in my fleece-lined jacket pocket. She drank greedily, then fell back in the booth and grinned. "Well, so much for that," she chirped. "I guess I really went crazy, didn't I?"

"Yes," I said. "You were out of control. It was like dealing with a vampire."

She smiled and grasped my thigh. "I am a vampire," she said. "We have many a mile to go before we sleep. I am hungry."

"Indeed," I said. "We will have to fill up on tacos before we go any farther. I too am extremely hungry."

Just then the waitress arrived to take our order. The mob of young Chicanos outside had disappeared very suddenly, roaring off into the night in a brace of white pickup trucks. They were a good-natured bunch, mainly teenagers with huge shoulders wearing Dallas Cowboys jerseys and heads like half-shaved coconuts. They were not afraid of the cops, but they left anyway.

The waitress was hugely relieved. "Thank God," she said. "Now Manuel can live one more night. I was afraid they would kill him. We have only been married three weeks." She began sobbing, and I could see she was about to crack. I introduced myself as Johnny Depp, but I saw the name meant nothing to her. Her name was Maria. She was 17 years old and had lied about her age to get the job. She was the manager and Manuel was the cook. He was almost 21. Every night strange men hovered around the taco stand and mumbled about killing him.

Maria sat down in the booth between us, and we both put our arms around her. She shuddered and collapsed against Heidi, kissing her gently on the cheek. "Don't worry," I said. "Nobody is going to be killed tonight. This is the night of the full moon. Some people will die tonight, but not us. I am protected."

Which was true. I am a Triple Moon Child, and tonight was the Hunter's Moon. I pulled the waitress closer to me and spoke soothingly. "You have nothing to fear, little one," I told her. "No power on earth can harm me tonight. I walk with the King."

She smiled and kissed me gratefully on my wrist. Manuel stared balefully at us from his perch in the kitchen, saying nothing. "Rest easy," I called out to him. "Nobody is going to kill you tonight."

"Stop saying that!" Heidi snapped, as Manuel sunk further into himself. "Can't you see he's afraid?" Maria began crying again, but I jerked her to her feet. "Get a grip on yourself," I said sharply. "We need more beer and some pork tacos to go. I have to drive the whole coast tonight."

"That's right," said my companion. "We're on a honeymoon trip. We're in a hurry." She laughed and reached for my wallet. "Come on, big boy," she cooed. "Don't try to cheat. Just give it to me."

"Watch yourself," I snarled, slapping her hand away from my pocket. "You've been acting weird ever since we left L.A. We'll be in serious trouble if you go sideways on me again."

She grinned and stretched her arms lazily above her head, poking her elegant little breasts up in the air at me like some memory from an old Marilyn Monroe calendar and rolling her palms in the air.

"Sideways?" she said. "What difference does it make? Let's get out of here. We're late."

I paid the bill quickly and watched Maria disappear into the kitchen. Manuel was nowhere in sight. Just as I stepped into the street, I noticed two police cars coming at us from different directions. Then another one slowed down right in front of the taco stand.

"Don't worry," I said to Heidi. "They're not looking for us."

I seized her by the leg and rushed her into the Cadillac. There was a lot of yelling as we pulled away through the circling traffic and back out onto Highway 101.

My mind was very much on my work as we sped north along the coast to Big Sur. We were into open country now, running straight up the coast about a mile from the ocean on a two-lane blacktop road across the dunes with no clouds in the sky and a full moon blazing down on the Pacific. It was a perfect night to be driving a fast car on an empty road along the edge of the ocean with a half-mad beautiful woman asleep on the white leather seats and Lyle Lovett crooning doggerel about screwheads who go out to sea with shotguns and ponies in small rowboats just to get some kind of warped revenge on a white man with bad habits who was only trying to do them a favor in the first place.

You bet. My mind was wandering, thinking about Lyle. I was just with him in Hollywood. We both had roles in my movie, but Lyle had a trailer and I didn't. I had to settle for half of Depp's trailer, along with his C4 Porsche and his wig, so I could look more like myself when I drove around Beverly Hills and stared at people when we rolled to a halt at stoplights on Rodeo Drive.

Oct. 13th (BIG SUR)

I lost control of the Cadillac about halfway down the slope. The road was slick with pine needles, and the eucalyptus trees were getting closer together. The girl laughed as I tried to aim the car through the darkness with huge tree trunks looming up in the headlights and the bright white moon on the ocean out in front of us. It was like driving on ice, going straight toward the abyss.

We shot past a darkened house and past a parked Jeep, then crashed into a waterfall high above the sea. I got out of the car and sat down on a rock, then lit up the marijuana pipe. "Well," I said to Heidi, "this is it. We must have taken a wrong turn."

She laughed and sucked on some moss. Then she sat down across from me on a log. "You're funny," she said. "You're very strange--and you don't know why, do you?"

I shook my head softly and drank some gin.

"No," I said. "I'm stupid."

"It's because you have the soul of a teenage girl in the body of an elderly dope fiend," she whispered. "That is why you have problems." She patted me on the knee. "Yes. That is why people giggle with fear every time you come into a room. That is why you rescued me from those dogs in Venice."

I stared out to sea and said nothing for a while. But somehow I knew she was right. Yes sir, I said slowly to myself, I have the soul of a teenage girl in the body of an elderly dope fiend. No wonder they can't understand me.

This is a hard dollar, on most days, and not many people can stand it. Indeed. If the greatest mania of all is passion: and if I am a natural slave to passion: and if the balance between my brain and my soul and my body is as wild and delicate as the skin of a Ming vase--

Well, that explains a lot of things, doesn't it? We need look no further. Yes sir, and people wonder why I seem to look at them strangely. Or why my personal etiquette often seems makeshift and contradictory, even clinically insane... Hell, I don't miss those whispers, those soft groans of fear when I enter a civilized room. I know what they're thinking, and I know exactly why. They are extremely uncomfortable with the idea that I am a teenage girl trapped in the body of a 60-year-old career criminal who has already died 16 times. Sixteen, all documented. I have been crushed and beaten and shocked and drowned and poisoned and stabbed and shot and smothered and set on fire by my own bombs...

All these things have happened, and probably they will happen again. I have learned a few tricks along the way, a few random skills and simple avoidance techniques--but mainly it has been luck, I think, and a keen attention to karma, along with my natural girlish charm.

(To be continued.)