Fear and Loathing Beyond Vegas

I was somewhere around Barstow, heading west with the stench of the waning 2017 CES already miles behind me, when suddenly I realized it’s been years since I’d read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—Hunter S. Thompson’s seminal memorial to the ’60s drug culture and lost era of hope. This CES had been a particularly rousing cattle run through the bowels of tech; a world of hovering drones, self-driving cars, and fast-moving women cashing in on the show’s heavy rollers at the hotel cocktail lounges, just to name a few. There were some things for A/V buffs to look at, the most exciting of it the new TVs, which just seem to keep getting better.

But it wasn’t all good. After 32 years of attendance, I felt increasingly like an outcast among the gadgeteers hawking wearables and app-driven baby monitors, and the classic audio exhibits at the Venetian seemed underpopulated with both exhibitors and people. It didn’t take long to realize that this was no longer My Show, not in the old familiar sense, and that the pinnacle of the American dream—an RCA or Philco full-color CRT sitting in a giant furniture console in every U.S. household—shoot, those days are long gone. Now it’s all about microchips and touchscreens that collect information on our every move and send it to the Cloud for god knows what. Surely, this was the end of innocence.

So, after four days of this, I pointed a rented Nissan Rogue toward the West Coast for some well-deserved R&R. As night settled in with hours left to drive, I pulled off the highway in Barstow to tap the Wi-Fi at Starbucks and download the Audible version of Fear and Loathing to my iPhone. That’s when I saw him, working behind the counter, his wild gray hair dancing in the overhead lights as he worked his barista magic on what looked like a Raspberry Cheesecake Latte off the Secret Menu. I stopped for a moment to ponder the wisdom of approaching, then braced myself and leaned over the counter. “Loof? Is that really you?” I asked.

Dr. Loof Lirpa looked up in a start and knocked over an open bottle of cinnamon dolce syrup that oozed across the work counter. “Shut up!” he snarled, quickly glancing left and right. “I don’t know who the hell you are, but you’re about to blow two years of critical, undercover scientific research. Go sit down somewhere. I have a break in 10 minutes.”

I was just finishing my download when Lirpa swaggered over. I knew he wouldn’t remember me from our one chance meeting at Stereo Review in the mid-’90s, but as soon as I explained my title, he dropped his guard and got right into it.

“Nootropics,” he explained in a whispered hush. “Secret brain food, the kind that’ll turn a dumb lab rat into Albert Einstein in 15 days.” He was leaning in close now, and I could see from the way his eyes darted that he was onto something. “It starts with caffeine,” he continued. “A solid double-double on the espresso as the base layer—just to make sure it has a kick—then you add in the good stuff. Citicolene, acetyl-l-carnitine, magnesium threonate, a touch of exotic bacopa herb, and a few spikes of Lion’s Mane mushroom smuggled straight out of North Korea. I’ve almost got it perfected. I’m telling you, if I can get it just right, we won’t even need your hi-fi or home theater systems anymore. Hear a symphony once or watch a movie, and it’ll be playing in your head, note for note, word for word, for the rest of your life. Best of all, you’ll never have to sleep again.”

I was beginning to get it now, but despite my worst fears I had to go on. “So what are you doing out here at a Starbucks in the middle of the desert?” I asked, hoping I’d be wrong about the answer.

“Isn’t it obvious?” he stammered indignantly. “I couldn’t just give up when the FDA denied me human trials. Hell, I had a donkey in my lab that was performing algebra better than most ninth graders. So I’ve been spiking the drinks here and recording the effect on the customers. They keep coming back, so I must be doing something right. Business has quadrupled twice, and short of MIT you’ve never seen more smart people in one place. They’re coming in with Tolstoy and Faulkner tucked under their arms like it’s Harry Potter. One poor bastard even grew all his hair back after 25 years of baldness, and he has no idea it’s the coffee.”

Riiiiiiiight. It was time to get out of there, and I was suddenly grateful I hadn’t ordered my usual cappuccino to go. I wished him well, and left him a business card.

Somehow, I know it’s not the last we’ll hear of Loof Lirpa and Lirpa Labs.