The Strange New World of Actual Reality

Lately I’ve found myself attempting to withdraw from the digital world. This is part of a bigger effort to excuse myself from the modern world as a whole, and embark on some kind of timeless existence subsisting on wine and raw meat and entertaining myself by reading only the words I can scratch into the kitchen linoleum with my own ragged fingernails. But all in good time. Although I would consider my usage moderate, I spend some time every day staring at a phone screen. I use it to wake me up in the mornings, and often, via the shipping forecast on the BBC radio app, to lull me to sleep at night. It handles my banking, times and photographs my dinner, plays my music, tells me the weather so I don’t have to thrust my big head out the window… In short, it has me right where it wants me. 

 It’s hard to blame the device– it insinuates itself into my daily life so dispassionately. It hasn’t jumped into my hands, or started yelling out my friends’ Facebook statuses. It’s just been sitting there quietly, secure in the knowledge that at any moment, maybe while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, I’ll pick it up and check in. Just for a second. Maybe I’ll just take it to the couch for a minute.
But having taken the place of so many tangible tactile experiences, that flat mobile face is staring into my own much more than I’d like, and I realise it leaves me feeling edgy and irritable; dull with a thickness behind the eyes. I become aware of my lungs working at half capacity. Mouth breathing is surely imminent.

 A year ago today I was sitting in a primo seat at Carnegie Hall, listening to the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique. It was one of the last experiences of communal spiritual uplift I engaged in, and unknowingly, I was almost certainly helping shut it down. Soundwaves from scores of musicians concentrating feverishly, beauty gushing from the stage to swirl and roll around the room, the sound of each violin reaching out like a vine to wrap itself around my head and climb inside my ear to burst into flower in my ugly grey brain. While Beethoven expanded my mind, lifting it on gentle clouds and whizzing it around the hall’s scalloped ceiling, a nasty grubby little virus was making itself at home in my body, having its own little party down there, confident in its increasing strength. Spiritual rejoicing? Shared celebration of beauty and the human soul? To hell with these highbrow elitist pursuits! Almighty Covid casts thee down to the couch to binge watch Friends for all eternity! I woke up next morning sicker than I’d ever been- feverish, short of breath, and unable to move. I might have been one of those super spreaders! We don’t all wear capes… 
Shortly after this, the world moved inside, separated from one another, and with no viable alternative, replaced human interaction and tangible experience with digital facsimiles.

 I don’t know if there’s really anything wrong with social media, but for me scrolling is deadening but so tempting, a bathtub of warm goo for 99.9% of my brain to slip into emitting only the occasional fart bubble of jealousy or anger. The digital experience is so untaxing, so cleverly designed to dull the critical parts of the mind that a quick glance at Instagram and suddenly your bodily functions have shut down, you stopped breathing fifteen minutes ago and some kind of Kardashian has taken up residence in your hippocampus. Books and pianos don’t do this, they feed my lazy brain, making it stronger without it even knowing. Somehow bodies and faces on a screen, digitised instruments, synthesised food flavours are tricking our brains into thinking they’re experiencing something real.
Of course sometimes I’m jolted out of my customary stupor by the realisation that nothing is real, and everything we think we experience is a manipulated imitation but fortunately I haven’t managed to cling onto that wispy thought long enough to post a blog about it… 

 I can’t blame technology entirely for my mental stultification. It doesn’t help that mid February is the grimmest time of year around here. The lead sky reflecting in the piles of grimy snow, the sludgy daily trudge to the supermarket where the harsh neon competes with the inane saccharine pop music to subdue any remaining spark, all leads to a general sodden feeling about the brainpan. Stripping naked and making snow angels while chewing Sichuan peppercorns is a quick way to enliven the system, but do it in the backyard, not the front. There are also gentler ways to dig oneself out of the mire.

 Mornings I’m experimenting with an actual alarm clock to hoist me from the depths, its explosive peal tearing a jagged gash through the atmosphere, briefly stopping my heart as I gasp to the surface. It’s a traumatic way to start a day, but for now the jangle of actual metal bells is preferable to the insidious synthesised ocean sounds from my phone. 
Evenings the crackle and pop of Count Basie on vinyl echoes the chillies jumping around in the skillet, the hot little buggers releasing burning fumes that invade the sinuses and clear a wide path for the ensuing sneeze. Horns fill the room, and Walter Page’s bass pulse toys playfully with my own in a way that an mp3 through a portable speaker won’t match. 
And tonight the neighbours are coming around, the TV’s staying off, and we’re going to stage a living room production of my favourite episode of Friends (it was so hard to choose!) According to the script, this is the one where Rachel wraps some fish in newspaper, so I have to go and print out the finance pages from my New York Times app.


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Snow Business

As a foreigner, and a fairly impractical one, who leads a largely sedentary existence, many things about American life fill me with dread and fear. The idea, for example, that I might one day have to return an American football that has absconded from a swarm of teenagers keeps me away from parks and sporting fields. I’ve seen muscular fellows on TV execute those weird spirally overarm propulsions but have never attempted one myself; I’d have to return it by hand with the excuse that I was “saving my arm for the big game.”  Likewise shoveling snow– a pursuit that instinctively repels me, but that men in these parts seem innately suited for. I see them standing around, leaning on their shiny shovels– I expect they apply some kind of special shovel wax to keep them in tip top condition– and calling out to their neighbours, Bob and Mike, with confident jocularisms; then on some unseen cue they all get back to effortlessly hoisting mountains of solid ice.

 A couple of days ago we had a good old-fashioned Northeast snowstorm– more than a foot of snow on the ground, and drifts halfway up the cars– it was brilliant. But I knew what was coming. It’s not technically my responsibility to clear the sidewalk, but if I don’t do it, my landlady has to, and her walking frame and oxygen tank make an awful racket while I’m trying to read. So I take care of it, and in return she doesn’t complain about the late rent, or the strange smells coming from my kitchen (I have gas in the new apartment), but I don’t have to like it.

 I delayed for as long as I could, but eventually, resigned, I stomped downstairs only to discover that our shovel had been stolen. This was hard to accept, because it’s a cheap, mangled little piece of crap which would struggle to flip John Candy’s giant pancake in Uncle Buck. Great movie by the way. I sighed and headed off on a shovel hunt. At the local supermarket, they were of course sold out, but much more upsetting was that the piped music at the moment I walked in was Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical,” an affront to my cultured sensibilities at the best of times, and now a mocking commentary of my dreaded upcoming exertions. That little two-bar ear worm crawled immediately into my cochlea, and proceeded to shake its booty around my brain– a performance that I can report is ongoing.

“Let’s get physical! Physical! I wanna get physicaaal…!” I sang to myself as I trudged the mile or so to Home Depot. Here we have another situation where I fail to live up to the standards of my blokey neighbours– I don’t feel at home in the Depot. My blood doesn’t race at the sight of power tools, lumber leaves me cold, the aisles and aisles of assorted spanners and sprockets render me confused and enervated. We artistic types stand out in a crowd of burly determined men comparing socket sets and angle grinders, and believe me, singing Olivia Newton-John songs to yourself doesn’t help.
Predictably in a snowstorm, there was not a shovel to be had. I was indescribably relieved. What more could I do? 

Of course I got home and the shovel had been miraculously returned, presumably by one of the neighbours who’d used it to dig out their car. Where before it had been lightly mangled, it was now a crippled wreck, the cheap aluminium blade bent up at the end like a curled shoe. I dragged it outside and spent a couple of hours developing new and ineffective techniques for subduing a foot of compacted ice with what was essentially a tinfoil dustpan. After an hour the cold had seeped through my many layers; the wind picked up and out of the swirling flakes, a snowy eddy appeared. “What’s up, Snowy Eddy?” I said. “Hey Nick,” he replied, snowy as ever. But despite the conditions and my many shortcomings, I was determined to carry off the operation with a degree of flair, clearly impressing Bob and Mike with my grunting and theatrical brow mopping. And when it finally came time to spread the salt, I wowed them all by distributing it off the elbow like Salt Bae.

 I have to admit it felt rather good to utilise muscles that had been in hiding since the last snowstorm, and buoyed by an unfamiliar wave of testosterone I puffed out my chest, set my jaw, leaned on my shovel and surveyed my handiwork with a steely measured gaze. I then headed to the shops to reward myself with a “Hungry Man” Heat-and Serve Breakfast (“Over 1lb of food!”), but changed my mind and had a cup of Earl Grey and a lovely slice of banana bread.


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Wouldn’t You Like To Get Away?

I’m not the only one who dreams of escape, am I? After ten months of no gigs, no travel, the same four walls (seventeen actually, my apartment has a lot of weird angles), the endless repetitive news cycle, the North East winter well and truly settled in, surely we’re all mentally tying together our bedsheets and clambering out the window to run off and set up shop somewhere exotic and romantic. Even at the best of times, daydreams of a different life take up many of my idle moments. I’m not making any plans, mind you, things are fine. But a break from this relentless reality would be nice.

 When I was a kid I went to the movies whenever I could, sometimes with mates, but better on my own. Without the feeling of someone looking over my shoulder, I was able to disappear completely into whatever world was flashed up before me, almost literally absorbed. I would watch the same dumb film over and over, the story not important, just the mood, the look, the sound. Unaware of the passing time, I’d leave the cinema blinking, disoriented, somehow amazed that the world outside still existed, that the streets of Sydney on a warm spring evening hadn’t been transformed into Twin Pines Mall or Nakatomi Plaza. I would wander the streets dazed, trying to hold on to that feeling for as long as possible; street lights, billboards fuzzy and surreal as I viewed Sydney from inside a dream bubble. Not wanting to talk, certainly not to dissect the film in any intellectual way– taking a scalpel to the bubble would let the air out, sending it farting off into space, and dumping me unceremoniously back in the real world. Instead, I wandered until it gradually dissolved, the reality no more welcome, but the transition easier.

A little later and I was able to get that same feeling sitting in the audience at a jazz club, sucked into this weird world of unfamiliar sounds, the intensity of spontaneous creation holding me transfixed. The sets would be over in the blink of an eye after lasting forever. On the bus ride home the melodies would replay themselves in my head; gazing out the window, letting my eyes drift out of focus, the passing city a blur, my soul still glued to a chair in front of  the continuing show.

 Sadly my ageing brain has got too comfortable in its easy chair to go leaping into whatever alternate universe is presented to it. Music can still take me away for minutes at a time, but it’s hard to shut off the analytical impulse; and most jazz clubs are not designed for immersion– the seats are placed sideways and the wait staff are too good looking.  And movies generally just annoy me– I’m sure the characters are no more idiotic, the dialogue no more ridiculous, but it just takes a strong plot line to suspend the weight of my 45-year old disbelief. Part of my consciousness stays with me, inwardly complaining about the uncomfortable seat, the sticky floor, and it’s worse when I’m in a cinema.

 How much is it the skill of the artist that transports an audience? I would love to be able to affect an audience the way concerts used to affect me, have them lose contact with reality for a while. But the audience has to be receptive, the room conducive; it’s a minor miracle when all the elements line up.

 Drugs and alcohol are thankfully always available for when the more nourishing pursuits fail or are unavailable, but they’re the lazy way, and obviously have their long-term drawbacks. For travel fantasists, there are countless shows promising to take you with them as they disrupt local lives with their camera crews. But being absorbed by almost anything is escape, and probably why work and sex are such popular addictions. And those with the ability to meditate for extended periods are often admired for their spiritual devotion, but maybe the big secret they’ve found is how to get away from the rest of us for a few hours.

Tonight I ate the earthly remains of a lamb in the form of leftover haggis while contemplating my empty February calendar, allowing me to feel present; more so as I dropped my fork to chase a mouse around the kitchen. He pulled off the ultimate escape, but to be fair he was running for his life which makes my desires seem rather puny in relation. 
At 3am, taking the theme perhaps a little too literally, I went out onto the fire escape and sat amongst the drips of the afternoon’s snowstorm, and watched the smoke from my tiny cigar disappear into the blackness; the air was cold and wet, the stillness not disturbed but accompanied by the horn of a distant freight train. The drips on my head convinced me I was here and now, and it was comforting. The past is nothing to worry about, and the present is past as soon as it happens. The mouse probably knows the secret, but he won’t squeal. Besides he’s worried about the future too, especially when I’m chasing him, bellowing, with a rolled up copy of the New Yorker.

Of course all this talk of past and future assumes that time is linear, and that all events aren’t taking place simultaneously but on different planes, a concept I try to explain to my landlord each month when the rent’s overdue.


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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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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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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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