Tom Wolfe Meets a Hell's Angel

Page added: 1997
Last updated: 2002

by Christine O.

When someone posed the question to me, "Why does Tom Wolfe dress like that?", I turned to a neat little book called Conversation with Tom Wolfe and found the following passage from an interview with Joshua Gilder that had been originally published in Saturday Review, April 8, 1981.

Q: Do you try to adapt to your subject?

A: No, I used to. When I first started at Esquire, I made the mistake of trying to fit in. And given the kind of things I was sent to cover - stock car racing, the Peppermint Lounge, topless restaurants in San Francisco - not only did I not fit in no matter how hard I tried, but I would deprive myself of the opportunity to ask very basic questions that the outsider can ask. You just discover after awhile that people like to be asked questions they know the answers to.

I first approached Kesey in a blue blazer, white pants, necktie, and so on. Instinctively I began to dress up a little more as I stayed with him, and finally I remember for a good length of time I had a very pale gray suit, stepped collar vest, peaked lapels, and a big, blue corduroy necktie that I like very much. Finally one of the Pranksters, a girl known as Doris Delay said, "You know, you've got on the wildest costume around." The only time I ever got into trouble was when the Pranksters gave a party for Hell's Angels. I was the only person at the party with a necktie on or a suit. And I saw this guy - Pete the Drag Racer they called him - staring at me across the room. I tried to ignore it (these guys can really stare). I was sitting on a hassock and I suddenly see this pair of boots in front of me and he says very aggressively, "What's your trip?" I say, "I'm ... I'm a writer." "What do you write about?" "Weeeell ... Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters." He says, "How does it come out?" I say, "Gee, I don't really know - I'm just getting started." He says, "You're from New York?" I was so thankful that a neutral question had been asked that I said, "Oh, YEAH!" And then I suddenly realized that one of the various mortals that the Hell's Angels had earmarked for extreme treatment-in addition to homosexuals, Communists, and intellectuals - was anybody from New York.

So he looks down and says, "New York's a shitty town." And then it was very quiet all around. People could tell this was a confrontation. And I suddenly realized that everyone was listening to how I'd answer: You know, you can't let yourself be pushed but so far. So my brain's spinning, and I say, "You've got a point there. I don't know why I stay there" ...... At this point he seemed to realize that he wasn't going to get a fight or at least not one that he could be proud of; so he suddenly changed completely, sat down and said, "I used to live in New York. And there are only two ways to live there. You can live on the bottom floor because it's easy to get to a little air and space-a garden maybe-but all day long, five flights up they'll throw shit on you. Or, you can live on the fifth floor and throw shit on everybody else, but you have to climb five flights to get there. That's New York." The guy was a philosopher: He had something there.