"Remember when this town was a work free drug place?" Herman asked.
The Swiss expat slammed back a shot of tequila and then flinched as if the smelly yellow liquid had ignited a cerebral aneurism.
"If you can remember those days, you weren't here," I said.
It was about nine in the morning, late in the politically whacked summer of 2003, and the Big Easy's dishwasher was just finishing the nightshift, chanting what sounded like Spanglish reggae into the dreadlocks of a kitchen mop. But the Rasta wetback was making enough sense to serenade me back to 1975. That's when I was the Big Easy pearl diver and that low ceiling firetrap was the coolest joint in Aspen. I got ten dollars a night and all the beer I could drink.
The Easy kitchen had been set up to feed silver miners beans and franks during the boom of the 1880s, and more than a century later it took all night and a case of Coors to chip out the lobster bisque from the cast iron pots. You'd think the owner would spring for a new Maytag, but he's on death row for putting his wife through ten years of mental cruelty and then a wood chipper.
"Now you get tested all the time," Herman said. "Life's nothing but a lousy test."
"A snap quiz," I said, recalling that I had recently inebriated another birthday.
Herman Thayer had been in Aspen since he almost won the World Pro Skiing Championship in the mid seventies, losing three years in a row to a former Olympian whose name sounded like something you spread on small pieces of triangular toast. He always had more wins than the Frenchman but lost on points because he'd either finish first or not finish. Herman had yet to learn that life's a marathon, not a sprint.
"I hate the French," he said, glancing at the TV behind the bar as a FOX morning news anchor slapped around a Parisian apologist over France's Mesopotamian ambiguities. "They'll do anything to win."
"Except fight," I said. "But what can you expect from a country where half the population cuts cheese for a living."
"Yeah, well, if it wasn't for the Frogs I'd be living in Starwood."
Herman tossed down another shot in a way that whiplashed the grim remains of his blonde hair into a transparent pompadour, and I flashed on how handsome he used to be before the booze and the coke twisted him into a punchline. The locals called him the Night Mayor because he never slept. He could win fifty grand in a giant slalom against the best in the world after snorting through a rack of eight balls on a seventy two hour binge. But people don't respect that kind of talent anymore.
"You could've bought John Denver's house," I said.
Aspen's country boy was now thanking God personally after he turned his airplane into a submarine off the coast of Santa Barbara.
"I think it went for just under six million," I continued, "but it had a solar powered security system and an endangered species petting zoo."
"I had money once," Herman said. "It's a pain in the ass."
Starwood was where the rich people in Aspen lived if they found Red Mountain too crowded or too expensive. I found all of Aspen too crowded and too expensive, but so were good public golf courses and sushi bars. In spite of the tawdry press and aging rock starian excess, this sky high hamlet is still one of the last great places on earth. That was why I had crawled back into town.
"You working today?" I asked, motioning to the bartender that maybe Herman had had enough breakfast.
But the keep poured him another shot and slid it down the bar.
"I'm always working," Herman said. "Like a fucking peasant."
"We're all peasants," I said.
"Not you, Jake," Herman slurped, lopping off his tequila shot. "You're a hot shit Hollywood sellout."
"Everybody's got his price, Hermy. I just know exactly what mine is."
"Yeah, thirty pieces of silver," Herman said, like someone who had read a book or two. "And don't call me Hermy. I hate that."
The racer chaser chicks used to call him Germy Hermy back when he was banging them two at a time. He was Aspen's own Typhoid Mary, but at least the snowmeister never passed around anything fatal.
"Let me buy you a real drink," Herman said, hand signaling the bartender like a deaf mute at a spelling bee. "I got a tab here."
"I'm trying not to drink anything real," I said, swizzlesticking a packet of sugar into my Diet Coke and taking a sip. "At least not before the market opens."
"The Farmer's Market in Carbondale? They're open. I was down there already, buying paint."
Herman taught skiing in the winter and painted houses in the summer, and the co op in Carbondale was a long way from almost medaling in the downhill at the Sapporo Olympics. But the square headed kamikaze hit a tree at about a hundred miles an hour, so maybe it was okay for him to be drinking at eight in the Morning. Herman spent ten months in a body cast before he was thrown off the Suisse ski team for dealing his leftover Percocets. I have never heard of anybody who ever had any leftover Percocets. But that's when Herman decided to come to the United States and turn pro.
"The stock market," I said, thinking that a toddy might taste better than the carcinogenic concoction I was drinking and remembering how my portfolio had been circling the drain ever since George junior curiously bushwhacked the election and Osama bin Laden powdered the World Trade Center into a trillion tons of talcum.
That our cheerleader in chief and his madrassas of dissemblers had the Third World's cheap seats cheering for Saddam's side during the second half of the Gulf War also forebodes what else might happen when genetically connected Skull & Boners skip political science class. But don't get me started on Bill Clinton, either. We should have sewn that monkey puncher into a giant condom and dropped him off the Chappaquiddick Bridge. Bubba put procuring pudgy delights before principle, an unpardonable sin when one signs up to run the big white hut.
"So how's business?" I said, trying to hang a U turn away from one of my political tangents.
"Better than the stock market," Herman said, licking salt off the back of his hand. "I'm painting a Victorian on West Smuggler. Thing's eight hundred forty square feet and just sold for a million two."
"You can't buy that kind of craftsmanship anymore," I said, half right.
"It's a mail order shit box," he said, completely right.
A gang of self righteous trust funders and no growth terrorists protected the ghettos of Aspen from the carpetbaggers' backhoe, but only after previously allowing themselves to scrape off some shanties and put up mausoleums of their own. Most of the buildings the Historical Society goes to war over were picked out of a JCPenney catalogue before it was hung on the inside of an outhouse and used for toilet paper.
"We got assholes who think anything built before American Bandstand is historically significant," Herman said.
I nodded and stirred some ice. My ears were chirping like a choir of crippled crickets at a faith healing contest.
"Why the fuck you put sugar in Diet Coke?" he asked.
It wasn't the first time I'd heard the question.
"There's eighteen tablespoons of sugar in a regular Coke," I said. "Booze metabolizes into about the same amount. I'm easing out of the Jones by cutting down on the sweets."
"What are you, in rehab?"
"Not anymore," I said.
I'd done a two month jolt in an outpatient program at St. John's in Santa Monica back when my final television series was cancelled after the first episode. It was an industry record and, unfortunately, my best work.
"It doesn't stick," Herman said.
44you have a brilliant grasp of the obvious," I said, looking at his empty shot glass. "Hold on to it tightly."
"C'mon, have, a drink," he said. "It won't kill you."
"Hasn't killed me," I said. "There's a difference."
The red circles around Herman's eyes made him look like an Elton John knockoff without the mink bangs and the Bolivian powder puff, but when you slapped him on the shoulder it still 0felt like you were hitting the corner of a mailbox.
"Pretend I'm in training for the Olympics," I said. "The liver healing events."
"I was in the Olympics once," Herman said. "It was a pain in the ass."
Rehab was also a pain in the ass. It wasn't like I didn't come down with a touch of the Stolichnayan flu more than the next guy.
I just couldn't stand the Calvinism of the twelve steppers. It was like I was witnessing the birth of a new religion. You couldn't hang out with people who still did drugs or drank, which narrowed my circle of close friends considerably. And they wanted you to tell the truth all the time, which widened my circle of enemies. You had to keep all your agreements and "work the program." In Hollywood, AA meetings were like Broadway productions, and everybody was working the room instead of the program.
The speakers probably had their own PR flacks, and when they told their personal tales of alcoholic woe and humiliation, it sounded suspiciously like they were pitching a movie idea to the development execs at Paramount. How many years sober you had was like listing your film credits, and a fatal car wreck with a felony DWI was almost as good as winning an Academy Award.
I never had more than sixty days sober in a row, and I sounded like Carry Nation when I did. The only thing they let you do was smoke, and it was the only thing I was really trying to quit.
So I stopped drinking on my own. I was a little better at it than Darryl Strawberry, but apparently not as good at it as the president, a guy who was sometimes too smacked to fly in the Texas Air National Guard but not quite smacked enough to go to AA meetings. George W. and I are what're known as dry drunks: drinkers who trade Wild Turkey for cold turkey and dare to tread the tightrope of sobriety without a net. But people get the government they deserve.
"So Herman, you going to teach skiing again this winter?" I said, straight arming another blitzing political tangent as if it was a linebacker who had slipped a block.
"What else am I gonna do, work for Sears?"
"Why not," I said. "They'd probably pay you a fortune to be a greeter at Target."
But I may as well have blown my brilliant wisecrack through a dog whistle.
"All I gotta do is pass the ski school piss test," Herman shrugged. "I got popped for skiing on THC at the last Winter Fest. I was being festive for Christ's sake."
"Maybe it's time to give it up," I said.
I was trying not to be judgmental for the obvious reasons.
"And be a writer like you, Jake?" Herman said. "Nein danke."
"I'm a writer like you're a painter, Herman." I said. "I just did it for the money and because it sounded cool when I was trying to get some ski bunny into the sack. After a while I had to actually start writing or they would've arrested me for date rape."
"Painting houses never got anybody laid," he said, like he knew.
Herman stuck his tongue through a paper napkin and made a hole. He did it again and then put the napkin over his eyes as if he were wearing goggles.
"I know what it's like to be upside down in an Olympic downhill," he said. "But the idiots in this town don't ski if the sun isn't shining."
"No shit," I said, like I was pledging for Herman's own personal peanut gallery. "If assholes could fly, the place would be an airport."
Our observations were maybe alcoholically acute, and the deculturing of Aspen was probably something we could have whined about all day. But I had to get out of the Big Easy before I started kissing Bloody Mary and it would suddenly be Thursday somewhere and I'd be trying to buy a Porsche Turbo with a busted credit card.
I put a twenty on the bar.
"It's good to be back," I said.
"Don't kid yourself."
Herman aimed his kaleidoscopic eyes at the center of my forehead and gently touched my hand.
"You can't stand in the same river twice, Jake," he said like a man who had gotten to know James Crumley in the can.
"I know," I said. "But you can get your feet wet."
Copyright 2004 by Patrick Hasburgh