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A Hitchless World

12:50 AM, Dec 16, 2011 • By MATT LABASH
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No secrets are being divulged when I report that Christopher Hitchens liked a drink every now and then. Preferably now. He wasn’t sloppy about it. In fact, he always seemed in perfect control. (I once saw him steer a beach bike through the streets of Key West without spilling his Scotch.) He just liked to keep the machine well-oiled so he could get on to more important things, like liberating oppressed peoples of the world, knocking out his 1,000 words a day, or starting fights with God, assuming there is one, which he didn’t. In some ways, his affection for drink brought us together, setting in motion my most vivid memories of him.

A Hitchless World

As the Iraq War kicked off in 2003, I was holed up in the Kuwait City Hilton—home to unembedded reporters looking to make their way in. While I’d only briefly met Hitchens once before, word had spread through mutual friends that my hotel room was the last cantina in town. Since the border being sealed meant the black market hooch supply had dried up, we smuggled our amber past customs officials in Listerine bottles. So when Hitchens showed up at my door early one morning kitted for battle with nothing more than his black leather jacket, blue jeans, and a half-smoked pack of Rothman’s (he refused to bring Kevlar, saying it made him feel  “like a counterfeit”), I offered him a welcome-to-the-war shot of “Listerine,” just to be hospitable.

“I don’t usually start this early,” he said, his glass already gratefully extended, “but holding yourself to a drinking schedule is always the first sign of alcoholism.” With our soldiers already rolling across the desert, the humanitarian channels to hitch rides were gummed up, stranding hundreds of reporters on the bench. But Hitchens would not be deterred. On assignment for Vanity Fair, he only had a few days to touch Iraqi soil, and watching him get there was a study in forward motion, as he charged just as hard, if not harder, than Lord Cardigan’s Light Brigade.

When we missed by minutes a humanitarian convoy some three hours after he’d arrived in Kuwait, he considered it an utter professional failure. “This can’t be happening,” he despaired. When we made the list the next morning to ride into Iraq with the Red Crescent food trucks, I asked if we should commemorate our successful passage with my disposable camera. “No,” he said, hoping to avoid a jinx. “Save it for the bloated corpses. Don’t say anything, or something bad will happen.”

Something bad did happen when enemy booms went off above our bus. The trip was cancelled “due to weather and instability,” as the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information official phrased it. But Hitchens didn’t require a bus. “Convoys are an insult to journalism, I think.” When a producer friend said his driver had a Syrian uncle who worked at the French embassy who could shuttle us around the checkpoints, he suggested Hitchens make him an offer. “What is this, the souk?” Hitchens said, with the impatience of a man whose mission was being pointlessly delayed. “No Hitchens has ever haggled. Tell him to tell me what he’s worth.”

As we fortified ourselves with liquid courage out of Apollinaris water bottles, he assured me we’d be in safe hands. He totally trusted this driver that he’d yet to lay eyes on. The driver, it turns out, charged us 500 bucks to take my truck, because he didn’t want to get his dirty if we ran into a ditch or were shot in our backs. Meanwhile, Hitchens took care of provisions in case we got stranded by our lonesome in Iraq for weeks at a time. His original plan entailed digging into the humanitarian cornmeal supply if needed. But he finally caved into my caution, and retrieved for us two cheese sandwich platters and a couple bananas. “Bananas!” he exclaimed, “it’s the easiest way to carry food, plus they’re good for you.”

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