Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Drinking with Christopher Hitchens

Choire Sicha at Wonkette reminded me of the time I went out drinking with Christopher Hitchens. In the summer of 1995, I got my intro to the New York media chattering classes as Christopher Hitchens' intern at The Nation Magazine. Clinton was president, so the magazine had a vital role in criticizing the administration, and, to my joy, my phone calls for documents and quotes were promptly returned by all sorts of powerful media titans and, even, on occasion, the odd Department of Defense official (I was pulling double duty interning for lefty crusading military-policy-in-Southeast-Asia investigative reporter Allan Nairn as well).

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Sure, the intern stipend was, well, "progressive" at best (You have to admit, Republicans give better paychecks). But I was learning my craft, schmoozing like only a 20something in New York on-the-make can pull off with charm, so the actual lack of fundage didn't really matter to me. Also, at that time, my politics were far left. Afterwards, when I began as a factchecker at New York Magazine (a round of Alleluia's for the NY Magazine paychecks) and made many, many times more money -- did I mention many? -- then I did finally enjoy the NY nightlife. At The Nation, however, I lived like a peasant; but that didn't really matter, as I was living uptown with my then-girlfriend, Janet. All we needed was a few 40-ouncers and some kind bud, back-in-the-day. Who needed money from "the man" when you were young an idealistic and in love?

One of the benefits of the job at The Nation was that Chris Hitchens had (he no longer writes for The Nation) a custom of taking his interns out to lunch. The lovely editor-heiress at The Nation, Katrina Van Den Heuvel gave an ironic smile during the beginning of the internship presentation process when mentioning the customary Hitchens lunch. Like she knew something we didn't know. It was uncanny. One got the feeling that this luncheon was the stuff of legend. I needed to bust in on that fucking tea party!

So, in the summer of 1995, this would have been July, I set off for the Grammercy Tavern like Odysseus headed for Ithaca, unknowing of the adventure that lay ahead. The intern coordinator, Sandy (hey Sands!) had seen strong interns break like porcelain after these so called "lunches." Iron livers ruptured -- literally -- at table; the waiters had to fill in the death certificates as the drinking continued. Mighty fuckers were laid low and jokers felled under the cosmic drinkie poos consumed. Sandy dismissively told me not to bother coming back. Catch up in the morning. Sands suggested that the quality of my work might not be up-to-par after a round with Hitchens. Fucker!

I am a man who thrives on adversity. I dine on danger and snack on death. I told Our Man Sandy in no uncertain terms that I would come back after lunch to finish out my day, so there. How naive I was ...

Ah, youth. That summer day seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than anyone knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. It whispered faintly, that July day, in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope ...

But back to Hitchens -- a man whom, although I disagree with him on his position vis-a-vis the Iraqi war, was very good to me over the years as a mentor and a friend. At the Grammercy Tavern bar, he and an old Oxford friend welcomed me with open bottles. We began immediately with some red wine. Then, we talked Classics -- Christopher's friend was a graduate in Classical Studies, and I had studied the Greek year at St. Johns and translated Oedipus at Colonus in tutorial later, at Marlboro College, under a recent grad from Oxford's classics program -- and politics, and a little philosophy.

It was a running joke between me and Christopher in those days was that we clicked as intern-mentor on Yannis Ritsos. He had been trying to explain George Seferis to me one time, rather condescendingly I thought (I believe he had mentioned him in a Minority Report column I was in the process of factchecking), and I told him he should really read Ritsos, as he was the greater poet. This really surprised Hitchens. His eyes went wide, I distinctly recall. As if all Ugandan young men didn't know Modernist Greek poetry. Piffle!

How to describe Chrstopher Hitchens? He has an intense attraction to argument and debate. It is his nature, the process by which he judges the character of a person. He has been doing it since Prep School and will debate on everything from the precise wording of a quote rendered to the human rights record of whichever dictator or record. If you can charm your way out of the argument -- Christopher is one of the world's most formidable debators, and he sometimes fights dirty -- or are not obsessed by winning or getting in the last word, he is a delightful and interesting and funny guy with an incredible storehouse of DC gossip. And he hates dictators, right or left. My family emigrated from Uganda because of the dicator Idi Amin, so, Christopher's political philosophy and mine are in synchronicity pretty much. I certainly didn't cry any tears when Sadaam Hussein was extricated from out of the spiderhole.

I don't really remember what happened afterwards, except for the fact that we three downed two bottles of a very good wine and did colossal damage to some Johnny Walker Black. All in the space of an hour or so. Not good. I think I had the chicken. Or fish. Or some such meat product of similar texture. Christopher had to shoot a BBC documentary on capital punishment afterwards. I remember this really fucking sexy woman with an was sent by the BBC to fetch him. Really just mind blowingly sexy. Her name was ... Sophie or something (I still remember the name, so you know she was hott).

Had I possessed the power of speech I would have let her know what I thought of her. As it was, I had lost the acquisition of upright posture gained by the labors of our common ancestors. Hitchens said goodbye politely, left with the sex goddess, and I, unfortunately, was left to my own devices as to getting to home.

I say home here and not The Nation because, to be quite goddam frank, I was too shitfaced to go back to work. No percentage. Not happening.

So I underwent an trek not unlike Encolpius in the Menippean satire The Satyricon, winding through side streets, navigating Midtown, holed up in Hell's Kitchen, sleepy in Central Park, all the way up to 107th street and Central Park West, where I lived. I got home a sweaty July mess and passed out on the bed visions of human rights violations danced in my head. I remember telling my girlfriend Janet about the lunch later, but the rest of the day was a drunken wash. Hitchens kicked my ass. I have superhuman drinking powers, as most writers do, but Hitchens, hands down, is the overlord.

Unfortunately, Christopher and I no longer speak. We had a falling out that was entirely my fault of which I am still sad about and of which I will not speak about. Although I fucked up roaylly, I still miss the big guy, so much so that I cannot stand to hear anyone speaking badly of him for his war position in front of me. I will not have it. Christopher Hitchens was always a good friend to me. And, best of all, he bequeathed me this story. C'est tout!


Allison Bojarski said...

what a great story...

starzstylista said...

You just write stuff like that Ritsos thing to make me love you more don't you?

The Corsair said...

That's the master plan, d. Thank you ali and d for the constant feedback.

(S)wine said...

Great story Ron. I worked on C. Mathews' show from '94-'00 and had Chris as a guest several times. Once, close to midnight, after he'd "guested" on Rivera Live (Geraldo's "Lawyer" gig on CNBC now long defunct) Hitch and I went next door to a Greek restaurant and had more than a few gin richeys while discussing Nicolae Ceausescu. I had mentioned to him (during a break) that my family emigrated from Communist Romania in '78 and we struck a conversation about our Beloved Leader and his comeuppance on Dec. 26th, 1989. And so we went together next door and shot some shite and killed a part of our livers. He is a phenomenal man, IMHO. He is a brilliand essayist and, as you say, a dynamic debater. I dropped a few lines/ides from his "Letters to a Young Contrarian" but he didn't seem too impressed. He just wanted to drink and bullshit. And so we did that. He came in several times after that night--always talking about Clinton's blow job--but we never really hung.

It's somewhat strange how he broke it all off with The Nation, although I must say--after working with Katrina as guest host of "Equal Time" (now also defunct), I can truly say she is not too pleasant of a person.

Chris Hitchens is the next Orwell. Yes?

(S)wine said...

Oh yes, excuse the mis-spellings. I was in a rush.

And a big gasface to Blogger which made me wait exactly 17 minutes before the Comments window popped up. And I'm on a T1, yo!

The Corsair said...

Yes to Hitch as Orwell. It was very acrimonious how Hitch split with the Nation, but he has been drifting to the neocon camp for a while. He is just sick of Amnesty International and their impotent cries of "human rights," he's always been that way. Hitch likes to fight. To debate. It is a womder he was ever at The Nation, with its high concentration of pacifists.

The Corsair said...

I love Katrina, but heiresses in manegerial positions are notoriously tough to deal with.

(S)wine said...

He is such a lovely man to be around and hear talk. What I learned from him that night was that in arguing a point, one strives to REFINE his position, NOT to persuade the other party to his point of view. It is such a fabulous idea.

There had also been some times when he'd come in for his 7:30 usual shot (on the Mathews show) a bit soused--you could smell the scotch on him, but he was always lucid in his opinions and points made on air.

My bookcase is full with his stuff. I just recently got "Why Orwell Matters" but have not delved into it. He is also a fabulous book reviewer. On par with John Updike, I think.

Jesus, I cannot stop singing this man's praises. Very unlike me. Very.

The Corsair said...

Totally agree with you, LX. And the speed at which he does his book reviews is unbelievable. Someone at The Nation once remarked that British intellectuals have turned the Book review into an art form because so many of them have to live off of it. Yeah, I'd say Hitchens is the Updike of political-historical-literary book reviews, which mean, lo ultimo, the best.

(S)wine said...

Hitch and "Lil' Russ" are the only things/ones I miss not living in Washington.

lx Robotnik