from MY LIFE AS A PENCIL
I was on a mission to become a writer. But first I had to observe, to live in the world, especially the foreign world. It was why I fled California for Buenos Aires, a city where I could at least speak the language. I was staying in a pensión in a partitioned room furnished with a bed, an old armoire, a table and a chair. I began to write about the men and women I shared my meals with every day. Hunched over my portable Smith-Corona, I produced a string of fumbling, sad portraits: a man who plays tangos on an out-of-tune piano, a landlady who loses her teeth, a cook with no imagination, a truck driver with two families, an Italian widow looking for a husband.
About that time I also started my first full-time job as a reporter, working at the Buenos Aires Herald, which is where I learned to turn life into stories on a daily basis. But at first it was physically very painful.
Staffed mostly by journalists from the U.K., the Herald was the country's only English-language daily. On one of my first assignments, I hit the ground running, then falling, then running again. I'd been sent to cover a military coup in the streets but because a tank blocked my way and a cloud of tear-gas swept over me, my watery, stinging eyes lost focus and I kept tripping. Military takeovers, I later learned, were then almost a monthly occurrence and usually covered by the youngest legs on staff.
When I got back to the office, nauseous and still crying from the gas, I slipped a blank sheet of paper into the typewriter and stared at my scribbled notes. Toby, who was seated at the desk next to mine, tapped away at his keyboard with hardly any pauses. Out of the corner of my eye I watched him effortlessly build a story from a single page of notes.
He looked the picture of the dapper, middle-aged Londoner, invariably wearing a bow tie and a cardigan sweater-vest. I learned from Martha, the Irish copy editor, that he was a bachelor, had come to Argentina years ago, and stayed on because he liked his job. Toby covered all manner of events in the Anglo-Argentine community and eventually would teach me all I needed to know about cricket wickets, polo ponies, and the services of the Anglican Church.
At the moment, though, a bigger hurdle loomed. I squeezed my eyes, knuckling away the tears. Helmeted figures with rifles were moving in my direction. They were ahead of the tanks, and as I peered from behind a tree, young men around me started tossing rocks at the soldiers. Just then, I felt a hand on my shoulder and opened my eyes.
"Trouble starting?" Toby asked.
"You make it look so easy," I said.
"What have you got?"
I recited my jumble of facts and impressions, unable to provide an overall view of what really happened. He said to write the way I had seen it, though I should begin with something strong. "Remember, in this kind of story, what you write is personal."
I began with the hurt in my eyes. After that, the story seemed to roll out on its own. Toby read it, nodded, said, "That will do," and continued typing. It was his third, clean and uncomplicated piece of the day. When he finished he dropped it in the copy basket, rolled down his sleeves, and slipped on his tan, seersucker suit coat over the cardigan vest. Lastly, he placed a black bowler hat on his head, tapped it down once, and left the newsroom with a confident, unhurried step.
Over the months to come, this same gentleman journalist sat closer to me than anyone else at the paper. I sponged up whatever tips he gave. When I needed a word defined, Toby cheerfully obliged. Same with English-style spelling checks, proper punctuation, names, and titles of leaders, past and present. He never seemed to lose patience, despite imminent deadlines. He was never loud, profane or political, his manner as tidy and graceful as his writing.
Some months after I joined the Herald, Toby's opposite walked into the newsroom. I didn't know who the young man was or would become, nor did anyone else in the newsroom. But I remember glancing up from my typewriter and seeing a lanky, aloof-looking figure wearing an Ivy League suit, narrow tie, and white shirt with button-down collar tabs. An American, I guessed.
He looked us over as if we were so many cattle, alike in that we were all seated at cluttered desks, fingers tapping, talking on telephones, scribbling, some of us smoking. After a long pause he spotted the managing editor's office and walked over to the open door, quickly disappearing inside.
I returned to the story I'd almost finished. It focused on a little known tango composer and bandeonista, Astor Piazzolla—not well known, that is, outside certain avant-garde music circles. Since I'd been in Argentina I'd gotten into the country's folk and tango music, lately writing stories about local musicians, even visiting classical performers. So I wasn't surprised when my boss asked me if I wouldn't mind showing the out-of-town stranger in his office the city's jazz scene, small as it was then.
Hunter Thompson introduced himself and we shook hands.
"O.K. with that?" my editor asked.
I nodded and said I had a few ideas.
"A good saxophone," Hunter said, curtly, as if he were ordering up a drink.
"Of course," I said and headed to my desk and sport coat. I'd already dropped my Piazzolla piece in the copy basket, so I could leave feeling that I'd finished the day's work. Outside on the sidewalk, Hunter gazed around at the traffic, while I waved an arm trying to stop a cab. When one pulled over, we got in and I gave the driver the name of a club, maybe twenty minutes away.
"Good sax," Hunter reminded me with a bored expression.
"Right," I said.
"Something like Coltrane."
"I don't know," I answered, thinking nothing but Coltrane in the flesh would do for Mr. Thompson. I added, "But, hey, you decide."
On most of the drive to the club he was silent, mulling something, I assumed. All he revealed about himself was that he was a correspondent in Rio for a New York-based weekly called the National Observer. He wanted to see a bit of Buenos Aires before returning to Brazil. He figured someone at the Herald would steer him to some good jazz.
When he spoke his voice struck me as strangely flat, his thoughts elsewhere. I was only serving one purpose here; I was his nighttime guide. I was probably as faceless as our driver, a servant not to be given much attention. My mission was to entertain, impress, take him to the best B.A. had to offer.
I played along because I was doing this as a favor to my boss. So when we got to the club, I paid the fare, figuring Mr. Hunter S. Thompson could pay on the way back if we shared a cab together. But, inexplicably, I now worried that the sax player I'd written about weeks ago wouldn't pass his approval. Why was I worried? I'd probably never see him again after tonight. Be like Toby, I told myself, be a proper host for an hour or two. Be polite, patient, enjoy the music.
"Who's playing?" Hunter asked. He reached into a coat pocket and retrieved a pack of cigarettes.
"Barbieri," I said, "Gato Barbieri."
Hunter's mouth and eyebrows scrunched up into a don't-know-him expression. The bland, expectant face looked down on me and waited. About six inches taller than my five-foot-six height, Hunter wasn't much older than I was, which would have made him about 24 or 25. But for some reason he feigned being much older, playing at being enigmatic, wiser, more cosmopolitan or something than I could never be. Yet here we were, two Americans in a huge, Spanish-speaking city, talking about the nearest thing to the Coltrane sound south of the equator, and all he could do is look bored and vaguely disappointed.
We weren't really having a conversation. In the cab I had asked a few ice-breaker questions about himself—how was reporting out of Rio, how long he'd been there—but he cut me off without answering. "Coltrane?" he said, musing or asking, I wasn't sure.
"He sounds like it to me," I answered."
Hunter lit his cigarette, then we entered the darkened club. Inside, we found our way through the cigarette smoke and sat at a table near the bar. We had caught the crowd between sets; loud and soft chatter rose and fell around us. We ordered drinks and waited for the small combo to begin. Minutes later, they started and Gato began playing Coltrane-like riffs. This was years before he hit big with the Last Tango in Paris score.
Hunter barely spoke in the club, and he never told me what he thought of Gato's sax. But he did listen intently. The set ended and we sat for a while like silent lumps, my mind floating through the voices around us. I liked the music I'd heard but was restless and thought it was best to leave my silent table company. "I'm taking off," I said, getting up.
"I'll stick around," Hunter said, barely nodding, his expression ho-hum. If we shook hands I don't remember. But I recall leaving the future Mister Gonzo by himself in a smoky, crowded club on Avenida Rivadavia.
Since he'd never been to Buenos Aires before, I wondered what kind of a journalist isn't curious. He didn't ask questions about anything but Coltrane—and even then his words sounded more like opinions.
Decades later, I asked myself, how do I write about Hunter? Toby would have told me: write what I saw, write it personal.
RON ARIAS was a senior writer and correspondent for People and People en español in New York City and Los Angeles, California from 1985 until 2008. He is also one of the most recognized Chicano writers of our time. His novel, The Road to Tamazunchale, is one of the founding texts in contemporary Chicano/a literature. Most recently, he published Moving Target: A Memoir of Pursuit, which has won several awards, among them the Latino Hall of Fame award for best biography. Ron Arias' stories have been reported from Latin America, Africa, Australia, Asia, Russia and the Middle East. In 2004, he won the first place for the Los Angeles Press Club Award for People magazine's coverage of the Laci Peterson murder. My Life As A Pencil will be published in early 2015 by Red Bird Chapbooks.