Fear and loathing in Dayton
December 22, 2011
Editor's note: Shortly before his untimely death in February, we commissioned an article from Hunter S. Thompson, famed gonzo journalist and little-known charter school supporter. Unfortunately, all we received were notes written on cocktail napkin scraps. To the careful reader they revealed a certain theme, however, as well as Thompson's distinctive verve. So we decided to pull them together. We haven't been able to ascertain the veracity of the events described herein, but, as someone said of one of Thompson's books, it was not factual but it certainly was true.
Strange memories on this nervous night in Dayton. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime - the kind of time that never comes again. Dayton in the early years of the new century was a very special time and place. Fordham was sponsoring charter schools everywhere - virtual schools, district renovations, CMO affiliates, even a bunch of schools way the hell out in Cincinnati. We didn't care. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run, but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant.
The trip started when Finn comes running across the lawn, screaming something about a meeting in Dayton, some crazy education thing, all the suits will be there. I didn't realize it was him at first. "Finn," I said, grabbing the trusty 12-gauge, shining black behind the credenza, "Finn, goddammit, is that you?" Three shots - POW! POW! POW! - and he came blazing out from behind the bushes.
He tells me about it, big symposia happening, lots of suits. Sounds heavy. If there's going to be an education meeting in Dayton, the charter people need to be represented, I say. And there was a certain bent appeal in the notion of one savage run to Dayton, Ohio, wheeling across town and checking into another. Me and a thousand education administrators from all over America. Why not? Move confidently into their midst.
"A fast car, by God, a fast car, that's what we need!" I let off a celebratory shot - POW! - and screamed at the varmints to get off the lawn. Nothing's been the same since Bill Bennett left government, I thought. Varmints everywhere.
* * * * *
We were almost to Dayton when the drugs kicked in. "I think you'd better drive," I remember telling Finn. "I think so," he said, looking over at me bug-eyed. That's all I remember, and then we were wheels up in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza, and Finn is pulling me out of the car, and some voice is yelling "Who are these goddamn animals? Where's the 12-gauge, by God!" as giant bats swoop down, each one piloted by one of the Wright Brothers. The voice was mine, but also not.
Finn grabs me and we make it to the front desk. Finn starts talking but I stop him dead with a look. The man might be one hell of a policy wonk, but I know these hotel Nazi types. I give him a look: I'll handle this.
"Um, uh," I say, "my name is Raoul, and I'm on the list. I represent one of America's most prominent sporting journals, and we simply must have that suite! This man is my policy analyst. And also my driver. What's the story in this town? What's the score?!"
The hotel Nazi sniffs, looks askance. The wheels are still spinning on the overturned convertible. "Can I put the suite under a last name, sir?"
"Hell, no!" I yell. "This man is in politics." I jerk my thumb at Finn. "We're here for a very special meeting. Top secret. Do you think we want to let Bob Taft's people know we're here? John Boehner's?" The vibrations from the Hotel Nazi were getting nasty. But why? I was puzzled, frustrated, pissed. Was there no communication in this Crowne Plaza? Had we deteriorated to the level of dumb beasts?
"May I call you a cab, sir?" hissed the Hotel Nazi.
* * * * *
We were at the conference, and all the suits are talking. "Facilities funding," I hear, and "per student reimbursement," and "balancing autonomy with rigorous accountability." My hands start shaking and I begin a stare-down with a smallish gnome who's climbed up on the speaker's shoulder. Finn leans over; do you need some water? he asks. I whisper that water might upset the Vicodin. I must not have whispered, though, because suddenly everyone is looking at me, and talking behind their hands. I feel an arm on my shoulder and someone whispers, "I think we should get out of here." It's Finn but I can't tell, because the gnome is singing Auld Lang Syne at the top of his voice.
At the touch I rise up and push the table over. "Are you Reg Weaver's people?!" I yell. "Tom Mooney's?" Everybody starts talking louder. "Varmints! Varmints! You can't have me! Where's the 12-gauge?!" Finn starts pushing me out the door. "Throw the whiskey bottle, Finn," I yell. "Give that gnome the back of your hand!"
* * * * *
By the next day, I was getting bad waves of paranoia, madness, fear, and loathing - intolerable vibrations in this place. Get out. The weasels were closing in. I could smell them. Time to flee. Plus, Finn had a meeting with the Gates Foundation. I told you he was a hell of a policy wonk.
Years later, what does it all mean, me and Finn, Dayton and the charter people? What Finn took down was the central illusion of a whole bloated education system that he fought. A generation of tenured, self-important educrats who never understood the mystic appeal of the charter school culture, a desperate assumption that somebody or at least some force, was tending the light at the end of the tunnel.
There was only one road out of Dayton. Out onto I-75, and into obscurity. Just another charter school guy, in the charter kingdom. Singing.