Dead Subjects

When pages get ripped from your Book of the Living

By now, readers of these missives have likely ascertained that I have no ambitions to become a Media Empire. While I strongly encourage you to keep those subscriptions coming – Daddy’s medicine, Maker’s Mark, isn’t getting any cheaper - there is no HBO companion program, or live-events calendar, or even a merch store. (I am in discussions with a Mumbai sweatshop to develop Slack Tide onesies, but these are early days.) I am not, nor will I ever be, a one-man Axios. If I can help it, here, you will not be getting breaking news, or efficient bullet points, or Axios’s patented Smart Brevity, which sounds like a swell name for a line of British skivvies.  (Maybe I should give them my contacts in Mumbai.)

As a lifelong magazine writer, I don’t miss much about corporate-media life, if you can call what I did “corporate” - showing up for editorial meetings twice a quarter, then cutting out for a three-hour lunch. The lone wolf in me enjoys having no editors, or fact-checkers, or even, for the most part, facts.  Most of all, I don’t miss the hostile work environment, with office-mates at the Christmas party drunkenly dancing shirtless on my desk to South Korean boy-band BTS, saying, “Man, these chicks can sing!”  (No names.  Okay, just one:  Fred Barnes.)

Still, there are things I miss about the old life: the bountiful expense account and travel budget. The reams of copy paper I used to steal for my home printer. The squealing throngs of lusty women begging for more long-form. But what I find myself missing most are the dead people.

When you make your bones as a profile writer, your life becomes a series of hyper-intense compressed relationships, as you attempt to get under the skin of subjects.  If you’re doing it right, the subjects often get under yours as well.  For a brief spell, your lives intersect, sometimes intensely. And since you are there to observe and probe, while asking gobs of invasive questions in the hope of painting a more vivid picture, you come to serve as that subject’s confessor: their priest, their bartender, their shrink.  It is sometimes easier to tell a curious stranger things you wouldn’t tell your best friends. Even if your best friends are probably more onto you than you think. (We are always the last to know what the people in our orbit already know about us.)

When you’re young and dumb, you think these subjects will in some way stay in your life forever, or at least that you’ll have the souvenir – the living monument of the story you did on them. But then you realize lives don’t stay suspended as you captured them in a moment.  Time’s perpetual motion machine hurtles us all toward our expiration date.  And so, after your subjects expire,  your living monument often becomes their headstone, your old story ending up a footnote on their Wikipedia page, as their lives are fitted into the straitjacket of your tossed-off 1’s and 0’s.

The first time this no-duh reality dawned on me, I was coming home on a train from New York.  When I opened the Times, I saw the obit for Wendell “The Goat” Gauthier. He was a swashbuckling New Orleans trial lawyer with a velvet Cajun accent and coprophagous grin who tried to take down entire industries, like the gun manufacturers, for having the gall to make guns that kill people.  This was kind of like suing water for being wet, but everybody needs to make a living.

When I profiled him years earlier, I was there to do a hit-piece. But The Goat didn’t seem to mind.  He introduced me to his A-Team of ambulance chasers, guys with names like “Alligator Mick,” who pulled a snub nose .38 out of his jacket to wave it around  for show at a restaurant as we all ducked under the table, even if  he was suing the people who made it.  The Goat slapped my back and refilled my glass and wouldn’t let me touch a check at his favorite watering hole, a former bordello. We ate sherry-laced turtle soup and calamari stuffed with Gulf shrimp, and drank until we couldn’t feel our legs.  When the story came out, he hated it, or pretended to, taking care to send me a tape of a more positive story done on him by 60 Minutes,  telling me this was what real journalism looked like, and that I might ought to study it.  I didn’t take it personally. It’s often hard for subjects to see themselves in a mirror, let alone some punk reporter’s funhouse version of one.  I thought The Goat would have a long, prosperous life, and would go on to sue many other worthy adversaries – perhaps diaper manufacturers for making diapers that caused rashes. But liver cancer got him at the age of 58, before he could drop the hammer on Huggies.

The Goat was my first man down, but he would not be my last.  As I got older, so did my former subjects, it turned out.  About a decade ago, Simon & Schuster published a collection of some of my profiles called Fly Fishing With Darth Vader:  And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys.  While its reviews were respectful, its true distinction might have been having a subtitle so long that even its author couldn’t remember it.

The other day, I paged through it to look up the death toll:  I’ve had four subjects collected between those hardcovers drop since publication.  Among them, I lost the skinny-tied lion of the House, Jim Traficant, a man who was every bit as colorful as his hairstyle, which resembled an electrocuted nutria.  Traficant was a man with so much brass, he once represented himself at his own corruption trial, repeatedly referring to himself as “my client” to the judge.  When hanging with him, he was fond of giving me affectionate goombah-smacks in the face, deliberately mispronouncing my name “Kibosh,” and after painstakingly outlining to me how his perceived tormentor, Janet Reno, was a lesbian mob puppet, he instructed me to never, ever call him again. Though he put some sugar on it by handing me an American flag that had been flown over the Capitol.  It hangs in my basement to this day.   After my profile, the seven years Traficant spent in prison couldn’t crush him. But a tractor did when it rolled over on him at his Ohio farm.

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Back in 2014, it really hurt to lose Marion Barry, the finest crack-smoking mayor this nation has ever produced.   I’d profiled him five years earlier, with the understanding that we would achieve new levels of profiler/subject honesty by me letting him know when I knew when he was lying to me (which was often). We were off to the races.  The freedom to be full-on Marion seemed to liberate him.  He showed me his nipples within ten minutes of our meeting. (To display an old gunshot wound.)  He discussed his prostate problems, his deceased wife (which made him cry), how “the bitch” set him up for a drug bust, his missing kidney, and his serial womanizing. “God gave me the gift of being gregarious, I’m a touchy-feely kind of person,” he explained.
Barry evidenced no shame when he tried to buy me lunch, and his credit card was denied.  Nor years later, when my book came out, and he showed up an hour-and-a-half late to the book party, claiming to be lost in a city that he was mayor of for four terms, in a speech to partygoers  that he gave unbidden.  He kissed my mom. He kissed my sister. He’d have probably gone to second base with my wife, if he’d had a little more privacy. He signed my books for enthusiastic onlookers – a roomful of (mostly) white Republicans who’d likely spent a lifetime ridiculing him - even if he didn’t write it.  They all turned into instant fanboys.  You have to admire that kind of boldness. Or maybe you don’t, but I do.  Barry left an impression on any room he entered.

I also lost Christopher Hitchens, not just a profile subject, but a friend.  We’d first joined forces during the Iraq War, when he showed up at my hotel room in Kuwait, sniffing me out since I’d been one of the few journalists to smuggle whiskey in Listerine bottles into that oppressively dry and dreary country. (Kuwaiti customs officials were strict, but not terribly smart.)  When I offered Hitchens a welcome-to-the-war pour, he grudgingly accepted, his glass already extended, saying, ““I don’t usually start this early, but holding yourself to a drinking schedule is always the first sign of alcoholism.”

Throughout that trip, I watched him plan ahead, provisions-wise, by packing us two cheese sandwich platters and a couple bananas, just in case we were stranded in Iraq for weeks.  I watched him give cigarettes to Iraqi children as a goodwill gesture. (Reasoning that the IED’s would probably get the poor  tykes before the lung cancer ever did.)  I dictated his life credo as he squabbled endlessly with border officials and third-rate bureaucrats. “Do something every day against Bastards HQ!,” Hitchens proclaimed, beaming.

When I saw him for the last time at his apartment during a party, several months before esophageal cancer took him at age 62, I took one last shot at the world’s most famous atheist, offering him the gift of eternal life by inviting him to accept J.H. Christ as his personal Lord and Savior.  Stubbornly godless to the last, he wasn’t buying what I was selling.  But he did return the favor, offering me the gift of a bottle of Glenmorangie, which seemed like a fair enough trade.  Even though he’d become thin as a supermodel due to the sickness, and he didn’t have much longer in this world, we wrecked it together -  a very Hitch-like Last Supper.

This year, 2021, has been particularly hard on my former profile subjects.  I’ve lost three.  If you have been profiled by me in the past, you might want to stop, drop, and roll into the nearest bunker until 2022, just to be safe.

I felt a hole in my soul when we lost Edwin Edwards, the legendary former governor of Louisiana, perhaps the most quotable politician of all-time.  He was a man who once taunted an opponent by saying he was so slow, he took an hour-and-half to watch 60 Minutes.  I profiled him twice. Once in 2000, right before he went to jail for corruption, and again, after he got out of prison, and ran for congress (unsuccessfully) in 2014. An outlaw to the end, even when he was in the dock for improperly influencing the disbursement of state riverboat casino licenses, he bucked the judge – who he called “Judge Ayatollah” – flouting The Ayatollah’s gag order.

It seemed a violation of the natural order to take away Edwards’s  God-given gift, the gift of gab. The one that once caused Edwards to observe that the only thing he had in common with his gubernatorial opponent, the former Klansman David Duke, is that “we are both wizards under the sheets.”  As I interviewed Edwards in the courthouse cafeteria, with prosecutorial  prying eyes everywhere,  he peevishly said as I was taking notes, “I can’t be seen talking to you while you’re writing.” So I folded up my notebook, thinking we were done for the day.  But Edwards wasn’t. “Drop it in your lap,” he instructed, and he went on filling my notebook while breaking more laws.

Speaking of law-breakers, I also lost John McAfee this year, the crazed tech millionaire who tried to capture the Libertarian nomination for president in 2016, but who hanged himself in his Barcelona prison cell after being arrested for tax evasion charges.  For about a week during the Libertarian convention, I hung out with McAfee and his entourage: his wife, a former prostitute whom he rescued from her vicious pimp, Suave; his ever-present reality television crew that he would taunt by pretending he was conducting huge drug buys when they still had him miked-up in the restroom;  and his bodyguard, who was packing more heat than a National Guard armory, but who, lacking an employee dental plan, once pulled his dead tooth out with a wrench in front of a reporter.

The  founder of the McAfee antivirus software company (which he sold for a large fortune),  McAfee was the kind of guy who was once wanted for questioning by authorities  - before going on the lam - for possibly murdering someone who poisoned his dogs near his jungle compound in Belize.  (Trust me, it’s a long story.)  “What kind of guy is that?” you ask. Well, there aren’t a lot of guys like that. McAfee might have been one of a kind.

For days, we drank tequila and sparred over the murder allegations and everything else, going over the fine points of his life.  He pretended, at one juncture, to have had my phone bugged. We fought. We broke up. We made up.   He cried, when discussing his own violent alcoholic father’s suicide.  Then he lashed out at me for probing too deeply, and for me being a glib journalist, and for not understanding all the pain in this world.  Then he apologized later by email, for “coming unglued……It was impolite and unwarranted.”

It was insane, of course. But the good kind of insane. The kind where you don’t know what’s coming next. When the guy who seems like a profane, narcissistic sot all of the sudden starts  discussing the subtleties of Ecclesiastes, saying that he lunges from one adventure to the next, because “There’s a time for every purpose under the heaven. {People want to} grab something that is beautiful, and hold it, and own it.” But, McAfee warned, you can’t.  They love the autumn that colors the leaves, “blazoned by the sun, turning them brilliant golds and reds…..the dappled hills painted by the brush of God. And drop that, because that will fall too.”

But the former subject it hurt to lose most, who also fell this year, was Danny Abel.  Danny was the aforementioned Goat’s law partner in New Orleans, and became my unofficial chaperone and drinking shadow while I was reporting out that story over two decades ago.  After the piece came out, and wasn’t terribly favorable, we’d gotten along so famously that Danny didn’t care. We stayed friends ever-after, and he made frequent appearances in subsequent pieces.

In all the years that followed, I wouldn’t think of going on a reporting trip to New Orleans – that wonderful city of dark magic – without seeing Danny, who seemed to possess the keys to it.  In addition to being a lawyer, he was an accomplished chef who used to own his own Creole restaurant in the French Quarter, and who even co-authored The Trout Point Lodge Cookbook, based off recipes he and his partners served at a high-dollar lodge he once co-owned in Nova Scotia.

Though his Cajun family hailed from Lafayette, nobody understood the city better than Danny. He haunted all its old bars and used bookstores. He knew the history.  He lived in it and loved it, and could speak with scholarly authority to its charms and fatal flaws. It was in his blood and bones. He made it all seem civilized and sensible, even in the face of chaos. Shortly after Katrina happened, the city was still a flooded, abandoned trash-heap.  But Danny showed up dressed for dinner at Antoine’s, handing me a CD - Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony about the Nazi siege - since “it makes me feel better about New Orleans,” he explained.

Another time, I came to his city to do a piece on an anniversary performance of The Vagina Monologues (with the Superdome jazzed up with giant vagina lips for an entryway – a rather non-New Orleans story, or maybe a perfect New Orleans story). During this reporting run, an in-law of mine took his own life. I was on the road, and in need of a port in the storm. Danny took me out to dinner that night at one of his buddy’s restaurants. I don’t remember exactly what we had. But knowing Danny, it was all good things – oysters and bourbon and the stuff of life, while I was grappling with death.   He made it all seem manageable that evening with a shit-happens shrug.  Like all true friends try to do, he could tilt the world on its axis just enough to make it bearable.

Danny was the embodiment of something Tuba Phil Frazier, the anchor of the Rebirth Brass Band, once told me when I was profiling his crew.  After Katrina had gutted the city that the Rebirth was synonymous with, Tuba Phil said: “Other shit goes on…….But when you come to our show, man, you forget about your problems, the mortgage, the insurance, the housing…….You might go home to half a house, but you sleep better that night. That's what I hope our music does to people. That's our obligation. The bad and the good stand side by side. I have tragedy. But I'm a stronger person. I can take it. Keep on goin'. Try to make it better. When I play in New Orleans, I play like this is the last time I'm ever going to play again. What if the city really is sunk? I play like the hell with it. I play like I might never come back to this again. I play like it's my last year of livin'. That's how I play."

Danny wasn’t a musician, but that’s how he played, too.  Years ago, he sent me an old Creole cookbook, as I wanted to replicate a grillades’n’grits recipe he and a mutual friend, Shane Gates, had made for me while I was visiting. But digging deeper into the book this past winter, I decided to make shrimp etouffee.  Pleased with myself that I didn’t burn the roux – easy to do if you’re an amateur – I wrote Danny to tell him of my success.

I didn’t hear back for a good week or two, which was unusual.  Then I got a call from Shane, now in possession of Danny’s phone, who had intercepted my message.  He told me Danny had been hit by a car while riding his bike.  It mangled his leg and scrambled his brain, doing his memory in.  He wouldn’t even know me if I called.  He was now at an assisted living place, trying to recuperate, which didn’t last long.  Danny didn’t end up making it. I never got to say goodbye

Between the picture Shane painted, and the one that ran shortly thereafter in an obituary piece in the Times-Picayune, I learned what I only suspected, but didn’t know for sure about Danny.  The last time I saw him in person – on a reporting trip for an Edwin Edwards story in 2014 – we went to a restaurant near Lake Pontchartrain. The oyster dish we had was perfect, which I repeatedly remarked upon.  He knew the chef and secured me the recipe. I could sense he was struggling. But didn’t know exactly how or why, and he had drawn the blinds.  So I didn’t ask personal questions.  Danny was no longer a profile subject, but a friend. And sometimes, the greatest act of friendship one can pay to another is to preserve each other’s fictions. Or at least to not press too hard for the ugly truth.

Once the biggest of torts-prize hunters, Danny’s business had dried up, and gotten smaller.  He was repping small-time hustlers and undesirables, working out of a room at a Super 8 motel off a parkway in Metairie.  And he was probably doing so outside the bounds of acceptable legal practice, since he’d been disbarred.  He had taken to consulting on prostitution cases, which seemed to plague the no-tell motel, as part of his room and board.

As Shane told The Times-Picayune, “It wasn’t a Hollywood ending that he got; it was a Fargo ending” - as in absurdity and misfortune besetting the protagonist.  By the end, Shane told me, before Danny was hit by a car, the former seven-figure-a-year lawyer had been living in a broom closet at a parish priest buddy’s church.  It often ends badly for the best of us, as well as for the rest of us.  That’s why they call it an “end,” not a beginning, or a middle.

But whatever unsavory details I unearthed after death, I regard Danny as the best of us.  At least he was for me.   I chose to see his best, because that’s all he ever showed me.  I saw him how he wanted to be seen.  He brought the greatest city in the world to life for me, over and over again.  For no other reason than that I needed him to, and that he delighted in someone loving something as much as he did.  One night, when I was in my late twenties, drinking with Danny and Shane in a Pirate’s Alley bar off Jackson Square during a David Duke reporting trip, Danny was laying out all the nuances of Duke’s congressional race that I should not miss.  I couldn’t bring myself to leave.  I had a plane to catch, and the sun was coming up, while drunken role-playing crazies in puffy shirts had taken to fighting each other with broadswords right there in the alley beside us. We laughed at them, then ignored them. But the conversation was so good that it would’ve felt like a sin to punch out early.  So I didn’t. I just sat there, watching the sunrise, thinking: This is what life should look like when it goes right. The pirate’s life. 

Journalism, then, didn’t yet feel so corporate to me, as it was soon to be taken over by management consultants, vulture capitalist hedge-funders, and clicks-hungry cubicle monkeys, stamping  the soul out of everything.  But then, it still felt like the perfect excuse to get your nose into anything, a ticket to ride, with the next adventure right around the corner. I miss that. And I miss Danny, too. Which is maybe how it should be.  As the poet/working- mortician Thomas Lynch writes, “Grief is the tax we pay for our attachments.”

Despite all my dead subjects, however hard some of them fell, I remain convinced that we all need Big People in our lives – those who might succeed beyond our wildest imaginings, but who might also wipe out spectacularly.  It is a mistake to wish your own rogues and crazies and pirates away.  They are a gift. When we bear firsthand witness to souls the world can’t quite contain, somehow, they make the place seem more inhabitable for the rest of us.

Tom Waits covering the Ramones’ Danny Says

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