Send In The Tumbleweeds

I’ve played the saxophone in some run down places: grim stinking pubs in the forgotten outskirts of Sydney, a few desperate alcoholics braying for ACDC despite our matching suits and 60s Rhythm & Blues setlist; slick cocktail bars in South East Asia, incongruous with the rats and trash, the abject poverty on all sides; below-deck nightclubs on seedy Russian Cruise ships- bleary vodka eyes and sudden outbursts of horrific drunken violence. And then there’s NYC’s West Village, January 2021.

Although I don’t like to admit it, behind this snarky sardonic facade lurks a rosy-eyed optimist. I keep it well hidden because there’s nothing more annoying to any half-cognizant New Yorker than positivity, but most of the time I’m looking on the bright side (please don’t tell anyone- if my secret gets out, everything will probably be fine). For the past ten months I’ve been secretly confident that New York was just biding its time: the lockdown is only temporary, the city will bounce back, jazz clubs will hang on, our community and our battered city will get through this. After all, NYC is known for being tough- it’s kind of our brand. That and believing our own stereotypes. Never mind that over the last 30 years, the gangsters and hustlers of Greenwich Village have largely disappeared, recently replaced by tattooed baristas and vainglorious social media influencers; that your biggest danger on a night out is an eye-roll from a hair-gelled sommelier. At its core, the city retained a teeth-gritting survival instinct, weeding out the weak, the whiny, the opportunistic, those who were here to take and not give back. This place has endured blackouts, blizzards, riots, economic collapse, Chris Botti at the Blue Note, and picked itself up, straightened its tie, and got back to work. 

I arrived in the Village uncharacteristically early– the trains heedlessly keep to their rush hour schedule, even though sometimes there are only a handful of riders– and emerged from the subway into bleak desolation. Frigid winds whipped dust and candy wrappers around my feet, grit blown into eyes and mouth. A neon beacon in the distance announced the survival of Bleecker street pizza– in the old days they slung a conspicuously superior slice, and it was a regular stop for those in the know. I stepped inside and nodded gratefully to the guys behind the counter, cheerful but clearly exhausted, working as hard and fast as ever. I folded my cheese slice, shouldered my horn, and walked up Seventh Avenue into the wind.

Dusk on a Monday and the street was almost deserted; I felt out of place in my sharp suit, but the few locals scurrying past kept their eyes downcast, protectively clutching purses or bags of groceries from one of the few open markets. A gaunt man with hollow eyes peered out of the only remaining newspaper stand. Storefront after storefront, restaurant after bar after coffee shop, all abandoned, strips of cardboard and planks of wood torn from old pallets blocking up the filthy windows. Empty, but more void– even the echoes of the old days had moved out. Chalkboards with faded daily specials, a tattered banner trumpeting happy hour prices, grim cruel reminders. Smells were noticeable in their absence; normally 7th Avenue would be an olfactory assault, every few feet bringing a new odour: burnt coffee from the diner, stale beer from the crowded bars, weed smoke, Peruvian barbecue, BO, greasy street meat. But now, another void. The few restaurants that remain, blindly stoic, have blown money they’re not earning on ridiculously elaborate roadside tents, expensive heaters labouring vainly to keep the freezing wind out, for one or two intrepid diners, huddled in parkas and hats over their cold dinners. I stopped on the corner of 7th Avenue and West 4th street and surveyed the wasteland. A year ago this sidewalk would have been jammed, bars opening up for business, tourists, locals, business folk, weirdos, hipsters, musicians; shouting, laughing, horns honking. I would’ve cursed the slow walkers and lolly gagging tourists, stopped in at Kettle of Fish for an early beer, nodded to the odd regular, greeted a fellow musician… 

 But what now? Even when the lockdown lifts, even when the vaccine gets to all of us, who’s here to open up a new business? What would the tourists come for? (Maybe in the way NYC has lately become a caricature of itself– a sort of New York-themed amusement park– we could rebrand and sell it to tourists as a dystopian ghost town, run bus tours like they do in Chernobyl. Employ broadway actors to play zombie hipsters…)

I descended the familiar staircase of Smalls Jazz Club, my second home, and into the underworld. It was almost empty, the old jumbled crush of mismatched chairs replaced with coordinated, respectable, almost prim table and chair sets, responsibly distanced in preparation for the mad rush of 15 people who might one day be allowed in. No bartender to slide me a drink before I asked, no musicians desperately networking in the back, no wide-eyed tourists, sweating in their anoraks, staring in disbelief at the motley array of characters. But the music was playing, and gradually I realised it still smelled the same; the pictures of our heroes still hung on the walls, the ghosts still haunted the bar. And as we started to play, friends started drifting in, just a few, but enough to move the air with supportive applause and shouts of encouragement. New York City is probably fucked, but for now at least I’ve still got somewhere to hide.


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New Year’s Irresolution

So long, suckers, it’s been nice knowing ya. I’m moving up in the world. On my way to where the air is sweet. New year, new Nick. Things are gonna be a whole lot different from here on in.

 This past week I’ve hauled my accumulated crap up a narrow steep flight of stairs from the first floor of the ramshackle, creaking old pile of rubble I’ve haunted for more than half my adult life, to the second floor. I’ve started to feel a bit like a ramshackle creaking pile of rubble myself lately, especially after the battering effects of the last year or four. It’s strange moving so close- no need for moving vans, just one cardboard box, emptied and reused over and over. Neighbours, to whom of course I’ve never spoken, give me a wide berth as I pass, buried deep within a mountainous armful of socks, wary of an Argyle avalanche. The move coincides with the new year and my birthday, and feels like a new start– a new apartment, fresh paint, a new outlook. But I know that before long, the place will fill up with me– my things, my thoughts– the same way the new year, brimming with hope and possibilities, is soon infected by old habits and obstacles.

It’s traditional in our society to use January 1st as some kind of rebirth. A chance to reset the clock, and finally make the changes in our lives that we somehow didn’t get around to every year before this. And this year in particular, the prospect of starting fresh seems particularly attractive, 2020 being as it was, somewhat of a bummer. It’s tempting to delude ourselves that the recent horrors, and the four-year ferment leading up to it, can be crushed under the dropping ball, and that the prejudice and inequality dyed into the wool of our society, outrageous to any mildly sensitive spirit, are going to evaporate once the clock ticks over and the lunatic leaves office. Call me a negative grumpy old bastard, but I’m not sure it works like that.

There’s nothing wrong with marking time by an arbitrary calendar system, breaking our lives down into seemingly manageable blocks. It’s a neat way of pretending to be organised and gives proceedings a veneer of order; plus without it, the weekend seems like it’ll never come. The world already tells us how to manage our lives– wake when it’s light, sleep when it’s dark, eat when you’re hungry, drink all the time; act according to the changes in season. But we humans know better– we like to think we’re running things, imposing our puny order on a chaotic universe, determinedly combing our hair in a hurricane.

But as I look at the blank pages of my 2021 diary, and contemplate many more months free of appointments and obligations, it seems like an opportunity to wean myself off the scheduled security blanket. If I was to contradict myself absolutely, I could make a New Years resolution to embrace the chaos and meaninglessness, and let the days and nights pass as they will.

I say this, but in a few minutes I will probably have clicked over to my preferred social medium where I volunteer for a daily dose of soul erosion, to be reminded what I was doing on this day last year, five years ago, or during the Renaissance; I’ll pour my first drink at what I understand to be an appropriate time, berating myself for not working enough hours on this particular calendar day. They’re hard habits to break, and living outside these societal norms produces its own problems – making a barber’s appointment for “dusk” or knowing how long to watch 60 Minutes for. 

Days here in New Jersey are sunny and icy and dark comes early; I take my daily walk around the park whenever I get the urge. This week the sidewalks will be crowded with resolute joggers- next week less so. By February the old intrepid crew will have it to ourselves once again– bundled-up tortoises averting our eyes as we pass one another. Routine is reassuring, and changes don’t seem to happen when we want them to. I like to jolt myself out of my daily torpor by surprising my stomach with a fiery bowl of Pho for breakfast, or taking a surprise nap in the afternoon.


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It’s Puddin’ Time

“Just a half pound of suet, thanks,” I smiled at my friendly local butcher. 
“Did you say a 10lb turkey?” 
“Haha, no- a half pound of suet,” I replied cheerfully. 
Tur-key?”
“SU-ET.”
He looked at me evenly for a beat longer than necessary, then called out over his shoulder, “Mike, your customer…”

I understood the man’s confusion. It was four days before Thanksgiving and I’d spent the last hour in a socially-distanced line of eager, well-to-do New Yorkers waiting to spend wads of cash on ethically raised, locally sourced turkeys for Thursday’s traditional nosh-up. He wasn’t expecting an order for a 3 dollar wad of beef fat. In much the same way as I’m not expecting to bring him a slice of my delicious homemade Christmas pudding. 

Christmas in Australia is a hard thing for Northern Hemispherics to grasp. We retain fairly strong emotional ties to our (almost) former overlord, the UK, and until fairly recently, our Christmas dinner was a traditional one: turkey, stuffing, roast spuds, cranberry sauce… We’d sit around on the big day, passing the gravy boat, admiring the fir tree dolled up like a chorus girl in the corner, eying off the tray of mince pies at the end of the table; all the while pretending we weren’t pouring sweat in high summer in a country with no turkeys or fir trees. For weeks down at the local shopping centre, Santa, in full North Pole get-up, had been slowly dissolving in his department store throne, flanked by ludicrous displays of fake snow and smouldering yule logs. I’m not suggesting it wasn’t joyful and heartwarming, but surely a blind denial of our surroundings. By the time I became sentient, things were changing. A burgeoning sense of individuality could be seen in many aspects of Australian life, and certainly at the Christmas table. In my family it was prawns, cold ham, and salad in the backyard, cold beers for the grownups, maybe a decorated eucalyptus branch stuck in a pot in the living room. But there was always a Christmas pud.

 The majestic Christmas pudding has never really gained a toehold here in the US. Americans don’t agree on much these days, but a distrust of dried fruit seems to cross all social and political barriers; and the word “pudding” has a baffling range of definitions. Here in the US it’s some kind of gooey gelatinous custardy thing, sometimes chocolate, vanilla, or banana flavoured. In the UK and its colonies, it’s a generic word for dessert, and any number of sweet or savoury steamed dishes, of which the Christmas pud is one. And in the case of Yorkshire puddings, a baffling and disappointing cup made of baked dough to be ignored alongside a lovely roast dinner. But as much as you think you won’t like it, because it’s chock full of gross dried fruit, held together with beef fat, and has been sitting in a corner unrefrigerated for six weeks, it is an objectively wondrous thing, and you will love it. And you will ask for more.

 The process starts on Stir-up Sunday (not to be confused with stirrup Sunday, which is an important day on the equestrian calendar), which as we all know is the Sunday before Advent. If you don’t know when Advent is, we have something in common. On this momentous day, a bunch of ingredients is chucked in a bowl and stirred up. Often this is a job for the kids, because it’s practically foolproof; plus the thing is loaded with booze and it’s fun to watch them get dizzy after licking the spoon. If you want to be really traditional, throw in a couple of coins- it’s a bit like the baby in a king cake- whoever finds it and doesn’t choke to death has good luck coming their way. My grandmother kept special old pennies for just this purpose, modern coins being poisonous, and valuable. I believe you’re supposed to give them a bath in Coca-Cola to burn off any impurities (diet Coke if you’re allowing for inflation.)

 Once the ingredients are combined, and the kids are passed out under the table, scoop out the resulting gooey wodge, ease it into your pudding basin (like an earthenware mixing bowl), seal it up tight, and steam it in a giant pot for hours. Then send it to a dark corner to think about what it’s done until Christmas Day. 

It’s the big day. The pious are groggy after dutifully attending midnight mass; everyone else is groggy because they started drinking at 11am. Santa’s crumb-flecked plate and empty beer glass languish unnoticed on the mantlepiece; disappointing presents have been gushed over, wrapping paper carefully folded for next year; lifelong family resentments are juuuust starting to make themselves known with rolled eyes and sarcastic sotto voce asides. An inadvisable amount of food has been put away, mums and aunties clear the table, uncles talk sport while Grandad snoozes quietly at the head of the table. Our pudding has been reheating in his pot for the last couple of hours, and it’s showtime. This is the fun bit.

 Unwrap your pud and invert it onto its serving plate. Stick a sprig of holly on top if you can be bothered (I’ve only ever seen this in pictures), and place it ceremoniously in the middle of the table. The chatter has died down; an expectant hush hangs in the air, and Grandad slyly opens one eye. Grab a bottle of strong booze- brandy, whiskey, or vodka will do nicely. Pour a few slugs into a large ladle or metal jug (and a few slugs down your gullet while no one’s looking), then warm it over the stove. Take the jug to the table, light the warm booze with a match, ignore the smell from your singed eyebrows, and pour the flaming lot over your pudding. Like fireworks, bonfires, and lit farts, your blazing pud will illicit appreciative oohs and ahhs from all in attendance. Portion it out with ice cream and custard, and put this ridiculous day well and truly to bed. All that’s left is to volunteer to take out the recycling so you don’t have to do the dishes. 

 As with the rest of Christmas dinner, the best part is the leftovers. Any remaining wedges of pudding can be slowly reheated in a covered skillet, generously lubricated with butter. The sugars caramelise on the surface and you’ve got the perfect sticky gooey Boxing Day breakfast. Scoff as much as you can, then sink into the couch, bloated and heavy, fingers and face streaked with custard. At this point you’re more pudding than person, and the only thing left is to douse yourself in whiskey and set yourself on fire. Oooohhh!


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Reality: A Survival Guide

It can happen when you least expect it. You’re washing the dishes, or staring idly through your neighbour’s window, or curled up in a ball, thumb in mouth, in your car’s footwell… Your mind is open and empty, no threat on the horizon, and then the ground at your feet starts to rumble. A crack appears, the sky darkens, and then a crumbling spewing fetid chasm opens up before you; the screams and moans of lost souls escape from its depths. What you have here is reality, and haven’t I warned you about messing with that? I’m sure it’s fine in normal times to work towards what enlightened celebrities refer to as “mindfulness,” or being “present,” but in late 2020 that’s just asking for trouble. I’m convinced that these times demand the opposite: a sort of wilful mindlessness. Remain unaware: reality may be closer than it appears.

 My piano is strategically placed within easy rolling distance of the bed. When I’ve had enough staring at the ceiling, contemplating my nameless dread, I drag myself over to the old Yamaha and plunk out a couple of tunes. This seems to awaken the more imaginative regions of my brain pan, which sing along, drowning out the awareness that the world is careening rudderless; that here in America we have a man-baby refusing to leave the big office, and a squirming scrum of despicable cowards at his feet. That the city around me is changed forever, unrecognisable as the one I dreamed of for so long. And that nobody’s in charge. It’s all a charade. Nobody knows what’s happening…. Quick! Play! Ahhhh….

 Every morning brings a fresh dose of uncertainty and outrage. I combat the morning fear with an emboldening breakfast of my own devising: spicy chorizo, scrambled eggs, crumbly queso fresco, chilli-loaded pico de gallo, all hefted onto a giant tortilla. Don’t fuck with me after that. It’s the only solution I’ve found: vigorous exercise, explosively spicy food, books and music erupting with guts and beauty. Intense experiences, the tangible defeats the abstract. There’s no one looking after you, but Duke Ellington understands. Ineffectual scurrying politicians desperately pretending they have a purpose may not really exist, but a bowl full of face-numbing Sichuan food is undeniable.

 The real monsters come out during daylight hours. Dressed in human skin they smile for the camera, while their teams of bloodless scoundrels sign contracts and paw each other. Sensitive types are advised to hibernate during these times, safely cocooned from the news cycle until the sun goes down. After dark, things look better. I can feel in my blood that the flunkies and deceit merchants are winding down their efforts for the day, and bureaucrats are afraid of the dark. In the black outside my window the crickets and the wind, snuffling raccoons, yowling foxes are running things, and it’s safe to breathe and drink and sing again.

 Martinis will eventually turn me ugly, but now they’re a rebuke. I pace back and forth in front of the record player: maybe Mingus if I need company in my feverish agitation; some nights it’s Lester Young, siphoning all of humanity’s melancholy through his horn. Tonight I’ve retreated to the kitchen with a rack of lamb. The blood-stained ribs assure me that this was once a living breathing bleating animal, and eating it will connect me to ancestors who were too busy hunting and fighting to have time for puny existential dread. Ray Charles sings the blues from inside the speaker on my kitchen table, and Portuguese red wine sings through my veins. Garlic, rosemary, salt, and a hefty cast iron skillet are all that’s needed to bring this together. I’m aware that I’m not solving anything– the powers and their perverse value systems are way beyond the reach of some obscure sax guy– this is an act of self-preservation, but one anyone can use. I tear the last fatty morsels off salty bones, and drain my glass. Courage is restored and I take a midnight stroll around the neighbourhood, stopping to chat with cats and possums– maybe a wise gnarled tree– they’re good listeners; and back home, merciful sleep hits fast. Tomorrow will be better.


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Escape from New York

The sun hangs high over lower Manhattan and blinds; you should put on sunscreen but the thought doesn’t stay in your head long enough to produce action. Gusts of wind snatch floppy hats, pull at clothes and hair; a shocking blast of sea spray to the face chastens. A seagull effortlessly keeps pace, flapping languorously – we’re no longer weird, he sees this every day. Wave back at a group of conspicuously tanned middle-aged yachters lolling on their deck. “Remember when we used to take public transport, Brian?” 

I grew up in easy reach of the Pacific Ocean. Though never the outdoor type, I liked knowing I was never more than an hour’s drive away. In fact I always prefer being close to land’s edge– I start to get anxious when I get too far from the coast– I’ve been told that’s not unusual for Australians. And the Pacific was the only ocean I knew. But after nearly 20 years in the northern hemisphere, my allegiance has shifted. In my mind, the Pacific is clear and sunny and friendly, made for happy beautiful people. The North Atlantic is dark and deep, mysterious and brooding, and infinitely more interesting. A couple of times every summer I grudgingly agree to spend a day at the beach– it’s not that I particularly dislike it there, it’s just that grudgingly is how I do things. It’s kind of my “brand.” Until few years ago, a trip to Rockaway beach meant 45 minutes on the A train, which possibly sounds romantic to non-New Yorkers, but it is decidedly not. But in 2017 the Rockaway ferry was launched, and it changed everything. For the price of a subway ride, the ferry takes you from Wall Street, south around the bottom of Brooklyn, under the stately Verrazzano bridge, and back up the other side, past Coney Island with its ancient creaking fairground rides, and into lovely Jamaica Bay. If you’re lucky, or pushy, you might grab a seat on the top deck, but I usually settle for leaning over the back railing and watching the city disappear.

Entry to Rockaway is rough. The free shuttle to the beach is too horrific to consider: small, clapped-out vans with no suspension, torn broken seats, airless and stinking; on their last tour of duty before the knackery. I opt for the walk across the peninsula– it’s only ten minutes, but it’s an adventure though an almost cinematically rundown industrial horrorscape. Under crumbling rail bridges, past abandoned lots, burnt out cars; the gangs of beach-bound teenage girls in flip flops huddle tightly together, tote bags clutched nervously. But mixed with the stink of exhaust and urine, the ocean air holds a promise; and the rumble of the Atlantic infiltrates the sounds of traffic and wailing winos. 

Finally up the ramp to the boardwalk, and the sea breeze immediately blows the city off you. The pimps and hustlers make a final desperate grab for your pockets as they’re blown back into the shadows. Now it’s safe to stop and look around– the beach and the boardwalk stretch forever. The water is inviting, but food and drink are the priority– the promise of eating good food with my feet in the sand is really what gets me out here. This summer only half the stalls are open– I dearly miss my ceviche place– that was dynamite. But a new favourite is the Caracas Arepa bar, dishing out Venezuelan flat patties made from corn flour, split and filled with delicious things: sweet fried plantains, fresh cheese, homemade hot sauce. Take a couple down to the wide wooden steps leading down to the beach, plant your feet in the sand, cold beer at your side, and inhale. If you tire of the ocean vista, swivel around and watch the parade of weirdos sliding along the boardwalk, reminding you that while you’re in another world, you’re inescapably still in New York City.


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Everyone goes to Rockaway. It’s free, easily accessible, very egalitarian. Be careful posting on Instagram that you’re there– you’re bound to get a message from someone you don’t want to see who’s just down the beach. Pegging a spot in the sand can be a challenge– I recommend parking your towel where there are lots of women, singly or in pairs– they’ll generally be reading or chatting quietly, and your day will be peaceful. Try not to get stuck near a gang of young single dudes– they’ve had a meeting and decided that the mating rituals of the animal kingdom carry the best chance of success with the ladies– they’ll be barking and preening and putting on overt displays of strength and athleticism and competitive stupidity. It’s these fellows who also seem fond of blasting Hot97 to cover up the annoying sounds of gently lapping waves and laughing children. Shouts of “Cerveza! Pina Colada! Nutcrackers!” announce the arrival of the drinks guy dragging his cooler of booze through the sand. He’s got beers and premixed cocktails, the nutcracker being a homemade NYC specialty of liquor and juice- sugary and powerful. It’s all presumably illegal, but the cops turn a blind eye. 

Loaded up on sugar and booze, it’s time for a dip. I will never understand Americans at the beach– maybe 10 percent go in the water– but it just means more water for me. Your aquatic experience depends on the mood of the Atlantic– she may be serene and relaxed, tolerantly allowing you to float on the gentlest of undulations; or she may be in a foul mood, sucking you under and spitting you out for having the impudence to leave the boardwalk. Either way, as a city dweller, a dunk in some salt water is one of the most revitalising experiences still available; it’s an immediate connection with the unknowable forces of the universe. I find it reassuring to put myself at the mercy of something that immense and powerful and mysterious, and the salt makes my hair look cool.

Dry off in the sun, stroll back to the food stalls for some fried clams and just one more beer. When it’s time to call it a day, try to time the return ferry for sunset (in high summer, you can’t beat the 7:15). It’s a very different experience to the ride out– everyone’s exhausted and sunburned, and the beer buzz is wearing off– in the old days the grubby subway ride back to the city would just make you want to cry. But on the back deck of the ferry, sun going down over the bay, head filled with salt air, splashing wake, and engine rumble, it’s about the gentlest reentry into reality you could hope for. 


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Snoozin’ on the Street of Dreams

The other evening, while idly scrolling my news feed, I happened upon a headline which didn’t directly relate to the ongoing collapse of the world around me. I clicked eagerly, and was soon learning about the subject of Rojo-ne, a fun trend where Japanese men get smashed and fall asleep in the middle of the road. This outrageously dangerous practice seems to take place exclusively on the island of Okinawa, where the weather is lovely and the rice wine is strong. Believing, as I do, that having one sherry too many and taking a siesta in the out-of-doors is one of life’s great pleasures, I felt an immediate affinity.

In my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t quite live the sober, disciplined, almost monastic, lifestyle I do today. My first share house after leaving home was a filthy little cottage beside the railroad tracks in inner Sydney where I lived with two other aspiring jazz musicians. As young anarchists we all quite rightly refused to do any maintenance of the house or yard, and as a result the place was slowly being reclaimed by nature. Evenings were spent guzzling whatever bathtub booze we could afford, watching late-night informercials, and fighting over the one chair that wasn’t occupied by the tv; until at some point I’d hoist myself up, stagger through the kitchen into the yard, and collapse into the waist-high grass like a crumbling ice shelf. Before turning in, my house mates would look out at me motionless among the weeds, shake their heads and chuckle tolerantly before locking me out, with the assumption I was still alive.

 Eight months in that fermenting flat was all we could stand, so a couple of us signed up for a stint on the MV Kareliya- my first of several awful cruise ship experiences. This was surely the most low-rent tub on the oceans, and we were certainly the worst band the cruise industry had ever seen. Unrehearsed, late, scruffy, insubordinate, we did our best to get kicked off. I even got so sidetracked on a port day I missed an entire two-week cruise (they say the band never sounded better.) But as bad as ship life got, there was always the crew bar. Deep in the guts of the boat, far away from the prying eyes of paying customers, the crew bar offered cheap and free-pouring drinks and an air of desperate bloodthirsty abandon- for a band of young lunatic musicians, it was like a beautiful dream. And at 6am, the early rising passengers taking their morning constitutional around the deck could often be seen stepping gingerly over the prone and snoring form of the band’s saxophonist. The sea air, the gently lapping water- what better place to snooze when you’ve had a skinful? 

But as skewed as my perspective got, I always chose my campsites carefully. At sea I didn’t drop off wrapped around the anchor; back home I didn’t fall asleep dangling from the rotary clothesline; and I never once took a nap in the middle of the road. Of literally all the places… My brothers in rojo-ne should heed the words of karate master, sage, and native Okinawan, Mr Miyagi, from the movie Karate Kid: “Walk on road, hm? Walk right side: safe. Walk left side: safe. Walk middle: sooner or later get squished just like grape.” Sadly my days of al fresco siestas are behind me now, but for those of you who still rojo-ne, I salute you; but remember that sleeping in the middle of the road impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems. Please nap responsibly. 


 

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New York City: Signs of Life in the Smoking Ruins

The host eyed us with disdain. “You’re with the band…?” Having been on both sides of this equation, I know the drill. Musicians, particularly jazz musicians, are the bane of the restaurant industry. Anthony Bourdain knew: “I need more jazz musicians in my restaurant? They’re fucking deadbeats!” Thinking quickly, we stammered, “but we’re going to spend money, honest!” The bar is called Fiddlesticks, which annoys me for some reason. Imagine taking a date there, falling in love, and having to tell your grandkids that you realised she was your destiny, all your heart desired, as you held hands under the table at Fiddlesticks. Honestly. Anyway, perched on tiny stools over the Greenwich Avenue subway grate, C and I obediently ordered our state-mandated snack, allowing us to drink to our hearts’ content. Every seven minutes we’d lean sideways to avoid the plume of stale corpse-breath erupting from beneath our feet as the A train rumbled by. A restaurant down the block fired up the barbecue, sending wafts of sweet, meaty smoke along the street, as masked pedestrians shuffled by, eyeing us suspiciously. And crammed into a doorway, the band swung like nothing had changed, Jerry Weldon’s towering tenor sound bouncing from one side of the Avenue to the other, only a few residents hip enough to keep their windows open. The atmosphere was claustrophobic but jubilant–  we can drink and listen to music– it’s better than it was.

At an old favourite, 1803 in TriBeCa, we sat in the ruins of our city and ate grilled oysters, while a band of our friends and heroes played their hearts out, their music echoing through the deserted neighbourhood; intently ignoring the iceberg out the porthole and the water lapping around their shins. —The word “parklet” is an unwelcome addition to the lexicon: outside hundreds of foundering restaurants across the city, one lane of roadway is abducted, swallowed by the sidewalk, overlaid with wooden decking and outfitted with tables and chairs, sometimes clear plastic dividers so our neighbours don’t infect us. We laugh and drink and bask in the cheerful hubbub and try not to look over at the abandoned apartment buildings all around— Musician friends, some we rarely saw in normal life, dropped by to bump elbows. Mask on, mask off. On a warm August evening this was possibly the only live music in New York City, and those of us still here don’t want to pass up an opportunity. In the end we took our masks off and blew. There’s no alternative. Nobody knows what the fuck to do. The rules go too far and not far enough. But at the end of each tune, the small crowd erupted, glasses raised, shouts of encouragement. Uncertainty reigns, but music and wine helps. 

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The High Line snakes along 22 blocks of Manhattan’s west side. A disused elevated railway line, it was revived and reopened as a public park about ten years ago and was, until recently, a major attraction for infuriatingly slow-walking tourists. On Saturday night, beneath the park, in the walled-in courtyard of the Guardian Angel church, it was muggy and airless. Bus-stop-style benches seemed to sink into the rubber matted floor. The band and I poured sweat as we attempted to reach a masked and clearly sober audience of wide eyed young people who seemed unsure how they got there; peering down from the rooftop, more bemused faces, but these folks had sensibly paid more to be further away from us. At band level, hands started reaching into shopping bags containing wine, beer, champagne, even the occasional cocktail shaker– this was entirely appropriate: if there’s one thing I know about church, it’s always BYOB– and by set two things were loosening up. Jerry Weldon arrived to help us out on tenor as pizza deliveries started showing up, and by 10pm the squares were stomping their feet and making out extravagantly with people they’d just met. There was no bar, no pictures of jazz legends on the wall, no surly doorman; but for a few hours, the place was a jazz club.

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Sunday, and I dragged my feet along a path I know well. Every week for months I’d planned to visit Smalls, and of course nothing ever came up to stop me, but still I hesitated. They now put on a live-streamed concert every evening but the idea of descending that legendary staircase after so many months of lockdown felt like volunteering to spend a night in a haunted house. I know so many of its secrets. I’ll delve more into this someday, but the promise of some swinging music from my buddy, and fellow club manager, Carlos Abadie, finally got me down there. And in a way it was as eerie as I expected. The club will reopen the first day it’s allowed, but for now dust hangs in the air; the chairs are stacked, the walls are bare, the bar shelves and fridges are empty, and of course there’s almost nobody there. I wiped off a bar stool and slouched up the back of the club, feeling guilty but I don’t know why. The cats breathed air into the vacuum, vibrations making the air shimmer, dust billowing; a glint of possibility. Strangely the music hasn’t changed, hasn’t become suddenly sad and uncertain, it’s just become incongruous with its surroundings. New York City still has a faint pulse but you have to know where to look. 


 

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South Brooklyn Badlands and a Bar with No Name

I’m standing at a bar, pushing my luck. I’ve got a beer in my hand and I’m wearing out my welcome. Currently in New York City, I’m allowed to order a drink at the bar, but not drink it there. Mask on, distance observed, I’m supposed to order and pay, then take my drink and get the hell out. But I want to sit here. I want to lean back in a rickety stool, eavesdrop on neighbours’ conversations, maybe pass an eye over some sport I don’t care about on the TV in the corner, spin a beer mat between my fingers, and order another one. That’s what neighbourhood bars were invented for.

  I arrived in Sunset Park uncharacteristically early, to give myself time to poke around. It’s a fair hike from my part of town— a good 30 minutes on the N train over the Manhattan bridge, down through swanky Park Slope and Carroll Gardens, past the cemetery, and into South Brooklyn— so I’ve only made it out here a handful of times. For a very hot minute I even had a steady, if soul-crushing, gig at a Chinese restaurant, playing jazz standards in the face of requests for something “popular.” But every time I visit I’m delighted— this neighbourhood is a trip. Like most of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx, demographics have shifted gradually but surely over the years: Irish, Polish, Italians, Norwegians moving in and out. Midway through the 20th Century, the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans moved in; and in the 80s Sunset Park became home to Brooklyn’s first Chinatown.

 Last time I was here, maybe a year ago, 8th Avenue was heaving with shoppers and workers, a chaotic, noisy, shouting, jostling tangle of humanity. It felt like Saturday morning in Hong Kong, but also unmistakably New York— this is what streets all around this city used to feel like before they were taken over by beautiful people taking photos of themselves. Wide open storefronts with vendors out front bellowing the day’s specials, shoppers running a skeptical eye over the precarious piles of fruit and veg, the jaw dropping array of flapping, wriggling seafood; clothing, electronics, restaurants, food carts; all relentlessly bustling. And hardly anyone who looked like me. It seemed like every corner was home to a vegetable or fish market; spiky stinky durian in string bags dangling from the awnings, frogs and crabs leaping to freedom from plastic buckets. 

 Somehow I was expecting the same this time as I surfaced from the subway. Had I forgotten about the virus? Despite the news, I somehow get so used to the bleak reality directly around me, I think it doesn’t exist elsewhere. Surely if I make the trek to another country, another city, even another borough it’ll all be different. And of course in Chinatown, the opposite is devastatingly true. I remember before we had any idea of the spread of the virus, it was still a Chinese problem; I heard reports that people were boycotting Chinese restaurants around the world, using the pandemic to excuse their racism. So of course, now Sunset Park is a wind blown, dusty, tumbleweed ghost town. Store fronts are shuttered, many never to return; twisted strands of tinsel hang forlorn from power lines, maybe left over from January New Year festivities. Walking past the overflowing trash cans and piles of empty boxes, some of the smells still linger– it would take decades for the smell of the fish markets to blow away; and from the small, neat homes, a waft of incense and Chinese medicinal herbs remind me of the time an old girlfriend convinced me to travel every week to Flushing (ironically for a stomach complaint) to poke out my tongue and receive a bag of twigs and desiccated spiders.

 I cross 60th street and stop. In front of me is the glorious S——- Tavern, the end point of this sentimental journey, and I want to take it in for a moment. It’s not a beautiful facade, but unpretentious if nothing else. A squat little building; a cranky tired face of exposed red brick, neon shamrocks in its eyes, its name stamped on its forehead like a drunken prank. American, Irish, and Norwegian flags hang listlessly over the closed green door; and the ubiquitous sign: “no mask, no entry.”

 I push in. Waiting at the bar is my attorney, chatting to a bartender whose mask portrays a grotesque broken-toothed leer, the rest of him not pretty enough for this to be convincingly ironic. A beer and a whiskey appear in front of me— the only reasonable order in a bar like this— and I breathe it all in: the old beer smell that even four months out of business can’t erase, the dusty Irish knick knacks, Chinese guys playing darts, Irish at the bar (Tuesday morning is for the Norwegians); muted classic rock from the ancient jukebox, elbow grooves in the dinged up old wooden bar. There’s wood everywhere, but not the artfully distressed beams and lavish polished oak you see at the Irish behemoths in the city; just old lumber, worn smooth by years of human occupation. The S——- Tavern is a joyously friendly mutt where a shared love of booze and darts leads to a harmony the world outside the green door struggles with. My attorney chats with another local about their favourite local places, now gone, like the Chino-Latino restaurant unluckily named Corona– shuttered within the first week. They saw the writing on the wall. Our masked bartender, after casually revealing that his day job is addiction counselling, brings me another round.

I complain often and lustily about the dearth of good bars in NYC, but as usual my outlook is blinkered  and I forget to look beyond Manhattan and my own little yuppified hood. Out in the real world, they still exist, and South Brooklyn has some standouts. We’ll do a tour one day soon.

 We settle our tab and tell our man we might be back later- who knows how this night will play out. We pour out onto 8th avenue and head south- we’ve got an appointment at a Yemeni restaurant a mile or so away. But at 61st street we’re almost physically yanked around the corner by the smell coming from a battered old food cart. It’s Chinese barbecue. Smoke pours from the chimney, from the service window, from cracks in the corners of the roof; it’s sweet and thick, and immediately transports us back to tours of duty playing Cantonese pop in Hong Kong. We join the line of intent, hungry locals, and eventually score a bag of good stuff to fuel the next leg of the adventure. Charred squid, whole mackerel on a stick, chicken wings— smoky, intense and delicious. They’re all sent down to meet the beer sloshing around downstairs, and we roll off into the night.


 

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Quarantine Dreams pt 2

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m standing in front of my open fridge, staring mindlessly at the same sad selection of wilting food I stared at yesterday and the day before. But you’d be wrong. I’m actually edging my way through the crowds at the Old Airport Road Hawker Centre in Geylang, Singapore. It’s a squat, two level concrete pile, open to the elements on all sides; it feels a little like a converted parking garage. Round metal tables are bolted to the floor, surrounded by similarly affixed stools, all of them occupied. I’m never going to find a seat. 

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 Hawker Centres are where everyone goes to eat in Singapore. The streets of this tiny island used to be crowded with food vendors until authorities started cracking down in the 60s, eventually corralling them all inside easily controlled and inspected buildings. So now it’s row upon row of individual stalls selling a brain melting array of delicious things, each vendor usually specialising in one thing; and despite the apparent chaos, like everything in Singapore, the joint is spotless and organised. 

 I’m starving, but I’m not ordering anything until I’ve made a complete lap of the place. The din is overwhelming– hawkers shouting their specials, customers calling to friends to hold a table or bring more spoons– a cheerful, musical hubbub bouncing around the brutal concrete walls. Traffic pouring along the Old Airport Road makes itself known, the steady rumble of workday traffic providing a static bass line to the cacophony. The humidity is extraordinary; giant industrial fans do their best, but it makes little difference. It’s a baking wet heat but no one really notices– it’s like this every day.

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 I wander the aisles, trying not to run into people, tables, carts loaded with dirty dishes. I feel conspicuous– the tall white guy stands out around here– but nobody seems to care. As long as I don’t get in the way, I’m as welcome as anyone. The food here is mostly Chinese and Malay: Satay, Laksa, barbecued chicken, noodles, curry puffs, the famous Hainan Chicken Rice, Sambal Stingray, frog porridge, fish curry… My strategy here is to find the longest queue and get on it. I try not to come here with a meal in mind, I want to try what’s good, what’s got the locals lining up. Honestly though, I’m hoping it’s the sticky, fatty, char-siew from those princes of barbecued pork at Roast Paradise… 

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  Appearances can be deceiving. It looks like I’m sitting on the couch, watching travel documentaries, nursing my 18th cup of tea for the day– but I’m not. I’m actually sitting on a plastic stool in an open air bar in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Technically I’m inside, but there’s no front wall, so I’m effectively on the street. At 5 o’clock every evening, all around the city, the shutters go up on corner bars and folks start piling in. It’s called Bia Hoi- either the type of bar or the daily routine, I’ve never been sure which, but either way, it translates to a sort of Happy Hour. The joint is already loud and raucous, working men (it’s mostly men) getting loose and boisterous.

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 All the surfaces are shiny white tile, the floor already stained with spilled beer and fish sauce, cigarette butts, clumps of cilantro. I gaze out at the heaving street just metres away, the roiling waves of roaring motorbikes and brave cyclists flanked by rows of stained crumbling colonial houses. Banyan trees lean precariously over the melee, the hanging vines waiting for the right moment to grab a distracted rider. The thunder of gunning engines choking on cheap gasoline is pushed to every corner of my bar by a single overworked ceiling fan. Cooking smells are everywhere in the Old Quarter, and here the unmistakable waft from a deep fryer melds with the beer, petrol fumes, end-of-work-day humanity. The place is getting busy, office workers are getting rowdier, waitresses are sliding between tables, dropping off beers and small plates of drinking food. And over in the corner, quietly watching, a young bloke sits alone beside a keg of beer, his thumb over the attached length of garden hose, ready for the next order.

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 Here’s how it works. Find an empty stool and sit on it. Within seconds a small glass of beer will appear on the plastic table in front of you. Drink it. It doesn’t have a lot of flavour, maybe because it was brewed this morning, but it’s ice cold and refreshing. Put down your empty glass and it will be replaced with a full one. Drink this too. Repeat. They’ll bring you beer until you tell them to stop. I’ve had three or four, and I’m getting peckish. I see the old guys at the next table eating something, but there are no menus, so I get the waitress’ attention and make the img_7997-1universal mime for eating, then point to what they’ve got. She disappears, and minutes later I’ve got fish cakes! Intensely flavoured, deep fried discs of deliciousness, accompanied by the ubiquitous Nuoc Cham- salty, limey, sweet, spicy dipping sauce. I polish them off, down another beer and stop. The chili, the lime, the oily crunchy fish, the icy beer, the blistering heat, the roaring traffic, the happy drunken voices shouting in a language I can’t begin to decipher; they all wage some epic battle in my brain, while I sit there, blissed out, on top of the world.

 

Lately these fantasies have been hijacking my scattered mind more and more. With no chance to realise them in the near future, I’ve taken refuge in the kitchen, trying desperately and  inexpertly to recreate the flavours and aromas I remember from the tours I made in a previous life. I’ve cooked up a mean Pho from scratch, causing raised eyebrows from the assistants at the butcher’s with my orders of pig’s feet and cow knees; simmering them for hours to make a broth so gelatinous I had to fight it to get my wooden spoon back. I fill my entire apartment with thick smoke as I stirfy prawns that have been marinating in fish sauce, lime juice and sugar- the holy trinity of South East Asian flavours. Fiery green curries, a disastrous laksa, grilled pork belly and meatballs for Bun Cha, washing it all down with Thai beer– I’m giving it my best shot. But so much of any experience comes down to context. Even if I could somehow recreate exactly that plate of grilled prawns my brother and I shared on our first night in Bangkok years ago, it wouldn’t taste anything the same. The utilitarian metal-topped table, the box of tissues in its cheap pink plastic holder, the crinkled plastic-covered menu, the droning fans, the smell from the fish tanks, the gasping humidity, the rumble and shriek of drunken humanity, the jaw dropping, brain melting weirdness of it all – all these things went into making those prawns taste the way they did, at that moment, on those rickety stools, in that crowded restaurant. My efforts at recreation are doomed to be pale washed-out facsimiles. But after a few more of these Thai beers, they might be close enough.


 

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Riding the Path of Righteousness (Making a Quick Stop at Convenience)

I drop the wrench with a clang, wipe the sweat from my brow and take a long pull from my can of beer. American beer. I glance over and wink at my girl, who’s polishing her nails and smoking a cigarette, while chewing extravagantly on a wad of gum. Producing an impressive pink bubble, she looks appreciatively at my grease stained muscles as I casually crush the beer can against my forehead. A gang of guys from the neighbourhood crowd around and admire my handiwork, awed by my almost instinctive mechanical expertise. Wiping the crankshaft oil from my hands onto my dungarees, I snap my fingers, and the sea of admirers parts to reveal: the cute new basket on my pushbike. Sit on it, Potsie! (Don’t actually sit on it– it’s a snap-on.)

  Ah how I used to jet around the globe, zipping between continents without a second thought. I’ve taken a train through the Swiss Alps, a hair-raising tuk-tuk ride through the streets of Bangkok, an overnight ferry from Spain to mystical Morocco. Now I ride my bike to the local park. It’s not the same, but for the foreseeable future, my touring is pedal powered.

 I’m lucky to live only a mile from New Jersey’s splendid Liberty State Park– hectares of wide open space, protected marshland, wildlife habitat, all nuzzling up to New York Harbour. Most days when the weather cooperates I take a ride, telling myself it’s good exercise, but really I have to keep the pace down so I don’t spill my martini. When I first started coming here, reaching the park meant picking my way around the syringes and dead bodies, and when I made it inside, I more or less had the place to myself. Now I’m ushered in via a charming little footbridge, and once inside it’s manicured lawns and hundreds of painfully fit people in lycra having a horrible time. Within the cyclists, I find myself about in the middle of the pack– somewhere between the couples in jeans spluttering as they trundle along on their rented Citibikes; and the hardcore racing bikers with tight faces and Vaseline’d nipples (I’m sure they have other attributes, but to me that defines them). 

 I coast easily along the smoothly paved pathway, a rolling meadow on my right, Audrey Zapp Drive on the left (Audrey Zapp was New Jersey’s only superhero. Her super power was kicking people in the ribs when they were already on the ground.) Sunlight dapples through the locust trees, and flocks of fat geese pick through the grass, making my mouth water. Surely they wouldn’t miss one… I drive the delicious thought from my mind and take a right at the old train yards. These are brilliant. Left virtually untouched, they go back to the late 1800s and connected cargo and passengers from across the country to Manhattan-bound ferries; and when the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened up, the huddled masses would disembark and be herded onto trains to be dispersed throughout their weird new home. Not much is made of the significance of these ancient ruins, but I think they’re fascinating; and best of all, there’s a den of red foxes in there. The girl and I saw one trot in front of us the other day– she was so surprised she dropped her switchblade.

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From here I swing around onto the absurdly named Liberty Walkway for the most energetic portion of the outing. They love an abstract noun in these parts– you can gaze across the river at Freedom Tower from your spot in the Perseverance Parking Lot. Anyway, stupid name, lovely walkway. It curves elegantly along the water’s edge, wide and welcoming, wooden benches and stately lampposts on both sides, and a railing the perfect height for leaning. I try to build up some steam here, the riding is flat and easy, and it feels good to get the sludge in my veins moving. Seagulls wheel overhead, confident in their place in the sky; but every now and then a mighty red-tailed hawk ascends to float majestically on the spring zephyr and the gulls scramble desperately to exit stage left. The theatre becomes his, and it’s impossible not to stop and stare.

 I push past the saltmarsh– protected habitat for migrating birds which I admire but couldn’t identify if you paid me. On the harbour side, fishermen nurse their rods while they chat and drink, and presumably hope they forgot to bait their hooks. The waters of New York harbour are infinitely cleaner than they used to be, but there are a lot of belching tankers out there– I’m not sure I’d be eating what I caught. I coast past the Ellis Island bridge, and hit the final stretch; swamps give way to parkland, and dead ahead, the always pause-worthy Statue of Liberty. You know the one. You can view her through one of the many coin-operated Telescopes of Equality.

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Florid from exertion, I dribble to a halt at the southernmost tip of the park, the questionably named Black Tom Island. Now incorporated into the park, the island was the site of a massive explosion during WW1 committed by a pair of German spies. It’s a cracking story, but aside from a small faded plaque near the picnic area, it seems largely forgotten. I like to pause here and absorb for a few minutes. Also, by this point I’ve remembered that exercising is stupid and standing still is fantastic. From this vantage point, I can take in the Big Lady, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and the stately Verrazzano bridge, beyond which is the deep and mysterious Atlantic Ocean. The gulls caw, the odd pleasure boat chugs by, the fresh salty air invades my stunned lungs; if I’ve got the place to myself, and I don’t look back at the evil city, I can believe it’s still an island, as disconnected from reality as me.

 I could happily spend all day out here, but I tear myself away. Things to do. I take the scenic route home, past the old rail yard waiting rooms (the bathroom floor is still intact, as if to commemorate the immigrant families and their pee), and the surprisingly tasteful 9/11 monument; at this point you can look directly over to Manhattan– it feels like you could swim over, or at least float back after a big night. And at last, the marina. The going is slow along here– the path is a chaotic mess of gaping ditches and treacherous hillocks– but it’s worth it to gaze at the boats and dream. In my imagination, I’m a salty old sea dog on the deck of one of the weather-beaten fishing boats, resting between rum-running sorties to Havana; or maybe engaging in high stakes drug deals on one of the ostentatiously hulking cabin cruisers. 

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I try to hold onto these fantasies as I wheel across the footbridge back into blinding reality, but they unwind from my mind like a silk scarf in the breeze, floating back towards the park and disintegrating, leaving me with only a yearning for rum and drugs. But on the bright side, I know a guy, and I’ve got just the basket to carry them. 

 


 

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